The Cult of Ole

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

And little by little, the group was ceding enormous control to Anthony.

Officially, no decision could be made without 100 percent agreement among the elders, the Foundation's board of directors. That protocol was put in place in 1987 after a disastrous stunt. Anthony announced that the community would do a "fire walk," something he had tried in the '60s, to show what was possible by relying on God.

Anthony didn't realize that this old magician's trick depended on using charcoal briquettes burned long enough to form a thick coat of ash, then placed one layer deep along the "path." Ash is a poor conductor of heat, allowing the firewalker to scamper across without getting burned.

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 reluctant group stacked up bags of charcoal and set them on fire, creating a path of glowing coals several briquettes thick. Anthony put one foot on the path, then another, then finally leaped off, feet badly burned. After several other people got scorched, he called it off.

Thereafter, all decisions had to be unanimous. But the rule did not take into account Anthony's inordinate control over the board. That intensified in 1988 when he moved to the Block and became Duncan's roommate.

By then, Duncan's life was a shambles. His first wife had left him for a man he'd invited to Bible study. Duncan lost his job. So he became a Levite, willingly impoverished. Both men's rent was paid by the foundation.

Another method of control came with the creation in 1990 of "The Fox's Lair." It began after Anthony persuaded everyone to take a "Nazarite" vow: For 100 days, they would follow an austere diet, also giving up wine, cigarettes and sex. To ensure that everyone followed the diet, the downstairs of a house purchased by Robertson and Ed Housewright became a dining hall. (Housewright declined an interview.)

The diet ended a week early, called off by growling stomachs. But the Lair remained. When homeless people showed up they could get a good meal. A certain amount for food was deducted from the Levites' meager salary, and others paid into a dining fund. They now saw each other at meals, Bible studies and worship services.

Money was another measure of control. Members tithed 10 percent of their incomes. After a Bible study on tithes, Anthony and the elders introduced the "asset tithe." At one point members of Trinity sat down with Anthony and Bloom and revealed all their possessions: stocks, bonds, real estate, cars, bank accounts, belongings. They paid 10 percent of their estimated net worth and "passed under the rod" of the shepherd.

"[This] process was done by all new members in the community for approximately the first 100 years of the church," Anthony wrote in a memo. "It is something that is done only once in a lifetime. It signifies that you've cut all ties to the cause and effect/reward and punishment principles of the world, and that you desire to live only by His grace which is given freely."

Thereafter, each January, a "First Fruits" tithe was assessed. They'd get advice and admonitions if their budgets were off-kilter, if they spent too much on entertainment, eating out, even buying books. What you spent your money on was your god, your idol. For those with jobs, the First Fruits tithe would typically be a week's salary. "You didn't get gouged," Larry Ferguson says, "but we lost all sense of personal boundaries."

The greatest degree of control was vested in the Bible studies: People were expected to take every issue and crisis to their leaders: Anthony, the Rutledges or the Buckners. The lack of privacy drove a wedge between friends, even between spouses. People feared that if they confided in someone, their words might come back to haunt them as people felt compelled to confess. Group unity was paramount.

The Dallas Project tested that unity. Some members ignored the edict, others willingly participated. But it could be dangerous.

The Fergusons came home one night and found their homeless lodger standing in the kitchen wielding a butcher knife. They'd left him while their children were in bed to make a run to the grocery store. "Ole didn't tell us he was a crack cocaine addict and HIV-positive," Ferguson says. The man had hocked Larry's bike, smoked a rock and then grabbed the knife in a fit of drug-induced paranoia. "Ole endangered us for his own hubris," Ferguson says.

Terry and Susan Holden and their three children, who rented one of the apartments, sometimes had more than one homeless person living with them. It cost Susan her feeling of safety. People showed up stoned and stole from her purse. Some had serious emotional problems. One night their 9-year-old son asked his parents why there was a man sitting in his closet. Susan Holden says that all of those they took in ended up back on the streets. Though a few people turned their lives around with Trinity's help, Anthony now acknowledges the Dallas Project was "naïve."

Visitors to the Block, however, saw what appeared to be a harmonious community. The group had added events to the calendar as they studied the Bible. By the late '80s, they were celebrating Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Tabernacles, Hanukkah, Purim, Passover and Pentecost, as well as the Fast of Tammuz and what they called the "Fast of Ab."

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