Cash on the Bible In the matter of the heiress v. the preacher
by Francis J. Connolly
The Boston Phoenix (Boston's Largest Weekly)
April 17-23, 1987
The meek, Christ told us, shall inherit the Earth. If and when they do, look for Carl Stevens to be hanging around probate court, angling for a piece of the estate.
Carl Stevens takes the Bible literally. From Eve and the apple to Jonah and the whale, Stevens, a tub-thumping 57-year-old preacher man who is arguably the most influential born-again-Christian pastor in New England, says he believes that every word of Holy Scripture is true as written. For 25 years he has delivered this Fundamentalist message to his flock and in those 25 years he has prospered mightily. Far be it from Carl Stevens, then, ever to suggest that the Bible might be wrong about the meek inheriting the Earth especially once he got to know Betsy Dovydenas.
Elizabeth Dayton Dovydenas, a 34-year-old housewife from Minnesota who now lives in Lenox, Massachusetts, is meek nearly to the point of painfulness. This avoidance of public discourse is probably a wise approach for her, because Betsy Dovydenas is emphatically not a threat to win the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. And yet she stands to inherit, if not the Earth, then at least a healthy share of its worldly goods and chattel; having had the good fortune to be born the daughter of department-store magnate Wallace Dayton, the lady is worth something in the neighborhood of 20 million bucks. Or at least, she was – before she met Carl Stevens.
Five years after their meeting, Betsy Dovydenas's worth has decreased to about $13 million, and Carl Stevens is in big trouble. The two facts are not unrelated. For the past three weeks Stevens has been spending his days in a Worcester courtroom, trying to convince a federal bankruptcy judge that Betsy Dovydenas shouldn't get back the $7 million she has given him over the past half-decade. Stevens says that if he has to give the money back, his church – The Bible Speaks, a Lenox-based Fundamentalist Christian sect Stevens says he founded after Jesus Christ personally baptized him in 'liquid waves of love – will be ruined, and with it any semblance of religious freedom in America. To Stevens this trial is a holy war, a pitched battle against the forces who have for 25 years mocked him and who would now destroy him.
To his opponents – not only the usual assortment of secular humanists, who are reveling in the current follies and misfortunes of Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, and friends, but also scores of former followers who claim The Bible Speaks is little more than a weird semicult centered on a single man – this trial is something else. It is an opportunity to reveal The Bible Speaks for what they believe it to be: an authoritarian organization dedicated not to the glory of God but to the exaltation, and perhaps the direct personal benefit, of Carl Stevens.
To Betsy Dovydenas, the issue is perhaps a bit simpler: the lady wants her money back. And pending the decision of US Bankruptcy Court Judge James Queenan, it seems a good bet that she will get her wish or at least that she will be the victor in the first round of a complicated legal battle that could work its way all the way up to the US Supreme Court. If Dovydenas wins, she will wind up adding a valuable footnote to the Sermon on the Mount: not only shall the meek inherit the Earth, but, if they find good enough lawyers, they might actually be able to keep it in the family.
It has been a profoundly curious trial. For starters, there is the complexity of the legal issues: Dovydenas originally filed her lawsuit – seeking return of the $7 million on the grounds that Stevens and an associate exercised “undue influence” in convincing her to donate so much to The Bible Speaks – in Berkshire Superior Court. But then Stevens, claiming the heiress's suit would force the church out of business, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and the scene switched to federal bankruptcy court in Worcester. The result is a sort of legal hybrid, with Judge Queenan set to decide not only the bankruptcy claim but the merits of Dovydenas's original lawsuit; the federal judge is conducting the trial under Massachusetts state law, and in the process he is hearing arguments not normally heard during the dry, bottom-line-oriented proceedings of your average bankruptcy hearing.
