Faith healing raises questions
of law's duty -- belief or life?
by Mark Larabee and Peter D. Sleeth
of The Oregonian staff

The Church: Followers of Christ believers in 3 states suffer many likely preventable deaths

The Children: Three deaths in Oregon City this year reopen debate about religious freedoms

June 7, 1998

Shielded by state laws that are among the most liberal in the nation at protecting faith-healing parents, the Oregon City Followers of Christ Church has amassed one of the largest clusters of child deaths recorded among the nation's spiritual-healing churches.

More than a fourth of the nearly 100 child and maternal deaths in the past 30 years among the Followers of Christ in Oregon, Oklahoma and Idaho were probably preventable with routine medical care. Dozens more probably could have been prevented, medical experts say, but spotty death investigations make the total impossible to determine.

The deaths of three Followers' children this year in Oregon City kindled new debate about whether Oregon's laws protecting religious freedom should continue to override the state's duty to protect every child's basic right to life.

An investigation by The Oregonian found:

Death rate noted as high

Children are dying from a lack of medical care in dozens of faith-healing churches in the United States, according to Dr. Seth Asser, who co-wrote a national study on faith-healing child deaths published in the April edition of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The Oregon City Followers are among the worst, given the number of deaths among their 1,200 members, said Asser, a pediatric intensive care specialist in San Antonio. He said the Followers were not included in the study because, until recently, they were so obscure.

"We felt that this study was the tip of the iceberg," Asser said. "I'm sure that there are other deaths out there and other churches that we don't know about."

By comparison, the Christian Science Church, which has a national membership of 170,000, had 28 child deaths between 1975 and 1995, according to Asser's study. Because the church encourages its members to go to doctors for delivery of babies, the mortality rate among pregnant mothers and infants is comparable to the rate for the rest of the nation.

There are also Followers churches in Oklahoma and Idaho with considerably smaller congregations and far fewer deaths than the Oregon City congregation.

The Idaho group has witnessed at least 12 childhood deaths and one mother dying during childbirth in the past 20 years. How many were preventable or whether there were more deaths is unclear -- record-keeping and death investigations were minimal.

In Oklahoma, where the Followers church blossomed in the late 19th century, three preventable childhood deaths have occurred since 1985. Oklahoma passed a law in 1985 compelling parents to treat deathly ill children, and since then two sets of parents have gone to jail for letting their children die.

Oregon law hard to enforce

Oklahoma is one of the few states that has passed laws limiting faith healing when a child's life is at stake. But in Oregon and more than 40 states, parents have some protection from criminal and civil prosecution.

Oregon law allows the state to take charge of a child who is known to be at risk of injury or death. But the state's laws are so vague and difficult to enforce that no consensus exists among prosecutors about when parents can be charged.

As a result, Oregon cases are rarely prosecuted, including the February death of an 11-year-old Followers of Christ boy who died of painful complications from treatable diabetes.

For decades, Oregon officials, Clackamas County law enforcement authorities and Oregon City residents have known of preventable deaths within the church. Records show that as early as 1965, legislators were told of Followers' children going to school with poorly set broken bones and of one case of a family removing its child from a hospital.

Other states have reduced child deaths in similar faith-healing churches by closely monitoring and educating their members. In Oregon, no consistent effort has been made to monitor or influence the Oregon City Followers.

"People treated the children of religious objectors almost as throwaways," said Terry Gustafson, Clackamas County's district attorney. "I don't think it was intentional on anyone's part. It just kind of worked out that way."

The resulting silence has left the Oregon City Followers to practice beliefs so extreme that one religion expert called them a museum piece of 19th-century fundamentalism.

Church members in Oregon City declined to talk to The Oregonian.

Most outsiders who know them characterize Followers of Christ members as hardworking, honest citizens who love and care for their families and friends.

The Followers believe they are the direct spiritual heirs of the Apostles and follow a literal interpretation of the Bible. When a child or adult is ill, the Followers reject medical care, instead asking elders and church members to pray and anoint the sick person with oil, according to biblical practices described in James 5:14. That verse states:

"Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up."

