24 Feb 2009

University of Illinois student shunned by 'cult' for sake of education

The Daily Illini - Champaign, Illinois February 24, 2009

Jennifer Hanson, senior in AHS, was raised as a member of a fundamentalist sect called "The Truth." She broke away from the group to attend Illinois and was subsequently ostracized and harassed. She is breaking her silence to help others who are struggling with oppression.

by Aaron Geiger

Jennifer Hanson's life has been difficult, and, at times, downright heartbreaking.

She will graduate this semester with a degree in Human Communications Science, and although her diploma will be a huge personal victory, it will also serve as a bittersweet reminder of how far she has come - a permanent, tangible reminder of her decision to break away from a religious sect that many have declared a cult, including Hanson's own sister and many disenfranchised members who use Internet forums to share their discontent with their former religion.

Because Hanson chose an education and personal fulfillment over her faith, she has been ostracized and shunned by her immediate family and the people she had grown up with. Her choice has been traumatic, ultimately leading to a formal diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

For the first time in her life, Hanson has decided to come forward with her story, with the hope of inspiring other students - particularly women - to find their own voices and pursue their educational and personal aspirations. Until this point, Hanson has lived in fear of retribution and harassment to the point that she has voluntarily had her personal information suppressed by the University. To anyone looking for her, she simply didn't exist.

"My dad was trying to track me down, and he was saying crazy things and was trying to find out where I lived," Hanson said. "Former members were trying to find out where I lived so they could come talk to me, so I decided to utilize U of I as a safe place."

Hanson said she had read "horrible stories" of other young members who tried to leave what outsiders have labeled "The Truth," and was afraid for her own safety. University counselors were a crucial element in protecting her identity, and they provided counseling resources that helped Hanson adapt to her new life.

"(With abuse), women are more apt to try to be strong and to remain quiet," said Hanson. "Until you realize that you are facing abuse, then you are suppressing your own potential."

In Hanson's former religion, women are expected to wear reserved female clothing and marry within their own sect. Because there are so few members in the surrounding population, statewide events are organized to connect teenagers with their future lifelong mates. Having a relationship outside of the sect is strictly forbidden.

That is what got Hanson in trouble. When she was in high school, she had a secret liaison with a boy outside of the group, which caused her a great deal of stress. She decided to attend college, setting off a chain of events that caused her to completely redefine her life.

Hanson had to put herself through college completely on her own, work multiple jobs and apply for loans and independent financial aid status to make her dream of higher education come true. She had to receive letters from a lawyer, psychologist and high school counselor to corroborate that she was living entirely on her own.

Hanson belonged to a sect that claims to have no name, even though it has been called "The Truth" by others. They are also reclusive and secretive; none of the University professors of religion contacted had heard of Hanson's former group. Although primarily known as "The Truth," the group has also been called the "Two by Twos," the "Church with no name," the "Cooneyites," "The Secret Sect" and the "Black Stockings," among many others.

The sect may be mysterious, but it is very real. Hanson estimates that there are around 2,000 members in Illinois alone, and there are members spread around the United States. Unlike other close-knit religious communities that keep strict records of their members, Hanson's former religious affiliation has very little public information about their membership.

"They are also called the 'Two by Twos' because of the 'workers' who go out in pairs to teach interpersonally with families that they stay with," said Hanson. "They live with the members of the sect, and travel in pairs of men or women."

"Workers," or ministers of their faith, are labeled as homeless, chaste missionaries who travel from family to family, living in the different homes, ensuring that members follow the religion's strict tenets and rules, and preaching the Bible, using only the King James version.

Clothing for all members is very modest and, for women, somewhat resembles a cross between Mennonite and Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints. Hanson had to keep her hair long and her legs covered with a skirt - no pants or jeans. She was not allowed to wear jewelry or makeup. Men must be clean-shaven with short haircuts. Access to television and the Internet is closely monitored, and in some cases, forbidden. Hanson resorted to shoving magazines under her mattress, and noticed that some families would hide their televisions whenever a pair of workers would stop by for a visit.

