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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Pastor Jack Hyles, circa 1988, the man who built First Baptist into a megachurch
In the beginning—1959, in this case—Jack Hyles arrived at the First Baptist Church of Hammond as a skinny, charismatic Bible thumper with a Southern-fried drawl and a couple of cheap suits. No one could have imagined he would grow into the larger-than-life figure whom critics would dub the Godfather and others would consider the Chosen One.
Born in the tiny Dallas suburb of Italy, Hyles often preached about his alcoholic father, his devoted and deeply conservative Christian mother, and the curse of growing up poor. After serving in the army in World War II, he married his sweetheart, Beverly Slaughter. The fire-and-brimstone words of his mother burning in his head, Hyles then enrolled at East Texas Baptist College in Marshall, Texas, where he became a student pastor. After graduation, he set out to spread his particular brand of harsh theology.
In a show of modesty that would be almost unthinkable in later years, Hyles acknowledged that he didn’t immediately set bushes to burning. After his first sermon in 1947, “Elijah blushed and Heaven’s flag flew at half mast for three days,” he lamented in a 1975 Time magazine article.
Whatever awkwardness he may have had soon gave way to his extraordinary oratorical gifts. By the time he took charge of the 44-member Miller Road Baptist Church in Garland, Texas, in 1952, he was a full-fledged, fire-breathing, stem-winding spellbinder, blessed with a booming preacher’s voice, a savant’s recall of the Bible, and a charisma that could almost magically levitate people from their seats to surrender their lives to the Savior.
Outbursts of anger, an unwillingness to brook criticism, and a penchant for ironfisted control were also part of his repertoire. “He was a genius,” recalls a former member of the Hammond church who has edited some of Jack Schaap’s books. “He also had a nasty, nasty temper. He used his temper as a form of control.”
Hyles eventually abandoned the church’s Southern Baptist theology, saying it was too liberal. He began calling himself an Independent Baptist—untethered to any dogma or ritual he didn’t cotton to, unaccountable to any ruling body or person beyond himself.
The approach resonated deeply with rural Texans longing for a return to old-time religion. Within a couple of years, his flock had swelled to 4,000, earning Hyles a far-reaching reputation. When the long-serving pastor of First Baptist Church in Hammond stepped down, Hyles got the call.
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Founded in 1887, sleepy First Baptist had a mostly well-to-do congregation, many of whom commuted to jobs in Chicago. Hyles made driving out these “northern liberals” his first priority.
Accordingly, he ditched the church’s denominational affiliation with the mainline American Baptist Convention, freeing him to transplant the authoritarian, hellfire-and-damnation theology he had honed in Texas.
A seemingly endless list of rules—both written and unwritten—grew and multiplied. Men were to wear jackets and ties and close-cropped hair. Women were to wear skirts that covered the knee. Trisha LaCroix, who attended Hyles-Anderson College, says that she was disowned by her parents—First Baptist members both—in part for daring to wear pants. Rock music was out, of course, as was any music with a syncopated beat. “Even Southern gospel music was sick and sinful and of the devil,” says Busby.
The Bible was to be interpreted literally and by Hyles alone. According to his reading, men ruled absolutely. “The belief was that women needed to be in complete and total submission to their husbands and to male leadership,” says a former member who requested that she not be named. (She left the church in 2010 after her husband, a prominent member of the congregation, was caught having sexual relationships with underage girls.)
If a man did “stumble”—having an affair, say, or visiting prostitutes or abusing children—the question wasn’t how he could have but rather what the woman, or the child, did to drive him to such sin, some former church members say. “They have a system where abusers and pedophiles can flourish, because you can’t challenge the men,” opines one. “You have to submit 100 percent of the time, and whenever anything goes wrong in a marriage, it’s because the woman didn’t do enough.”
Hyles, meanwhile, exerted extreme control over every aspect of his flock’s lives—control that members say they welcomed because they believed it was divinely inspired. “I used to joke that people would not rearrange their living room furniture without help from Brother Hyles,” says Jerry Kaifetz, a former teacher at First Baptist’s Pastors’ School who left the church around 1990.
Virtually no one would marry without Hyles’s blessing, several former church members say. He soon took it upon himself to arrange marriages. According to Kaifetz, “When a guy like Hyles says, ‘This is God’s will for your life,’ you just say, ‘Well, I guess it is.’ ”
One area in which Hyles—a father of four—exerted particular control was child rearing. In this, his views were severe unto merciless. Using biblical passages as justification, Hyles preached that spanking was more than tolerable; it was a sacred duty. In his 1979 book How to Rear Infants, he wrote: “The parent who spanks his child keeps him from going to hell.”
Spanking “should be deliberate and last at least ten or fifteen minutes,” he continued. The blows “should be painful and should last . . . until the child is crying, not tears of anger but tears of a broken will.” They should “leave stripes” if need be. The age at which such punishment should begin? Infancy.
Several people who grew up at First Baptist recall that parents took the instruction to heart. “Beatings would last endlessly, it seemed,” says Mary Jo McGuire, 45, a corporate trainer in Colorado whose father was a deacon in the church. As a seven-year-old, she “used to count the lashes as a way to cope through the searing pain.” McGuire’s younger sister, Sherri Munger, told me she once received more than 300 lashes from a thick leather belt. When authorities were called, McGuire says, Hyles told the girls’ parents how to avoid arrest.
“What was going on [at First Baptist] was kind of like a process of hollowing out the followers and repopulating them with yourself,” says Schaap’s former editor. “[Hyles] took your voice, he took your beliefs, he took your likes and dislikes and opinions, and he gave you his own. But in the process of hollowing you out, he made you very weak.”
In her first one-on-one interview about the church, Hyles’s middle daughter, Linda Murphrey, a motivational speaker and coach in Southern California, remembers his followers as “zombies” who were “willing to believe and obey whatever he said.” She told me: “He used to joke around about ‘drinking the Kool-Aid,’ but that was never funny to me because I knew that those people really would have done anything he told them to do. Anything.”
Photograph: Courtesy of Jerry Karifetz