Breaking Their Will: The Sick Biblical Literalism That Leads to Child Abuse and Even Death
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Suzanne Tucker
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In 2008, Hana Williams was adopted from an orphanage in Ethiopia and brought to the United States where she died at the hands of her Bible-believing American parents. Their notion of Christian discipline required breaking her will, a remarkably common belief among conservative Evangelicals. To that end, they frequently beat her, shut her in a closet, and denied her meals. Ultimately, she was left outside where she died of hypothermia exacerbated by malnutrition. They were convicted of manslaughter this month.
In carrying out their obsession with child obedience, Hana’s adoptive parents drew tips from Tennessee preacher Michael Pearl, whose spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child book, To Train Up a Child, has been found now in three homes of Christian parents who killed their adopted children. The title comes from a stanza in the book of Proverbs: Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.
M. Dolon Hickmon is the author of an upcoming novel called 13:24 that includes religiously motivated abuse. Hickmon was raised by parents who subscribed to this kind of discipline, and he knows first-hand about deep and long-lasting scars from Bible-based childrearing. Hickmon left his 6,000 member megachurch after a pastor seized on Father’s Day as a prime occasion to teach the congregation how to shape and sand wooden spanking paddles. For Hickmon, the sermon triggered memories of the beatings he had suffered as a child—administered by Christian parents and justified by biblical teachings.
While struggling to hold together his faith, Hickmon sent a letter soliciting advice from an online ministry run by the authors of a popular Evangelical parenting manual. He wrote as if he were a father experiencing marital conflict because his wife interfered when he hit their terrified, screaming six-year-old. In reality, Hickmon was describing his own childhood experience. (You can read his letter, which is full of intentional red flags, here.) The response: Your wife is at fault in coming to your son’s defense. Your son uses her. Either she stays out of the way, or you will have to stop being a real Dad.
Mercifully, secular courts don’t agree that inflicting physical wounds is an acceptable part of parenting. Hana’s parents have been convicted for her death at their hands and will be sentenced in October. Their seven biological children and adopted son—they had also adopted a boy from Ethiopia ironically named Immanuel, meaning “God is with us”— are now safe from their abuse. It is noteworthy, though, that American children are being made safer by secular institutions, not adherence to ancient texts and traditions.
Child protections have become established in most countries, and conversations about child-friendly religion are gaining ground. Even so, many children are subject to patriarchalgroups that take parenting priorities from the Iron Age. Evangelical Christians, fearing that their religion is losing ground, have ramped up recruiting activities targeting high school and college students but also young children. Their tool bag includes afternoon club programs and enticing camps. Some churches, like that of TV’s Duggar family, promote a high birth rate, adding young sheep to the fold the old fashioned way. Many churches encourage members—even those who already have numerous children—to adopt.
Kathryn Joyce’s book, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption exposes Evangelical ministries that have resorted to even lies and bribes to pursue their mission of getting children into good Christian homes. A more common criticism is that Evangelical adoption priorities fuel construction of aid-dependent orphanages rather than addressing the underlying systemic issues that cause maternal destitution and death, leaving children parentless.