When meeting the Phelps family, Louis Theroux uncovers disturbing cult-like characteristics

It’s time for part two of my article, in which I am discussing the unnerving similarities between the methods of the Westboro Baptist Church, notorious for its picketing of soldiers’ funerals, and those of Jehovah’s Witnesses, by far a more benevolent organization, although still wielding a disproportionate influence over most of our lives.

I would like to stress once more that the documentaries made by Louis Theroux do not discuss Jehovah’s Witnesses or even mention them at all. All of the views expressed in both of my articles on this subject are merely my own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Louis Theroux or the BBC. Furthermore, I do not personally believe that the public preaching work and message of Jehovah’s Witness is anywhere near as overtly hateful, vulgar and offensive as that of the Westboro Baptist Church.

However, I feel it is important to highlight the similarities between these two organizations, because in doing so it helps us to understand how the Watch Tower Society maintains such a powerful grip on our friends and loved ones. It is also hoped that by drawing attention to these documentaries, which may currently be viewed online via YouTube, they may be used as an effective tool in highlighting cult-like characteristics to indoctrinated family members in an indirect and non-confrontational manner.

Lack of approachableness of the hierarchy

A revealing moment in the first documentary comes when Theroux is given a brief opportunity to interview the Church’s leader, Fred Phelps. Phelps delights in playing to the camera, and gives Theroux the opportunity to see him in full flow reading one of his hate-filled speeches into a camera with the use of an autocue. The speech, which is intended as a web-cast, is used to predict the death of opposing minister Billy Graham, whom Phelps denounces as a “hell bound false prophet”. When the broadcast finishes, Theroux seizes the chance to ask a question of the self-styled pontiff.

Fred Phelps is the leader and patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church

“How many children do you have?” Theroux asks innocently. Phelps is clearly taken aback and struggles to find an answer, resorting instead to accusing Theroux of petulance. “Don’t bother me with that kind of silly question!” Phelps retorts, “Everyone in the civilized world knows how many children I’ve got and how many grandchildren and how many great grandchildren.”

In his arrogant repost, Phelps betrays three things: (1) he doesn’t have a clue how many children he has, and doesn’t have the humility to admit it either, (2) he is deeply impressed with his own importance, and expects “everyone in the civilized world” to know details about his family, and (3) he will only answer questions that HE deems important, and if he doesn’t know the answer, then the question isn’t important. Does that attitude strike you as slightly familiar?

The Questions From Readers in the October 15th Watchtower, asks “What should I do when I have a question about something I read in the Bible or when I need advice about a personal problem?” The Society, in part, gives the following answer: “Neither the branch office nor world headquarters is in a position to analyze and answer all such questions that have not been considered in our literature.”

The Governing Body, who have placed themselves in a similar position to Fred Phelps at the forefront of the worldwide organization, feel that every conceivable question that is worthy of an answer has already been resolved in their publications. They therefore advise that there is no longer any need for people to write into their offices with any further questions, because not only would these be superfluous – they evidently don’t have the time or resources to answer them. Like Phelps, the Governing Body is in effect saying, “Don’t bother us with any silly questions!”

This all stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by Jesus himself when he walked the Earth. He famously exorted his followers: “Come to me, all you who are toiling and loaded down, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am mild-tempered and lowly in heart, and you will find refreshment for your souls. For my yoke is kindly and my load is light.” -Matthew 11:28-30

Stunted development of youth

Something that is painfully obvious when watching both documentaries is the impact of Church dogma on the young ones of the Church. One young lad called Noah is interviewed on both films, and it is clear from his shocking speech that he is being progressively brainwashed by vitriolic Church dogma.

Irrespective of how one feels about homosexuality in the context of Christianity, the Church’s approach of picketing with hateful and lurid signs depicting anal sex are quite clearly against the merciful and patient approach that Christ took when appealing to sinners. What is especially troubling is that even the younger ones in the Church are seemingly pummeled with the Church’s view of homosexuality from a very early age, and young Noah is no exception.

Tellingly, his programmed anti-homosexual rhetoric spews forth with very little encouragement. His remarks quickly escalate into hateful outbursts at Theroux himself, simply because Theroux is the one asking the question. When asked about why gays are constantly referred to as “fags” in the second documentary, 11-year-old Noah finally blasts “The bible says it’s wrong, so you can just shut up about that.” Theroux asks Noah whether he was really telling him to shut up. Noah, realizing that he has been disrespectful to his guest, quickly apologizes – but the extent of his brainwashing has already been revealed through his outburst.