Dovydenas's team of attorneys – headed by Gordon Walker, chief of litigation for the prestigious Boston firm of McDermott, Will, and Emery – maintains that the heiress, after moving to Lenox with her husband, Jonas, in 1981, and becoming an avid member of The Bible Speaks, was singled out for special attention by Stevens because of her extraordinary wealth. Stevens, they claim, saw to it that his wife-to-be, Barbara, and a church clerk named Kathleen Hill cultivated friendships with Dovydenas and then exploited those friendships to wheedle vast sums of money from her. Among those donations was $1 million – in the form of a block of stock in the family's Dayton Hudson department-store chain, the nation's 10th largest retailer and owner of, among other prominent retail outlets, Lechmere Sales that Dovydenas says she gave in the hope that God would return the favor and cure Barbara Stevens's migraine headaches. Another $5.3 million in Dayton Hudson stock was given, Dovydenas says, so that God would bring about the release of a Bible Speaks minister who had reportedly been detained by the Romanian police.
Those donations, Walker argues, were the result of “constant adjuration and importuning” by Carl Stevens and Kathy Hill, as well as – in the case of the Almighty’s desired intervention with Bucharest's finest - outright fraud. In all of that legalese, Dovydenas's lawyers have avoided using the term “brainwashing,” but it remains the bottom line of their argument. And it is a believable one. Betsy Dovydenas – who before joining The Bible Speaks indulged an interest in Transcendental Meditation, reportedly demonstrating such facility at clearing her mind that her instructor marveled at her ability to focus on only one idea at a time – is said by her attorneys to be particularly susceptible to brainwashing. For someone willing to believe a million-dollar check will make God cure headaches, one courtroom wag suggested, a light rinse probably would have been sufficient.
Stevens, on the other hand, denies the allegations of fraud and brainwashing, and argues that the motives for Dovydenas's gifts to the church – the religious belief she held at the time – is protected by the First Amendment and therefore cannot be questioned by any court of law. His attorney, the flamboyant New York-based constitutional-law expert Norman Roy Grutman (whose list of past and present clients' includes John Lakian, Jerry Falwell; and currently bedeviled PTL Club leader Jim Bakker) insists Stevens is being unfairly persecuted. “This is clearly a case in which the First, Amendment itself is on trial,” he says. “Mrs. Dovydenas gave the money because, at the time she believed that God wanted her to. That may not seem to be a rational belief to many people, but the court has no business deciding which religious beliefs are right, and which are wrong. To say that it does is to threaten the constitutional protection of all religious beliefs.”
Grutman does not dispute that Dovydenas is peculiarly susceptible to psychological manipulation. But he claims that the manipulation came not from The Bible Speaks, but from the heiress's family. Grutman alleges that the ones guilty of “brainwashing” Betsy are her husband, Jonas, a freelance photographer with no significant income, a man who simply lived off his wife's fortune, and her multimillionaire father, who, after reading newspaper articles that blasted the church, arranged for his daughter to be “deprogrammed” by a team of psychologists specializing in cults.
That is believable, too. Certainly Jonas Dovydenas had every reason to lure his wife away from The Bible Speaks; he was completely dependent on Betsy's money, and suddenly Carl Stevens started taking it away. Jonas had gone along only grudgingly with the first million-dollar donation, which came in late 1984, and he was enraged by the $5.3 million gift, the following April. He was so angry that Betsy did not dare tell him about another half-million she gave Stevens a few months later. Nor, apparently, did Betsy tell him that she had written him and their two children out of her will; by late 1985, after conferring with a lawyer recommended by church officials, she decided to bequeath her entire fortune to The Bible Speaks.
But if Jonas did not know about the new will, he surely suspected that his ride on the Dayton family gravy train might be nearing an end. Betsy, evidently at Stevens's suggestion, was insisting that Jonas actually get a paying job – which may have been one of the things that prompted him to testify that Stevens had turned his marriage into “a plateau of misery.” And he found out that Betsy had shifted control of her portfolio to a “[born-again] Christian” investment specialist who, not coincidentally, also handled The Bible Speaks's finances. After conferring with his in-laws, Jonas went along with a plan to lure her to the family home back in Minnesota under the pretext of attending a birthday party for her father; the deprogramming experts took over, and after only four days, Betsy signed yet another will. The new will, not surprisingly, favored Jonas and the children, and cut out The Bible Speaks completely.
