On April 2, 2015—the day before Good Friday—as most of the eight hundred or so residents of Wells, Texas, prepared for that weekend’s Easter festivities, a young woman and her fiancé sat in a single-story pine building with cedar trim on the outskirts of town, deep in conversation. They were in the house of worship for the controversial Church of Wells, the small, zealous congregation that they both belonged to. The woman, 28-year-old Catherine Grove, and the man, 27-year-old Ronnie Saltsman, began to argue. The issue concerned, as it often had for Catherine during the past two years, her parents. Catherine grew more and more upset over the course of the conversation, and at around 3 p.m., she called her father, Andy Grove, telling him, “I need you in Wells,” before abruptly hanging up. After a few more hours of talking with Ronnie, Catherine, still upset and wanting to get away from the situation, set off walking down U.S. Highway 69 toward Lufkin.
A passerby saw her and pulled over to offer assistance. It was dark outside, and Catherine knew traveling on foot alongside a highway at night was dangerous, so she opted to borrow the Good Samaritan’s phone to call 911 for help. But when Catherine called the authorities, news of her seeming estrangement traveled fast. She was, after all, the town’s most scrutinized resident.
For nearly two years now, Catherine and the church she belongs to have been at the center of a maelstrom of controversy in the small town. Soon after the church’s three “elders”—29-year-old Sean Morris, 30-year-old Ryan Ringnald, and 26-year-old Jake Gardner—moved their congregation from Arlington to the East Texas community in 2012, people began murmuring about the church being a cult. National media turned its gaze on the church in May 2012, when a newborn baby died after the elders chose to pray over the struggling infant rather than call 911. And I traveled to the town multiple times over the span of several months in the fall of 2013 for a Texas Monthly piece, which recounted Catherine’s parents’ story of how one day in early July 2013, their third child donated all of her possessions and took a Greyhound bus 388 miles from her Arkansas apartment to join the Church of Wells. To them, it was as if she vanished, only to call roughly a week later around midnight and tell them, “I’m in Wells, Texas, with a group of people who are taking good care of me. 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.”
When my story went to press, it seemed that Catherine, then 26, had chosen to distance herself from her parents—and the media spotlight they thrust her into—despite their vocal and public efforts to make contact with their daughter. But when Catherine called her father on that unseasonably warm April day and walked away from her fiancé and her church, it appeared she might have reversed course. She returned with her father to the family home, outside Huntsville, Arkansas. Her mother took to Facebook to thank people for the blessings and prayers. Residents of Wells expressed their happiness about her reuniting with her parents, saying perhaps it would set an example for some of the other members of the congregation to reach out to their own families.
Then, in a move some probably could have predicted, she returned to the church a week later, on April 9. Soon after that, the elders posted a video of Catherine on YouTube. “This video exists because Catherine wants to suppress the slander. Catherine wants to speak her own personal testimony about what has happened,” one of them says in the video. In it, Catherine describes how she was involuntarily committed after she returned home and stresses that she never intended to leave the church.
On April 15, the day before the video was posted, I was caught by surprise when, at the suggestion of an intermediary, one of the elders, Sean Morris, reached out to me about interviewing Catherine and the church’s leaders. It was the first time they had been open to speaking with me. “We would desire for you to sit down with us and sit down with Catherine and have everything that you need to present our side,” Sean said in our introductory phone call. “We put you in a difficult situation from the beginning,” he said, referring to their refusal to cooperate on my last story. “We desire to work with you and to be assured that you’re going to hear us out.”
With that, I headed out to Wells the next day.
Since my last trip to Wells two years ago, a lot has changed. Half of the buildings on the west side of Highway 69, including the city hall and the bank, have either been demolished or moved back from the road in preparation for an expansion from two to four lanes. The church’s store and gas station, the R&R Mercantile, was shuttered following a boycott. (The congregation still holds its services inside the empty store, pending completion of their new church building.) Once the store closed, the church turned to other moneymaking ventures, opening a sawmill on a 16.7-acre parcel of land in nearby Alto and producing a line of biblically themed, tallow-based lip balms and hand salves. The church’s flock has also grown, now numbering more than one hundred, a count that includes an ever-increasing collection of children. There’s even a new Australian branch of the church in New South Wales, which boasts some fifteen members.