Church members in Oregon City will see dentists and eye doctors, and they have been known to submit to oral surgery. Idaho church members are more liberal, saying it's the individual's decision whether to see a doctor. But many of them still rely on faith healing.

"Faith healing works. There is no question in my mind," said Russell Conger, an elder in the Followers of Christ congregation in Caldwell, Idaho.

The Followers' faith, he says, is "strong to the point of death. We put our bodies as a living sacrifice upon the altar."

A little boy's ordeal

Of all the Oregon City cases, the ordeal of 4-year-old Alex Dale Morris stands out.

The boy first complained of fever and congestion on Feb. 28, 1989. He was anointed with holy oil while church members laid their hands on him in an attempt to heal him through the spirit of the Lord. They prayed for 46 days.

On April 14,1989, acting on an anonymous tip to state child welfare workers, an Oregon City policeman visited Alex's home. The officer noticed the boy was sick, but the child appeared well cared for and told the officer he was "all right."

Alex Morris died 29 hours after that visit. An autopsy revealed an infection had filled one side of his chest with pus. Basic antibiotic treatment would have saved him, said Dr. Larry Lewman, Oregon medical examiner.

"It was a horrible thing," Lewman said. "The kid was getting sicker and sicker for days and days. At times, the child would have been overwhelmed with fever and pain.

"In this day and age, kids don't get this stuff."

Medical experts have similar concerns about the high maternal death rate among Oregon City Followers. The death of women during childbirth is a rarity in Oregon. The 1,200-member Followers congregation has experienced four maternal deaths in the past 12 years. Two women in 25,000 births have died during the same period at Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland.

"Their population base is way too small to justify four maternal deaths," says Dr. Andrew Merrill, a Portland physician specializing in high-risk pregnancies, who reviewed death record information provided by The Oregonian. "These were probably healthy mothers who didn't have underlying disease who should have had healthy babies."

None of the women who died giving birth saw doctors. Instead, Lewman said, they were aided by midwives who sometimes made fatal mistakes. The women from the Oregon City congregation include:

Concern, but no prosecution

The deaths of Oregon City Followers' children periodically raised alarms among local officials. But no cases have been prosecuted.

Documents obtained by The Oregonian show that in 1990, Clackamas County prosecutors considered filing criminal charges against members of the church in three cases, including the death of Alex Morris.

But in each case, they decided not to file criminal charges.

In 1965, Rep. Richard Groener, D-Milwaukie, concerned after two Followers children died of meningitis in two months, pushed a bill through the Legislature that allowed juvenile authorities to seek courtordered medical treatment for any child denied care because of a parent's religious beliefs.

Oregon State Archive records show that Groener, now deceased, told the House Judiciary Committee the law was necessary because both children could have been saved with medical treatment. Groener also told the committee that children were going to school with broken bones not properly set and that a family removed their child from a hospital after a serious accident.

Groener's law is still on the books, but local authorities haven't used it. Typically, officials have reasoned that the deaths are protected by religious freedom exemptions in state and federal law.

Before 1988, few autopsies were performed on Followers children who died. Elected county coroners and appointed medical examiners usually wrote a sentence or two about each death based on information gleaned from parents and other church members. In many cases, the cause of death listed was their best guess, not a known fact.

Dr. John Shilke, the appointed chief deputy medical examiner in Clackamas County from 1976 to 1988, said he can't remember a Followers case he got "excited about" or whether he referred any cases to the district attorney.

As the person in charge of investigating natural deaths, Shilke said it was his job to be convinced that "a reasonable amount of care and attention" was given to those Followers who died. Shilke said he didn't agree with their healing methods but realized church members had the right to forgo a doctor's care.

Lewman became Oregon's medical examiner in 1987, and a year later he began reorganizing the state's medical examiner system. He appointed deputies in metropolitan counties to investigate deaths. His office near downtown Portland performed the autopsies.

