Jun 28, 2023

How a miracle-obsessed megachurch conquered a California city


June 28, 2023


It’s hard not to get drawn into the sermons of Bill Johnson. With his soft-spoken voice and frequent quips, Johnson, senior leader of the nondenominational megachurch Bethel Church in Redding, California, is so charismatic he can make stories about God sending “glory clouds” to rain gold dust on Bethel worshipers sound folksy, even reasonable.

“I did just stand there in awe,” Johnson said, discussing supposedly miraculous gold dust with the matter-of-fact tone you’d use to recall your favorite moment from a concert. “I remember standing there, talking to a friend … just seeing these pieces float by.” 

Whether he’s regrowing missing body parts with prayer while leaning casually on a pulpit or responding “just call me Bill” when asked if he’s a prophetic apostle, his tone is always soothing — perfect for helping reaffirm your faith in a world that seems hellbent on shaking it. 

Something else sets Johnson apart from the fire-and-brimstone televangelists of yore: His insistence that his followers build God’s kingdom here on Earth right now rather than passively waiting around for the end times. This philosophy, sometimes known as dominionism, is increasingly common among American evangelicals — particularly in “apostolic” churches like Bethel, meaning church leaders call themselves apostles or prophets and claim they can hear God speaking to them. Although few of these churches are directly affiliated with one another, many observers believe they share enough unique traits to represent a new sect of Christianity, dubbed the New Apostolic Reformation.

Johnson has preached and written extensively about how his followers can bring godly influence to the seven major pillars, or “mountains,” of society, identified by Johnson as business; education; the church; family; arts and entertainment; science and medicine; and government. The argument is laid out most clearly in the 2013 book “Invading Babylon: The 7 Mountain Mandate,” in which Johnson and his co-author use downright warlike language to describe Christians taking over … well, everything. 

“Leaders around the world are discovering that lasting cultural transformation only occurs when the Gospel infiltrates every aspect of society,” according to the book’s introduction. “God is pouring out specific strategies to invade our culture, so that we can see complete cultural transformation.”

From humble beginnings, Johnson has turned Bethel into a major cultural force, largely through the successes of highly profitable subsidiaries. Hundreds of thousands of people watch the church’s sermons online, as produced by Bethel’s televangelism business, Bethel TV. The church also owns the highly influential record label Bethel Music, as well as several local schools, most famously the School of Supernatural Ministry, described as the “Christian Hogwarts” by BuzzFeed News

But many residents of Redding fear that the church is using their hometown, specifically, as a Seven Mountain Mandate testing ground. Certainly, the church’s influence in the city is undeniable. Under Johnson, the church has grown to 11,000 congregants in a city of just over 90,000 residents; in 2020, the church was the fifth-biggest employer in all of Shasta County, where Redding is located. 

Students and other worshippers often leave the church campus to practice “prayer healing” in the city streets, which entails the placing of hands on passersby who appear to be sickly or otherwise in need of a miracle, according to residents. (The church’s belief in the power of prayer has resulted in a number of public controversies, including a social media campaign soliciting prayers to raise a 2-year-old child from the dead, and a lawsuit alleging students at one of Bethel’s schools left a friend for dead after he fell off a cliff and their prayers failed to heal him. No charges were ever brought, and the lawyer for one of the students told SFGATE that “the matter has been resolved.”) 

The church has amassed significant political influence, too, including partially funding the local police force. And as of last November, Bethel members hold a majority of seats on the Redding City Council. The new council has faced two votes connected to the church’s interests so far; both have gone the Bethel bloc’s way.

“The sentiment used to be, ‘They go to this church and do weird stuff, ha ha,’ just as an offhand joke,” said resident Rachel Strickland, who started a Facebook group dedicated to keeping track of the church’s influence in town. “Now it’s something else.”

The evolution of Bethel Church

Bethel Church was first established in the 1950s as an affiliate of the Assemblies of God, a denomination of the Pentecostal sect of evangelical Christianity. Pentecostals, unlike many other evangelical sects, believe in practices such as speaking in tongues and prayer healing. Bill Johnson’s father, Earl Johnson, served as the church’s senior pastor from 1968 until 1984. To journalist Doni Chamberlain, who grew up in Redding and whose foster parents brought her into the Bethel fold in 1969, Earl was the “Real McCoy of Christianity.” She recalled the first time she met the elder Johnson, before she ever attended the church: The senior pastor ran into her mother, who struggled with alcoholism, in town during a snowstorm. He drove her home, then stuck around to pray for her.

“Here was this guy with a Bible sitting at my dining room table, preaching the Gospel to my mom in a gentle way,” Chamberlain told SFGATE. “I look at Earl and [his wife] Darlene as the Real McCoy of Christianity. They lived like they were followers of Jesus.”

Later, after Chamberlain’s mother died, she moved into foster care with a family who attended Bethel. She has less fond memories of those times, including an attempted exorcism, during which men from the church “tried to drive the demons out of me and my sister,” she said. (She and her sister were later diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder that causes involuntary muscle movements, according to Chamberlain.)

As an adult, Chamberlain stopped attending the church. She eventually began local news site A News Cafe, where she and her team have spent the better part of two decades chronicling Bethel’s rise under Bill Johnson.

