Weeks ago, Colin Woodard, a nationally recognized reporter for the Portland Press Herald in Portland, Maine contacted me to ask me questions about the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. I found Woodward to be a thorough, thoughtful reporter, someone I am sure I would enjoy sharing a beer (or whisky) with on a Friday night at the corner pub. After the initial interview, Woodard sent me follow-up questions about certain words used in the IFB church movement that were not typical for him to hear in discussions about churches and sects. As I responded to Woodard, it dawned on me that the IFB churches, pastors, and colleges have their own language of sorts and that outsiders often find this language strange and confusing. I was delighted to interpret for Woodard — much like a charismatic interpreting someone’s speaking in tongues.
The focus of Woodard’s feature-length article is COVID-19 super spreader Todd Bell, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, Maine. When I initially read stories about the good pastor, I saw his as just another anti-government, anti-science IFB preacher with no regard for his congregation or the people of his community. I pictured Bell standing in the pulpit on Sundays with a defiant fist raised high, screaming FREEDOM! — as Mel Gibson did playing freedom fighter William Wallace in the movie Braveheart.
I intended to give Bell the Bruce Gerencser treatment, but before I could, Woodward contacted me, so I decided to pass on giving Bell the lambasting he so richly deserves. As readers may know, some of the biggest and most obnoxious voices among Trump supporters and anti-maskers are IFB preachers. I want to say thank you to Colin Woodard and the Press Herald for giving Bell the exposure he so richly deserves.
The wedding he presided over Aug. 7 triggered a cascading series of COVID-19 outbreaks that sickened at least 178 Mainers and killed at least eight, shut public schools, locked down a jail and helped push an entire county into an elevated state of alert. Nine of his own congregants got sick too, including his 78-year-old father and a child attending his vacation Bible school.
But on the evening of Oct. 7, the Rev. Todd Bell stood at the pulpit of the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, preaching without a mask with a group of young children from his Bible school seated shoulder to shoulder below him, almost all of them also maskless. When he finished, a barefaced assistant took his place and began singing, exhaling an invisible plume of droplets from his lungs to be broadcast around the room.
That’s when someone realized an internet livestream had been left open to the public and cut off the feed, drawing the curtains against the outside world.
The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram examined Bell and the movement he belongs to in order to understand why he has so steadfastly opposed public health measures – even after contributing to multiple deaths and disruptions – and to probe who, if anyone, could influence him to comply. The newspaper’s effort reveals a man born and raised in a religious culture skeptical of science and the government, operating with nearly complete autonomy, supported by his followers and a network of allied institutions and individuals in the Appalachians, able to flout public health advice without formal repercussions.
Despite the fatalities and the pleas of town and state officials, Bell has continued to defy public health guidelines and a city ordinance meant to contain the spread of COVID-19. In late August, as the scale of the wedding-associated outbreak became clear and the first death had been reported, he told his congregation that “the world” wanted “us to shut down, go home, and let people get used to that just long enough until we can finally stop the advancing of the Gospel.” He touted the “liberty” to not wear a mask, falsely suggesting they were about as effective as trying to keep a mosquito at bay with a chain link fence. He later advised his followers that abstaining from singing in the choir was “acting foolishly” and that they were “invincible until God’s finished with us.”
In response to an interview request for this story, Bell said he would consult his attorney. Seventeen days later, he declined to answer questions because he said his attorney hadn’t responded.
The church did not fully cooperate with contact tracers from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which was unable to formally connect the outbreak to the wedding reception, even though Bell himself has said six families from the congregation attended it. “That made the epidemiological investigation more challenging,” the agency’s spokesman, Robert Long, said via email.
City and state officials appear unable to do anything to intervene. The Maine CDC can’t take enforcement actions, because churches are not subject to health inspections and licensing. Long said that in mid-September the Maine CDC “provided a summary of our interactions with Pastor Bell to the attorney general’s office to help that office make decisions on enforcement or legal actions.” But the attorney general’s office declined to comment when asked whether it is considering legal action and, if not, if it believes there are any avenues to enforce public health measures against a non-licensed entity.
“I really wish the state would do something,” says Sanford City Councilor Maura Herlihy, who has known Bell since he arrived in town and describes him as slick, self-assured and “over-the-top” charismatic. “Pushing this on municipalities isn’t going to work, because they’re in a far more difficult situation for managing this level of defiance.”
Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, who represents Sanford in the Legislature and is running for mayor, says she is outraged at Bell’s behavior. “This community opened its arms to him, and the first time we literally ask anything of him – that you wear masks and not sing in church – he just wasn’t going to comply,” she says. “He has never admitted any culpability. He has never said he was sorry. He’s shown his true colors, and what I see is no minister – he’s someone who cares only for himself.”
Julie Ingersoll, a Bath native and professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida, says many pastors share Bell’s thinking. “He’s definitely not some kind of one-off,” she says. “These are widely held views in conservative American Protestantism across the country.”
You can read the rest of the article here. I am quoted several times in the story, but you will have to read it to see what I said. (Unfortunately, the article has since been put behind a paywall.)
An independent fundamentalist Baptist – or IFB – church might be founded by its pastor spontaneously but more often it is “planted” by a missionary sent from an existing congregation. Typically the missionary pastor is directed by his congregation to spend months or years going to other churches to raise money from their parishioners, a process called deputation.
“You go from church to church, complete with a slideshow of all the evil that exists in the place where you are going and all the souls there that need to be saved and won’t be unless you go there,” says Bruce Gerencser, who was an IFB pastor for 25 years in Ohio, Michigan and Texas, and founded four churches before breaking with the movement in 2005. “Once you have enough money to do what you want to do, you head out into the field. But the relationship between the mother church and the new one is symbiotic, more advice and consent than ‘we are in charge of you.’”
IFB churches tend to take oppositional stances toward government authority, particularly when it intrudes on church business, Gerencser says. “There’s a sense of paranoia that government is trying to shut them down, and unfortunately COVID-19 plays right into their hands as far as those things are concerned,” he says. “They see themselves as patriots standing up against the evil, nefarious government. The guy in Maine, he’s not so special except for the effectiveness of what he’s done. I think he gets the prize for bad outcomes.”
New England, the least churched region in the country, has long been seen as a promising mission field by independent Baptists. Gerencser, who attended Midwestern Baptist College in the late 1970s, recalls pressure for young pastors to go start IFB churches in the region. “The Unitarians and the Congregationalists and the liberals had turned the whole eastern seaboard into this large block of land dominated by unbelievers!” Gerencser recalls. “The whole eastern seaboard of the U.S. was barren of Bible teaching.”
“The intermingling of personal finances and those of the church is easy to do, because very often in these very small churches the pastors are intimately involved in the church finances,” Gerencser says. “It’s very easy to justify moving money around, and it’s not necessarily nefarious, but it can sometimes get that way.”
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.