Last Friday, I watched Dateline on NBC. Dateline spent two hours detailing the story of Rebecca Musser, Rulon Jeffs, Warren Jeffs, and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). You can view the story in its entirety on Dateline’s website.
Rebecca Musser was one of Rulon Jeffs’s sixty-four wives. She was instrumental in bringing Warren Jeffs to justice and her court testimony and subsequent book, The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice, exposed the Jeffs and the inner workings of the FLDS church.
For two hours I watched and wept as Musser told her story. As her story unfolded, I found myself becoming increasingly angry. It was clear I was in the midst of an emotional crisis. There was something in Musser’s story that was affecting me at a visceral level. What was it about this woman’s story that affected me so deeply?
Over the years, I have read countless stories of people, mostly women, who were abused, hurt, and emotionally and mentally damaged, by the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. Some of them were even physically harmed, suffering beatings and sexual assaults.
As I read their heartbreaking stories they would often speak about things in their life that triggered deep emotional feelings. Sometimes, it would be an event, person, or circumstance totally unrelated to their past that triggered a deep emotional response. Pains long since buried became fresh and raw, and the person is transported back to a time and place they would rather forget.
Watching Dateline was one of those triggering moments for me. My emotions and thoughts moved well beyond Musser’s story. I began to think of my past in the IFB church movement. I began to ponder my upbringing, my training as a pastor, and the churches I pastored. I thought about the people who called me pastor and looked to me to be their spiritual guide. As I thought on these things and compared them to the story that Musser was telling about the FLDS church, I came to a startling realization: that the IFB church movement is a cult.
Now the IFB church movement is not as cultic as the FLDS, but, this is like saying that a rapist only raped a woman a little bit. Perhaps the “nice” rapist “only” sexually assaulted a woman, but is he any less a rapist than the man who violently beat a woman before he raped her?
Perhaps a reader might ask, why are you using a rape illustration, Bruce? For this reason. Like a woman who has been violently, physically raped, those caught up in cultic religions, have been raped mentally and emotionally. Even worse, are those who were not only raped mentally and emotionally, but they also suffered the indignity of physical and sexual abuse.
Those who have been assaulted, be it a physical assault or a mental or emotional assault, have been so deeply cut and marred, is it possible for their life to ever be completely normal? For that matter, can we even define what that normal life would be? Will there ever come a time when they are beyond the past? Or is the best we can hope for is an uneasy peace with the past, a peace that can be easily disrupted by something as a simple as TV program like Dateline?
When Rebecca Musser testified against Warren Jeffs she wore a red dress. in the FLDS, red was considered an evil color and members of the church were not permitted to wear red clothing. When Musser wore red she was telling Warren Jeffs and the FLDS church that she was no longer under their control. Her wearing red was her coming out, her telling all who would listen that she was free.
While I am sure that Musser has deep emotional and mental scars from her life in the FLDS church, I found her story a wonderful testimony of the efficacy and power of speaking out. For the sake of her siblings, family, and those who might someday be drawn to the FLDS cult, she took the stand and testified against Warren Jeffs and she exposed the ugly, dirty secrets of the FLDS church.
Over the next few weeks, I plan to write a series of posts on the IFB church movement. In these posts I hope to answer the, is the IFB church a Cult, question. In doing so, I must come to terms with the fact that I was a pastor with cultic tendencies and that some of the churches I pastored, even when viewed in the most friendly of light, were cultic. No they weren’t full-blown cults like the FLDS, but enough so that it is impossible to deny their cultic tendencies.
One of the Texas Rangers investigating the FLDS compound in Texas had this to say about the members of the FLDS church:
They all sound the same, they all look the same, they all dress the same, they all act the same.
For those of us who drank deeply at the poisoned well of Baptist Fundamentalism, this statement sounds eerily like the churches we were a part of.
I have a dear friend who is going through deep emotional and mental distress and he is having thoughts of killing himself. His problems are many, but their root is found in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church movement. He attended one of the largest IFB churches in the United States and attended an IFB college to train for the ministry. For many years he was a faithful, devoted follower of the IFB God and way of life. I hope this series will give him hope and help him come to terms with the past. Perhaps by understanding our past we can move beyond it.
If there is anything you would like me to address in this series, please send me an email via the comment form. I will do my best to integrate your suggestion into my writing.
I ordered a copy of The Witness Wore Red from Amazon. When I am finished reading it, I will write a review.