I am grateful for the Sunday School Lessons that I had learned when I was a child. Little did I or any of the congregation of the church I attended realize that our Mid-western Bible-based church would be systematically seduced by a cult leader.
In retrospect, I can recall that there were red flags early on when I was just an innocent Sunday Schoolgirl. This is my personal story told from my memory as a ten-year-old.
Decades after I left the cult called to as The Walk aka The Church of the Living Word, and Living Word Fellowship founded by John Robert Stevens. I am still trying to fit puzzle pieces together in order to recover from varying degrees of trauma.
I was an active participant at Sunday School In the late ’50s and early ’60s. I loved learning Bible lessons. I enthusiastically memorized verses. I believe that having the word of God hidden in my heart was to be my saving grace.
The admins for children’s church at Christian Tabernacle were Jess and Olive, an older Iowa farm couple who had no children of their own. They owned a Bible Book Store in Washington, Iowa, where they sold Bibles and other Christian supplies when they weren’t working on the farm.
Jess and Olive dedicated the rest of their lives to the children’s ministry. I think nobody else wanted to put forth the energy to do the job. It is an effort to teach kids every week about the Bible and hold their interest, but Jess and Olive were faithful.
We young kids at Christian Tabernacle had the opportunity to accept Jesus as our savior. We were encouraged to learn lots of scripturally based songs and bible verses. Jess made sure that the kids had plenty of Christian crafts to do while the adults were upstairs in the converted sanctuary of an old two-story school building.
Jess and Olive had dedicated their lives to the children’s ministry in the basement so much so that they missed out on services especially when our pastor’s son John Robert Stevens came to town for special week-long services. Their willingness to keep us busy on a kid’s level was cool because on school nights sitting in a pew night after night was boring. It was not healthy for school-age kids to stay out late, but at least the activity was wholesome and on our age level…until the circus came to town.
The Promise Land
*I remember Olive teaching about Abraham and his wife Sarah; Joseph and his many-colored coat and his brothers jealousy; the plague in Egypt, the blood of the lamb on the doorposts, Moses and the burning bush, 10 commandments you know the stories about the Children of Israel left Egypt as slaves that marched into the Promised Land led by Moses and the 10 commandments Bible stories- * hold that thought…because I would soon get a huge shock.
Olive’s warm and fuzzy version of going out of Egypt to the Promised Land skipped the 40 years wandering the whining and complaining attitude of the Israelites. She taught us about the Burning Bush and the Ten Commandments on the way to Canaan.
Note: The Children of Isreal, according to Olive, marched right into the promised land right after the Wall of Jerico came tumbling down. Here version was simple and safe.
Hide God’s Word From the Commies
In the ’60s the rumor was that there was “a Commie behind every tree.” We school kids practiced “duck and cover” in case of an attack.
Jess and Olive taught us to “hide the word of God in our hearts” because we never knew when the Russians would come in to steal and burn our Bibles.”
Olive taught us if we loved Jesus we would be saved if and when the soldiers from the Soviet Socialist Republic came to town to steal our bibles then burn them. I am not exaggerating my understanding and fear. Perhaps it was my age.( This never did happen as I feared.)
Premier Nikita Krushov was the leader of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Russia. That very scary man came to the United States to appear at the United Nations. He did something that Russians do, but, Americans don’t do. He took off his shoe then pounded his shoe on the table at the UN. He said something in Russian which was translated as, “We will bury you.”
Below was a headline in newspapers of a frightening incident in 1960 that was highlighted on the news over and over.
- October 12, 1960
- Nikita Khrushchev brandishes his shoe at the United Nations
The Russian leader scared the crap out of me when I saw him on the news.
If that was not enough to be fearful that the Reds would steal my Bible after the shoe pounding at the UN the Russian leader would be touring American farms. One model farm was actually a farm in Washington, Iowa across the field from where we were living, at that time. ( This is a true coincidence.)
It was freaking scary for a kid who was afraid the Russians would burn our Bibles. Now that was too close for comfort.
When the Circus Came to Town
Our home town pastor, W. J. Stevens had a son who was a preacher in California. He would come to town to preach at the special week-long services that lasted far too late for school children. But, it was exciting entertainment, anyway, to have a ‘celebrity” from Los Angeles and Disneyland come to speak. John Roberts’ wife and daughters would sing beautiful songs.
Washington, Iowa did not have that much glamour so it seemed as exciting as when the circus came to town. You never what was going to happen to entertain us. Those special services were definitely not are frightening as when the Premier Kruschov came to Washington, Iowa…well… until I heard the real version of the Exodus and going to the Promised Land.
At some point when John Robert Stevens came to preach Jess and Olive were told that they and the children needed to come upstairs to hear John Robert Stevens, the guest speaker, rather than stay in the basement doing crafts. So I reluctantly went upstairs to the sanctuary to sit with the rest of the kids in a pew near the back.
.I listened to John Robert Stevens preach about the Children of Israel and how rebellious they were. He was looking directly at us kids when he emphasized the word “rebellion”. I felt like his eyes burned right into my head.
The preacher said that the Israelites wandered the wilderness for 40 years before they got to go into the promised land. ( That is true but, not in the fluffy version that Ovie told us, kids.)
What? Forty years?
Hole in the Sand
If that new version of going into the Promised Land was not enough to get my attention this big burly man with dark curly hair started doing something weird with his foot. He pointed the toe of his shoe to the floor then it seemed like he was digging a hole in the floor with his foot.