This is, of course, the stuff which prime-time soaps are made, and it has all been grist for Grutman's mill. With theatrical flair, he has cast a full roster of villains in this courtroom drama: Jonas Dovydenas, whom he grilled at excruciating length about his inability or unwillingness to earn a living; the Dayton family, which he portrayed as unwilling to let Betsy live her own life; and even Betsy's lawyers, especially co-counsel Eric Dannenmaier, whom he has variously branded a “faker,” a “sleight-of-hand artist,” and a “co-conspirator.”
Significantly, however, he has hardly laid a glove on Betsy Dovydenas. Though he subjected her to a rigorous cross-examination and snorted contemptuously when she broke down in tears on the witness stand, Grutman has otherwise spared her the withering scorn that he has leveled at virtually every other figure on her side. Indeed, the woman who should be the center of this trial – the woman with $7 million at stake, the woman whose mind was the battleground for an ugly war fought over vast sums of money – seems to matter very little to Grutman, or for that matter to her own, attorneys. The poor little rich girl is a sort of legal hologram; you can see her, seated near the back of the courtroom with her husband for each session of the trial, but she seems to carry no weight and occupy no space m the drama that unfolds before her.
Rather, the substance of this trial has been the weighty legal issue of whether the First Amendment actually, protects any, and all religious beliefs, even those that appear calculated to manipulate and deceive the believer. Dovydenas's lawyers maintain that the First Amendment does not protect what they allege Carl Stevens did – the psychological manipulation and outright fraud they say he used to bilk their client. Grutman says, quite simply, that any profession of religious belief is outside the court's power to control. Those are the two contesting claims that Queenan will have to decide – along with the technical issue of whether The Bible Speaks should receive Chapter 11 protection, with Betsy Dovydenas listed as the church's creditor. Given the nationwide tendency of plaintiffs to win deprogramming cases at the trial level – coupled with the fact that Queenan has ruled against the church on the issue admitting some evidence that Grutman believes is crucial to the case – legal observers expect Dovydenas has a better-than-even chance of winning this first round, although of course there is no sure way of predicting Queenan's ruling ahead of time, All that can be predicted with reasonable certainty is that the loser will appeal Queenan's decision.
Beyond the legal issues, however, this has been a trial filled with high drama and fabulous entertainment. And for the most part, that has been provided by the bit players and the ancillary debates over matters that have almost nothing to do with God, the law, or even the simple matter of bankruptcy.
From the outset, the opposing attorneys have traded accusations and innuendoes as though bound by some unwritten rule of legal physics. For every action this trial has produced an equal, opposite – and sometimes sensationally unfounded – reaction. It started somewhat mildly: when Dovydenas's attorneys tried to portray Stevens as a bad guy, saying he had advised her to spank her children, Grutman countered by painting Jonas as the bad guy – really foundered because Jonas had “defrauded Betsy in sex.” Then Grutman implied that Jonas's frequent trips to Afghanistan, ostensibly for photographic assignments, might somehow be linked to the Afghan Mujahideen, and Walker struck back with an insinuation that Bible Speaks-sponsored relief shipments in the Caribbean might somehow involve the church with contras. Grutman accused Walker and Dannenmaier of deliberately misrepresenting evidence, and they in turn protested that Grutman was wrongly coaxing a key witness while she testified.
