The Seven Signs You're in a Cult

A former member of a tight-knit college prayer group describes his community's disintegration—and how one of its members ended up dead.
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Bethany Deaton in 2008. (Boze Herrington/The Atlantic)

November 2, 2012, was a beautiful Friday in Kansas City—clear and cool and sunny. I had spent the afternoon reading in the library at an unaccredited college affiliated with the International House of Prayer, an evangelical Christian organization commonly referred to as IHOP (no relation to the restaurant). Around 6 pm, I got a call from my friend Hannah*.

“I found out something that’s truly devastating. I didn’t want to tell you this way, but I want you to know,” she said. “Bethany Leidlein committed suicide on Tuesday.”

I was shocked. For seven years, I had spent hours every day with Bethany, eating and talking and praying. We had been best friends. She was 27, newly married; she had just completed her nursing degree. I felt like she would always be part of my life.

Now, she was gone.

For three weeks, Hannah and I had been trying to contact leaders at IHOP about a prayer group that we, Bethany, and many of our friends had been part of—a small, independent community that drew on IHOP's teachings. In February, I had been formally excommunicated, and Hannah had left in June. Looking in from the outside, both of us saw the group differently than we had when we were part of it: We saw it as a cult.

Several years ago, the founder of IHOP, Mike Bickle, created a list of seven ways to recognize the difference between a religious community and a cult. Written down, the signs seem clear:

1. Opposing critical thinking

2. Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving

3. Emphasizing special doctrines outside scripture

4. Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders

5. Dishonoring the family unit

6. Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior (versus sexual purity and personal ownership)

7. Separation from the Church

But when it’s your friends, your faith, your community, it’s not so obvious. For several years, roughly two dozen people, all younger than thirty, had been living together in Kansas City, Missouri, and following the leadership of Tyler Deaton, one of our classmates from Southwestern University in Texas. In the summer of 2012, Tyler had married Bethany; by the fall, she was dead. What started as a dorm-room prayer group had devolved into something much darker.

* * *

I met Bethany and Tyler during the week of their freshman orientation in 2005. Small, with a heart-shaped face and bright blue eyes, Bethany’s effortless wit and warm presence quickly attracted a devoted group of friends. She often spoke about the “glories of the world” and its wonders over brunch in the dining hall. We bonded over our shared love of stories and would often stay up late discussing our dreams of becoming great novelists and joining the ranks of our literary heroes.

One day during that first week, I found Tyler in the school’s chapel. He was seated at the piano, the late-afternoon sunlight illuminating his dark eyes and hair as he swayed back and forth, stomping the pedals and singing a popular evangelical chorus in a voice full of heartache and passion:

Your love is extravagant

Your friendship, it is intimate

I feel like I’m moving to the rhythm of your grace

Your fragrance is intoxicating

In the secret place

Because your love is extravagant

At the end of the song, he came over and introduced himself. Something about the nasally pitch of his voice made me wonder if he was gay. A few months later I would work up the courage to ask him; the question offended him so much that I didn’t bring it up again until the end of that year, when he conceded that he had been “struggling with same-sex attraction” for years.

That semester, we became close friends. Early on, I felt as though Tyler often tried to manipulate people into doing what he wanted, but he was also a committed Christian, zealous and humble. Inspired by his sensitivity toward others and bravery in confronting his personal demons, I learned to ignore my initial reservations and trust him.

Two years later, in the summer of 2007, Tyler returned from a trip to Pakistan and announced that God was going to launch a spiritual revolution on our campus. Those of us who knew him well were surprised by the changes in his personality. He had always been extraordinarily perceptive, but now this ability had reached uncanny levels. He could describe conversations he wasn’t involved in that were taking place on the other side of campus. He said God was always speaking. He claimed he could tell what we were thinking, when we were sinning; he said he could feel in his own body what God felt about us.

When I found out he and Bethany were meeting every night for prayer with their two roommates, June and Justin*, I begged them to let me join. It was discouraging to see some of my best and only friends at Southwestern sharing an experience from which I was excluded; I wanted to belong to their group.  I was lonely and bored, and I wanted to experience something extraordinary before I left school: a mystery to solve, a battle to fight, a romantic quest, like the heroes in the stories I had read. All my favorite songs and stories ended with some powerful and often tragic moment of catharsis. I wanted college to end like that. If it didn’t, my life would be boring, anti-climactic … normal.

I had always imagined my life in terms of a story, and now Tyler was offering me the chance to be a part of one. He had developed a distinctly Charismatic vocabulary of “spiritual warfare” and claimed he was communicating directly with God. He said the five of us had been chosen for a dangerous but important mission: changing the nature and understanding of Christianity on our campus. Like the characters of Morpheus or Hagrid, he became our escort into a secret community where evil was battled at close quarters and darkness lurked around every corner.

That first semester was exhilarating. Our prayer experiences were very emotional; sometimes, we wept.  Though I still secretly had doubts about the authenticity of the group’s beliefs, I was profoundly moved by the courage and loyalty my friends were showing towards one another. It felt like being in an epic adventure, in which each of the main characters bravely faces his or her own weaknesses while bonding together in the heat of battle.

Bethany continued to be my closest friend in the group. We confided in one another—including our mild doubts about the group. One night in early November, a few of the group members tried to “heal” a girl with cerebral palsy, even pulling her out of her wheelchair and dragging her around the chapel. Word quickly spread around campus that the girl had been miraculously healed, but I told Bethany I wasn’t convinced that anything really unusual had happened.

Near the end of November, she admitted she had feelings for Tyler. She said God had told her they were going to be married, once he was fully healed of his struggle with homosexuality. During vacations, we would discuss this for hours. She cried regularly.

Around this time, Tyler attended an IHOP conference. At the four-day gathering in Kansas City, Missouri, where the movement is based, he joined 25,000 other young people to pray for spiritual revival on college campuses throughout America. He heard the evangelical leader Lou Engle share a dream he’d had, in which college students were cutting off the heads of their professors, suggesting the end of the “spirit of intellectualism” that gripped academia. He heard Bickle declare that God was raising up a prophetic generation that would perform “signs and wonders,” and numerous stories of angelic visitations.

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Boze Herrington is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. He is working on a book about his experiences in the evangelical Christian community.

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