The Cult of Ole

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

The Fergusons often took in the needy but resented Anthony's presumption. Nor did Anthony or the group help the Fergusons financially during the months the alcoholic couple and their children lived with them. "The family got mad at us because we didn't buy enough meat," Pam says.

In 1978, the Fergusons became the first Trinity "marriage," with Gary Buckner presiding over the nuptials. The second: Doug Duncan, who married a woman he met during his sowing-of-wild-oats phase.

"Until then it was this laid-back, hippie Bible study," Duncan says. The group was soon meeting six nights a week and on Sunday for a meal and "big group," with singing and worship.

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."

The community was taking form. In 1980, Gary and Judy Buckner bought a house on Columbia and started fixing it up; they were followed by John and Joysanna Rutledge. Others would move nearby. Anthony was living rent-free in a home in North Dallas owned by the Rutledges. After taking a vow of poverty, he was being paid $50 a week by the Trinity Foundation.

Many of those drawn to him had troubled childhoods. "It was, 'We're all losers, and I [Anthony] may be the chief loser and this is the last stop before hell,' instead of 'I can do all things through Christ,'" says Larry Ferguson, who was on the board of Trinity for several years. Other former members say the result was a dynamic shaped by Anthony's personality: cynical, contemptuous of the unenlightened, obsessed with sex, backbiting and gossipy.

"Ole didn't really see the value in people," Ferguson says. "He loathed himself. He was constantly trying to build up his sense of self-worth at the expense of others. It's tragic. He has a wonderful mind and a lot of talents."

But as early as the '70s, there were signs that Anthony's behavior and moral standards didn't fit the usual Bible study leader. "Ole was very promiscuous," Ferguson says. "He had lots of women. Some became part of the group, and some were already part of the group."

Ferguson and others, however, still held to the old evangelical standard of no sex outside marriage. And some people dared to call Anthony on it. "There were pretty heavy confrontations," Ferguson says, "and Ole backed away from it...He was trying to have it both ways." (Anthony insists today that he has been "celibate" since his Christian conversion in 1972.)

Betty Olmstead started coming to the Trinity Bible study in the late '70s and credits Anthony, through his radio show, for her Christian conversion. But she remembers being disturbed by the attitude of the women in the group: They, like Olmstead, were attracted to Ole Anthony.

Olmstead says one woman in the group confided to her that she'd slept with Anthony and now he was ignoring her. Olmstead wrote Anthony a private letter saying he needed to address the issue and was stunned when he read it to the entire group. The woman openly admitted her role in the affair, but Anthony insisted the woman was a liar and that he had no memory of the relationship. "He wouldn't be honest," Olmstead says.

The bizarre situation led the group to define what sexual behavior was permitted outside marriage. Anthony's stance: Everything was allowed "except penetration," say several members involved in the discussions.

After hearing Anthony and her roommate going at it one night, Olmstead, who was in an adjoining room, concluded that Anthony exempted himself from that one prohibition. The sex issue simmered below the surface, with standards becoming stricter over time. By the early '80s, Anthony considered unmarried sex "spiritually criminal behavior."

American Idols

There was one time Anthony tried to turn his back on Trinity--what he calls his lowest point. He'd been teaching for seven or eight years, but people weren't getting it. Clinging to their miserable little identities, they seemed unable to die to self and unwilling to see their idolatries. In a fury one day, Anthony jumped in a car and started driving west. He was done.

When he got to the far side of Fort Worth, it occurred to him that the car belonged to Trinity. He had no money. What would he do when he got to Arizona, where he grew up? His father had died in 1972. When he became a believer, Anthony had mended fences with his mother but rarely saw her. And he wasn't close to his sister, Sandra, seven years younger. Trinity was his family. He drove back to Dallas and apologized. All he could do was to be "faithful to what I see."

Styling himself after the Apostle Paul, Anthony often quoted his famous statement, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief." Paul preached to hundreds on Mars Hill. Anthony had a group who could fit in his living room.

It was time to get his own Mars Hill.

When marketing whiz Harry Guetzlaff got involved with Trinity in 1983, he became the official archivist, taping and editing all of Anthony's Bible studies. He sent out letters and press releases, always on the lookout for a way in which Anthony could publicly expound his beliefs.

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