In "Broken Faith," investigative journalists dig into the secretive Word of Faith Fellowship church

Journalists Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr spoke to Salon about their book on the controversial enigmatic church

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 2, 2020 4:00PM (EDT)

Word of Faith Fellowship church leader Jane Whaley talk to members of the media as husband Sam listens during a news conference in Spindale, N.C., Thursday, March 2, 1995. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Word of Faith Fellowship church leader Jane Whaley talk to members of the media as husband Sam listens during a news conference in Spindale, N.C., Thursday, March 2, 1995. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

For most of us, being removed from the outside world is a very new reality. According to a new book by investigative journalists, some members of the Word of Faith Fellowship are perhaps more accustomed to it. "They isolate you; they separate you from your family on the outside," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mitch Weiss claimed in a recent interview. 

Co-written with investigative journalist Holbrook Mohr, "Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America's Most Dangerous Cults" (Hanover Square Press), presents a rare look into the Word of Faith religious organization and its leader Jane Whaley, told largely through the lens of one family's experience. 

Founded in North Carolina in 1979, the Word of Faith Fellowship describes itself as "a body of believers committed to worshipping and serving our Lord and savior Jesus Christ." But Weiss and Mohr allege that the ministry has engaged in a decades-long pattern of extreme physical and psychological punishment for members who run afoul of its strict protocols. "Throughout his life," they write of one former member, "he had been choked, punched, and beaten to expel the demons they said possessed his soul." 

The centerpiece of the narrative is the tale of the "Five Boys." As a group of young teens in the early 2000s, their close-knit friendship reportedly aroused the suspicion of Whaley, resulting in what the authors claim was a year of physical abuse and shunning. "Those were some of my darkest times," Jamey Anderson, one of the now adult Five Boys, recounts in the book. "It was extreme, even for there."

Culled from interviews with nearly 100 individuals involved, as well as court documents and audio and video recordings, "Broken Faith" has been hotly challenged by the Word of Faith. Two years ago, A&E pulled a documentary series on the group shortly after allegations the producers paid participants.

Salon reached out to Word of Faith for comment about the allegations made in "Broken Faith," and attorney Joshua Farmer sent us this response "on behalf of The Word of Faith Fellowship":

Mitch Weiss's book "Broken Faith" is a continuation of the campaign of vitriol and lies by Weiss and certain members of the Cooper family against our church. This is another attempt to commercialize their concerted smear campaign after their failed attempt with the canceled A&E series, "The Devil Next Door." That series was irreparably tainted because many major participants were paid significant sums as they slandered the church. After the church publicized the existence of the payments, the series was canceled. 

We categorically deny Weiss's allegations of physical abuse and isolation of members.

We have repeatedly reached out to Weiss and the publisher of this book. They have continually rejected our attempts to address their inaccuracies.

The authors of the book spoke to Salon via phone about their book, Whaley and the Word of Faith Fellowship, and what drove them to keep going on a story other journalists gave up on decades ago.

For someone like me who had not heard of this organization, who is Jane Whaley?

Holbrook Mohr: Jane is a woman who was raised in rural North Carolina. From outward appearances, she had a relatively normal upbringing. Her father was a small business owner. He owned a plumbing store. She went to college at Appalachian State at a time when not a lot of women went to college; Jane's around 80 now. She became a math teacher and she married her husband, Sam, who was a religious man, and he wanted to be a pastor and further his spiritual journey. They started a church in Spindale, rural North Carolina, in 1979. Later they moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he attended a Rhema Bible College, which teaches the prosperity gospel.

Over time, while they were there, Jane began to attract a small group of followers, mostly women, who were extremely loyal to her. As time progressed, she really became the more dominant religious force in her marriage. When they moved back to North Carolina, Jane kind of took over as the lead pastor of the Word of Faith Fellowship. Over the years she's been able to bring people into the Word of Faith Fellowship through her dynamic and charismatic personality. That's basically who she is, where she comes from.