Walker alleged that Stevens had tried to defraud the government by hiring out foreigners without green cards to work as domestics in the homes disguising their salaries as donations to the church; Grutman alleged the suit was motivated more by complicated tax problems than by a sense that The Bible Speaks had done Dovydenas wrong. And on and on – the bickering, none of which had much to do with the law, or certainly not with bankruptcy law produced a charged, carnival atmosphere. But then the carnival became a full-fledged three-ring circus. And for that, there was no one to blame but Ben Turkia, secret agent for God.
It was Turkia, a Bible Speaks pastor based in Lenox, who was the hapless victim of the Romanian flatfoots. In April 1985 – shortly before Dovydenas made her mammoth $5.3 million gift to The Bible Speaks – Turkia was apprehended while trying to cross into Romania with an unidentified member of another religious organization. According to Grutman, the two men of God were on a secret mission – unrelated to any Bible Speaks assignment – to smuggle money into the country that would in turn be given to the families of imprisoned Romanian Christians. According to Grutman, Turkia was released within 24 hours, but no one informed the home office in Lenox of his release until several days after the fact. In the meantime, the church congregation busily prayed for his release, and Dovydenas got the idea that she might grease the skids with the Almighty by forking over $5 million.
To Walker, that scenario didn't water. Without disputing the secret nature of Turkia's mission, Walker argued that Stevens knew of Turkia’s release almost immediately – but led Dovydenas into thinking he was still imprisoned and then suggested the $5.3 million donation as a way of getting him released. Because Turkia's freedom and imminent return to Lenox was guaranteed, Walker said, Stevens had “manufactured a miracle” to impress his biggest financial backer. The debate between Grutman and Walker, improbable to begin with, then degenerated into a heated discussion of Finnish passports, phone calls to Vienna, and the burning question “What did Lenox know, and when did Lenox know it?” A wonderful mystery, and one that may never be satisfactorily solved – all in all, a delightful day in bankruptcy court.
But what does Betsy Dovydenas think of all this? It’s hard to say, because aside from her testimony she has had virtually nothing to say in public. Her lawyers have instructed her not to speak to the press, and she has evidently taken this instruction, like so many others over the years, quite literally. She will smile, nod, occasionally even wave at the members of the fourth estate, but she will hardly ever open her mouth. Focusing ability, no doubt.
Carl Stevens doesn't have much to say to the press, either. But no one had to instruct the man to keep his mouth shut; for Stevens, clamming up in the face of the press is a matter of habit, maybe even instinct. Over the years, after all, the media have not been kind to him, and unlike Christ – Pastor Stevens is not one to turn the other cheek. As founder and president of The Bible Speaks, which now claims about 17,000 followers worldwide, Stevens has long been the lightning rod for critics who have branded his church a sort of minor-league cult. Even national television networks have assailed his church's doctrines, which at least in the past stressed an exaggerated reverence of Stevens as God's personal spokesman on Earth and ill-concealed hostility toward members of other religious denominations.
The press has also questioned his credentials: though the former bakery-truck driver from Maine likes to be addressed as “Pastor,” he also affects the title of “Doctor” Stevens, but his doctorate comes from a Tennessee diploma mill and was purchased, according to a church aide, for $160. And the media have reported extensively on his finances, with critics claiming that the church's “investments” in real estate, including a $320,000 condo in South Palm Beach, are held for his exclusive benefit. And now that his church is in mortal danger, Stevens – for the most part – has avoided the press even more assiduously than before, behaving as though the fourth estate were indeed possessed by the demons that he has professed to have seen in the souls of other enemies of The Bible Speaks.
And so, 10 days ago in the courthouse lobby, Stevens was going through his usual routine of brushing off yet another re porter when a slim, black-haired woman sauntered up. “Mr. Stevens,” she said, and the preacher's head swiveled toward her as though mounted on periscope. “My brother used to belong to your church.” Carl Stevens's eyes lit up, the warm smile started to percolate, “Why, miss,” he began, but the woman cut him off.
