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The Evolution of a Cult and a Support Group for the Families of Its Members The Jim Roberts Group and The Roberts Group Parents Network


Cultic Studies Review, 2(2), 2003, 151-168

The Evolution of a Cult and a Support Group for the Families of Its Members:The Jim Roberts Group and The Roberts Group Parents Network

James Foster

Ronald Loomis

Joseph Szimhart

Larry Wilcox


The Jim Roberts Group (JRG) is clearly one of the most unusual groups that have come to the attention of cult researchers.  The group has never been given a name by its founder, who is elusive and paranoid and rarely interacts with his followers.  Despite enduring for over 30 years, the membership has remained small, apparently never more then 100 at any time.  Members are nomadic and forsake all material things.  They spend most of their time reading the bible, praying and singing together, and recruiting new members.  There is no evidence of physical, sexual, or financial exploitation in the group.  Nevertheless, over the years many young people have had their personal lives, their education, their careers, and their family relations severely damaged by this group, in some cases for several decades.  Many members have suffered physiological and psychological damage, and a few have died.  In 1996, a small group of families who had loved ones in this cult created a family support group, now called The Roberts Group Parents Network (TRGPN).  In just seven years, they have developed a system for locating cult members and arranging surprise family visits.  As a result, some 50 members have left the cult.  This paper presents the perspective of a typical family with a loved one in this cult, a brief history of the JRG and of TRGPN, and a description of the thought reform techniques used by this group.

Part I:  Help, They've Stolen Our Son!  (Larry Wilcox)

It started out as another typical day for one of America’s average families.  My wife and I are just one step ahead of the Baby Boomer generation.  We have three children, two girls and one boy, and we own two cars, one foreign and one domestic.  We are probably part of the great middle-class that only receives attention during election years.

When I received the phone call at my office, my wife was crying and I could detect panic in her voice.  It was the 21st of March, 1991 and with her birthday being the 22nd, we were expecting the usual birthday card from our son at college.  He was spending his spring break in Seattle instead of coming back East.  He was a unique young man and the kind of kid that most parents wished for.  He was a good student in high school and had earned almost straight A's during his first two years at the University of Idaho.  He had never been involved in drugs and only tested alcohol.  He had earned the citizenship award as a freshman at his high school in Texas and was elected a class officer every year.  When we moved to the North Shore of Chicago, he was selected to be a Rotary Exchange Student to South Africa during his junior year from the prestigious Lake Forest High School, where he was recognized by the students and teachers for his outgoing personality, gentle nature, and respect for others regardless of their age or position in life.  In his senior year he was selected as "friendliest."

No birthday card arrived that spring.  Instead, we received a letter that informed us he was dropping out of college and traveling with a "scriptural family" to witness for Jesus.  He told us he had already written his roommate in college and told him to give away all of his material goods, because "the Lord would provide." He was writing from Salem, Oregon but said not to look for him there because he was only passing through and we wouldn't find him.  He also told us that initially, he was going to keep the communication one way because he didn't want us to confuse him.  Our son hadn’t been kidnapped in the literal sense of the word, but they had captured his mind and his body followed.  Not a typical kidnapping, of a 6 foot 3 inch, 185 lb. 20 year old young man.

Our first reaction was one of shock and disbelief.  This must be some kind of joke.  What could be going through his mind?  We had always been a close and loving family, where everything was open for discussion and the kids always had input into major family decisions and generally got to make their own decisions after we discussed the options and gave them our input.  Our lives were certainly above average and our kids had always been responsible and held down jobs to earn their own spending money and help with their college expenses.  We had jokingly been referred to as the "Golden Couple" because of our close family group and seemingly ideal lives.

After we reread the letter several times, we convinced ourselves that this was some type of lark and as soon as our son realized what was going on he would be out of this little group and back in our lives.  He was just too bright, and our family was too close for this kind of thing to happen to us.

Our reaction was like most other families that are affected by cults, and like many of those families, we too were wrong.  We received two more letters over the next month or so and our desperation grew with each as we saw the ties being severed.  The feelings of helplessness and frustration were almost overwhelming because we couldn't talk to him or get letters to him.

