Sinners in the Hands
When is a church a cult?
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 the situation. They wanted to support their daughter’s religious pursuits; they just needed to talk to her in person to be sure she was okay. And as luck would have it, the following week they were due to travel with three of Catherine’s four siblings—Natalie, Austin, and Ben—to visit Patty’s father on his ranch in Comanche County, in Central Texas, a few hundred miles from Wells. They decided to take a detour on the drive down from Arkansas. They had no idea exactly how to find the church, but in a town of eight hundred, how hard could it be?
When they arrived in Wells it was early evening and overcast, with a dampness hanging in the air from the line of thunderstorms that had just blown through. The weather had driven everyone indoors, and the resulting stillness in the town, which straddles U.S. 69 between Lufkin and Tyler, was almost unnerving. There was no Church of Wells listed in the phone book, so the Groves piloted their red Toyota SUV around the town’s small grid of asphalt streets. They scrutinized the tidy brick houses with manicured lawns and the ramshackle mobile homes framed by stubby, garbage-strewn bushes, wondering if their daughter might be inside one of them. They drove past the shuttered Dairy Queen and the new library, past the beginnings of a school gymnasium and the husk of a gentlemen’s clothing store, the flat roof having long ago caved in from neglect. Finally, they stopped in at the Dollar General and were directed to the R&R Mercantile, a gas station, laundromat, and grocery store just off the highway that’s operated by the Church of Wells. At the gas station, they talked to several reserved young men in black Texaco shirts but were unable to get much information. Frustrated, they went to the First Baptist Church and left a message for the pastor, Josh Luellen, asking for his help. Then they pressed on to the ranch.
Three days later they returned. As they drove through town, they came across four teenagers in a pickup truck. Andy started to ask them where to find the church, but before he could finish his sentence, one of them cut him off. “You’re looking for the cult,” he said. The teens steered them to the church’s main building, a white two-story house on Bonita Street, and left them with a bit of caution: “You need to get your daughter out or they’re going to marry her off.”
The Groves stared up at the house. It had a slightly sinister look, with peeling paint and boarded-up windows on the upper story. Night was beginning to fall. They knocked on the front door and waited. After a few moments, two young men stepped out onto the porch to greet them. One was Ringnald, a skinny, intense 28-year-old with brown hair and a beard. Several hours of discussion ensued, during which Ringnald accused the Groves of trying to kidnap their own daughter. Still, they were able to secure an audience with Catherine, provided she was accompanied by Ringnald. At midnight, they showed up at a blue shotgun shack where their daughter had been staying. They sat in the living room, which was simple and immaculately clean. A large oil painting of a lion next to a bleeding man in a chair was hanging on the wall. Catherine told her parents that she had come to Wells to seek the Lord.
“When I first got here, I thought I was a believer,” she explained, “but these people have shown me that I’m lost.” Throughout the two-hour meeting, Catherine kept looking to Ringnald to answer her parents’ questions. As the meeting drew to a close, he promised them they could call Catherine on her cellphone anytime. The next morning, the Groves left for Arkansas, wondering who this meek, submissive girl was who had replaced their assertive, opinionated daughter?
After that, the Groves met with Catherine in Wells twice during the next two weeks, but never without a church elder present. At their second meeting, a twelve-hour affair on July 31 at the home of church member Heidi Keyes (the mother of Israel Keyes), Ringnald spoke for hours about church doctrine, and Catherine said little. When Ringnald finished speaking, Keyes said it was time to judge the Groves “by their fruits,” as laid out in Matthew 7:16–20. According to Patty’s recounting, Keyes pointed her finger at her and said, “I can tell by your fruits that you are an ungodly, unsaved woman!” After eleven hours they were served a meal of leftover spaghetti, corn, and buttered bread. “We kept thinking it was an initiation, that we could jump through a few hoops and then we could see Catherine alone,” Andy recalled. “We were just trying to jump the next fence.”
Two days later, Catherine, Gardner, and Ringnald met with the Groves inside the laundromat at the R&R Mercantile. Patty, who had earned the elders’ ire for daring to speak without her husband’s express permission, had decided that things might go more smoothly if she kept her mouth shut. It was at this meeting that Catherine told her father, “Dad, I don’t need you anymore. I want you and Mom to leave.”
Josh Luellen is an affable, lanky young man with buzzed hair, ruddy cheeks, and a thick Southern drawl. A preacher’s son from West Monroe, Louisiana, he felt the call of God in his life when he was twenty, enrolling at Louisiana Missionary Baptist Institute and Seminary, in Minden. Luellen moved to Wells in 2005 to lead the one-hundred-person congregation at the First Baptist Church. He’s now 29, and though young for his profession, he has a commanding presence.
