Originally created 06/26/04

Church founded by weight-loss guru investigated in death of child



FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- The Remnant Fellowship, a church that grew out of a Christian weight-loss program, preaches obedience and tough discipline for unruly children.

Those beliefs have put the religious movement under scrutiny in a case involving two members accused of beating their 8-year-old son to death last year in suburban Atlanta's Cobb County.

Last month, investigators raided the headquarters of the church and weight-loss program in Franklin, just south of Nashville, seeking evidence of a connection to Josef Smith's death.

Authorities say the boy was chronically abused and died from a blow to the head. His parents, Joseph and Sonya Smith of Mableton, Ga., are charged with felony murder, child cruelty and deprivation of a minor.

Remnant Fellowship founder Gwen Shamblin, other church leaders and more than two dozen members didn't return phone calls or e-mails from The Associated Press.

But Shamblin has said previously that church leaders don't sanction abuse, just discipline. And Remnant leaders stand by the Smiths' contention that the boy's death was an accident. They are helping to pay for the couples' lawyers.

Church leaders say on the Remnant Web site that the media "have already tried and found this couple guilty. These same individuals are now attempting to associate the teachings of Remnant Fellowship with this unfortunate incident."

However, former Remnant members claim church leaders sanctioned severe beatings, and locking children in a bare room with a Bible until they learned obedience to God and their parents. Audiotapes made by those former members recorded Shamblin praising such "showdowns" with children, including the Smiths' son.

Shamblin initially denied the tapes were real but then acknowledged they were authentic, according to WTVF-TV in Nashville, which interviewed her.

Discipline and obedience are underlying themes of the church's teachings, and of the weight-loss program that Shamblin began in 1986.

The Weigh Down Workshops, held in churches throughout the world, attracted thousands. The diet doesn't ban any foods, but requires eating only when the stomach growls and only until the dieter is full.

"Once you are obedient to God's rules in the areas of eating (hunger and fullness), you not only lose the excess weight, but you will lose the desire to overeat. ... He cares very much about - and is displeased with - overindulgence," Shamblin says on the Weigh Down Web site.

As she traveled the country promoting her weight loss program - which has earned millions of dollars - Shamblin began to believe many churches were promoting gluttony and other sins.

"The evidence that multiple gods have stepped into our hearts (the temple of God) is the ever-increasing indulgences and sin in the church," Shamblin writes on the Remnant Web site.

"Divorce and rebellious children and obesity and the use of drugs and anti-authority and pride and arrogance against His exact wishes have increased over the years."

In 1999, she founded Remnant Fellowship, choosing the name from biblical passages about God calling together a remnant of true believers.

Remnant claims to have about 130 congregations scattered throughout the country, though many consist of a few families meeting at each other's homes. Franklin members now meet at a Weigh Down warehouse, but a large church is under construction south of town.

Many have moved from other states to join Remnant here and are happy with their choice, as evidenced by a recent Saturday night at a restaurant where some 50 adults and children gathered to support the new piano player, a Remnant member.

Church members also spoke of miracles they had experienced through the church: tremendous weight loss, reunited families and an intense love of God.

For some, that enthusiasm doesn't last. Rob and Brenda Herbst of Florida were among the first to join Remnant and became leaders of the fledgling movement.

"She offered me something I had wanted all my life - a perfect church," said Rob Herbst, who had been a lay minister in a Southern Baptist congregation.

However, he and his wife said they weren't allowed to associate with their daughter and grandchildren, who weren't Remnant believers. Members weren't allowed to read material unless Shamblin had written it or listen to Christian music unless it was by her son Michael, Herbst said.

"They were filling your mind with nothing but Gwen Shamblin and her twisted scripture. Leaders would tell you, 'You are listening to a prophet from God,"' Herbst said.

Former members Betsy and Steve Miozzi of Ohio say they heard church leaders tell a local member to beat her child with long, thin rods used in glue guns - an implement that doesn't leave a mark on the victim.

The member's boy had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, but church leaders said it could be solved with spankings and discipline instead of medication, Steve Miozzi said.

Miozzi said the leaders' guidance was to "smack the child 10 times across the back of the thigh. If that doesn't work, do it again and again, and if it still doesn't work, put him in a room with nothing but a Bible and leave him there 'til he obeys or turns 18."

On visits to the Franklin church, the Miozzis said they often saw glue sticks protruding from diaper bags. The sticks were used on children as young as 18 months who fidgeted during the long services, Miozzi said.

Several former Remnants are being counseled by Rafael Martinez of Spiritwatch Ministries in Cleveland, Tenn., who said Remnant Fellowship is clearly a cult. He said Shamblin tapped into the vulnerabilities of Weigh Down participants and took advantage of them.

"They are as abusive a religious group as any I've seen," Martinez said. "And I've never seen a group get so abusive, so damaging in so short a time."

On the Net:

Remnant Fellowship: http://www.remnantfellowship.org