Earl’s son, Bill Johnson, became senior leader in 1996, bringing with him “a one-word mission statement: revival,” according to his website. What is a revival? According to Johnson, revivals are moments of God-driven societal change, which begin when the Holy Spirit enters an individual in such a profound way that it “would affect a church, that would affect a city, that would impact a nation. God’s intention in every revival is to truly bring about a reformation where culture itself is changed.”

Johnson’s vision for Bethel’s role in members’ lives would grow to become far more encompassing than previous iterations, with tendrils stretching into every sphere, or “mountain,” of daily life. The transformation into a megachurch really began in earnest when Kris Vallotton joined the church as a senior associate pastor. Vallotton, who says he found religion after Jesus Christ spoke to him personally when he was a teenager, quickly became a major influence in the church community, including co-founding the School of Supernatural Ministry with Johnson in 1998. 

Now one of the church’s biggest businesses, the school is an unaccredited ministerial training program where students “learn how to read, understand, and ‘do’ the Bible, how to practice His presence, to witness, heal the sick, prophesy, preach, pray, cast out demons and much more,” according to the school’s website. (Both Johnson and Vallotton — a popular author, podcaster and blogger, as well as Johnson’s righthand man — declined to respond to detailed questions provided by SFGATE.)  

“When the School of Supernatural Ministry came on the scene, that became a huge moneymaker for them,” Chamberlain said. “That’s when we first noticed a shift in Shasta County.” 

Today, the school claims to have more than 13,000 graduates and 1,800 current students from around the world, who take core classes on subjects like “the supernatural nature of the Gospel” and choose from electives like “God and Government,” taught by Tenessa Audette, one of two Bethel members elected to the Redding City Council last year.

Since its first foray into education — one of the seven mountains, according to Johnson — the church has launched four other schools in town in addition to the School of Supernatural Ministry. Residents say Bethel students are a regular fixture in the city streets, both practicing prayer healing and participating in “treasure hunts,” which the church describes as “seek[ing] out treasures (people) within our community to pray for.”

“Bethel students would pray together and someone in the group would say, ‘God says we’re looking for a person in a plaid shirt,’” Chamberlain said of the treasure hunts. “And then if you were wearing a plaid shirt, they’d stalk you. Oh and God forbid you walk with a limp. They’ll come up and approach you and ask to heal it.”

‘Invading Babylon’

Miracles — healing limping strangers, gold dust from the heavens, babies coming back from the dead — have been central to Johnson’s vision since he first came to Bethel. In 2016, Bill Johnson told Charisma Magazine that he was able to heal multiple cases of cancer within months of taking up the reins.

Such claims may or may not be true; a recent three-year project by a religious research organization was unable to find conclusive medical proof for any of the claimed healings. Nevertheless, dozens of people proclaiming that they’ve been spontaneously healed is surely an effective way to build up the kind of ecstatic energy needed for the revival Johnson is aiming for. 

That focus on spiritual revival goes hand in hand with the Seven Mountain Mandate, also called 7M. The mandate first came to Earth in the 1970s, when three evangelical preachers claimed that God had given them simultaneous guides to taking over the seven pillars of modern life, with the goal of creating God’s kingdom on Earth. The mandate was mostly forgotten until the 2000s, when one of its progenitors explained it to Lance Wallnau, a business consultant from Dallas who claims prophetic abilities. Wallnau began spreading the good word; the concept struck a chord with Bill Johnson, and the two went on to co-author “Invading Babylon” in 2013, helping launch 7M into mainstream evangelical discourse.

Johnson writes in the first chapter of “Invading Babylon,” “Kingdom-oriented people must invade these mountains of influence in order for the transformation of society to take place.” Audette, the Bethel School of Supernatural School of Ministry teacher who won a seat on the Redding City Council, told SFGATE she views the mandate less as a demand to take over society and more a rebuke of other sects that focus more on Christ’s return than on present circumstances.

“For a very long time, Christians believed that Jesus is coming back and you’ll get raptured and leave, so why invest time into anything for any length of time when you’re getting raptured,” Audette said. “That’s an escapist perspective. Your job is to bring hope to all areas of society. Any time I hear seven mountains, it’s that if you invade, you invade with hope, and invade with light.”

While Bethel Church did not directly respond to questions from SFGATE regarding the Seven Mountain Mandate or its role in the city of Redding, a spokesperson did send a link to a YouTube video from a series called “Rediscover Bethel,” in which church leaders address “common questions and misconceptions” about the church. 

In the clip, Kris Vallotton discusses the meaning of the Seven Mountain Mandate with Dann Farrelly, dean of the School of Supernatural Ministry. 

“[It’s] very easy for Bethel to be seen everywhere, because [we’re] 10% of the population. And then people are like, ‘They’re taking over, and they’re trying to conquer Redding,’” Vallotton says in the video. “Well, I can honestly see how you’d think that. But we really see ourselves as more like Daniels and Josephs, who are seeding ourselves into community for the benefit of the community.” (In the Old Testament, both Daniel and Joseph become slaves to non-Jewish kings, then rise to political prominence while maintaining their Jewish faith.)

Toward the end of the clip, though, Vallotton mentions “a little bit of an exception,” referring to the time in 2018 when Vallotton asked church members to call their legislators and oppose three California bills related to LGBTQ people, including one that would have banned the sale of “sexual orientation change efforts.” The bill was targeted at conversion therapy, a loose term that usually refers to programs or activities intended to change a person’s sexuality. (Vallotton is founder of the religious activist group Moral Revolution, which offers, among other services, support from “men and women who’ve come out of homosexuality.”)

