THE WAY INTERNATIONAL TIMELINE
1916 (December 31): Victor Paul Wierwille was born in New Knoxville, Ohio.
1937 (July 2): Wierwille married Dorothea Kipp.
1942 (October 3): Wierwille began the weekly radio program Vesper Chimes.
1945: Wierwille’s first book, Victory Through Christ, was published.
1953: Wierwille began teaching the precursor course to Power for Abundant Living.
1954: Wierwille began publication of The Way Magazine.
1955: Wierwille founded The Way, Incorporated.
1957: Wierwille formally resigned as a pastor in the Evangelical and Reformed Church pastorate and began pursuing his ministry in The Way.
1970: Wierwille founded The Way Corps and the Word Over the World (WOW) Ambassador program.
1974: The Way acquired The Way College of Emporia (Kansas) and The Way International Fine Arts and Historical Center (Sidney, Ohio).
1975: The Way changed its name to The Way International.
1976: The Way International acquired The Way Family Ranch (Gunnison, Colorado) and The Way College of Biblical Research (Rome City, Indiana).
1982: Wierwille appointed L. Craig Martindale as president of The Way International.
1985: Victor Paul Weirwille died.
2020 (March 10): Vern Edwards was appointed the fifth President of The Way International.
Victor Paul Wierwille [Image at right] was born to Ernst and Emma Wierwille on December 31, 1916 and raised on a family farm that later became the headquarters of The Way International. As a youth he attended the Evangelical and Reformed Church (later the United Church of Christ). After receiving BA and BD degrees from Mission House College and Seminary (later Lakeland College), Wierwille went on to earn a Master of Theology degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1941 (Kyle 1993). Wierwille later received a doctoral degree from Pikes Peak Bible Seminary, an unaccredited correspondence school in 1948 (Melton 1986:205). Wiewille married Dorothea Kipp during college, and the couple had five children.
During his first pastoral position, in 1942, Wierwille reported that God spoke to him directly during a time when he felt uncertain about the message he was teaching. According to Wierwille, God said “he would teach me the Word as it had not been known since the first century if I would teach it to others.” Wierwille asked for a sign from God. He reported that “My eyes were tightly shut as I prayed. And then I opened them. The sky was so white and thick with snow, I couldn’t see the tanks at the filling station on the corner not 75 feet away” (Juedes and Morton 1984:8-9). Part of understanding the Word as it had never been known involved studying the Aramaic Bible, which was the language Wierwille believed that Christ spoke. Wiewille undertook this project in the mid-1950s.
In October of 1942 Wierwille began his radio broadcast “The Vesper Chimes,” which featured Bible teaching and Christian music provided by a youth chorus. He published his first book, Victory Through Christ, a compilation of his sermons, in 1945. Wierwille continued his pastoral positions within the Evangelical and Reformed Church until 1957.
During the 1950s Wierwille began building a number of the organizational and doctrinal components that became central to The Way International. He formed The Way, Incorporated (1955). He began converting the farm on which he had been born into a headquarters for The Way and subsequently deeded the property to the movement (1957). He constructed the Biblical Research Center (1961) and held the first International Summer School program there (1962). He began organizing the Power for Abundant Living (PFAL) class (1953), publication of The Way Magazine (1954), formation of The Way Corps (1970), establishment the Word Over the World (WOW) Ambassador program (1970), acquisition of The Way College of Emporia in Kansas and The Way International Fine Arts and Historical Center in Sidney, Ohio (1974), and purchase of The Way Family Ranch in Gunnison, Colorado, as well as The Way College of Biblical Research in Rome City, Indiana (1976). A number of these organizations were educational and leadership training oriented. The Power for Abundant Living (PFAL) described its objective as intended to increase the meaning of life, promote a positive attitude, prosperity and health, as well as to teach faith and prayer.
The Way International experienced its most successful period of growth during the 1960s and 1970s, possibly reaching a peak membership of 35,000. The Way drew on the same pool of potential youthful converts as a number of Jesus People and other conservative Christian religious movements, such as The Children of God (later The Family International) and Calvary Chapel (Kyle 1993). In 1968, Wierwille visited and personally ministered in countercultural neighborhoods in San Francisco, which contributed to movement growth during this period (Eskridge 2018:108). Youthful converts were also attracted by The Way’s integration of rock music into its ministry through the Woodstock-style Rock of Ages annual music festivals. Movement membership declined with the end of the youthful counterculture, as was the case for many of the groups in that cohort.
The movement later experienced a number of challenges as external opposition mobilized against it, it was beset by internal division, and allegations of moral misconduct arose [See, Issues/Challenges].
The Way International lists a ten-point summary of its doctrines (The Way International website 2022):
We believe the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were “given by inspiration of God” [theopneustos, “God-breathed”] (II Timothy 3:16) and perfect as originally given; that the God-breathed Word is of supreme, absolute, and final authority for believing and godliness.
