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The Younger Years of the Church Elders

Sean Morris and Ryan Ringnald, both in their late twenties, are leaders of the conservative, 90-person Church of Wells, which many consider to be a cult. This doesn't come as a surprise to a number of peers who knew them during their college years at Baylor.

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Ten years ago this August, Sean Morris and Ryan Ringnald loaded their things into boxes and moved into their dorm rooms at Penland Hall, just two of the 3,168 freshman who would matriculate at Baylor University that fall. Their lives have since taken a more unusual trajectory. The duo, along with a third young man, now lead a small, zealous congregation in east Texas that some consider to be a cult. Many of the church’s ninety members, who arrived in Wells in 2012, are estranged from their families, and they alarmed locals in May of that year when they allowed a newborn baby to die, choosing to pray over the struggling infant instead of calling a doctor.

Friends and college classmates have been following the developments with the Church of Wells with, as one said, “fascination and sorrow.” But a number of peers said that they are not entirely surprised by the men’s fundamentalism, having witnessed the beginning stages of their transformation at Baylor.

Morris, lanky with brown hair, majored in religion but didn’t participate in any traditional extracurricular activities, according to directory information supplied by the registrar’s office. Instead, he filled his time between classes preaching from atop a milk crate in front of Tidwell Bible Building and buttonholing people to question them about their faith, former friends and classmates recounted. Robert Reed, who transferred to Baylor in Fall 2006, recalled Morris approaching him during his first year on campus and asking him how much he hated himself when he accepted Jesus. “It was clear he was not ready to accept anyone as an authentic Christian unless they did it his way,” Reed said. And that remains the confrontational way members of his church approach people. “He’d always pick out these very specific verses about fire and brimstone. He completely missed everything about love or gentleness,” said a friend who graduated from Lutheran South Academy with Morris in 2004 and went on to room with him during their sophomore year at Baylor.

Kasia Maartens, who dated Morris for almost two years between their sophomore to senior years, recently recalled watching his faith shift more and more towards fundamentalism over the course of their relationship. Maartens and Morris met in 2004, when they were both freshman at Baylor. “When I met him I couldn’t stand him,” she said in her tidy apartment near the Houston Galleria. He had recently found Jesus and she said she found his constant evangelism off-putting. But the following summer, which Maartens spent at her parent’s house in Pearland, she became good friends with Morris’s cousin, Cory McLaughlin, a talented artist who had recently graduated from Southwestern University. As her own interest in the bible grew, the three spent many hours in nearby Clear Lake discussing religion and studying scripture. Maartens even let McLaughlin photograph her laying in the street in downtown Houston, a photo that served as the basis for a painting he later did of a dead girl with a hole clawed out of her back, intending to represent “apathy in the church.” (The words “She was not killed by an individual but by the silence of many” are painted across the top of the canvas.) By the end of the summer, Maartens’s parents were unhappy with how these new friendships were influencing her, feeling she had begun disrespecting her family in the name of following God.

Over the next six months, Maartens barely spoke with her parents, and began to rely more and more on her friendship with Morris for support. She was a regular guest at communal dinners and bible study sessions at his apartment, and they both attended Antioch, a nondenominational church in Waco whose members eagerly recruit Baylor students. “Everyone there was having the Lord showing them things and visions,” she explained. “And Sean had the Lord telling him that we’re supposed to get married someday.” So, in April of their sophomore year, Maartens agreed to start dating him, but it was never a physical relationship, nor a particularly romantic one. “There’s a psychological theory, proximity theory, where if you’re around someone so much you start liking them,” Maartens said, explaining her college decision. Morris and Ringnald refused to comment for this piece.

And as the relationship progressed, Morris grew more and more controlling, according to Maartens: he complained that her clothes—even sweatpants—were too immodest and would cause men to lust after her. “If I didn’t change my clothes he said I was willfully disobeying God, I was denouncing Jesus,” Maartens explained. She began wearing baggy T-shirts and jeans that were two sizes too big, and stopped using makeup. They argued a lot behind closed doors over these and other issues, but after awhile, Maartens, who is naturally assertive and outspoken, stopped trying to debate her boyfriend. “I felt constantly condemned, he made me think that having the thoughts I did were wrong,” she said. Morris wasn’t good at time or money management, so Maartens got his account information and logged in and paid his bills for him. “He’s never worked a real job or had real responsibilities in his life,” she said. “To him working is to have someone else, in the name of Jesus, give him money,” referring to the Church of Wells’ reliance on “love offerings.”

Instead of studying for classes, Morris would spend hours memorizing the bible or praying in his closet through the night, both Maartens and his former roommate recalled. “He wasn’t a great student by any stretch of the imagination,” Maartens said. “He was constantly sharing why his professors were wrong, why the pastors at church were wrong. Everyone was wrong unless you were Amish or Leonard Ravenhill, unless you were a complete extremist you were just wrong.” But few, Maartens included, doubted the strength of his convictions: “I fully believed Sean loved Jesus and wanted to honor and glorify him in all that he did, and he wasn’t going to do it halfheartedly,” said Jeremy Echols, a friend who has since lost touch with Morris. “Sean came across as very sincere in his faith but extremely conservative,” Lee Foster, another fellow religion major, remembered.

Reed, who majored in religion and philosophy, took three courses with Morris, and remembers often cringing with embarrassment for him in class discussions. “When he started speaking it would kind of lower the temperature in the room,” Reed recalled. “His comments would suggest that what we were doing in class was pointless, because, in his thinking, if you just look at this verse of the Bible, it solves it all. There’s nothing to think about.” The interruptions were frustrating to other students. “Nothing would get done in class. It would just be dialogue between him and the professor, and at 9 a.m., you really don’t want to deal with that,” Foster said.