A spokesperson for Bethel did not answer an SFGATE question about conversion therapy directly, instead linking to an FAQ that says the church “deeply regret[s]” historical “injustices against those who identify as LGBTQ,” and, “Wherever we can be faithful to our convictions and still find common ground, that is our desire.” 

But 2018 was neither the first nor last time the church — or Vallotton — promoted services to help people change their sexuality or gender. As of today, the Bethel website is selling a book titled “CHANGED #Oncegay Stories,” “a compilation of inspirational stories of men and women who have come out of homosexuality.” The authors — a Bethel pastor and a School of Supernatural Ministry teacher — operate an organization called the Changed Movement out of offices on the Bethel campus. 

In an email to SFGATE, a spokesperson for the organization wrote, “CHANGED believes that ‘LGBTQ identity’ is a socio-political status that conflicts with the teaching of the Bible.” When asked to respond to allegations that Changed’s practices amount to conversion therapy, the spokesperson wrote, “CHANGED is comprised of thousands of people who have benefited from the freedom to make their own choices in counseling, faith, and conscience. We reject as ineffective and harmful all practices that include forms of physical violence, force, manipulation, shame, or humiliation to coerce an individual to renounce LGBTQ identity or change sexuality or gender experiences. CHANGED advocates for accessible, self-motivated approaches that affirm one’s dignity and empower personal choice, desired sexual ethic, and individual life goals.”

‘Much more than just silly weirdos on a hill’

Resident Rachel Strickland says that church members’ open advocacy for helping people change their sexual orientation (which is banned for minors in the state of California) is a major reason residents are on high alert for all things Bethel.

That widespread community worry has helped Strickland launch and grow a private Facebook group called “Bethel Affiliated Businesses,” in which she and others identify businesses in the city that are managed by church members or otherwise associated with Bethel. She told SFGATE she started the group in May 2018 in response to resident allegations that some businesses were attempting to proselytize to customers or had a preference for hiring Bethel Supernatural School of Ministry students as employees.

The Facebook group’s intent, Strickland says, is not to encourage a boycott of Bethel-affiliated businesses, but to provide customers with as much information as possible in their shopping choices. She says the group has 1,900 members, and they have labeled approximately 145 businesses as Bethel-affiliated.

“I was stunned at how fast the group grew,” she said. “I think people are concerned that this is much more than just silly weirdos on a hill, and people don’t want to knowingly support businesses with Bethel ties. Some people even want to compile an opposite list to keep true local businesses going.”

Commerce isn’t the only area where Bethel exerts influence in a way that troubles locals. 

Another mountain mentioned by Bill Johnson is arts and entertainment, and when Redding resident Zoie Griffin heard the Bethel Music smash hit “Reckless Love” at her nondenominational, non-Bethel-affiliated church, she found the lyrics troubling and put them into Google. “That was the song that made me start looking things up,” she told SFGATE. What she found was so troubling she actually left her church. 

Bethel Music, founded as a modest group for church music in the 2000s, has since become a juggernaut of Christian music; Justin Bieber even covered “Reckless Love” in 2018. 

But Bethel Music is associated with other, perhaps less savory stars of the Christian music scene. That includes Sean Feucht, who produced music under the Bethel Music label as recently as 2018. In December 2019, he visited Trump in the Oval Office, along with Bill Johnson’s son — the president of Bethel Music — and several other church leaders. 

Feucht, who did not respond to an SFGATE request for comment, is famous around Redding for many reasons, including holding large worship rallies in defiance of pandemic-era COVID-19 rules. Earlier this year, he gave a sermon in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which he embraced the label of “Christian nationalists” and asked for “God to come on over and take the government.” 

Strickland says that residents can’t help but be alarmed by church figures’ activity across so many spheres of society.

“There’s a huge concern because people are really looking at the Seven Mountain Mandate,” Strickland said. “One is business, another is government. People are more worried about the second at this point because the businesses have so much money it doesn’t matter whether we support a coffee shop or not. But when they have a majority on the city council, and all of a sudden it seems everything Bethel wants goes through easily? People are pretty upset about that, as they should be.”

‘The appearance of impropriety’

Julie Winter, a church elder, became the first of the Bethel-attending majority to join the Redding City Council when she was elected in 2016. She served as mayor in 2019; Redding, like other California cities, rotates the mayor and vice mayor roles among the five council members each year.

Winter gained two Bethel compatriots last winter: School of Supernatural Ministry teacher Tenessa Audette and church attendee Jack Munns. That gave them a 3-2 majority on the five-person council. 

Winter and Munns did not respond to multiple SFGATE requests for comment, but Audette made herself available for several phone calls, during which she said that her religious beliefs had no bearing on her decision to run for city council, that she has never discussed upcoming votes with senior church members, and that she was not otherwise politically influenced by Bethel members.

So far, the council members have faced two votes that touched on church business, either perceived or real. The first was a vote to take the first steps in renewing a rodeo’s lease for the grounds on which they’ve operated for decades. The Bethel bloc voted against this move, which some members of the public believed was part of a long-term plan to build more housing for Bethel students.

As it is throughout California, housing is a hot-button issue in this small town. Many residents blame Bethel for a housing crunch that’s driven up prices in the last few years. 

