A Review of Fortney Road: Life, Death, and Deception in a Christian Cult, by Jeff C. Stevenson
Review written by M. Dolon Hickmon
Lately, the Internet has been flooded with revelations of a particular Christian child abuse scandal, perpetrated by an ethically-challenged gang of TV celebrities, who banked a small fortune as de facto spokespersons for a patriarchal and isolationist Christian cult. As shocking as the initial accusations are, responses from the victims’ devout parents, members of their local church, and representatives of the wider religious community have, to some observers, been even more disturbing. Yet, in a recently released book-length report titled Fortney Road: Life, Death, and Deception in a Christian Cult (Freethought House, 2015), journalist Jeff C. Stevenson proves that far from setting a new low in the faithful’s handling of child abuse, this most recent dust-up is sadly typical.
“Our group was no more a cult than the Baptist church is” — Reverend Larry Hill, Prophet of the Church of the Risen Christ.
The above quote appears near the beginning of Stevenson’s painstakingly researched examination. Intended as a defense of the fundamentalist group that he founded, Hill’s statement instead takes on a broader and more sinister meaning as readers unravel the details of two intertwined real-life tales. The first concerns the bud, blossom, and eventual decay of Larry Hill’s Ohio-based Church of the Risen Christ, a fundamentalist group as fiendish in its subjugation of women and abuse of children as any I’ve ever read about. The second details the genesis, rise to fame, and ultimate disintegration of Reverend Hill’s ambitious and surprisingly effective public outreach, the All Saved Freak Band (ASFB)—a cult-founded, cult-funded, and cult-distributed Christian blues-rock, folk and classical hybrid, which managed to attract radio airplay and a national audience in spite of spooky religious overtones. As in the case of the expanding television family mentioned above, fans, law enforcement, and even mainstream religious leaders bought into the ASFB’s wholesome Christian image, never guessing at the catalog of horrors bandmates were experiencing on their prophet’s rural farm.
“No one ever pulled me aside and told me the truth. If they had, I would have called the police immediately, I would have confronted Larry; I would have done anything necessary to help them.” — Statement by the All Saved Freak Band album producer.
Before being recruited into the Church of the Risen Christ, soft-spoken and likable guitar soloist Glenn Schwartz achieved national fame, first as a member of The James Gang—where the absence left by his voluntary departure was filled by guitar legend and future Eagles bandmate Joe Walsh—and later with Pacific Gas and Electric, a Los Angeles based funk and blues band best known for “Are You Ready?”, which peaked at #14 on the Hot 100 chart. By the age of 30, Schwartz was rubbing shoulders with Steppenwolf, the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, along with other superstars of the day. Then, “as if a powerful switch had been flicked on and all at once, Glenn Schwartz became an unstoppable zealot for Jesus Christ.” Personally courted by Reverend Larry Hill, Schwartz soon relocated to the Fortney Road farm, where his recognizable name and renowned guitar chops helped propel ASFB to national prominence.
“Larry Hill has one simple rule about disciplining children of all ages—beat them until they stop crying.” — John Griffin, writing in the News-Herald of Willoughby.
Some were beaten with a solid wooden board, an inch-and-a-half thick and three feet long; others with “The White Judge”, a six foot buggy whip “fashioned from strips of pure white leather bound onto a flexible plastic rod.” Victims describe being lashed so hard that the blows tore their clothes and “completely” ripped the skin from their bodies. Rather than concealing such acts, Larry Hill preached them publicly: “We’re so squeamish about bruises on our children’s legs,” Hill wrote in a rag called The Freedom Bell, “but we can stand and watch their souls and emotions be mutilated.” Hill’s followers lived to regret the physical abuse they meted out on their pastor’s advice—“it’s an unending source of sadness” one father told Jeff C. Stevenson—but according to statements in a recently released police report, at the Arkansas home of the newly disgraced reality TV family, Biblically-justified child whippings remain the norm: “[redacted] said that when [redacted] is bad that [redacted] mother and dad spank [redacted]. Inv. Taylor asked what they use to spank. [redacted] said they have a rod.” The embroiled television matriarch is also reported to have employed a baby-training method that she calls “quiet and still”; based on the “blanket training” system of fundamentalist preacher Michael Pearl—whose book, To Train up a Child has been linked with at least three child deaths—the method is frighteningly similar to advice that former cult-members credit to “prophet” Larry Hill: “you take the child at a very early age—before they are a year old—and if they have an occasion where they disobey or don’t do what you want them to do, you spank them.”
“That one legged preacher . . . he put a terrific burden on the women and the men” — former member, Church of the Risen Christ.
Like TV’s most famous homeschooling family, the believers living on Fortney Road faced daily work requirements: “That house was immaculate,” one member of Hill’s cult said. “We cleaned cracks on the floor with toothbrushes. We really cleaned. We did everything in the house every day—all the woodwork. We shampooed the rugs once a week. We’d wash the curtains once a week.” In addition to housework, there were farm chores, daily devotions and mandatory prayers. At night, the men dug tunnels and walked patrols, in preparation for the apocalyptic war Reverend Hill predicted. In the dark hours of morning, members awoke to calisthenics and rifle practice.
