I am grateful for the Sunday School Lessons that I learned when I was a child. Little did I or any of the congregation of the Christian Tabernacle church I attended to realize that our Midwestern Bible-based church would be systematically seduced by a cult leader from the West Coast.
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 in 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 the 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 of wandering around in the desert, and nothing about 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. Her 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 and then burn them. I am not exaggerating my understanding and fear. Perhaps it was my age. ( This never did happen as I feared….fast forward to an uncertain 2023 to consider if history is repeating its old propaganda to get thee to Sunday School.
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 and then pounded his shoe on the table at the UN. He said something in Russian which was translated as, “We will bury you.” (Actually, that was a hyperbolic myth that never happened that way.)
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 alleged 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 hometown 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 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 Olive told us, kids.)
What? Forty years?
It is interesting that I escaped from the Church of the Living Word cult 40 years ago. And now the fire department control burned the place down…There are plenty more posts on No Non-cents Nanna about cults and The Church of the Living Word Cult with videos.
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 the shoe he was wearing on his foot that 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. 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 that 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.
Just for fun Fact Check to see if archeologists have found the petrified poop of a million slaves in the desert or not?
The inconsistencies in Bible stories should have been a red flag to my parents. Because my parents were new to the Bible, I guess, my complaints about somebody not telling the story right, went in one parent’s ear and out the other parent’s ear.
Now, decades later, it is too late for my late parents to have wised up that they should have been on top of what was going on in Sunday School or Children’s Church. With that said, every child needs their parents to check up on what is going on in the religious training classes. Poke your head in now and then.
Don’t assume your kids are safe. Yes, be paranoid – and be proud – you could get excommunicated for that – and be glad of it, too.
BTW: The real Biblical versions are not PG in case you did not know.
The Fear Factor
Jess and Olive had told us that God gave the Israelites manna to eat. I imagined it was like Wonderbread 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 to fry up in a pan. Maybe with some toast and a cup of coffee?
John Robert also had his own version of manna and quail.
His version did not smell like coffee in the morning with bacon frying up in a pan, either.
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 anyway 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 and then shouted, “It got putrid!”
I still feel green with nausea or the sound of the word.
“After a while, the people complained that they wanted meat. So God gave them quail that dropped dead from the sky.”
Dead birds dropping from the sky did not sound pleasant. I was glad to not be in that stinking heat.
JRS 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. He gave me a fright.
To Tell the Truth
Later on when the special services were over and we were back to 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 even more distasteful, I just thought they poured some blood into a bowl and 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. I can cut up a whole chicken – but bloody murdering…not that way…
The gory adlibs of to biblical message, I think was too extreme for my age.
Marketing to save our souls…
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 or 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-come, 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 truths 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.
I taught Sunday School and vacation bible School for many years myself. I had to give the fear factor some carefully considered thought – and prayer. I decided to go for the “moral of the story” that was relatable to the age group I was teaching.
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.
As it turns out, Stevens or his elder support ministry staff did not seem to bother with age appropriateness in much of anything. In hind-site – this should have been another huge red flag.
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 than I have told in 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 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 be 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 the Bible’s 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.
Years later, after JRS died, his second wife and her 3rd husband took over the cult. Children were placed under the leadership of other people who were not their parents. I’ll let someone else tell that story as I am relieved to have left with my children by that time.
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…and it did run amuck off the walls…The Church of the Living Word became a cult.
The link and preview to this post appear in How Did Christian Tabernacle of Washington Iowa go from a Christian Church to a Cult
In the beginning of the Walk, there was a lot of Bull…