“There are a lot of Bethel members who own property that are bought to be rentals, and they’ll pack in these students like cordwood,” Chamberlain said. “You’ll see multiple students in bunk beds, and anywhere between eight and 12 people in one house. You can do the math on how much more money landlords get from renting to Bethel students, so on the housing market, they will scoop up what they can.”

That, in turn, drives up prices in the region.

“There are cases of young people sleeping in cars because there is no place to rent,” Chamberlain said. “Seniors are also having a hard time finding housing because people who want to rent to Bethel students gobble everything up.”

Mayor Michael Dacquisto, one of the two non-Bethel members on the council, agrees with Chamberlain.

“Rentals have taken over,” Dacquisto told SFGATE. “If I had a family and lived in a neighborhood where people were renting their house out to six Bethel students, I don’t know if I would be too happy with that.”

Housing problems exist throughout California, of course. But in a conversation with SFGATE and during a March 21 city council meeting, Audette acknowledged that the school she teaches at has “strained” housing in the community. Still, she argued, the situation is improving now that approximately a third of the 1,800 current students are in the online program.

In March this year, the council faced another contentious vote: Residents were appealing the planning committee’s approval of an amended expansion plan for the Bethel campus off of Collyer Drive.

The expansion was first approved by the city in 2017, over an unsuccessful appeal from residents. In 2022, Bethel asked the city to approve a new plan expanding the size of the project by approximately 20%. The planning committee said yes; residents once again appealed to the city council. (Both Audette and Dacquisto said that to their knowledge, no members of the planning commission attend Bethel.)

Those opposed to the project made the relatively straightforward argument that increasing square footage will increase the number of Bethel students enrolled, who will then seek housing in a city already facing a housing crunch. The planning commission had ruled that the updated plan would not impact local housing, a finding Dacquisto and others disagreed with.  

When the council heard the appeal on March 21, Winter recused herself, citing her position as a church elder. Audette and Munns did not, prompting anger from residents who spoke during the meeting’s public comment period.

“I want you to analyze — as a city council member, not as a charismatic evangelical Christian — whether this is a good choice for the city,” one resident told Audette and Munns. “Because there are countless people, not just here but in all of Redding, that are adamant that Bethel is the main cause, or at least the major contribution, to our housing crisis here.”

Audette and Munns eventually voted to deny the appeal. With Winter recused and the council deadlocked 2-2, the expansion plan moved forward. In conversations with local TV and SFGATE, Dacquisto tore into Audette for not recusing herself given her role as a Bethel instructor.

“There’s the issue of the appearance of impropriety, or appearance of conflict,” Dacquisto said. “I would say she should have used that standard.”

Audette said that because she’s not a member of church leadership, she did not need to recuse. She said of Dacquisto, “He’s a lawyer, so would that mean if we ever had a law case he would have to recuse because he’s in that industry?”

A handful of other votes this year have been 3-2 with the Bethel members in the majority. Does Dacquisto believe that the breakdowns are a coincidence, or are there things he and the public aren’t seeing?

“I would like to think the votes are made not because the three are members of Bethel, but because the three think it’s what was best for Redding,” Dacquisto told SFGATE. “But it’s unrealistic to say their Bethel involvement hasn’t influenced how they view the world.”

 Regardless, Dacquisto is “frustrated being on the losing end of 3-2 votes.”

‘Dance through the minefield of public opinion’

Even through his frustration, Dacquisto conceded that Bethel members make positive economic contributions to the city.

“They’ve done well for the city with the businesses members have started and the sales tax revenue,” he said. “It’s a double-edged sword.”

One common refrain SFGATE heard from residents is that city politicians who attend Bethel are preferable to the county-level politicians who have drawn national attention for outlawing Dominion voting machines on account of voter fraud conspiracy theoriesfiring the county health officer over COVID-19 restrictions, and presiding over downright chaotic public meetings.

But it’s not always that easy to disentangle the two groups.

Bill Johnson said in January 2021 he’s “100% confident” President Joe Biden’s victory “was done by fraud,” and invoked the “mark of the beast” when discussing COVID-19 vaccines, adding, “I’m not opposing the vaccines, I’m just saying this is an interesting dress rehearsal for a future issue,” and, “Some of the things you buy into today will cost you tomorrow.” (To many Christians, the “mark of the beast” signifies one’s worship of the Antichrist, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, some preachers likened the COVID-19 vaccine to the mark.)

Furthermore, Kris Vallotton temporarily walked back an apology for incorrectly prophesying that Donald Trump would win in 2020, citing “discrepancy” in the electoral process.

Even Audette left plenty of distance between herself and the most controversial aspects of the church when speaking to SFGATE. “One of the things that’s talked about often in the culture of Bethel is that we don’t have to agree to get along,” she said. When asked about Sean Feucht’s rallies during the height of the COVID pandemic, she responded, “That’s not a Bethel thing, that’s a Sean thing.”

On the issue of the 2020 presidential election, however, Audette declined to comment on whether she believes Biden won legitimately. Her non-answer may be attributable to her recently announced plans to run for state Assembly in 2024; in a region where many people believe the 2020 election was stolen, saying otherwise could be a form of political suicide.

Audette’s decision to run for state Assembly leaves the future of the Redding City Council murky after 2024. One of her council colleagues, non-Bethel member Mark Mezzano, is also running for that Assembly seat, and they’ll have competition from other non-Redding candidates. The two city council seats up for election in 2024 belong to Mezzano and Winter, and Winter has yet to say whether she will seek reelection.

