The sermon was called “The Polished Shaft,” and in the many times that Jack Schaap, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Hammond, had delivered it, it was the kind of showstopper that made him a rock star to his flock. (Or would have, had Schaap not habitually railed against the evils of rock music.)
As with most of his sermons at the northwest Indiana megachurch—the 14th largest in the country and the biggest Independent Baptist house of worship in the nation—the message struck as bluntly as a pounded nail: Submit to God’s plan for your life or be snapped like a twig and flung away (as Schaap would demonstrate by cracking a stick over his head, tossing it aside, and barking, “Next!”).
When you do submit, be prepared to endure excruciating pain. God will hold a metaphorical knife to your throat (as Schaap would illustrate by holding a steel blade against a twig the way an assailant might press on a jugular). Only then, he would growl, will you become a “polished shaft”: one suitable for God’s bow.
At this point, the sermon’s climax, Schaap would heave up a high-powered crossbow and fire an arrow into a red X painted on a fake rock a few feet from his pulpit.
The effect was powerful, and it inevitably produced the desired result: swarms of male teenagers trance-walking their way to Schaap (pronounced “Skop”), ready to commit their lives to becoming pastors. And, equally important, to attend the church-owned Hyles-Anderson College a couple of miles away, one of First Baptist’s biggest coffer fillers.
But in July 2010, an hour into the “Polished Shaft” sermon—in a church packed with thousands of teenagers there for a youth conference—Schaap went further. He lifted a stick in his left hand and a silver cloth in his right. He moved the bottom of the stick near his groin and angled it away from himself. Head thrown back, eyes squeezed shut, mouth gaping, he began rubbing the shaft rapidly with the cloth, up and down, up and down. “Ohh! Oh! Ohhhh! Oh! Oh, God, that hurts!” he shrieked.
Then, his voice dropping to a guttural whisper, he said, “Oh, oh, God. Thanks for what you’re making me.”
Schaap continued to rub the stick—up and down, up and down—and converse with God, sometimes angrily, sometimes ecstatically, for more than a minute. What he was doing was unmistakable: simulating masturbation, in front of thousands of children, in the middle of a church service. A row of white-coated high-ranking churchmen seated behind Schaap watched in silence. At the end, as usual, young men streamed up to the stage.
To the hundreds of people who posted comments under a YouTube video of the event, the lack of reaction is as shocking as Schaap’s sermon itself. But to the congregation of First Baptist, it was all in a day’s preaching.
The true believers of the ultrafundamentalist Independent Baptist movement were accustomed to Schaap’s style. If he wasn’t scolding his flock for not living up to God’s demands (tithing, volunteering, “soul winning”), he was delivering R-rated sermons that, for example, likened the Lord’s Supper to having sex with Jesus Christ. “He would just repeatedly talk about sex and repeatedly talk about women, how they were dressed and body parts … in graphic detail,” recalls Tom Brennan, who attended the church for six years and is now an Independent Baptist pastor at Maplewood Bible Baptist Church in Chicago.
Unfortunately, it went well beyond talk. Last September, Schaap, 54, a married father of two, pleaded guilty to taking a 16-year-old girl he was counseling at First Baptist across state lines to have sex. Denied bond, he awaits sentencing in the Porter County Jail; the minimum term is ten years.
But 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.
It is a culture, past and present members say, enabled by cover-ups and cultlike control. For example, after Schaap’s conviction, many church members blamed his victim as a temptress. “We were taught to not question and to take the ‘man of God’s’ [Schaap’s] word over everything,” says Julie Silvestrone Busby, a former First Baptist member who now hosts a Christian radio show in Iowa. She left the church after alleging that Schaap behaved inappropriately during marriage counseling sessions in 2004 through 2009.
First Baptist Church’s longtime lawyer, David Gibbs, declined a request for comment on this story. The spokesman for the church, Eddie Wilson, did not return numerous calls requesting an interview. Schaap did not respond to an interview request made through Porter County Jail.
In the beginning—1959, in this case—Jack Hyles arrived at the First Baptist Church of Hammond as a skinny, charismatic Bible thumper with a Southern-fried drawl and a couple of cheap suits. No one could have imagined he would grow into the larger-than-life figure whom critics would dub the Godfather and others would consider the Chosen One.
Born in the tiny Dallas suburb of Italy, Hyles often preached about his alcoholic father, his devoted and deeply conservative Christian mother, and the curse of growing up poor. After serving in the army in World War II, he married his sweetheart, Beverly Slaughter. The fire-and-brimstone words of his mother burning in his head, Hyles then enrolled at East Texas Baptist College in Marshall, Texas, where he became a student pastor. After graduation, he set out to spread his particular brand of harsh theology.
