The Prophetess and the Apostle:
A Tale of Two Cult Leaders
by Jesse Ancona
In my three years at the Pentecostal Church, I very early became aware of one young woman in her early twenties who prophesied more regularly than most people did – I’ll call her Judy. In most charismatic churches, there are only a few people who prophesy, though many speak in tongues. There seem to be proportionally more women who prophesy than men, in my observation, so this young woman was not all that unusual, at first.
Physically, though, Judy stood out: she had long brown hair, and over time, it was going prematurely gray, so she had a white streak in a forelock that led to the rest of the gray on either side. Over the years, her hair got progressively lighter. She had pale, milky-white skin, and blue eyes, so the overall effect was, depending on your viewpoint, otherworldly, or just plain spooky.
Judy knew her Bible well, and she was particularly well versed in the prophets, and extremely fond of Isaiah, a book I myself favoured. Unlike many people in the congregation who were very charismatic, she did not substitute personal revelation for Biblical knowledge, so what she said and even her prophecies seemed quite Biblical. In many cases, they probably were, since I could spot a lot of Isaiah in her prophetic proclamations.
I liked her, but found her a little creepy. She worked in a retail store, and when I went in with a girlfriend to buy something, she seemed even stranger in that setting than she did in church. I think she disturbed a lot of the customers, too, so eventually, she found herself unemployed. She was still living with her parents – to their loud frustration – and spent her time reading her Bible, rather than looking for work. She had no boyfriends, and I’d never known or heard of her having any, and it was well known that she was a virgin. Somehow, she had that virginal air about her that made it impossible to believe otherwise.
I now know that virginity or abstinence is part of the shamanistic formula, and that she was a perfect case history of the "ecstatic female saint". Her eccentricities certainly increased over time. She began not only to prophesy, but to have visions. She became ever more steeped in Isaiah, and she focussed more and more on Christ as her Heavenly Bridegroom.
She became convinced that the people in the congregation should purify themselves, and steep themselves in the Word of God. So far, so good. But there was some sort of bad blood developing between her and the pastor – no doubt he saw she was garnering a following – and, while she continued to attend the Pentecostal services and prophesy, she pulled in her horns with her more strange "words of vision," and began revealing these things only to those who would join her in her home Bible Study.
What began as a Bible Study slowly turned into an outlet for her "calling" as a Prophetess for the Last Times. Her meetings were by invitation only, and because the new boyfriend I had was a regular of her "home meetings," I was able to go, on the strength of knowing him, without any further prerequisites. I found it fascinating to see, in a few years, how she had progressed, from a young woman with a private ecstatic vision to a leader of a small group who followed her every pronouncement. She had, in my opinion, degenerated, and I disliked seeing people follow her unquestioningly.
There came a time when my boyfriend told me to sit in another part of the room, because Judy had spoken to him about it. He said that none of the other couples sat together, because Judy claimed that they must separate themselves to become closer to Jesus. Even married couples were being abstinent in order to "give themselves over to prayer." I looked around, and sure enough, all the couples were sitting apart. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
Interesting or not, it had all become too creepy. I told him I wouldn’t go with him anymore. He continued to go for quite some time, though, but I would not discuss it with him, or hear what the Prophetess had said in her latest pronouncements. After he and I broke up, I lost touch with what was going on in that group, and nothing was said about it in the Pentecostal congregation, though I could feel the tension about the subject.
Those little "home meetings" were just too weird for me. I didn’t understand enough to know that it was my first experience with a cult. I now look back on it as a rare opportunity to have met a future cult leader before she had a following, and known her as she began her first little group. The birth of a cult. I find myself looking back at the Prophetess, and how she changed from the dreamy-eyed young virgin into the iron-fisted ruler of a small group of families.
Shortly afterwards, I left my home town, and went to university in another city. I later learned that the Prophetess had split the Pentecostal church at home down the middle, and the pastor was fired over it. I was shocked that it had gone so far, since I did not know she had such a following, but in retrospect, I could see how her strange beliefs, even if not wholly followed, could split a church that may have even partly believed in her gift of prophecy. I didn’t hear much about how the church managed after that, though I understand they got a new minister, and tried to rebuild after their losses. I don’t know what happened to her group, either, but I would be surprised if it survived.