The postmarks on his letters gave us some initial rays of hope that were later lost when we learned the group doesn't send mail from their current locations.  Since our son was over 18, no laws had been broken so there was no official help from the traditional agencies, local police, state police, FBI, etc.  I understand that, and recognize that our problem was not one they would get involved in.  A 20 year old in America has about all the freedom he can stand, and not contacting his parents does not constitute a crime.

We received few letters over the next five months, and our concern grew daily.  We considered the possibility he had been recruited by a cult, but our fears were about worse things than cults: hitch-hikers being murdered, young boys being forced into white slavery, and guys like Jeffrey Dahmer being accused of sexual abuse, murder, and cannibalism of young men about our son's age.

My wife was much more attuned and sensitive to what was going on and started seeking ways to learn more about this unexpected twist to our lives.  I was in a fast paced, high-pressure job and escaped by concentrating on those responsibilities.  We were going to retire from the Army that summer and enjoy some of those things we had been planning on for our retirement years.  By talking to friends, and ultimately being led to the former Cult Awareness Network (CAN) in Chicago, IL, we slowly realized our son was probably in a cult.

As the father, it was harder for me to accept what was happening.  I resented my son and what he was doing to our family.  I also figured that since he got himself into this mess, he could get himself out.  He was a bright kid and could surely see what was going on.  Having spent 24 years in the Army, it was much easier to deny that my son could join a cult than to accept the possibility that he had.

Through our CAN contacts we continued to learn more and more about cults.  We had mistakenly assumed that most cults had gone by the wayside as the hippie generation grew up, and we were amazed to learn that there were at least 3000 active cults in the United States in 1991.  While it is not easy sorting through all the different cults, my wife gradually narrowed our choices down to one that seemed the most likely cult.  The "fingerprint" was a composite of specific words or phrases, like “God willing,” “scriptural family,” and “please consider,” which were contained in our first three letters, and a sense of how the group was very nomadic and tended to move from town to town rather than remain in one location.  CAN put us in contact with some former members of the suspected group and families impacted by cults.  Through conversations with them and their help in studying the letters, it seemed highly probable that our son was with the Jim Roberts cult.  I can't stress how important those contacts were for us and how much we appreciated the help from former members, as well as the other families who had a long running association with the group.

One of the former members was kind enough to send us an unfinished manuscript he was writing, so we would have a better understanding of what our son was going through, if he was with the Roberts group.  Although several people pass through the group every year, some stayed in the group for extended periods and we concentrated our search on those who had been with the group for at least several years, so they could help us learn what we were up against.  In all cases, those who left the group after extended periods did so because they eventually became disenchanted with Jim Roberts and walked away on their own.  In the early years of the group, there were some successful forced deprogrammings; however, we had not heard of any one being taken forcibly from the cult and successfully deprogrammed in the past 15 years.  The former members have only limited, if any, regrets about the time spent in the group, and the major regret seems to be the lost contact with family, not the scriptural life they led within the group.  Many forged very close friendships that still flourish today and they remain in contact with those friends.  They have produced a couple of newsletters about former members, have held a few reunions, and most recently have implemented a former member Web site and two Internet discussion groups, one for former JRG members and one for former JRG members and TRGPN families.

As we met, or talked to more and more of the former members, it became obvious that these people were not your run of the mill "down and outers." These folks were generally well educated, caring, and idealistic at the time they were recruited.  Most were sincerely seeking the best way to serve the Lord and were extremely vulnerable to Roberts' particular brand of Christianity.  The author of the manuscript was on the Dean's List when he was recruited off the Harvard campus during his sophomore year.  They specifically target the best and the brightest, and recruit them with a promise of life without sin or responsibility and a chance to earn eternal salvation.  The end is near, and the only way to be saved is to “forsake all” worldly ties, including their "flesh" family, live the Spartan life of the Roberts cult, and believe in the twisted version of the King James version of the bible as espoused by Jim Roberts.

In July of ‘91 we learned of a way house in Portland, Oregon used by JRG members and decided to include a stop there during our vacation that fall.  After six months of speculation and guessing, this visit proved to be the first confirmation of our son's affiliation with the Roberts' group.  When my wife approached the wife of one of the long-time (17 years) group members, she commented on her British accent.  The woman responded that she was from South Africa.  My wife then told her that our son had been an exchange student there, and she replied she knew that, because our son had told her he had been an exchange student to Capetown. The young lady subsequently produced a letter she had written to my wife but hadn't yet mailed.  In the letter she described what a wonderful boy our son was, and how good he was with children and in witnessing to people.

