Let Us Prey: Big Trouble at First Baptist Church

A string of assaults and sexual crimes committed by pastors across the country have one thing in common: The perpetrators have ties to the megachurch in Hammond, Indiana.

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Jack Schaap
Jack Schaap preaching in 2010
 

II Kings

Jack Hyles wouldn’t live to see Mulligan’s conviction. In 2001, he died of complications from heart surgery at age 74. There was no question who would succeed him: Hyles had been grooming his son-in-law Jack Schaap ever since his own son’s prospects had plummeted.

While Schaap was from a more prosperous family, in all important ways he was a virtual Hyles clone. And, says Kaifetz, “he got a hero’s welcome. When he walked out on the stage of those chapel services, you’ve never seen anything more over-the-top expressive—thousands waving the Bible in the air, screaming, shouting, whistling.”

In the beginning, Schaap’s preaching was standard Hyles: emotional denunciations of the flock for not doing enough to please God. Though the sermons “weren’t nearly as sexual in the beginning,” says Schaap’s former editor, “he was seductive. He charmed people in order to get them to do what he wanted them to do.”

As Schaap consolidated his grip on the congregation, says former church member Linda Gensaw, “he became more brazen—graphic sexual sermons to the point that I didn’t want to take my children.”

Tom Brennan, the Independent Baptist pastor in Chicago and former First Baptist member, agrees. “He was beyond the bounds of what was appropriate,” says Brennan. “His preaching had gotten so—I hesitate to use the word ‘pornographic.’ It was so vulgar sometimes that it was just a grief to my spirit.”

Challenging Schaap, Busby says, was not an option: “He had absolute power. He could destroy you.”

In fact, he nearly destroyed Busby’s marriage. After she and her husband hit a rocky patch, they turned to Schaap for counseling. At first, Busby says, “it really seemed like he wanted to help us.” But soon Schaap was requesting numerous sessions with Busby alone. “When he would counsel me,” she says, “he would be asking me these shocking questions about sex. I mean, absolutely, purely shocking. I would literally vomit before some of our meetings it got so bad.”

When the couple eventually left the church, Schaap turned on her, Busby says. “He got up in front of a staff meeting—in front of the whole staff—and shared all kinds of confidential stuff that never should have been shared. He told people to shun me.”

Leaving First Baptist was in Busby’s opinion like leaving a cult. “I’ve never been able to say the c-word—and anyone from the church who reads this will take great offense—but that’s what it was like.”

Busby is far from the only person to compare First Baptist to a cult. So does every expert and religion blogger tracking the church—and virtually every one of the dozens of victims and former church members—with whom I spoke. Including Linda Murphrey, Hyles’s daughter. “I believe First Baptist Church gradually evolved into a cult that was in complete idolatry of my father and, after his death, complete idolatry of Jack Schaap,” she says.

What makes a church a cult? I asked Rick Ross, whose nonprofit institute maintains an online archive of data on cults and controversial movements. (He says he is not familiar with the details of First Baptist.) Ross points to a landmark 1981 Harvard study on cult formation, which suggests that all cults, destructive or not, share three elements: an
absolute authoritarian leader who defines the group; a “thought program” that includes “control of the environment, control of information, and people subordinating themselves and their feelings to the demands of the leader”; and a lack of accountability for the head of the group.

Another common characteristic of cults, Ross says, is that they use shame and some sort of exploitation—financial, spiritual, or sexual—to exercise control. Members of a Bible-based group, for example, are made to believe that “it’s a sin of pride for you to think for yourself,” he says. “It’s your ego or a demon or Satan’s influence that causes you to doubt the edicts of the leadership.”

First Baptist members have long scoffed at cult comparisons. And Brennan says they have a point. “I emphatically and strongly disagree with those who would assert that the church is a cult,” he says. “There’s a world of difference between a cult of personality and a cult. I don’t care how controlling Jack Schaap was. I don’t care how overbearing he was. I don’t care how much he demanded personal loyalty. Nobody there ever drank Kool-Aid. It’s not even a valid comparison.”

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Photograph: Kyle Telechan/The Times/AP

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