We believe in one God, the Creator of the heavens and earth; in Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son, our lord and savior, whom God raised from the dead; and we believe in the workings of the Holy Spirit.
We believe that the virgin Mary conceived Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit; that God was in Christ; and that Jesus Christ is the “mediator between God and men” and is “the man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5).
We believe that Adam was created in the image of God, spiritually; that he sinned and thereby brought upon himself immediate spiritual death, which is separation from God, and physical death later, which is the consequence of sin; and that all human beings are born with a sinful nature.
We believe that Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, as a representative and substitute for us, and that all who confess with their mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead are justified and made righteous, born again by the spirit of God, receiving eternal life on the grounds of His eternal redemption, and thereby are sons of God.
We believe in the resurrection of the crucified body of our Lord Jesus Christ, his ascension into heaven, and his seating at the right hand of God.
We believe in the blessed hope of Christ’s return, the personal return of our living lord and savior, Jesus Christ, and our gathering together unto him.
We believe in the bodily resurrection of the just and the unjust.
We believe in the receiving of the fullness of the holy spirit, the power from on high, and the corresponding nine manifestations of the holy spirit for all born-again believers.
We believe it is available to receive all that God promises us in His Word according to our believing faith. We believe we are free in Christ Jesus to receive all that he accomplished for us by his substitution.
The Way’s doctrines are distinctive in several ways (Juedes and Morton 1984). One of the most central and controversial doctrines in The Way is its rejection of The Trinity: Christ is understood not as co-equal with God but rather a created being. The Holy Spirit is a manifestation of God and a gift from God, a gift that is manifests through speaking in tongues. The Way also reinterprets the doctrine of the virgin birth. The group teaches that it was actual sexual intercourse between Mary and the Holy Spirit that resulted in the birth of Jesus. When Joseph and Mary began a sexual relationship, Mary was already pregnant with Jesus. The Way also preaches and is organized around the concept of dispensationalism, which asserts that the relationship between God and humanity proceeded through seven “administrations.” The Way has added an administration, which is the relationship in which humanity currently resides and is bounded by the Pentecost and the second coming of Christ (ultra-dispensationalism). There are a number of other distinctive doctrines, such as the rejection of some books in the Old Testament and what it means to be born again.
As in the case of doctrines, The Way has a number of distinctive ritual practices. The church does not hold worship services on Sundays; rather, there are fellowship meetings throughout the week. Members practice glossolalia, which is regarded as a manifestation of the holy spirit. Glossolalia replaces water baptism. Members are asked to financially support church through income tithing as the minimum, with encouragement of “abundant sharing” beyond tithing.
Membership in The Way requires completion of the twelve session Power For Abundant Living (PFAL) class. The class consists of the distinctive “lost knowledge” that Wierwille believed he had regained through his research and spiritual experiences. The Way organization emphasizes education, leadership and missionizing through organizational components such as The Way Corps (leadership training 1970) and the Word Over the World (WOW) Ambassador program (missionizing 1970). Overall organization is intended to replicate what The Way understands to be the early Christian church’s “tree structure,” with roots, trunks, branches, and twigs. At the local level, both fellowship groups that meet in members’ homes (rather than church buildings) and individual members are referred to as “twigs” (Melton 1986). Local church leadership is exercised by ordained ministers who conduct rituals such as weddings, funerals and holy communion. The church organizes its Rock of Ages music festival annually.
The Way International has experienced a number of major challenges through its history, most during its early years of development. Issues included opposition from anti-cult groups, internal conflicts that resulted in defections and schisms, and allegations of sexual abuse by Way leadership. There more minor issues as well. The Way had its charitable organization revoked in 1985 for alleged political activity violations, but its status was reinstated two years later after it successfully mounted a legal challenge (Tolbert 1988). For several years during the 1970s there was public concern over students at the Way College of Emporia (Kansas) receiving weapons training through a course offered by the state on hunting safety. However these concerns lessened as members received no military training and did not possess military weapons.
The Way International formed prior to the emergence of the cohort of new religious movements that were labeled “cults” during the late 1960s and 1970s (Shupe and Bromley 1980). However, The Way flourished during the 1970s to a significant degree because it drew on the conservative but countercultural Jesus People Movement (Eskridge 2018l; Howard 1971). The cult/brainwashing interpretation of involvement in new religious groups led to deprogrammings from the groups (Lewis and Bromley), many of which were coercive during that era, litigation on legal control over adherents (Fisher 1991), and published accounts of movement careers by former members (Edge 2017a, 2017b). Deprogrammings from The Way International may have exceeded those from the Unification Church, which was a primary target, in the mid-1980s (Melton 1986:209; Bromley 1988).