On January 1, 2012, Luellen was standing near the front doors of his church, greeting members of his congregation as they filed in for ten o’clock services, when two young men approached him. They introduced themselves as Chris Faulkner and Rick Trudeau and politely explained that they were traveling missionaries. After sitting quietly through Luellen’s sermon, they returned for evening services with Trudeau’s wife, Anna, a slight brunette in a long skirt, and asked if they could sing some hymns to the congregation. Luellen agreed. The trio sang two obscure songs that no one at First Baptist could place. After the service, they asked if they could speak to the youth group on Wednesday.
At this point, Luellen sat them down to find out who they were. During the ensuing three-hour conversation, they explained that they were members of the Church of Arlington and were looking for a new home for their congregation. Their RV had broken down in Wells on New Year’s Eve, and they had decided that that was a sign from God. Luellen asked them about their religious beliefs. Faulkner, who struck Luellen as the leader of the trio, explained that they believed that man is a worm, utterly devoid of anything good, and that God exercises irresistible grace and gives one no choice whether to accept him. He went on, explaining that true Christians must reject all aspects of the “carnal” world to devote themselves fully to God, and that this was the only way to the Lord. After hearing this, Luellen denied their request to speak to the youth group. Their politeness quickly melted into indignation. “They condemned our entire church and our entire town and told us we were all going to hell,” Luellen recounted. “They called me a false prophet.” When Luellen tried to shake their hands as they left, they refused, saying, “Light has no fellowship with darkness.”
To Luellen’s dismay, over the next few weeks and months, other members of the Church of Arlington arrived and began buying and leasing houses and apartments. Soon after, the church’s highest leadership arrived—Morris, who is now 27; Ringnald; and Gardner, who is now 25. The church continued to grow throughout the year, eventually leasing the R&R Mercantile, the only place in town to buy fresh produce and meat (it also features a gold-buying counter), and renaming itself after its adopted hometown. By summer, the Church of Wells was a major presence in town.
To most residents, the fresh-faced young people seemed decent enough at first, if a little peculiar. The men talked in an affected, old-fashioned-sounding English peppered with words and phrases from the King James Bible, and the women rarely spoke at all. But they seemed harmless. Sue Smith, a petite, silver-haired woman who volunteers at the Rube Sessions Memorial Library, noticed an influx of solemn young men hunched over their books and laptops while she was working her regular shift.
“They were all real neatly dressed, clean, and polite,” Smith told me. “They seemed like very nice people.”
But as the number of church members crept upward, residents of the tiny town started to feel uneasy. The recent arrivals systematically visited other churches to accuse the congregations of spiritual bankruptcy. They roamed the streets listening to the elders’ sermons on headphones, and they were frequently confrontational. A few church members, including Ringnald, moved in across from Gertrude Hearne, an 84-year-old grandmother of ten. Almost every afternoon, as she sat in a tan recliner in her wood-paneled living room, watching Jimmy Swaggart, church members would drop by to read her the Bible or sing hymns. At the sight of the Pentecostal televangelist, they’d flick off her television and declare Swaggart a false prophet. Finally, she’d had enough. “When I asked them to stop, they told me I was going to die, and I said, ‘You are too.’ ”
Sue Smith’s husband, Lee Roy, owns a seven-acre tract of land next to the R&R Mercantile. One afternoon he got into a shouting match with members of the church after he wouldn’t let them burn something on his trash heap. They informed him that he wasn’t saved. “I told them, ‘You didn’t come out here to tell me what the Bible says. I’ve missed sixteen Sundays of church since 1962,’ ” recounted Smith, who is 85. Longtime Wells resident Brandie Hathorn was also frustrated by their attitude. “They act like they think they have a secret on how you get to the Lord,” she complained. (The elders of the Church of Wells declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Some residents scoured the Internet for information about the church, and gradually a sense of who the elders were began to emerge. They had been raised in privilege. Morris, the son of a Chevron engineer, moved to Nigeria in first grade and to Kuwait in middle school, eventually returning to Texas and graduating from Lutheran South Academy, in Clear Lake. In an audio recording of his evangelical “testimony of salvation” on the church’s website, Morris says that he spent his high school years playing shortstop on his baseball team, drinking, and bullying his classmates (in his words, enjoying “all the foolishness that this world loves”), until he was saved his senior year. Ringnald, a star tennis and basketball player at Fort Worth’s Trinity Valley School, grew up attending Christ Chapel, an independent, nondenominational church.