In a show of modesty that would be almost unthinkable in later years, Hyles acknowledged that he didn’t immediately set bushes to burning. After his first sermon in 1947, “Elijah blushed and Heaven’s flag flew at half mast for three days,” he lamented in a 1975 Timemagazine article.
Whatever awkwardness he may have had soon gave way to his extraordinary oratorical gifts. By the time he took charge of the 44-member Miller Road Baptist Church in Garland, Texas, in 1952, he was a full-fledged, fire-breathing, stem-winding spellbinder, blessed with a booming preacher’s voice, a savant’s recall of the Bible, and a charisma that could almost magically levitate people from their seats to surrender their lives to the Savior.
Hyles eventually abandoned the church’s Southern Baptist theology, saying it was too liberal. He began calling himself an Independent Baptist—untethered to any dogma or ritual he didn’t cotton to, unaccountable to any ruling body or person beyond himself.
The approach resonated deeply with rural Texans longing for a return to old-time religion. Within a couple of years, his flock had swelled to 4,000, earning Hyles a far-reaching reputation. When the long-serving pastor of First Baptist Church in Hammond stepped down, Hyles got the call.
Founded in 1887, sleepy First Baptist had a mostly well-to-do congregation, many of whom commuted to jobs in Chicago. Hyles made driving out these “northern liberals” his first priority.
Accordingly, he ditched the church’s denominational affiliation with the mainline American Baptist Convention, freeing him to transplant the authoritarian, hellfire-and-damnation theology he had honed in Texas.
A seemingly endless list of rules—both written and unwritten—grew and multiplied. Men were to wear jackets and ties and close-cropped hair. Women were to wear skirts that covered the knee. Trisha LaCroix, who attended Hyles-Anderson College, says that she was disowned by her parents—First Baptist members both—in part for daring to wear pants. Rock music was out, of course, as was any music with a syncopated beat. “Even Southern gospel music was sick and sinful and of the devil,” says Busby.
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.”
Hyles, meanwhile, exerted extreme control over every aspect of his flock’s lives—control that members say they welcomed because they believed it was divinely inspired. “I used to joke that people would not rearrange their living room furniture without help from Brother Hyles,” says Jerry Kaifetz, a former teacher at First Baptist’s Pastors’ School who left the church around 1990.
Virtually no one would marry without Hyles’s blessing, several former church members say. He soon took it upon himself to arrange marriages. According to Kaifetz, “When a guy like Hyles says, ‘This is God’s will for your life,’ you just say, ‘Well, I guess it is.’ ”
One area in which Hyles—a father of four—exerted particular control was child rearing. In this, his views were severe unto merciless. Using biblical passages as justification, Hyles preached that spanking was more than tolerable; it was a sacred duty. In his 1979 book How to Rear Infants, he wrote: “The parent who spanks his child keeps him from going to hell.”
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.
While reshaping the morals of his followers, Hyles also set about empire building, Independent Baptist–style. His strategy: Send a fleet of buses into some of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago and northern Indiana, pack them with the poor and underprivileged, and drive them to First Baptist to experience the Gospel according to Hyles. (The “bus ministry” still operates today.)
To critics, this effort appeared to be more about boosting the church’s attendance numbers than about saving souls. But it was wildly effective, says Kaifetz, in part because Hyles made “soul winning” a key criterion for moving up the church ladder or—if you were a man—for being awarded a coveted staff job. The stick was displeasing God, a message hammered home virtually every Sunday. “It’s a continuous guilt trip,” says McGuire.
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.
The bombshell exploded with apocalyptic force in May 1989. The Biblical Evangelist, a magazine devoted to “historic evangelical fundamentalism,” published a series of articles accusing Hyles of a years-long romantic affair with his secretary, Jennie Nischik, who happened to be the wife of a church deacon, Victor Nischik. The articles also alleged financial improprieties, accusing Hyles of using church money to lavish tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts on Jennie, including a car, clothes, and home remodeling.
Sermons on the scandal rang out from pulpits across the country. Local papers, from the Hammond Timesto the Chicago Tribune, featured the story, as did the tabloid TV news show A Current Affair. It was irresistible: The great Jack Hyles, the man of God, whose schools had dating rules so strict that you could earn a demerit by accidentally touching the end of a pencil held by someone of the opposite sex, was committing adultery.
