Word of Faith Fellowship

A controversial religious movement entangled in allegations of abuse and cult-like practices.

Founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley and her husband, Sam, the Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina, has evolved into a religious movement with significant global influence. Initially started as a small community, it aimed to provide a religious foundation, housing, and job opportunities for its members. However, over the years, it has become synonymous with allegations of physical, psychological, and spiritual abuse, drawing attention from media, law enforcement, and investigative journalists.

Jane Whaley, a former schoolteacher, has been a central figure in the controversy surrounding the church. In 2004, she was convicted of misdemeanor assault following an incident described as “blasting,” where members allegedly screamed at and assaulted another member to exorcise demons, though this conviction was later overturned after appeals. The church’s practices, under Whaley’s leadership, have been characterized by former members as extreme and abusive, including physical beatings to cast out supposed demons, forced isolation, and manipulation​​.

The church’s approach to dealing with perceived sins or demonic possessions involved a technique known as “blasting,” which entailed loud, aggressive prayer and physical aggression. This method was justified by Whaley’s belief that Satan employs an army of invisible demons to manipulate humans. Over time, this practice reportedly evolved to include punching, choking, and restraining individuals to rid them of demons​​.

Allegations of abuse within the Word of Faith Fellowship have been extensive and include claims of physical abuse resulting in injuries, family separations, and the coercive control of members. An investigation by the Associated Press, which included interviews with 43 former members, uncovered stories of untreated injuries, families being torn apart, and members being held prisoner. Children at the church’s school were reportedly beaten for minor offenses, sometimes by other children, under the guise of discipline​​.

The church also faced legal scrutiny over its practices. For instance, Matthew Fenner, a former member, alleged that he was beaten for hours to “break” him from homosexual “demons” in 2013, leading to indictments against five church members for kidnapping and assault. However, legal challenges, including a mistrial in one case, have complicated efforts to hold individuals accountable​​.

Internationally, the church’s influence extended to Brazil, where similar abusive practices were reported. Former members claimed that Brazilian churches associated with the Word of Faith Fellowship imposed strict control over members, including forced labor and isolation. Despite these serious allegations, a federal investigation in the U.S. found no evidence to support claims of unpaid labor or abuse among Brazilian members brought to the United States​​.

The Word of Faith Fellowship’s attitudes towards sex and marriage were also subject to strict and unusual rules, reinforcing the control the church exerted over personal aspects of members’ lives. Practices and beliefs were dictated by Whaley’s interpretations, which extended into every detail of members’ lives, from the prohibition of certain brands and products considered “of the devil” to imposing limitations on sexual activity within marriage​​.

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