But this current council — the Bethel bloc, plus Mezzano and Dacquisto — will remain intact for the next year and a half, and will undoubtedly take more votes connected to church business that prompt resident backlash. And should Audette win her Assembly race and wade into intense debates over several LGBTQ-related bills, you can bet that her Bethel ties will be made into an issue. If that happens, Bill Johnson offered advice to those invading the “Government” mountain in “Invading Babylon.”

“Government usually lives in a crippled state because of the fear of voters,” he writes. “Noble people enter that world and end up losing their dreams on the altar of intimidation. The leaven of Herod poisons many (see Mark 8:15). But there is a new breed being groomed for this hour who fears only God and lives with a wisdom that enables one to dance through the minefield of public opinion. Such is the price of working effectively in government.”



Jun 25, 2023

Oregon Guru Faces New Allegations of Sexual Misconduct

J. Michael Shoemaker, who founded a meditation center that operated out of a Southeast Portland mansion for 26 years, has faced similar allegations before.

Lucas Manfield
Willamette Week
June 23, 2023

A former student of J. Michael Shoemaker’s filed an anonymous lawsuit Tuesday morning against the Movement Center and its founder, accusing him of sexually assaulting her and other students.

The Movement Center, which hosts yoga and meditation retreats, is led by Shoemaker, who now goes by the name Swami Chetanananda. Shoemaker moved his center from a sprawling Kerns neighborhood mansion in 2019 to a large estate in Gold Beach on the southern Oregon Coast.

More than two decades ago, The Oregonian published a five-part exposé that included accounts from 11 woman accusing Shoemaker of abusing his power as a spiritual teacher to seduce them. At the time, Shoemaker said the sexual relationships were consensual.

Now, he is accused of sexual battery and sex trafficking in U.S. District Court in Portland.

“Defendants created an environment where vulnerable individuals—especially vulnerable young women like Plaintiff—were physically, spiritually, and sexually exploited,” the legal complaint says.

According to the complaint, the plaintiff, G.M., traveled to Portland to take classes from the center in 2016 after learning about it online. And in 2019, she moved to Portland and took up residence in the mansion as part of a “work-study” program.

During her stay, the woman says she learned Shoemaker had sexual relationships with his students. One of them brought G.M. to Shoemaker’s apartment, where “he advised her that if they ever were to engage in sexual acts together, it would be a spiritual experience, with the sole purpose of exchanging energies and allowing tension to be released,” according to the legal complaint.

Shoemaker, according to the complaint, eventually coerced her into sexual acts, which she believed at the time were “spiritual teachings.” At one point, he “digitally penetrated” her without her consent, claiming it was “treatment,” before choking her until she lost consciousness, the lawsuit alleges. Later, he put her hand on his penis and handed her approximately $250, it claims.
No one at the Movement Center picked up the phone or responded to messages from WW.

CultNEWS101 Articles: 6/24/2023

The 2023 ICSA Annual International Conference takes place in four-days!

The 2023 ICSA Annual International Conference takes place in ten-days!

The conference will take place at Hotel Distil in Louisville, Kentucky from June 29 - July 1, 2023, with pre-conference workshops on Wednesday, June 28, 2023.

Enjoy talks by more than 100 speakers, a live segment of the Phoenix Project arts and performances, and a riverboat cruise on the Belle of Louisville!

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Registration includes access to available recordings of in-person and online conference sessions as they become available.

The conference is supported solely by registration fees.

Need financial assistance for registration fees because of disability, unemployment, etc.? The Joan Capellini Scholarship Fund may be able to help. 

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A Cult 'Hiding in Plain Sight' Amid the New York Brownstones

In “The Sullivanians,” Alexander Stille recalls the heyday of an experiment in communal living that blurred the boundaries between therapists, patients and lovers.

Alexandra Jacobs
New York Times
June 18, 2023

THE SULLIVANIANS: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune, by Alexander Stille

Legal marijuana notwithstanding, true New Yorkers have long prided themselves on resisting certain Californish things. Malls. Cars. Cults.

Maybe that’s why the astounding story that pours forth from Alexander Stille’s new book “The Sullivanians,” about hundreds of people who got sucked into a very peculiar live-work situation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for decades, isn’t better known.

Denial: It’s not just a river in Egypt that’s much bigger than the Hudson. It’s also one of those slightly antiquated pop-psychology terms, like paranoia and transference, that used to get passed around cultured Manhattan living rooms along with glasses of Riunite and overchilled Brie on Triscuits. Everyone was in analysis: an intellectual pursuit. No one called it therapy, that soft millennial word.

Stille, a journalism professor at Columbia University whose most relevant previous book was about the Mafia, found this “alternate society in our own midst, hidden in plain sight,” and explores it through dozens of interviews, personal and legal papers, and several memoirs, published and unpublished. Like a hawk crouching on a grotesque at the fabled Apthorp building, which also makes a cameo in this tale, he gives us a keen bird’s-eye view.

That some (not all) Sullivanians referred to themselves as Sullivanians at all is a bit of historical misdirection. Harry Stack Sullivan was an eminent American psychiatrist who died in 1949. He had advocated a warmer clinical practice than that of the distant, frosty Freudians, placing special emphasis on the importance of peer interaction, which he called “chumship,” in human development.

