We look at how the Church of Wells cult recruits members into its fold, and the almost total emotional control the three ‘elders’ have over the group.
WELLS, Texas — The Church of Wells, located in and around Wells, Texas, 17 miles northwest of Lufkin, separates itself from the world because of the evil it sees in the larger culture. But the Church of Wells itself is the source of an evil much worse than what it preaches against and separates itself from. Leaders of the Church of Wells — called “elders” though all three are in their twenties — systematically destroy the freedom of mind, conscience, and volition of their members.
On August 11, I wrote about the death of a baby born to a couple who are members of the Church of Wells [“Child murder in Texas” by Lamar Hankins, The Rag Blog, Aug. 11, 2014]. The infant, Faith Shalom Pursley, was born with a routinely treatable birth defect, but received no medical care because her parents and at least one of the Church of Wells “elders,” Ryan Ringnald, decided to deny the baby medical care in favor of praying that she would get well and, after she died, praying for her resurrection for15 hours before reporting her death.
Here, I explore the culture of the group, beginning with its recruiting process, based on what I have seen and what witnesses have reported to me.
To understand how the ‘elders’ control the group’s members, I made a second three-day trip to Cherokee County.
To understand how the “elders” control the group’s members, I made a second three-day trip to Cherokee County early in September to gather information on the group and its businesses. Since then, I have received numerous emails and phone calls from witnesses and met with others to learn more about the methods the “elders” use to control the behavior, emotions, and thinking of members, beginning during the recruitment of members.
Usually, recruiters draw people into the group. All of the “elders” (Sean Morris, Ryan Ringnald, Jacob Gardner) engage in recruiting, as do Rick Trudeau (a deacon), William Pierce, Cory McLaughlin, Mosao Gontheir, Jesse Morris (a deacon, brother to Sean Morris and cousin to Cory McLaughlin), Daniel Pursley, Tanner Trudeau (brother to Rick Trudeau), Mark de Rouville (who was a Navy Seal for a brief period), and Jordan Fraker.
These people may also be used to enforce discipline among group members or “protect” members from their families. Chris Faulkner was a recruiter until he had a conflict with the “elders” and left the group. There are other recruiters whose full names or identities I do not know at this time.
The recruiters often target a person experiencing confusion about the purpose of life, someone who is theologically or religiously confused, someone who is involved or experimenting with evangelicalism, or someone looking for greater meaning in life, what many would call a seeker.
Case study of a Church of Wells recruit
The following case study illustrates what it is like for many who are recruited into the Church of Wells. I use the term “case study” loosely. Although all the experiences are based on those of real people, I have altered identifying details and names to protect members, former members, and their families.
Geoffrey was 23 years old, a graduate of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he graduated with honors with a degree in Environmental Engineering and found a welcome religious home with the members of the Reformed Christian Fellowship. He spent two summers in an internship with an environmental law firm in Washington state, focusing on the sustainable harvesting of old-growth forests. But he was so close to his friends at the First Baptist Church of McKinney, Texas, that he turned down an excellent job offer with the Oregon Forest Resources Institute in Portland.
His Baptist friends drew Geoffrey into active evangelism work, taking the Gospel to youths in the Dallas area. He took an entry level position with the City of Dallas Parks and Recreation Department, protecting urban vegetation threatened by out-of-control growth in the Metroplex. In spring 2014, with little warning to his parents, who lived in McKinney, Geoffrey quit his job and headed to Wells to join the 110 or so members of the Church of Wells.
Geoffrey’s move happened so quickly that his parents had no time to react or even begin to understand what had happened to their son.
Geoffrey’s move happened so quickly that his parents had no time to react or even begin to understand what had happened to their son, who had much potential in the environmental field.
Through his youth group at their Baptist church, one of the recruiters for the Church of Wells had approached Geoffrey, telling him about this small evangelical church, whose leaders believe they are a remnant of the early Christian church that sprang up after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
After their initial meeting, the Church of Wells recruiters continued their personal contacts with Geoffrey through Facebook, Skype, email, and cell phone. The Church of Wells maintains a sophisticated on-line presence, fueled by a bank of computers. The computers once were in the house provided by Cindy Williams, mother-in-law to Cory McLaughlin, before she sold it to the local school district, which tore it down to erect a parking lot. There are unconfirmed reports that the computers are now housed in a facility in Grand Prairie, Texas.
