In December 1999 Harvest House Publishers published the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (ECNR) by John Ankerberg and John Weldon. Ankerberg and Weldon were prolific authors whose books included several sensationalistic “exposés,” most of which were published by Harvest House. Weldon did most of the research and writing while Ankerberg, as a televangelist with his own syndicated talk show, had the more recognizable name. The two men had built a reputation as scholars based on questionable degrees granted through the Pacific College of Graduate Studies/Pacific College of Theology, a Christian degree mill run by a long-time associate of Weldon.1
Although ECNR made no reference to The God-Men, Weldon relied on that long-since discredited source more than any other. Weldon originally wrote the chapters in his encyclopedia in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was closely associated with the Spiritual Counterfeits Project. The early drafts of his chapter on the local churches incorporated over one hundred references to The God-Men and followed its contours closely. It also included a long appendix excerpted verbatim from that book. The excerpted material contained many of the accusations later ruled to be “false, defamatory, and unprivileged and, therefore, libelous,” in The God-Men case. In early 1981 Weldon asked Neil Duddy, the primary author of the second edition of The God-Men, to read and comment on his manuscript.
Documents produced in the case show that Weldon did not understand Witness Lee’s teaching, which centered on the believers’ experience of Christ as life for the building up of the church as the Body of Christ. Weldon’s notes in the front of Witness Lee’s book The Economy of God show that Weldon could not understand how the believers could have the divine life and partake of the divine nature through their rebirth in Christ (John 3:36; 1 John 5:12; 2 Pet. 1:4). Weldon’s incomprehension of Witness Lee’s ministry was reflected in his draft chapters’ disjointed, patchwork treatment of their subject. Those drafts are also significant for their marginal and in-line notations. In an early manuscript Weldon wrote (and his editor crossed out), “In our own study we often found ourself uncertain as to his meanings and so did the best we could to discern the most probable meaning.” Another says, “LEE v Duddy says this is ALL wrong and Out of Context.” Such concerns did not deter Weldon, however.
Weldon claimed that his encyclopedia was originally an eight-thousand page manuscript.2 To trim that sprawling manuscript down to a publishable size, Weldon opted to have a mix of long and short chapters. As pressure mounted, Weldon gave his typist guidelines for cutting some of the chapters down to bare bones. Those instructions included directives to “take out the most damaging quote you can find and just put a colon and stick it in,” to find “the clearest most damning citation,” and to concentrate on “the founder or leader’s demonization, if that exists, and the follower’s demonization, if that exists.” In sum, he said, “Always use the most damaging material. We have to have the best stuff that’s really going to hit these guys hard.” One could hardly find a more textbook illustration of malice leading to reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of what was published.
Structure and Language of ECNR
ECNR was structured in three main sections—introductory material describing how to use the book and discussing cults generally, the body of the book consisting of fifty-seven chapters (fourteen of thirteen pages or more and forty-three of five pages or less) on various particularly significant “cults” selected by Weldon, and an appendix which addressed both doctrinal and non-doctrinal points. Both the introductory material and the appendix contained blanket statements applicable to all of the groups in the book. For example, concerning the labeling of the groups in the book as cults, the Introduction said that “the groups herein deserve the title, even if they disagree” (XXI). The appendix declared that “all groups discussed in this volume accept occult powers to some degree” (708) and “the cults universally promote idolatry” (721). As Dr. Edward Finegan, a University of Southern California linguist would later write:
The clear implication to the reader is that the front matter frames each chapter. An average reader would associate the front matter with every group mentioned… and would believe all of the groups mentioned are immeasurably damaging.
The book’s Introduction included a list of “characteristics of cults.” These characteristics included such things as financial fraud, authoritarianism, and abuse of members. The term characteristic is defined as “a feature that helps to identify, tell apart, or describe recognizably; a distinguishing mark or trait.”3 In other words, a characteristic is what makes something identifiable as what it is. This is clearly what Weldon had in mind when he introduced his list of characteristics with the statement, “The characteristics of the cults illustrates the applicability of the term” (XXIII). Hence, the use of the term characteristics sets up a predisposition in a reader’s mind that what is described is pertinent to those who are identified as particularly significant examples of the applicability of the term. This is especially true because of the extremely minimalist approach to the short chapters in the book, including the chapter on the local churches.