One of his star pupils was Jane Pearce, who finished her medical training at the well-regarded William Alanson White Institute, which Sullivan helped to found. She met Saul Newton, a communist labor organizer with major red flags in the woman department, at a bridge game in Chicago. Eventually he came to work in the White Institute’s bursar’s office and they married (his fourth time). The couple swiped her teacher’s name to start their own institute in 1957.

What ensued, which Stille recounts with an almost claustrophobic intimacy, must have Sullivan rolling over on his couch for all eternity.

The bellicose Newton had no formal training and clearly had his own unresolved issues — he once beheaded a flock of diseased chicks at the behest of his tyrannical father. Yet from the beginning he exerted so much influence and authority over the new institute that Clement Greenberg, the art critic who was an early patient and referred Jackson Pollock and others, called his treatment method Newtonian.

Its fundamental premise was to break the bonds between parent and child: “splitting the atom of the nuclear family,” Stille writes, “and scattering its pieces.” Mothers were thought to be particularly malevolent. Free love was encouraged— if insisting that close, exclusive attachments are unhealthy can really count as “free.” Alcohol was considered an elixir, as salubrious as green juice.

This all began in a period of postwar conformity that creative people were naturally motivated to flout, and got more out-there as the ’60s and ’70s progressed. Besides many artists, those whom Stille locates, at various points, in the Sullivanian orbit include musicians (Judy Collins, members of the band Sha Na Na, Elliott Randall, a guitarist on the Steely Dan hit “Reelin’ in the Years”); authors and the author-adjacent (Richard Price, James Agee’s daughter Deedee); and the dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs.

Later, members would be urged to learn computer programming, against many of their natural inclinations but more reliably lucrative for the organization, which billed for analysis and eventually invested in real estate and other projects.


Expanding into dormlike apartments segregated by gender, Newton and his cohort offered some who were suffering from urban loneliness a ready-made community and a satisfyingly full datebook. “Add water and it’s instant friends,” Price told Stille. “It’s instant sex life … like somebody opened the gates of heaven.”

In 1975 the group started a political theater repertory company, the Fourth Wall. “They combined the worst of Marxism, psychoanalysis and the musical theater,” said one of Saul’s daughters, Esther Newton, an anthropologist known for her germinal research on drag queens.

A major amusement of “The Sullivanians” is how it conjures the bad old days of New York City in all its lurid colors. One woman kills a cockroach crawling up the wall during a lovemaking session; another reclines on a bench in the middle of Broadway with a paper plate over her crotch and a Dixie cup on each breast.

There is theft (“Only in a lefty group would someone be accused of stealing a pottery kiln,” Stille notes) and wacky food restrictions, prompting two rebels to make a “cheeseburger oath” of secrecy as they sat in a forbidden restaurant and discussed their doubts. After the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, many in the group fled for a time to Disney World, where in a kind of “apocalyptic bacchanalia” they took sedatives and had group sex in a Howard Johnson’s.

The community always had its own special vocabulary. One exercise, sometimes postcoital, was delivering a harsh character assessment known as a “summary.” Getting too involved with someone, which was seen as dependency, was “romantic focus.” “The Conditions of Human Growth,” a book co-authored by Newton and Pearce in 1963, suggested especially intense romantic focus was a form of “hostile integration.” (“What most people would call ‘falling in love,’” as Stille observes.)

Ethics were questionable from the beginning: Pearce glugged vodka even in morning sessions, while Newton, along with serial cheating on Pearce and his subsequent wives (he had six in total), often demanded oral sex from female patients and domestic help. Members were inspired to regress to childhood and recoup missing stages of development. For a couple of summers in Amagansett, where the leaders built a summer residence, men and women walked around sucking on pacifiers, carrying stuffed animals and meting out martinis from baby bottles.

In the meantime, the actual children suffered to varying degrees, routinely outsourced to babysitters or sent away to boarding schools, some terrible. The development of DNA tests revealed hitherto unknown biological relationships, providing, Stille writes, “as many twists and turns as the end of a Dickens novel in which mistaken identities are clarified and long-lost foundlings are reunited with their parents.”(Though some members never got to reconcile with estranged birth families.)

What hastened the end? A 1986 article by Joe Conason in The Village Voice. Lawsuits brewing faster than Sanka. And defectors, including one mother refused time with her child, who’d become known as “the contras.”

“The Sullivanians” is a fascinating study of group dynamics and a highly competent historical account. Its only flaw, narratively speaking, is that this key party of self-actualizers features no particular cheerable hero or heroine — only survivors with varying degrees of rue, blinking as the light of hindsight intensifies.

THE SULLIVANIANS: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune | By Alexander Stille | 418 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $30

Alexandra Jacobs is a book critic and the author of “Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch.” @AlexandraJacobs


Jun 24, 2023

​​The 2023 ICSA Annual International Conference takes place in four-days!

The 2023 ICSA Annual International Conference takes place in t​en-days!

​The conference will take place at Hotel Distil in Louisville, Kentucky from June 29 - July 1, 2023, with pre-conference workshops on Wednesday, June 28, 2023.

Enjoy talks by more than 100 speakers, a live segment of the Phoenix Project arts and performances, and a riverboat cruise on the Belle of Louisville!

​Registrants may attend in-person or online. In-person events will be streamed for online attendees; online events will be available to in-person attendees. 

Access instructions for online events will be sent as the conference dates draw near.

Registration includes access to available recordings of in-person and online conference sessions as they become available.

The conference is supported solely by registration fees.