There’s one constant, however: a palpable sense of tension. It’s mostly an undercurrent, felt when anyone mentions the church to a nonmember, but it occasionally burbles over, like in April of last year when a few residents, upset over church members telling a group that included children that they were hell-bound, punched Morris and another member following the town’s annual homecoming parade. And they’ve drawn ire from farther afield in East Texas as well: earlier this month four members were briefly detained by university police on the campus of Stephen F. Austin State University, in Nacogdoches, for refusing to give their names after demonstrating without a required permit. A complainant claimed that they were saying vulgar things to women, including calling them prostitutes. (The church disputes this and later posted a video compilation of their preaching at SFA on YouTube.)
The day I met with the elders and Catherine, on April 16, it was two weeks to the day after she left the church. Her thin frame was clothed in a long brown-and-white skirt and a white cardigan that covered her arms just past her elbows. Her fine blonde hair framed pale cheeks that lacked the rosy color they had in old family photographs. Her expression alternated without warning from a glower to a beaming smile. The elders, all wearing plaid shirts, sat on wooden chairs with their Bibles resting on the coffee table in front of them.
Over the course of the next two days, I spent more than ten hours interviewing Catherine and the three elders in Ryan Ringnald’s home, a white house with blue trim and a tidy exterior. Religion permeated the atmosphere, from the Bible verses adorning the walls and the collection of religious books on the shelves to the Wi-Fi network named “Seek King Jesus” and the truly impressive ability of the elders to bring nearly every facet of our conversation back to faith and Scripture.
During the reporting for my original story, I had spoken at great length to Catherine’s parents, but I never had the chance to meet Catherine. As she sat on a faded pink velvet recliner, Catherine described to me in halting sentences what prompted her to join the church, her life inside it, and her relationship with her parents. She also spoke extensively about her recent six-day stint away from the church. According to Catherine, after she called 911, her father, who was in Denton attending a religious conference, picked her up around two in the morning at the Angelina County Sheriff’s Department, in Lufkin, and drove her back to Arkansas. She immediately began demanding to return to Wells. Two days later, she said, her parents took her to a St. Louis hospital, where she was involuntarily committed to the psychiatric ward. Four days after that, she was given a clean bill of health and released. Three church members who had traveled from Wells to the hospital brought Catherine back to Texas on April 9. The whole ordeal had left her shaken.
As she told her story, she sometimes stopped to consult her blue journal, which mostly sat closed in her lap as she spoke. When she would pause to think, her eyes darted about. And quite often during my interview with her, the trio of elders jumped in to explain church doctrine, jargon, and at times, to prompt and guide Catherine as she spoke.
“These events legitimize much of our caution over the last few years with the Groves,” Sean said at the start of our interview. Theirs has been a tumultuous relationship: the elders’ troubles with Catherine’s parents date back to July 2013, when Andy and Patty Grove first visited their daughter at her new home. They were dismayed to learn that Catherine, after spending only a week in Wells, had become certain that she had not been saved because she had never been born again. “I told them I just wanted to seek God and I needed some space to do that,” she said.
Catherine, who had grown up attending the First Baptist Church of Huntsville with her parents and four siblings, had been questioning her salvation for a few years before coming to Wells. The situation had reached an impasse, Sean said, because the Groves “were relentless in their ambition to subvert their daughter from the biblical Christ.” He went on, explaining that “They were not there to sincerely consider what the Scriptures teach; they were there to get their daughter and subvert her and bring her back to Arkansas.” Catherine agreed with this view. “They were determined to get me out of the church,” she told me. The Grove family, who declined to comment for this story, has maintained in the past that they were simply trying to get a one-on-one audience with their daughter.