“He committed suicide. I wanted you to know that.” she said, and stalked off. Carl Stevens looking like he'd just been introduced to the business end of a Louisville Slugger, shuffled away to find a neutral corner of the courthouse lobby. The reporter followed, and Carl Stevens began to speak.
Clearly rattled, in search of a sympathetic ear, Stevens said over and over that he couldn't understand why the woman had singled him out; he had heard of no suicides among his followers, certainly of none at the church's 80-acre “campus” in Lenox. Perhaps, he mused, the tragedy had occurred at one of the sect’s “indigenous ministries” – the 80 or so congregations affiliated with The Bible Speaks, concentrated mainly in the Northeast and in Florida. And with that thought, Carl Stevens's composure returned.
“You don't hold Sears and Roebuck in Worcester responsible for something that happened at the Sears and Roebuck in Pittsfield. do you?” he asked the reporter. “No, of course you don't,” he reassured himself. And once reassured, the Stevens smile suddenly snapped onto high beam; the penetrating stare fixed his listener, and suddenly the uneasy and defensive man who had occupied the witness chair a day before had transformed himself into Pastor Stevens, God's anointed spokesman.
Talking about his faith and his ministry, holding the floor without having to play second fiddle to a bunch of fancy lawyers, Stevens exudes an almost palpable force. It's not that he's an imposing physical presence; except for those remarkable eyes, Stevens is an average-looking man, with a more than passing resemblance to that most average looking of politicians, US House Speaker Jim Wright. And it's not that he's a spellbinding speaker: anyone who would equate a young man’s suicide with a shipping foul-up at Sears, Roebuck can hardly be called a master of evocative allusion. And yet the man projects an aura of such earnestness, such confident hope in the notion that you and he are just bound to see things, eye to eye, that he simply must be listened to. This, then, is the gift of Carl Stevens – a gift shared by all noteworthy preachers. It's one also shared by many noteworthy insurance salesmen, who after all are in pretty much the same line of work.
Stevens did in fact sell life insurance, many years ago. He also owned a gas station and drove a bakery truck; the son of a meat-cutter from northern Maine, Stevens did not discover his religious calling until he was an adult. According to Bible Speaks literature, Stevens accepted Jesus Christ as his “personal savior” – the defining belief of all who call themselves “born-again Christians” – in 1953, but it was not until almost a decade later that he took to the ministry. Starting at a small church in Wiscasset, Maine, Stevens began preaching a brand of hellfire-and-damnation Protestantism that would seem more at home in the Deep South than Down East; drawing on the basic tenets of Baptism, he preached a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible and a firm belief that sinners can hope for resurrection only if they have been “born again.” The Fundamentalist style, though novel for New England, caught on, and by the late '60s Stevens claimed that his tiny church had grown to become the largest Fundamentalist congregation in Maine, with more than 800 followers. Around that time Stevens also began to expand his horizons, starting a radio ministry that relied on the skills he'd picked up from correspondence courses in broadcasting that he’d taken, before donning the cloth.
But the pastor's flock was not a totally happy one. By 1972, many male church members had begun grumbling that Stevens was monopolizing their wives’ time with Bible-study classes and other church activities. There was never any report alleging sexual impropriety on Stevens’s part – just the sense, echoed 15 years later by Jonas Dovydenas – that Stevens had come to replace them as the focal point of their wives' existence. In fact, it might be said that what the husbands of Wiscasset were seeing was Carl Stevens's all-too-effective salesmanship. Following the old pitchman's axiom “If you can sell the wife, the husband will wind up buying too,” Stevens had sold the wives but good. But his selling price, which was nothing less than a demand for complete subservience from all his followers, proved to be too high for many Wiscasset husbands to pay.
In August 1972 a fire destroyed the new Wiscasset church that Stevens had had built only five years before to house his ever growing flock. Stevens blamed the fire on arsonists who he said had confessed to him but not to the police; whoever the culprits were, the pastor's troubles were just beginning. A rift developed in the congregation and by December Stevens was out of a job – depending on which account you believe, he either jumped or was pushed by the church's board of elders. Either way, in January 1973 Stevens packed up and moved to South Berwick, Maine, where he founded his own church – The Bible Speaks.