Letters of Protest Appealing for Christian Fellowship
Starting from January 19, 2001, representatives of Living Stream Ministry, the local churches, and the co-workers of Witness Lee began writing letters of protest to Harvest House President Bob Hawkins, Jr. and the two authors. These letters pointed to material concerning The God-Men case and included offers to travel to meet the recipients at their convenience for face-to-face Christian fellowship to clear up misunderstandings. That offer was never accepted. Instead, Harvest House passed the first letter on to an attorney for a response and then, in conjunction with its authors, asked for documentation in writing of specific objections which they promised to thoroughly evaluate with an open mind.
In a final attempt to seek reconciliation, a letter was sent to both the authors and the publisher with extensive documentation of the book’s errors and distortions as well as copies of the judge’s decision in Lee v. Duddy, The Experts Speak, and J. Gordon Melton’s Open Letter. Hawkins said they would not have time until after the first of the year to review that material. Barry Langberg, a libel attorney retained to represent Living Stream Ministry and some local churches, agreed but asked in return for a tolling agreement to extend the statute of limitations so that his clients would not forfeit their legal rights should Harvest House delay its response. Harvest House’s reaction was twofold. First, Harvest House demanded that Weldon produce a revised chapter for a new printing of ECNR so that it could fill an outstanding order. Second, on December 14, 2001, Harvest House filed suit in Oregon against The Church in Fullerton, Inc., seeking a declaratory judgment that ECNR was not libelous. Faced with such intransigence and the possibility that the statute of limitations would expire, the Local Church (an unincorporated association recognized under Texas law), Living Stream Ministry, and over ninety individual local churches filed suit against Harvest House in Texas District Court on the last day of 2001.
In the course of discovery, it was learned that neither Hawkins nor anyone at Harvest House who worked on ECNR had any knowledge of the local churches prior to publication, even though they were publishing a book accusing the churches of being a cult and associating that label with odious behaviors.3 Moreover, Weldon admitted to a fellow countercultist, “This chapter was one of 65 I wrote 15-20 years ago at a rate of (researching & writing) 100-200 pages per month, so it’s possible I made a mistake.”4 None of the three had read the judge’s decision in The God-Men case, even though a complete copy was given to each of them. All responsibility for reviewing the churches’ complaints had been delegated to Weldon, who dismissed The Experts Speak with juvenile marginal comments such as “HA” and “lies.”
The evidence also showed that Harvest House had seriously failed in its obligations in publishing a book with accusations of immoral, criminal, and anti-social conduct. No one had fact-checked or vetted the book. In fact, no one at Harvest House, other than proofreaders looking for small technical mistakes, had even read the book.5
Seeking Summary Judgment
Three times the defendants submitted motions for summary judgment to the district court. All three motions were denied. After the third rejection, the defendants filed an interlocutory appeal, which is an appeal of the district court’s decision prior to going to trial. Faced with the insurmountable task of justifying such conduct, the defendants resorted to redefining the issues in the case. They sought to recast the case as a dispute over theological issues, which it was not. They claimed that the book was a theological critique in nature, which from a jurisprudence perspective should have been irrelevant, given that the complaint was over accusations of criminal, immoral, and anti-social behavior. They represented their use of the term cult to be purely theological by quoting only part of its definition. Harvest House, Ankerberg, and Weldon told the court:
The authors explain in the Introduction that the term “cult,” as used in the Encyclopedia, is “used as a religious term,” and they define a cult as “a separate religious group generally claiming compatibility with Christianity but that adheres to select teachings that are theologically incompatible with teachings of the Bible” 3rd Sup. CR 72. (Brief of Appellants: 2)
However, that is not the language the authors used in the book itself. In ECNR they wrote:
For our purposes, and from a Christian perspective, a cult may be briefly defined as “a separate religious group generally claiming compatibility with Christianity but whose doctrines contradict those of historic Christianity and whose practices and ethical standards violate those of biblical Christianity” (XXII) [emphasis added]
Harvest House, Ankerberg,and Weldon then argued that the only way to know which characteristics applied to a particular group was to read the individual chapters. This argument also should have failed for three reasons: (1) the definition of characteristics did not support it; (2) there were many groups in the book (including the local churches) for which no examples were given of how their “practices and ethical standards violate those of biblical Christianity,” yet by this part of the book’s operative definition they should not have been included if there were not such violations; and (3) there were “characteristics” listed which were associated with so few of the groups (as few as zero) that calling them a characteristic was insupportable unless one assumed a broader applicability.