One of the most difficult aspects of this cult to deal with is the absence of any legal recourse or support for the families that suddenly find themselves involved with it.  It seems like only the affected families are interested in this particular group because they are not known to be involved in any significant illegal activities.  An exception was highlighted on "Unsolved Mysteries" in February of 1992 because a young mother joined the group and took her seven-year-old son with her.

Since the father had been granted custody, the taking of the son was classified as a kidnapping and the F. B. I. got involved.  After two and one-half years of searching, the case remained unsolved until the "Unsolved Mysteries" segment, and then the case was solved the next day because of tips from viewers.  Obviously, the group is extremely elusive and secretive.  The vast majority of the parents have no such access to the traditional legal channels and must rely entirely on help from other parents, former members, and concerned citizens who will take the time to provide much needed information on the whereabouts of the group.  Without their help, the rest of us are virtually powerless and on our own.

It is now 12 years since we first began to look into the Roberts Group, and we still have no contact with our son.  Other than a brief visit when my wife surprised him in Minneapolis in 2000, there has been no contact, and there have been no letters for over six years.  As far as the cult is concerned, there have been some minor cosmetic changes in the group, but the core problems still exist, i.e., they continue to forsake families and Roberts continues to deny any marriages within the group as he controls almost every other aspect of their lives.  The organization of the families and some cult experts in 1996 into what is now called TRGPN has given us a tremendous support group that sustains us as we continue to strive to release all of our kids from Roberts' control.

Part II:  The Origin and History of the Jim Roberts Group—A.K.A., the Church, the Brethren, the Garbage Eaters (James Foster)

In February of 1971, a young, nomadic, evangelist, drove into Missoula, Montana and preached at the House of Jesus, a gathering place for those traveling around the country in their search for Jesus. Jim Roberts, the nomadic evangelist, preached to the small group of “Jesus Freaks,” saying,

I want to talk to you about the cross of Calvary.

I feel called upon to warn you of the wicked times we are living in.

I know it's going to rain fire and brimstone because God said so. Praise the Lord.

I believe the world will be found to blame.

I believe the mass multitudes will be found to blame because they flirted with the world.

Praise God. Let us pray.   Let us each one seek out an altar and praise his name.  (Barta, 1971)

Within a few weeks, Jim Roberts and another evangelist, James Butler, gathered a group of “Jesus Freaks” around them and left for Berkeley, California, then the “Jesus Freak” capital of the U.S. On the way to Berkeley, a division occurred between Roberts and Butler, caused by a difference in interpretation of some parts of Scripture. A line was drawn in the sand with Roberts on one side and Butler on the other and the group split in two. Those following Roberts became the first members of what is now called the "The Jim Roberts Group” (personal communication with ex-member, Rick, who was there and went with Roberts).

Jim Roberts grew up in the Jersey section of Paducah, Kentucky. He was one of six children and the only one to graduate from high school. He is remembered as a loner, yet he starred on the track team. He worked long hours at a drug store and studied hard. Jim tried to set himself apart from his family, which was poor and accepted help from the Salvation Army. His mother frequently nagged his father, a part-time Pentecostal preacher, about what a poor provider he was (Sneed, 1979).

Roberts enlisted in the Marines, but little is known of his experiences there. His family says that when he returned form the Marines, his fundamentalism had become twisted into extreme beliefs. After the Marines he was invited to pastor a church in Paducah, where in his first sermon he equated taking prescription drugs to worldly materialism. This resulted, according to a church member with whom we spoke, in the church's rejecting him. Many of his beliefs appear to have been formed before he arrived in Missoula. He believed it was wrong to drink milk and a sin to watch TV and read newspapers. He rejected insurance, doctors, and mortgage payments

From a small beginning, the JRG grew throughout the seventies. They traveled and camped out as one large group. They recruited new members on college campuses, in libraries, in parks and commercial areas adjoining college campuses, and lived by scavenging outdated food picked from dumpsters behind grocery stores and fast food restaurants, in a practice called “dumpster diving.” This is the basis of their being nicknamed "Garbage Eaters." They did not believe in medical care or work and spent many hours a day reading the King James Version of Scripture. They claimed to be living as the apostles lived in the first century and traveled by walking and primarily hitchhiking. Women were subservient, did the camp chores, made the clothes, and took care of the children. They addressed each other as “brother” and “sister.” The brothers and sisters seemed devoid of the joy that most other Christians experience (Martin, 1979, p. 49).