The Church of Wells’s origins can be traced to Baylor University, where Morris and Ringnald met as undergraduates and where they became acquainted with Gardner, a 2007 graduate of Garland’s Naaman Forest High School who briefly attended McLennan Community College. It was during college that faith began to consume them, especially Morris, who started street preaching around Baylor his sophomore year, until campus police shooed him away and confiscated his bullhorn when professors complained about the noise. Morris and Ringnald graduated in 2008 and shifted their focus to full-time evangelism, fanning out from Waco, Bibles in hand, to preach on campuses throughout Texas, on the streets of Philadelphia and New York, and on the beaches of Florida and South Africa.
They found that most people did not want to hear their message, but they reveled in the rejection, which they felt made them more Christlike. “If we are the image of Christ in this world, we will be hated and treated as He was when He was in the world,” they wrote in 2009 on their blog. They faced many indignities, from having their PA system smashed to being pushed off their soapboxes. “The gospel, by nature, is an offense to those that are perishing,” Gardner wrote in February 2010. A few listeners, however, were impressed by their blend of charisma, passion, and knowledge, and by July 2010, after two years of frenetic travel, they had begun to amass a small following. They needed a base to operate from, and Arlington seemed to be a good fit, as Morris’s older brother Jesse, a 2006 Baylor graduate who worked as a research associate at UT Southwestern Medical Center, had a house there.
They soon began calling themselves the Church of Arlington, an idea taken from the Local Church movement, in which a religious group assumes the name of the place it’s located to indicate that it’s the only true church in town. “The saints,” as they were beginning to refer to themselves, were not merely “playing church” but instead, in Ringnald’s words, “fighting the Lord’s battles in the beauty of holiness!” In their writings and sermons, the elders often cited First John 2:15: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”* They closed their church meetings to outsiders, further insulating themselves. As one member said in his videotaped evangelical testimony, “If you’re a friend of the world, you’re an enemy of God.”
The somewhat improvisational theology of the church is perhaps best described as Calvinism with a sprinkle of Puritanism. A banner at the top of the church’s website displays the images and names of pastors from whom the elders have derived inspiration. The names span a range of Christian traditions, from sixteenth-century leaders of the Protestant Reformation like John Knox to nineteenth-century Calvinists like Charles Spurgeon and twentieth-century evangelists like Rolfe Barnard, whom they characterize as “a man after God’s own heart.” But their message seems most infused with the sentiments of Jonathan Edwards, whose sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”—which compares man to a “loathsome insect” who is kept out of the pit of hell only “by the mere pleasure of God”—sparked the First Great Awakening, which swept the American colonies in the 1730’s and 1740’s. The elders share Edwards’s enthusiasm for a God of “everlasting wrath.” Even children aren’t spared and are considered hell-bound until they are born again.
The elders have their own treatises too. Morris’s “The Condescension of God” is a 704-page tome written to “God’s true people” so that they “might learn to fear.” In “The Doctrine of Judgment,” a more concise booklet, Morris explains how Christians must warn the unconverted about their damnation and describes how to avoid “familial idolatry” in dealing with relatives. God’s love, Morris writes, is “a divisive sword” that “inevitably comes to the family unit unless all are born again and walking spiritually, not carnally.” Elsewhere in Morris’s writings, he opines on the evils of the modern seminary (“almost all of them are very dangerous and deadly to spiritual health and life in Biblical Christianity”), the megachurch (“a clubhouse, a company of sinners who love recreational activities instead of the recreating Deity!”), and Christmas (“the ‘spirit’ of Xmas is a demonic spirit, the reason for the season has become a provision for biblical treason”).
Today the church has 90 members—including some 35 children, most of them under the age of five—who hail from at least eleven states. It recruits new members on the campuses of universities and Bible colleges and at religious conferences similar to the one where Catherine Grove first encountered the church. Masao Gonthier, a street preacher the elders met in New York in 2009, helped recruit a cluster of members from California, his home state, including Brett and Suzie Stoughton, both Calvary Chapel Bible College graduates, who packed up their infant daughter, Lily, and left Suzie’s parents’ house in Riverside in the middle of the night.
Over time, the church began to outgrow its location in Arlington, and the members had difficulty eking out an existence in the Metroplex. Things would be easier in a place where housing was cheap. This is how Rick and Anna Trudeau and Chris Faulkner wound up arriving on Luellen’s doorstep in January 2012. In the pastor’s mind, no good has come from it. “This town has its flaws just like any other town,” he told me. “But this town has some of the nicest, kindest people you’ll ever meet. And the responses that this town has gotten from this group—the ridicule—this town doesn’t deserve what this group has put on them. We’re trying our best to win this community to the Lord. To have to see this town go through this is sad, because this is a good town.”