After Geoffrey left for deep East Texas to join the Church of Wells, his parents had little contact with him. He refused to speak with them about their religious views. Although their religious views were Southern Baptist conservative, the “elders” of the Church of Wells convinced Geoffrey that his parents’ views were blasphemous. Their beliefs, according to the “elders,” required him to cease all contact with his parents or, at least, minimize the contacts.
Like many parents of Church of Wells recruits, Geoffrey’s parents reacted negatively to essentially being called apostates, but they kept their negative views within their family. While their religious beliefs were seriously and prayerfully considered, not arrived at lightly, they were denigrated by the “elders.”
Eyewitnesses have commented that when parental apostasy is drilled into a person night and day, when one is harangued repeatedly, and when the very words of Jesus (taken out of any meaningful context) are used against the parents, little true understanding or common ground can be reached. The “elders” frequently quote this passage:
“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his owne life also, hee cannot be my disciple.” — 1611 King James Bible, Luke 14:26
The literalist “elders” claim that this verse means that any parent who does not believe exactly as they believe must be hated, despised, and cut off. They are unwilling to recognize that these words are intended to emphasize that Jesus must be the most important entity in one’s life, above all else, even parents. However, the words do not mean that parents are to be excluded or hated on a personal level. Jesus consorted with prostitutes and lepers, unbelievers and those desiring to be holy. But the Church of Wells “elders” and their followers ignore His example.
The “elders” see the family as a potential idol — something a member may wrongly hold more important, or just as important, as their relationship with Jesus. For the “elders,” nothing can be more important than one’s relationship with Jesus — not job, worldly possessions, spouses, children, siblings, money, or the pursuit of money, even one’s own life.
The ‘elders’ do not recognize context or nuance or hyperbole unless it suits their purposes.
The “elders” do not recognize context or nuance or hyperbole unless it suits their purposes. In this passage from Luke, Jesus was speaking to a large group of people who had been following him around, being fed, seeing miracles performed, and being taught Jesus’s apocalyptic message about the coming Kingdom of God — a Kingdom that Jesus said would come during the lives of some of those who heard him speak. Jesus wanted the throngs to understand that the cost of discipleship was steep. It required nothing less than putting him first, with all else secondary.
The “elders” don’t get the secondary part. If they are not satisfied with the salvation of any person in a member’s family, that person must not have a relationship with the member (unless the family member is providing financial support to the group, as has Moses David, Preethi Morris’s father; Cindy Williams, the mother of Ashley McLaughlin, who is no longer with the group; and a few other parents of members). Geoffrey was caught in this trap. To be a full-fledged member of the Church of Wells, he had to focus on the work of the Church of Wells and turn away from his family.
Somehow, no one within the group has noticed that Jesus had nothing to say about the Church of Wells. Apparently, the Church of Wells has become an idol for the “elders” and its members. But we musn’t think too much about such things. In fact, it is better not to think at all. The “elders” supply all that Geoffrey or any other member needs to know.
Like all new recruits, Geoffrey was required to take all of his savings and give it to the Church of Wells.
Like all new recruits to the Church of Wells, Geoffrey was required to take all of his savings from his summer jobs and his brief work for the City of Dallas — some $21,000 — and give it to the Church of Wells, along with his old Ford, television, music system, furniture, and cell phone. Leaders in the group helped him clear all of his possessions out of his apartment and carted them to Wells for use by the group, as the “elders” determined, under the direction of God. What they couldn’t use, or other members of the group couldn’t use, was sold or traded outside the group. Pawnbrokers in Lufkin must be doing well on the loot that the “elders” (and God) have no use for.
The vetting of Geoffrey’s parents
Shortly after Geoffrey arrived in Wells, his parents went there to meet with him and the “elders,” intent on convincing Geoffrey that this group was nothing but a destructive cult, bent on using his money, resources, and labor to evangelize others, who would, in turn, be driven from a significant relationship with their parents. As soon as they arrived, however, they realized that disagreeing with the “elders” would not be to their benefit or the benefit of their son. Instead, they sat passively, trying to ignore the insults and religious slurs hurled at them by three unstable, obsessed young men, puffed-up by their self-appointed status as “elders.”