"Radios were even discouraged, and workers don't even read the newspaper and things like that," Hanson said.

According to the Ontario Religious Consultants on Religious Tolerance, "The Truth forbids smoking, drinking, dancing, attending movies and watching television."

In spite of the strict guidelines, the ultimate price for disregarding the rules of "The Truth" is shunning - or banishment from the home and family. Hanson's price for freedom was extremely high.

Robert McKim, head of the Department of Religion at the University, said that although he doesn't have any expertise in Hanson's case, he believes that the public has an entitlement to make up their own mind on matters of religious significance and finds a fault in this particular sect.

"There is something deeply wrong with religious groups of any sort that make it difficult for people to exit them," said McKim.

The Ontario Religious Consultants also note that "The Truth" was officially founded by William Irvine in 1901 in either Scotland or Ireland, although present-day members vehemently claim that it is as old as the Bible. There are current Web sites that have the exclusive purpose of reaching out to current members of "The Truth" to show them historical documents arguing that "The Truth" is only about 100 years old, and founded by a man with strict ideologies extracted from the Bible.

Members are reluctant to speak of their faith. Out of several families contacted, only one couple, Eric and Jennifer Spencer of Champaign, spoke of their religion and in a limited capacity.

"We regard ourselves as a fellowship and not an organization," Eric Spencer said. "We don't really study any other (religious) material other than the Bible."

Spencer declined to answer most questions, instead referring them to be answered by a worker, or minister. As of press time, no minister had returned any press inquiries.

"The Bible refers to those who follow truth as believers. That's probably where 'The Truth' comes from," Spencer said.

Part of the reason why "The Truth" is not a well-known organization is primarily because they do not proselytize - or openly attempt to convert other people's opinions to their own.

"The Truth members believe that they are God's chosen ones, so they won't go out and try to convert anyone," said Hanson. "They believe that if people are meant to know 'The Truth,' then people will come to them."

Spencer also pointed out that on occasion workers hold public gospel meetings to pray and share God's word from the Bible.

"The gospel meetings aren't widely publicized, and they're more like a sign above a door," Hanson said.

Although by many accounts members practice good will and familial fellowship, and while there are many industrious and well-meaning members of the organization, there is a dark side, exemplified by the personal tragedy of Hanson's experience.

"I think 'The Truth' overall can provide something to someone," said Hanson. "It can provide peace to someone, it can provide security to someone, but it can also take away a lot of things."

Hanson believes that because the boundaries of "The Truth" aren't explored, the atmosphere can create a volatile and stunting effect on younger members, particularly girls.

"They take a lot of power and equity away from women, and that overall hurts the society within 'The Truth,' but no one wants to openly recognize that, especially women," Hanson said.

For instance, some female members do go to college, but only for professions domestically associated with women, such as nursing. Men are allowed to maintain positions of power and individuality, and they pursue lofty educations, including studies in the fields of engineering and journalism.

Jonathan Ebel, assistant professor of religion at the University, who was also unaware of the presence of "The Truth" before hearing of Hanson's story, noted that if the history of the sect's age is accurate, then it follows a historical pattern common throughout the era.

"I'd say about a hundred years ago, our country was right in the middle of Protestant birth of fringe religious movements," Ebel said. "From what I recently read, in a limited capacity, I'm amazed how closely 'The Truth,' as other people call them, have held on to their original beliefs."

Ebel also noted that others should look at "The Truth" from the perspective of the members.

"From their point of view, it can be tough to lose a member of their organization," said Ebel. "Essentially they are watching someone, a family member perhaps, lose their only chance for salvation, and a soul is lost."

Ebel expressed caution on labeling The Truth as a cult.

"The term is complicated and gets used in lots of ways, a lot of them not especially constructive," said Ebel. "A cult is a stand-alone group or sub-group characterized by intense devotion to a figure, idea, or deity, well-established and often ecstatic patterns of worship, and a well-developed sense of their difference from those outside their group."