Their dress was intended to cover the shape of their bodies so that the opposite sex would not be tempted. Sisters wore long, full skirts with long-sleeved blouses and long smocks, which were plain and drab in color. Sisters were not permitted to cut their hair or adorn it in any way and could use no makeup or jewelry and could not show any flesh except their faces. Brothers usually wore jeans, boots, long-sleeved shirts and, in the beginning, long robes to cover the shape of their bodies. The brothers could not cut or trim their beards but kept their hair short.

They lived a very "pure" life. No smoking or drugs of any kind were allowed and a pure sexual life was demanded by Roberts, who became known as "Brother Evangelist." or the "Elder" or "Sir." They believed in healing by prayer only, and those who could not be healed were abandoned. Three deaths were recorded in their first decade of existence, including two infants (Galvan, 1980).

In the mid- to late-seventies, because of the cult's success in recruiting, law enforcement and parents periodically raided JRG camps looking for their children. Many of these raids were successful and some members were removed from the group. Because of this, Roberts started splitting the group into small cells and had them travel in twos and threes. He maintained complete control of who moved, where they moved to, whom they moved with, and when they moved.  He still exercises this control today, usually by telephone. Over time, an intermediate level of "older brothers" developed and became the lesser authorities that managed the individual camps around the country and coordinated the movement of brothers and sisters from camp to camp.

As time went on, it became apparent that having married couples and families within the group created problems. Families developed a closeness that undermined Roberts’ ability to control the individual members.  In the eighties, Roberts began prohibiting marriages, which continues today. For permission to marry, a brother had to go to Roberts and express interest in marrying a certain sister. Roberts would then talk to the sister to determine her interest in the brother. Roberts began finding reasons in Scripture for couples not to marry, and since he controlled all communications, he would sometimes lie to the brother and/or sister about each other's interest in the other.  These kinds of behaviors are detailed in Jim Guerra's book, From Dean's List to Dumpsters, Chapters 19 and 24 (Guerra, 2000).

Roberts has a unique way of disciplining members, especially brothers, who offended him in some way. He would send them to a remote location and tell him to wait until another brother came to get him. Often, another brother would not come for a year or more. In some cases, another brother never came. In one case, a woman told us that when she insisted on visiting her parents, Roberts gave permission to do so and told her where to meet up with the group again. She went to that location, but no one ever showed up. She had been kicked out of the cult for having a "rebellious spirit." Jim Roberts had, and still has, absolute control over all the members of the cult.

As we have learned more and more about the Jim Roberts Group, we have found only one likely motive for doing what he is doing.  While many cults seem to be driven by a combination of greed, money, sex, and power lust, we can find only one piece of that equation in this group, power.  With the exception of a fairly successful stint in the Marines, Roberts had generally been associated with failure in every other aspect of his life.  When he discovered he could control other people’s lives, he seized on that opportunity and has held on for dear life for the past 30 years.  He exercises "iron fisted" control over the group in regards to what they do and where they do it, as well as directing what they study and restricting the limited outside information to which they have access. His basic dogma is that everything they did and everyone they knew in their previous life was sinful.  Ministers, preachers, priests, and the like are portrayed as "false Christians" because they do not live the scriptural life of the Jim Roberts Group.  He promises eternal damnation for those who leave the group, eternal life for those who abide by his rules, and he demands, and gets, blind loyalty from those who remain in the group.

Jim Roberts has left a wake of human destruction for over 30 years. Not only deaths, but also irreparable physical injuries and emotional and psychological problems have affected an unknown number of young people who will never be what they could have been because they were in his cult. Although we don't have reliable statistics, we do have knowledge of compelling cases of injury and abuse. Brother Amos, for example is a paraplegic.  A recently exited sister is blind in one eye from an infection that she got while in the cult. A brother named Jason was hit by a car while riding his bike.  A brother from Canada has been in three psychiatric hospitals since he was kicked out the group.  My son has been "roaming" the country alone for years.  The whereabouts of another brother kicked out years ago is still unknown.  And we can only speculate about how many members Roberts sent away to a remote location and never called back or how many families have been psychologically injured and/or torn apart by the loss of their loved ones.

