Was There Really a Cult With Their Own Town in Iowa?
I recently watched the show Devil in Ohio on Netflix because I love that genre and the actress featured in it (Emily Deschanel, from Bones). After finishing it and having a friend watch it, I was in awe because it was so good and so creepy, but then my friend told me something that blew my mind. She lives in a small town in Iowa and she explained that one of the towns next to hers was rumored to be a town lead by an occultist group. This is basically the exact premise of the show, so of course, I had to do some digging and share the news.
Shiloh, Iowa was a town or really 300-acre retreat associated with The Living Word Fellowship, a fundamentalist church also known as The Walk started by John Robert Stevens. For a little background you need to start with Stevens’ family. According to thegazette.com - a daily newspaper in Cedar Rapids – “W.J. Stevens brought his family to Washington, Iowa, in 1933 where he formed a congregation and eventually built a church called the Christian Tabernacle.” He then had a son, John Robert Stevens. According to the article John continued as an evangelist after he left to attend college, then “In 1954, John Robert founded his own church, Grace Chapel in South Gate. Calif., in Los Angeles County. He also hosted a local radio program at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday.”
It was claimed at this time by John himself that he “received a vision in 1954. This vision resulted in a break with mainstream Christendom, which, he claimed had become apostate,” explains what-when-how.com. The Gazette confirms this and states that he continued to have “prophetic visions and revelations and founded the Church of the Living Word, later the Living Word Fellowship.”
In the late 60s, John came back to Washington, Iowa to have meetings with his father, and then by Thanksgiving 1970, Washington church headed by his father changed its name to the Church of the Living Word. The Gazette then further notes “In 1971, Harvey Bender, an Amish farmer who had heard John Robert on the radio, deeded land to The Living Word. In 1974, the church broke ground for a church retreat, called Shiloh, south of Kalona.” And that is the background on Shiloh.
What is interesting about the church is this, according to what-when-how.com:
The organization is millennialist teaching that humanity is living in the last days. It prefers the term ‘first resurrection’ to ‘the rapture’, since the latter expression is non-biblical. These end-times are characterized by a special visitation of Christ to the elect, in the same way, as Stevens himself experienced him, and a gradual transition of believers’ earthly bodies to ‘spiritual bodies’ (full resurrection bodies: 1 Corinthians 15:42-44), making them ‘manifest sons of God’. Such a transition entails the acquisition of special powers, such as controlling evil spirits and perceiving special vibrations around human bodies. In 1979 Stevens claimed to have broken through into the new kingdom, and become able to take members into it. Such claims caused Stevens to be criticized for occultism.
The Gazette alludes to this as well when explaining that in 1978, John Robert's wife of 40 years, Martha, filed for divorce. In her petition, she stated that John Robert operated a $40 million religious empire and all his bills were paid through the church. Hmmm…
By 1980 thegazette.com explains “A series of lawsuits followed in which John Robert attempted to take control of the Living Word church, which was controlled by three people: John Robert; his father, W.J.; and Fred Bickart, W.J.'s son-in-law.” However, Fred Bickart testified at a Shiloh member's criminal trial in 1982 and said he was no longer part of the church or The Walk. This was because “he claimed the sect's followers prayed for the deaths of people they thought were witches and kept files on members as a way to control them,” explains The Gazette, who shares sociologists and psychologists said that kind of behavior led them to believe the organization was a cult.
What is even creepier is that it is noted that “W.J. Stevens, though, believed his son was influenced by his followers' adulation. They called him 'Papa John,” the Prophet, the Man of God and the Door Opener Apostle, and declared he was divine. They believed he was the door to salvation.” By this time, it is 1983 and while Bickart was worried about John, John Robert soon died of cancer. His now widowed second wife, Marilyn Holbrook, married “Gary Hargrave and took over the Shiloh property, leading The Living Word Fellowship in developing a master plan for the property,” which I don’t know exactly what thegazette.com means by that but it sounds interesting and scary.
Well, anyways, The Living Word Fellowship continued to operate until 2018 when sexual assault allegations came out about Gary Hargrave, and then by 2020 five women “filed lawsuits against the Living Word Fellowship. The lawsuits claim that Living Word employees and officials sexually abused these women when they were minors,” explains Wikipedia.
It was really hard to dig up as much detailed research as I could, but I had a feeling this would happen due to the secrets surrounding The Walk. My friend, who lives pretty close by told me a story though! She had a dance teacher growing up who, when she was growing up would visit some friends in Shiloh. She explained that when she came over to someone’s house, there were multiple rooms she was never allowed to go in, and they were locked. In addition to this, the family she visited all slept in one room full of bunk beds. I mean again, this doesn’t entail anything but seems really weird.
One last thing to note is that in 2020 all former Shiloh buildings m the 300-acre retreat were burned by the Kalona Volunteer Fire Department, which was a city-wide agreement. Now the land will become a new suburban neighborhood, erasing any trance that there was a supposed cult living on that same land.
So, my question to you, do you think it could have been the Midwest’s own cult or just another intense church following? Anyways, if this interested you, I suggest watching Devil in Ohio on Netflix! All information is credited to the articles from thegazette.com, what-when-how.com, and Wikipedia.com.