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The C-Word

Bob Jones University "Preacher Boys" witnessing at the bus stop, 1948

Cult. Cult cult cult cult cult cult cult cult cult cult cult cult cult cult cult cult cult cult.

If you’re a fundamentalist or if you have been, you’re sweating just reading that. I know. I so know. You’re beginning to scramble inside to find reasons I’m wrong because it feels like you just got kicked in the groin. You’re wanting to kick back. To kick me.

If you’re not a fundamentalist or never have been, you’re eyes are wide open and your jaw is starting to drop. Cult? REALLY? Are you sure?

If you’re an academic who studies religion, you’re saying, “Weeeeeell, the notion of a cult is problematic. The original use of the term, of course, comes from ‘culture,’ but what is a cult qua cult but a marginalized religion (or culture) that has not yet reached a particular status? Christianity was considered a “cult” at one time. And we gain nothing intellectually by pushing a liminal group further outside the boundaries.”

I’ll say it plainly:

Fundamentalism is a cult.

Not just cultic. Not just cultish. But a cult.

Bob Jones University Dorm Students' Prayer Group, 1948

A friend passed along this 2006 documentary recently asking, “Does anybody know this guy? Joachin Sullivan?” Watch:


Know him? He was my student as was his sister. We stayed at his house on Big Sur when we were on BJU Ensemble in 1992. I found his picture in my BJU Vintage. Yeah, we know him.

If you roil at the thought that the religious culture in which you and yours have lived for 100 years is a cult, watch Joachin’s movie Join Us. It may not parallel your experience, but it exactly parallels mine as a BJU faculty member. Nearly everything about it.

If you are completely unfamiliar with the dysfunction that Join Us highlights, I’m relieved for you. Maybe watching it will help you understand how easily good and earnest people get trapped.

If you are a scholar of religion and American culture, we have to judge the dysfunction of religious communities. We have to. The empathetic model can only take us so far. “Live and let live” is killing people.

If you want to understand more, here’s another documentary. When it comes right down to it, if it talks like a cult, walks like a cult, and smells like a cult . . .






18 thoughts on “The C-Word

  1. Does the Preacher Boy (man?) in the picture really have his leg over the poor victim’s knee?! I mean, REALLY?! Two men with little Bibles cornering a man in a public place and practically sitting on top of him to keep him from escaping? And THIS is considered an example of “sharing the Gospel”?!
    The word “cult” is truly loaded and has been saddled with the “Kool-Aid” drinking, Jim Jones Guyana, Apocalyptic kind of imagery that makes it hard to use when describing BJU. But I think you are absolutely correct. There really is no other way to describe the movement. BTW, many of Jim Jones’ followers were decent, loving people… they were the hapless victims who sincerely wanted someone to lead them to the truth. Calling a place a cult does not mean that all those involved with it are evil, stupid, or somehow mentally deficient. Most are simply victims. Once you get past that objection it is easier to classify the place as a cult without denegrating all those involved.
    Thanks for taking the heat and calling it like it is.

  2. POWERFUL posting. I’m search engine retaaaaaaaaaaahded, so I have to ask…if someone googles “Bob Jones University”, “Cult”…how many hits before they stumble upon this? I ask because for years, I would do that search and I would come up with 8 pages of Bob Jones calling Catholicism a “cult.” I would be great to have THIS page come up in the first page of hits….

    I’ve known about Wellspring since the 90s, back when The Cult Awarness organization was taken over by Scientology. I still wonder if I should go and stay for a visit. Its been so long, and I can intellectualize it all BUT those triggers…..they remain always.
    Thanks Camile

  3. I read this post earlier today but did not get around to watching the videos until now. I intended to watch only the first one or two tonight, but could not stop and ended up watching them all in one sitting. Wow. I’m not an emotional person AT ALL and I shed tears watching it. The PTSD after leaving? Check. The difficulties making decisions? Hoo boy.

    I’ve finally come to accept that fundamentalism is a cult. The harder thing for me has been to realize that the first church I joined after leaving fundamentalism was as much of a cult than the one I left (albeit in different ways, which is why it took me so long to pick up on it). I left one cult for another. I’m to the point where it’s extremely difficult simply to visit a church, much less even think about joining one.

  4. Until recently I was VERY uncomfortable with calling what is commonly referred to as “Biblical Fundamentalism” a cult.

    Like I said – until recently…

    My experience at Bob Jones University motivated me to write – so – I created a blog on WordPress and wrote.

    For me it was therapy – for my Biblical Fundamentalist family, it was heresy.