In 1988, Lewman appointed George Coleman, Shilke's former assistant, to be his chief deputy in Clackamas County. Coleman said he was always concerned by Followers' deaths, especially those of children.

Coleman got to know church members, and they eventually began calling him at his office or home when one of the congregation members died.

"Although we had a great rapport, they were letting little children die," said Coleman, who retired last summer. "This is just abominable, I think."

Coleman said he shared his concerns with then-District Attorney James O'Leary. Each time, he was told that the parents had constitutional rights.

"I almost became a bore," Coleman said of his frequent meetings with O'Leary.

Under Lewman's direction, the death investigations of Followers became much more thorough, with autopsies performed on all dead children. Alex Morris was one of the first, and worst, that Lewman has seen. Lewman calls Alex his poster child for the problems within the Followers community.

The case's horror initiated a new round of discussion in O'Leary's office regarding the Followers of Christ deaths, according to past and present officials.

Dennis Miller was O'Leary's chief deputy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In April 1990, Miller wrote at least two letters to O'Leary urging him toward prosecuting Morris' parents.

In one letter, Miller included a list of 29 "suspicious" deaths involving the Followers of Christ, naming both adults and children. In one case, Gregory Lee Smith, 21, died of massive head injuries after a motorcycle accident. Church members took him home from the accident scene even though he was bleeding from the nose, mouth and ear. An autopsy showed skull fractures and internal bleeding.

"Parents can be held responsible for a child's death," Miller wrote to O'Leary in a five-page letter detailing his legal research of the issue. "Others preventing help can be held responsible. Those who assume care of the child, thereby preventing medical care, can be deemed to have assumed a legal duty."

Miller, who retired in February, recalls some discussion of the cases but said no heated debates ever occurred. He said his research was born of frustration that so many were dying.

Miller said even in the Morris case, from a prosecutor's standpoint, it would have been difficult to sway a jury.

"If a police officer didn't think anything was seriously wrong, why would anyone else?" Miller said. "These people are not trained in medicine. They are by and large young parents who are doing what they think is best for the child."

Miller thinks it's an issue for the Legislature.

"I don't believe in what they do," he said of the Followers, "but I'm not about to stand up and criticize and say that they can't hold that belief."

O'Leary, who retired in 1995, is traveling and could not be contacted for comment.

A world apart

Since the 1940s, the Oregon City Followers of Christ have worshipped in a onestory, tan church complex that looks like a small school. The two low-profile buildings sit well back from Molalla Avenue on a lot next door to an Oregon City fire station and just down the road from a Wilco Farmer's supply store. The spare church grounds are meticulously well-kept; rooms inside the church are simple, with few decorations and folding chairs and tables.

There, along one of Oregon City's busiest roads, the Followers of Christ successfully constructed a quiet lifestyle that has allowed them to get along well with the general community while maintaining a church family that is off-limits to outsiders.

The adults own a local grocery store, construction companies and a gas station. The children attend public schools, where they stand out because of their exemplary behavior and refusal to participate in sports, said Brad Smith, the well-known Oregon City High School girls basketball coach and teacher.

Followers allow their children" to play with non-church-member playmates until about age 10. Then they socialize only within the church, according to former members.

The Followers have earned the respect of many of the people who disagree with their beliefs. "They raise great kids. You won't find better kids," said Smith, who is as close to church members as anyone in Oregon City. "They'll make great citizens."

Yet they live in a world apart.

The only way to become a member is to be born into the group. They marry as young as age 15 and almost always before age 20. They socialize only among themselves and shun members who seek medical care or otherwise betray church teachings, even ostracizing members of their own families for breaking the rules or leaving the church.

Dean Nichols, 63, a former Oregon City mayor, left the church in the early 1960s. Five of his brothers and sisters are still in the Followers, none of whom will say anything more than hello when he meets them by chance.

For Nichols, and anyone else leaving the Followers, departing the church means departing everything they have known.

"It took me 12 years to get my wife and children out of there," he says.

