Is childhood religious abuse a thing? You bet.

I remember Errol Taylor (name changed).  He was that boy who came back to school one Christmas term with spots all the way down one arm. ‘Chickenpox’, he told us, but there had been no known outbreak in Jamaica to spoil the summer.

Later, in the self-conscious years of my teens, while staring at my face in the mirror during an encounter with the disease, I observed with morbid fascination how chickenpox presents itself randomly, how the vesicles don’t avoid your eyelids and earlobes – or even have mercy on the tip of your nose.

In retrospect, Errol Taylor’s spots were quite the opposite. They sat in a straight line, equal spaces apart, each one shaped more or less like the tip of a burning cigarette. Turns out his old man was more calculated than the varicella-zoster virus and had developed a dual-purpose for a ten pack of Matterhorn.

The teachers knew. The Guidance Counsellor got involved after Errol was caught smoking the same brand in the boys’ restroom. Errol’s father showed up at school half-drunk for an intense discussion that disrupted nearby classes, but at the end of the tirade the man never took responsibility for branding his son. Then just before Common Entrance Exams, Errol Taylor disappeared.

I think I know where he went. Not a geographical location, but to that place where children go when they feel they don’t fit in or that no one really understands, inside themselves, with all the shutters down like a midday curfew on Princess Street. Perhaps Errol’s sense of alienation wasn’t helped by the fact that some kids called him E.T. – after the summer blockbuster movie of 1982.  

These days, sometimes a version of Errol Taylor stares back at me in the mirror. Alien. Distant.

I might not have had cigarette blisters trailing out from under my khaki shirt sleeve. The single mother who raised me was not the type, but somewhere between seven years old and adulthood, I felt a different kind of heat. Most of it came from the pulpit of the church of my childhood.

Yes, I grew up on fire-and-brimstone sermons, but these were not your ordinary ‘come-to-Jesus’ type preaching. Nah. These were blazing diatribes fuelled by prophecies from a 19th-century movement called the Millerites, an American Baptist sect obsessed with plotting a timeline for the end of days. In the 1980s ministers in my denomination were still launching these Molotov cocktails into their congregations, stoking fears of yet another impending apocalypse.

So yeah, I might not have burn marks on my skin, but I think my soul has holes in it. Is there such a thing as childhood religious abuse? You bet.

I know what you’re thinking. Maybe I’m being extreme. Surely, growing up with fiery religious dogma is not the same as abuse with a lit cigarette, is it? Surely, we cannot equate the physical abuse of minors every year to the rantings of a firebrand preacher, can we? Maybe not, but make no mistake, spiritual abuse and religious trauma are real, and they are not things you simply shake off as soon you get out from under your mother’s roof.  

Get over it. Move on. That’s easier said than done for spiritual Errol Taylors like me, still recovering from blisters inflicted during childhood. Easier said than done if people fail to recognise the more insidious forms of abuse in the world, some disguised as spiritual succour. Easier said than done when the toxic control of a religious organisation over one’s life, mirrors the very signs used to recognise psychological abuse.

  1. Enforced social isolation. If you think curfews are bad, imagine being free to move about in society but having a life-long No Movement Day in your mind. No Movement to the cinema or any other ‘counsel of the ungodly’.
  2. Preventing someone from meeting their cultural needs. At the church of my childhood, your Jamaican identity was secondary to your church membership. Reggae music was rubbish. Dancehall was reduced to the devil playing drum and bass.
  3. Preventing the expression of choice and opinion. Not much else needs to be said here.
  4. Failure to respect privacy. A cult polices itself. Watchers are everywhere. They reserve the right to investigate you, pointing out all things foreign to the organisation. Wear no jewellery except for your wedding ring. Marry a person from another denomination and you might as well leave the church. Do not drink green tea. Consuming any caffeinated beverage could have you vilified among the faithful.
  5. Infantilisation of the individual. You are incapable of making decisions for your own life. The church will provide guidelines for every step. Please wait for instructions.
  6. Atmosphere of co-dependency. You need the organisation to assuage your fear of what is happening in the world and the organisation needs to validate its existence. An organisation can only lead if people follow.
  7. Gaslighting. “Your loved one died because of your sinfulness. God doesn’t answer a sinner’s prayer.” This was an actual statement I heard from a member of the congregation.