Need financial assistance for registration fees because of disability, unemployment, etc.? The Joan Capellini Scholarship Fund may be able to help. 

International Cultic Studies Association​

The strange tale of Elspeth Buchan, the 18th-century cult leader who convinced her followers she would never die - Susan Morrison

The body of Elspeth Buchan, whose ‘Buchanites’ were celibate and worked for nothing, mysteriously disappeared after she died, prompting suggestions she had ascended to heaven. Decades later, the truth was revealed...


The Scotsman 

Susan Morrison

June 24, 2023

Elspeth Buchan must have been spell-binding. Like many people with towering self-belief, she exerted an incredible power over her followers, to whom she promised eternal life and an assured place in the Kingdom of Heaven. She would make their souls great again. And they believed her and kept believing in her, even in the face of the dull, predictable truth.

She was born Elspeth Simpson in Banffshire around 1738. Life was tough. She herself wrote in 1785, that as a child she was never “fed nor clothed nor educate by parents”. She seems to have physically disassociated herself from her misery falling into trance-like states, as many unhappy children do. It's not surprising that she took to religion in a big way when she went to school at the age of five.

She married a potter named Peter Buchan and took his surname. The marriage wasn’t happy, but she did have at least three children, possibly more, given rates of Infant mortality at the time. It’s also possible that her deep religious faith contributed to the end of the marriage. When she and Peter separated, it left her more time to go from minister to minister, debating, discussing and learning until she met with Hugh White in 1782. Hugh was a minister of the Relief Church, and fully believed the Second Coming was at hand, so get ready, people.

He and Elspeth based themselves in Irvine, where Elspeth went full on fire ’n’ brimstone Book of Revelations. She dared to preach herself, which was a bit much for Irvine, and in no time at all, she, the good reverend and her followers were run out of town. For a prophet, a spell in the wilderness is to be expected. She rallied, and gathered more followers to her sect, now known as the Buchanites.

Friend Mother, as she became known, promised much to the 60-odd men, women and children who followed her, including the very breath of life when she breathed over them. They would not die, nor be buried in the ground. They wandered as far as Dumfriesshire where they built a hovel and became what looks like a commune. They were celibate, and did not believe in taking payment for their work, since the Lord would provide. This made them very popular with the local farmers, but not the farm workers, who found themselves competing with zero-payment contractors.

Relations with the locals became even more strained when Elspeth announced that the day of reckoning was at hand, or at least, 40 days and nights away. Time to prepare, and that meant praying, singing hymns, and, of course, fasting until the big moment. People in the community became so anxious about the health of some of the starved Buchanite children that they stormed the commune house and took them away, but the adults persevered.

After nearly six weeks of starvation, the Buchanites climbed up nearby Templand Hill in the pre-dawn dark. They were heard singing and chanting psalms in a state of exultation. They were going to watch the world explode.

When Dr Louise Yeoman made a radio documentary about Elspeth, she had me stagger up that very slope. To be fair, I was carrying some of the recording equipment. Even for someone who’d had their Weetabix, it was a struggle. The view was worth it. Had the world really ended that day, the Buchanites would have had ring-side seats to the break-up of the planet.

Of course, they didn’t. At some point, the singing must have stopped and the exulting prayer dried up. And at some point, they must have known the game was up. They came down the mountain, and Elspeth faced charges.

She was banged up. You’d think that was the end of the matter, but no. Upon her release, her trusty lieutenant Andrew Innes, gathered up the remaining Buchanites and together with Elspeth, they started anew in a house in a tiny place called Crocketford. They made their living as weavers, presumably having realised that God wasn’t going to provide everything after all.

Mother Buchan had promised her followers that they would never die, never be buried. It was a tad concerning, therefore, when she herself became ill, despite the devoted attention of Andrew Innes. The woman who said she would never die breathed her last in 1791, promising her followers that if their faith was strong enough, she would return in "six days or ten or 50 years”.

Her coffin was readied for burial. But the body vanished. Had Mother Buchan ascended to Heaven? Had she risen from her shroud and left to preach in pastures new? It took until 1846 for the mystery of Elspeth's body to be solved.

As Andrew Innes lay dying in Crocketford, he finally admitted that Elspeth was hidden in an alcove behind the fire in his room. She was partially mummified, probably by the smoke and heat. Those who found her noted she had been a tall woman. Her skin was the colour of parchment. There was still some hair on her scalp. Andrew apparently visited her once or twice a week. Elspeth’s self-belief was so powerful that he utterly believed she would return.

Even today we are not immune to the gravitational pull of such self-believers. Look at the recently jailed Elizabeth Holmes, a young woman of such confidence that she convinced her followers to invest fortunes in her frankly dodgy blood-testing kit.

One last thing. Andrew Innes asked that when Elspeth and he were finally laid to rest, she should be buried first, then his coffin laid upon hers, so that when she rose to glory, she would take him with her. As far as we know, they’re still there.



Jun 23, 2023

Spiritual guru in Oregon faces sex abuse lawsuit by former follower; denies allegations

Maxine Bernstein
The Oregonian/OregonLive
June 23, 2023

A former student and devotee of J. Michael Shoemaker, the founder and spiritual leader of the Movement Center, has filed a federal suit against him, alleging he sexually exploited and assaulted her.

The woman, identified by the initials G.M. in the suit filed Wednesday in Portland, alleges Shoemaker choked her until she lost consciousness in one encounter.

