Sinners in the Hands

When is a church a cult?
photograph by leann mueller

Andy and Patty Grove never planned to settle outside of Texas. Their roots in the state reach back many generations. Patty’s ancestors came to Texas on a wagon train from Tennessee in the 1830’s (an elementary school in Houston is named for her great-grandfather); Andy’s father owned a tract of land that is now part of the posh Houston neighborhood of Hedwig Village. The two grew up a mere five miles away from each other in West Houston, where they attended Stratford and Memorial, rival high schools in Spring Branch ISD. They met while volunteering with Campus Crusade for Christ as undergraduates at the University of Houston in the late seventies. After marrying, in 1982, they settled in Arlington, where Andy took a job as the campus director of the University of Texas at Arlington’s branch of International Students, a Christian organization that works with foreign-exchange students. In the early nineties, on a camping trip to Arkansas with some of these students, the Groves fell in love with the natural beauty of the Ozarks and traded their brick house in the suburbs for a 140-acre farm in Arkansas’s War Eagle Valley. There, in a one-hundred-year-old house built from rough-cut oak, they set about raising their five children in a rural idyll. They bred quarter horses and cattle and hunted and fished throughout the year. Summers were spent swimming in the clear waters of War Eagle Creek, picking blackberries, and horseback riding on the trails that crisscrossed Seven Saddles Farm.

They also worked to instill in their children a love for the Lord. They attended the First Baptist Church of Huntsville, and all their kids regularly participated in the church’s youth group. Their third child, Catherine, showed a particular devotion. She was bright and inquisitive, with a warm, broad smile. In addition to attending Sunday school and singing in the choir, she toted her Bible along with her to Huntsville High School, where she participated in a Bible study after class. She excelled in secular pursuits as well, playing forward on a competitive club soccer team and earning induction into the National Honor Society. After graduation, in 2005, she went on to study Spanish at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Having formed many friendships with the international students whom the Groves had hosted, she hoped to travel widely throughout South America doing mission work.

Just one semester short of a diploma, however, she shifted her studies to focus on nursing. She was living with her grandparents at the time, helping care for her grandfather as he battled leukemia. His death, in December 2010, left her rattled, and about a year later she decided to leave school and move back to her parents’ farm. She eventually earned her license as a certified nursing assistant and got a job in the ICU at Washington Regional Hospital, in Fayetteville. But in early 2013 her behavior began to grow erratic. She would say things like “Why go into nursing as a career when God’s going to kill everyone anyway?” She seemed to withdraw from the world, dropping out of her choir and quitting her job. Her parents were flummoxed. “We found her planner,” Patty recalled this past October, “and it was packed with church meetings and her work schedule. But after May there was nothing. It was blank.” 

A couple of months later, on July 2, Catherine gave all her belongings to Goodwill and disappeared without a word. Her parents had no clue where she had gone. On July 7, their phone rang, just after eleven-thirty at night. “I’m in Wells, Texas, with a group of people who are taking good care of me,” Catherine said. “But I can’t listen to you anymore, I can only listen to my elders. I have to keep my hands over my ears. You’re going to see a lot of bad stuff on the Internet about them, but none of it is true.” 

Her parents were eventually able to establish a rough sketch of what had happened. In early 2010, while attending a Bible-translating conference in Duncanville, Catherine had met a traveling evangelist who told her about a small, nondenominational New Testament church, led by three young street preachers, that its members considered to be the only church in America practicing true biblical Christianity. A year later, in 2011, not long after her grandfather’s death, she had begun communicating over email and on Skype with members of the church, which had started calling itself the Church of Arlington. During the next two years she had gradually been persuaded to come and join the church herself. 

The Groves knew nothing about this church, which had subsequently relocated and changed its name to the Church of Wells. It was led by three twentysomething “elders” named Sean Morris, Ryan Ringnald, and Jacob Gardner. The church’s “statement of faith” on its website seemed fairly standard, but its manifesto was notably zealous, claiming that the church was able to “resurrect [Jesus’s] standard of righteousness which has long lain without a Church to bear it” and implying that no other churches could say the same. Pictures on the site showed wholesome, smiling young families, the men in plaid shirts and the women in cardigans and long skirts.

But as Catherine had warned, there were some truly unsettling stories about the church online as well. About a year earlier, in May 2012, a baby born to church members had died while her parents—instead of calling 911 as she struggled to breathe, her tiny body turning blue—prayed that Christ would heal her. If that wasn’t chilling enough, there were the eerie stories about a serial killer named Israel Keyes, who the FBI believes is responsible for at least eleven murders and whose mother and four sisters belong to the church. Keyes himself had no involvement with the Church of Wells, but he had been arrested in March 2012 while in East Texas to attend the wedding of one of his sisters. 

Still, the Groves did their best to keep an open mind about

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