A month had passed since the Groves had first set foot in Wells. Yet they had still only seen their daughter in the presence of a church elder. Catherine continued to reiterate her desire to stay where she was, but the Groves were convinced she was being brainwashed. One afternoon, Andy and Patty showed up at the R&R Mercantile to buy ice cream and ask about Catherine. The man working at the counter refused to sell to them and told them to leave. When they didn’t, he called the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office. Two deputies promptly arrived and handed the Groves a criminal trespass warning, barring them from the premises. The deputies also told the storekeepers to go get Catherine so they could confirm she was okay.
After a little while, Catherine arrived. She wore a long skirt and she looked skinny, her mother thought. After speaking to the deputies, she agreed to visit with her parents for a few minutes. One of the deputies led them over to the laundromat, where they stood and talked as the storekeepers glared at them through the plate-glass window. The Groves were struck by how sullen Catherine seemed. Patty implored her to come away with them for a few hours, and Catherine seemed to briefly consider it before repeating that she wanted to stay with the church.
Afterward, the Groves pleaded with the deputies to do something, but they explained that there is very little law enforcement can do in such situations. “She’s twenty-six years old, and if she wants to be there, regardless of how her parents feel, she has the right to be there,” Cherokee County sheriff James Campbell told me. Or as one of his deputies, Captain John Raffield, explained to me, “You don’t want law enforcement going into your church and pulling the members aside and questioning them, asking them, ‘Are you sure you want to be here?’ You don’t want law enforcement crossing that line.”
Campbell has been the chief lawman in Cherokee County since 1994. His office, tucked inside the squat law enforcement complex in Rusk, would be drab but for the various tchotchkes displayed throughout, including a cutout propped in the corner of a young John Wayne dressed as a sheriff’s deputy and a wooden sign hanging above the window carved with the words “Thou Shalt Not Whine.” Campbell also keeps a small blue box in his desk drawer that contains a short length of rope from the flagpole at the Branch Davidian compound. As a state trooper Campbell was assigned to Mount Carmel for two weeks during the siege. He says he sympathizes with the pain of parents who have been cut off from their children, but the Church of Wells isn’t breaking any laws and has complied with all his deputies’ requests. “We can’t go in there and snatch them,” he told me, his voice betraying a hint of weariness.
Elsewhere in Wells, people are less circumspect. “I think they’re a cult,” said Luellen. “The New Testament tells us what a church is, and they’re not a church.” There can be, however, a fine distinction between the two. The term “cult” is a mushy one and covers a range of groups, according to Michael Langone, a psychologist and the executive director at the International Cultic Studies Association. “Cults exist on a continuum from benign to very bad,” he explained. Some groups, like the Branch Davidians or the People’s Temple, at Jonestown, meet violent ends. But most simply unravel over time, as a result of economic hardship or the death or ouster of a leader. Philip Jenkins, a Baylor University history professor, defines a cult as a “highly authoritarian, charismatically led, puritanical, and intolerant” group, using a definition laid out by sociologist Thomas Robbins. While this certainly applies to the Church of Wells, Jenkins noted that the sects of early Christianity shared many of those characteristics. “There’s a famous phrase in law: ‘The states are the laboratories of democracy,’ ” Jenkins said. “In the same way, cults can be considered the laboratories of American religion.” Small and controversial sects have been part of the fabric of American history from colonial times, and some have evolved into major denominations. That’s been the story of the Quakers, the Mormons, and the Pentecostals.
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 so are particularly suspicious of “anyone that gives an alternative worldview,” explained Elaine Heath, the McCreless Professor of Evangelism at Southern Methodist University. Whether the Church of Wells is a cult or not, it follows this practice to a T. The rationale is spelled out in Morris’s treatise “The Doctrine of Judgment,” where he writes that to seek the Lord you must “be divided from your family for your own salvation, because your family is united in the worldwide divide against God.” By his own estimation, almost half the parents of Church of Wells members are estranged from their children.
Like the Groves, many of these parents have reached out to local pastors for help. “Every family that’s called has the exact same story,” Luellen said. “It’s identical.” Lorraine Taddy lost her daughter, Miranda Corriz, to the church in 2011. She hadn’t wanted her to leave her home in New Mexico to move to Arlington to join the church. “I told her, ‘You don’t have to go to a certain place to seek the Lord, he’s everywhere,’ ” she recounted recently. Corriz wrote of her struggles with her mother in a nine-page document on the church’s website, calling her “an unsaved woman of the world” who was a “continual hindrance to my salvation.” Justin Southworth, a 24-year-old from Seal Beach, California, who gave up his plan of running a nonprofit in Africa to move to Arlington in 2011, posted a similar denunciation of his mother, Sue, in 2012 after she made two visits to Texas to try to change his mind. (On the first visit, she tried unsuccessfully to have him committed to Millwood Hospital, in Arlington.) Sue still hopes to reconnect with her son; last April she sent him a care package containing homemade cinnamon almonds and a hymnal. The cardboard box was returned to her with a note saying, “It would be a sin to accept this because you are unsaved, so the gifts are unclean.” Undeterred, Sue showed up in Wells unexpectedly in July, but that didn’t go well either. Justin wouldn’t let her meet her granddaughter, Tessa. “He actually said to me, ‘I utterly fear letting you see her,’ ” she recounted with a sigh.
