The Sleeping Preacher

On our way to Millersburg, Indiana for warrantee work to be completed on the travel trailer we visited our dear friends, Marcia and Ellis in Kalona, Iowa.  Everything seems innocent enough, right?  We set up camp at the Kalona city campground, and Googled for a restaurant.  Deb picked “Marilyn’s Country Cafe.”  We drove the route.  Paved roads turned to gravel, and the late afternoon cold gray day turned to a colder gray ominous adventure.  Heading up hill out of a draw, and rounding a sharp five mph bend, I asked Deb if she remembered the movie, “Eating Raoul?”

What Wikipedia has to say about the movie, Eating Raoul – A relatively boring Los Angeles couple discovers a bizarre, if not murderous, way to get funding for opening a restaurant.   $350,000 budget; Box office. $1.1 million.   Eating Raoul is a 1982 American dark comedy film written, directed by and starring Paul Bartel alongside Mary Woronov, Robert Beltran, and Ed Begley Jr.

Eating Raoul 1:37 minute trailer

So anyway I’m thinking of a dark comedy, and we find a nice looking yellow farmhouse on Nutmeg Avenue.  Seemingly the correct address, but definitely not a dinning establishment.  “Dang Google!”  Heading up the gravel hill, Nutmeg Avenue reverts back to asphalt, and we pass a large water tower labeled, Shiloh.  For several blocks, the left side view of the curb and gutter paved road, has a good number of large pole buildings, surrounded by nicely groomed lawns, with no evidence of single family homes, cars, toys, kids, or people of any kind.  The right side view is of what looks like ten-foot tall old concrete walls, something that reminds me of a giant maze, for giant rats.  The weeds had taken over, and again I’m thinking of “Eating Raoul”.  I suspect Shiloh is a neighboring township to Kalona.  Back in Kalona, six blocks from our camper we ate at, “The Tequila Grill.”

Friday we visited with Marcia and Ellis, and had lunch with their daughter, Kimberly, and son-in-law, Mark.  They own and operate a crop dusting business.  Did you know crop dusters need to be certified on identifying different kinds of bugs. One would think they all look the same at eighty miles per hour.  The entire day was so interesting. I learned about crop dusting, geo-thermal heating, Stringtown, and to top it off we were invited to a steak dinner with some of Ellis and Marcia’s friends.  BTW – This particular Friday happened to be my sixty-seventh birthday.

We toured the Amish community and learned about the Old Order Amish, and the New Order Amish.  Steel tired tractors are OK with the Old Order, rubber tired tractors are OK with the New Order.  New Order Amish kids can ride rubber tire bicycles, and so forth. When it comes to electricity neither the Old or New Order  Amish will have anything to do with it.  Hence I was really intrigued with the pneumatic air-powered fans for air movement, skylights for lighting, and gas-lights in the Amish store, Stringtown.


Birthday Dinner

Imagine rural, dusty gravel 55 MPH roads, endless fields of corn and soy beans, a white country two story farm house, outdoor cats, a table set for eight, and a Thanksgiving spread taking up every square inch of table space.

Lauralee, our hostess prepared a delicious dinner.   For desert she announces the chocolate pudding desert is made with corn meal, so it is gluten free.  I have no idea how corn meal, chocolate, and dairy come together, but the pudding was the best I’ve ever had.  I’m here to say, “Nebraska corn fed steak makes for a wonderful turkey substitute.  Happy Birthday Dano.”

After dinner we settle into the living room.  An hour into our visit the topic of Marilyn’s Country Café, and Shiloh comes around. Nyle, our host, straightens in his chair and admits the community was very concerned and wary of this whole Shiloh business.

His story took us forty years back in time when California lawyers, land contracts, big limousines, big plans, big buildings, enough food stockpiled to feed 500 people for six months, sexual misconduct, cultish behavior and who knows what all is going on in, “That Compound.”  I’m sitting in my comfy overstuffed chair thinking, I should have taken some photos.

This is where the sleeping pastor, circa 1850 enters Nyle’s story.  I’ll call him Jacob.  In the Mennonite faith a pastor has to be ordained in order to preach in The Church.  Jacob had not been ordained, so he was not allowed to minister in the church building.  Jacob preached very strong messages, which drew people into worship.  In the mid 1800’s, in tiny rural Iowa towns, this is a very big deal.  Evidently after Jacob ate a great meal he would fall into a trance, and start preaching.  People came from miles around to attend, to whiteness his deeply rooted faith, at his home, not in the church.  This was quite a predicament, so much so that the deacons called upon a well respected Mennonite leader from out east to come, and help work through this upheaval.  I’ll call him Lloyd.

Months pass, Jacob is sleeping, trancing, and preaching, the deacons are on top of it, and the day arrives when Lloyd arrives in your basic horse drawn Amish type buggy. It so happens Lloyd was not particularly excited about settling this church controversy assignment by any means.  A new dilemma surfaces upon his arrival.  Lloyd’s buggy has been modified with a folding convertible type canvas roof, and not the hard sided approved roof.  Story has it that the modified buggy prevented him from addressing the deacons in a required formal setting.  His weeks of travel, and wisdom my not be useful after all.  Somehow the church works everything out, and Nyle closes out the story.  I had to ask, “What happened to the sleeping preacher?”

Nyle laughs, “He was given a rifle by a relative, and sent out to shoot a chicken for dinner.  The rifle misfires, and the firing pin explodes backwards into his eye.  This kills the sleeping preacher.