He boldly stated that the children of Israel had to dig a hole in the sand whenever they had to take a dump. Then he demonstrated with his shoe he was wearing on his foot like he was pushing and patting sand.
He continued with his shocking version of the ancient story. “Then they used their foot to cover the stench over. And not everyone wore sandals.” (I’m pretty sure those were the words he used. At any rate – I was freaked out. EWWW!)
The way he worded the issue of toileting in the dessert was rather disconcerting to 10-year-old little me. I am convinced that Olive never would have told us they the Israelites went number one or number two. Gross!
His words about having to poop in the dessert-like that for 40 years literally scared the crap out of me.
I have no idea how that potty mouth was received by the grown-ups, but, in those days we did not talk of such things except in private or when saying naughty words, mind you. I would have gotten my mouth washed out with soap.
The Fear Factor
Jess and Olive had told us the God gave the Israelites manna to eat. I imagined it was like Wonder bread and that they had jars of peanut butter and jelly to spread on it like we did when we went camping and quail in the form of hot dogs to roast on a stick.
John Robert also had his own version of manna and quail.
Once again the prophet of God told the blunt truth in regard to complaining about not having leaks and garlic to season their food. I did not like garlic any way so that was fine with me in my childlike imagination.
Then he goes on to say that God provided manna to eat, “God had strict rules about gathering manna. For those who did not obey God’s rules, they ended up with a stinking mess.” He turned up his nose then shouted, “It got putrid!”
“After a while, the people complained that they wanted meat. So God gave them quail that dropped dead from the sky.”
He acted like he was plucking feathers off a chicken. The reality was hitting me in the face as the prophet continued to threaten those who would even think about rebelling.
“Then the Children of Isreal complained that they wanted more variety,”
JRS spoke as if he had the voice of God booming angrily. “I gave you manna. You complained. I gave you the quail to eat. You complained. What more do you want, you ungrateful people?”
The congregation laughed, but, Oh my God! I wanted to cry.
To Tell the Truth
Later on when the special services were over and we were back the routine life was normal again, Olive was again telling her version ( the Sunday school version) of the Bible that children could relate to without being frightened.
Olive never did go into detail about taking a knife to slit the throat of a sweet little lamb to get its blood… until JRS told it like it was, creating the fear factor, I just thought they poured some blood into a bowl then took a paintbrush to paint the doorway red.
Washington County Iowa has always been a farming community. Many of our parents butchered our own meat. But the gory adlibs of to biblical message, I think was too extreme at my age. And that is why I now believe that John Robert Stevens discovered early-on that controversy sells. The extreme grabs the attention and holds on tightly in the brain. JRS was learning how to market to a crowd in order to sell his goods we normally would not have wanted to buy. We survivors paid a dear price for listening to his words..
Olive’s version no longer sets well with me as the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I was 10 years old. You know, the age when you no longer believe in Santa Claus nor the tooth fairy except when you still wanted the loot.
According to JRS’s version of shitting in the sand – excuse me- the difference in stories was very graphic- of course being 10 or 11 I had to correct Olive on these finer points of truth… I was no longer her favorite student to count on…story after story after Bible story did not line up with what John Robert Stevens said- this tormented me.
- Whose word was I suppose to trust?
- Why was he so graphic?
My answer is that he went for the shock and awe to begin his power trip. He really laid on the Hellfire thick for the next generation preparing them for his cult. Kingdom, known as The Walk.
I read that part of the old testament over and over.
- Had Jess and Olive been LYING to us kids about almost everything?
- Are Half-truths or filtered truth the truth or a lie?
- Details must be right when you are 10 or 11. But, minors are not ready for adult ideas.
- I have to pick to age-appropriate every time.
In the 1950’s I was not aware that John Robert Stevens was twisting scriptures as significantly as he would in the future. But, one thing that was obvious was that his judgment as to age appropriateness in detail was unquestionably off even in the Happy Days.
The Moral of My Childhood Story.
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
I remember this true story because it made such an impact on my life when I was 10. But, if I had been an adult at the time, I think the way I retold the same event would be very different then I have told in on my post.
While my reactions at the time may seem immature, retelling my version woke me up to the fact that John Robert Stevens had a master plan of how he was going to subtly brainwash the congregations to submit to his vision of the Kingdom of God for his future cult.
This was only the beginning of how a nice Christian church was brainwashed to accept the invasion of occult ideas.
- I think that the threat of being rebellious to God’s really began to sink in with the congregation on some level for every age group. at that time.
- In retrospect, Obedience to God’s Word was to be the new focus that would herald in the kingdom age the allegorical Promised Land that would in the future. it would be named Shiloh, built on the outskirts of Kalona, Iowa around 1974.
- For the children, JRS began to create conflict with the children’s teachers. Who told the whole truth with the reality vs the partial truth that felt safe and secure?.
- There was no good reason to take the children from an age-appropriate activity in a safe environment only to force them to hear a very harsh version of Bible message. I think he had intended to use Shock Value to begin brainwashing the children. John Robert Stevens was so wrong to do what he did.
- Who was trustworthy and who was not, became very twisted in our heads.
Perhaps it is a starting point for some of us to figure out when, where and how this power and control mess over the flock started to get tangled and where to unravel the truth.
My words are my opinion from my disturbing memories as a child in the early years before it all ran amuck.
The link and preview to this post appears in How Did Christian Tabernacle of Washington Iowa go from a Christian Church to a Cult