The most memorable incident, the one that gave Morris the nickname “9-to-10 Sean,” occurred in an environmental ethics class one afternoon in Spring 2007 when students were discussing the root causes of environmental crises, and the conversation turned to ecofeminism and patriarchal modes of thinking. “Sean took this as his opportunity to defend the patriarchy. He tried to explain why, based on the Bible and just common sense, men were supposed to be dominant and women were supposed to be submissive,” Reed said. As evidence that men were superior to women, Morris offered up his opinion that he could “beat up any woman,” Reed recalled. That elicited gasps from his classmates, who were quick to point out that that was likely untrue, and so Morris revised his position: “9 out of 10 girls can’t beat me up,” he said, recalled Keith Gustine, another classmate.

“I was flabbergasted,” said Morgan Caruthers, who is now a pastor in Austin, and was sitting three seats away from him during that incident. While other Baylor students share the view that women should be submissive and not hold leadership positions within the church, Caruthers found Morris’s delivery especially unpalatable. She had several other classes with Morris and said she was consistently struck by his lack of intellectual curiosity. “What stood out for me, especially in that class, was how unwilling he was to engage in any conversation if he didn’t agree with it. He never realized that even if you don’t agree with where a conversation is going, something can still be learned by having it.”

Maartens, who wasn’t aware that Morris conducted himself this way in his classes or held such extreme views, broke things off with him in February 2008, soon after returning from a ten-day trip to Nigeria to visit his parents, where, twenty months into their relationship, they kissed for the first time. (At Morris’s insistence, when they went swimming in the ocean on that trip, Maartens wore long board shorts and a T-shirt.) Morris had already bought an engagement ring but had yet to propose, and Maartens suddenly realized one evening in February following what should have been a romantic date that the relationship needed to end because Morris was not the right one for her. “A switch just flipped in my brain,” she said. Morris was devastated, and alternated between sobbing and pleading with her to reconsider. And then he threw out a few manipulative barbs: “He told me ‘you’re disobeying the Lord if you break up with me,’” she recounted. “He said I was gong to be renouncing my faith if I didn’t marry him.” A few days later Morris texted her, “I would rather see death than live a life without you,” leaving Maartens to worry that he might hurt himself. At the time Maartens, a social work major, was interning at the Advocacy Center For Crime Victims & Children. “What’s amazing to me is that I was working at a center that helps people going through abusive situations and it never occurred to me I was in one myself,” she said. Now a successful recruiter in the oil and gas industry in Houston, it took Maartens several years to get over how Morris had made her feel. Her well-loved copy of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse is filled with underlining and marginalia (“ouch!” “so true!” “like when I wouldn’t repent”), and she said it enabled her to get over the relationship and learn to trust again. 

Morris coped in a different way, by flinging himself into his friendship with the two students with whom he would found the Church of Wells, Ringnald, and Jacob Gardner, a younger McClennan Community College student whom they met at Antioch. “That relationship went from zero to sixty in 20 seconds,” recounted Jeremy Echols, who became good friends with Morris in 2006 because both felt a lot of what was going on in various churches wasn’t biblical. But, once Morris’s friendship with Ringnald and Gardner began to gel, Morris stopped coming around as much. “Sean became very infatuated by some of the doctrinal positions Ryan and Jake held,” Echols said, and would staunchly insist that the King James Version was the only acceptable translation of the Bible. And Echols felt perturbed by his interactions with Ringnald and Gardner: “It was hard to have a conversation without them very intentionally bringing up things they knew I disagreed with, in a very contentious way,” Echols said.

Unlike Morris, Ringnald appeared to be a more typical freshman at Baylor. The 2004 graduate of Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth rushed Kappa Sigma, played club tennis, and majored in speech communication. He was well liked by his fraternity brothers who gave him the nickname “Ringo” and appreciated his infectious enthusiasm and natural charisma. One of Ringnald’s former fraternity brothers recalled that Ringnald always did things to the extreme—when he played disc golf, he accumulated dozens of discs, when he started dipping tobacco, he did so constantly, when he started gambling online, he racked up debts. So, when he gave himself over to fervent, complete devotion to the Lord during his sophomore year, his friends thought it was a passing fixation too. “He always had obsessions, so we just thought this would be a phase,” his fraternity brother said. “If it is one it’s a much longer phase.”

An avid partier his freshman year, Ringnald gave up drinking, tobacco, and dating once he devoted himself to religion. He began keeping strange hours and attending fewer Kappa Sigma functions. His bubbly personality and sense of humor seemed to melt away too. “Now I get the sense he’s really somber and sober, the exact opposite of the Ryan Ringnald that we met our freshman year,” his fraternity brother said.

Ringnald and Morris graduated from Baylor in 2008. Without the structure and demands of college, their religious fervor intensified. They traveled and preached on the street for two years before amassing a handful of followers and moving their tiny church to Arlington. In 2012, they moved the group for financial reasons to Wells, a town of 792 people located between Lufkin and Jacksonville, where their fervent evangelism has not found a warm welcome, particularly after the death of Baby Faith in May 2012 and the arrival of Catherine Grove from Arkansas in July 2013. Grove, 27, left for Wells without a word to her family about her plans, and her parents have been trying without success over the last eight months to see their daughter outside of the presence of the church’s elders, as Morris, Ringnald, and Gardner now refer to themselves.