Again, Stevens's audience grew rapidly. Starting with a congregation of what he calls “about 40 hippy-types,” Stevens was preaching to hundreds within three years. He retained the basic Fundamentalist approach, but he continued, as he had done in Wiscasset, to downplay the fire-and-brimstone motif in favor of some unique personal touches. Stevens repeatedly told the faithful the story of his personal baptism by Christ. As recounted in The Bible Speaks Book of Miracles, a tome the church has since pulled from its bookshelves, “God called him one day to the back of the woods near a lake. Then the Lord Jesus baptized him with what Pastor describes as liquid waves of love. Along with this experience, God promised him many things. First and foremost, God promised him an anointing on every message he would preach from then on.
The “liquid waves of love” may seem an image calculated to what Stevens considered a hippie audience, but it was the claim of anointing that formed the core of his message. To Stevens, this astounding selection by God Himself provided him with “delegated authority” – that is, from then on Stevens professed to speak with all the authority and wisdom of the Almighty, serving as the deity’s designated spokesman on Earth. As such he deserved total obedience; those who disobeyed were to be scorned, as “outsiders” or the unsaved people, who had been “satanically deceived” or even possessed by demons, people that the saved believers of Stevens's flock could lie to with impunity, even as they watched to see what form God's wrath would take upon the unbelievers. Just as important, Stevens's followers were not to believe any “evil reports” about the pastor, which invariably came from the devil, and they were never to question the pastor's authority, which came from God.
Theologically speaking, such doctrines – which Stevens now downplays or publicly denies, contradicting the accounts of countless former followers – are far from the mainstream of Protestant Fundamentalism. In a 1983 report the California-based Christian Research Bureau asserted that such doctrines reflect “an attitude much more reminiscent of cultism than evangelical Christianity.” Most major Fundamentalist Protestant associations have shunned The Bible Speaks and its followers, and in 1981 the Billy Graham Telephone Counseling Center rejected applications from Bible Speaks ministers in part because of Stevens's insistence on his having been in personal contact with Christ and his assertion that only Bible Speaks followers can be saved.
These days, however, Stevens goes to great lengths to dissociate himself from the controversy of the past. Under questioning from Grutman, Stevens testified that The Bible Speaks shares many characteristics with “mainstream” Christian denominations, including the belief in “delegated authority” (that last assertion is technically true, though the leaders of mainstream denominations do not normally claim such authority for themselves, reserving it instead for the realm of extraordinary visionaries and prophets). And in one of his rare conversations with a reporter, he pulled even further away from the controversies of his past.
“Twelve years ago, I was preaching a message. It was an extreme message, and I know that,” he said. “I came to realize that in 1980. But back then I had a bunch of people, 40 of them who were hippies or what you may call them, and I was just trying to get them to recognize some authority. You would tell them something and they would nod yes, and the next thing you know they would be out in the woods, having sex or something. I had to say something that would get them to listen.”
To hear Stevens tell it, the ultra-authoritarian stance he adopted in the '70s was simply the only way he could get down to the important business of saving souls. If such posturing now sounds extreme – as do reports, which Stevens has denied in the past, that he claimed opponents of The Bible Speaks had been smitten by God with cancer, or that his delegated authority allowed him to arrange marriages between members of his flock – he nonetheless insists that all extremism is a thing of the past.
Maybe it is. And yet, even as he strives mightily to project his new mellower age, Stevens can still raise up echoes from the past. He retains uncompromising enmity toward those who criticize his church, especially those who once belonged and have since gone astray. Back in 1983, after publication of the Christian Research report so critical of The Bible Speaks, the church issued a rebuttal that accused church critics of being “drug addicts” and “pushers.” And only a week and a half ago, in the midst of his discourse on how tolerant he is, Stevens found time to denounce some former followers who have become critics. “You have people, they may be homosexuals or lesbians, and years later they come back and say these things,” he explained, in a voice that was both soft and stern.