For months after Catherine initially joined the church, the Groves mounted what Sean characterized as a “propaganda campaign” against them. Andy and Patty even moved to Wells for a few months, posting up in an RV they borrowed from a local resident, all in hopes of catching a glimpse of their daughter. But Catherine was largely shielded from this, at her own request. “I tried to avoid them whenever they came to town, because of the storm of media that they had directed my way,” Catherine said with a deep sigh. “I couldn’t just speak to them because that would be rash and the Lord wouldn’t be with me.”
Catherine told me she’s had a cell phone the whole time she’s been in Wells, and she assured me she is free to contact her parents whenever she chooses, though she has opted to call them only twice. “Whenever my parents come up I have fretting in my heart and want to avoid my parents and the possibility of doing something rash,” she told me. But she voiced some regrets about her actions in the past two years. “I didn’t understand how to handle the situation, and so I kind of just ignored it. But it was a sin to ignore it,” she said. She added that she’s grateful for the church’s support during this time. “The church was willing to suffer for me and let me stay here while they were being ravaged with allegations of abuse—like that I was being brainwashed. The church was willing to go through two years of that for me. For Christ, really,” Catherine said.
Then why walk away? And why return?
During the 911 call Catherine made April 2, she was barely able to articulate herself and seemed baffled by the basic questions that the dispatcher was asking her. “Um, I need somebody to pick me up?” she began, an unsteady inflection in her voice. A deputy picked her up and drove her to Lufkin, where she met Captain Alton Lenderman, of the Angelina County Sheriff’s Department. “She was very reserved and had very little to say,” Lenderman told me when I spoke to him the next day, adding that he did not press her on why she wanted to leave the church. “Anytime I would try to talk to her, I couldn’t ask her anything. She would tell me ‘I don’t want to talk about my family.’” But Catherine also never mentioned that she wanted to go back to Wells. They quickly discussed—and dismissed—a stay at the local women’s shelter before Catherine eventually said she’d like to call her parents. They soon reached her father, who quickly embarked on the four-hour drive from Denton to see his daughter.
After they were reunited, Catherine agreed to leave with him that night, driving the seven hours back to the family home in the Ozarks. According to Catherine, at a certain point she asked him to stop at a hotel so they could talk. “I didn’t want to leave the church,” Catherine insisted to me, adding that her intent was merely to speak to her father. “I wanted to preach to him and convince him he’s confused about the church,” she said. “I tried to tell my dad he doesn’t know the elders and I don’t believe the lies he said about them.” During the drive, at around five in the morning, she made her first contact with the church, calling Sean’s wife, Preethi, who appears to be her main “handler” in the church.
They arrived at her family’s 140-acre farm by midmorning, but the reunion did not go terribly well. Catherine spent several hours preaching to her parents, stopping only to nap and have a meal of chicken soup. “My parents were saying that they weren’t against the church, and they were willing to talk to me about the Bible, my mom especially. The Bible was pretty much all I wanted to talk about,” she said. But Catherine grew frustrated when her parents would redirect her attention to things of the world, showing her the yellow daffodils they had planted outside their house and their new dog, a Bluetick coonhound named Smokey who had joined the family in January. Her cell phone did not get a signal in the country, and when she tried to use the house phone she found it didn’t have a dial tone.
Soon, she began to insist that she be driven back to Texas. “I was telling my parents that I wanted to go back to Wells, and they kept saying we can’t take you back right now. I felt like they were trying to keep me there, inside the house,” she said with a grimace. “I knew I was in a bad situation because of my sin,” Catherine said, referring to her decision to walk down the highway out of Wells. “I was being judged by God.” By the following evening, the house phone was finally working and Catherine called Preethi again, this time asking her to drive to Arkansas and get her. She knew her parents’ address but was unable to give Preethi directions to the house and her mother refused to relay them. Within the next few hours, Preethi, who was nine months pregnant at the time, and Sean got on the road, bound for Arkansas.