Mitch Weiss: I would add one more thing. She became this spiritual leader, this prophet, so to speak, at a time when evangelicalism was a male-dominated field. She was one of the few women. Essentially, she used that to her advantage because she was a little bit older. Some of her early congregants were young women. They were troubled with their sexuality or they were coming out of abusive relationships, and she was able to become a motherly figure to them. That's one of the things she did that was a little different than then the evangelists at the time.

I'd also never heard of the practice of "blasting." Can you talk to me about what it is, where it comes from? 

Mohr: There are Christian denominations that do speak in tongues and lay on hands and have prayer circles and those kinds of things. What sets the Word of Faith Fellowship apart is their belief that this is something you have to do, number one, to cast out devils, and it gets more intense as it goes on. It can build up to violence. People being thrown to the floor, or slapped, whatever it takes to get the demons out of that person and for them to find deliverance. That is really what sets the Word for Faith Fellowship apart was this practice called blasting.

Weiss: There are elements of this in the Pentecostal, evangelical movements, but [with Word of Faith] it's violence to get the devils out. She literally believes that every problem you have in life, if you're an alcoholic, if you're a drug addict, if you're, and I'm using quotation marks, "homosexual," then you have a demon inside you that's making you act that way or be that way. And the only way to get out or cast out that devil is by beating you, by screaming at you. Sometimes these things go on for hours — the yelling, the beatings — until they're convinced that they've expelled that devil.

Obviously, exorcising demons has a foundation in the New Testament. But this is not something Word of Faith only uses for very extreme circumstances?

Weiss: That's accurate. It becomes so part of your way of life that you kind of get used to it. A lot of former members, especially the ones who were born into the church, who all they know is blasting and beatings, said they got so used to it that what really bothered them more than being beaten for hours was the isolation. That was one of her techniques. There was an incident we talk about in the book about the "Five Boys."

The worst part for those kids was the total isolation from their family. No one could talk to them. They were shunned. They had to go to school every day and watch Jane Whaley videos. The food was essentially: You open the door, you put the food in, like you're in a jail. No family member could talk to them. It's that isolation on top of it that was horrible. I hate to say you get used to beatings, but it was really that isolation that they feared almost as much.

Let's take a step back. I wanted to ask you about the Five Boys [written about in the book] because it really is a linchpin of this story. 

Mohr: These are just kids being kids. Smiling when they're not supposed to, being too close to one another. They just had little games. They would have little signals to communicate because you couldn't openly do it. Those things, for whatever reason, infuriated Jane. She considers that kind of behavior being out from authority. You're supposed to be "locked in," and everything is supposed to be approved and done the way the church wants it. If you don't walk that line, even what seems like minor activities can lead to some pretty severe consequences. For these boys, they were separated from their friends and families. They were isolated. They weren't allowed to take part of normal school activities. They just had to sit in a room and watch these tapes of Jane Whaley preaching. This had a devastating effect on them. Not just at the time, but even today.

Word of Faith first came to wide attention 25 years ago. What happened then, and what didn't happen subsequently? 

Weiss: In 1995, "Inside Edition" did a story. Pete Evans with the Trinity Foundation infiltrated the church and took videos, and then he gave the videos to "Inside Edition." "Inside Edition" ran a story about this church and abuse inside the church, and that sparked an investigation by the state agency that comes in and looks into these things. They came back with a 315-page report that was never released to the public. We ended up getting it a couple of years ago. The DA at the time said, hey, we're closing the case because yes, they have some unusual practices, but really there was nobody inside the church who wanted to come forward and press charges.

Well, of course when we got the 1995 report, we saw that there were close to a dozen people who said, "Yeah, we're going to press charges." They talked to the leadership who admitted they did these things. It went on and on and on. Holbrook and I quickly realized that the same people who were there in 1995 were still there when we were writing these stories. The problem is that you have the failure of the institutions to do their jobs. That's the problem. Word of Faith has 750 members in North Carolina, they have two churches in Brazil and one in Ghana. But in North Carolina, 750 people in a small rural county make for a strong voting bloc. They are well-dressed, they're well-educated, they come across as being completely normal. You basically did not want to cross them, because they had the money and they had the time to do whatever it takes to beat charges.

