Upon first glance at the Church of Wells website, one would get the impression that this is a youthful group of scrupulous believers working to further the word of God in a small Texas town. After digging a bit deeper, the reports of death, condemnation to hell, seclusion and arranged marriages paint an eerily different picture. We are not here to argue about the way that they practice their faith, but we are outraged at the way that they are allowing it to manifest in the lives of other people.
As Wacoans, we are all too familiar with cults, the definition of which is “a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous.” The Church of Wells and its members have begun showing the signs of such an association — one which many community and family members have grown to fear.
The church, formerly named the Church of Arlington, is led by Sean Morris, Ryan Ringnald and Jacob Gardner. The origins of the establishment are traced to the mid-2000s in Waco, where Morris and Ringnald, who attended Baylor, became acquainted with McLennan Community College student Gardner.
While at Baylor, Morris became a campus spectacle when he began an open-air style of preaching on a bullhorn outside of Waco Hall during Chapel sessions, as reported by the Lariat. Ultimately Baylor Police confiscated his horn and allowed him to continue sharing his message, as they said they could not condemn someone for sharing their beliefs.
This was just the beginning of Morris’ overzealous preaching style, which he would pass on to his fellow Church of Wells members. Fast forward some six years and he is still going at it, only this time it is with his band of 90 plus followers in a much more vehement fashion.
When the church first made its move from Arlington to Wells, where it officially opened on New Year’s Day 2012, residents of the small East Texas town didn’t think much of the well-dressed group that walked around with ear buds in listening to their Godcasts. It didn’t take long though for residents to begin feeling uneasy. They began going door-to-door and into local churches to preach, but when residents rejected their evangelical ways, Church of Wells members would condemn them to hell, making a practice of using Bible passages and twisting them to fit their agenda. While it is OK to share your religion with anyone that wants to listen, it is wrong to force your beliefs on others.
Church members have always seemed to revel in the repudiation, though, writing on their blog in 2009, “If we are the image of Christ in this world, we will be hated and treated as He was when He was in the world.”
The elders of the church, or “the saints,” as Morris, Gardner and Ringnald began calling themselves, worked to recruit followers from colleges other than just Baylor. While building up a following, members were encouraged to sever all ties with their families and friends of their previous lives. In his “Doctrine of Judgement,” Morris stated “If, in honoring our earthly father we dishonor God by allowing an atmosphere of spiritual submission to a fallen head, this is spiritual murder and the defamation of God.”
The family of Church of Wells member Catherine Groves made news in January 2013 when they went to find their daughter and were not allowed to see her without an elder present. They said after exchanging only a few words with Catherine, church elders and members surrounded them and prayed death on them because they rejected salvation. This sparked a flood of testimonies by many other parents, including those of Ringnald, who publicly stated, “We’ve lost a wonderful son to this cult.”
In “The Doctrine of Judgment” this familial detachment is justified by saying you must “be divided from your family for your own salvation, because your family is united in the worldwide divide against God.” By his own estimation, Morris said that almost half of the members are alienated from their parents.
The fourth of the Ten Commandments is “Honor thy father and thy mother.” By forcing followers to become estranged from their parents, the Church of Wells is going against one of the most fundamental principles of Christianity.
Former follower Patrick Jones told local news station KETK the elders were required to approve everything from jobs to marriages, saying, “They use the Lord to use people, or get them to do things that they feel is right.”
Seclusion, reports of locked prayer closets, arranged marriages and condemnation using manipulated messages of Scripture taken out of context is a perfect example of brainwashing.
It is wrong for the church to go after 20-something-year-olds who are often in the flux of their lives and are more susceptible to believe the teachings that people like Morris, Ringnald and Gardner are preaching. There is more than one way to express Christian faith, and it is deceptive and manipulative for these elders to preach otherwise.
Perhaps one of the most alarming instances related to the Church of Wells is the unfortunate death of a three-day-old infant child due to the refusal to seek medical care. The child, Faith Shalom Pursley, was suffering from a pulmonary valve stenosis, a heart defect that affects the flow of blood to the lungs. As the baby began turning blue, rather than seeking a doctor, the parents, elders and church members gathered around her to pray and chant. Then the infant was carried from house to house for 15 hours so church members could pray for her resurrection before the parents reported the death. The district attorney is currently looking into the case.
While we as Christians firmly believe in the power of prayer, we also believe in the power of medicine. The incomprehensible part of this whole incident is that so do the members of the Church of Wells. Morris spoke about the death of the baby, explaining that they are not against modern medicine, but they wanted to give God an adequate chance to heal the child. This is child abuse and these people should be held accountable for the neglect and death of a baby.
While the majority of responsibility for the behavior of the Church of Wells falls on its elders and its members, it must be said that the members’ parents need to stop fighting their children. They are all adults and they are all consciously making decisions. There is not evidence of physical abuse or mental illness, so even though we agree that they are being held spiritually captive, all the outside parties who are trying to interfere need to take a step back. Unfortunately, there is no law saying that what the Church of Wells is doing is illegal.
However, members of the church should begin looking elsewhere for religious guidance. It seems clear that the elders of this group are taking Scripture out of contact in order to control and manipulate the message of the Bible and Christianity. Condemnation, death, seclusion and control are not what make a body of faithful servants. How many members of the Church of Wells will have to drink the Kool-Aid in order to realize this?