Part III: The Roberts Group Parents Network (Ronald Loomis)

I have been involved in studying cults and educating others about them for 35 years.  Along the way, I met a few families who had loved ones in the Jim Roberts Group.  For many years, they had been communicating with one another by phone and more recently by e-mail.  In 1995, some of them asked if I would assist in organizing a weekend conference for families with loved ones in the JRG, and they offered to pay me for my time.  By then, I had learned enough about the JRG to know that this group is unique and very difficult to get members out of and I did not feel comfortable accepting payment to assist them.  I agreed to do it for expenses.

In 1997, I arranged for our first meeting at an airport hotel in Philadelphia, PA, which we called the Parents Group Conference.  There were 23 people in attendance representing 12 families with loved ones in the JRG.  Four exit counselors and a private detective with experience dealing with cults made presentations and we consulted with two former members of the JRG via speakerphone.  We created an e-mail communication network.  We discussed various options for getting members out of the JRG and agreed that under no circumstances should any of our families kidnap their children.

In 1998, 40 people representing 19 families met at an airport hotel in Chicago, IL.  For the first time, a former member of the JRG, Jim Guerra, participated in our meeting.  The father of a member, who had been searching for his daughter for four years, discovered that she was in the JRG a few weeks before our meeting, and he came.  He persuaded the parents group that we needed a Web site, and he had it set up and running two weeks after the meeting (http://members.tripod.com/~nfishel/index.html).  We had a heated discussion about whether we should assist ABC Prime Time Live in airing a segment about the JRG.  In the end, a few families decided to participate.

In 1999, 46 people representing 17 families met at a religious retreat center near Orlando, FL.  Dr. Michael Langone, Executive Director of the American Family Foundation, did a presentation about cults.  Six former members of the JRG participated, including 3 who had left the group that year.  The ABC Prime Time Live segment had aired, and it included photos of unknown members of the JRG and links to the AFF and Parents Group Web Sites.  Fifteen families contacted us after discovering through that program that their loved one was alive and a member of the JRG.

In 2000, 44 people representing 19 families met in a religious retreat center near Denver, Colorado.  Six former members of the JRG participated, including three of the four members who had left the group that year.  Six families had visits and seven received letters from their JRG member.  TRGPN was mentioned in several media articles and programs all around the U.S.  Through contacts made on the Parents Group Web site, we were able to intervene and prevent two new recruits from joining the JRG.  As a result of the extensive media coverage of the JRG and TRGPN, strangers began to contact the Web Site and report sightings of JRG members.

In 2001, 49 people representing 20 families met at a religious retreat center near Seattle, Washington.  Ten former members of the JRG participated, six of whom had left that year!  A total of 11 members left the JRG, and we prevented one new recruitment.  TRGPN was mentioned in several new media presentations.  The ABC Prime Time Live segment continues to air several times each year on ABC 20/20, the Discovery Channel, and A&E.

In 2002, 33 people representing 17 families and 2 former members met at a retreat center on Lake Geneva in Williams Bay, WI.  Six members left the JRG that year, and a total of 17 have left since May, 2001!  Four families had visits and two received loving phone calls.  Some 42 people contacted the TRGPN Web site with information about JRG sightings.

Our support group is now called The Roberts Group Parents Network (TRGPN).  The mission of TRGPN is:  “Release the members from the control of the Roberts Group and establish two-way communication and an open and loving relationship between the members and their families.”

The TRGPN Web site includes the following information:

  • a profile of the JRG
  • information on JRG recruiting
  • quotes from scripture which they use
  • pictures of unidentified members of the JRG
  • a letter from a former member to the current members
  • letters from parents to their children
  • lists of contacts and links to other web sites TRGPN activities include:

TRGPN activities include:

  • exchanging fliers with pictures of one another’s children
  • “searching” for JRG members
  • “sure shot,” photos and information about JRG members on 4” x 6” cards
  • surprise visits with JRG members by their families (and no kidnapping!)
  • an e-mail network
  • many media interviews
  • publication of From Dean’s List to Dumpsters: Why I left Harvard to join a Cult
  • an annual conference

The TRGPN mailing list now includes 75 individuals representing 49 families in 24 states, as well as 45 former members of the JRG and four expert consultants.  We have information on 38 members of the JRG whose families are known and 44 other members, about whom we have some information, for a total of 82 members of the JRG that we know about.