"Worst in the nation"

Federal law is clear: Competent adults can refuse medical treatment for themselves, and the government can compel parents to seek treatment for their children.

"Freedom of religion has no absolutes," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in constitutional law. "The state's right in protecting life justifies infringement upon the parents' religious belief."

But that argument is, in itself, an absolute, one that justifies a majority of people imposing their moral viewpoint on a minority group, said Craig Carr, professor of political science at Portland State University. The argument, Carr said, ignores that these parents believe they would be remiss if they didn't raise their children according to the strict tenets of their religion.

"That's why we have civil liberties in this country," Carr said. "So people who feel they have the right to be different are protected."

Federal courts have left it to the states to decide how to handle medical care for children of faith healers.

Only four states -- Hawaii, Nebraska, North Carolina and Massachusetts -- have no religious immunities in their criminal and civil codes, said Rita Swan, president of Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty, an Iowa-based child-advocacy group.

Six states -- Oregon, Arkansas, Ohio, Iowa, Delaware and West Virginia -- have religious defenses to homicide. Most other states include the defenses in different sections of their criminal, juvenile and civil codes.

In the past decade, more cases against faith-healing parents have been brought forward at the state level. But Chemerinsky said these cases in no way constitute a trend.

Oregon's exemptions from criminal prosecution for faith healers were strengthened last year when the Legislature rewrote the state's homicide laws, increasing the penalties for murder by abuse. Lobbying by the Christian Science Church helped get comprehensive immunities for faith-healing parents written into the law, which was also supported by the Oregon District Attorney's Association.

Immunities also exist in Oregon's civil codes, giving religious objectors the right to decline immunizations and metabolic testing, the latter of which detects disorders that will cause mental retardation and other harm if left untreated, Swan said.

"I consider Oregon laws the worst in the nation on this issue," Swan said about the wide-sweeping immunities.

In April, District Attorney Gustafson declined to file charges in the death of an 11-year-old boy who died of diabetes. Gustafson thinks Oregon's statute against criminally negligent homicide is poorly worded. She said the wording in the negligent homicide law is nearly identical to the state's seconddegree manslaughter charge, which includes religious immunity. Because of the contradiction, prosecution would be unfair, Gustafson says.

Among the state's top prosecutors there is disagreement about whether the parents of the 11-year-old could be charged. Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers, in a written opinion to Gustafson, said the religious immunity provisions do not apply to criminally negligent homicide.

But Myers, Gustafson and others agree the laws need revision so children do not die because of their parents' beliefs. Lawmakers predict a flood of bills addressing the issue in the 1999 Legislature.

Gustafson has vowed to recommend changing state law so that parents are compelled to seek medical care for their children regardless of their religious beliefs. She has also asked people to report possible cases in which Oregon City Followers children are sick so that police and child welfare workers can evaluate whether courtordered medical intervention is warranted.

Idaho, Oklahoma take action

Twice since 1980, Idaho officials have won court-ordered medical care for sick or injured Followers children.

Dave Young, Canyon County's prosecuting attorney, had one case in which a 16-year-old boy had life-threatening head injuries from a car accident. In the emergency room, his parents, Followers members, objected to a doctor treating the boy. The police called the prosecutor, who called a judge, who conducted a hearing at the hospital. The boy was treated and survived.

But beyond those cases, the Idaho Followers' faith-healing practices have gone nearly unchecked based on a state law protecting parents if their religion forbids conventional medicine. Officials in four counties where the majority of the 500-member Caldwell congregation lives said they don't understand the Followers' beliefs but are powerless to change their behavior.

The Oregonian found government documents detailing 12 child deaths in Canyon and Owyhee counties in Idaho dating to 1980. Five were classified as stillbirths. Of the remaining seven, doctors said that six probably would have benefited from medical care and that two of those -- cases involving a ruptured appendix and a visibly strangulated hernia -- probably would have survived with treatment.

