Marc and Monika Woerlens’ deeply religious lives revolved around a tiny, no-name fundamentalist Christian sect focused on children and family and dependent for growth on biology, rather than proselytizing.
Known informally as the fellowship of Smith’s Friends, the Norwegian-based church has been defined by religion sociologists as authoritarian and ethnocentric, and in Germany where it has significant membership, the news media have called it a cult.
The cult label is very likely an overstatement, suggested University of Toronto new-religion specialist David Reed. For example, its 25,000 to 30,000 adherents living in 55 countries are close-knit but do not live communally. However, the church certainly is the star by which its members steer their lives.
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On the night that Monika Woerlen and the couple’s seven children died in their Niagara Peninsula farmhouse, Marc Woerlen was in Eastern Ontario, arranging for the family’s move to a rural site south of Ottawa that had an established church — the Rideau Christian Fellowship — of the Woerlens’ fellow believers.
Ms. Woerlen’s father, Fred van Stralen, was the founder of the Toronto-area church, the Palgrave Christian Fellowship.
Sect members are expected to gather nine or 10 times a year for symbolic “feasts” at central “conference grounds” where they would strengthen their resistance to the iniquitous temptations of sin. “We gather,” Mr. van Stralen said, “to build up and edify the body of Christ [the sect's collective membership].”
A woman friend of the Woerlens and fellow believer said girls rarely wear pants, and women obey their husbands. “We don’t want to be equal to men,” she said.
Werner Janz, 69, a relative of Marc Woerlen, said followers of the faith allow God to decide how many children each woman has. Said Mr. Janz: “He plans our families.” Large families in the sect are common.
Several years ago, Mr. van Stralen took his whole family — then consisting of 11 children (there were eventually 15) — on pilgrimage to the main conference ground at Brunstad, Norway. Three weeks ago, Monika Woerlen and her children attended a feast at a conference ground in upstate New York — a campground behind stone gates and a guardhouse, with a recreation centre, nursing station, swimming pools and a large lodge built of wood and stone.
The group has no formal name — on its website, it is called, simply, The Christian Church — and no designated ministers, written liturgy, membership rolls or central administration. Its leadership, a small group of Norwegian men, is isolated from the community.
The informal name, Smith’s Friends, comes from the name of its founder, a non-commissioned officer in the Norwegian navy, Johan Oscar Smith.
Mr. Smith, according to his church biography, was “strongly gripped of Jesus” in 1898, and arrived at the revelation that Jesus faced all the ordinary temptations of humanity but never sinned.
In Mr. Smith’s, and subsequently his followers’, belief, Jesus and God were one before Jesus became incarnate — came to Earth — at which point he laid aside his divinity so that as a “true man” he could receive a truly human will and experience “sin in the flesh.” Thereafter, he was tempted by sin but chose not to submit to the temptations.
In 1912, Mr. Smith began publishing his thoughts in a monthly pamphlet, Skjulte Skatter (Hidden Treasures), which led to discussion groups held in people’s houses. The movement was limited to Norway and Denmark until the Second World War, when occupying German soldiers came into contact with it and began spreading its teachings throughout Europe. About two-thirds of the membership today is outside Norway.
The church’s website places children as the first priority for its adherents, saying, “Our goal in everything we do with our children is to awaken their interest in our heavenly calling and nurture in them a sense of responsibility and care for other people.”