Hyles thunderously denied the charges and denounced his accuser, Victor Nischik. He organized media boycotts and wrote letters savaging the local papers for reprinting “filth.” Hundreds in his flock rose to his defense. “You all are a bunch of low-down, rotten, filthy, stinking, scummy, garbage-dump stench type of characters,” the Tribune quoted one of them, Noel Shriovanth, as saying. “I wish God would … burn your building,” penned another, Kristen Conner.
Voyle Glover, an attorney and longtime church member, was not among the defenders. Disillusioned, he wrote Fundamental Seduction: The Jack Hyles Case. The 1990 book details the affair and many other misdeeds, including a “Watergate-like coverup” of affairs and sexual abuse at First Baptist.
The wrath of Hyles and his supporters again rained down. “I was called the Antichrist and worse,” Glover says. “I was threatened with physical harm, death threats.” His office was broken into. Excrement was left on his doorstep.
Some of the abuse that Glover described in his book—as many others would later allege—was perpetrated by Hyles’s son.
In the early 1980s, David Hyles, then in his 20s, was the youth pastor at First Baptist. Whispers began that he was having an affair with the daughter of a high-level administrator at Hyles-Anderson College. Backed into a corner by a he-goes-or-I-go ultimatum from the administrator, sources say, Hyles arranged for his son to take over as pastor at his old church, Miller Road Baptist in Texas.
The new pastor was soon kicked out after allegations that he had more than a dozen affairs with churchwomen, many of them married. His wife, Paula, divorced him. He returned to the Chicago area, to Bolingbrook, moving in with a woman named Brenda Stevens.
In 1985, Stevens’s 15-month-old son, Brent, was found lifeless in his crib. The autopsy revealed trauma and numerous broken bones in various stages of healing. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services investigated, but the cause of death could not be determined. At a grand jury inquest, David Hyles exercised his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Stevens didn’t show. The case remains unsolved; Paul Ciolino, a former DCFS investigator now in private practice, says he is still pursuing leads.
Scandal followed the younger Hyles. He was chased from a job running the Sunday school at a church in Pinellas Park, Florida, over allegations of more affairs. But not before a child he fathered with Stevens died under odd circumstances. According to news reports, in March 1999 Stevens (by this time Hyles’s wife) told police that she mistakenly ran over the five-year-old, Jack David, who had rolled out the door of her car. She was never charged with a crime, nor was Hyles.
(Hyles did not respond to an interview request. According to a blog called Fallen in Grace, written by someone identifying himself as David Hyles: “I have no intention of defending myself… You [sic] diatribes on your filthy forums serve Satan’s purpose well.”)
As soon as one First Baptist–related scandal died down, another seemed to surface. In June 1991, a Sunday school teacher accused A. V. Ballenger, a 57-year-old deacon who had spent two decades in the church, of fondling a seven-year-old girl. Despite two eyewitness accounts, Ballenger denied the charge, was released on bond, and returned to the church. At Hyles’s prompting, the congregation gave him a standing ovation.
Ballenger’s March 1993 trial “was just inundated with people from that church” who supported him, recalls the prosecutor, Clarence Murray, now a Superior Court judge in Lake County, Indiana. At Ballenger’s sentencing hearing—delayed three years by appeals, during which time he resumed working in the bus ministry—two women testified that Ballenger also molested them when they were young. He got five years in prison.
The cases continued (see map, “How the ‘Gospel’ Spread”). In 1997, the parents of a mentally disabled 12-year-old sued First Baptist over what they alleged was a months-long pattern of rape and torture of their daughter. Among the accusations was a systematic culture of cover-up: “[Jack Hyles] negligently and carelessly has fostered … a system of secrecy in the church directing that matters of criminal violations not be reported to judicial authority for whom he openly preaches scorn, but to the church itself, meaning Jack Hyles.” The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.
Another egregious case was working its way through the courts around the same time. In 1998, Joseph D. Combs, a former Bible teacher at Hyles-Anderson who had become a pastor in Tennessee, and his wife, Evangeline, were convicted on multiple charges of aggravated abuse, assault, and kidnapping of their adopted 11-year-old daughter. The girl told authorities that her father used biblical references to justify beating, torturing, and sexually abusing her. In 2000, Joseph was sentenced to 114 years in prison; Evangeline got 65.
Then there’s Chester Mulligan, a pastor who was ordained in Hammond by Hyles. Four years ago, he pleaded guilty to felony stalking of a 14-year-old girl while pastor of Central Baptist Church in East Chicago. He was sentenced to a year of probation. That experience didn’t cause Mulligan to rethink his career choice, however. His current job: pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Miami.