In their filings, the defendants sought to prejudice the judges with unsubstantiated accusations of litigiousness and out-of-context quotations criticizing the deviations of organized Christendom from biblical standards of truth and practice. After a hearing limited to fifteen minutes, the Texas Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s ruling, accepting the defendants’ flawed arguments that the book was theological in nature, that its definition of cult was theological, and that the characteristics of cults listed in the Introduction could not possibly be understood as applying to the individual groups in the book. Subsequent attempts to get the Texas Supreme Court and U. S. Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals decision were unsuccessful.
Dangers of the Appeals Court’s Decision
Friends of Ankerberg, Weldon, and Harvest House portrayed the court’s decision as a full vindication of the book. It was not. The court made no determination that any of the contents of the book were true. It merely said, based on an overly narrow interpretation of libel law, that a reasonable reader would not conclude that the book’s accusations of heinous behavior applied to the local churches. The court’s ruling reflected the defendants’ misrepresentation of the book’s operative definition of the term cult, their claim that as a book addressing issues of belief they were insulated from complaints about accusations of aberrant behaviors, and their insistence on a favorable grammatical parsing over the common standard of determining defamatory meaning based on the effect of a work as a whole. Some of the defects in the court’s ruling are discussed in an article by Elliot Miller in a special issue of the Christian Research Journal with the words “We Were Wrong” on the cover.
While the Harvest House case was on appeal, a group identifying themselves as “Christian scholars and ministry leaders” published an open letter on the internet calling on the leadership of Living Stream Ministry and the local churches to “discontinue their practice of using litigation and threatened litigation to answer criticisms or settle disputes.” Many of the letter’s signers had ties to Ankerberg and/or Harvest House, and the letter itself was strikingly similar to postings that had appeared on the corporate website of Harvest House Publishers, which had repeatedly tried to recast the lawsuit as a dispute over theological issues and themselves and their authors as defenders of the faith. Responses to the open letter and subsequent developments are part of the Responses portion of this website.
A Surprising Development
One surprising side effect of the Harvest House litigation was the opening of doors for dialogue with the apologetics ministries Christian Research Institute and Answers in Action. This development is discussed in the Dialogues portion of this website.
1 Douglas Cowan, Bearing False Witness? An Introduction to the Christian Countercult (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), 202-204.
2 Ankerberg and Weldon, Can You Trust Your Doctor? The Complete Guide to New Age Medicine and Its Threat to Your Family (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, 1991), xvii, 431, 445; Ankerberg and Weldon, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Mormonism (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1992), 4.
3 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2002), 376.
4 John Weldon, email to Jim Moran, November 30, 2001.
5 Deposition of Elizabeth Fletcher, March 25, 2003: 84-85; Carolyn McCready, March 26, 2003: 85-86, 111-112; Deposition of Mary Cooper, August 20, 2003: 115-116; Deposition of Robert Hawkins, September 24 and 25, 2003: 36, 187, 191-192. The only person other than Weldon involved in working on “The Local Church” chapter who had any knowledge of the local churches was the outside copy editor, Charles Strohmer, and his knowledge was admitted limited and vague (Deposition of Charles Strohmer, January 28, 2003: 47-48).