Steve Rhodes, chief deputy coroner for Canyon County, said that his office does full autopsies on all the children but that his office can't dictate religion to the Followers.

"You have to have a pretty strong faith to let a family member die," Rhodes said. "I couldn't do that, not if it was within my means to fix it."

That misunderstanding is common among "worldly people," the Idaho elders said.

"If you don't have the faith, it's hard to understand," Russell Conger said. "It's hard to explain. Our physician is always there. He's always there through prayer."

Conger and Deacon Loyd Randolph said that Idaho Followers will seek medical help if they want and that no one will shun them for doing so.

"We try to live by faith," Randolph said. But "if one of our members wants to go to the hospital, I'll go with them. I have been there praying for them."

In rural Oklahoma, where churches are almost as common as road signs urging sinners to repent, Major County prosecutor Hollis Thorp said the Followers go too far.

Thorp lives in Fairview, Okla., a small town about two hours north of Oklahoma City. Since 1986, he has put two members of the Followers in jail for allowing their children to die. Now, he says, church members appear to be getting medical treatment for ill children, though only after the Oklahoma Legislature acted.

In 1985, Oklahoma made it a crime for parents to withhold medical treatment from a critically ill child. The law passed after a child from the Church of the First Born, an offshoot of the Followers, died in nearby Enid.

"I can't believe your Legislature hasn't taken action on that," Thorp said, referring to the Oregon cases. "There's no excuse for their children dying.

"If that many people were beating their children to death, there would be a march on the Capitol. It's not that much different."

Oklahoma's change in law appears to have had its effect. On a recent rain-soaked morning in his family farmhouse, Gary Wallace, an elder in the Oklahoma Followers, pointed to his granddaughter.

"Our little Annie Marie is under a doctor's care right now," for a thyroid problem, he said, as the child giggled under a pile of other children.

"We'd rather exercise our faith, but we follow the law of the land."

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[Roll call of death]
[untitled sidebar]

The Oregonian compiled the following list of people believed to be Followers of Christ Church children and mothers who have died since 1955 by taking names from headstones at the Carus Cemetery and confirming them using documents from the Oregon City Police Department and the Clackamas County District Attorney's Office, and through interviews with the State Medical Examiner and former Followers of Christ Church members. This list does not include 15 confirmed stillborn infants from the church.

