Keeping the ‘peace and purity’ of a small town Idaho empire

An examination of Pastor Doug Wilson’s controversial career in Moscow

By Katie Botkin
Reader Contributor

Natalie Greenfield was 13 years old when Jamin Wight began boarding at her family home.

A 24-year-old seminary student, Wight attended Greyfriars Hall, a Moscow-based ministry training program co-founded by Pastor Doug Wilson of Christ Church. Unbeknownst to anyone but the victim in question, he began repeatedly molesting home-schooled Natalie. When the abuse came to light, Wight was arrested on charges of Lewd Conduct with a Child Under Sixteen Years of Age and Sex Abuse Against a Child. He pleaded guilty in 2006 to the reduced charge of Injury to a Child.

The case went largely unnoticed for more than a decade. Then, in September 2015, Natalie posted a letter to her blog written by Wilson to the investigating officer of the sexual abuse case. The letter softened what Wight had done, stating among other things that Wight was “not a predator.” In her blog post, Natalie was critical of the way Wilson handled the case.

The media response to the blog post brought renewed national attention onto Wilson. A leader of the Reformed Evangelical Church movement, Wilson has amassed followers and critics of equal passion.

Idaho, the epicenter of the 

Reformed world

Wilson, who lives in Moscow, Idaho, has spent much of his pastoral career sparking controversy and feeding off the backlash. In one Amazon product featuring him, Wilson gets the dubious honor of being labeled “the most hated preacher” in America.

Wilson is perhaps best known—or least liked—for co-writing “Southern Slavery As it Was,” a partially-plagiarized pamphlet claiming that slavery as it existed in the antebellum South was better than any mixed-race alternative to date: “There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.” But this is hardly a solitary incident—wherever Wilson goes, controversy is sure to follow, and from that controversy Wilson draws his staunchest name recognition. Wilson, a self-described advocate of patriarchy, has a large following in Moscow and has fans spread across the United States—fans who routinely insist that Wilson is misunderstood and, moreover, has really helped them both personally and through his teachings on Reformed evangelical Christianity.

Doug Wilson. Facebook photo.

Doug Wilson. Facebook photo.

“Reformed evangelicalism operates more self-consciously in the tradition of the Protestant reformation,” Wilson said. “Think of it as a form of evangelicalism, but with more of a historical sense.”

Wilson founded his own Reformed denomination, the CREC, complete with a seminary located in Moscow. He and his friends also started Logos, a K-12 classical Christian school in Moscow; started New Saint Andrews (NSA), a college in Moscow that now heavily features his own family members as faculty and dean; and started his own publishing house, Canon Press, which has similarly featured numerous books he and his family members have written. Although Wilson has gained a bevy of disgruntled ex-congregants and is considered a cult leader by many members of the Moscow community, he plays every new scandal off as persecution by liberals and “intoleristas,” a term he coined to describe his detractors.

Controversy is key to gaining wider influence because, as Wilson has noted on his blog, he gets more traffic and more attention when people are outraged. His top post of 2015 included the self-posed question “Do you think supporting same-sex marriage is a more serious problem than supporting slavery?” to which Wilson’s response was “Yes, far more serious.” Wilson writes with his patent-pending “serrated edge” style, wherein he insults those who disagree with him. Jesus, Wilson says, did this to the Pharisees, and it turned out to be a great rhetorical tactic.

“In some areas I understand the fact of controversy, and am grateful for it,” Wilson said. “You cannot challenge long-accepted ideas without some controversy. That is part of the cost of doing business. But in other areas, you have controversy because people want to accuse you of saying things you do not say, or of doing things you would not do. That is simply slander.”

Natalie Greenfield.

Natalie Greenfield.

Wilson seemingly relishes controversy with the wider world, but discourages it within his church. In fact, he appears to expect his congregants (and potentially other pastors within the CREC) to defer to his wisdom and seek his advice on matters of business and law, and some have said he threatened them and their businesses when they did not comply.