The fundamentalist church of my childhood was like an abusive parent – a manipulative, anxious, delusional parent. Interestingly, research has shown that abusive parents were in many cases, victims themselves.

The church of my childhood started life as the victim of a self-inflicted blow, a failed prediction that Jesus would split the skies over New Hampshire, USA, on Tuesday, October 22, 1844. When that precise prediction failed, the dates were reset for April, July and October 1845. Jesus still didn’t show.

This failed prophecy has haunted the church for 177 years, and with it comes a serious denial, the refusal to admit that those playing prophet back in the day were just plain wrong. Instead, when members of the Millerite Movement left in droves, the faithful ‘few’ who were left, decided to change the meaning of what happened on that day.

Jesus wasn’t coming to bring the world to a fiery end in the fall of 1844. No. Instead the Good Lord was simply launching a pre-judgment – a kind of heavenly spring-cleaning to make it easier to decide who goes to hell when Judgement Day finally arrives. This is the dubious Adam’s rib that remains a fundamental belief of the church.

But let’s get back to my mirror. The church of my childhood left enough holes in my soul to send a trypophobe into shock. When the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, I remember one soft-spoken church elder tapping the microphone and predicting that the anti-Communist revolutions in Europe and the Tiananmen Square Massacre were clear evidence that before the end of 1990, we would see Jesus appear in the eastern sky.

1992: One church member’s wife saw an angel in a dream soaring above Queens Hill in St Andrew, ripping the 1992 calendar to pieces. For some, that was it, a clear sign. That year would be the new end of the world.

For a year I watched every suspicious cloud hanging over Portland and St Thomas, anxious as hell. Never mind what the Bible said about no man knowing the hour. Not one Bible-believing adult member in a church of hundreds shouted down this man’s prediction. So, to an impressionable teen, this mad utterance could very well have been true.

And there we were, a hundred and forty-five years after the Great Disappointment of 1844, still making predictions that would spoil the coming week’s binge-watching of Dynasty and Falcon Crest. We were addicted to prophesy like it was Christian crack. Once you huff and puff on predictions, you can’t go back to normal.

And there was nothing normal about the 1990s. Never mind that the world did not end in the first year of the new decade as predicted. The signs were everywhere.

1991: Prophecies popped up all over as the First Gulf War began with a bang. New military tactics were in the air and the revolution was televised live from Baghdad. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and promised America the ‘mother of all battles’ if they intervened. The collapse of the Soviet Union and an earth tremor in Jamaica sent local wannabe prophets into a frenzy. My denomination churned them out in record numbers. Every late-night stewpeas and rice induced dream became a prophetic warning.

1992: One church member’s wife saw an angel in a dream soaring above Queens Hill in St Andrew, ripping the 1992 calendar to pieces. For some, that was it, a clear sign. That year would be the new end of the world.

The fever of pre-1844 was rekindled on a smaller scale in the church of my childhood. Prophetic sectarianism infected local branches from Kingston to Montego Bay, gaining fever pitch in the summer. Church leaders scrambled to counter the schisms. In one particular sect, wedding rings were banned. Neckties were abandoned as the knot was declared an ‘upside-down triangle’, a sign of Satan. I wore a purple-and-white tie to school every day, so I was doomed.

That summer saw many a church service disrupted by sect members leaping to their feet in the middle of a sermon to call out the preacher’s transgressions, ramble off a dream or a ‘word they received from the Lord’ and end with a deafening scream: “Behold I come quickly!” before storming out, leaving the church abuzz.

