A Call for Stories for HA’s Upcoming Series on Gothardism and ATI

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By Nicholas Ducote, HA Community Coordinator


It is time for Homeschoolers Anonymous to talk about Bill Gothard.

It is time to speak up about Gothard, the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), and Gothard’s homeschooling cult, the Advanced Training Institute (ATI). 

IBLP was founded in 1961 and it grew consistently over the next two decades as hundreds of thousands were exposed to Gothardism.  At first, the seminar was called Basic Youth Conflicts and Gothard focused on the causes of, and solutions to, teenage rebellion.  He expanded with the Institute of Basic Life Principles (often called the Basic Seminar), which covered more general life advice and expanded on themes of forgiveness, the wrath of God, and other ways to apply fundamentalist interpretations of Scripture to your life. Gothard told stories about wooden “African masks” screaming when families to burned them (to release the demons). Bill Gothard built a vast multi-million dollar ministry with many facilities and programs across the United States, Asia, Australia, and Europe.

Some Terminology

IBLP is the parent organization, headquartered in Illinois on a vast campus.  IBLP has a plethora of different organizations within it. I will explain some of the terminology that you will see in this series.  IBLP refers to Bill Gothard’s seminar series — usually given in churches or in home for those who cannot access a conference.

Gothard founded a series of training centers, youth “retreats,” and international orphanages (in Russia, the Philippines, Romania, Ukraine – usually on property gifted to him by devoted followers, and thousands of young people in ATI spent months – sometimes years – volunteering or serving at these “ministries.”

ATI was Gothard’s homeschooling cult, founded in  1984, sold Wisdom Booklets as the primary curriculum.  Wisdom Booklets were a set of 54 booklets with sections on science, math, history, English, and course, ancient Greek.  ATI describes the Wisdom Booklets like this on their website:

In most educational systems today, the curriculum divides learning into academic subjects that are studied independently of one another. In some schools, the Bible is added as merely another subject to be studied. The ATI curriculum however, begins with Scripture and then combines valuable information with character training and life principles.

Each of the fifty-four Wisdom Booklets was based on a verse from Matthew chapters five through seven.  The Wisdom Booklets were divided into linguistics, history, science, law, and medicine sections, the subjects were not taught in any sort of order.  Rather, the subject or issue being covered was related back to the Bible verse. Jeri Lofland wrote a fantastic article about Gothard’s philosophy on education, available here.

Jim Logan, one of Gothard’s closest friends and ideological allies, told stories (at all sorts of IBLP events and programs) of exorcisms and demonic possessions, which bolstered Gothard’s message about spiritual warfare.  If you want to see the sort of thing he teaches, watch this sermon about the “Manifestations of Demons.”

One of the most troubling IBLP affiliations is Joel’s Army, which uses a disturbingly militaristic tone (there are two good investigative features here and here).

But not all of Gothard’s non-profits organizations are strictly focused on promoting Gothard’s brand of fundamentalism.  In fact, he has made a concerted effort to gain influence in secular circles domestically and internationally (especially in Romania, Russia, and the Ukraine).

The Character First! program, which I helped lead in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, taught character qualities to public school children gathered in an auditorium.  The sessions were never overtly religious.

Through the Character City program Gothard succeeded in bringing his message to a wider audience – municipal employees.   For more information you can check out this training manual for “How to Build a Character City.”

Jeri Lofland published another great article on the political reach and influence of Bill Gothard available here.  Mike Huckabee is one of the most prominent politicians adhering to Gothardism.

The Umbrella of Authority

Central to Gothardism is the “Umbrella of Authority,” which explains how God reveals his will and why people can be exposed to evil.

Gothard believed the nuclear family unit to be the central unit in proper Christian living and all divine inspiration flowed through the male head of household – typically the father.  All members of the household should subordinate themselves to the male head, or risk attack from Satan.  Because if you stray outside the Umbrella of Authority, God allows Satan to have his way with you.  If it was God’s will for you to, say go and be a missionary, your father would agree with you.  His disagreement would be a sign that it was not God’s will.  Gothard also preached that music with a “backbeat” was literally opening up young people’s minds to Satan and causing rebellion, which he justified with some creative racism.