How did this experience affect how I perceived the Worldwide Church of God? Unfortunately, it blinded me to the subtleties of Worldwide as a cult, since I’d seen, first-hand, the budding of a new cult, headed by a woman whose prophecies were believed by her group, and the strange behaviours adopted by her devotees. Worldwide seemed very tame and normal after this, and refreshingly boring, which seemed "safe" after the Pentecostals and this odd little offshoot cult cell. And, having seen first hand the dangers of "private Bible Studies," I thought Worldwide’s prohibitions against such groups were wise, though I later questioned their interpretation of any gathering of friends as falling under this ban.
Worldwide’s cult influence was much more subtle than the Prophetess’ following, and after seeing her blatant strangeness, it was much harder for me to perceive Worldwide as a cult. Also, after dealing with the anti-intellectualism of the Pentecostals (even the mainstream congregation) where any questions about doctrine earned one a pastoral condemnation that one was "contentious," I felt that a church that told me to "prove it from the Bible yourself," and "don’t believe me, believe the Bible," was indeed a much safer place to be.
It is interesting to compare and contrast the Prophetess and the Apostle. The self-proclaimed Prophetess was blatant, picturesque, bizarre, and her following probably never went beyond half a small-town congregation before self-destructing.
The self-proclaimed Apostle, however, bided his time, seeming like "an angel of light," and was much more covert, so he was able to build an empire the Prophetess could only dream of – or maybe she couldn’t, as her dreams still mainly seemed to center on her Heavenly Bridegroom.
I believe the Prophetess was sincere, but like many ecstatics, combined the Bible, personal imagination, and pent-up sexual energy into a little fantasy world that a few people got caught up in. Still, when she had the opportunity, she was merciless in pushing her abstinent lifestyle on her followers. So far as I know, she never took money, and continued to live with her parents, though a friend indicated that she later, at their urging, got another retail job.
Herbert was much more shrewd, and knew which side his bread was buttered on from the beginning, and never seemed to let his personal fantasies interfere with taking care of business. Still, like the Prophetess, we later found, his mind was infected by a distorted view of sexuality that had far-reaching consequences on the ministry under him, and on his followers.
Like the Prophetess, Herbert knew his Bible, and the Devil is no more effective than when he is quoting scripture. Unlike the Prophetess, though, Herbert waited quite awhile before proclaiming himself part of the belief system. Many people had followed the Worldwide Church of God’s teachings for quite some time before having to face up to "who is HWA?" as a question of doctrine. This is not to say Herbert didn’t always refer to himself as being "called by God," but most leaders feel they have a calling, and their calling is not something one has to take on faith. By the time he was proclaimed The Apostle, and Herbert Armstrong had become part of the theology, his following was relatively dug-in.
The Prophetess made her identity and her authority to interpret scripture a necessary tenet of faith in her group, and I believe it limited her. There were many people in the Pentecostal congregation who believed she was a Prophetess, but wanted to make up their mind about some things. Had she not insisted on her own infallibility, she would probably have had a greater following, as Herbert shrewdly did.
From what I recall, the Prophetess didn’t set out to be a leader: people flocked to her, and, as the pastor more and more restricted her ability to prophesy to the congregation, she turned her frustrated energies, and her breathless ecstatic enthusiasm, on her little following. She would eagerly share her visions with them, and childishly assume everyone should be just like her, and grow impatient and angry if anyone disagreed. I suspect she also found she got a certain amount of thrill from the power of having a following, and because I believe her religion was based on whatever gave her the greatest (spiritualized) fleshly thrills, the excitement of power would have easily intoxicated her.
But I don’t think the Prophetess was cunning enough in how she went about things. She should have let people in slowly, as Herbert did, and not revealed the harder things, like abstinence, until they were ready, and she definitely should have gotten them to give her money, so she wouldn’t have to be seen as a shopgirl living with her parents. I’m not speaking in terms of ethics, but in terms of the cunning of a cult leader. I suspect her weakness was that she believed her own propaganda, and it hindered her from building an empire.
Herbert never let belief stand in his way of getting ahead. And he knew how to cloak things so that they never seemed too weird. While even as a teen, I was repulsed by the Prophetess’ group, in my twenties, I was easily taken in by Herbert’s religious machine.
More and more, as I look at examples of other leaders, I come to the opinion that the greatest hindrance to a cult leader’s power is true belief – even in falsehood. The cult leader cannot be bound by the beliefs he is using to snare his followers, or they will be his downfall. Even Satan, who knows the Truth, is not bound by it, because he refuses to obey it, and can happily promote whatever lies will serve him in whatever circumstance, unconcerned that one lie might contradict another, since they are only means to the end of taking away captives.
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