Then while the world was watching, things got real.

April 1993: David Koresh, a cult leader from Waco Texas and his followers had a standoff with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) on the compound of his Branch Davidian group in Waco, Texas. The siege, which lasted nearly two months, was perhaps watched more keenly by members of my denomination than everyone else in the world. That’s because the Branch Davidians cult was an offshoot of the church of my childhood. That’s because the Branch Davidians believed in the same basic prophecies that trailed a straight line back to the Millerites of 1844.

What unfolded when the FBI got involved after a deadly gun battle between believers and the ‘hosts of hell’ was understood by members of my church to be a nightmarish perversion of a familiar prophecy: that the forces of the world would advance against the faithful in the battle of Armageddon, only to be destroyed by a returning Jesus. The Lord did not intervene.

When the Branch Davidian compound exploded into flames, I cried. Long, private tears. Tears like the ones I shed in the shower when I finally decided to leave the church of my childhood for the sake of my sanity. I was not supposed to be able to understand the mad religious fervour of those who were incinerated inside the compound at Waco – but I did, even from a distance. I had seen this insanity somewhere before, not fully grown, but a monster, nonetheless.

After 76 people died in the Waco siege, the church of my childhood launched into crisis management on an international level. For weeks, sermons tried to distance the denomination from the Branch Davidians. However, the two groups will forever share history. They are inexorably linked by Millerite interpretation of the Bible. Even light commentary on Wikipedia will not let the church of my childhood sufficiently distance itself from what happened in Waco.

It took me a while to get the smoke out of my eyes. But over time, I wanted nothing to do with the mayhem of multiple interpretations of the same Book from a church babbling in several voices and sprouting so many heads, it was beginning to look like a beast from the Book of Revelation.

I left the church of my childhood long after I became an adult. And where do the faithless go when preparation for the hereafter fails again and again? Back to building a life in the here and now. That was easier said than done because you weren’t supposed to still be here.

It’s like being three years old waiting for your parents to pick you up from school. Your father is late, you feel a hole in your stomach, and you don’t know which way is home.

By the late 90s I had given up. Walked away. Lost my religion. Apocalyptic anxiety and prophetic reflux had burnt ulcers into my understanding of spiritual things. While the Hale-Bopp comet was zooming past the planet, influencing the Heaven’s Gate cult mass suicide in ’97, I was dealing with my own beliefs that could not be reconciled with reality.

It takes courage to leave a dysfunctional relationship. Leaving is also a process. I went ‘cold turkey’ and found that even after cutting the umbilical cord, my eyes needed adjusting. My worldview had been so coloured by the stained-glass windows of the church, I would still see everything through the lens of an approaching apocalypse. The nightly news hour – including weather and sports – were all related to doomsday. Maybe even the Reggae Boyz qualifying for the 1998 World Cup was one of the signs and wonders of the end times.

When we were teens, my best friend Horatio, a real wise guy, told me that the most honest snake in the world was a rattler. He’s working that rattle to tell you from afar: “Stay away. I will punch holes in you.” A mind-controlling organisation has no rattle. You cannot feel the negative vibration. You cannot always sense the toxicity. I got bitten, the poison was persistent, but by the time the Y2K scare was triggering global doomsday anxiety in ’99, I felt nothing. I had heard it all before.

In 2001, I walked out into the world, needing fresh air. Horatio and I would hop on a Greyhound bus for a two-day journey from Miami to New York City and then on to Tolland, Connecticut. My Walkman blasted Bob Marley’s Legend until the batteries died. I was an adult when I finally went to the Bob Marley Museum on Hope Road to see the bullet holes in the walls from the attempt to murder Marley. Trying to understand his legacy after leaving a Reggae-rejecting church was culture shock and redemption at the same time.

Prophecy-fatigue calls for peace and quiet. I wanted that trip up the East Coast to New York to be a healing balm, calamine lotion for spiritual blisters. No such luck.