The Way faced internal conflicts and defections during the 1980s that substantially weakened the movement. In 1983, Wierwille selected thirty-three year old Loy Craig Martindale, who had previously held a number of leadership positions within the movement, as his successor, although Wierwille continued to be a dominant influence within the group until his death in 1985. Almost immediately after Wiewille’s death, Christopher Geer, who was ordained by The Way, published “The Passing of the Patriarch,” which challenged Martindale’s leadership and advanced a claim to his own spiritual authority. The document ultimately was presented at a meeting of The Way Corps and circulated throughout the movement. Greer ultimately we dismissed from his leadership position and went on to form his own organization, Word Promotions, Ltd. Amid the challenges to his leadership, Martindale attempted to tighten his control over the organization by demanding personal allegiance and replacing leaders, which led to both leader and member resignations. The movement may have lost more than half of its membership during these years. By the 1990s, nearly a dozen schismatic groups had declared their independence from The Way, with many retaining very similar organization and doctrine (Tolbert 1988; Juedes 1997).
Finally, there have been numerous allegations of sexual abuse (Eskridge 2018:109; Juedes 1999, 2009). Wierwille, who died before the outbreak of accusations, was personally accused of sexual exploitation, as were Craig Martindale and other Way leaders. The allegations involved the biblically sensitive accusation of adultery, since most of these men and women involved were married, as well as exploitation of single female adherents by men. The legitimating accounts provided to women were based on biblical interpretations provided by the leaders that emphasized women’s obligations to men as part of their “spiritual maturity” (Skedgelt 2008). Wierwille’s successor, Craig Martindale, was charged in a civil suit with a “pattern of corrupt activity” brought by Way members Paul and Frances Allen, which included “assault and rape.” Just before the case was to go to trial, a settlement was reached, records were sealed, and terms of the settlement were not disclosed (Laney 2000). Martindale resigned his leadership position in the wake of these legal proceedings.
Among the schismatic groups that formed during the tumultuous 1980s was River Road Fellowship, formed by Victor Barnard, with some early involvement by David Larsen (Brooks and Ross 2014; Backman 2014; L’Heureux 2016.). Barnard was enrolled in Hobart College in the state of New York when he was approached by a recruiter from The Way. He subsequently dropped out of college and began attending The Way College in Emporia Kansas. In 1983 he joined The Way Corps four-year leadership training program. Around 1990 Barnard and Larsen began planning their own retreat center, Shepherd’s Camp. Larsen has reported that he and Barnard were well aware of in sexual activities occurring in the Way and pledged to avoid such violations (Ross, Louwagie, and Brooks. 2014).
We openly talked about it, addressed it, that it was wrong — that we would never go that route,” Larsen said, his eyes wide. “We even made a commitment, a personal commitment to each other that we would never allow that kind of thing.
What began as a temporary camp evolved into a hierarchically organized, isolated residential enclave that may have housed 150 residents at its peak. Simultaneously, Barnard’s charismatic status claims increased dramatically, and he presented himself as a representative of Jesus. In 2000, Barnard established “The Maidens,” a group of ten girls between twelve and twenty-four selected to live near Barnard, with their parents’ permission (Kahler 2016). The group of young women was presented as akin to a religious order for women. Barnard subsequently began having sexual relationships both with the married women in River Road and with adolescent Maidens. The young girls were reassured that his sexual advances were his way of demonstrating God’s love for them and that they would remain virgins because he was a “Man of God.” In 2008, Barnard publicly announced his adulterous relationships, and conflict ensued. Husband’s sought to press charges against him. In 2012, two of the young Maidens reported Barnard’s illicit relationships with them. In 2014, law enforcement filed multiple sexual assault charges against Barnard. He ultimately pled guilty to the charges and was sentenced to twenty-four years in prison (Clouse 2017).
The Way International has settled organizationally since the Wierwille-Martindale period; there is no mention of Wierwille’s checkered history on the organizations website (The Way International website 2022). There have been several smooth, conventional leadership changes. Rev. Vern Edwards was appointed as the Fifth President of The Way International in 2020, and The Way celebrated its 79th anniversary in 2021 (Speicher 2021).
Image #1: Victor Paul Wierwille.
Backman, Kehla. 2014. “The More You Commit, the More the Leader Loves You.” Gawker, April 26. Acccessed from https://www.gawker.com/the-more-you-commit-the-more-the-leader-loves-you-15655767658.01K on 20 January 2022.
Bromley, David. 1988. “Deprogramming as a Mode of Exit from New Religious Movements: The Case of the Unificationist Movement.” Pp. 166-85 in Falling from the Faith: The Causes and Consequences of Religious Apostasy. Newbury Park: SAGE Publications, 1988
Bromley, David G. and Anson Shupe. 1981. Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare. Boston: Beacon Press.