Later that evening, Catherine took off on foot down a country road looking for a neighbor who could perhaps drive her to Wells, or at least give Preethi directions. Amy Grove, Catherine’s older sister, caught up to her walking along the road. “I was trying to hold on to my bag and she started dragging me on the ground and getting it away from me,” Catherine said. According to her, Amy eventually snatched the bag from Catherine’s shoulder and took her cell phone, which Amy then hid in the woods. Catherine kept running down the road; her parents, who were concerned for her safety, followed behind in their car. At 1:48 a.m. that morning, the Groves called the local sheriff’s office to alert them to the situation, informing them that the church was on the way to pick up Catherine, and they were worried about what might happen next, according to a report from the Madison County Sheriff’s Department. Patty asked to have a deputy posted outside the house in case the group found their farm, and another deputy told the family that “if they could get Catherine to a shelter or a hospital out of the county, it would be best for Catherine.” At this point, they persuaded her to get into the car, Catherine recounted. Once they were on the road, Catherine realized they were not heading toward Texas and assumed they were driving to Little Rock, where her grandmother lives. But by morning she discovered that they were, in fact, in St. Louis. They stopped the car in front of the emergency room of Barnes-Jewish Hospital and led Catherine inside.
Meanwhile, back in Arkansas, the Morrises had shown up at the Madison County Sheriff’s Department at 5 a.m. and requested a welfare check on Catherine. After spending the next few hours sleeping in the car in the parking lot of an old Walmart, they returned to the sheriff’s office around 9:15. There, Sean and Preethi met a deputy named Sergeant Russell Alberts and told him they were worried that Catherine was being held against her will at her parents’ house. Alberts replied that the Groves had already called the sheriff’s office themselves and he warned Sean and Preethi that they would be trespassing if they set foot on the Groves’ property. “When they became verbally threatening, Sergeant Alberts asked them to leave the sheriff’s office, which they complied with shortly afterwards,” the report says. Sean denied making any threatening statements and emailed a six-page letter titled “A Plea for Justice” to Madison County Sheriff Phillip Morgan detailing his complaints about how he and his wife were treated.
According to Catherine, she refused to sign a form consenting to treatment at the ER. Over the next few hours that followed, doctors conducted a battery of psychological tests and opted to involuntarily admit her to the hospital’s psychiatric ward by late that evening. (At this point in her retelling, Catherine turned to Sean and asked, “Do I have to share about the psych ward?” After he assured her that it was important, she continued.) “The hospital staff were concerned for me because of the accusations my parents were making about the church,” Catherine said, adding that they asked her if her church was a cult and if she had been mentally or physically abused there. During her stay two male FBI agents also interviewed her and she told them the same thing she had told the doctors, that nothing bad had happened to her at the church and that she was a member of her own free will. (Rebecca Wu, a spokesperson for the St. Louis field office of the FBI, could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.) After four full days had passed—the length of time that a person can be involuntarily committed in Missouri without a court order—her doctors concluded that she wasn’t suffering from any mental illnesses and readied her for release.
She emailed the church and the Morrises came—along with her fiancé, Ronnie—to pick her up. They were escorted through an employee-only section of the hospital to avoid crossing paths with the Groves in the lobby. The next day, after returning to Wells, Catherine called her parents to let them know she had returned. As Catherine finished this retelling, she reached into her purse and pulled out a creased and stapled stack of forms that turned out to be her hospital release papers, which declared that she had been given a “normal psychiatric assessment.”
Catherine’s departure from Wells had been widely reported in the media, and so, a week after her return to Wells, the elders chose to disseminate a video of Catherine on YouTube. The 52-minute video, filmed in front of a dark background, seems to be both a personal rebuke from Catherine to her parents as well as something of a victory lap for the elders, who said that Catherine’s parents have now done the very thing they had accused the church of doing: holding Catherine against her will. “No doubt this testimony and turn of events will come as a shock to many, but it is no major surprise to those that have rightly understood the deceptive, aggressive, and anti-Christian ways of the Groves, who have falsely and relentlessly accused the Church of Wells for the very things to which they are now found guilty,” Ryan Ringnald wrote on the church’s website in an introduction to the video. Before Catherine starts speaking, Sean asks viewers for their patience, as Catherine “is not a public speaker, and she is not of eloquent speech.” She has been this way, Sean says, since she joined the church.