One ex-member described a few of the punishments that members faced for failing to meet Hill’s standards: “I was going twenty days without food because I couldn’t please God. I had too much ego! The one-legged preacher would always warn us that we were going to lose out if we didn’t obey. So I’d fast Monday but it wasn’t enough so I’d fast another day . . . Some people would eat only dog food to humble themselves, to keep themselves low. I would slap and punch myself in the face to punish myself so I wouldn’t lose out in the end . . . I was always under fear. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom!”
“When I walked in, Larry was under the covers. Diane closed and locked the door behind us and started taking her clothes off. I was so scared. I didn’t know what they were doing.” — Bethy Goodenough, child of former Church of the Risen Christ members.
Some of Larry Hill’s strictest requirements involved enforcing a hierarchal division between women and men. A former-member’s brother observed that the women from the farm “were not permitted to look at any of us, and they were only permitted to speak in very soft voices. They shielded their eyes and continually looked down at the floor.” In addition, Hill enacted a regime of total sexual repression. “‘The game is to convince people their natural impulses are sinful and then set them at war against their own personality and nature.’ The victim then continually works at suppressing his or her own ‘unholy’ personality, and then self-doubt drives the person to further surrender his or her will and judgement to the leader.”
But despite modest clothes, gendered sleeping quarters, and Larry Hill’s frequent sermonizing against sexual immorality, there ran an undercurrent of prolific depravity. “I do think Larry had sex, of some sort, with everyone he could,” one former cult-member opined. And Hill’s predations were not limited to adult women. “Larry’s son Mark confided in Leon about some of the sexual acts he witnessed. He said that Diane would often perform fellatio on Larry while Mark was in the room.” Eventually, Larry went beyond exhibitionism: “They had sex while Larry made me touch him,” Bethy Goodenough alleged; “He would bring me into the study or his room and make me perform oral sex on him while he fondled me. And he showed me how to French kiss”.
“At the trial, every one of us involved perjured themselves in an effort to save Larry. On the stand I was asked if I had ever seen anyone whipped. With my own lashes always fresh in my mind . . . I lied and said ‘no’. No one asked me to lie under oath but I did.” — former Church of the Risen Christ member.
Ultimately, all of the abuse meted out at the farm ended in a single trial. Unable to prosecute the grotesqueries that adult members willingly endured, investigators instead focused on a single act of physical abuse directed at a child: the brutal horsewhipping of eleven year old Bethy Goodenough by Diane Sullivan, Larry Hill’s “prophetess” and second-in-command. The case was heard by Judge Avellone, who agreed to be interviewed by Jeff Stevenson decades after the fact. “The defense agreed generally that certain events happened but denied any serious injury occurred,” the judge recalled. “Diane never intended to seriously harm the child . . . and she had no previous record”. In accordance with what they’d been taught on the farm, Bethy Goodenough and others corroborated Diane’s defense. “The girl said [being beaten with a horsewhip] wasn’t painful,” Judge Avellone remembered. Diane was sentenced to nine days in jail and a $500 fine—a sentence decried as too severe by mainstream religious leaders who’d been following the case: “Several clergy that were there were surprised she got any sentence at all,” the judge recollected; “They believed she and the church were exercising their religious freedoms and since she did not intend to inflict child abuse, she did not commit a crime.” Meanwhile, Larry Hill crept off to another state, where he remained until the statute of limitations ran out on his crimes.
“[R]anked as number 228 in ‘Contemporary Christian Music’s 500 Best Albums of All Time’”
The All Saved Freak Band lives on. Between spells of reading Fortney Road, I listened to their tracks via unofficial YouTube videos, filtering the lyrics through what I’d learned of the ugliness that lay behind. The music isn’t awful. In fact, it continues to garner positive attention—most recently from Slate. But for me their songs stand as a solemn testament to the unmerited respect that law enforcement still pays to those who dress their crimes in religious mumbo-jumbo. It would be comforting to think that public officials’ religious favoritism has been relegated to the distant past, but events involving the Christian darlings of reality of TV have proven that in thirty years, nothing much has changed.
Fortney Road: Life, Death, and Deception in a Christian Cult is an unexpectedly entertaining, phenomenally well-researched and thoughtfully organized account of religion gone horribly awry. In it, journalist Jeff C. Stevenson exposes much more than the odd happenings that took place on a fringe religious group’s isolated farm. By lifting the veil on tactics and techniques that even mainstream religions use to unduly influence their followers, Stevenson exposes the essential truth that underlies cult-leader Larry Hill’s chilling statement: “Our group was no more a cult than the Baptist church is.”
Fortney Road: Life, Death, and Deception in a Christian Cult
Published by Freethought House
Release Date: June 2, 2015
M. Dolon Hickmon explores the intersections of religion and child abuse in essays published around the web, as well as in the pages of his critically acclaimed Amazon child abuse bestseller, 13:24 – A Story of Faith and Obsession. You can follow his writing on Twitter @TVOS1324.