Snake-Handlers, False Messiahs, and a Few Great Souls: 14 Who Died in 2014

No other end-of-year list can hope to offer such profound juxtapositions: a groundbreaking female Mennonite pastor alongside an “immortalist”; the transcendent wisdom of a civil rights leader alongside one of the most hate-filled religious figures in contemporary memory. But here it is, a connect-the-dots portrait of a powerfully complicated American religious landscape, circa 2014.

Vincent Gordon Harding

Historian and theologian Vincent Gordon Harding died at 82. Harding founded Atlanta’s Mennonite House with his wife Rosemarie in 1961, a headquarters for consciences objectors and civil rights activists. He helped Martin Luther King, Jr. make the argument against Vietnam, drafting King’s “Beyond Vietnam”speech in 1967, broadening the concern of the movement and alienating some moderate civil rights supporters. Author of numerous works on American-American religious history, including There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America and Martin Luther King: An Inconvenient Hero, Harding taught at Illiff School of Theology in Denver, Colo. for more than 20 years.

Nelson Bunker Hunt

A Texas billionaire remembered mostly for his business exploits, Nelson Bunker Hunt bankrolled the religious right. He underwrote many Campus Crusade’s projects, including the 1967 “Berkley Blitz,”the $6 million Jesus film in 1979, and a $30 million campaign to evangelize the world by 1980. He gave $1 million to help start the Moral Majority and financed the founding of Tim LaHaye’s Council for National Policy in 1981. Hunt also tried to buy all the world’s silver as a hedge against the financial collapse he believed the Bible predicted. He lost $1.7 billion and went bankrupt in 1989. He died at 88.

Johnny Lee Clary

A Ku Klux Klan leader who rejected racism and became a pentecostal evangelist, Johnny Lee Clary died at 55. Clary joined the Klan at age 14. He rose quickly, heading an Oklahoma organization at 21 and, at 29, took over the ailing White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He worked to revive the Klan, but his efforts failed and Clary considered suicide before turning to Jesus. Clary worked with Oklahoma civil rights leader Wade Watts, preaching against racism, then affiliated with Jimmy Swaggart. In 2009, he was ordained an evangelist in the predominantly African-American Church of God in Christ.

Charles Paul Brown

charlespaulbrownFounder of a group of “immortalists”who believe unlocking one’s unlimited potential can lead to physical immortality, Charles Paul Brown died at 79. According to the organization he helped found, while “the ideas of immortality burned brightly within him, the living of it often eluded him.”At its height in the mid-1990s, Brown’s foundation was bringing in more than $1 million annually, his mailing list had 30,000 names. Today the ore group in Scottsdale, Az. has about 130 people endeavoring to live up to Brown’s teaching to “shrug off”their “old deathist ways”and accept immortality into their DNA.

John-Roger Hinkins

The “way-shower”of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA), John-Roger Hinkins died at 80. Raised Mormon, Hinkins was a high school teacher in Southern California when he discovered “soul consciousness.”He founded MSIA—pronounced “messiah”—in 1971, teaching one could achieve a totally positive state of being with the help of the Mystical Traveler Consciousness he embodied. MSIA attracted celebrity followers including Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington and productivity consultant David Allen. Beset by scandals, including accusations of sexually manipulating followers, Hinkins stepped down from MSIA in 1988 but continued to write.

Emma Sommers Richards

emmarichardsThe first female to pastor a Mennonite church in the U.S., Emma Sommers Richards died at 87. Her ministry “marked a breakthrough in North American Mennonite’s understanding that the Holy Spirit calls both women and men to pastor ministry,”according to an essay collection celebrating Richards. She first took the pulpit of Lombard Mennonite Church, in the Chicago suburbs, on Easter morning,1970. Her husband, the pastor, had laryngitis. She was ordained by the Illinois Conference of the Mennonite Church USA three years later. By the end of the 1980s, the General Conference had ordained more than 60 women.