Regardless of any moniker applied to "The Truth," one fact remains: Jennifer Hanson escaped from the bonds of her personal enslavement to pursue an education at the University. And she wants other women to know that self-empowerment can be a hard road - religion notwithstanding. There are many cases in which young adults are restricted from choosing a path in life that they feel a calling for, and Hanson has a piece of advice for anyone in a position of personal or mental enslavement:

"I was outspoken, and that scared them," she said.



The Cult With No Name

Veterans of Truth - information about abuses in "The Truth" ministry.

WINGS For Truth - created by victims/survivors who have suffered sexual abuse within the "Truth" Fellowship along with individuals who have been both directly and indirectly impacted by CSA.

Christian Conventions - wikipedia entry

Alberta Report, "Doubts About a Mystery Church", September 15, 1997


  1. I'm glad someone can explain this in simple words to the general population. I grew up in this religion and can understand how difficult self-empowerment can be, especially after leaving. I left about a year and a half ago. Things have improved for me, but it is still difficult for me to pick up the pieces and move on. The hardest part is not being able to explain it to people. People just simply do not understand the difficulty of having to separate yourself from such a close community for your own good.

  2. I was born into this group in Australia and raised this way until age 17, when I left home. I really found the threats to cut me off didnt bother me. I never fit in anyway as I am very rebellious by nature. I was even banned from sitting in the convention shed because I was considered by the workers to be a bad influence. The last convention I ever attended I played on my status as a 'scandal' and purposely took skimpy clothes and chatted up all the boys, leading them astray. My father has never really forgiven me and many wouldnt put water on me if I were a fire still, but I had a blast stirring up trouble. I only ever existed on the fringes so being cut off was not a loss. My family were very involved. My father led the meetings in our town, at my grandmothers and the workers always stayed with us. I was always at loggerheads with them because I have always been an athiest and I feel the benefits of conformity are overrated. I am me, I'm proud to be me, as I am. The pressure to conform destroyed my mothers life and the lives of many others. But really, it only does so if you let it be important.

    In Australia girls are encouraged to obtain a degree if they so desire, but they have the religion here has the same core beliefs and the same innane rules. No music, makeup, dancing etc. No fun, no life. Now aged 42, I could never go back to it simply because I could never give up my love of dancing, movies, makeup, hairdye, tattoos and body peircings. The Truth is just no fun!

    In conclusion, yes life in the way was hard and yes it CAN be destructive. But that very painful experience can be the making of you.

  3. Friends and enemies, truth and lies

    By Chris Johnston, The Border Mail Sept. 23, 2013

    Elizabeth Coleman grew up in Canberra in the furtive religious sect known as either the Friends and Workers, the Two by Twos, or The Truth. Most people have never heard of them - and this is how the sect likes it.

    They have no churches or headquarters and no written policies or doctrines. They are highly secretive and paranoid about scrutiny: when questioned about new allegations of child sexual abuse within the sect's ranks, the ''overseer'' for Victoria and Tasmania, David Leitch, 56, of Heidelberg, says: ''We are not an organisation.''

    Members are told to either deny the existence of the sect or, next best, deny it has a name. Yet the ''non-denominational'' Friends and Workers has 2000 members in Victoria, making it a global stronghold; internationally there are about 200,000 members. Core beliefs come from a very literal reading of certain sections of the Bible. But they don't call themselves Christians because they consider themselves the only true religion.

    The sect is sometimes called the Cooneyites, and while the two have much in common, the Friends and Workers are strictly speaking an offshoot. The Irish founder of the Cooneyites was the Protestant evangelist Edward Cooney, who moved to Mildura and died there in 1960 - hence Victoria's strong membership.

    In Canberra in the 1970s and '80s, Elizabeth Coleman's father was a sect elder, which meant Sunday morning worship was held at their home. There were always the same 20 or so people there, she says, no outsiders allowed, very formal and dour. ''No one greeted each other as they walked in. No one talked.''

