The Way International

Up to fifty high-ranking members conspired to coerce followers into having sex with the leaders

1942 - present

Sunday Service (via The Way International)

The Way International is a Christian organization that has long been shrouded in controversy for its unconventional teachings and practices. Billing itself as a biblical research, teaching, and fellowship ministry, the organization diverges sharply from mainstream Christian beliefs in several key areas. Their heaviest criticisms, though, regard a widespread conspiracy to allow the leaders to abuse their followers.

The Way International was founded in 1942 by Victor Paul Wierwille, an ordained minister who had previously been affiliated with the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Wierwille felt that traditional Christian teachings did not accurately represent the message of the Bible. Armed with a zeal to return to what he believed to be the unadulterated teachings of the New Testament, Wierwille started The Way as an independent biblical research, teaching, and fellowship ministry. As a result, the organization rejected many of the core teachings of Christianity, such as the concept of the trinity.

They also adopted a hierarchical educational structure which many say is used to exercise excessive control over its members. "The Foundational Class on Power for Abundant Living," serves as an entry point into a system that encourages participants to climb a ladder of increasing commitment and involvement, a structure often compared to pyramid schemes. Members who commit to the Way have reported severe sleep deprivation, isolation from families, and other forms of control from church leaders, which have led them to drop out of school, quit taking medicine, or prepare for a prophesized nuclear holocaust.

Some of their worst abuses started to come to light after former members launched lawsuits against the organization. In addition to concerns about psychological manipulation and financial control, former members testified about a widespread coordination of up to fifty leaders to assist in and coverup the sexual abuse of female members at the hands of the presidents and high-ranking leaders. Court documents and media sources reported that girls as young as thirteen are shown pornography and trained in how to provide sexual gratification while being taught that a woman's purpose is to give sexual pleasure to men. Victims revealed how leaders used the guilt of disobeying God and fears of death to coerce them into submission. Meanwhile other trusted leaders told them how privileged they were to be able to satisfy such great men of God.

At it's peak, The Way was considered the second largest cult in America, with up to 40,000 members. While membership declined significantly in the 1990s, the organization still exists today, remaining curiously quiet about their abusive history.

Religion: Christianity

Denomination: Fundamentalism

Founder: Victor Paul Wierwille

Founded: 1942

Location: New Knoxville, Ohio

Size: 40,000 (at peak in 1981)

Other info

Undertow: My Escape from the Fundamentalism and Cult Control of The Way International is Charlene Edge’s riveting memoir about the power of words to seduce, betray, and, in her case, eventually save.

After a personal tragedy left her bereft, teenaged Charlene rejected faith and family when recruiters drew her into The Way International, a sect led by the charismatic Victor Paul Wierwille. The Way became one of the largest cults in America. Charlene gave it seventeen years of her life. Believing that God led her to Wierwille, she underwent his intensive two-year training program, The Way Corps, designed to produce loyal leaders.

When Wierwille warned of a possible government attack, she prepared to live off the grid. She ignored warning signs of Wierwille’s paranoia and abuse—he condemned dissenters as the Devil’s agents, he required followers to watch pornography, he manipulated Corps into keeping his secrets in a “lock box,” he denied the Holocaust, and he surrounded himself with bodyguards.

She married a Corps graduate and they served across the United States as Way leaders, funneling money into Wierwille’s bursting coffers and shunning anyone who criticized him. As obedient Way Corps, they raised their child to believe the doctrines of Wierwille, the cult’s designated “father in the Word.” Eventually Charlene was promoted to the inner circle of biblical researchers, where she discovered devastating secrets: Wierwille twisted texts of Scripture to serve his personal agenda, shamelessly plagiarized the work of others, and misrepresented the purpose of his organization. Worst of all, after Wierwille died in 1985, shocking reports surfaced of his secret sex ring. Amid chaos at The Way’s Ohio-based headquarters, Charlene knew she had to escape—for her own survival and her child’s. 

Reading like a novel, Undertow is not only a brilliant cautionary tale about misplaced faith but also an exposé of the hazards of fundamentalism and the destructive nature of cults. Through her personal story, Charlene Edge shows how a vulnerable person can be seduced into following an authoritarian leader and how difficult it can be to find a way out.

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