Morris can be tough on his own family too. After his grandmother died last August, he sent a letter to his mother, uncle, and grandfather in which he concluded that she had not gone to heaven, despite his efforts to save her. “She remained overwhelmingly unaffected, unchanged, and unconverted from a life of self, sin, and the world,” read the letter, which was co-signed by Morris’s brother, Jesse, and their cousin, Cory McLaughlin, both of whom are members of the church. Morris’s family hired security to work the funeral to keep the young men away.
Without question, the most tragic of such stories belongs to the Dean family. Karen and Ronnie Dean live in Houston, where the walls of their home are covered with framed, smiling photos of their three oldest grandchildren, Savannah, Annabelle, and Levi. The Deans have had minimal contact with their grandchildren since their daughter and son-in-law, Kristin and Daniel Pursley, packed up and moved to the Dallas area to join the church in November 2011. Several months later, when the Deans visited their daughter at the modest 780-square-foot house they were renting in Grand Prairie, they got a chilly reception. “Kristin told us that she wasn’t saved and that she didn’t think she had ever been saved,” Ronnie remembered. This was puzzling and hurtful to the Deans, who had brought their daughter up as a strong Christian and for decades have attended Sagemont Church, a Houston megachurch affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
“I told Daniel, ‘I don’t believe in the God that you believe in,’ ” Ronnie said, and things devolved into a shouting match. After that, their contact with their daughter dwindled from phone calls to texts to nothing. Kristin was pregnant but wasn’t receiving prenatal care, which worried Karen, because Kristin is Rh-negative, which can result in complications during and after pregnancy. On the evening of May 27, 2012, the Deans were at their country house near San Antonio when Karen’s cellphone rang. “When I saw his name pop up, I knew,” she said. Something was wrong with the baby.
“I have some grievous news,” Daniel told her. “The Lord took her.”
Faith Shalom Pursley had been born at home on May 23, delivered by her father inside the family’s apartment. She wouldn’t nurse, and over the next three days Daniel had to feed her breast milk with an eyedropper, according to an investigator’s report. She also had a bluish tint to her hands. Despite this, a doctor was never called. When Faith began to struggle to breathe, the elders gathered some twenty members of the church around her bassinet and prayed over the infant. Other residents of the apartment building recalled hearing chanting coming from the unit. She died around 12:45 p.m. on May 26. For the next fifteen hours, her body was ferried from house to house as members prayed that she might be resurrected. Finally, at 4:06 a.m., Daniel called the authorities to report the death. When deputies arrived they discovered Faith, clad in only a diaper, lying in a blanket-covered bassinet in the corner of her parents’ bedroom. Her tiny body was whisked away to the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s office, where an autopsy determined that her death was caused by pulmonary valve stenosis, a congenital heart condition that is dangerous but treatable. She had lost more than two pounds since birth.
A few days later, Kristin texted her parents to invite them to the memorial service, which was held in a funeral home in Alto. The Deans were forbidden to sit beside their daughter, so they slid into a wooden pew toward the back of the chapel. The service was not a typical eulogy. “Faith was only mentioned two or three times,” Karen said. The rest of the 48-minute memorial service, a recording of which was subsequently posted on the church’s website, was dedicated to rebuking claims made by the Deans and other families about the church. “A sharp division often happens in the family from a disagreement on what salvation is,” Morris said.
Talking about the baby’s death, he said, “We wept bitter tears for numerous days. . . . We believed that it was God’s will that the child would be raised. We don’t believe that that was a presumptuous thing for us to believe. . . . We weren’t just being foolish—we weren’t—we just wanted God to be glorified.” He explained that while the Church of Wells is not against modern medicine, he and others wanted to allow God a chance to heal the child. “We believe that God can heal and we’ve seen him heal. . . . Sadly, we did not have faith to see the child healed.” A similar point was made by Daniel, in a post on the church’s website nine months later: “We knew that there had been those who had ‘received their dead raised to life again’ by faith not only in biblical history but also in extra-biblical church history; and that if God so desired, He could hear our prayers and raise her from the dead as well. So we called on the elders of our church to pray, as we sought the Lord with prayer and fasting as a corporate body.”