    My entire family (when I say “entire”, I mean ENTIRE) – my parents, siblings, etc. have cut me off. My parents live in an isolated area and choose not to have the internet, but they drove 10 miles to a library with net access in a near-by town just to read my heretical blog my sisters & cousins told them about.

    The same day I received a phone call – they wanted to know if I had ever been “saved” —

    That, my friends, is cult behavior.

  5. What a strange way to sit while witnessing to another-with your leg over his. looks rather, shall we say, odd?
    Wow! That video on cults was really eye-opening; many paralles to Fundamentalism indeed. thanks for sharing it and calling it like it is.

  6. I’m not convinced that’s what’s happening in the 1948 picture. The guy in the middle is wearing an overcoat, and the leg in question could be his. If a man sits wearing an overcoat and crosses his legs, it’s likely that one leg will protrude from the coat. And it does appear that the color of his slacks matches the color of his suit jacket–hard to tell but you can if you look just inside the heavy overcoat collar. I think the right leg of the student doing the witnessing is on the bench, merely obscured.

    But I think your blog is about seeing what you want to see, so feel free.

    I also think it’s funny that you use corny pictures from 1948 to sell your message here. I’ve got a few pictures of the Chi Delt rush from the early 90’s that blow these out of the water.

    1. No need to be passive-aggressive, Ross. You have a point. I see what you’re saying, and you may be right. Not sure. . . .

      As for my corny pictures . . . history is a nerdy thing. I love it when non-historians poke fun at my looking at the past. Whatever. You’re entitled to your opinion. And I’m entitled to think that Life magazine photos are kinda cool.

      That’s the beauty of blogs.

  7. I have been reading your blog for about two years. In the beginning, I was angry. At you, at Greenville, at me, at God, at everyone. None of it made sense. If I started to really think about it, every. domino. fell….. and I wasn’t ready to pick them up. 25 yrs of my adult life? Thousands and thousands of dollars. Broken relationships? Hurtful words. And the judgments… made by me? made about me?” If you roil at the thought that the religious culture in which you and yours have lived for 100 years is a cult…” This is it. When you start to think of it you “roil.”

    But God………….
    My family has been “roiling” for about six months. We are starting to heal. Forgive the graphic term, but the pus is starting to drain out. We jumped out. Literally. With no parachute. We’ve lost friendships. Our future has been changed. We are left with the hurt that we’ve instilled to people, the hurt that has been instilled to us and in us, and the pieces that are being now put together by a counselor, and a group of loving and grace filled men who are HUMBLE in their teaching. The Bible is now making sense. I now want to read it. I am learning that God really does love me. I am learning that there is nothing I can do or have done to gain God’s favor. I am learning that there is joy! What freedom! I am turning into a different wife, friend, sister, and most importantly, parent. So, thanks. Though you didn’t know it-you’ve been an integral part in our breaking free. Please don’t stop.

    1. Denise, you and your family are ‘so brave!’ It’s so healthy to be open and honest about the ‘anger’ that we feel when, we get that wake up call, that, something just isn’t right, and we need to ‘get out of Dodge’! like’get out’ right away! The stages of grief are so ‘there’ in our face when we get out. And anger is a most normal emotion to experience. Isn’t it wonderful to start looking at the Bible with, our free will, freeing up mind, and personal free will choices to THINK! People may not even ‘realize’ that, they were’nt even ‘allowed’ to think, while inside the system! If there were such a thing as teaching people to ‘not think’, fundamentalism as a system of mind contol from power broker pulpits,would be at the top of the list for practicing this morally wrong and unethical practice! It’s not so much that people are ‘not taught’ how to think. It’s that they are NOT taught the truth about independant thinking, that this is an important part of learning, growth and development. It’s that people are taught by implication and subtle manipulation, the lie, that, someoneone else ‘can’ and ‘should’ be allowed to, do their thinking for them. Something that could never be supported by anything God would ever say in the Bible. Freedom is most certainly ‘not’ a commodity that resides within fundamentalism. People ‘do’feel free for a time, after conversion. But people arealmosst immediately brought into a ‘leglistic relationship’ with God through fundamentalst Churches. So they are wrongly taught that they must and have to ‘serve God’THROUGH that preacher boy in the pulpit, who not only knows everything, but ‘owns’ the bottom line on whatever truth, God’s unhappy prisoner people ‘need’to have daily and weekly ‘dished out to them.’ Because the preacher boys of fundamentalism actaually believe, that they own it! That they ‘own’ the truth. And they then use those people in the pews as ‘pew fodder’ to feed their egos and their lust for power. Freedom from such an abberration of christianity is so wonderful. I always rejoice when I hear of another prisoner of fundamentalism, having been drawn out by the ONE who REALLY loves them, and ALWAYS did.

