To many Americans, the Duggar family was known as an example of traditional values, treasuring the life of the unborn, protecting the purity of their unwed children, bearing a strong religious influence not only in ultraconservative Christian circles, but also among homeschooling parents.
Jim Bob Duggar formerly served in the Arkansas House of Representatives and announced recently that he is running for Arkansas State Senate in the 7th District. Because of their reality TV show, the Duggars and their particular brand of Christianity made its way into the homes of Americans, both fans and critics alike.
If you ever considered yourself a conservative Christian, you’re likely familiar with the Duggar family. If you are a fan of shows where large “quiverfull” families have strict “courting” rules for their children and purity culture is promoted, then you’re likely familiar with TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting. If you have conservative homeschooling friends who talk about Michelle doing the same, then you’ve probably heard of the fundamentalist curriculum the Duggars used called Advance Training Institute. If you ever have confusingly come across strangers street preaching, separating themselves from the rest of the Christian world, dressing a bit odd, and having strict rules for their churches and their families, then you’ve likely met an independent fundamental Baptist, a follower of the movement the Duggar family belongs to. If you’ve heard a young woman share her story of abuse and a church that shamed her for it or failed to protect her as a child, you very well could have heard from a former independent fundamental Baptist who has left the movement and is trying to recover from the harm they experienced.
‘Our story is on TV’
I didn’t follow the Duggars when I was an independent fundamental Baptist. I was too busy living an isolated life in my church in a small farming town in Virginia. I did know about them, though, because I thought they were trying to make a profit off the very things we preached, while the rest of us independent fundamental Baptists were “truly following God.” I was “judgey” from afar and annoyed that they would be praised for doing what I and so many other people did — live the life of a fundamentalist Christian.
When I did hear more about them, I had just left my abusive church of 15 years. I watched a morning newscast running clips of the interview with Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar discussing why they didn’t do anything to hold accountable their son, Josh, for sexual abuse. A police report was released to the media, and Josh had admitted to molesting five underage girls, including some of his very own sisters.
“I remember sitting in silent shock. Somehow, I made my hands call a loved one to tell them to hurry up and turn on the TV because, ‘our story is on.’”
I remember sitting in silent shock. Somehow, I made my hands call a loved one to tell them to hurry up and turn on the TV because, “our story is on.”
I had a brother (well, more than one) just like Josh. For about a decade, I experienced all forms of abuse, including childhood sexual abuse. Unlike the Duggar family, I never had a TV crew following my every move, documenting or glorifying a life that often was horrendous, filled with abuse and supposed Christians who were responsible for the trauma I experienced.
There was no TV crew to see my tears, my pleas for help, to document my 12-year-old self shaking in a courtroom as I helped put one of my abusers behind bars. My abuse was known, but I was hidden. The suffering of so many little girls is hidden in the independent fundamental Baptist movement.
Convicted but not yet tried
Josh Duggar last week was found guilty on two counts of possessing child pornography and faces up to 40 years in prison. The disturbing content at trial showed the sexual abuse of children, some of whom were toddlers and even a baby.
But Josh Duggar’s confession of molesting children, of sexually abusing family members, never has made it to a courtroom due to numerous factors.
Some of these factors include that once Josh told his parents about sexually abusing his sisters and another victim, Jim Bob and Michelle went to seek the counsel of their church leaders, but only after this occurred three times. It was when Josh molested one of their very young daughters, who was under the age of 12, that they sought counsel.
The Bill Gothard treatment
They then sent Josh to a “faith training center” located in Little Rock, Ark., that belonged to an independent fundamental Baptist organization called the Institute in Basic Life Principles created by Bill Gothard. This organization and its founder created the fundamentalist Christian homeschool curriculum the Duggar family used to teach their large family. Jim Bob and Michelle had been members of the Institute in Basic Life Principles since the early 1990s. After a stay at one of the group’s facilities where Josh was taken under the wing by a “mentor” there, Gothard said Josh had been “cleansed,” and he was returned home to his family.
Gothard himself has been accused of more than 34 counts of sexual harassment. Other accusations by former members and followers speak to the mistreatment and harm they experienced through his teachings, the ATI curriculum, the group’s conferences, their facilities, and more. When the accusations of sexual harassment were made against Gothard, the Institute in Basic Life Principles called in “outside” counsel to conduct an investigation into the accusations. That firm was Gibbs & Associates, founded by David Gibbs Jr. of the Christian Law Association.
David Gibbs Jr. and the CLA have long defended sexual predators in independent fundamental Baptist churches, institutions and programs. They most often have come to the aid of offenders and not the victims. One way the Christian Law Association receives financial funding is from independent fundamental Baptist churches across the country.
In fact, in my own former church of 15 years, the church supported them as if they were missionaries. As a former member and follower of the independent fundamental Baptist movement, I and other survivors have jokingly (and not so jokingly) referred to the CLA as the “IFB mob” due to their history of defending abusers and coming to the aid of abusive churches under criminal investigation. David Gibbs Jr. has been listed as a defendant in a federal lawsuit brought by a victim of one of the most prominent independent fundamental Baptist churches and colleges located in Hammond, Ind.
