The Cult of Ole

Ole Anthony anointed himself the watchdog of America's televangelists. But who was watching Ole Anthony?

Anthony's Bible studies, held at Trinity's office or people's homes, would last far into the night, sometimes erupting in shouting and profanity and disclosures of un-Christian behavior.

"It was like Deadwood with Scripture," says Robertson, "with Ole as Al Swearingen." The demand for complete transparency among believers sometimes triggered fisticuffs. Blunt talk about sex and liberal use of the F-word were the norm. "People were having affairs," Duncan says. "They would yell at each other and argue, and Ole would yell at people. It was never boring." It was so real and brutal and honest--unlike the churches they'd been brought up in--that Anthony's disciples felt as if they were tapping into a deeper, more authentic Christian spirituality.

Their teacher often held his listeners spellbound with stories of his life. The general themes were intrigue and dissolution. He'd been a spy, a wealthy businessman, a political candidate, a broadcaster and a champion for the poor. Anthony had been everywhere and done everything, including, he claimed, sleeping with hundreds of women.

Ole Anthony (left, in an undated photo) and members of Trinity Foundation lived in community, eating together and sharing their possessions--just like the early Christians.
Ole Anthony (left, in an undated photo) and members of Trinity Foundation lived in community, eating together and sharing their possessions--just like the early Christians.
Women were "preternaturally drawn" to Ole Anthony, one former Trinity member said. "He has a charismatic personality women find utterly fascinating."
Women were "preternaturally drawn" to Ole Anthony, one former Trinity member said. "He has a charismatic personality women find utterly fascinating."

"Women were preternaturally drawn to him," says Stephen, a former member who got involved in the '70s and asked that his real name not be used. "I have literally witnessed women come up to Ole and just virtually offer themselves to him. He has a charismatic personality women find utterly fascinating."

From 1974 to 1987, Anthony studied, reading the Bible, looking up words in Hebrew and filling notebooks with Scripture references about themes such as sacrifices, purifications and tithes. He delved into the Torah, the Talmud, the Zohar and other Jewish texts. "Ole absolutely believes you can get from the Old Testament everything you need to know about Christianity," Stephen says.

Duncan joined with a dozen or so other believers in the summer of 1977, and they jousted with Anthony over doctrine. Anthony's nimble tongue ran circles around them.

"He was anti-institutional Christianity from the beginning," Stephen says. "I can't remember Ole ever having gone to a church." (Anthony says he's been a member of Highland Park UMC for decades.)

Late one night during a coffee-shop discussion about grace, Duncan had a "snapping" experience. Anthony was insisting that there were no rules for the Christian except living second by second in total dependence on God. "I knew how hard I was working at being a Christian," Duncan says. "Suddenly, it was like, 'Oh my God, what he is saying is right!'"

As that memorable summer came to a close, Anthony began pressuring Duncan, a gifted student, not to return to UT. The only school mentioned in the Bible, he said, was for the Pharisees, religious hypocrites.

Duncan's mother won the tug-of-war. But when Duncan returned to UT, his heart was no longer with the Navigators. The next summer, he started stopping by to see Anthony. Their conversations so confused him that Duncan dropped all his religious activities and started drinking and partying.

Many of those in Anthony's Bible studies were struggling, vulnerable, seeking answers. Larry Ferguson, then a student at Criswell College, was going through a difficult time in his life and liked hanging out with people who, as he puts it, weren't judgmental. "Ole was very helpful," Ferguson says. "He stressed being honest, which caused you to take stock of your life."

Like "Charis-maniacs," as he calls them, Anthony believed in praying for healing and speaking in tongues and emphasized both. Anthony never tried to get people to quit their churches. By the late '70s, the tiny Bible study had grown to 40 or 50 people.

After experiencing a Passover supper with Zola Levitt, a Messianic Jew, Anthony had introduced the idea of following the Jewish calendar, using holy days such as Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles to illustrate truths about Jesus Christ. People loved the intimacy and excitement Anthony created about the feasts, held at a local lake or friend's ranch. He fostered the belief that they were special, worshiping as the first-century Christians did.

But even as new people were drawn to Anthony, other people in the group were backing away. Stephen was disturbed by Anthony's insistence that he'd discovered ancient truths unknown to Christians for 2,000 years. "I always admired his intellect," Stephen says. "But after 2,000 years of people studying the same theology, I can't buy that he's figured it out and nobody else has. In many respects, Ole is a modern Gnostic, which means those who have special knowledge and they impart it once you get into the cult." He came to the conclusion that Trinity was becoming cult-like.

After Stephen's first child was born in 1977, Anthony--who has never married or had children of his own--announced that the baby "belonged to the group." Uncomfortable with that assertion and the hero worship directed toward Anthony, Stephen and his wife pulled away from Trinity.

Life Together

When Larry and Pam Ferguson unlocked their front door after a 1980 vacation, they found the usual piles of mail and newspapers--as well as a disturbing surprise. Five strangers had moved into their home.

After being involved with Trinity for four or five years, the Fergusons had given a house key to Anthony in case of an emergency. When he learned that a certain couple and their three children were homeless, Anthony simply moved them into the Fergusons' house. Ask first? Ridiculous. The family needed help. Anthony's mantra was, "What's mine is yours. If you don't have what you need, I'll help you get it."

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