Morris’s classmates found news that he was caught up with something like this both surprising and not. “We thought Sean was harmless. We never dreamed that this was going to happen,” Reed said. Foster, another classmate, said, “If I had to pick the one person I had known or interacted with who would end up in something like this, it would be Sean.” Ringnald’s fraternity brother said that he and other members of his pledge class are deeply saddened by the shape their friend’s life has taken. “I feel bad that Ryan’s in this situation. I wish that this had not happened to him and his life, but I feel even worse for the people he’s affected,” he said.

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  • lam33gb

    What if he’s right?

    • Patrick

      Looks like someone needs to move to Wells, Tx.

    • Abigail Joy

      He is right on many things. The Gospel being taught in the church in America is a feel good, shallow thing that has very little basis in the scriptures. Sean, Ryan and Jake’s mistake was born out of being young and inexperienced and unwilling to listen to the wisdom and knowledge of older men who have been walking with the Lord for decades. They will do whatever it takes to find God, they’re just confused about what that is.

      • Tom

        I’ll disagree. This is narcissism and mental illness, with mutual collusion and one agreeing with the other, validating each other, self-perpetuating the mythology. Eliminating and avoiding any information that conflicts. Deliberate construction to preserve the story. Grandiose.
        They are not “right.” They may have started out from a place of noble intentions and good will, but that’s not what it is now. They are not “looking for God.” They want exactly what they’ve created.

        • Tom

          And they created exactly what they want.

      • guest

        “The Gospel being taught in the church in America is a feel good, shallow thing that has very little basis in the scriptures.”

        Abigail, you don’t know that. This is something you’ve been told many times and taught you to believe. This is not your own personal knowledge, nor could it be. Not only do you not know what might be taught in American churches because you don’t attend, but it’s not just not possible anyway. To know what the gospel and sermons sound like in churches in 50 states. That’s a pretty tall order.

        This is exaggerating. It’s a far-reaching emotional overstatement intended to criticize American churches and justify that criticism.

        Exaggeration is dishonest. Not truthful. Lying. Especially so when used as a strategy to convince others of something negative. As a rationale for condemnation of others. A rhetorical device meant to sway opinion.

        A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect, as in ‘I could sleep for a year’ or ‘This book weighs a ton’.

        1. (Rhetoric) a deliberate exaggeration used for effect: he embraced her a thousand times.
        1. an obvious and intentional exaggeration.

        2. an extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally, as “She’s as big as a house.”

        Your opinion about use of gospel and scripture in American churches is incorrect. It’s an irrational opinion and speculation. You don’t know that. And neither does the person(s) who’ve convinced you of that opinion.
        It’s incorrect. It’s not truthful.

      • LutheranGirl

        There is the Law and there is the Gospel, both of which need to be taught. You can’t begin to understand why you are saved by the Grace of God (Gospel) without understanding why we are damned (Law) first. You can preach the feel good stuff (Gospel) all day, but it means absolutely nothing if you don’t understand the Law. Basically, just preaching the Gospel allows individuals to not be accountable for the choices and mistakes that they make on a daily basis because you can be saved by simply repenting. However, the Law tells us we are DAMNED because of our sinful nature and that we should strive to be more like Jesus, no matter how unattainable. You cannot have one without the other, they are useless when they stand alone.

    • Michelle Burnett

      I’ll take my chances, thanks anyway.

    • Tom

      He’s not.

  • Walt Longmire

    From just what is presented here, it is a cult, and not a Christian thing at all. But I have learned that whatever is published by the Texas Observer about religion is the equivalent to Satan judging Jesus Christ!

    If the stuff about alienating and isolating “members” from families is true, that would be enough for me to judge them as a cult. That is NOT Christianity.

    So, I need more information, and more unbiased information at that. It is safe to say that the Observer has little toleration for Christianity, and thus any reporting will be influenced by that view. You cannot accurately report on something you know nothing about, or that you have a priori deemed worthless. Could we find even one reporter who might have some Christian sensitivities, if not a Christian himself?

    • Guest

      What does the Texas Observer have to do with this story?

      • Walt Longmire

        Oops. My bad. I got my publications mixed up. I subscribe to the Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer and some other publications originating from Texas. Sorry for the error. It should have read “Texas Monthly.”

        But, it hardly makes much difference. The Monthly and the Observer are both birds of a liberal feather, and both take their stand against anything Christian.

        • Camp2002

          If you do subscribe to Texas Monthly, then I’d encourage you to read the story in February’s issue about the Church of Wells. The article paints a good picture of this group.

          While I agree that Texas Monthly has a tendency to lean left, I’ve never known it to be anti-Christianity.

        • brownp51

          You might want to peruse their website. http://www.thechurchofwells.com

          Reading their own testimonies is a stroll down Crazy Lane. It is my observation that these young men are entitled and power hungry, and a bit nuts. Their own stories read like rants of angry middle school children whining about things being unfair. It is disturbing.

          • Walt Longmire

            Thanks for the link. On first sight, many would be of the opinion that they are orthodox, as they list some fine doctrinal distinctions that even I hold. But as you look just a bit closer, they hold contradictory doctrines that bring the first glance into some disrepute. For instance, one of the first things I noticed is that they take the “King James Version-only” viewpoint. Red flags go up for me on that alone. Only a few crazies hold that the English version called the King James version is “preserved by God” for English speaking people. That is a bizarre view on the authenticity and inspiration of the biblical text. Most orthodox Christian churches hold that the *original manuscripts” were rendered infallible, and a measure of the quality of a translation is just how close their text is the the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic text in which the Bible was written. Much scholarship has gone into that work of determining the actual texts from the first century. We have not one single original manuscripts of the actual biblical books.