The last photo the Deans took with their three older grandchildren was snapped after the funeral service ended. Levi squirms in his grandfather’s lap while Savannah and Annabelle look away from the camera. “People ask us, ‘Why don’t you go up there? You’re just a few hours away,’ ” Karen told me when I visited her last October. “But we don’t, because at the memorial service our granddaughters had these huge meltdowns—because they wanted to go with Nana and Pawpaw and they couldn’t. How do you explain that to them? You can’t. So, no, I’m not gonna put them through that again.”
She sighed. “We thought, ‘Maybe this will be the thing that will wake our daughter up.’ But it didn’t. And when that didn’t do it, I think that’s when we knew that she’s in it for the long haul.” For now, Karen’s only window into her grandchildrens’ lives is through people in the town, like Tommy Durham, a bearded machine operator who has befriended the Deans. When he saw the girls exit the Pursleys’ silver minivan at the R&R Mercantile this past Labor Day, Durham took a few photos through the windshield of his truck with his smartphone and texted them to Karen. In one photo, five-year-old Annabelle, in a purple shirt with pink hearts, chews on her finger nervously as her six-year-old sister, Savannah, looks over her shoulder. “That’s how I have to see my grandkids now,” Karen said.
After the visit with Catherine and the deputy, the Groves realized that they needed help—they were unable to get through to her on their own. They called Lydia Cane, a childhood friend of Catherine’s who now lived in North Carolina. Cane had been in close touch with the Groves and had offered to help in any way she could. Patty pleaded with her to come to Wells and talk to Catherine, and she agreed. On August 26, Kelly Collins, the youth minister at the First Baptist Church, accompanied her to the R&R Mercantile in hopes of gaining an audience with Catherine. After a few hours’ wait, Cane had a brief, unsatisfying speakerphone call with her old friend. Two church members stood with her, monitoring the conversation. “Lydia, God has shown me what a sinner I am,” Catherine said. “He has shown me how prideful I am and that I am not saved. I just want to be saved, so I need to be alone with God.”
“Catherine!” Cane said. “What about the body of Christ? He wants us to be in community with one another!” But before Catherine could answer, one of the church members hung up the phone.
Later that day, Luellen had the idea to have a prayer vigil outside the white house on Bonita Street. Word spread, and just before dusk, around 75 locals assembled at the city park by the old railroad depot. It was a warm, muggy evening, and the crowd stood and listened as the Groves summarized what they had been through over the past two months. Then they marched down East Fourth Street toward the house. It was a peaceful march, but in a town as small as Wells, it caused a stir. As the group passed by the Polk Pick-It-Up convenience store, the employees inside grew nervous and called the sheriff’s office to report “a riot.”
Finally, they stopped in front of the white house. By now the crowd had swelled to more than a hundred. They gathered along the street in front of the house, mindful not to step on the lawn. Cane, wearing a purple-striped T-shirt and shorts, strode toward the house, flanked by Luellen and Collins. Three men were standing on the porch—Jesse Morris, Cory McLaughlin, and Matthew Martinez. Cane told them she wanted to see Catherine. They told her that Catherine had already talked to her on the phone and did not want to see her. McLaughlin furiously texted someone, while Martinez shouted derisively at the crowd: “You love the world and you think the love of God is in you?” A woman in the crowd walked into the middle of the lawn and shouted back at him, “Why won’t you give them their daughter?” prompting people to caution her to get off church property. “You best be glad it ain’t my daughter,” she said as she retreated. The rest of the townspeople, concerned that things were escalating, started singing “Amazing Grace.”
Soon after Cane approached the house, a maroon minivan carrying the elders pulled up. At first, things were calm. The elders stood in a circle with Cane and the pastors, as Sean Morris explained their position: they didn’t want Catherine to see Cane because she had been dispatched by the Groves, who had been telling lies around town, saying that the Church of Wells had kidnapped and exploited their daughter. Before long, tensions began to rise. Morris, Ringnald, and Gardner paced back and forth, yelling at the townspeople. Gardner was the most vocal that evening. “This is real Christian behavior!” he sneered. “You should be ashamed of yourselves that you’d come out, this night, playing the fools of God. . . . You are false Christians!” His voice was soon drowned out by the townspeople, who had begun singing “Oh, How I Love Jesus.” Having endured the castigations of the church members for almost two years, the locals seemed to relish the chance to strike back, if only by singing more loudly. As Gardner shouted, their voices rose:
Oh, how I love Jesus,
Oh, how I love Jesus,
Oh, how I love Jesus,
Because He first loved me!