But Catherine is unrecognizable in the video—in both her delivery and her message—to many of her friends from childhood, high school, and beyond. Throughout it she sighs, shrugs her shoulders, and looks generally glum. Her sentences are studded with pauses, which is also how she spoke when I met her. “Catherine has never had a hard time explaining herself,” said Lydia Cane Naudé, a close friend from high school who acted alongside Catherine in school plays. She described the Catherine she had known as “happy, sweet, and loving,” not at all like the person on the tape. “She seemed really, really distressed in the video. She kept sighing and looking down and wrinkling her forehead. It really did sound like they were telling her what to say,” Naudé said. “She seemed very scared and very timid, which is not like her. You could see her hesitating.”
Another high school friend, Abby Lanphier, said that while Catherine had been shy, she had always been articulate. “That was a totally different person in the video from the girl that I knew; she never had trouble speaking. I know we all change when we get older, but I feel like it wasn’t her choice to change in that way,” Lanphier said. “She was led to believe that these people were going to bring her closer to God, but I don’t believe that’s what they’re doing, not even close. They’re pulling her in the opposite direction.” Kasie Earnest, who was in a high school math class with Catherine and was a member of the same Christian youth club, agreed with that sentiment. “Catherine’s always been very tenderhearted, so I can see how that maybe could lead into something like this. There’s a lot of spiritual abuse going on here, Scripture is definitely being manipulated and being made into something it’s not,” Earnest said.
Angela Clyne, a longtime neighbor whose children grew up with the Grove children, said that while Catherine was never loud, she was always chatty. And now she seems completely transformed. “She was a shell of a person on the video up there,” Clyne said. “Even if you love your church completely, a church should never cause you to lose the soul of who you are. They’ve instilled in her an absolute terror that she will die and not go to heaven, that her salvation is at risk, if she didn’t go back.”
Disconnection. It’s one of the main hallmarks of cults and the criticism most frequently lobbed at the Church of Wells. The Groves’ very public quest to bring attention to their daughter’s near-total estrangement from them made headlines because it feeds into the frightening notion that a group could so totally convince a person to give up his or her entire life. And in my piece from last February, I attempted to answer the question, “When is a church a cult?” It’s a charged and fraught term, and there’s no definitive way to tell. As I wrote then, “one of the most contentious regular practices of cults is the careful and unrelenting separation of new recruits from their families, a process known as shunning. Cult leaders derive their power from manipulating their followers’ environments” and are suspicious of anyone who speaks against the church’s beliefs.
I asked the elders about the proclivity of their members to become estranged from their families, and in Sean’s mind, there is a simple explanation. “These parents who are angry, they refuse to talk about the Scripture.”
Church members are obligated to talk about the Bible with their parents, because, according to Sean, “to refuse to talk about the Scriptures is to deny Christ, and it’s to hate their souls and to wish them damnation in hell and that’s one thing we cannot do, by God’s grace.” During our conversation I brought up the possibility that those parents may accept Christ, but their own interpretation of the Bible simply may not align with the elders’ view. But Ryan, in reply, insisted that the Bible could be interpreted only one way. “We don’t believe that the truth is relative. We believe that the Lord Jesus believed the truth is objective. There are fundamental doctrines of the Gospel that we believe we’re morally obligated to stand on because souls are at stake.” (A text written by Sean, the “Doctrine of Judgment,” lays out how church members should relate to their families, dubbing God’s love “a divisive sword which inevitably comes to the family unit unless all are born again and walking spiritually, not carnally.”)
Sean told me that it isn’t the children who have cut off their parents; in fact, it’s the opposite. But the parents I’ve spoken with vigorously dispute this and insist that the elders have created a situation, structurally, wherein their children are unable to enjoy good, normal relationships with their parents. “I’m sure the elders will say that the kids want to communicate, but the problem is that our kids want to communicate the fact that we’re not saved and we should come to Wells and be part of the remnant,” said one mother, who requested anonymity, fearing that speaking out publicly would lessen even the small amount of contact she currently has with her son, who joined the church in 2012.