Year
Age

Name
Cause of Death

1955
N/A

Dwayne D. Hickman
Not Available

1957
3 years

Nelson J. Lane
Not Available

1958

Morris (baby boy)
Not Available

1959

King (baby boy, twin)
Not Available

1959

King (baby boy, twin)
Not Available

1959
10 years

Leon W. Cunningham
Pneumonia

1960
Birth

Fraser (baby girl)
Not available

1962
2 years

Scott E. Beagley
Accident

1962
2 days

Ross Dale White
Not available

1962
2 days

Otis Kip White
Not available

1964
3 months

Diana Elene Crone
Not available

1965
3 years

Rita Ann Hickman
Meningitis

1965
2 years

Brenda Kae Ingersoll
Meningitis

1966
Birth

Wright (baby)
Not available

1969
2 days

Dave Ray Wingerd
Not available

1969
6 months

Monte Dale Smith
Not available

1970
Birth

Karen J. Gorman
Not available

1970
4 days

Russell Darren Briggs
Not available

1970
Birth

King (baby)
Not available

1970
Birth

Jeannie Lynn Cunningham
Not available

1971
3 months

Robert Lee Brinckman
Not available

1971
12 hours

Davey Briggs
Not available

1973
Birth

McLoud (baby girl)
Not available

1973
36 hours

Cheryl Marie Smith
Possible congenital heart disease

1973
8 months

Tommy Smith
Probable heart condition

1973
6 days

Ryan Carl Crone
No determination

1974
2 days

Betsy Lee White
Erythroblastosis fetalis

1975
1 year

Lynnee Rae Smith
Accident

1975
3 hours

Joan Kay Smith
Breech birth/respiratory failure

1975
2 months

Garland Wade Cepica
Kidney disease

1976
9 years

Denny A. Carlson
Lockjaw

1976
11 months

Janelle Elise Keith
Pneumonia & meningitis

1977
birth

Womack (baby girl)
Not available

1978
birth

Justin James Hickman
Not available

1979
5 years

Lori Kay Shaw
Diabetes

1980
Birth

White (baby girl)
Not available

1981
Birth

Maria Deeann Smith
Not available

1981
Birth

Monica Joyce Smith
Not available

1982
3 days

Ashley Anne Rosenberry
No determination

1985
1 year

Chris Ryan Saxe
Presumed viral infection

1985
birth

Ronald J. Johnston
Not available

1986
N/A

Lucas D. Smith
Not available

1986
Birth

Mitchell (baby boy)
Not available

1987
10 years

Brian Todd Stewart
Not available

1987
4 months

Christopher Eric Morris
SIDS

1988
5.5 hours

Mikass J. Rippey
Intrauterine pneumonia

1988
4 hours

Cowan Mouser
Premature birth complications

1989
4 years

Alex Dale Morris
Pulmonary infection

1992
4.5 hours

Jacqueline E. McLoud
No determination

1992
14 hours

Matthew Travis Gorman
Aspiration of meconium/fluids

1994
1.3 hours

Jonathan Michael Moore
Head injury from traumatic birth

1995
Birth

Steven Robert Mitchell
Not available

1997
6 years

Holland J. Cunningham
Hernia

1998
5 months

Valerie Lynn Shaw
Renal infection complication

1998
11 years

Bo Phillips
Diabetes

N/A
N/A

Wendy Lynn Painter
Not available

N/A
N/A

Beagley (baby boy)
Not available

N/A
N/A

Ulry (baby girl)
Not available

N/A
N/A

David Cunningham
Not available

N/A
N/A

Hickman (baby girl)
Not available

N/A
N/A

Larkin (baby girl)
Not available

N/A
N/A

Douglas Cunningham
Not available

N/A
N/A

Cunningham (baby girl)
Not available
MOTHERS (during childbirth)

1986
18 years

Melissa K. Smith
Infection during childbirth

1990
26

Jacqueline K. (and son) Beagley
Cepsis due to prolonged rupture of fetal membranes (baby stillborn)

1996
36

Janae McDowell
Intrauterine infection (baby stillborn)

1997
21

Cheryl Zirkle
Infection

Graphic Rule

Religious immunity and the law

OREGON: Updated in 1997, laws governing murder by abuse, manslaughter, criminal mistreatment and criminal nonsupport include clauses that grant immunity to parents whose children die if they are being cared for by prayer.

Immunity is not included in the state's criminally negligent homicide statute. But there is disagreement between Clackamas County District Attorney Terry Gustafson and Attorney General Hardy Myers about whether parents can be prosecuted with this statute.

Gustafson says that the wording of the criminally negligent homicide statute is identical to that of the second-degree manslaughter statute and that charging parents would violate their constitutional right to due process. She and others are pushing to have the laws changed.

Oregon is one of only six states that grants a religious defense for Murder, Critics of religious immunity call Oregon one of the worst states in the nation because its immunity provisions are found throughout the law.

IDAHO: As of 1977, laws regarding injury to a child say that a parent or guardian who chooses prayer as treatment will not be considered to have violated legal duties to care for their child.

OKLAHOMA: In 1985. legislators updated state law granting immunity to religious objectors The state now requires parents to provide medical care in cases in which permanent injury could result. Since 1986, two Followers members in Major County. north of Oklahoma City, have been jailed for failing to seek medical treatment for their children.

Graphic Rule

Followers' roots reveal
numerous splinters
Churches such as Oregon's evolved
from the Pentecostal movement
by Mark Larabee and Peter D. Sleeth
of The Oregonian staff

The faith-healing Followers of Christ is one of many churches that rose from the impoverished, energetic Pentecostal movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Many Followers preachers were healing evangelists whose churches frequently split about minute points of religious doctrine. The splits left Followers churches in Oklahoma, Idaho and Oregon -- Oregon City and Grants Pass.

