The Hows and Whys of a Church-Turned-Cult and a Murder

Book review: Without a Prayer, by Susan Ashline (Amazon / Book Depository)

Each year, Chadwicks had a Halloween parade, and families would line Oneida Street–except for the spot in front of the redbrick building. People from the church would chase them off the lawn. Though Oneida Street was a typical stream for trick-or-treaters, no one knocked on door 3354. The men in trench coats would hide in the bushes. Other men would pace the roof, patrolling, guarding their domain. It was the scariest thing on the block.

Like a scene out of a Halloween thriller, kids would ride their bikes past the secretive church screaming, “Don’t go inside! You’ll never come back out!”
How prophetic that would be.

Opening with this atmospheric setup describing the block where the World of Life Christian Church on Oneida Street stood, journalist Susan Ashline writes an account of the organization’s origins as a Pentecostal church and evolution into a cult, beginning with the leadership of Reverend Jerry Irwin and after his death, under his daughter Tiffanie Irwin.

In 2015, 19-year-old Lucas Leonard was taken to the hospital in Utica, New York. He wasn’t breathing, and was covered in so much blood that doctors thought he’d been shot. After unsuccessfully attempting to resuscitate him, he was declared dead. They would eventually realize he hadn’t been shot; rather, his extensive injuries were the result of a severe beating.

Lucas’s violent death marked the beginning of the end for the small World of Life Christian Church in the nearby upstate New York town of Chadwicks. He had been beaten to death by his fellow parishioners, his own parents among them, egged on by the manipulative Pastor Tiffanie.

So often, in stories like this detailing unimaginable abuse and/or insular groups, we’re left with an unanswered why even after a book-length examination. Not so here. Ashline had the confidence of Kristel Leonard, Lucas’s older sister who had once been a church member herself but was able to successfully extricate herself, and even more unusually, we see so much of the cultish indoctrination processes and brainwashing that occurred since heaps of the material here is directly influenced or drawn from recordings and writings made by members.

The Irwin family recorded everything, even down to their “casual dinner conversations,” which is what makes this such a unique book. You almost forget what exactly you’re reading, or even that you’re reading instead of watching it happen in real time. It’s entirely immersive: with so much dialogue it gives the impression of watching events unfold. It’s unsettling, but so well done that it’s hard to put down. Ashline’s detailed writing is excellent and her commentary and structure are carefully chosen, she knows when to let the cult members’ words and actions speak without unnecessary exposition.

“You know, I could be like Jim Jones and make a whole lotta money and deceive a whole lotta people,” Jerry once said during a church service. “We could start our own commune. I could have twenty wives. Like I’d want twenty wives. But, um–(laughs)– maybe twenty slaves. How’s that?”

The text is punctuated with these kind horrifying remarks, casually spoken by the Irwin family members to their congregants especially during sermons. Their instability and insecurity are on display, but it’s clear they weaponized these into fear and paranoia among their followers.

With so much actual dialogue and descriptions culled directly from the group’s firsthand materials, it’s massive in scope, but Ashline is precise and meticulous in how she parses the information and organizes it structurally. The result is a stunning narrative work. It’s disturbing, to be sure, to see the myriad abuses both physical and mental as they escalate, but it makes this feel more than a gawking story of a brutal beating and death; it’s a warning about the dangers of groupthink and blind acceptance of self-professed leaders, blown out of control in a cultish environment. We don’t often get voices and insider perspectives, including from those who’d left, to this extent, and it’s deeply revealing.

Perhaps especially in the case of Bruce Leonard, Lucas’s father. We see his realization of what transpired as he lives with the anguish of what happened — what he took part in. Looking back from after the trials and sentencing of the perpetrators, also detailed here, he has genuine remorse, and it’s heartbreaking to witness him emerge from the spell he seemed under and recall the terrible events of that night. Not easy reading but brilliantly done and worthwhile.

Without a Prayer:
The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult

by Susan Ashline
published August 6, 2019 by Pegasus (W.W. Norton)

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository


22 thoughts on “The Hows and Whys of a Church-Turned-Cult and a Murder

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  1. “…it’s a warning about the dangers of groupthink and blind acceptance of self-professed leaders, blown out of control in a cultish environment.” Your words here are powerful and exceptionally relevant right now. The parallels seem stunning. Your review of this book couldn’t be more timely.

    Chilling. Thank you, Ren.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much. Jonetta. This one does have serious and far-reaching implications. We like to think events like this only happen on the fringes but it’s a slippery slope into dangerous territory. And absolutely with some scary parallels into broader areas 😦 This is really worth the lead, it gives you a lot to think about.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds fascinating and horrifying. I find religions-turned-cults so darkly compelling – probably because that level of fanaticism is so terrifying that it’s hard to believe that real people are actually susceptible to it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me too! Darkly compelling is a good way to describe it. I’m endlessly fascinated and always want to know more about the motivations and how it turns that corner. This one is great for showing that progression and all the factors that came together to allow it. It’s creepy but the author handled it so well.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Kevin Smith, known for low-brow humor in his films, actually made a serious film called Red State about a small church that was a cult. They were incredibly violent, and the movie can be difficult to watch as a result, but your review instantly reminded me of Smith’s movie. It wasn’t a mega church or a branch of Christianity. It was small and personal, making the violence all the more ugly.


      1. It’s not a documentary, but I think it reflects these small, secretive churches that pop up in the news and scare the bejeezus out of us, like the one in your book.


  4. I remember when this happened. If the right circumstances arose, it’s scary to contemplate how many people could probably led into violence. What’s really shocking is how his own parents helped beat him to death. Definitely have to put this on my to read list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I somehow missed the media coverage around this one! Yes, so shocking that his parents were involved. The groupthink in that cult atmosphere is just terrifying and there was a significant element of mental illness in his half-sister, and the combination of all that seems to have no limits in how awful it can get.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I had not heard of this case, I googled it and it’s shocking. What is wrong with people? In particular the parents and sister. Angers and upsets me so will give this one a miss.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There was so much wrong here! I can understand not wanting to read it, but I think it’s worth pointing out that the author does incredible work in exploring the context of it all, so it’s not sensational or lurid at all. It definitely could’ve gone that way, but she was very careful not to let it. But absolutely, it’s not for everyone!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, this sounds terrifying. Getting a story like this in such an immediate way with all the known dialogue seems like it would be particularly scary because it would be more clear what was happening and more obvious that it’s a true story.

    Liked by 1 person

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