    Women wore long hair pinned up on their heads; short hair is still forbidden on sect women. Long hair is forbidden on men. Television, radio, movies, dancing and jewellery were banned back then, and in most sect families still are. If they do have a TV, it is often hidden in a cupboard.

    These Sunday mornings at the Coleman house were about singing hymns and saying prayers and there was also a series of confessions called ''testimonies''. Coleman remembers these mornings as being very closeted and unwelcoming.

    Then on Sunday afternoons were the more open ''mission meetings'', still held throughout Australia today as they were then, in public halls, organised by the religion's itinerant ''workers'' - the highly ranked ministers who, in pairs (hence the sect's Two by Two name), go into communities, country towns or regions and stay for up to a year in the homes of lesser-ranked ''friends'' such as the Colemans to do ''the Work''.

    None of this is in any way wrong. Unusual, but not wrong. However, when Elizabeth Coleman turned 19 she wanted out because while she remained under the sect's control she was not allowed to believe anything other than what they preached.

    Children in the sect are told that if they stray, bad things will happen - a lightning strike, for example, being hit by a runaway bus, or an illness.

    ''They believe that all other religions in the world are the work of the Devil,'' Coleman says. ''Going to worship at another church or finding another set of beliefs is considered worse than leaving the religion.''

    When she did leave - because she wanted to explore other more open kinds of Christianity - she says she was called ''the Antichrist'' by sect members, was sent offensive mail referring to her ''coldness'' and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder on account of the ''fear'' she carried into her decision.

    continued below

  4. But what worried her most were the persistent rumours of male ''workers'' and elders sexually abusing young - some very young - sect girls and getting away with it. There was, she says, a culture of secrecy, cover-ups and denial, and a dismissal of outside authority, which meant sex crimes stayed hidden.

    ''If something happened between a minister and a young girl, or a young boy, it would be swept under the carpet,'' she says. ''The minister would be moved away and nothing would be said. The families would be outraged - but they would also be scared of being kicked out of the tribe. I have reason to believe this is still going on.''

    The sect's method of sending itinerant, celibate ministers into family homes for extended periods of time, she says, was, and still is, dangerous.

    The Victorian and Tasmanian leader of Friends and Workers, David Leitch, is known to be close to Chris Chandler, the former senior sect member who Fairfax Media today reveals will face 12 child sex charges in a Morwell court next month.

    Chandler grew up in Dromana. He lives now on French Island in Western Port and describes himself as a ''self-employed ecologist''. Last year he came back from 14 years as a ''Christian teacher and counsellor'' in Uruguay and Brazil, according to his LinkedIn profile.

    Last June, Chandler and Leitch wrote a letter to all Victorian sect members announcing Chandler would step down ''from the Work'' because police in Gippsland had begun questioning him about the allegations that have now led to charges involving several alleged victims.

    The charges all relate to alleged indecent acts on young girls in the 1970s when Chandler was aged about 20. Some alleged victims were under 12. Chandler claims in the letter he was not a sect member at the time - but he joined only three years later.

    Sources say senior members of the sect knew of the allegations that had already been made about him within sect circles at that time, but did nothing. In fact, in 1991 they promoted him to the senior position of ''worker'' - meaning he was travelling throughout Victoria and Tasmania and staying in family homes.

    ''He was around lots of children from that point on,'' a former sect member says. From 1991 until 2004, Chandler was in Wodonga, Shepparton, Launceston and rural Tasmania.

    Sect sources have confirmed that later in his time as a ''worker'', he positioned himself within the sect as a counsellor and a point of contact for victims of child sexual abuse.

    ''People were drawn to him as an advocate,'' the source says.

    Fairfax Media understands that after he announced he was standing down last year because of the police investigation, Chandler attended an overnight sect convention where children were present at Speed, near Mildura, and continues to attend sect meetings at Crib Point near Hastings, the closest town on the mainland to French Island.

    The convention at Speed is the biggest in the state; the others are on a farm belonging to the Lowe family - sect stalwarts for several generations - at Thoona near Benalla, in Drouin and also in Colac. In New South Wales the strongholds are at Glencoe, Mudgee and Silverdale.