            Most of us associate KJV-onlyism as radical and evidence of the lack of learning of the proponents of such view. They are so Anglo-centric as to think that God gave special attention to the King James version. In fact, the KJV was revised soon after its first publication because of translation errors. There have been multiple revisions of the KJV, but some people seem naively ignorant of that fact.

            Also, I see a suspicious title of a certain “sermon” on the site that gives me huge concerns. But I cannot judge the matter until I have spent a lot more time on the site and perhaps even contacting them directly to inquire about some of their doctrines. Even across the top of one of the blogs on the site they have drawing of the great saints across the centuries, apparently to impress us that they are in harmony with all those men. But even that is a bit askance, as some of the names and faces across their page actually held opposite views!

            I hope they are not being purposely deceptive. I will give them the benefit of the doubt right now, but I can assure you, if they go off on this isolation business, I will immediately reject them as heretical and heterodox. Our Christian faith is nothing if not transparent. We do not isolate ourselves from anyone, including the wicked culture in which we live. We do “separate” ourselves from it, but only in the behavioral way, not the proximity way. If we are not in the culture, how can be be salt and light FOR that culture, as Jesus said we were.

            I have some studying to do. Again, thanks for the link.

          • Tom

            ,“On first sight, many would be of the opinion that they are orthodox, as they list some fine doctrinal distinctions…”

            It’s appreciated that you’re being open to new information. Don’t take this as criticism, just opinion.
            I think there’s nothing “doctrinally sound” or “orthodox,” but that people are fooled. It has an initial impression and feel of conventional theology, which is what one expects when they read that language and see those images. But if you take the time to actually read it, it’s not standard anything consistent with any church or religion. It’s old writings and theology respun into something new. Hence, correct identification as “New Religious Movement.”
            Like the old story ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’, most of us can’t tell if it’s sound or not or understand what it says. First – because we can’t understand it, and second – because most of us aren’t trained in theology and scriptural application and Bible allegory at that level.

          • Walt Longmire

            And I also very much appreciate your irenic tone in your comments. Especially helpful is your confession that not everyone understands the more esoteric nature of religion and thus make judgments that can sometimes be superficial.

            I am thoroughly trained in what I might call conservative protestant theology. I have been a pastor and student of theology and the faith for nearly 50 years. That helps me to immediately recognize things that others may not, such as the rather bizarre King-James-Only belief that they insist on at the front page of their website.

            My first next step, though, was to go to “What we believe” page. It was there that I first observed that most of the listed doctrines are those that I believe myself. I am Baptist, and so I am familiar with Baptist statements of faith. Much of what is written there would be acceptable — on paper, that is — for many conservative Baptists. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

            One must look a bit more closely at the statement of faith to discover that there are elements that seem to contradict their basic theology, at least that which they make public. But I find there some noxious beliefs that we Baptists would not hold even on a bad day. I may be prepared to describe those at a later time when I have done more research on this group, who frankly do present much like cults. To early for me to judge, though.

            Here is another reality. Long ago, I discovered that what one puts on paper in their statements of faith and confessions of faith are not always reflective of the actual situation, and sometime even the exact opposite. For instance, there are Reformed churches in Holland, MI, that would cause Reformed Fathers to faint dead away if they saw the PRACTICES in the Reformed churches today. Indeed, I think that I could argue effectively from experience of attending such churches to see for myself that in some instances, Reformed church are exactly the opposite of Reformed doctrine.

            For instance, the nature of the Reformation and particularly those churches who identify as Reformed are Calvinistic in their doctrine. Most would be offended if they were accused of anything else than following the doctrines of grace, as they call them, expressed by the acronym TULIP.

            But I have been to a number of Christian Reformed Churches that could only be described as openly Arminian, the exact opposite of Calvinism. The argument around that issue is complex, so I can’t set the whole thing forth here.

            My point is, I am not so gullible to believe that they are what their statement of faith sets forth. They could be doing that to mask the real stuff going on under the radar. I know I sound skeptical, but in our world today such is well-advised.

            So I will contribute more when I get some answers. In the meantime, thanks again for your reasonable and irenic reply.

          • Rob

            I tend to think that the correctness of some of their doctrine is irrelevant. Anyone can say the right things. Orthodox Christian doctrine is not simply a set of propositions to affirm as true; it is something to be lived. We judge a tree by its fruit. Look at what is happening in Wells. Consider the death threats made by church leaders–one was recently arrested in New York for threatening death to the mother of his child. Jacob has prayed for death for the Grove family.

    • A mom

      As the parent/grandparent of members of this ‘group’, I can assure you that we have been cut off from communicating with them because “light cannot associate with darkness” even though we are born-again Christians very active in our church. Please feel free to ask away! Many of the parents watch the comments and would be more than happy to answer any questions you might have concerning this nightmare we find ourselves living in. We cling to the assurance that God has a purpose for this and we have felt His presence like never before!

      • TrulyJulie

        What an awful ordeal for you and your husband to go through! I am so sorry that these ‘elders’ have manipulated your child and spouse into doing their bidding, while calling it the work of “the Lord.” Truthfully, though I can’t tell about the other ‘elders’ it sounds as if Morris actually believes he is hearing something speak to him and calls that voice “the Lord.”