Our Dear Friends Ellis And Marcia

Below is a link to a Shiloh news article, and the story.

Click here for Shiloh news article

Click here for Sleeping Pastor Wikipedia

Charismatic preacher founds church, builds compound near Kalona Forty years ago, people were worried about cults, especially after more than 900 people committed suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, at the behest of the California cult leader, the Rev. Jim Jones.

It fueled speculation about the 300-acre retreat south of Kalona known as Shiloh, which was home at one time to more than 300 people. Shiloh was created in 1974 by the Church of the Living Word, a fundamentalist church also known as The Walk started by John Robert Stevens.  It’s still there and operates a conference center and school for prophets.


W.J. Stevens brought his family to Washington, Iowa, in 1933 where he formed a congregation and eventually built a church called the Christian Tabernacle. Stevens’ son, John Robert, was born in 1919 and, as a young teen, preached in his father’s church, continuing as an evangelist after he left to attend college.  John Robert was ordained at a Foursquare Gospel church in Oklahoma in 1947, but he moved to the Assemblies of God church in 1949 after a dispute. He left that denomination, too, over doctrinal differences.

In 1954, John Robert founded his own church, Grace Chapel in South Gate. Calif., in Los Angeles County. He also hosted a local radio program at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday. He’d found his niche.  In the 1960s, he began having prophetic visions and revelations and founded the Church of the Living Word, later the Living Word Fellowship, which continues today.

In 1966, John Robert came back to Washington, Iowa, for meetings with his father, returning to Iowa a number of times over the next several years.  On Thanksgiving Day 1970, the Washington church headed by his father incorporated and changed its name to the Church of the Living Word.

In 1971, Harvey Bender, an Amish farmer who had heard John Robert on the radio, deeded land to The Living Word. In 1974, the church broke ground for a church retreat, called Shiloh, south of Kalona.


In 1978, John Robert’s wife of 40 years, Martha, filed for divorce.  In her petition, she stated that John Robert operated a $40 million religious empire, that his net worth was between $1 million and $2 million, and that church funds provided her with trips to Monte Carlo, Europe and the Bahamas. John Robert hired famous lawyer Marvin Mitchelson to represent him.  The divorce case revealed that although John Robert had a mail-order degree from the Chicago Bible School, he was not a graduate of any college or university.

An art collector, he owned five houses in California, a house in Hawaii and a 20-acre farm near Washington, Iowa, according to the divorce petition. All of his bills were paid through the church.


By 1979, Shiloh was attracting so much unfavorable attention that the community opened its doors to reporters in March.  John Robert conducted a tour of the $5.5 million property, showing its truck farm, advanced communications system and three-story dormitory with 100 rooms. All of his remarks were recorded by a Shiloh member, just in case the media got something wrong.


In 1980, John Robert married Marilyn Holbrook, but cracks were appearing between father and son.  A series of lawsuits followed in which John Robert attempted to take control of the Living Word church, which was controlled by three people: John Robert; his father, W.J.; and Fred Bickart, W.J.’s son-in-law.

By January 1982, Bickart — testifying at a Shiloh member’s criminal trial — said he was no longer part of the church or The Walk.  He claimed the sect’s followers prayed for the deaths of people they thought were witches and kept files on members as a way to control them.   Sociologists and psychologists said that kind of behavior led them to believe the organization was a cult.

W.J. Stevens, though, believed his son was influenced by his followers’ adulation. They called him “Papa John,” the Prophet, the Man of God and the Door Opener Apostle, and declared he was divine. They believed he was the door to salvation.

In a May 1983 special report in The Gazette, Bickart said for a long time, John Robert’s leadership had been accepted, but “things began to change and we began to fear that (the church) was being turned into a cult.” “All of the former members contacted tended to distinguish between the Washington church and the Shiloh center, something that local residents also do,” The Gazette reported.

The Washington church, with W.J. Stevens still as its pastor, changed its identity to the Berean Fellowship. A member described W.J. as “all right. He’s just an old-time preacher.”


In 1983, John Robert said he would not pursue the lawsuit against his father and brother-in-law, saying he had cancer.  He was reportedly undergoing laetrile treatments in Mexico and died June 4, 1983, at age 62.

John Robert’s widow, Marilyn, married Gary Hargrave and took over the Shiloh property, leading The Living Word Fellowship in developing a master plan for the property.  The campus today covers 200 acres, with an adjacent farm, and includes a lodge, dining hall, amphitheater, trails, a dormitory and offices, with a local church and a school of prophets, according to its website.

Comments: (319) 398-8338;

3 thoughts on “The Sleeping Preacher

  1. Happen to get married there. And happy to report that we wised up and left eventually, but it took us 40 years to realize how dangerous it was. I appreciate how carefully you worded everything here, but have to say that it still makes it seem harmless. We are still very involved in several post TLW cult groups supporting members that were sexually abused and mentally/emotionally abused. My husband and I both came from loving families and knew better, but still got pulled in because they were masters at manipulating and controlling with scriptures. Now I know better.


    1. Marci,
      Thank you for checking out this little blog site, and thank you for your true comments about dangerous scripture spin. You convicted my light touch, seemingly harmless, post towards The Living Fellowship (TLW), I accept it without condemnation. Bless you and your husband for the work you do with post cult souls. Some day you each will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servants.” A pastor friend has a saying, “What gets your attention, gets you.”
      With Joy,

      1 John 4:1 ESV
      Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.