The vetting of Geoffrey’s parents by the “elders” lasted several hours. It included theological discussions, but mostly the parents were preached to in the Church of Wells style: “You’re going to hell,” “You’re not saved,” “You are wicked,” “You are wretched and evil.”
At the conclusion, their salvation was found wanting. Even though they did not condemn the group, or rail against it (the “elders” term such people “railers” — people who use coarse, harsh, and bitter words, abuse others, vilify their character, and wound their feelings — an apt description of the “elders” themselves), they were allowed only minimal contact with Geoffrey, unless they accepted all of the teachings of the “elders” and made financial contributions to their work. Geoffrey was cut off from his parents for the most part.
This was a bitter period, both for Geoffrey and for his parents. But his parents, devout evangelicals, were not interested in giving up their lives to support the ministry of the “elders,” nor were they interested in helping fulfill the megalomaniacal plans of the three masterminds of the only “true” church in Christendom. Geoffrey’s parents remain worried about his well-being. But they are more fortunate than some other parents, who have suffered job losses, health problems, and marital separations arising from the conflict engendered by the “elders” and their practices.
It is unlikely that any parents could have a fair, honest, and reasoned encounter when their child has been a total captive for two months and propagandized constantly.
Of course, it is unlikely that any parents could have a fair, honest, and reasoned encounter when their child has been a total captive for two months and propagandized constantly, and can’t escape the presence of the very people who have been conditioning his mind against the parents’ views while depriving him of adequate nutrition and sleep. Many of my sources have reported that these control techniques are employed by the “elders.”
Once recruits have bought into the views of the “elders” and received the loving attention of the other group members (a technique human trafficking and cult experts refer to as “love-bombing”) for a period of time, they believe they are indeed special in the eyes of their new group, and in the eyes of God, who has brought them to live among such loving people.
Solicitation and recruitment
In the weeks after Geoffrey’s parents were summarily sent on down Highway 69, whence they came, Geoffrey was assigned to work with Trudeau’s Tree Service (owned according to official records by Rick Trudeau), trimming and harvesting trees. In May, after Rick Trudeau acquired an old saw mill property in Alto, Texas, a nearly 17-acre tract about 15 miles from Wells, Geoffrey was assigned there to help grade and sort the timber as it was purchased from local loggers or donated to the Church of Wells for clearing the land.
For his work in the businesses associated with the Church of Wells, Geoffrey is not paid a salary. He is given a pre-paid debit card each month to buy food and other incidentals he might need or want. When he reaches a competency with reciting scripture from memory and preaching, he will likely be sent out to preach in the streets while other members watch the crowds or passersby for anyone who looks approachable. When such a person appears (called a “mark” in con games), a recruiter will strike up a conversation. Sometimes email and phone contact information is shared. This exchange can begin a long process of solicitation and recruitment.
The solicitation sometimes begins in other ways. For example, Catherine Groves’ recruitment began at a conference sponsored by the respected Wycliffe Bible Translators, a non-profit group that has translated the Bible into over 2,000 languages. Unknown to Wycliffe at the time, one attendee at the conference was a recruiter for the Church of Wells, Aaron Sink. During the conference, Sink started preaching to the other conferees until he was cut off by the conference leaders. Later, Sink reached out to Catherine and gave her his email contact and a link to the Church of Wells website. This began a year-long recruitment effort to get Catherine to join the group in Wells.
Church of Wells recruiters target high school and college youth at faith-based events, youth conferences, and at Christian rap sites.
Church of Wells recruiters target high school and college youth at faith-based events, youth conferences, and at Christian rap sites. Recruiters go onto the campuses of faith-based colleges to find new contacts among the many devout Christians drawn to a faith-based education. Events sponsored by other faith-based groups are targeted by Church of Wells recruiters.
In their recruiting efforts, they recently followed Paul Washer’s HeartCry Missionary Society to events in Peru and Brazil (though HeartCry has no desire to be associated with the Church of Wells), attended conferences of the anti-abortion group Abolish Human Abortion, frequented events of Teen Challenge (a drug program for youth that has been criticized for its coercive tactics and spiritual abuse), and reached out to Aryan Nation Christian identity groups. Such groups have been identified as a terrorist threat by the FBI and as a nationwide terrorist network in a RAND Corporation study.
