Faith Assembly head Hobart Freeman is accused of contributing to the death of a teenage girl.

For years, people both within and outside charismatic Christian circles have looked askance at Hobart Freeman. Leader of the Faith Assembly sect based in Wilmot, Indiana, Freeman teaches that to seek medical care demonstrates a lack of faith in God’s ability or desire to heal the body supernaturally. It is estimated that some 80 people, many of them children, have died in recent years as a result of following Freeman’s teachings.

Recently Indiana legal authorities have begun taking notice. Last month, a Kosciusko County grand jury indicted Freeman, 64, on charges of aiding and inducing reckless homicide. The charges stem from the death in September of 15-year-old Pamela Menne. She died of chronic kidney failure, a condition a local coroner testified was medically treatable.

Pamela’s parents, James and Ione Menne, face charges of reckless homicide, criminal recklessness, and neglect of a dependent. They are the third Faith Assembly couple in the last four months to face such charges. The first two couples were convicted. Freeman and the Mennes will be tried sometime next spring. If they are found guilty, they will face jail terms up to as long as 20 years.

Kosciusko County prosecuting attorney Michael Miner said he doubts he will be able to prove that Freeman intervened directly in the Menne case. Freeman is in trouble, Miner said, because of the “general procedures” he oversees as the leader of Faith Assembly.

The wave of legal action against the group brings to the fore the issue of religious freedom. In 1974 the now extinct U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) ordered states to exempt faith-healing sects from child-neglect prosecution or risk losing certain federal funds. Lawmakers in Indiana and in some 40 other states enacted the exemption. In 1983 the federal government repealed the requirement, but in many states, including Indiana, the exemption remains on the books.

Prosecutor Miner conceded that the exemption “does present a problem.” He said the law states that parents who substitute prayer for medical care are exempt if their prayers constitute “a legitimate practice of religious belief.” A jury could decide “that allowing a child to die is not a legitimate practice of religious belief,” Miner said.

When they are charged with a crime, Faith Assembly members refuse legal help, stating that they trust solely in the Lord. Neither do they attempt to make their case through the press. Freeman and his followers typically ignore reporters.

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However, others, including fundamentalist pastor Greg Dixon, president of Coalition for Religious Freedom, have spoken out in Faith Assembly’s behalf. Dixon told the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal Gazette that it would be wrong to prosecute Freeman for preaching faith healing. He said the state should investigate the matter, but he implied that Freeman and the Mennes would not get a fair trial because they chose not to use an attorney.

Two months ago Indiana Circuit Court Judge Edward Meyers, Jr., sentenced Faith Assembly members Gary and Margaret Hall to five years in prison. They had been found guilty of criminal negligence after their 26-day-old son died of pneumonia. Meyers stated that “the law requires us to support, educate and shelter our children.”

Freeman, the focus of the current controversy, embraced Christianity in 1952. He then attended Georgetown (Baptist) College in Georgetown, Kentucky, where he completed a four-year program in Bible and history in just three years with an A average. He went on to study at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and earned a doctorate in Old Testament and Hebrew at Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. Grace hired him in 1961 to teach Old Testament.

While at Grace, Freeman criticized virtually all churches. He dismissed celebrations of Christmas and Easter as pagan customs. Growing doctrinal differences and incompatibile relations with colleagues led to his dismissal in 1963.

At the seminary, Freeman had organized informal religious meetings at his home. His following grew, and he went on to establish himself as a popular charismatic theologian. But as Freeman’s views became more radical, charismatic leaders kept their distance. Today, Faith Assembly satellite groups exist in Indiana, in some 20 other states, and in eight foreign countries.

A private person, Freeman makes few public appearances beyond speaking at his church. But in 1983 he did talk with one of his former students, John Davis, who was working on a series of articles for the Warsaw (Ind.) Times Union.

Freeman told Davis, now a professor at Grace Theological Seminary, that in 1966 he received the “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” understood by charismatic teachers to be a special empowering of the Holy Spirit that sometimes occurs subsequent to salvation. Since then, Freeman said, “I have not spent a dime on medicine or medical care.”

“The basic doctrinal positions of Faith Assembly differ little from those of thousands of conservative charismatic churches across the country,” Davis said. “But unique to Faith Assembly is the insistence that all medicine is evil and satanic, and that doctors are ‘medical deities.’ Those who go to a doctor open the door to demon possession.”

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According to Freeman’s “faith-formula theology,” God is obligated to heal every sickness if a believer’s faith is genuine. Faith must be accompanied by “positive confession,” meaning that believers must “claim” the healing by acknowledging that it has taken place. Said Davis: “Unlike Freeman, most charismatic leaders allow for the possibility that God uses suffering to accomplish his purposes, that he may not choose to heal in all cases.”

Freeman wrote in his book, Positive Thinking and Confession (Faith Publications), “We must practice thought control. We must deliberately empty our minds of everything negative concerning the person, problem or situation confronting us.”

After healing is claimed, symptoms of illness or injury that remain are viewed as deception from the Devil. When death occurs despite a positive confession, it is interpreted as discipline from God or a lack of faith.

It is not just children who have died as a result of Freeman’s faith-formula teachings. The birth-related death rate of Faith Assembly women is “extraordinary,” according to Craig Spence, a medical consultant to the Indiana Board of Health. He said a health department study conducted between 1975 and 1982 revealed that the maternal mortality rate was 100 times greater in the Faith Assembly community than in the rest of Indiana. The infant mortality rate was three times greater.

Some of Faith Assembly’s practices have led to suspicions that the group is cultlike in orientation. Members are discouraged from reading newspapers, watching television, and meeting with members of other churches. Ardent followers of Freeman refuse immunization shots, remove seat belts from their cars, and do not have insurance policies.

In at least one recorded message, Freeman implied that God had entrusted him and him alone with the “full faith message for the end time.” Members are led to believe that those who leave the group risk facing tragedy. Davis reported that after his conversations with Freeman, “he called my attention to the fact that virtually all the reporters who recently spoke critically of his ministry have since suffered illness, injury or death.” Davis said Freeman was unable to cite actual cases where this had happened.

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In contrast to his more controversial teachings, Freeman advocates obedience to civil laws. Indiana state representative Robert Alderman is trying to build on that foundation to end the Faith Assembly controversy.

“We’re not going to cure this problem by sending Christians to prison,” Alderman said. Sentences against those convicted of child neglect are so severe, he said, that law officials are hesitant to prosecute.

Alderman said he favors lighter sentences for convicted Faith Assembly members. This would increase incidents of prosecution, he said, and if enough Faith Assembly members would be arrested, the group might be forced to re-evaluate its stand on medical treatment.

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