S. Truett Cathy

A Southern Baptist businessman who built a fast-food empire on a chicken sandwich and the Bible, S. Truett Cathy was known for his belief Christian principles were good for business. He opened his restaurant in Hapeville, Ga., in 1946. By 2013, Chick-fil-A had 1,800 locations across the U.S. and annual sales of $5 million. The company gave away $68 million over the years and was celebrated by the religious right. “The Bible tells a lot about how to run a business if we just read it and apply it,”Cathy said. He died at 94.

David Eugene Sorenson

An elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, David E. Sorenson was executive director of temple building at a time when the church built more temples than ever before. Under the direction of Gordon B. Hinkley, who authorized a smaller, less expensive temple design, Sorenson oversaw the dedication of 71 temples between 1998 and 2005. These included three at historic sites: the Palmyra New York Temple, the Winter Quarters Nebraska Temple, and the Nauvoo Illinois Temple, whose re-construction Sorenson called “one of the great spiritual experiences of this life.”Sorenson died at 81.

Robert K. Larson

A Catholic priest convicted of sexually abusing altar boys, Robert K. Larson died at 84. Ordained in 1958, he was a priest in the Wichita, Kan., diocese for 30 years. Allegations of abuse surfaced in 1981 and Larson was sent to a treatment center for four months, but then placed back in ministry. He was sent to therapy three more times before being removed from ministry in 1988. Larson was never defrocked. A Wichita Eagle investigation in 2000 found 17 men who had been abused by Larson. Five of his victims committed suicide. He was in prison from 2001 to 2006.

Douglas McArthur McCain

At 33 years old, Douglas McArthur McCain became the first American killed while fighting for the jihadist group ISIS. McCain was raised in mainstream American culture, a fan of Michael Jordan, “The Simpsons”and Pizza Hut. He reverted to Islam, as he described it, in 2004. “I must say In sha Allah,”he wrote, using an Arabic phrase meaning “God willing,”“I will never look back.”He began publicly identifying with militant groups in 2010 and travelled to Syria to join ISIS in June 2014. He was killed by Syrian rebels two months later, carrying $800 and an American passport.

Charles Robert Moore

Methodist minister Charles Robert Moore self-immolated in his hometown of Grand Saline, Texas, calling the city and the country to repent. In a note left on his car, Moore wrote that “American, and Grand Saline …have never really repented for the atrocities of slavery and its aftermath.”He had previously worked to desegregate Texas churches in the 1950s, helped organize the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and went on a hunger strike in 1995 to protest the Methodist church’s treatment of LGBT people. He nevertheless described himself as a paralyzed soul, unable to effect change. He was 79.

Fred Phelps, Sr.

Leader of a small but infamous church dedicated to declaring God’s judgement, Fred Phelps, Sr. died at 84. Phelps founded Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas in 1955. He achieved notoriety in the 1990s when his church began to protest at the funerals of AIDS victims. “The sodomites have taken over the country,”Phelps said. “We want to warn the nation, let them know that God is not going to let this country get by with that kind of degeneracy.”Westboro Baptist’s extremism was so offensive to so many, it may have actually helped the cause of gay rights.

Steve Hill

The evangelist behind the Brownsville Revival in Pensacola, Fla., Steve Hill died at 60. Hill’s testimony was that he had been saved from drug addiction at 21 and a merciful judge sent him to David Wilkerson’s Teen Challenge instead of prison. He became a missionary with the Assemblies of God in the 1980s and then a traveling evangelist in the 1990s. Hill preached at the Brownsville Assembly of God church on Father’s Day 1995, and the church experienced “an outpouring of the Holy Spirit”that believers said sounded like a mighty wind. An estimated 2.5 million attended the revival by 1998.

Jamie Coots

A third-generation signs-following pentecostal preacher who handled venomous snakes in worship, Jamie Coots was bitten and died refusing medical treatment. He was 42. Coots was pastor of a snake-handling church of 30, in Middlesboro, Ky., and the subject of a reality TV show called Snake Salvation. He was well aware of the risks of handling snakes: Coots’best friend died of snake poison in 1998 and Coots himself had been bitten nine times, one bite permanently disfiguring his right hand. “If I quite taking up serpents,”Coots explained, “I would die and go to hell.”