    David Leitch denies sect leaders knew of Chandler's alleged past.

    ''If that had been the case he wouldn't have been involved in the way that he was.''

    Leitch says he does not know if Chandler has continued to attend sect meetings since resigning.

    ''We would not tolerate any matters that were not upright and in accordance with the teachings of the Scripture,'' he says. ''You might have seen it in the Catholic Church and so on, but we would not tolerate any such stupidity.''

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  5. In 2011 another senior Victorian ''worker'', Ernest Barry, was convicted in a Gippsland court on five indecent assault charges over four years on a girl, a sect member, in the 1970s.

    He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to jail, but was given a suspended sentence on appeal after Melbourne forensic psychologist Wendy Northey - who has also profiled gangland drug trafficker Tony Mokbel for an assessment used by his defence lawyers - gave a psychological profile of Barry to the court.

    Police say they knew of another 12 alleged victims, but could not lay further charges against Barry, who now lives in Warrnambool, because the additional alleged victims would not come forward or press charges. Police also say David Leitch wore a wire to help convict Barry.

    Leitch says he ''greatly assisted'' police in their investigation - to improve the sect's image, sect sources say - but he declined to confirm whether he recorded conversations with Barry for the police. ''I don't think that's a proper question to be putting to me,'' he said.

    When Chris Chandler was a ''worker'' in Wodonga in 1995, the co-''worker'' with him in family homes was Ernest Barry.

    Then last year - this time in South Australia - the issue of child sexual abuse emerged in the secret sect again. A South Australian ''worker'', who has now moved to Victoria, alleged to David Leitch that another fellow ''worker'' had been allegedly sexually abusing children.

    Leitch sacked the worker who raised the allegations because he says the allegations were not true and he knew they were not true because he investigated them himself.

    ''I investigated with the actual people involved, with the people who were supposed to be the victims. They said nothing happened. [The worker] brought forward false child sexual abuse allegations and he was removed from his posting.''

    Leitch says if further allegations against sect members were raised he may or he may not tell the police.

    ''First I would assess how genuine the allegations are. I wasn't going to involve police in that other case because I know it was totally wrong. That would be a waste of resources and it's not common sense, it's stupidity.''

    In the Bible, Matthew 10 sets out much of what the sect believes. In it, Jesus sends out his disciples to cleanse the world of ''impure spirits''. Jesus ordered them to go with few belongings and seek out the homes of worthy persons to ''let your peace rest on it''.

    But ''be on your guard'', Matthew 10 says, and ''when they arrest you do not worry about what to say or how to say it … for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.''

    continued below

  6. A former Victorian sect member now living in NSW says that during her time in the sect as a child and teenager it was ''95 per cent wonderful'', but the older she got and the more aware she became she realised the clandestine culture she was born into was ''misguided''.

    ''The culture fosters generational abuse,'' she says. ''There's little knowledge of legal matters, there's a real naivety about the wider world. Workers were highly trusted and held in the highest esteem. They had absolute authority. Worship was and still is highly conservative.''

    As young sect members got older, she says, they could feel trapped and silenced. In 1994 at Pheasant Creek near Kinglake, a 14-year-old girl, Narelle Henderson, and her 12-year-old brother Stephen, shot themselves with a rifle to avoid attending a four-day sect convention.

    Narelle's suicide note read: ''We committed suicide because all our life we were made to go to meetings. They try to brainwash us so much and have ruined our lives.''

    That year the then leader of the sect in Victoria, John ''Evan'' Jones, then 84 years old, made a statement to police at Surrey Hills in Melbourne confirming he knew the children, but adding: ''I cannot for the life of me think of any reason why they would do such a thing.''

    His statement said the sect was ''financially well-off'', with donated money controlled by a trust fund of three elders. Jones died in 2001 and is buried at Narracan East cemetery in Gippsland.

    David Leitch declined to elaborate on the sect's financial affairs now, but sources said it is still well-off, with money held in private bank accounts rather than a trust, to pay for senior members' overseas missions.