Before the elders could do anything to interrupt them, the crowd launched directly into “Victory in Jesus.” Four verses in, Morris, clutching his Bible, pleaded with the crowd to stop. “Could y’all let us speak?” he said. They ignored him, singing louder and louder. Gardner got in Luellen’s face and started shouting. “If you follow these blind leaders, you’re going to fall into a ditch and you’re going to burn in hell!” he yelled, pointing at the pastor. “This man is not a man of God. This man knows not the Lord Jesus Christ!”
Luellen’s face turned bright pink, but he remained calm, as did Ringnald, who was addressing a small cluster of townspeople. “It is appalling and a shame that these folks have not heard our side of the story,” he told them. A few minutes later, Patty Grove spoke to the group: “They can knock me down, they can kill me, they can do whatever they want, and I’ll keep saying the same thing, which is I love my daughter and she’s in danger,” she said, choking back tears.
“Everybody will know about this now,” someone in the crowd noted, which turned out to be a prophetic statement. Though the crowd quickly dispersed when sheriff’s deputies arrived, the vigil was a turning point, the first large public expression of the frustration, confusion, and tension that had been building up in town since this strange and abrasive group’s arrival. Two weeks later, Luellen and David Goodwin, the pastor at Falvey Memorial United Methodist Church, held a community meeting at Goodwin’s church, and more than one hundred people showed up, including the Groves and Rick Trudeau. Andy began by recounting Catherine’s story to the audience, while Patty stood by his side holding up a poster of all five of their children. When they finished, Goodwin introduced Trudeau, imploring the crowd to stay calm. “I believe that within this group they started out with a godly plan that was led astray,” he said. “These people are just like you and I.”
Trudeau’s speech was quiet and restrained. “What needs to be understood is that when Catherine came to us, she came under the conviction of the Holy Spirit,” he said. Soon, however, the audience began hurling questions at Trudeau: “How are you funded?” “Are your children homeschooled?” “At what point will Catherine just be allowed to be a normal person?” Trying to settle the crowd, Cindy Williams, a doctor from Houston whose daughter had joined the church in 2010, stood up and spoke in support of the church. “I don’t know that I necessarily agree with their entire faith or their direction. But I absolutely support that they are trying to live a godly life,” Williams told the media afterward. (Her daughter has since left the church.)
The locals, however, seemed to have had enough. Not long after the meeting, they organized a boycott, encouraging people to drive to stores in Lufkin or Nacogdoches for groceries rather than shop at the R&R Mercantile. They also pushed residents not to patronize the church’s other businesses, which include a tree-cutting service, a lawn company, and a construction firm. (A Facebook page for the boycott has now amassed more “likes” than Wells has residents.) As the conflict grew more serious, the national media picked up the story. Television host Dr. Drew devoted several segments of his show to the church in September. Most of the coverage seemed to favor the townspeople, which may explain why the church isn’t granting further interviews; when Dr. Phil’s producers reached out to the church, the elders wouldn’t return their phone calls.
Instead, they use their website to get their message out. “Dear Townspeople of Wells,” Morris began a lengthy post in late August, in which he railed against the Groves for spreading “foul and untrue reports” and strenuously defended the church. “We have been made to look as though we are brutally brainwashing our people,” he wrote. “We have been made to look like lunatics! And consequentially, we have been treated like animals by complete strangers everywhere!” He insisted that he and the other church elders had acted virtuously, even heroically. “We have hazarded our lives for the gospels’ sake, and Catherine’s eternal soul.”
In October the church posted a twenty-minute video of Catherine’s baptism in Lake Nacogdoches. In the video, Catherine speaks softly about being born again, her voice barely audible above the sound of the lapping water. Her facial expressions seem to waffle between awe and confusion. “I, finally, after being an enemy of God for twenty-six years, and unable to read the word of God, have been given a new heart that truly loves Jesus,” she explains. The release of the video had been timed to coincide with the publication of an interview Catherine had given to the Jacksonville Daily Progress. “I desire to stay where God is,” she told the paper. “My whole life is for God. This time on earth is so short. I’m just glad I don’t have to think about these things anymore. I can just rejoice and be glad I’m going to heaven and be sure.”
Shortly after this, however, Catherine’s enthusiasm for the church seemed to waver, if only momentarily. On November 4 she left a prayer meeting at midnight and was missing for eighteen hours. The church called the sheriff, who brought in a Department of Corrections bloodhound from Palestine named Belle. The dog found Catherine in the woods, not far from the house where the prayer meeting had been held, with a backpack full of clothes. Deputies offered to take her to a women’s shelter in Jacksonville for an evening, but Catherine declined, saying she had just needed some time to pray and think.