        I know someone like that. He has been making a fool of himself and his family for years, telling people that God told him to do this or that, then having it blow up in his face. Late one night on the way home from a long road trip with his wife and four kids, he drove past every gas station and ran out of gas then told his wife that “the Lord” told him not to stop for gas…meanwhile his wife and small kids were left in the car to wait by the side of the highway, while he hitchhiked to get a gas can. There are so many more examples I could give. He has given more false prophesies than I can count. Decades have gone by, and still he refuses to take a mental inventory of the number of times this voice has been wrong and simply STOP obeying it the next time it commands him to do something!

        I do believe that the God of the Bible speaks to people, to direct them, teach them, and generally just to interact with them. I believe he wants that, and I have experienced it. But whether a voice is the Biblical God must be judged first by its adherence to Biblical text (in context) and second by the end result it creates — the fruit of it. The fruit of Morris obeying this ‘god’ telling him what to do — and expecting others to do the same on his say-so — stinks to high heaven. What a relief for Maartens that she got out when she did.

        • Tom

          Hearing voices = schizophrenia. Psychosis. Late adolescent onset is common in young males. Attributing voices to God is also common, particularly in young adult men who are in a religious environment like church schools.
          Sean Morris had what can be explained as several disassociative episodes shortly before high school graduation. This must have been very frightening. He then sequestered himself with other young men who encouraged him in irrational thinking and validated that it must be God speaking to him and that he was special; instead of getting him help.
          He spent long sessions in what amounts to meditation and self-hypnosis. Alone with his thoughts.

          If you remove the religious context, you’re left with a clear picture of progressive mental illness with no intervention.
          Alarming erratic behaviour does not equal God.

      • guest2

        There’s rumor and gossip that group members are locked into “prayer closets.” What does that mean? Is it something done to them forcibly (which is what has been suggested) or is it more like something that’s encouraged and members do on their own volition? By “…locked into…” is this by their own choice or is it an act of forced punishment inflicted on them? If it’s forced, who is enforcing it?

        • Danny

          From what I know it is entirely “voluntary”. But mind control is an exceedingly powerful thing.

      • Walt Longmire

        I appreciate your confidence in God to be working “all things for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. That is the proper attitude to take even in this situation that must be painful for the parties involved, and that on both sides of the controversy.

        The issues are more complicated than I imagined at my first look. Their statement of faith could be characterized as mostly orthodox Baptist stuff [I am a Baptist pastor]. But as I told another person here, what is written on paper is not at all what is true, but the behavior of the people is what counts. That is difficult for me to discern clearly from my outside viewpoint. So I have resolved to investigate this matter for myself for what might be considered by some as selfish: I don’t want some jackleg wing nuts to represent the faith if they are going to behave like cults. At this point in time, I really don’t know that, and I appreciate your willingness to answer some questions if need be. I may well take you up on that offer, but for the moment I am continuing to peruse the materials that they themselves have posted on their website and blogs.

        Though it is too early for me to judge the matter, I must admit that there are for me a few red flags that make me uneasy. One of those red flags is the King-James-Only-ism. I am thoroughly familiar with this viewpoint and have argued for years with those who hold this strange view. I cannot describe the intricacies of that debate, but suffice it to say that I personally have found those who hold this view to be quite radical and militant in their beliefs. I hold that view to be evidence that the group or persons are ignorant of the doctrine of inspiration of the Scriptures. They use the term “preserved,” meaning some special care by God to preserve an English version of the Scriptures that only appeared in history in 1611 and has been revised and amended so many times due to translation errors that it is impossible for me to even entertain the notion that the KJV has been miraculously preserved by God.

        But that one heterodox viewpoint is not enough for me to consign anyone to the dung heap. That view can be handled by learning the history and doctrine of inspiration. All I know is that which I have experienced myself when dealing with those folks, and this group seems to be in the same vein. But as I said, too early for me to judge.

        My hermeneutical radar has locked on a suspicious blip, though. It has to do with their interpretation of a passage in Luke 12 and Matthew 10 in which Jesus speaks some strong words about the way in which He will cause division and conflict among many, including families. I sense that this “church” has chosen a particular interpretation of these two passages that may be far more radical than the way that I and most conservative exegetes might see them. Taken wrongly, those texts could easily morph into behaviors that are unintended by the text and even sinful if abused by wrong interpretation. At this point in time, that is what my radar sees out there, but as I said earlier I cannot in good conscience make that judgment on the little I know about this group. I share this so that people know something about how I am approaching this matter.

        Just as an observation, I listened to a couple of “sermons” from the site. I considered, upon hearing them, more rants than sermons and was put off by the long and drawn out “sermons” that said little other than the preachers complaints about others. I would find it wearisome to listen very long to them, and wish that they would publish the manuscripts on the website so I could edit out the meaningless blather that I detect. I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would endure 75, even 90 minute sermons that are confusing, go no where and leave the listener saying, what in the world was his point?

        But that doesn’t make them heretical or even heterodox, for I know a lot of preachers who bore the socks off people with rants and stories that seem not to have a biblical purpose but which seem to be personal harangues. For me, those are less than edifying.

        I am not sure how we might communicate off-line, but I don’t like to spend a lot of time on these comments, as the commenters here are predominantly unbelievers and avowed atheists who are ready to slander anyone who even claims a relationship to Christianity. But I visit here regularly to keep up with the topics and articles, and will watch for your comments.