Normally, during the period of solicitation by Church of Wells recruiters, the focus is on understanding the Bible, especially the parts about salvation, from the perspective of the “elders.” Through email, Facebook, Skype, and personal meetings, Geoffrey was wooed, pursued, and cajoled while the Church of Wells presented itself as the only true church for a true Christian who wanted real salvation.
Emotional control over members
For some, even the recruitment process can leave devastating emotional scars. Recruiting targets are told repeatedly that to reject the Church of Wells is to reject God, that God will be displeased, and He will exact revenge, even death on the person and his family.
Shame can be a powerful, painful
A professional in child welfare and protection from Florida provided information to me about the Church of Wells recruiting in and around the University of Central Florida (a college where Holly Pearce, wife of William Pearce, has contacts). This social worker has been counseling one client for nearly four months since the potential recruit decided not to join the group. The client continues to experience nightmares related to the claim that she has disobeyed God’s will and should be ashamed of her past life. Shame can be a powerful, painful social emotion. Others, however, have addressed their problems with the Church of Wells in different ways.
When Moses David, an Advanced Research Specialist and inventor with the 3M Corporation, found that his daughter Preethi had joined the group, he could not accept its teachings. But he came around eventually, providing a large dowry to Sean Morris (reported to be about $28,000) when Sean and Preethi married. Moses David has become a primary spokesperson for the group in the media, especially on-line, in comments to my earlier article, and on Facebook and other forums, defending Church of Wells theology and practices in every way. Through this role, he enables the destruction of the freedom of mind, conscience, and volition of the group’s members. His work is pleasing to the “elders” and he continues to have frequent contact with his beloved daughter.
There is no evil force worse than stripping a person of her personality, her ability to think critically, her development of conscience, and her freedom to follow her own truths down life’s path. This is a group that traffics in the lives of other human beings for its own ideological, religious, and personal purposes. The “elders” see themselves, in their words, “as Jesus.” That is, they believe they have achieved the holiness of Jesus and can communicate the will of God, which all members must follow.
Later, I will write about the laws concerning human trafficking and explore how the Church of Wells and its “elders” violate both federal and state laws, as well as international agreements related to such trafficking. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, human trafficking includes many of the actions of the Church of Wells, including recruitment, harboring, coercion, fraud, deception, abuse of power over another person and much more.
The one consistent feature of all that occurs within the Church of Wells is the virtually total control over members by the three ‘elders.’
But the one consistent feature of all that occurs within the Church of Wells is the virtually total control over members by the three “elders.” To refer to the “elders” as megalomaniacal doesn’t convey adequately their ability to destroy the human minds and personalities that they oversee. Although I have not met any of the “elders” (I have tried to do so, but have been rebuffed), I have talked to many people who have met and observed them, sometimes at very close range. And I have listened to their “testimonies” and sermons, and read their written commentaries. I think I have formed an accurate understanding of who they are.
When I heard an evangelical leader speak recently about a “diabolical spirit,” I immediately thought of the “elders,” especially Sean Morris, whose sermons I have endured listening to more than those of the others. Hearing one of Sean Morris’s sermons, supposedly in remembrance of the three-day old child that he and the other “elders” and the child’s parents allowed to die so that they could experiment with their powers of resurrection (as suggested by one Facebook commenter), reminded me of the tearful sanctimony of Jimmy Swaggart several years ago as he pleaded for forgiveness from his congregation and God for being caught with a prostitute in his New Orleans hotel room.
Morris felt that his transgression had nothing to do with allowing the infant to die without medical care, but that he (and the rest of his group) had too little faith that the baby would be healed or resurrected.
In spite of Sean Morris’s falsely self-effacing statement and his self-serving perversion of the truth about his wrongdoing concerning the death of Faith Pursley, the group is increasing, both through recruitment and the births of babies who automatically become recruits, without their consent or the ability to understand. In many ways, they are like the adults who join the group in Wells. They have no independent minds, consciences, or volition. And the “elders” intend to keep them that way.
Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.
[Rag Blog columnist Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, also blogs at Texas Freethought Journal. This article © Texas Freethought Journal, Lamar W. Hankins.]