religious sects from the 1970's have impact on Noble County
By JOE POTTER
KENDALLVILLE - Two controversial religious groups whose
heydays were in the 1970s and 1980s, had a profound impact in
Noble County and elsewhere.
They are the Faith Assembly, which is now mostly defunct,
and The Way College of Biblical Research, which has had its Rome
City property up for sale for more than a year.
Here are their stories.
The Way College of Biblical Research
The Way International opened The Way College of Biblical Research
- Indiana Campus on March 29, 1977, on a 197-acre site on Rome
City's north side.
The college occupied buildings that previously housed the
historic Kneipp Springs health spa that was developed between
1897 and 1910. The Catholic Order of the Sisters of the Most
Precious Blood was the longtime owner of the property.
The spa was named Kneipp Springs in honor of a Catholic clergyman
who had developed a method of hydrotherapy for the treatment
of illnesses. Several natural springs on the property provided
an abundant supply of water for the treatments.
The Way College of Biblical Research was used for 20 years
to teach The Way International's leadership program, with nearly
6,000 students and staff being housed there between 1977 and
The Way was controversial because of tactics it used in recruiting
members of the sect. Some ex-members around the country, but
not in Noble County, insisted the group targeted lonely people,
showered them with love and attention and then brainwashed them
to follow their teachings.
The organization also drew opposition from main-line Christian
religions because of its denial of the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Many accelerated biblical research seminars and advanced classes
were held at the campus from 1979-1996, when an additional 6,000
students reportedly participated, according to Dr. Don E. Wierwille,
vice president emeritus and trustee appointee overseeing the
sale of the Indiana campus.
The Way International decided in December 1997 to move the
entire operations of the Rome City campus to Gunnison, Colo.,
in the spring of 1998.
A skeleton crew remains on the site to maintain it as efforts
continue to sell the property, which has a tax value of $189,000.
The improvements on the property have a tax value of $1,280,010.
During the 1980s, The Way College lost its tax exempt status,
but that ruling by the Indiana State Board of Tax Commissioners
was later reversed, and the campus' tax-exempt status was restored.
In 1983, The News-Sun did an in-depth series on The Way College
of Biblical Research - Indiana Campus, and the impact it was
having on Rome City and the surrounding area.
The articles reported the various feelings members of the
public, town officials, area merchants, and area school principal
and local ministers had regarding The Way College of Biblical
Research - Indiana Campus.
Several people said it was difficult for them to tell students
of The Way College from any other people who they saw on the
street or who came into their businesses to purchase goods or
Max Brewer, who was then principal of the Rome City School,
said he had not had any unusual problems with The Way people
or students in the past three years as principal of the elementary
and middle school.
But some resentment was expressed in the articles because
The Way College did not have to pay property taxes and its residents
did not have to pay individual property taxes. That was because
the facility had qualified as a religious-education center.
And one area minister said he considered The Way International
to be the fastest growing cult in the United States.
Several years later, many people still think The Way International
is a cult that at time manipulated and even brainwashed its members.
The late Dr. Victor Paul Wierwille, who founded The Way International,
defines it as a biblical, research and teaching ministry.
Various dates, ranging from 1942 to 1955 to 1967, are given
for the founding of The Way International by Wierwille, who was
a former minister with the Evangelical and Reformed Church, which
was later absorbed by the United Church of Christ.
Many of the beliefs of members of The Way International are
contained in Power for Abundant Living (PFAL), a Biblical research
class that Wierwille began in 1953. PFAL is The Way International's
The Way International has men and women who are ordained and
served in various capacities. Generally, ministers are graduates
of The Way Corps, a four-year leadership program.
The Way International is considered to be an evangelical organization
that attracts its followers primarily from the witness of other
followers and through the Biblical research class, and is considered
nondenominational and nonsectarian.
Wierwille said in a Way biography that God had spoken audibly
to him and had told him that he would teach Wierwille the word
as it had not been known from the first century, if Wierwille
would teach it to others.
L. Craig Martindale assumed leadership of The Way International
in 1985 when Wierwille died in New Knoxville, Ohio, where the
international ministry's headquarters are located.
There are few remaining members of the Faith Assembly, or the
Glory Barn, as a Wilmot-based group of believers were originally
Faith Assembly first became active in the rural southwestern
Noble County community in the early 1960s. At its heighth, Faith
Assembly had about 2,000 members in Warsaw, North Webster, and
several other communities.
