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The church’s bus ministry going “soul winning” in Chicago in 1975.
While reshaping the morals of his followers, Hyles also set about empire building, Independent Baptist–style. His strategy: Send a fleet of buses into some of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago and northern Indiana, pack them with the poor and underprivileged, and drive them to First Baptist to experience the Gospel according to Hyles. (The “bus ministry” still operates today.)
To critics, this effort appeared to be more about boosting the church’s attendance numbers than about saving souls. But it was wildly effective, says Kaifetz, in part because Hyles made “soul winning” a key criterion for moving up the church ladder or—if you were a man—for being awarded a coveted staff job. The stick was displeasing God, a message hammered home virtually every Sunday. “It’s a continuous guilt trip,” says McGuire.
When the word of God wasn’t enough to entice kids into the buses, recruiters plied them with ice cream, goldfish, pony rides. On a single Sunday in 1975, more than 30,000 people attended services “that began at 9:30 a.m. and concluded at 7:30 p.m.,” reported the Chicago Tribune, prompting Hyles to boast that he had created “the world’s largest Sunday school.”
In fact, the church had by then built its own grammar school, middle school, and high school. In 1972 came the crown jewel: Hyles-Anderson College, an unaccredited divinity school where would-be pastors are taught to export the Hyles approach to churches across the country. Among the best and brightest of the early students—a young man who would eventually win the blessing of Jack Hyles to marry his youngest daughter, Cindy—was Jack Schaap.
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First Baptist had become a nationwide phenomenon, dubbed a “superchurch” by Time. That reknown enabled Hyles to begin crisscrossing the country as the de facto leader of a loose coalition of Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches. People lined up to give cash to him and his only son, David, who was following in his footsteps. (A poster for one appearance called the Hyleses “The World’s Greatest Men.”)
The flock grew to include prominent business leaders such as Austin “Jack” DeCoster, the former egg mogul who by some estimates has given tens of millions to First Baptist and has two church buildings named for him. (DeCoster left the egg industry in 2011 after his company’s products caused a massive salmonella outbreak.) Money poured into the church in other ways: the tithes collected each Sunday, a book-publishing arm, and various conferences and seminars.
The influx of cash enabled First Baptist to buy large parcels of real estate around Hammond—and enabled Hyles to buy loyalty. “A lot of discretionary income flowed through his hands,” says a former church member. “So he would pay for people’s surgeries and pay for people to get their teeth fixed.”
By the late 1980s, the church was reaching its apotheosis. (Attendance peaked in the early 1990s, when more than 20,000 people came to services each Sunday, making First Baptist the largest church in the nation.) “We were all of a sudden part of the most successful operation, the most successful movement, you have ever seen or heard about,” Kaifetz says. “That’s why people just fell all over each other to exalt [Hyles].”
The level of devotion—and control—sometimes strayed into the absurd. Female students at Hyles-Anderson, Busby recalls, underwent sporadic “pajama inspections.” If the tops and bottoms didn’t match, says Busby, dorm supervisors would sometimes “make us strip right there and put on an approved set.”
The pajama-clad young women would gather in the chapel to wait for Hyles. When he entered, “we would all stand on the pew and sing, ‘We love you, Preacher. Oh yes, we doooo. We don’t love anyone as much as you!’ Then he would call us ‘Poopsy-Woopsy’ and give us pizza and money.”
To go off campus to buy pantyhose—required wear for women—“we needed a special pass,” Busby says, “and had to have three chaperones. Yet they would drop us off in rough neighborhoods for eight hours on our own to go soul winning.”
Hyles kept close watch over the college’s curriculum to make sure it met his standards and was suitable for export to churches across the country. “He would write the Sunday lessons, and he would teach the teachers what he wanted them to say on the Wednesday night before the church service,” says a former member.
For the benefit of any doubters, Hyles demonstrated his power in the middle of a sermon one Sunday. “Notice the bones and the skull there,” he said as he raised a cup into which he told the congregation he was going to pour poison. “Now if I walked up to you tonight and I said to you, ‘I’ve got something I want you to drink . . .’ In fact”—he turned to Johnny Colsten, one of the men on the stage with him—“I’d like for you, if you don’t mind, to drink this.”
Colsten, currently an associate pastor at First Baptist, did not hesitate. If Hyles wanted him to drink, he would.
Photograph: Courtesy of Jerry Karifetz