On Tuesday morning, on our way back into New York City, two jetliners ripped into the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan and ended the world as we knew it. Televisions across the world showed holes belching smoke and fire, two more gaping holes poked into our collective consciousness by extremist belief.

We never made it back to Manhattan. We got close enough to see the ashfall, hear the distant sirens and smell the acrid air. I spent the rest of September 11, 2001, in the boondocks of Connecticut watching fighter jets and Chinook helicopters thunder overhead. All commercial flights were diverted to Bradley Airport and grounded, clearing the air for more military patrols.

Days later, I would leave Connecticut and fly back to Florida by way of Bradley Airport. Early in the flight the captain advised us we were in good company. An F-15 hung in the air just off our right-wing. It sat there, matte metal under morning sun, then flipped to the side and zoomed off. Seconds later our pilot, in as normal a voice as he could muster, assured us that there were air bases in New York and Boston, so this sighting was “routine and quite expected”.

For the entire flight, I watched clouds, caught between Heaven and Earth. Flying at upwards of 30,000 feet gives you time to think. I realised I had come full circle. The state of New Hampshire is just next door to Connecticut. We had climbed into the sky over Hartford, so perhaps we were suspended for a while in the empty expanse into which the Millerites stared with fading hope on October 22, 1844. Now the horizon only brought machines. Now the eastern sky promised only war.

I thought of extreme belief, and what would make a person shower, pray, eat, dress themselves, board a plane with other passengers and then kamikaze into the side of a building. On the ground, 20 years later, I still have questions about the compulsions of belief.

How many people are waiting so patiently for Heaven that they hardly participate on earth? How much art remains incomplete? How many manuscripts languish as the writer experiences arrested development, caught in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome by belief? How many sports records remain unbroken because physical talent got benched in church? How many musicians have compositions stuck in second verse? How many singers are still trying to find their voice?

How many businesspeople today kick themselves because someone else launched the start-up they had dreamed of a decade ago but never started because ‘we’ should have been in Paradise by now or ‘God did not approve’ of the blueprint according to the church rules? I know of folks –  then newlyweds – who abandoned yearnings for a family because a preacher quoted the Bible saying: ‘Woe unto those who are with child in the last days.’ Those kids would have been thirty years old by now.

To be clear, the focus of this essay is not the fiery rhetoric triggering end-of-the-world scenarios or cults that end in mass killings. This is about those left behind, those who are hiding undetected wounds, those spiritual E. T’s with private scars, those crushed between two worlds, those angry at losing time on earth because of eternity. I know people like these. I am one of them. I have the marks to show for it.

According to psychologist Jill Mytton: “Second-generation adult survivors of high-demand groups face particular difficulties, not only during their childhood but also upon leaving the group, because they face assimilation into a culture that is not just alien to them but also one that they have been taught is wicked and to be hated.”

I went to therapy after my sister died and the subject of losing my religion came up. I asked why others did not view the church the way I do. The therapist had a knowing smile. “Maybe that’s their reality”, she said, “What’s yours?”

These days people invite me back to the church of my childhood. But I couldn’t go back without lying to myself; without opening the sores again. I did go back once, and after a very warm welcome by the many, a fanatical few came out of the woodwork like termites, ready to bore more holes. I didn’t know that the famous Prodigal Son story had an alternative ending, so I left again.

But maybe the fanatics are right after all. Maybe I’m too far gone to become a sheep again. Maybe I am that leopard among the flock. I cannot be herded. I cannot follow orders. I can never change my spots.

Image credit: Taj Francis

Roland Watson-Grant is a Jamaican novelist, screenwriter and travel writer. His first novel Sketcher (2013) has been translated into Turkish and Spanish. Roland is the recipient of a Musgrave Award for Literature in Jamaica and his non-fiction work has been archived by the Smithsonian Libraries. In 2021, Roland won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Caribbean Region.