The first Followers church is thought to have been founded in Chanute, Kan. One of its first members was Marion Reece, a plainsman, who fought Indians during the Civil War. Reece got his calling in Kansas before moving to Oklahoma, where he baptized many Followers.

His brother-in-law, Charlie Smith, also was preaching at that time. After an argument with other ministers, Smith moved west about 1920, first to Idaho and then to California.

In the early 1930s, Smith was on the circuit with a charismatic preacher named George White. White ordained five of his nephews to preach, including Walter White and Vern Baldwin.

Walter White and Baldwin preached about the miraculous intervention of God in the affairs of man. They used fear of God, tales of Armageddon and hardened showmanship to keep their flocks in line.

But their personalities clashed. In the early 1940s, Walter White left Idaho and went to Oregon City after a fight about women cutting their hair and adultery in the church.

Former church members say White was a prophet with a tyrannical side. From his pulpit he would rebuke congregation members, often making them stand and confess their misdeeds to the entire group. He captivated his congregation with powerful sermons, often slamming his Bible to the floor, shaking and clapping, and speaking in tongues.

"Walter became a Christlike figure," said one former member who asked not to be identified. "People believed the only way to get to God was through Walter White."

He settled marital disputes and discord among families. They hung his picture in their homes, often just higher than a photo of Jesus Christ. Some church members still have White's picture tip.

To become a preacher, a follower must be called by God.

Ernest Nichols heard a voice telling him to preach the Gospel in 1942, shortly after a life-threatening case of chicken pox. It wasn't a voice in his head, said his son, Dean Nichols, 63, of Oregon City. "I'm talking a voice like a loudspeaker."

But Ernest Nichols didn't answer the call until three years later, when he was growing grapes near Modesto, Calif He left the crop on the vine and packed his family off to Caldwell, Idaho, then the home of the largest Followers congregation.

Later, Nichols decided to move back and minister to Followers in California. In 1953, at White's request, he moved his small congregation to Oregon City.

During the next 11 years, Ernest Nichols and White would argue about White's strict religious doctrines and the way he treated people, according to Nichols' relatives and other former members.

Ernest Nichols thought White and the congregation had lost the true message of God. In 1964, Nichols decided to leave the church. Five of his children remained and never spoke with him again.

Nichols moved to Idaho for a time, stayed with relatives in Montana, then returned to Oregon City. He conducted prayer meetings in his home but never returned to the pulpit. Ernest Nichols died in 1980; his wife died five years later.

"Dad was never bitter," said Eileen Baldwin, Nichols' daughter and a resident of Meridian, Idaho. "They never gave up their love of God or their faith in him."

Today, a congregation of about 500 Followers lives in the Caldwell area west of Boise. Much like their Oregon City brethren, they gather Thursdays and Sundays to worship Christ at a small church bordered on two sides by freshly tilled fields. The building has no markings, cross or signs and looks like an old grange hall.

Russell Conger, 65, a retired carpenter and an elder for the Caldwell congregation, said the Followers believe in the power of divine healing, a tradition among his people that has been passed through the generations originating with Jesus Christ. He, another elder and two deacons use prayer meetings to teach the word of God. The Caldwell minister died many years ago, and no one there has received the calling. Occasionally, the preacher from the 200-member Grants Pass congregation visits.

In Oregon City, no one teaches the word of God because all the elders are dead and no one has received the calling. So services consist of hymns and silent prayers, former members said.

Followers in Grants Pass and Caldwell think the Oregon City congregation took a wrong turn sometime in the 1950s. Conger and other elders said they tried contacting Followers in Oregon City through the years to offer their services, but those offers have been politely declined.

Conger said he is always ready to anoint the sick and administer healing prayers. Through a trust in God, he said, faith healing works.

"It's a choice that we have, and it's a choice that we pass on to our children."

Graphic Rule