Through the IBLP video seminar, the Advanced Seminar, the preaching of Bill Gothard and his disciples, hundreds of thousands were exposed to his teachings.  In the early-1980s, Parents who wished to apply Gothardism in a more radical manner to their lives could enroll in the Advanced Training Institute.  There was a yearly conference in Knoxville, which eventually spread to half a dozen satellite locations across the US, and all the youth were required to wear navy and white. Once a year the people of Knoxville would joke about the cult that descended on the University of Tennessee campus

My family joined ATI in the mid-1990s and we quickly became eager devotees to the teachings of Bill Gothard. My parents were first exposed to Gothard’s teachings at an IBLP seminar, which consisted of Bill Gothard covering all the things you needed to know to live happy and healthy.  Nuggets of wisdom like most mental health problems were caused by Satan building strongholds in your mind, that Rock and Roll music especially opened up young people to Satanic influence because the African-Americans brought their demon-worshipping beats from Africa, or that spiritual authority in a house flowed through the father, then to other members of the family.

To summarize Gothard’s view on music, when the Africans were brought to America as slaves, they brought with them their music. The African music was built around complex beats and rhythms, which Gothard claimed were used in their Satanic rituals.  The African-American slaves continued their tradition of “rhythmic demon worship,” but it slowly morphed into what we know as the blues. Gothard argued that early blues musicians literally “sold their soul to the devil” to expertly play the guitar. Gothard traced these Demon Beats through their development into Elvis’ rock and roll. He made it very clear that the Africans corrupted “white music” with their Demon Beats.

In my discussion with alumni of Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute and reading through stories of alumni, I have discovered a number of troubling patterns and trends in parent-child relationships. I believe that ATIs doctrines and ideology promote spiritual abuse and dysfunctional families.

HA’s Current Stories on Gothard and ATI

HA has featured some stories about ATI and the impact on families of involvement in Gothardism. Ralph discussed his experience with ALERT, the quasi-paramilitary force trained in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Big Sandy, TX.  One of our most shocking stories of physical and sexual abuse, Mary’s “Home is Where the Hurt Is,” occurred in a well-known ATI family.

Two of our anonymous posters, “Cain” and “Thomas” (friends during their time in ATI), wrote about some of their spiritual and emotional abuse as a members of ATI, which included book burnings.  Cain recalled an instance of when a specific rock and roll song stopped him from considering suicide, despite the depression and desperation imposed by ATI’s ideolgies. “Esperanza” wrote about how the forced veneer of being a “perfect ATI girl” led her to self-injury. “George,” raised in ATI, tells of his journey to homosexuality and freedom. “Susannah” wrote about her complex PTSD and how ATI’s toxic teachings on mental health impacted her life.

Jeri Lofland discussed the impacts on her life of ATI’s teachings on her life.   Adam O’Connor published two poems about ATI’s encouraged book burning and their miseducation through the Wisdom Booklets (“Bonfire Chorus,” and “homeskooled )q.e.d.)”    Lana Hope wrote about ATI’s arcane doctrines on sexuality and why she rejected them.

Submit Your Story!

You might think, “Wow! HA already has a lot of stories about ATI, why have more?”  Trust me — we have only scratched the surface. I have been blown away by the response to my initial discussion among our alumni community. People are excited to tell their ATI stories.  If you want to contribute, but don’t know what to write, simply read through these stories and let the memories come back to you.  Try to capture the memories, and your more mature perspective now, in writing. Not all of your memories may be negative, so feel free to submit positive stories.  We do not want to present a one-sided story, just the truth.

The deadline for submission is Sunday, December 8, 2013.

As always, you can contribute anonymously or publicly.

If you interested in participating in this, please email us at homeschoolersanonymous@gmail.com.