Shoemaker, now 74, taught his followers that having sex was a way of “facilitating energy exchange” and necessary for spiritual enlightenment, the suit says. He convinced his followers, including G.M., to believe they would be “cursed” or “thrown into hell” if they cut ties with him, the suit alleges.

Shoemaker, who goes by the Hindi name Swami Chetanananda, has been considered by his followers as a guru within the Bhagavan Nityananda lineage of Hinduism.

He is founder and president of the Movement Center, described on its website as a center for spiritual practice, with meditation, yoga, and tantric traditions and practices. He ran it in Portland for more than two decades out of a 61-bedroom historic mansion in the Kerns neighborhood before selling it in May 2020 for $8.9 million and moving the center to an estate in Gold Beach in Oregon’s Curry County that summer.

The suit alleges the Movement Center was negligent by not reporting Shoemaker to police or failing to bar him from center activities after similar allegations had surfaced in the past.

The Oregonian published a four-part series called “In the Grip of the Guru” in 2001 about the Nityananda Institute, the former name of the Movement Center. At that time, 11 women told The Oregonian that Shoemaker had sex with them while they studied with him and provided detailed accounts corroborated in multiple cases by people they told at the time.

Shoemaker responded to The Oregonian’s questions that year with a typed statement, acknowledging he had “sexual relationships with mature, adult consenting women” during the prior 30 years.

Shoemaker has never faced criminal charges from the allegations.

Reached by phone Thursday, Shoemaker vigorously denied the accusations in the federal lawsuit.

“Every bit of this is complete and utter nonsense,” he said.

He said he and the woman suing him had a “misunderstanding” and that he “took responsibility” and apologized “for whatever she was upset about.” He declined to elaborate.

Shoemaker said he retired four years ago and the center hasn’t operated for several years. While at one time he may have had 100 followers, he said he now has about 30.

“Here’s what I’m guilty of -- I’m guilty of having sex with women,” he said. “I have never choked anybody in my whole life. … I have never, ever in my life, had to coerce anybody in my life to have sex with me. Why would I be interested in sex if coercion was involved? That’s not connection. That’s not nourishing. I’m a human being trying to grow myself and help other people grow.”

One of the lawyers who filed the suit on behalf of G.M. is New York-based attorney Carol M. Merchasin, a former employment lawyer who is now semi-retired, specializing in cases that allege sexual abuse in spiritual communities.

This suit accuses both Shoemaker and his center of benefiting financially from Shoemaker’s alleged acts of sexual exploitation. Similar to previous suits filed against Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, this suit alleges Shoemaker engaged in sex trafficking. Under the federal sex-trafficking law, it’s a crime to entice and force a person to commit a “commercial sex act” in return for something of value.

Attorney Stephen English, who represents Shoemaker and the Movement Center, said, “We categorically deny any claims of sex trafficking or any of the other malicious allegations made against a man who had spent his adult life trying to better the lives of others.”

G.M., now living in Indiana, first traveled from her then-home in Dallas-Fort Worth to the Portland-based meditation center for a two-day retreat in 2016, intrigued by the center’s website. She attended yoga classes and meditation sessions and found a supportive environment, according to her lawyers.

She returned in January 2019 to study, meditate and work at the Movement Center in exchange for room and board, hoping to start a college master’s program that fall. She did secretarial and kitchen work and worked at the center’s front desk, often putting in more than 40 hours of work, the suit says.

Months later, when G.M. heard allegations of sexual misconduct involving Shoemaker, other women at the center told her the women making the allegations were lying, according to the suit.

G.M. became isolated from her friends and family and was convinced to remain at the center and not pursue her master’s degree, the suit says. She soon looked to Shoemaker to help her make most decisions, from what to buy, who to date and which career to pursue, the suit alleges.

G.M. lived at the center in Portland and then relocated with other members to Gold Beach.

Around February 2021, Shoemaker “demanded” that G.M. kiss him “deeply” while they were alone at the gym and then Shoemaker over the next month or two invited her to his room for “treatment” and groped her, the suit alleges.

Around that time, he had her sit beside him on a massage table, then began sexually assaulting her and suddenly put his hands around her throat and choked her, the suit alleges. When she regained consciousness, he claimed she had a “next level orgasm,” according to the suit.

He then continued to kiss and grope her and gave her $250 in cash, the suit alleges.

“Defendant Shoemaker sexually assaulted Plaintiff under the guise of spiritual teaching, and he commanded total obedience as part of the guru-student relationship,” Merchasin, along with attorneys Ashley L. Vaughn and Zachary McConnell, wrote in the suit.

He afforded G.M. special treatment, allowing her to sit next to him at dinner, have one-on-one time with him and later offered to have her serve as editor of his future book, according to the suit.

Shoemaker several times asked G.M. to send him nude photos of herself, but she didn’t, the suit says.

G.M. left the center sometime in March 2021, setting aside her worries about “spiritual and physical retribution,” the suit says.

On Thursday, Shoemaker said he had been alone in a room with the woman now suing him two or three times and said he gave her what he described as a “cranial sacral treatment.” He said the woman lived on the property in a trailer and had a boyfriend, but that she was “really not in a very good place” with him.

“I tried to create for her a small space in which she could take a breath,” he said. “I’m not an abuser.”

The suit seeks unspecified punitive, economic and non-economic damages against Shoemaker and the center.

-- Maxine Bernstein