House of Judah

A tragic tale of faith gone awry, marked by severe discipline and a quest for purity.

The House of Judah, a religious cult that came to national attention in the early 1980s, represents a stark example of how the pursuit of spiritual purity can devolve into extreme abuse and control. Founded by William A. Lewis, who proclaimed himself a prophet, the group originally emerged in Chicago before relocating to Allegan County, Michigan. The cult’s practices, beliefs, and eventual downfall highlight the dangers of unchecked authority within isolated communities.

Origins and Beliefs

The House of Judah had its roots in Chicago, where Lewis began his ministry by holding classes and preaching on the radio. His teachings attracted a following that, by the mid-1970s, had grown large enough to relocate to a rural camp in Michigan. The camp, composed of around 100 followers living in 30 trailers, was overseen by Lewis and his “prophetess,” Muriel King. The community initially thrived on cooperation and shared labor, growing crops and raising animals.

Descent into Abuse

However, the idyllic start soon gave way to a more sinister reality. Lewis, convinced that his followers were straying from their spiritual path, instituted severe punishments for perceived sins. These included beatings, burnings, and other forms of physical abuse, purportedly to chastise and purify the errant members. The cult’s discipline methods escalated over time, culminating in the construction of a whipping block reminiscent of colonial stocks for public punishment.

The Tragedy of John Yarbough

The cult’s brutal practices came to light following the death of 12-year-old John Yarbough, who died in 1983 from injuries sustained during a punishment. Yarbough’s death, resulting from being beaten by his mother under the cult’s directives, exposed the House of Judah’s abuses to the wider world. This event led to police intervention, whereupon eleven children showing signs of physical abuse were removed from the camp. The case against the House of Judah grew as further investigations revealed a pattern of severe abuse, including forced labor, beatings, and sexual assaults.

Legal Consequences and Aftermath

While Yarbough’s mother was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, Lewis and others faced a range of charges from child cruelty to slavery. Remarkably, this case marked the first use of a slavery statute under such circumstances, reflecting the severity and uniqueness of the abuse. Despite these legal actions, the true extent of the suffering endured by the House of Judah’s members, particularly its children, remained immeasurable. Many former members have struggled with the traumas of their experiences, highlighting the lasting impact of such an oppressive environment.


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