    • Rob

      Which of the people interviewed did you think was biased? None of these people had any reason to form negative impressions of Sean and Ryan before meeting them. Presumably, those who do not approve of what Sean and Ryan are doing formed those beliefs based on their own observations. The article presents specific encounters and stories from eyewitnesses for the reader to consider.

    • Joe

      Victor I am a former member of this church and I left when they where still in Arlington. From my experience they are a cult and I endured much verbal and mental abuse under their supervision. I would be happy to tell my story if you would like to hear it. I don’t have any agenda or anything but if my testimony would encourage someone to reconsider such a decision to join this cult then I’m all for it.

      • Walt Longmire

        I appreciate your comment, Joe. I am not sure how to proceed to communicate off-line, or perhaps you might want to communicate here publicly. It matters not to me, but I am still seeking to understand this group. I have done a lot of investigation to now, and from my own perspective and view, they are at least cult-like. But that is a person view, nothing more. I would be very interested to talk with you at greater length to discover your own experiences with the group.

        It has been a long time since I lived in Arlington. I lived on the east side of the town for several years in the late 60s, leaving Texas after finishing seminary at Bible Baptist Seminary, a fundamentalist Baptist school out on West Division Street. I first had membership at New York Avenue Baptist Church on south New York Avenue, but left there when the pastor ran off with the pianist, or something like that. I moved to Worth Baptist Church in Ft. Worth where Raymond Barber was pastor, but ran into issues with him when he realized I was teaching God’s sovereignty in Sunday School, and he was a flaming Arminian. I finally ended up at Gideon Baptist Church out on West Bowie in Ft. Worth, where my mentor Dr. George Norris, the son of the famous [infamous?] J. Frank Norris was pastor. I stayed there until I returned for ministry in my home state.

        Let me know how you want to proceed, but yes, I am very interested in knowing more about this group.

  • Liberty for Captives

    This is helpful, Sonia. Personality disorders usually evidence themselves by young adulthood. Many cult leaders manifest symptoms of three personality disorders: Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, and Paranoid Personality Disorder. It is helpful to see how the extreme personalities of these three young men made them susceptible to fantasies of power and control.

  • cam

    I know that what is written here is true. If a cult indoctrinates members to listen only to them, to refuse all contact with their family and friends, to give all their possessions to the group, gets involved in their family and preaches from a (charismatic leader) human being over or instead of the Bible, then this is a cult.

  • Sarah James

    Were charges filed over the death of baby Faith? Who were her parents?

    • Tom

      Sadly, no.
      That’s the purview of Cherokee County law enforcement and district attorney. From the lack of attention, the assumption can be made that county officials will prioritize this group and its leaders at the expense of child welfare. Alarming. County residents need to be paying attention.

      • Sarah James

        Thank you for the information. Sadly this will happen again. Cults continue until they are stopped. People have to care to make that happen.

  • Reason

    What a bunch of crazies. Baylor and Waco has to be an incubator for religious not jobs!

    • Reason

      Nut jobs!

    • Dillon

      Not true. Waco is an incubator for incredible things that change the world. Don’t try to throw an entire city under the bus because of the bad decisions of three young men. And if you are referring to Koresh, maybe take a look at where the event actually happened- 20 miles outside of Waco.

    • Walt Longmire

      I am not sure I can fully agree with you. Waco and West Texas in general are places where there is much orthodox and authentic faith, but we Christians know that where God is working, Satan works even more feverishly to ruin God’s work. That is why churches and Christians must remain vigilant and faithful, always teaching and moving forward, never complacent to think we have attained.

      And don’t be fooled, here in Illinois we have our own “religious nut jobs.” They are everywhere, it seems. Somehow it is Texas – or California – that seems to end up with the most militant [even military] nut cases, what with guns, etc. But we don’t want to insult the good people of Waco or West Texas. I have some wonderful friends out that way.

    • Rob

      I am confused. Where in the information presented in the article did you find that Baylor or Waco contributed to the nonsense of Morris et al? It seems like you have made a pretty wild connection. The Baylor students interviewed essentially said that Morris was always outside the mainstream. Almost none of their 90 followers are from Waco. So what exactly makes Baylor and Waco an ‘incubator’?

  • C.L.H.

    a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
    Sociology . a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols. If you go by this definition, then, any religion, group, or club is a cult. Not agreeing with the ‘leaders’ of this group in any way, shape or form. The word cult is really just a word about people who believe the same thing, worship the same way et… It always surprising me when people throw this word around and don’t see that when they go to church, club meetings or PTA they could also be called a “cult”. Maybe it is time to just call this what it is, a bunch of crazy power hungry people out to manipulate others using an old book and myths.

  • Ygg

    What a fantastic piece of investigative reporting! This is going to win some awards. Well done. Excellent.

  • Indiana Pearl

    The moral of the story is: Do your own thinking!

    • Walt Longmire

      Indeed! This is the central tenet of Christian belief. No one can believe for you, and God has given His created persons reason, logic and rational thinking. That is why we have the doctrine of the “priesthood of the believer.” We have no intercessor except Christ. We must think for ourselves and examine the Scriptures to examine if what people say is true or not. Such are called “Bereans” in Christian circles, for the church at Berea just to the west of Thessalonica didn’t believe the Apostle Paul but checked what he said against the teaching of Holy Scripture. They were thus characterized on the pages of Scripture as wise people.

