Terrifying history behind one of the nation’s largest Megachurches
Schaap is not simply one of those rogue evangelists who thunders against the evils of forbidden sex while indulging in it himself. According to dozens of current and former church members, religion experts, and historians interviewed by Chicago—plus a review of thousands of pages of court documents—he is part of what some call a deeply embedded culture of misogyny and sexual and physical abuse at one of the nation’s largest churches. Multiple websites tracking the First Baptist Church of Hammond have identified more than a dozen men with ties to the church—many of whom graduated from its college, Hyles-Anderson, or its annual Pastors’ Schools—who fanned out around the country, preaching at their own churches and racking up a string of arrests and civil lawsuits, including physical abuse of minors, sexual molestation, and rape.
Arranged marriages, “slut” shaming, beating infants for their sins. Truly monstrous accounts of decades of abuse being done in God’s name.
The Bible was to be interpreted literally and by Hyles alone. According to his reading, men ruled absolutely. ‘The belief was that women needed to be in complete and total submission to their husbands and to male leadership,’ says a former member who requested that she not be named. (She left the church in 2010 after her husband, a prominent member of the congregation, was caught having sexual relationships with underage girls.)
If a man did ‘stumble’—having an affair, say, or visiting prostitutes or abusing children—the question wasn’t how he could have but rather what the woman, or the child, did to drive him to such sin, some former church members say. ‘They have a system where abusers and pedophiles can flourish, because you can’t challenge the men,’ opines one. ‘You have to submit 100 percent of the time, and whenever anything goes wrong in a marriage, it’s because the woman didn’t do enough.’
Spanking ‘should be deliberate and last at least ten or fifteen minutes,’ he continued. The blows ‘should be painful and should last … until the child is crying, not tears of anger but tears of a broken will.’ They should ‘leave stripes’ if need be. The age at which such punishment should begin? Infancy.
Several people who grew up at First Baptist recall that parents took the instruction to heart. ‘Beatings would last endlessly, it seemed,’ says Mary Jo McGuire, 45, a corporate trainer in Colorado whose father was a deacon in the church. As a seven-year-old, she ‘used to count the lashes as a way to cope through the searing pain.’ McGuire’s younger sister, Sherri Munger, told me she once received more than 300 lashes from a thick leather belt. When authorities were called, McGuire says, Hyles told the girls’ parents how to avoid arrest.
The level of devotion—and control—sometimes strayed into the absurd. Female students at Hyles-Anderson, Busby recalls, underwent sporadic ‘pajama inspections.’ If the tops and bottoms didn’t match, says Busby, dorm supervisors would sometimes ‘make us strip right there and put on an approved set.’
The pajama-clad young women would gather in the chapel to wait for Hyles. When he entered, ‘we would all stand on the pew and sing, ‘We love you, Preacher. Oh yes, we doooo. We don’t love anyone as much as you!’ Then he would call us ‘Poopsy-Woopsy’ and give us pizza and money.’
To go off campus to buy pantyhose—required wear for women—’we needed a special pass,’ Busby says, ‘and had to have three chaperones. Yet they would drop us off in rough neighborhoods for eight hours on our own to go soul winning.’
Hyles kept close watch over the college’s curriculum to make sure it met his standards and was suitable for export to churches across the country. ‘He would write the Sunday lessons, and he would teach the teachers what he wanted them to say on the Wednesday night before the church service,’ says a former member.
For the benefit of any doubters, Hyles demonstrated his power in the middle of a sermon one Sunday. ‘Notice the bones and the skull there,’ he said as he raised a cup into which he told the congregation he was going to pour poison. ‘Now if I walked up to you tonight and I said to you, ‘I’ve got something I want you to drink …’ In fact’—he turned to Johnny Colsten, one of the men on the stage with him—’I’d like for you, if you don’t mind, to drink this.’
Colsten, currently an associate pastor at First Baptist, did not hesitate. If Hyles wanted him to drink, he would.