When former schoolteacher Jane Whaley and her husband, Sam, founded Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, NC in 1979, no one could have imagined all that the institution would become: a religious movement with global impact; a community that provides housing and job opportunities to its congregation; and a cult dogged with allegations of physical, psychological and spiritual abuse.
John Cooper grew up in Spindale as part of the Word of Faith Fellowship community, and the abuse he suffered then haunted him well into his adult life. While attending medical lectures on how to recognize signs of domestic violence, he was reminded of multiple church members attempting to exorcise Word of Faith Fellowship congregants through “blasting” — or screaming and punching a person believed to be demon-possessed. Wanting to stop the suffering of other children and families, Cooper eventually reported his experiences to two investigative journalists at the Associated Press, Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr.
Weiss and Mohr not only found other church members willing to corroborate Cooper’s claims, but they unearthed even more disturbing accounts of manipulation and abuse at Word of Faith Fellowship. Their investigation is the subject of a new book, “Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults” (Hanover Square Press/2020).
Essentially what separates her [Jane Whaley’s] doctrine from other evangelicals is that she believes that Satan employs an army of invisible demons on Earth — supernatural beings sent from hell to manipulate humans into addiction, illness and wrongdoing. But her followers weren't helpless. They could use what she called a prayer — a high decibel, dramatic, technical blasting, shouting and screaming to drive out those demons. So literally scare them away. And over the years, it just developed from, you know, screaming and shouting, to doing everything possible to get rid of those demons, and that included punching, choking, restraining people and causing physical harm to cast out those devils.
On Jane Whaley’s definition of devils:
Nike apparel is not allowed because the swoop is of the devil. You can't have root beer because that's of the devil. It's pretty much anything that Jane Whaley thinks is taking someone's attention away from what she believes they need to be doing. … You know, if boys are flirting with girls, they have the unclean devil. Yeah, if you're if you're not tithing enough, you may have the greedy devil. It's just any number of things that can be a devil to her.
On Word of Faith Fellowship’s attitudes toward sex:
They were really specific that, you know, you couldn't do it more than once a week and definitely no more than three times a month. But they really made a point to say that you should be able to go like three months, at least, without having sex and be happy with that. And so it was just really awkward all the way around. And yeah, they also said that, you know, there was only one position allowed, which was, you know, the male on top, and, like, missionary style. Also the lights have to be off. And, you know, [you’re] not allowed to see what you're doing. Also, you have to have agreed ahead of time with each other that you're going to do it, so it can't be spontaneous.
On the limits of religious freedom:
For 40 years, they've been allowed to just operate using, you know, religious freedom as a way to create this narrative that, you know, they're protected by religious freedom. But you know, religious freedom ends when abuse of children begins.