And yet in one sense, it really should not matter whether Carl Stevens is tolerant or a martinet, or whether The Bible Speaks is a mainstream faith or as far out as any religious splinter group can get. “The point is that this is a religious institution,” Grutman argues. “And once you establish, quite clearly, that it is not just some phony storefront operation, then it is entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment, and these questions about religious belief have no place in a court of law.”
If you accept Grutman's argument, them certainly The Bible Speaks deserves all the protection that the Constitution of the United States can provide. For if there is one thing that The Bible Speaks most definitely is not, it's a storefront operation.
In 1976 Stevens moved the church into Massachusetts, to the Berkshire County town of Lenox, and there it has thrived. Occupying the site of the former Lenox School for Boys (for which property the church took out a million-dollar mortgage; it paid it off in nine years), the church's campus is the hub of a small but busy empire of faith. About 1300 followers now attend the church's twice-weekly services, 1000 paying students attend classes at the Stevens School of the Bible (although neither the state nor federal government recognizes the school's accreditation, a fact that forces the school to award only certificates of study rather than academic degrees, church officials say enrollment has risen steadily since the early '80s). The pastor's electronic ministry includes a daily radio call-in show, Telephone Time, that's broadcast around the country, as well as a television program available on many cable outlets. The church also operates a “bus ministry” serving more than 2000 schoolchildren, and a ship that carries relief supplies and missionaries to the Caribbean. Although precise recent dollar figures have been held in confidence by the court, the church's budget for 1983 was $2.2 million; Stevens estimates the current net worth of The Bible Speaks at between $3 million and $4 million, a figure that Dovydenas's attorneys contend is far too low. Regardless of the exact worth of Stevens's church, however, it is almost surely quite small compared with the resources of mega-televangelists such as Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, and Jerry Falwell; next to those big-leaguers, Stevens is really still playing Double-A ball. Still, The Bible Speaks is nonetheless believed to be the largest Fundamentalist organization based in New England.
For all that, however, Stevens insists that he is not a wealthy man. He testified that he makes only $12,800 a year as president of The Bible Speaks (the church also provides him with a furnished “parsonage”), drives a 10-year-old car, and has no personal savings. “If I were to leave as pastor tomorrow,” he told a reporter, “I wouldn't have any thing.”
Except, of course, that Stevens isn’t about to leave as pastor tomorrow, or apparently any time soon. He is The Bible Speaks, and among his other powers is his right to select the church's board of trustees, who nominally administer all the church's holdings. Other church leaders may come and go, and may even become critics – Stevens's eldest son and onetime heir apparent, Bruce, who broke with his father and now runs a diner back in Maine, and former Bible School president H. Eugene Hollick, both say they left The Bible Speaks after disputing the doctrine of delegated authority – but the pastor always remains. Given that fact, the legal distinction between the pastor's property and the church's holdings may well be a fine line indeed.
Dovydenas's lawyers have tried to argue that that line is all but invisible. Although Stevens’s $320,000 Palm Beach condo is a church investment, rather than his private resort home, it has never been rented out to generate income for the church. And Walker regaled the court with a detailed listing of the posh, customized redecorating job the church paid for after buying the apartment – including such details as a floor-to-ceiling bedroom mirror and a vibrating bed. Walker also ticked off other church expenses – all allegedly, paid for out of Betsy Dovydenas’s gifts – that he claimed reflect Stevens's personal desire to control and manipulate his congregation. Those purchases included a voice-stress analyzer (similar to a lie detector), concealable microphones (including an FBI-style “body wire”), infrared sensors, and several handguns (which one source close to the case privately characterized as “pistols for pastors”). Stevens testified that all such paraphernalia was necessary in light of repeated anonymous threats against himself and his family; nevertheless, the manifest of cloak-and-dagger gadgetry suggests an ominous overtone to Stevens's definition of “God's work.”