      It is the same today. Christians should constantly be teaching themselves about the teaching of the Bible, a kind of perpetual learning, if you will. And do not neglect the writings and other resources of great men whom God has lifted up to assist the believers in understanding the Scriptures. No one has a right to “any private interpretation,” as the Bible itself says.

    • Davester

      “Indeed! This is the central tenet of Christian belief.”
      No, it isn’t.

  • ddenney

    I don’t like the use of fundamentalists to describe these unfortunate young boys. A fundamentalist would believe the Word of God is God’s own instructions to us. When you pick and choose sentences, phrases and individual words to prove a distortion of God’s desires for us, it is not fundamentalism. It is sin. These folks are a cult.

    • Walt Longmire

      One one thing I agree with you. The terminology used in the article is a bit naive about the faith, especially that of fundamentalists. There are fundamentalists and then there are “fundamentalists.” The media often use the word in a pejorative sense, in a sort of guilt by association with Islamic fundamentalism, which goes around blowing people up.

      There was a series of books published in the early 20th century called “The Fundamentals of the Faith.” You can look these up on the web and follow some links if you want to know more. People may be surprised – and pleasantly so – when they read those books. There was nothing unorthodox or heretical – or violent, etc – in those books, but a sincere and serious attempt to set forth the fundamentals of evangelical faith.

      But word use changes, and we must be careful not to import either an ancient or a modern usage, but must rather go to the original documents and discover for ourselves.

      Fundamentalism today suggest to the modern mind an isolated fortress farm – Like David Koresh and his group – loaded with weapons and strange and bizarre cult practices. As such, it is not a term that should be thrown around casually. I have a series of articles on my own blog that tries to explain what the differences are. The title of my series is “Ich ben ein Fundamentalist,” in which I argue that I am the true fundamentalist, not the ones who are wrongly called fundamentalists. And I utterly hate cult-like expression of our precious faith. I have no guns, no ammo, no grenade launchers, no bunkers, no stored foods, nothing of the sort. Indeed, my “weapons” are described nicely by the Apostle Paul this way:

      “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to DEMOLISH STRONGHOLDS. We demolish ARGUMENTS and every PRETENSION that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take every THOUGHT captive to make it obedient to Christ.”

      I hope the media will be more careful with their use of the term fundamentalist.

      • Another Wilco Voter

        I’m just curious. If, once you’ve done your research to your satisfaction and you determine that this group’s teachings are contrary to “conservative protestant theology,” what do you intend to do about it?

        • Walt Longmire

          I am not sure yet. But if I find it to be bogus and cult-like, I can then set forth here and any other place the thinking as to why they should be condemned. But what if they are not? Then I would seek to explain their behavior, if not approve of it. At this point in time, I have not thought that through.

          Even early in my investigation, I know that I personally would not associate with this group, not because they are a cult, for that I do not yet know. But I know enough by reading their materials, testimonies, listening to their sermons and checking their doctrinal statement that I dislike the way their behavior fails to comport with their “doctrine.” Their interpretation and use of Scriptures are forced with a lot of proof-texting.

          But that is just me personally. I don’t like people who mishandle the Scriptures for their own purposes, be they religionists or atheists. There are standards and rules to biblical interpretation and they are not, in my present opinion, honoring [or even aware of, perhaps?] those rules. And sometimes the resultant behaviors have bad effects on people. I know a lot of so-called “orthodox” churches that do this very thing and I would not associate with them either.

          Perhaps it is a bit grandiose, but I might be able to convince these guys to reconsider their interpretations and the resultant behaviors. But if memory serves, I suspect they might call me a Yankee and pay no attention.

  • Guest
    • guest

      Sean’s wife. Her blog. More spouting of their “theology”

  • guest2

    Thank you, Kasia, for doing this interview. It makes a difference. You could have just left it behind you. You have more guts and self-confidence than most involved with this. Kudos.

    • Kasia

      Thank you for listening to my story, and sharing this comment.

      • a mom

        Kasia, thank you from a mother’s heart.

      • Grove Family

        Thank you Kasia very much for doing this interview. It definitely makes a difference and is making a difference. Our family is very grateful for you speaking up and standing strong. We pray that more people will come forward and share the information they have so that help can be found. Our hearts are indebted. The Grove Family

        • bob hannah

          Sorry for your pain, Grove Family. I assume you’ve already seen the YouTube video called “Catherine’s Testimony”. Stay strong.

  • Tom

    “…they allowed a newborn baby to die, choosing to pray over the struggling infant instead of calling a doctor.”

    A small but meaningful distinction. They did not pray over it instead of calling a doctor. The baby “slipped away in a matter of minutes,” according to the father. Instead of calling authorities to report the death, they prayed for 15 hours to attempt an act of resurrection of a dead baby, not heal a sick one. Post-mortem.

    This seems to be very difficult to accept. People sort of skip past it, assuming it to be more complicated than it is. But that’s what it is on the face of it.

    Daniel Pursley, personal testimony, page 42:
    “Without us realizing what was going on inside her little body…causing her to slip away from us in a matter of only a few minutes. I was holding her in my hands and tried to revive her, but there was nothing I could do to keep her here.”
    “…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…”

    Sean Morris:
    “…when that child died, we believed that it was God’s will to raise her. We don’t think that was a presumptuous thing. We’ve seen many miracles as a church and as individuals: demons cast out, healings. We weren’t just being foolish; we wanted God to be glorified…”

    • Walt Longmire

      Where is this recorded/reported? Are we talking about the same people?

      • guest

        Yes. Same people.
        You’ve been emailed at an email address associated with your church.

