I just finished reading a book about a cult that produced both horrible abuses and some of the most amazing religious music of the early 1970s.
Why I should be so intrigued by this sordid tale is difficult to explain, especially considering how I’ve distanced myself from some of the more excessive aspects of my fundamentalist Christian upbringing.
Part of it is the music. Formed by Ohio preacher Larry Hill as an outreach to a drugged-out, dropped-out, far-out generation, the All Saved Freak Band went on to become one of the seminal purveyors of the genre that is now called Contemporary Christian. Their live performances and recordings are the stuff of legend.
Then there’s the milieu of the era, which produced zeitgeists that still haunt my memories of youth. End-times prophecies, cultural upheaval, fear of a communist takeover (I still tell people about the time I came within chair-throwing distance of some loud and aggressive Marxists who crashed a conservative political rally I was attending in Detroit).
Hill is part of this milieu. He blended all these motifs into a single, malevolent concoction.
I won’t go into detail, but after he coaxed several of his church members into forming a commune on his Ashtabula County farm, the erstwhile minister of the gospel revealed his true persona as a paranoid sadist. He insisted that God had revealed to him apocalyptic visions, and that to survive the coming trials his followers needed to submit fully and unconditionally.
That, apparently, was how he managed to abuse and exploit until authorities finally intervened and the cult broke up in the late 70s.
To call this story perplexing, of course, doesn’t begin to do justice to the sufferers. Still, the obvious questions remain.
How could a supposed man of God, a shepherd of souls who urged the down-and-out to find freedom from their addictions and balm for their turmoil in the peace and renewal of Christ, turn out to be so cruel? And how, from the oppression and fear that Hill perpetuated, did such creativity arise?
The answers, I’m sure, are complicated and in part unknowable. Without a mind-reading machine, we’ll never be sure to what degree any cult leader admits to himself that he’s a charlatan. Just as we can’t know how much self-delusion, mental illness, or even spiritual darkness contributed to corrupting someone who, at least initially, genuinely desired to do good.
And as for the enigma of The All Saved Freak Band’s creative output, I suppose you could argue that in our sin-soaked, fallen creation, it’s a miracle anyone fashions anything of beauty.
Nevertheless, I feel the All Saved Freak Band counts as a special kind of creative miracle. True, in one respect they were merely a product of their times. But as author Jeff Stevenson points out, the band was also one of the first to record Christian music meant to appeal to a generation more attuned to the Beatles and Bob Dylan than Fanny Crosby.
Their best stuff remains strangely beautiful and compelling. From the guitar-boogie of “Peace, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll” to the melancholy sweetness of the Massman sisters’ folk duet, “In the Flowers of Time,” the groovy tunes do their best to evoke a timeless spiritual truth. That no matter where you are in your life, you need to “come on to Jesus.”
But their music is also tainted. Having read the full story of the band, I can’t listen to them without also dwelling on the hypocrisy of their leader. I can’t hear certain lyrics without feeling I’m peering into his sinister mind.
In “Elder White,” for example, when Hill’s sandpapery voice rasps out a line about the seas washing over an unrepentant America, it isn’t just a metaphor. And when the lead singer uses a jaunty riff in “Valley of Decision” to urge wives to “get to know your husband/seek to obey,” I am reminded of how Hill kept his own wife in line with his fists.
It is all so tragic. Here was a chance to use rare talent and original means to communicate salvation to a lost world. Instead, Hill inflicted pain and sowed confusion.
One Thing Needful
If any moral can be found here, it’s in the reminder that all who share the gospel must build their ministry on the foundation of Christian charity. This is more than altruism, kindness or self-denial. It’s an admission that everyone you seek to help is just like you—sad, desperate, self-serving, and yet loved by the Creator whose image we bear.
We must remember the Apostle Paul’s admonition in to the Corinthians. In the absence of love, even the saintliest acts ultimately count for nothing. In fact, they can be worse than nothing.
As my pastor pointed out recently, quoting the 20th century apologist Francis Schaeffer, biblical orthodoxy without compassion is the ugliest thing in the world.
To invoke the words of the Apostle John: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”