  8. I found your site by doing a google search about Bob Jones false prophet. I went to BJU in the 80’s. I’m a single Christian man who has never married(45 years old). I agree with many of the things you said about BJU. I graduated from there in 1988. I did make a lot of friends and I did get a good education, but if I ever get married and have kids- which seems unlikely now at my age. I doubt I would send them to BJU. I stuck it out because at the time the school was unaccredited and having to retake classes would have been a real pain. There was and still is a Southern Baptist college in my area where I could have gone to. They are too liberal in my opinion but they never try to shove their ideas down your throat like they did at BJU. I went to BJU not knowing about all the silly rules and my first month I got demerits because I didn’t know it was not permissible to walk into the girls dorms and hand the hostess a book I had borrowed from a female student that I wanted to return. I don’t know why they didn’t give me a manual when I became a student to tell me all the stupid rules. I wear a wig since I lost my hair at age 14- I have alopecia aeriota and it’s was not in vogue for guys to shave their heads like they do today so i wore a wig- I was very self conscious about it too. And as you know they had a strict rule for hair length. You can’t cut a wig but so short before you ruin it and it begins to show all the lining of the wig. So of course I had to go through the humiliation of telling the ushers each time I got stopped for having hair too long that I wore a wig. i went to the Dean of Men (Tony Miler) and even took off my wig to show him I was bald so I wouldn’t have to keep going back to him.

    No one ever told me about all the the invasion of personal space that went on either. They would check our dorm rooms to see if we have inappropriate books, mags and music. This wasn’t something I even knew about until I became a student. Thankfully I like Classical as well as other music they considered appropriate. Many students got in trouble for having music that was “inappropriate.” I know one guy who got kicked out of school for not getting rid of his “inappropriate” or “uncheckable ” music. I also knew of a guy who had rock music in his car- the dorm supervisor heard a rumor about him and they actually broke into his car and took his Music! I would like to know how that is legal to break into someone’s car? What if you damage the car breaking in? Thankfully I didn’t have a car to worry about.

    I didn’t like how they put Southern Baptist’s, especially since I am one, down and would only let us go to certain approved churches. I thought they were very legalistic and arrogant- the leadership that is. I had a dorm supervisor we jokingly called “Mr. Masturbator” because he liked to talk against young men masturbating in the showers- I wonder if he checked behind after guys got out to see if they had left semen on the shower floor? LOL One student even remarked that he had a hickey on his neck from where his wife had been sucking on his neck! LOL I think that the guy was a sexaholic myself! (nymphomaniac) Their were also the almost cult like programs that almost seemed to deify Bob Jones- like Founder’s Day. I thought we were to glorify Jesus not ourselves? I hated the “Gloria Patri” because we sang it everyday at chapel- it reeked of Catholicism that they supposedly hated so much- they were very hypocritical. how can you hate a group and talk about them all the time like dogs and yet copy their practices and worship styles? Vespers for instance- is a Catholic prayer service. Catechisms- a Catholic practice- They had both practices at BJU. And you better not show up late to any programs- you’ll get demerits. I skipped one and I got demerits for sure. My roommate ratted me out. I needed to study and I went to another dorm to study during the program but he still found out about it. All this legalistic crap reminds me of the Judiaziers the Apostle Paul spoke against. It is also laughable how they twist scripture to back up their inane rules. Like the one about not shaking hands with a female. They take Paul words out of context about “it not good to touch a woman” I looked it up in a commentary and it meant that you shouldn’t touch a lady in a way that would cause her to become sexually stimulated. I can’t imagine shaking someone’s hand would cause anyone to be sexually stimulated. However I guess there are some overly horny teens out there. I was so shy I hardly spoke to girls let alone asked anyone on a date!

    The legalistic religious tone was bad enough but it really pissed me off when they pushed dating and marriage so much. No one ever talked about Paul and his singleness. Like I said I was shy and introverted and barely spoke to girls. Besides there were so many stupid rules to have to remember when it came to dating that I really didn’t try. The extent of dating for me was asking a girl to meet me at the dining common to eat or be my date for one of those hated concerts we were forced to go to. Remember “junior jitters”? that was hilarious. The girls who were worried that if they didn’t get their man by junior year they were going to be perpetual “old maids”! LOL Every time I see someone I went to BJU with after saying hello the next thing they want to know is “are you married yet?” I get so tired of that I don’t know what to do. I visited the campus in 2002. I met one of my old teachers, Mrs. Bell, and she wanted to know if I was married yet. I said no- she looked at me like I was a weirdo or something. I guess it’s not just BJU that harps on marriage, but it seems like they are so judgmental about it. I think they are afraid if you stay single you’ll become gay or something. LOL I think they are too narrow minded and hyper critical of things that are non of their concern- like Jesus said, “What is it to you?” (Jesus said that to the disciples when they asked about John living till Jesus returns.) I never actually said that to anyone, but I think I might try it sometime when a BOJO asks me overly personal questions that are none of their business.