There was a DA up there that we interviewed named Brad Greenway. He was actually a lawyer for DSS during this long battle, and DSS did try to come in and take action to protect the kids. They ended up losing. Well, they gave in because Word of Faith hired a law firm out of New York that represented the Church of Scientology. When I talked to Brad Greenway, who was later the district attorney, he said, look, they just wear you down. They come in, maybe you get a kid who wants to file a charge, and then he changes his mind. Or you have the church coming in, and they have all these people who are well-dressed, and you just give up.

He said, I believe everything that went on down there, the abuse, but I just didn't have the energy. I looked at him and I said, "Then why don't you just stop being DA and let somebody come in who would do their jobs? Because by the failure of the DA and the police who would look the other way to do their jobs, you have a whole generation of children that were abused, that are emotionally scarred for the rest of their lives." And the worst part is it continues to this day. Continues to this day.

Word of Faith also has ties to the White House? Can you talk about that?

Mohr: Number one, this church's political connections go back years, way before this current administration. Sam Whaley opened a session of Congress with a prayer in 1999; they've campaigned for local, state, and federal leaders for years. Their political connections are not new. That being said, they did campaign for President Trump. If he comes to Charlotte, they're there. They actively support the President, but again they've gotten away with these things for years. That goes way back before the current administration.

Weiss: I would add that this is a church that tells its members not to watch TV, not to read newspapers.

They isolate you, they separate you from your family on the outside, the family members who aren't part of the church. 

These political ties go back almost to the very beginning. They do a lot of things that don't show up in campaign finance reports. They do the grassroots organizing, they get people out to vote. They have members who are precinct chairmen.  

Plus, their connection to congressional figures is just outstanding. They're connected to Mark Meadows, who's retiring, and so on. They're going to be cultivating those relationships.

What the book says about Ray and Joshua Farmer gives your story a whole other dimension. Can you tell me about them?

Weiss: Let's start with Ray Farmer. Ray Farmer is the head of security at Word of Faith Fellowship. This is a private church, and there's only one road really in and out of the compound. If you go down that road, I can tell you that you will not make it to the gate. There'll be a car that blocks you, and inside is usually Ray Farmer. It's usually a big black sedan, tinted windows and stuff. Former members have told us about he has this big gun collection. So he's the head of security.

Then you have Josh Farmer, the bankruptcy lawyer who filed for bankruptcy and somehow managed to dig up enough money to start a national trucking company. He's a guy who's also heavily involved in everything. He is the de facto spokesperson for Word of Faith. If you want to comment, you call Josh or email Josh. Josh and that trucking company, they do a lot of business. He issued a news release a couple years ago saying, wonderful news, Freight Works — which is the name of his company — it was certified as one of a handful of carriers who could transport sodium cyanide, which is used in the mining business.

You get this dust on your arm, finger, you could die; you have to have special trucks to transport this stuff. What former members told us was that they were worried. They said, this is incredibly dangerous stuff. That's the former members talking, because so many of them have loved ones inside, and it's human nature to think the worst. That's what they've told us.

This is not an easy story to follow and this is surely not been an easy story to stick with. What it was that drew you to the story and has kept you with it and persisting?

Weiss: I think what kept Holbrook and me going is the fact that we know there are still kids inside there, and the fact that we know that abuse is still going on. I can't tell you how many late nights we've spent on this story, how many people we talked to to make sure that we could corroborate everything. It's those images and also the audio that some of the former members have of people being abused during blasting sessions. There was a tape. I just listened to it the other day, and I remembered I had buried this tape because I never wanted to listen to it again because it was so disturbing. This little girl, five years old, she's being blasted and abused, and all she wants to do is go to the bathroom and she's begging to go. Whenever Holbrook and I got tired, we supported each other and we just kept going. Because of the kids.


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Books Broken Faith Holbrook Mohr Interview Mitch Weiss Word Of Faith