When does a religious congregation turn into a cult? According to dictionary definitions, it’s when two things happen, both of them involving separation from the mainstream. First, the congregation submits to the authority, not of its Church or doctrine, but of its charismatic leader, whose personal interpretation of doctrine dictates the rules members live by. Then, second, the congregation withdraws from the surrounding society.
The world is full of cults, little islands of faith built around a single fountain of truth. Some are good and true. But some cults go bad, usually when the charismatic leader falls prey to the tendency famously articulated by the 19th century English historian Lord John Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What usually follows this is that the isolated congregation finds that its island of faith has become a Devil’s Island, a tyranny and a prison.
According to the testimonies of more than 40 former members of a North Carolina religious congregation called Word of Faith Fellowship, this is what happened to their cult – a word several used to describe the group – and its leader, Jane Whaley.
The now 77 year old Whaley’s congregation started small, some 40 years ago, as a conventional off-shoot of The Oklahoma-based Word of Faith Movement. Whaley preached the “prosperity gospel,” telling believers, “Pray loud enough and God will answer your prayers,” providing financial riches, good health and sobriety.
Today, Jane Whaley commands some 750 followers living at, or near her headquarters in Spindale, North Carolina, between Charlotte and Asheville in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and an estimated 2000 adherents in Brazil and Ghana.
What she commands goes way beyond the usual cult dictates of strict obedience to a particular interpretation of the Word of God, and separation from the people and habits of the surrounding society. According to what literally dozens of former congregants told our guest today, Pulitzer prize-winning Associated Press investigative reporter Mitch Weiss, Jane Whaley’s Word of Faith Fellowship depends on psychological intimidation and physical force, long and brutal beatings, even, some say, sexual abuse.
And Weiss has learned, Whaley’s power may have corrupted not only herself, but local prosecutors and social service workers, as well, allegedly making them into enablers of this cult gone bad.
Mitch Weiss is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist for The Associated Press. Over the last 20 years, he has investigated government corruption, white-collar crime, police misconduct and clerical sexual abuse. In 2003, he was assigned to an investigative series that uncovered the longest string of atrocities carried out by a U.S. fighting unit in the Vietnam War. In recognition of the series “Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths,” which led to an investigation by the Pentagon, he and Michael D. Sallah were awarded the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. Weiss and Sallah turned the series into a book, Tiger Force, which was published in 2006.
Weiss also wrote two books with Kevin Maurer. The first was about a failed Special Forces mission in Afghanistan. The critically-acclaimed book was published by Penguin Books in 2012. Weiss’s second with Maurer was a sweeping narrative about a Special Forces team that helped capture and kill Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Bolivia in 1967. Weiss currently works for The AP on special projects, and an investigative series he landed about corrupt real estate appraisers won several national awards in 2009. He also won a George Polk Award in 2010 for coverage of the massive Gulf Oil Spill.