        • Walt Longmire

          Thanks. I have resigned from active ministry and moved out of state, but I am in daily contact with the church and they will surely forward me the email when they get it.

  • Carol M. Walker

    These crazies live right down the street from our house. I wish they’d move back to Arlington. Wells was such a nice friendly little town.

    • Walt Longmire

      I took my Bachelor of Divinity from a seminary in Arlington back in the 1960s. Can anyone tell me more or put me on to some info about these folks during the Arlington years?

      • Tom

        This article is the best source so far.

      • Carol M. Walker

        Victor, I’ve tried to find that info myself. The residents will only say they are grateful they are gone. No one would go on the record for fear of retaliation.

  • Grove Family

    Thank you to Sonia Smith and to Texas Monthly for Your Investigative Reporting … and thank you to the impassioned concerned young people who shared their stories …. From the Depths Of Our Hearts … The Grove Family

  • The Open Mind

    One should not argue with small-minded, guilt-ridden, obsessed nutwings.

  • bob hannah

    This article left out the fact that Ringnald’ s parents had issued a lengthy public statement last fall expressing their sense of loss because Ryan has cut them off from his life. They also expressed their opinion that Catherine Grove was essentially being held captive by the group.

    Other local media reports also indicated that the two story building used as the church had been sold to the local school next door and torn down for parking spaces. The owner was a Houston doctor whose daughter and her husband were part of the group that moved from Arlington. Apparently her daughter has left the group, leaving her husband behind, which likely explains the doctor’s decision to sell the home that she reportedly took out a mortgage in her name and agreeing to let her daughter and spouse make monthly payments to her with the plan of eventually transferring title to them (probably typical young couple unable to secure mortgage this early in career).

  • amygrove

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/juz9uaszwdot9mf/InsideCOW_Feb28AmyGrove.mp3See More
    On November 4th my sister Catherine did runaway and attempt to escape from this group in Wells Texas with a backpack on her back full of clothes. The public records of the Cherokee County Sheriffs Office did confirm this was true that my si…ster Catherine ran away from the Rick Trudeau home and was missing for 18 hours on the night of November 4th going through many pastures into the woods from midnight to the following evening. I was horrified to find out that they the CCSO had tracked my sister Catherine down with search dogs. On November 25th I went to Texas to see Catherine because I heard that she had been to the emergency room of the Lufkin hospital on Nov 22nd and I was so worried and concerned for her because I heard that the CCSO had public records of tracking my sister with their search dogs and they the CCSO told my parents on November 20th about her trying to escape on November 4th. I did see my sister Catherine that day November 25th and she told me she had attempted to leave from there several times but the failed attempts never worked out. Catherine wanted to come with me to see my mom and dad our parents, and she got into a car with me to go see our mom and dad together. We got into the car together and she shut the car door herself. Then a woman, I don’t know who but she had earlier in the day told me I was going to hell with anger, came out of the house suddenly and out to the car Catherine and I were sitting in and this woman opened the car door and said Catherine will you get out of the car and then Catherine got out of the car and left me sitting and followed the woman back to the house with her leg stiffly and heavily dragging behind her on the ground. I have not seen or heard from my sister Catherine since that night. They gave us a meal to eat together but Catherine was the very last person to eat after everyone was finished and she only ate a few bites and she looked very unhappy and miserable grinding her teeth and scratching the floor with her fingers. The leaders kept asking me do you notice anything different about your sister and I could only say my sister looks like she has been humbled. Catherine also told me that when she saw mom and dad had left with the RV in early October that she thought they were gone forever and never coming back and that’s when Catherine said she went that night to one of the sisters houses and the sister said someone can be crucified. My sister Catherine looked confused terrified and trembling and told me how she had been having experiences while in the church of wells of shaking and uncontrollable tremors and having periods of being frozen and not being able to move and Catherine told me in a terrified voice that God had tried to kill her. Catherine’s eyes were extremely dilated almost the size of nickels taking up all of her eyes and her leg was very injured so bad that she was dragging it behind her on the ground and her leg had many puncture wounds on it that appeared to be dog bites and a woman of the group told me to not worry about it because it was only a spider bite she said. I did not believe the woman though because it did not look like a spider bite at all to me as there were so many puncture wounds and they looked like gashes. While I was there with Catherine all of the people I met kept trying to tell me to stay there with them forever and live with them and never talk to my parents again and cutoff all contact immediately. I told them I don’t even know you I have a husband and I said repeatedly I could not do that stay there with them, and I said it would be like killing murdering my parents if I stayed there with them because they are so upset about Catherine and then this man Rick Trudeau said that would be the most loving thing I could do. I truly felt and still believe my sister Catherine is being controlled and manipulated and coerced by these people to stay and I am now still very worried about my sister. No one in my family has heard from Catherine since this day. My other sisters and brother have never been allowed to see Catherine since she has been in Wells Texas and my mom and dad have not seen Catherine since August 19th. My dad came this weekend to East Texas to try and see my sister Catherine. I love my mom and dad and all my family and I am very thankful for them and I am praying everyday for our family to get through this crisis and that Catherine comes home soon. Amy Grove
    https://www.dropbox.com/s/131b8hak1d4igs4/AmyGroveDrRothshow1stHalfFeb1414.mp3 https://www.dropbox.com/s/1aufj576q85hj8q/AmyGroveDr.RothShow2ndHalfFeb1414.mp3 ….

  • Eagle Eye
  • CitizenWhy

    So “Honor your father and your mother” was written by the devil?