Since 1996, we can document over 50 members who have left the JRG.

Part IV: Ideological Totalism in the Jim Roberts Group (Joseph P. Szimhart)

In this section I try to show that the JRG has destructive cultic features and behaves like groups that operate as eccentric ideological social movements, many of whose former members testify to various forms of abuse.  My information comes from several sources. I have initiated many personal interviews with active members of the group and interviewed 20 or more ex-members since 1986. I have also interacted with dozens of concerned persons from families of group members and conducted several interventions to assist group members or fringe members to reevaluate the group. Extensive reading of nearly all the significant literature about the group bolsters my view. The latter includes the book, From Deans List to Dumpsters: Why I left Harvard to Join a Cult, by ex-member Jim Guerra (2000) and the unpublished, 300-page manuscript, Free Lunch, by former member Jim Robinson, who broke with the group after participating from 1985 through 1986. Guerra was in the group from 1976 to 1986. I have gotten to know both authors personally.  Though they did not know one another while members, it is not unusual for even long-term members of the group to be unaware of who “belongs," despite the group's relatively small size, which fluctuated from fifty to two hundred members.

Several features stand out when I reflect on the movement formed around the teachings of Jim Roberts, a Bible-based group known as “the Brethren” or “garbage eaters” to outsiders. Members rarely call themselves anything but “the brothers and the sisters,” yet they regard themselves as perhaps the only true vanguard of the Gospel on the planet.

Feature one is the appearance of the members, who wear drab colored clothes. The women wear their hair and dresses long, and they cover their hair with a scarf or shawl. The men sport long beards with relatively short haircuts and are distinguished by a kind of tunic or long shirt. Their intent is to appear modest. In general the group has been nomadic for the past 25 years, often living and moving in small cells around the United States. The leader, Jim Roberts (also known as Brother Evangelist), founded the sect in the early 1970s as an end-times ministry dedicated to living and spreading a primitive form of Christian life. Roberts first established the group as a moving commune of sorts, but negative publicity after an accident caused a death in the late 1970s led him to break the group into cells. He governed the members by connecting with sub-leaders (leaders are always “brothers” as he ordered that “sisters” be subservient) through pay phone contacts. Roberts exhibited paranoid behavior throughout his ministry, avoiding all publicity to the extent that most members never have known where he is at any given time. He apparently keeps no permanent residence and rarely meets with a complete gathering of devotees.

Members tend to comply with his goal to cut off contact with family, as one of the virtues promoted by Roberts is “to love the Lord more than family.” He promotes and the group relies on several New Testament quotes out of context to reinforce separation from family and old friends. His leadership style has militaristic elements transparently influenced by his Marine training.

Dozens of former members have attested to this group’s behavior, which resembles a mobile force designed to avoid detection by an enemy, namely, any non-sympathetic person who seeks contact with Roberts or a member. Members assume new names and keep no mailing address. Roberts infuses the enemy, primarily the concerned families, with satanic intent, Satan here taking on his primary function as an “adversary” of God who works only to bring all souls to hell. Roberts also maintains control through “lieutenants,” or brothers who report to him regularly.

Roberts' skewed interpretation of the Biblical record, his need to remove people from a healthy mainstream social milieu, and his eccentric orders to eat only what others discard have only the vaguest social relevance. The latter behavior earned the group the unfortunate moniker, “the garbage eaters.” Roberts clearly believes he is the only true “Evangelist” living—never has he openly shared gratitude or recognition for a living peer in Christian circles. His leadership encourages many eccentricities. Members obsess over scriptures used by Roberts, writing notes and copying passages in tiny script in their journals. Conformity in lifestyle and ideation is more the rule than the exception. Roberts directs nearly all members away from marriage on a case by case basis, though he has held out the possibility of conjugal love like a carrot on a stick for over two decades. Members eventually comply with a lifestyle that includes carrying nearly all personal items in homemade backpacks and using bicycles as their primary means of transport. Of course there are exceptions, as some new members have cars, at least temporarily, and some cells will move about by transporting cars to one-way destinations.