David Gibbs Jr, like Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, has been a regular speaker at IBLP’s conferences. The investigation by his law firm found no sexual harassment by Gothard. However, Gothard did resign from his leadership role of the organization he founded, stating that he did participate in inappropriate behavior against females.
Both Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar have spoken at the IBLP’s conferences and promote Gothard’s teachings and homeschool curriculum.
‘Umbrella of Protection’
A big teaching by the IBLP and independent fundamental Baptists alike is the “Umbrella of Protection.” God is above all, then pastors, then fathers, then mothers, then children. This teaching tells members, especially women, that as long as they stay under their umbrella, stay in their submissive and rightful role, nothing — no sin, no harm, not even sexual assault — can hurt them. If sexual abuse or any harm ever occurs, it’s because a victim did not stay in the role God had commanded they be in.
Gothard was known for his controversial counseling sessions for childhood sexual abuse victims. Victim shaming abounded, and victims say that if a young girl was raped, Gothard insisted that they were no longer virgins and were not pure. According to him, this was their fault. Victims were made to forgive abusers and ask forgiveness for the role they played in their assault.
Gothard’s teachings are very prominent among the independent fundamental Baptists, with an emphasis on submission by women to men. His conferences supported harmful books by Debi Pearl that demanded women submit in all things as a “helpmeet” or “helpmate” should. Numerous of Pearl’s books, including the infamous To Train Up a Child, is promoted in these independent Baptist circles, even though the book advocates physically beating children and babies with a rod. Child physical abuse — also known as “godly discipline” — is common within independent fundamental Baptist homes.
Young boys in these homes and churches are taught to be authoritarian leaders, mean and aggressive men when they grow older. They then enforce the teachings of submission to women. There are so many young boys I knew who were sweet and kind as young children only to grow into cold and unkind men who ordered women about.
Making boys into monsters of men
The environment that I and other independent fundamental Baptist children were brought up in, I believe, played a part in making boys into monsters. The pastors, the Sunday school teachers, the youth camps, the homeschool curriculum (often ATI or ACE), the very teachings of many independent fundamental Baptist followers, all conditioned boys into becoming abusive men.
Women — and yes, little girls — are said to be temptresses who tempt men to lust after them sexually and are responsible for that sin. This includes “tempting” an abuser to sexually abuse a child.
As a young girl, I was to be covered or I’d tempt a boy or man to sexually assault me. I remember a man of 40 chuckling and asking me as a 12-year-old victim waiting for the court date of my abuser, “Did you hold your dress for him while he did it?”
At least, he got the dress part right, right? That doesn’t include my culottes, my flannel nightgown, or the rest of my fundamentalist little girl dress code though.
The sexual abuse of children is commonplace among the independent fundamental Baptists. Unfortunately, so is the mishandling of sexual crimes.
In 2018, an investigation by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram found hundreds of victims and a culture of coverups, victim shaming and the passing on of predators to other ministries. Men are given a free pass to abuse or mistreat women, and women are said to be responsible for it occurring in the first place.
Later, when it was known that Josh Duggar had an affair, he spent time in a nonprofessional rehab center called Reformers Unanimous. This is an independent fundamental Baptist program that has chapters in churches all across the country. It uses the Bible to “treat” everything from porn addiction to drug addiction. The co-founder, Paul Kingsbury, recently was forced to leave his position at North Love Baptist Church in Rockford, Ill., for his role in helping a sex offender avoid prosecution by supporting him overseas as a missionary. Josh Duggar was treated with a program whose co-founder supports a sex offender.
To repeat: Josh Duggar now has been convicted of possession of child pornography, but not of the sexual molestation he earlier confessed committing against minor victims.
No charges were filed against Josh for molesting children. An anonymous tip to police a few years after his parents knew about the abuse was too late as the statute of limitations had expired for what would have been considered crimes. The one law enforcement officer Josh had talked to was alleged to have been a family friend and later would end up in prison for 56 years on child pornography charges.
How could this happen?
A lot of people ask how this could have happened. How could Josh not have been legally held responsible for the molestation of children, even when he admitted to it himself?
My answer as a survivor of similar abuse, from the same movement the Duggar family embraced, and as a volunteer of a nonprofit that helps support victims of religious abuse: The environment itself creates safe places for sexual abusers to thrive. Josh never was at risk of being held responsible for his actions in the independent fundamental Baptist movement; however, his victims always would be at risk for being held responsible. Victims of abuse always will have a target on them.
As a survivor of this movement, I never was surprised that Josh got away with his crimes for so long, that he’ll never face legal consequences for sexually molesting children. I was surprised, however, to see him finally face some legal repercussions for some of his abusive actions. So often, predators and abusive behavior by men in the independent fundamental Baptist world are firmly swept under the rug labeled the “cause of Christ,” “forgive and forget,” and “she tempted him,” and never see the light of day.
No, I never am surprised by the Josh Duggars of the world — because as a former independent fundamental Baptist, I survived them.
Lydia Joy Launderville is a freelance writer in Ivor, Va., who covers an array of topics, including health and lifestyle, with a special focus on religious abuse and trauma recovery. She also volunteers for a nonprofit helping victims of religious abuse.
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