Theroux has conversations with other younger members of the family. A good number of the young ones in the Church appear to be girls, and they have even formed their own singing/dance group, ironically called the “Saucy Seven”. The group parodies pop songs by familiar artists such as Lady Gaga, and twist the lyrics to help spread the Church’s spiteful message.

Music seems to be an effective tool in the brainwashing of all members of the Church, and even the older members break into song whilst picketing and even (as depicted once in the documentary) when defending their behavior in front of the media. Singing seems to be used by the group as a verbal cloak to hide behind, and an easy means of spouting out dogma in a uniformed way, rather than relying rather more precariously on personal expressions of faith. It also helps to invoke the emotions, as all of us who have attended conventions and sung powerful anthems like “We Thank You, Jehovah” along with thousands of other worshippers can attest.

A number of the young girls are interviewed on one occasion in which Theroux attempts to speak to 18-year-old Grace whilst she is on her own, but the interview is interrupted when some of her friends and relatives pile into the bedroom to serve as chaperones. The reason for this impromptu incursion becomes clear when one of the older girls, who is clearly more versed in official Church dogma, begins to regularly interject whenever any of the younger girls show signs of vulnerability in their answers to Theroux’s probing questions.

I found the programmed nature of the responses from all the young ones unsettling, mostly because it reminded me of my own childhood as a Witness. Sometimes the responses seemed sincere; other times the young interviewees were barely concealing their laughter at the ludicrous expressions they themselves were coming out with – an example being their conviction that they would all end up seeking refuge in a “pink cave” in Jordan, and helping 144,000 Jews who have repented and joined them.

The documentaries helped me to realize that, despite the very best intentions of my parents, I really was brainwashed as a child growing up in the organization. One isn’t really taught to reason from an early age – one is merely taught to absorb information at meetings and spout out official dogma whenever prompted. Clearly Jehovah’s Witnesses are not the only ones guilty of raising children in such an intellectually damaging way. I am only grateful that the effects of these methods are not always permanent.

Attempts to associate themselves with historical religious figures

Both documentaries offer glimpses into the regular meetings conducted by the Church. These meetings themselves are eerily reminiscent of Witness gatherings, right down to the standards of dress; the style of music, and people sitting with printouts on their laps whilst the meeting is in progress.

In the final moments of the last documentary, Theroux sits in on an unusual meeting (held in someone’s kitchen) that appears to be more of a “Sunday school” lesson than anything. Despite the considerable amount of singing, the purpose and content of the meeting is unclear. What can be clearly seen, however, are a number of large portraits of historical figures positioned prominently at the front of the class.

The only names I was able to read were those of John Gill and Thomas Brooks. Gill (if it’s the same one) was an 18th Century Baptist pastor, and Brooks was evidently a 17th Century English non-conformist puritan preacher.

What struck me was that these long-dead men were being elevated before the members of the congregation. They were evidently being heralded as being, at least ideologically, early forebears of the Westboro Baptist Church and its gospel of hate, irrespective of whether or not they would individually have approved of Westboro methods and beliefs. This reminded me of the Society’s habit of mentioning historical figures and movements in their publications (such as Luther, Tynedale, the Waldenses etc). Although they don’t claim them to be early Jehovah’s Witnesses, they certainly cite such figures, at least in part, to associate themselves with their legacy and give credence to their own objectives. This is clearly designed to impress upon followers the belief that the origins of the Watch Tower Society are deeply rooted in secular history, lending added significance to the need for absolute loyalty. Clearly the Society are not the only ones using this strategy.

A bitter lesson, but a valuable tool

Overall, I am deeply thankful to Louis Theroux for making these documentaries. By turning the light on one destructive cult, he is essentially shedding light on all of them. Anyone who is uncertain as to what a cult is need only watch these films and see all of the classic mind-control tactics in full swing.

As offensive and lurid as the Westboro Baptist Church and its vile messages of hate may be, I would strongly recommend these documentaries to anyone who struggles with highlighting the destructive methods of cults to their loved ones. As stated before, there is absolutely no mention made to Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout either of the two films, so they shouldn’t prove objectionable to any fretful Witnesses. At the time of writing, both films are available for viewing on YouTube (although sadly the first of the two films appears to be missing part 8 of 8).

n.b. – Since writing the first draft of this article, I have learned that the Westboro Baptist Church has announced its intentions to picket the funeral of the late Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple. I would like to express my personal disgust at this decision, which is yet another shameless ploy to use one family’s grief to garner cheap publicity for a despicable cause.


Rating 4.83 out of 5

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15 Comments on A Troubling Comparison – Part 2

  1. andrew says:

    Thanks for your well done article, Cedars. The similarities are there today but would be much more striking if compared with Rutherford era JWs as mentioned in the first part by JamesGerald.