Jim Roberts’ group has been compared to destructive cults that use “mind control” or “thought reform” techniques popularly called brainwashing. As a useful model to explain thought reform Robert J. Lifton’s (1961) “eight themes” of totalistic environments have endured for decades, and ex-members from hundreds of controversial cults have relied on them to make sense of their experiences.

I will not go into detail about how the Jim Roberts cult follows the patterns of thought reform Lifton described, but I will mention three themes that stand out. Milieu control occurs as every detail of style and thought is affected by group influence. Demand for purity exists to the extent that all members experience a continual cycle of guilt and shame as no one can maintain the level of purity demanded—even Jim Roberts has been known to buy sandwiches in delis, pay for travel by bus, and dye his hair. Dispensing of existence occurs as everyone who disagrees with the group agenda lives in a condemned state. This latter feature is graphically displayed when troublesome members are merely abandoned at some cell without notice or further communication from the group.

The disturbed nature of Roberts’ organization is more clearly noted when we compare his authoritarian approach to a healthier counterpart of monks and nuns in a monastery, as his group most resembles a nomadic sect of renunciants. For example, I am personally familiar with the Benedictines who live at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert near Abiquiu, New Mexico. The abbot or leader, Brother Philip, is elected on a year-by-year basis. There are checks and balances from above and below in this peer reviewed system. In contrast, no one can get rid of Jim Roberts, much less argue with him with any substance—one can merely like what he does or quit. New recruits at the Abiquiu monastery, on the other hand, go through extensive initiation that lasts seven years before final vows of total commitment are made. Family contact is limited, but never labeled as evil. If someone decides to quit the religious life, there are proper procedures of “annulment,” but this lifestyle change has no bearing on the salvation or Christian status of the former Benedictine monk. Once a monk achieves full membership, the group is responsible within reason for that person’s health, welfare, and education. This means that the monastery will use accepted medical interventions when indicated. Roberts group members eschew standard medical wisdom and are encouraged to rely more on a magical form of prayer. There was a time, until recently, when nearly all members including the above-mentioned Jim Guerra, would throw away their prescription glasses, for example, to comply with a naïve, magical interpretation of the Gospel.

References

Barta, Peggy.  (1971, 26 February). "Jesus People" believe Jesus is the answer to everything.  Montana Review, 72(61).

Galvan, Louis.  (1980, 8 February).  Penicillin could have cured dead cultist. The Fresno Bee.

Guerra, Jim.  (2000). From Dean's List to Dumpsters.  Pittsburgh: Dorrance.

Lifton, Robert J. (1989) Thought reform and the psychology of totalism (Rev. ed.). New York: Norton.

Martin, Rachel.  (1979). Escape.  Denver, CO: Accent Books.

Sneed, Michael.  (1979, 11 June). "Brother Evangelist": Hypnotic Shepherd of a wandering flock. Chicago Tribune.

James Foster’s son Kraig was recruited into the Jim Roberts Cult from college in August, 1984.  Despite spending years searching for his son, there have been very few family visits, one of which was featured on ABC’s Prime Time Live.  Recently, Kraig left the cult, because he felt the lifestyle had become too lax, and is now living what he perceives as the authentic cult lifestyle on his own.  The remaining members refer to him as “the super brother.”  Mr. Foster served as Co-Chair of TRGPN from 1996 to 2001.

Ronald Loomis has been studying cults and educating others about them for over 30 years, mostly at colleges and universities.  He has been featured in many media articles and presentations about cults.  He has served as an expert advisor to TRGPN since its founding.

Joseph Szimhart is a former cult member who has been exit counseling others out of cults for some 25 years.  He has written extensively regarding the thought reform techniques used by cults and has also been featured in many media articles and presentations. He has been assisting TRGPN as an expert advisor since its founding.

Larry Wilcox’s son Bart was recruited into the Jim Roberts Cult from college in March, 1991.  There have been a few family visits; however, Bart remains in the JRG.  Larry served as Co-Chair of TRGPN from 1996 to 2001.    

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2002, Page

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