River Road Fellowship

A secluded Christian community led by a sexual predator

Religion: Christianity
Denomination: Non-denominational
Founder: Victor Barnard
Founded: 1996
Ended: 2014
Location: Finlayson, Minnesota, United States
Size: Approximately 140 members at its peak
Other Names: The River, The Shepherd’s Camp

River Road Fellowship, also known as The River Road Fellowship, was a Christian sect established in the late 1990s in Minnesota, United States. Founded by Victor Barnard, the group identified itself as a Christian community but deviated significantly from mainstream Christian doctrines. Barnard, who positioned himself as the spiritual leader and pastor of the Fellowship, claimed to have unique spiritual insights and authority.

The Fellowship’s beliefs centered around a literal interpretation of the Bible, with an emphasis on the end times and the second coming of Christ. Members were taught to live a life of simplicity and devotion, often eschewing modern conveniences and societal norms in favor of a more communal and isolated lifestyle.

The River Road Fellowship gained notoriety due to the actions of its leader, Victor Barnard. Initially, this group emerged as an offshoot Christian sect before evolving into a more isolated community under Barnard’s guidance. Barnard, previously affiliated with a Christian sect called The Way, gathered former members to establish his own following. He successfully persuaded around 150 individuals to sell their homes and relocate to a secluded compound in Finlayson, Minnesota. Within this isolated environment, the members of the River Road Fellowship engaged in a self-sustained lifestyle, devoid of modern conveniences such as the internet and cell phones, focusing instead on traditional practices like sewing their own clothes, gardening, and bartering goods and services​​.

The River Road Fellowship came under intense scrutiny in the mid-2000s following allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct by Victor Barnard. Several former members accused Barnard of manipulating young women and girls into having sexual relations with him, under the guise of religious instruction and spiritual guidance. In 2016, Barnard was sentenced to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting two teenage girls over nearly a decade. These assaults began when the victims were moved to Minnesota to live with Barnard and other “maidens” in his residence, marking a period of intense and sustained abuse that was justified by Barnard as a means of demonstrating “God’s love.” The legal process illuminated the extent of Barnard’s crimes, including the manipulation and control he exerted over his victims, leading to widespread media coverage and public outcry​​.

Barnard’s legal troubles and the exposure of his crimes brought significant attention to the River Road Fellowship, transforming it from a secluded religious group into a subject of national interest and debate, leading to the decline of the movement. Many members left the community, while others distanced themselves from Barnard’s teachings. The Fellowship’s compound was eventually abandoned, and its remaining assets were dispersed.

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