In early November, the last time I visited Wells, the town and the church seemed to have reached a tense stalemate; the Groves were now splitting their time between Wells and a friend’s home in Houston, and the church members weren’t seen as much on the streets. But the galvanized townspeople continued to dissect every new rumor and development. I stopped by the R&R Mercantile, which was eerily quiet and empty. A shelf by the door held several CDs of the elders’ sermons, as well as some religious pamphlets. The wide aisles of the store were stocked with an assortment of items, from cake mix to baby food, but the expiration dates on many of the packages I inspected had already passed. The fare was better at the church’s diner-style restaurant, where I ate several meals. After one of them, I struck up a conversation with a man behind the counter, and he invited me over to his house to dine with his family. We ate a meal of cornflake-encrusted baked chicken, potatoes, iceberg lettuce salad, and apple and chocolate pie. After dinner they passed out hymnals, and we sang together for the next two hours.
One afternoon, I sat on the stairs of the white house talking with Cory McLaughlin. He showed me a book of photographs he’d taken around Wells. The shots were well composed, if a little heavy on the tumbling-down buildings and rusted cars. “I wanted to show people visually what’s happening in the spiritual world. It very much represents Wells, but it represents America,” he explained. “People don’t want to be Christians anymore—they want all the benefits, they want to go to heaven—but they don’t want to obey the Bible.”
At the end of our conversation, he gave me a tour of the house. The upstairs windows were boarded up because the church was planning to convert the room into gallery space, McLaughlin explained. In the living room downstairs there was a slightly musty smell. Kristin Pursley, who was pregnant again, sat on one of the couches with two other women from the church, as their children ran around the room, playing on a bouncy horse. (The baby was born at a Lufkin hospital in January.) A large canvas featuring one of McLaughlin’s paintings was propped against the back of a couch.
Several days later, I had dinner with Andy Grove at Dee’s, which had been Wells’s only eatery until the church opened its restaurant. As he tucked into his plate of fried catfish, fries, and coleslaw, Andy talked about how frustrated he and Patty were—they had no idea of Catherine’s whereabouts and hadn’t seen her for almost three months. The next day, he planned to lead a march in support of families affected by the church. As we talked, two different women approached him to say they were praying for him. “I lost my daughter to death,” one said. “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through. It’s senseless.” When he got up to pay the check, the cashier told him that his meal had already been paid for.
The next morning, the weather was uncooperative, and only ten people turned out for the march. Andy read off a statement to the one television camera that was considerably more inflammatory than anything I’d heard him say before: “My family believes that the Church of Wells is neither a church nor a cult. In my opinion this is a criminal organization passing as a religious group. This is not a religious argument.”
But as the sheriff had explained, it is not so easy to reduce the situation to the black and white mechanics of the criminal justice system, especially when the alleged victims are adults who appear to be acting of their own free will. There may, however, be a legal proceeding in the case of baby Faith. After a brief investigation the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office handed the matter over to the district attorney, who intends to present it to a grand jury for review. That’s not the only blow the church has suffered of late. In January it lost its most distinctive building, when the white house on Bonita Street was sold to the school district, which plans to tear it down to make way for a parking lot.
But the church has also had reasons to celebrate lately. In January, Morris—the sole unmarried elder—got engaged to Preethi David, a 24-year-old doctoral student from the University of Minnesota. In November, she had left behind her distraught parents and research on neuropeptides and boarded a plane to Houston after several months of corresponding with the elders. David was full-throated in her defense of the church before she even arrived, writing in a blog post in October, “I would die for my convictions about the Church of Wells.” She announced her engagement on Facebook with an engagement-ring selfie and a photo of her standing beside Morris at the R&R Mercantile, accompanied by a caption that read, “ ‘Will you let me take your hand and lead you to the gallows?’ —Sean Morris.” This was, apparently, his proposal.
Luellen, Goodwin, and other pastors, meanwhile, are simply praying for Wells to return to normal. One night I had dinner with Darrell Cranford, the pastor at Wells United Christian Fellowship. Since the Church of Wells arrived, he told me, “the place is not the same, the people are not the same. There’s a bit of fear in town. We have some people who say you’re going to hell and, on the other hand, ‘We’ll come out and trim your trees.’ There’s a lot of fear from people within the town not knowing what direction this group is moving in. What’s next? My prayer is that no one will get hurt.”
Luellen has spent a lot of time pondering how the story will end. “I’ve studied up on cults a lot because of this, and there’s not any good that comes from it,” he told me. “It can end in many ways, and most aren’t very good. Our prayer is that they would all, and especially the elders, see the light and turn to the truth of God’s word.” Luellen furrowed his brow in thought. “It would be easy for us to say they should leave town, but I wouldn’t wish them on anybody else. I want them to come to the Lord truthfully.”
*Correction: A previous version of this article referred to this first as being from John 2:15. We regret the error.