Deep in the valley of northwest Oregon in a particularly rainy March, a young woman gave birth to twin girls in her parent’s home. Within hours, one of the twins developed a breathing problem and died. Her parents never sought medical care for her. Now, they are being investigated for her death – and this is one of many cases of infant deaths related to a church located in Oregon City called the Followers of Christ. They were founded in the 1840’s in Kansas, they currently boast an estimated less than 2,000 members, and they believe that the scripture of God should be interpreted literally. That means they do not seek any modern medical care when they are sick, and they instead make use of prayers and their church elders, who lay their hands on the ill. Basically, if God wants you to die, you’re going to die. Despite this, the church still has no issues with wearing glasses, going to the dentist, and enjoying the great gift of birth control.
Their habit of neglecting medical care and seeking “faith healing” has caused the death of many. Between 1955 and 1998, 78 minors within their congregation died – at least 21 of which that could have been saved by basic medical attention – and more continue to die. In 2008, a 15 month old died of pneumonia and a blood infection. In 2009, the sister and brother-in-law of the aforementioned mother of twins also had a child that died at less than a day old. In the past decade, three women have died in childbirth, where they are only treated by church midwives during their pregnancies and birthing. In 2011, one of the congregation’s infants developed a mass of blood vessels near her eye that grew unchecked by her parents – but after her parents were locked up and the child given court-ordered care, she saw improvement. It was around this time that Oregon lawmakers decided to do something about all these unnecessary infant deaths, and they changed the legislation so that they could no longer use religion as a defence in these homicide cases. They also hoped that with the changed laws, the church would start to give their women and children the medical care they needed – but this has proved fruitless.
In recent years, there have been defectors from the church that have come out and talked about how they felt as if they were trapped in a cult, unable to speak up about what was going on. They spoke about how since the death of their last preacher, Walter White, the church has lost its way, and increasingly used fear to keep its members from joining the outside world. Most members were born into this church, and then taught from a very young age not to mingle with outsiders; and how leaving the church means eternal damnation in hell. These church defectors also talked about how many of the adults in this congregation would seek out medical care in secret for themselves, going so far as to drive outside of the city so as to not be seen. Wait a minute – so the adults will take the risk of angering their church to seek their own medical care, but not for their children or their pregnant women? Sounds fucked up, doesn’t it?
If you take the word of the former members, most of them claim that it didn’t start to get bad until Walter White died. While White kept the same patriarchal and anti-scientific views the church has today, he left the congregation open to outsiders and tried to lead them to Christ. Now with no real ordained minister, they just gather and sing hymns and the leaders use scare tactics to keep the church members in line and afraid to leave or even think about leaving; and considering what keeps happening to their children, the choice is literally one of life and death.