This was a refrain I heard time and again. Sue Southworth, who has seen her son Justin only three times since he joined the church, said, “When Justin first went in, we talked every week.” Last year, they spoke on the phone just twice. “I try to take the conversation somewhere else, and he just brings it back to Scripture.” (Lately, Justin has been returning her texts more often, but she’s always the one who initiates contact.) James and Mary Pearce, who live in India, are able to email and Skype with their son, William, but largely choose not to. “The only words he says to us are ‘you’re going to hell,’” James wrote to me in an email. “This limited dialog is not the basis of any human relationship. We want to talk to him but won’t enter into this kind of conversation any more.” William refuses to open up about his daily life, including talking about his wife, Holly, or their new baby boy, who was born last June. “We aren’t perfectly sure of the birthday and for some time we weren’t clear on the name,” James wrote. After the baby’s birth, William did travel to Wisconsin and Minnesota to visit siblings and grandparents. “All the family received them cordially but set limits on the time they would allow William to preach about their lost condition,” James wrote.
Another mother, whose son joined the church in late 2013, said she’s spoken to him only three times since then. (She also requested anonymity because she doesn’t want to jeopardize what communication she has with her son. “He will not speak to me again if he knows I’m talking to you,” she said.) When they have talked, she’s tried to ask him questions about his daily life in Wells, but he resists. “When I ask him ‘who cooks for you?’ I get this big drawn-out sigh. He doesn’t want to have a worldly conversation. You can’t talk about anything except the Bible,” she said. “I love my son but he doesn’t want to talk to me about anything but my salvation and Scripture.”
During those infrequent occasions when their children do visit, “worldly” topics are still off the table. A fourth mother with a child in the church, who also wanted to remain anonymous, described a recent visit. “When they visited us a year ago, they wanted to sit down and parse the Gospel with my husband and myself. They wanted to go point by point on why we were not right with the Lord,” she said.
Other parents have not met their grandchildren, some never having even been told of their existence. Lorraine and Rick Taddy, whose daughter Miranda joined the church in 2011, last saw their daughter in 2013. Last year, Miranda had a second baby, a girl, but she never called or wrote her parents to tell them about her. “Anytime I see a Texas number on my phone I think maybe it’s Miranda. We miss her terribly, and we miss that we’re not seeing her babies at all,” Lorraine said. “We just want a relationship with our daughter.”
But Sean maintains that even parents who don’t agree with their interpretation of the Scriptures still have good relationships with their children, because they’re able to discuss things peaceably. (His own mother, Jean, falls into this category. His father, on the other hand, will still visit him and his brother, Jesse, but refuses to talk about the Bible.) Jake Gardner, the youngest of the three elders, said that his father joined the church, moving to Wells last December, as at least one other parent has done. Sean pointed out his father-in-law, Moses David, Preethi’s father, as someone who was once reticent about his daughter joining the church but who has now come around. He visits Wells at least once a month, posts vigorous defenses of the church in various online forums, and even goes street preaching in Houston with some members of the church.
During my visit, I met Moses and Mercy David, Preethi’s parents. Moses had this message for the other parents: “I think the important thing is to be transparent concerning their life as it relates to the word of God. If their children are exhorting them through the word of God, what better thing could there be for them than to be corrected by their children? Our children have been such a great blessing in our life. We benefited from their rebuke of us.”
Towards the end of the second day of our interview, Ryan began singing “All for Jesus,” a 1871 hymn by Mary D. James, which he said describes his life now.
All for Jesus! All for Jesus!
All my being’s ransomed powers;
All my thoughts and words and doings,
All my days and all my hours.
All for Jesus! All for Jesus!
All my days and all my hours.
Let my hands perform his bidding;
Let my feet run in his ways;
Let my eyes see Jesus only;
Let my lips speak forth his praise.
All for Jesus! All for Jesus!
Let my lips speak forth his praise.