    It’s really hard to find a good Christian girl to date let alone marry- and now that I’m in my 40’s it’s down right impossible. I am fine with being single- I just wish so called “Christian” people would grow up and stop putting single people down. Not all of us singles are hedonists or gay or social misfits or whatever category they want to lump us into to stigmatize us for not being like them. BOJOites are the worst kind of “bigot” in my opinion. They twist the Bible to fit their own narrow minded idea of life that is not biblical, and they are arrogant about it to boot. By the way i’m not gay or weird or a social misfit or a slacker, and I am fine with being single and celibate- it’s my choice! I believe if your going to be single you should be able to control your hormones and sex drives- Paul said to get married if you cant’ control yourself. I have nothing against marriage, I just don’t think it’s for me. I’m very opinionated and very independent type of person. I don’t like people pushing their ideas on me and I say so. I also don’t want kids and it’s my prerogative to feel that way. Not that I don’t like kids- I just don’t’ have the patience for them anymore. Also it seems like most people I know can’t stay together anyway. Then there is the issue of the woman taking the guy to the cleaners when they get a divorce. I’m sorry but my money is my money not hers. I’m very possessive of my stuff. Any woman who plans to divorce a guy just to take his money is a thief and a scum bag in my opinion. I know too many guys that this has happened too. If I ever get married she’ll have to sign a pre-nuptial agreement for us to get married. Otherwise I’d tell her to don’t let the door hit her on the butt on the way out. My hard earned money stays in my bank account and isn’t going into hers. No- I’m not selfish I give to the church and I’m generous with friends, relatives and so forth, I just don’t like liars and thieves and most so called “Christian” women today are both when it comes to marriage and what they want from a man. So- as you can see I’m not too fond of modern marriage- It is supposed to be between a man, the woman, and God- and not between the man , the woman and a lawyer or the government. The Pilgrims didn’t sign a legal document with the government to get married. They had a church wedding with the preacher, friends, and family present. They signed their Bibles which was the marriage certificate. Marriage is not supposed to be a means to advance ones personal wealth or social standing. This is what many women think marriage is and if he can’t cater to her every whim then she’ll just divorce him and take away his money and if they have kids- the kids as well. What a self centered materialistic culture we live in! This paints a sorry picture of American women too.

    Well- I didn’t mean to write a book, but those are my experiences and my opinions about the school and marriage which BJU overly stresses. I think some people are never meant to marry but that doesn’t seem to enter into their small minded little brains. I was just in the mood for a rant! LOL hope you found my story interesting and perhaps enlightening. I would like to hear your comments. Take care and God bless!

  9. Hey Vince, great sharing. You are totally right to stand up fo who you are and how you want to live your life. I also think it’s so unchristian to put Southern Baptists down, as BJU types do, simply because they ‘assume’ all SBC are ‘liberal’. I personally do not believe the BJU separatists even ‘know’ what the word ‘liberal’ means! They probably haven’t opened up a dictionary in DECADES! Words can be bandied about like ice cream flavors. Words these days can mean whatever the ‘word-spinners’ want them to mean. That’s why it takes a lot more than buzz words and jargon to communicate properly these days. I’m glad you stick up for your self about being single. Sorry the know it-all assume the truth pain in the butt people, have bothered you so much about it. It really ‘isn’t’ any of their business. One of the meanings of the word respect, is, ‘To not interfere.’ That’s something th BJU control clowns have NO CLUE ABOUT! Thanks for sharing your story. A lot of people will be able to relate to many aspects of it. Glad you managed to keep your humanity and your sanity from BJU’s strange mental GULAG influence.

  10. As a grad student at BJU, I took a psych class within which we studied the characteristics of a cult one particular day. As I sat there, I realized I could check off every characteristic and that it applied to the school. Unquestioning commitment to a leader? Check. Us versus them mentality? Check. Leader not accountable to any authorities? Check. Encouraged to only socialize with other group members? Check. (Those are some examples from a similar listing found here: http://www.csj.org/infoserv_cult101/checklis.htm) When I got out of class, I did a sanity check with one of my friends also taking the class. Doesn’t the school qualify under those characteristics, I asked? Yes, she agreed. I’m glad I wasn’t totally alone in reaching that conclusion at the time.

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