In the now-defunct “Justice Primer,” co-written with fellow CREC pastor Randy Booth and also pulled for plagiarism, Wilson states that pastors should get to decide if calling the cops is a good idea, regardless of what the law says on the matter: “Church leaders make judgment calls regarding which sins rise to the level of crimes.”

This has played out in a couple of sex scandals within Wilson’s own church, where Wilson wrote letters to the court asking for sentencing leniency. He maintained this was a fine idea even after Jamin Wight, who married after resolving his legal troubles from the Greenfield case, went on to commit felony strangulation of his wife. Another man, Steven Sitler, was investigated for additional pedophilia charges resulting from contact with his own son. Wilson performed Sitler’s wedding ceremony, though Wilson knew the man had molested a large number of children and Sitler, following a brief stint in prison for child molestation, had gone on record as saying he intended to have children himself. Wilson has stated recently that he would gladly perform the wedding again.

Wilson, for his part, has denied that he did anything wrong. “I can say that many critics have been grossly unfair in how they have characterized my involvement in those issues,” he said.

“I believe our behavior in the Sitler case was correct,” he added. “He was reported right away, and … at my instigation he busted himself for additional offenses.”

Who Sitler “busted” himself to is unclear, since the legal authorities found out about the additional offenses through a third-party tip and have no record of any such confessions from Sitler. These additional offenses did not affect Sitler legally, as he plead guilty to only one count of Lewd Conduct With A Minor Under Sixteen Years Of Age and spent 20 months in prison.

An internal church investigation is currently being held to determine if the CREC should take any action on this front. Randy Booth, Wilson’s friend and co-author, was heading the investigation until it became public that the “Justice Primer” had been plagiarized, whereupon Booth took the blame for the plagiarism and recused himself from the committee.

According to Wilson, this process is better characterized as a review than an investigation, and one his church invited at that. “When the review is complete we will receive recommendations from the review committee, which will be applied appropriately,” he said.

Threats and blame

Wilson’s August 2005 letter to the investigating officer stated that though Wight was at fault, the Greenfields and specifically Gary Greenfield were also at fault for not protecting Natalie. Wilson insisted after this letter became public that Wight and Natalie participated in a “foolish parent-approved relationship,” and that this justified him writing to the investigating officer. Natalie and her parents have maintained that no such relationship existed, though they say one was briefly discussed for a fictional future and subsequently dismissed.

Wilson has admitted that he can’t prove Natalie knew about any such “courtship,” but insists it took place, and insists that this is completely relevant to discussions about her abuse. He also insists that his threats to suspend Gary from communion in a separate letter written 10 years ago were warranted, because Gary was “abusive” and what Gary did was just as bad as what Wight did. Natalie and her entire family have vehemently denied this, and Natalie has indicated that these claims can potentially be traced back to a longstanding business-related grudge Wilson had against her father.

On December 15, 2004, mere months before the Greenfield family erupted with the knowledge of Wight’s abuse, Wilson interrogated then-congregant Gary about his loyalty to the church. In a recorded conversation, Wilson emphasizes the need to keep matters of dispute within the church. He was particularly insistent that those who are unhappy with the church are only telling one side of the story: “Have you been careful to not talk to people about any concerns, grievances, complaints, whatever they might be, until you know the whole story?” Wilson asks. Throughout the recent controversies, Wilson has maintained that his detractors are not telling the whole story, which he cannot reveal because he’s protecting unspecified people.

In the December 2004 recording, Wilson indicated that if Gary broke with the church, his business would suffer: “if there were some sort of rupture between you and the elders or you and the church … there are all sorts of scenarios that I can imagine that would, that would affect your business dramatically.” He suggested Gary sell his coffee shop, Bucers, to someone presumably more loyal to the church.