Worldlings prize their gems of beauty,
Cling to gilded toys of dust,
Boast of wealth, and fame, and pleasure;
Only Jesus will I trust.
Only Jesus! Only Jesus!
Only Jesus will I trust.
“I know exactly what this person is singing,” Ryan said. Since his conversion, during his sophomore year at Baylor, these lines have described the way he has tried to live his life, forsaking the things of the world to follow the Lord. My attempts to direct the conversation to things not pertaining to religion over the course of our ten hours together largely came up empty, as the elders tended to redirect every question to the Bible.
So, what are they trying to accomplish? The elders avow that they are simply trying to serve the Lord and save souls in their small nondenominational New Testament Church. While they write off most American churches as “lukewarm” organizations led by “false prophets” preaching a “false Jesus,” they do believe that some other true Christians exist outside of their immediate congregation. “There is a remnant, there are seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal. There are believers all over the world and all over this country, but they are rare, and they are few,” Sean said. And “slander,” in their words, is a natural consequence of their evangelism; the “most holy men of God” in the Book of Acts were treated the same way, according to Sean. (In fact, one of the most frequent words that the elders uttered during our time together, beyond “God” and “Jesus” and “the Bible” and “the Gospel,” was “slander.”) “The more we continue to read the Gospel and live for Christ and draw more and more into conforming into his image, the more and more we see people saved and we suffer for his namesake,” Sean said.
During our interview the elders also drew conclusions based on Scripture concerning topics that ranged from mental illness (“When somebody is insane, it’s demon possession, connected to a crime they’ve committed against God,” Sean said); female modesty (“I don’t believe it’s God’s perfect will” for women to wear pants, Ryan said. “If someone has the right heart, they’re going to ask God, ‘How do you want me to dress?’”); and the lofty goals of their church (“We are seeking in our church to stem the tide of the corruption that is encroaching on society. Western civilization is at stake right now, because they’re denying the Lord,” Jake said). The elders believe the Bible is literal and inerrant and is the absolute and only guide to daily life. “We believe that this is God’s map, guide, basic instructions before leaving earth,” Ryan explained, pointing to his Bible on the coffee table.
The church practices the doctrine of “lordship salvation,” Ryan said, which in the Church of Wells’s view means that Christ must have absolute lordship over all areas of one’s life—from dress to speech to the roles of the sexes—in order to achieve salvation. (Other writings on the subject are frequently denounced as being “not biblical,” though Sean’s extensive treatises somehow escape that label.) Many have criticized the church for being heavy on judgment, instead of focusing on God’s love, but Sean said this is necessary. “We believe that the mercy of God can only be appreciated as much as somebody is understanding the wrath of God,” Sean explained as the power flickered off during a heavy thunderstorm. “We believe that the forgiveness that God offers mankind is only appreciated and valued and laid whole upon mankind when they see the sinfulness of their sins and how they don’t deserve forgiveness.”
Former members, however, worry that the elders have amassed too much power and control over their flock. Twenty-five-year-old Christine Major, who has never spoken publicly about her time with the Church of Wells, uploaded a video on YouTube about her experience with the group in response to Catherine’s video. Major, who left in July 2012 after nine months with the church, said that while she continues to share many of the church’s beliefs, she grew concerned with the way the elders were wielding their authority over the congregation. “There is a dangerous spirit of control that is in the leaders of this church,” she said in the video.
As we spoke, I noted Catherine’s gold engagement ring set with a small diamond, given to her by Ronnie, who had proposed to her on January 15, her twenty-eighth birthday. “He had proposed to me six months earlier, but I told him I wasn’t sure,” Catherine said. For someone newly engaged to a man she will presumably start her own family with, Catherine had trouble offering me details about her future husband. “He’s really loving. He loves me,” she said. But the elders chimed in to fill in the gaps: he’s originally from southern California, attended Calvary Chapel Bible College before joining the Church of Wells, in the summer of 2012, and now works in construction. Their wedding had been scheduled for April 13 but has now been postponed due to recent events. There’s no word yet on an official date—but she has already invited her parents.