HBO Max’s new docuseries, The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin, delves into the bizarre and disturbing story of the Remnant Fellowship Church, a religious cult with a toxic emphasis on dieting. Founder Gwen Shamblin’s first success was The Weigh Down Workshop, a Christian diet program that preached extreme intuitive eating alongside fundamentalist values. If that sounds bad, it pales in comparison to the horrific abuses that church members were subjected to. And in case the whole saga weren’t dramatic enough, Shamblin died in a plane crash earlier this year, alongside her husband and several of her acolytes.
The first three episodes of The Way Down are available now, while the last two will debut in early 2022. Below, a few key things to know about Shamblin before you start bingeing.
What was Gwen Shamblin’s weight loss program?
Shamblin, who said that she struggled with her weight during college, started a diet consulting practice in the 1980s, which soon snowballed into the Weigh Down Workshop. The workshop essentially encouraged people to pray away the pounds, preaching that if you turn to God, he will “keep you virtuous and protect you from overeating.” That’s according to a New York Times piece from 2004, which also notes that Shamblin believes that “gluttony is a moral failing.” (Which should give you some indication of how psychologically healthy this whole program was.)
Shamblin was raised in the conservative Church of Christ, which does not allow female leaders. So in the late 1990s, she broke away and formed her own.
How did Shamblin start her own church?
After years of success with the Weigh Down program, Shamblin had sold millions of books and appeared on Larry King Live and The Tyra Banks Show, per The Guardian. The logical next step was to expand her brand, and so in 1999 she founded the Remnant Fellowship Church, which encourages its members to pray through hunger and “turn away from the love of food and toward a love of God.” The church promises a world in which where “Husbands are kind like Christ, women are submissive, and children obey their parents and find HAPPINESS in doing so,” according to a note on its official website written by Shamblin’s daughter, Elizabeth Hannah. The church has more than 1,500 members around the world.
The Remnant Fellowship Church’s cheery website offers a range of advice on subjects like how to raise a God-fearing family, how to retain your purity during courtship, and how to raise obedient children. “While divorce, depression, obesity and out-of-control children are increasingly the norm these days, at the Remnant we are experiencing healed marriages, increasing joy, restored health, repaired finances and children who love to follow the guidance of their parents,” the About section reads. But that’s not all that members of the Remnant have experienced.
As detailed in The Way Down, the church was both a moneymaking venture for Shamblin, and a cult that allegedly promoted child abuse. The first red flag came in 2004, when an 8-year-old child died in Atlanta and his parents, who were Remnant members, were charged with his murder. Per the Times, the authorities raided Shamblin’s office as part of this murder investigation. “A lot of our evidence is that they disciplined their children in ways the church recommended,” a police captain said at the time. “It’s possible that these two parents took what they learned to the extreme.”
According to The Guardian, Shamblin wielded an alarming amount of power over every aspect of church members’ lives, including their finances, their marriages, and who they were allowed to see. The Way Down features devastating testimonials from people who lost family members to the church.
How did Shamblin die?
Just as The Way Down director Marina Zenovich was finishing off the documentary, the story took a dramatic turn. On May 29, 2021, Shamblin and her husband William Joseph “Joe” Lara were in a single-pilot jet plane which crashed into a lake near Nashville, Tennessee. Everyone on board was killed, including Shamblin, Lara (who was flying the plane), and five church members.
According to The New York Times, the crash complicated the docuseries, in part because many more people were suddenly willing to speak to the filmmakers. These included “former congregants who said they had previously been unwilling to go against the church publicly because they still had family members who are affiliated, and relatives of those killed in the crash who were skeptical of the church and now felt compelled to share their stories.”
What has Remnant Fellowship said about the documentary?
In a statement shared last month, the Remnant Fellowship Church “categorically denied the absurd defamatory statements and accusations made in this documentary,” and specifically denied any child abuse. “Children here are happy and healthy, being raised with the most love, care, support, and protection imaginable,” the statement continued. The church also denied that anyone had been body-shamed or bullied over their weight.
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