The meeting also heavily featured Wilson taking Gary to task for not entering into a written agreement with fellow congregant and would-be businessman Mark Beauchamp, whose business was backed by Wilson’s son Nate, better known as children’s author N.D. Wilson. Gary has said since then that he was leery of the written agreement Beauchamp proposed because it gave the church elders legal authority to settle business disagreements between him and Beauchamp.

Soon after this meeting, Wilson published a 178-word story about a man who “would not write anything down,” which was “a significant problem in his extensive business dealings.” The story concludes: “One day, while crossing the street at an intersection, he objected to a written message that, when summarized, read something like, ‘Don’t Walk,’ and he was struck and killed by a UPS truck.”

Gary has stated that this story was supposed to be about him, and explains what happened after he refused to sell: “Doug realized that I wasn’t going to mindlessly subject myself to his corrupt authority. Since he determined that I was an independent thinker, he felt the only way to deal with me was to buy me out and get rid of me. He wanted to destroy me and my family as retaliation for not submitting to his authority. He wanted revenge and he got it.”

Wilson denied any and all of this. Asked via email, “Did you ever ask Gary Greenfield, prior to his leaving your church, to remain quiet about his concerns and/or to encourage other church members to remain quiet about their concerns?” Wilson replied “No.” To the question “Did you ever indicate to Gary that if Gary left the church, it would affect his business at Bucers?” Wilson again replied “No.” He elaborates that these answers “interact with the text of your questions at face value. I can’t really interact with background assumptions or definitions.”

“Gary was the one threatening his own business, and I was trying to stop him from continuing on that self-destructive path,” Wilson told the Reader.

One of the phrases Wilson used when urging Gary not to discuss things with disgruntled congregants was “the peace and purity” of the church. This phrase, and this idea, has cropped up repeatedly in other situations where critique of Doug or the church was involved.

“[Resolving disputes within the church] should be done wherever possible,” Wilson said.

Peace and purity 

Back in November 2004, Louis Schuler, who at that time taught at NSA and was involved in Christ Church ministry, voted against promoting Nate Wilson to the position of NSA Fellow. Schuler was taken aside and reprimanded for this, and shortly thereafter was served with a new contract, which included the paragraph “I pledge to conduct myself in such a way that no one could ever question my loyalty to the peace and purity of Christ Church. This includes refusing to speak to any unauthorized person about grievances I might have, and includes refusing to hear any such criticisms as well.” Schuler refused to sign the contract, resigned from NSA and withdrew from Christ Church. Nate was subsequently instituted as Fellow of Literature at NSA in 2005, which helped in his search to get published by non-CREC-affiliated presses.

Doug Wilson and his allies have attempted to silence congregants who link to Natalie’s blog posts on Facebook with similar admonitions to keep the peace. CREC pastors, elders and their family members have contacted current and former CREC members from all over the United States to rebuke them for posting links to posts and stories critical of Wilson. Often, the elders or pastors in question are not friends with the person they’re contacting, and in some cases have never even met them. Over 21 households confirmed that this has happened to them—some single individuals, some larger families. In the case of families, the husband or another male relative is typically contacted, even if another person, most often a female, was the only one to post something to social media. Additional people who have seemed sympathetic to those speaking against Wilson say they received sudden interest from CREC elders in the form of Facebook friend requests—and again, they’d never met those making the requests.

Publicly, Wilson has vilified Natalie as a liar and worse. In November 2015, via his blog, Wilson linked to obscure nude performance art videos Natalie’s husband did in grad school at Portland State University, calling them “demented” and claiming this proved what kind of person Natalie was—in brief, as he put it, a “daughter of Portlandia” who was not to be trusted when it came to sexual ethics. Wilson did this two months after writing Natalie a letter telling her “it is not really possible to dig up just half the story. The rest of it is going to want to come up too.” He specifically mentioned having access “to the love letters/journals that you wrote that the court reviewed and then sealed” from the time she was abused, though he knows at least by now that to publish pages from it would be illegal given that it was sealed by the court.

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