Jack Hyles wouldn’t live to see Mulligan’s conviction. In 2001, he died of complications from heart surgery at age 74. There was no question who would succeed him: Hyles had been grooming his son-in-law Jack Schaap ever since his own son’s prospects had plummeted.
While Schaap was from a more prosperous family, in all important ways he was a virtual Hyles clone. And, says Kaifetz, “he got a hero’s welcome. When he walked out on the stage of those chapel services, you’ve never seen anything more over-the-top expressive—thousands waving the Bible in the air, screaming, shouting, whistling.”
In the beginning, Schaap’s preaching was standard Hyles: emotional denunciations of the flock for not doing enough to please God. Though the sermons “weren’t nearly as sexual in the beginning,” says Schaap’s former editor, “he was seductive. He charmed people in order to get them to do what he wanted them to do.”
As Schaap consolidated his grip on the congregation, says former church member Linda Gensaw, “he became more brazen—graphic sexual sermons to the point that I didn’t want to take my children.”
Tom Brennan, the Independent Baptist pastor in Chicago and former First Baptist member, agrees. “He was beyond the bounds of what was appropriate,” says Brennan. “His preaching had gotten so—I hesitate to use the word ‘pornographic.’ It was so vulgar sometimes that it was just a grief to my spirit.”
Challenging Schaap, Busby says, was not an option: “He had absolute power. He could destroy you.”
In fact, he nearly destroyed Busby’s marriage. After she and her husband hit a rocky patch, they turned to Schaap for counseling. At first, Busby says, “it really seemed like he wanted to help us.” But soon Schaap was requesting numerous sessions with Busby alone. “When he would counsel me,” she says, “he would be asking me these shocking questions about sex. I mean, absolutely, purely shocking. I would literally vomit before some of our meetings it got so bad.”
When the couple eventually left the church, Schaap turned on her, Busby says. “He got up in front of a staff meeting—in front of the whole staff—and shared all kinds of confidential stuff that never should have been shared. He told people to shun me.”
Leaving First Baptist was in Busby’s opinion like leaving a cult. “I’ve never been able to say the c-word—and anyone from the church who reads this will take great offense—but that’s what it was like.”
Busby is far from the only person to compare First Baptist to a cult. So does every expert and religion blogger tracking the church—and virtually every one of the dozens of victims and former church members—with whom I spoke. Including Linda Murphrey, Hyles’s daughter. “I believe First Baptist Church gradually evolved into a cult that was in complete idolatry of my father and, after his death, complete idolatry of Jack Schaap,” she says.
What makes a church a cult? I asked Rick Ross, whose nonprofit institute maintains an online archive of data on cults and controversial movements. (He says he is not familiar with the details of First Baptist.) Ross points to a landmark 1981 Harvard study on cult formation, which suggests that all cults, destructive or not, share three elements: an
absolute authoritarian leader who defines the group; a “thought program” that includes “control of the environment, control of information, and people subordinating themselves and their feelings to the demands of the leader”; and a lack of accountability for the head of the group.
Another common characteristic of cults, Ross says, is that they use shame and some sort of exploitation—financial, spiritual, or sexual—to exercise control. Members of a Bible-based group, for example, are made to believe that “it’s a sin of pride for you to think for yourself,” he says. “It’s your ego or a demon or Satan’s influence that causes you to doubt the edicts of the leadership.”
Walking into federal court last September for a hearing about his alleged sexual misdeeds with a minor, Jack Schaap smiled and looked relaxed. Wearing a gray blazer, a red patterned tie, and dark pants, clutching a Bible in his left hand, he stopped in front of the TV cameras and planted a long kiss on his wife, Cindy, 52.
Before the judge, if Schaap wasn’t exactly defiant, he was far from submissive. He said that he didn’t know he had broken “man’s law” but knew he had violated “God’s law.” With that, he entered a guilty plea—and was immediately escorted to Porter County Jail to await sentencing.
Back at First Baptist, prayers for “Brother Schaap” have been asked for and received. (Similar concern has yet to be expressed for his victim.) One of Schaap’s adult children, Kenneth, has mounted a letter-writing campaign to the judge.
Eddie Lapina, a Hyles-trained church fixture, is acting as interim pastor while a committee searches for Schaap’s replacement. Among his moves: announcing in October that fully a quarter of the church’s staff had been laid off.