    IMO JWs don’t hate non-JWs. In fact they are encouraged to go out in service out of love for neighbor. But that love has a very distinct line over which one must not cross or it becomes “bad association”. So any type of relationship with a “worldly” person is distant and somewhat cold. Some of the artwork in past publications of the destruction at Armageddon could however be deemed as hateful.

    I hope the Society sees the error of it’s ways and begins embrace much more fully the concept of love as taught by our Master.


  2. Cedars says:

    Yes, it’s a shame that these documentaries arrived too late to be made simultaneously to the Witnesses in their heyday under Rutherford. Another interesting parallel is that Fred Phelps is a “disbarred” lawyer (there is an interesting account of how he became disbarred on Wikipedia), and Rutherford always played on his legal background as a “Judge” to help impose his authority, even though he was only a stand-in judge and only actually presided over a handful of cases at most.


  3. JJ says:

    These are striking comparisons that send shivers down my back. Watching the two videos made me laugh one moment and nearly cry the next. Please be aware that the content and language is not for small children in these videos, but nonetheless are cathartic for many of us to watch and ruminate upon.

    The photos of famous church fathers shows William Tynedale also, right in the center. They see themselves as standing up against the established religions, governments, etc. and it seems to display more of their arrogant and self-important attitude.


  4. andrew says:

    Something came to mind when I watched in the video that Phelps wouldn’t answer the question of how many children he had.

    A brother from another cong. told me that when they dedicated their kingdom hall they invited the GB member Gerrit Losch to speak at the dedication. Afterwards a group of local JWs invited Losch over for conversation. He did so but said he would not answer any personal questions. Naturally people when getting to know each other ask questions such as where are they from, or where they met their marriage mate etc. But when the bros. forgot his request and asked personal questions he refused to answer them.

    This behavior struck many of the bros. as odd. The bro. who told me this was present at this social gathering and said he was uncomfortable and after struggling to describe Losch’s behavior he called it “curt”.


    • greybeard says:

      I will take a lesson from that governing body member and say the same thing when asked questions from the elders. I will say, “I’m not going to answer any personal questions.” That is classic! I bet they all do this. I would think they would need to sense many of them more than likely don’t believe everything they teach. The GB are the only ones who are not required to agree on everything. They cast votes to change existing doctrine into new light.


  5. greybeard says:

    Thanks again Cedars for these two wonderful articles! You are very meticulous and quite eloquent in your style of writing. I look forward to more articles from you! I am very happy you have joined us here on jwstruggle.com. Keep up the good work brother!


    • Cedars says:

      Thanks Greybeard, it’s an absolute pleasure to be here. I’m glad my articles have been well-received, and I look forward to writing more. I also haven’t had chance to review all the existing articles, so I plan to do that in order to see what I’ve missed.

      Andrew, that was a chilling anecdote, although strangely unsurprising. It’s remarkable that a member of the Governing Body has adopted such an overtly aloof manner with his fellow “brothers”. Is it these characteristics that led to him being chosen as a future king priest to rule with Christ?! Remarkable stuff.


      • greybeard says:

        No doubt they are skills that led him to be a member of the GB but I doubt he will rule with Christ. 😉


        • greybeard says:

          If this group shows up at Steve Jobs funeral I hope they are tar and feathered! They make me sick!


          • Alden says:

            Ah, come on, GB, you don’t really mean that! It doesn’t harmonize with “love your enemies”. :-)


          • If I may presume to ‘take up’ for Graybeard’s notion, here, maybe it’s better said: ‘It would be fitting for such-and-such to happen to people like this, but, may Jehovah rebuke them while I turn the other cheek’?

            I am thankful that the Lord Jesus gave prescise detail for discerning who are his disciples vs who aren’t. What kind of fruit do these folks bear?

            This is where my attention lies, when considering these matters…


  6. JWB says:

    Cedars, thanks again for a very informative and well written article. Keep up the good work friend!


  7. FutureMan says:

    Thanks for the article, Cedars.

    And yes I do see a comparison to some extent though not so full on as this lot.

    I viewed the documentary on this sect on TV some time ago now and I could not help thinking even to myself that this lot and the organization were similar in a way.

    Of course the majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses are not fanatics as these baptists are, but some are, which strange enough or not so strange, depending on your point of view, it seems to be somewhat encouraged by the so-called spiritual leaders of the organization.


  8. greybeard says:

    I agree with you Synchronicity. I should have put it more eloquently. I could have said, “”God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!” Acts 23:3 😉


  9. jacqueline says:

    Yhanks for article. I got some great points to use when speaking with my telatives next week in Al.


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