Brooks, Jennifer and Jenna Ross. 2014. “Friends recall rise and fall o Victor Barnard.” Star Tribune, August 13. Accessed from https://www.startribune.com/april-20-friends-recall-rise-and-fall-of-victor-barnard/255833281/?refresh=true on 20 January 2022.
Clouse, Thomas. 2017. “Sex crime victim from ‘maidens’ cult files lawsuit targeting River Road Fellowship elders who relocated to Spokane.” The Spokesman, January 25. Accessed from https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2017/jan/25/sex-crime-victim-from-maidens-cult-files-lawsuit-t/ on 20 January 2022.
Edge, Charlene. 2017a. Undertow: My Escape from the Fundamentalism and Cult Control of The Way International. Newton, KS: Wings ePress.
Edge, Charlene. 2016. “Why I Had to Escape a Fundamentalist Cult.” ICSA Today 7:15- 17.
Eskridge, Larry. 2018. God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fisher, Barry. 1991. “Devotion, Damages and Deprogrammers: Strategies and Counterstrategies in the Cult Wars.” Journal of Law and Religion 9:151-77.
Howard, Jane. 1971.”The Groovy Christians of Rye, N.Y.” Life Magazine, May 1, 78-86.
Juedes, John. 2009. “The Way’s Theology of Sex: How Way Leaders Used the Bible to Promote Promiscuity and Adultery.” Accessed from http://www.empirenet.com/~messiah7/sut_sextheology.htm on 10 January 2022.
Juedes, John. 1999. “LAWSUITS AGAINST TWI And ALLEGATIONS Of SEXUAL MISCONDUCT.” About The Way International. Accessed from www.empirenet.com/~messiah7 on 10 January 2022.
John Juedes. 1997. Review of “The Passing of a Patriarch.” Accessed from http://www.empirenet.com/~messiah7/rvw_patriarch.htm on 1/1/2022.
Juedes, John and Douglas Morton. 1984. “From “Vesper Chimes’ to ‘The Way International’.” Milwaukee, WI: C.A.R.I.S.
Kahler, Karl. 2016. “Minnesota cult leader called the girls ‘brides of Christ’ – and he was ‘Christ’.” Pioneer Press, March 29. Accessed from https://www.twincities.com/2014/05/16/minnesota-cult-leader-called-the-girls-brides-of-christ-and-he-was-christ/ on 20 January 2022.
Kyle, Richard. 1993. The. Religious Fringe: A History of Alternative Religions in America. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Lalich, Janja and Karla McLaren. 2018. Escaping Utopia: Growing Up in a Cult, Getting Out, and Starting Over. New York: Routledge.
Laney, William. 2000. “The Way International reaches settlement with couple.” Wapakoneta Daily News, November 7. Accessed from https://culteducation.com/group/1289-general-information/8318-the-way-international-reaches-settlement-with-couple.html on 1/10/2022.
L’Heureux, Catie. 2016. “Two Childhood Rape Survivors Just Ended a Cult Leader’s Terrifying Reign.” The Cut, October 28. Accessed from https://www.thecut.com/2016/10/rape-victims-minnesota-cult-leader-victor-barnard-sexual-assault.html on 20 January 2022.
Lewis, James and David G. Bromley. 1987. “The Cult Withdrawal Syndrome: A Misattribution of Cause?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 26:508-522.
Ross, Jenna, Pam Louwagie, and Jennifer Brooks. 2014. “Caught in a cult’s dark embrace.” Star Tribune, August 13. Accessed from https://www.startribune.com/april-27-caught-in-a-cult-s-dark-embrace/256845191/?refresh=true on 20 January 2022.
Shupe, Anson and David G. Bromley. 1980, The New Vigilantes. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Skedgelt, Kristin. 2008. Losing the Way: A Memoir of Spiritual Longing, Manipulation, Abuse, and Escape. Point Richmond, CA: Bay Tree Publishing.
Speicher, Melaine. 2021. “The Way celebrates 79th anniversary.” Sidney Daily News, October 6. Accessed from https://www.sidneydailynews.com/news/religion/208263/the-way-celebrates-79th-anniversary
The Way International website. 2022. “About the Founder.” Accessed from https://www.theway.org/about-us/about-the-founder/ on 1/5/2022.
The Way International website. 2022. “Statement of Beliefs,” Accessed from https://www.theway.org/about-us/statement-of-beliefs/ on 1/1/2022.
Tolbert, Keith. 1988. “Infighting Trims Branches of The Way International.” Christianity Today, February 19. Accessed from https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1988/february-19/infighting-trims-branches-of-way-international.html on 1 January 2022.
Tucker, Ruth. 1989. Another Gospel: Alternative Religions and the New Age Movement. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Wierwille, Victor. 1945. Victory Through Christ. Van Wert, OH: Wilkinson Press
23 January 2022