The sect emphasized physical healing through prayer and urged
members to reject professional medical care.
The result was that more than 100 deaths among sect members
were attributed to a lack of medical attention.
The religious movement later became largely defunct following
the death of its organizer, Hobart E. Freeman, in 1984.
Faith Assembly is perhaps most remembered locally for the
deaths between 1984 and 1990 of two children in Noble County
whose parents were Faith Assembly members.
One of those couples, David B. and Kathleen C. Bergmann, were
convicted of reckless homicide and neglect of a dependent on
Sept. 11, 1984, in Noble Superior Court in connection with the
June 7, 1984, death of their 9-month-old daughter, Allyson N.
She died 11 days after contracting bacterial meningitis, an
illness that is normally medically treatable.
The former Ligonier residents were sentenced in October 1984
to each serve 10 years in prison, but were allowed to remain
free, pending appeals, which they lost.
In 1986, after they refuted their Faith Assembly beliefs and
agreed to seek medical care for their other children, the Bergmanns
were each placed on 10 years of probation by Roger B. Cosbey,
who was then Noble County Superior Court Judge. (Cosbey was appointed
a federal magistrate for the U.S. District Court for the Northern
District of Indiana in September 1989.)
Sending them to prison would have been wrong because they
had learned from their wrongdoing, Cosbey said when placing the
Bergmanns on probation.
The Bergmanns were the second Faith Assembly couple in Indiana
to be convicted of withholding medical care to a child, resulting
in the child's death.
Another Noble County couple, Michael and Dianne Ricks, pleaded
guilty in April 1991, also in Noble County Superior Court, to
one count each of neglect of a dependent in connection with the
April 8, 1990, death of their son, John David Ricks. He died
of bacterial meningitis after developing a fever and a common
respiratory illness five days earlier.
In exchange for their negotiated plea agreement, Judge Stephen
Spindler agreed to dismiss a charge of reckless homicide against
both of them. Custody of their seven children was turned over
to the children's grandparents, who were to be responsible for
their medical care.
The Ricks believed - as the Bergmanns had before them, and
as many other Faith Assembly members also did - that God could
heal them or their children through prayer and without receiving
medical treatment. Also, they believed God had guaranteed they
would live prosperously if their faith was genuine.
Although Indiana law allowed medical care to be withheld on
the basis of religious beliefs, G. David Laur, who was then Noble
County's prosecutor and who is now judge of Noble County Circuit
Court, was able to successfully prosecute both the Bergmanns'
and the Rickses' cases.
The Bergmanns originally believed they were acting properly
when they relied upon prayer, rather than medical treatment,
when their daughter became ill. They later came to question their
beliefs when Freeman, who had reportedly told Faith Assembly
members he would live forever, died in December 1984.
In an abstract published in 1999 by the International Transactional
Analysis Association, Linda Riebel, Ph.D., says that members
of the Faith Assembly were victims of a "self-sealing doctrine."
Freeman had been afflicted with polio when he was a child
and walked with a limp, according to Riebel. The discrepancy
of Freeman's limp and his preaching of faith healing was reportedly
dismissed by his followers. Some of them said Freeman had been
healed, but God had not yet chosen to manifest that healing,
according to Riebel.
Freeman reportedly believed the misfortunes his followers
were suffering did not indicate his teaching were in error. Rather,
they had suffered because their faith was not strong enough.
Freeman, who had previously served as a Southern Baptist minister
and who had been a seminary professor of Hebrew and the Old Testament,
began a church of his own after he was pressured to leave his
professorship at Grace Seminary College in 1963 for his extreme
Hundreds of people used to line up for hours to be sure they
could hear Freeman preach when services were held in the Glory
Barn. Now, only a stone fireplace and a chimney rise out of the
grass field where the Glory Barn previously stood. The Glory
Barn was destroyed by a fire, likely set by an arsonist authorities
The fire occurred after media reports became widespread regarding
the death of several members who had not sought - or, if children
had not been provided - medical treatment for illnesses.
More than 103 deaths occurred among Faith Assembly members
in various locations as a result of following their religious
beliefs, according to AFF, a Bonita Springs, Fla.-based nonprofit,
tax-exempt research center and educational organization that
studies psychological manipulation and cultic groups.