HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Holly” is a pseudonym.
< Part One
During the 1990s, ATIA/ATI had annual conferences in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee. Mega-families crowded the hotels and university facilities to hear Bill Gothard and other staff and lecturers tell us God’s will for the upcoming year. During the daytime, adolescents and unmarried young adult men and women were separated from their parents for apprenticeship sessions.
My family and I attended Knoxville in the years 1993-1995, although we were in ATIA/ATI longer. During one of those years, I remember a particular afternoon apprenticeship session. Although it isn’t unusual for young adults to be taught in schools separate from their parents, Gothard was a tremendous proponent of family togetherness, except during his apprenticeship programs.
I noticed during the week that, when I would tell my parents about the often unusual content of the apprenticeship sessions, they had a ready answer such as “I don’t think you understood what the speaker really meant,” or “that speaker came to the parents’ session and explained the topic differently,” or even, “I don’t believe anyone would say that.”
One particularly muggy afternoon, the young ladies and young men loaded up into different vehicles for transportation to separate facilities on the university campus for our sessions. I remember the room was very cold and had bluish drapes around the stage. The seats were angled upwards, and there was a mezzanine, so we must have been in a theatre. We were a sea of navy and white, modestly dressed young ladies, with long hair and bright eyes. I can’t remember who spoke first, but Gothard was the main speaker of the afternoon.
As difficult as it is for an outsider to understand, Gothard was a real celebrity in our world.
Teenage girls became giggly and nervous around him. Conference attendees were in awe of him. For him to be the speaker to a young ladies’ apprenticeship session was impressive. Although we initially whispered among ourselves at the wonder of it all, Gothard was able to silence us when he began speaking.
I don’t remember how he began, but I know the topic was moral purity. Gothard frequently spoke to women about purity, so this was not a surprise. In his mind, men lusted after physical things and women lusted after emotional things. For this reason, he often encouraged us not to read romance novels, or any books including romantic ideas.
Books such as Anne of Green Gables were even considered too romantic and defrauding in Gothard’s eyes.
He taught us to save our hearts for the one man we would marry, and to be sure to let God and our fathers pick that man for us.
On the afternoon in question, Gothard began to discuss divorce. To me, this was odd, because, as a prerequisite for being an apprentice, none of us had been married. He continued to convince us of how damaging divorce was in God’s eyes. I tuned out, as I often did. I was young, why did I care about this? Besides, I knew divorced people, and they were not damaged. My aunt was engaged to a man who was divorced. I was the only one of my siblings who even knew that, because my parents were so anti-divorce, but my future uncle didn’t seem damaged to me.
As Gothard brought his talk to a close, he asked us to do something. He wanted us to make a promise for our fathers, our future husbands, and ourselves.
He asked all the young ladies in the room to commit to never marry a divorced man.
All of a sudden, I was paying attention again. This wasn’t one of the regular commitments! Did that mean there was no end to the number of commitments we could be asked to make? Did we have to make this one? As I waited in my seat, assuming that I could just be quiet and avoid unwanted attention, Gothard asked all of us to close our eyes and stand quietly to indicate our agreement with the commitment. He said that the commitment would be personal and no one would know, because everyone would have her eyes closed. We needed to stand to indicate our commitment to God. At first I thought I would just sit unobtrusively, but I soon realized that I could feel and hear my friends standing around me. Could they tell I was not standing?
Of course I peeked. I saw male ushers walking up and down each row, looking at who was sitting and who was standing. I also saw other girls, standing girls, peeking at me. I quickly stood and redeemed my good name, but as I did I said, “God, I don’t mean it. Don’t hold it against me. I am not promising this. I am just doing it so I don’t get punished.”
Late that afternoon as I rode back on the bus with my five friends from home, I brought up the afternoon session. I tried to talk about how some people can be really great and still be divorced, but none of the girls understood. I had to drop it, or I would be out of the group, the one morally compromised adolescent who had never even kissed anyone. Something didn’t seem right, though.
I knew that marrying a divorced person couldn’t be wrong.
Everyone was seeing the world in navy and white, but I saw shades of blue.