Nor is Betsy Dovydenas the only former Bible Speaks follower to complain about how the church uses, and solicits, its donations. A December 1985 investigative series by Berkshire Eagle reporter Dan Keating – the news report that triggered Wallace Dayton's decision to have his daughter deprogrammed – listed a dozen cases of former Stevens followers who alleged they had been misled into donating large sums of money to The Bible Speaks. Most of the allegations followed a set pattern: Stevens followers would sell their homes and donate all or much of the proceeds to the church, in the expectation that they would in turn receive rent-free housing on the Lenox campus. Those expectations were reportedly not met; though some donors did live rent-free on the campus for a couple of years, by the late '70s the church was charging its faithful as much as $120 a month for a single on-campus room. For that privilege, believers had donated anywhere from $15,000 to upwards of $40,000 to The Bible Speaks (in another fundraising controversy, a California couple claimed it had donated $38,000 to a Bible Speaks-affiliated. ministry in California for the purchase of real estate, which was allegedly never purchased). Church officials told Keating they had had to start charging rent in the late “70s because they had gravely underestimated the expenses of maintaining the campus; Bible School president John Leonard was quoted as saying the church no longer accepted such donations. Keating also reported that in the spring of 1985 some disgruntled donors had received partial refunds as high as $20,000; although no one outside the spring of 1985 is about the time that Betsy Dovydenas was starting to shower The Bible Speaks with megabucks.
Indeed, the spring of 1985 was a time of great good fortune for Carl Stevens. The pastor, a widower, had married Barbara Baum, a woman about 20 years his junior, the previous November, and with the luck of a newlywed he had soon been blessed with the promise of great riches provided by Betsy Dovydenas. With Betsy’s $5.3 million gift in April, Stevens could embark on an ambitious building program for the campus. In fact, things looked bright on just about every front: after almost a decade of stormy relations with Lenox town officials (the church had to fight a lengthy legal battle in the late '70s to prevent the town's zoning board from restricting its exemption from local property taxes), the locals’ fears appeared to have eased. In fact, the growing on-campus population promised to turn the church into a powerful force in local politics. The number of registered voters living on the campus nearly quintupled in the year before the 1984 election, and more than 95 percent of the church’s registered voters wound up casting a ballot. For Carl Stevens the spring of 1985 may well have been the very best of times.
Now, only two years later, the good times are over. There will be no more money from Dovydenas – no donations, no will – and if she wins her lawsuit, Stevens says, The Bible Speaks will be destroyed. Even if The Bible Speaks wins the case (and win or lose this time around, a lengthy series of appeals is a virtual certainty), Stevens says, the church will “probably have to sell a couple of buildings” to pay the ensuing legal fees. Dovydenas's lawyers, on the other hand argue that the church's financial straits are nowhere near so dire as Stevens portrays them. But even if the lawyers are correct, there is little doubt that Stevens's dreams of glory for his church are far from being realized; when this case is finally over, he will be lucky if he's still even playing in the minor leagues of the national religious right.
Maybe it shouldn't matter what happens to Carl Stevens; maybe the issue here is really as simple as a woman deserving to get back all the money she says she was tricked into giving away. Maybe Stevens really did manufacture miracles, and maybe he did dupe a poor little rich girl into buying a million-dollar migraine cure. Maybe, when the meek inherit the Earth, Carl Stevens should have no right to try to grab a piece for himself.
If all those “maybes” are true, then there is no logical defense for Carl Stevens. There is just the often illogical but always crucial American principle embodied in the First Amendment. That principle says that when The Bible Speaks – no matter how outlandish, twisted, or even deceptive the message may be – people have a right to listen.