    In New Zealand and the United States the sect has registered companies called either United Christian Assemblies or Christian Conventions, but no such companies exist in Australia.

    A heavily redacted submission to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious groups by an organisation called Wings - an online group of former members - says the sect is ''haphazard'' in dealing with allegations from within its ranks and ''the main focus has been on protecting the reputation of the Workers and not on helping victims''.

    (The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse began in Sydney last week.)

    According to the submission, contact by sect leaders with victims has been minimal and ''threatening, unwelcome and intimidating'', according to Wings' submission. Victims are discouraged from making contact with police or lawyers.

    One recent victim, the submission says, was asked if she ''really wanted to open that can of worms'' when seeking advice about what to do; another victim was told by sect leaders to ''heal herself in silence''.

    Elizabeth Coleman, who now works at a Christian school in Canberra, says speaking out was considered the gravest of betrayals in the sect. ''You would be widely seen as selling the group out.''

    But like all whistleblowers, she knew about the secrets within and knew they needed to be revealed.


  7. NOTE: This excerpt from the first part of a multi-part blog post makes a brief mention of the religious group, The Truth, that is the subject of the main article above on this page.

    Did I Belong to a Cult? The Story (in Brief) of My Spiritual Journey (Or How I Survived Spiritual Abuse but Still Bear the Scars) Part 1

    by Roger E. Olson, Patheos Blog July 16, 2015

    One of the subjects I touch on here frequently (and one of my reasons for having this blog) is “cults.” We don’t hear as much about the issue as some years ago—especially from the late 1970s through the 1990s. That was the era when “cults” became a favorite topic in the media due to mass suicides and deaths in fringe religious movements and communes. Many of us remember well: Jim Jones and the “Jonestown” (People’s Temple) massacre in Guyana and David Koresh and the tragic ending to the government’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas in 1993. But there were other, similar events less well remembered by most people. Several esoteric and apocalyptic religious sects committed mass suicides or bombings, etc. Because of these violent events, the word “cult” came widely to be associated almost exclusively with dangerous religious groups—dangerous to members’ and possibly others’ physical well-being. In a smaller group of people “brainwashing” was the watchword for identifying “cults.” Any religious group believed to practice “mind control” on its members was considered by many sociologists and psychologists a “cult.”

    Due to the “cult hysteria” of the 1980s and 1990s many people became paranoid about unusual, “non-mainstream” religious groups—calling on the government to investigate them for no other reason than their non-mainstream status. An entire industry of “cult watchers” and “cult apologists” arose with the first group labeling almost every group they didn’t like a cult and the latter group (mostly religion scholars) defending the rights of non-mainstream religious groups. I participated somewhat in both while refraining from “buying into” either group’s driving ideology. To me, it seemed, the anti-cult fundamentalist “cult watchers” seemed to use the word “cult” too loosely—often labeling religious groups cults simply because they held one non-traditional, perhaps unorthodox belief. Some secular anti-cultists tended, in my opinion, to treat any religious indoctrination as “brainwashing.” At the same time, the groups of religion scholars I associated with, the “cult apologists,” tended to defend groups I considered fraudulent, only about enriching their founders and leaders. Many of them seemed to me extremely naïve about the abusive tendencies in some of the “new religious movements” they defended.

    My own involvement in research and teaching about “cults” and “alternative religious movements” began as a child. My uncle belonged to a religious group my parents and others called a cult. He would not talk with anyone in the family about his group’s beliefs. Eventually I learned that the group, although quite large, eschews publicity and even refuses to call itself anything other than “The Truth.” Ex-members and critics (including my parents and other family members) called my uncle’s house church movement “Two-By-Twos.” They don’t use that label. I also had a cousin who joined the Baha’i World Faith and during college I worked with and became close friends with another Baha’i. Many Christian anti-cultists called the Baha’i Faith a cult. I attended some of their meetings to try to understand for myself whether they deserved such a pejorative label or whether they counted as a true world religion. And I read their own books as well as books critical of them.

    Read this article in full at: