Why I Left an Evangelical Cult | Dawn Smith | TEDxNatick

Translator: Leonardo Silva
Reviewer: Cristina Bufi-Pöcksteiner In the late ’60s, early ’70s, there was a movement
that took place primarily in California, called the Jesus Movement, where ex-hippies grew up
a little bit, had some kids and decided to channel all of that
anti-establishment angst into religion. My father was one such ex-hippie
and together with my grandfather, he started a small cult
called the Assembly. Yeah, this is a super light-hearted story. (Laughter) So, I find myself at five years old. I’m standing on a street corner
in my favorite conservative dress, the pink one with the white pinstripes. And I have my favorite white purse
slung over my shoulder because I love purses, almost more than I love Christ himself. (Laughter) And my dad is yelling the gospel
at people as they walk by because he believes that’s a sure-fire way
to win people to Christ. I’m terrified because I’m a quiet kid, and I’m shy and I avoid
confrontation at all costs. And even in my brief five years of living, I have learned that yelling the gospel can be interpreted
by some as confrontational. (Chuckling) But I’ve been taught that I could be
the only thing standing between a soul and the burning, fiery furnaces of hell. So, there I am. It’s at that moment that I see her. She’s an older woman
and she’s got this gray flyaway hair. And she’s not wearing any nail polish, and I don’t understand how anybody
outside of the group I’m in would go one day without nail polish, because I love nail polish, almost as much as I love Christ himself. (Laughter) But it’s totally forbidden. She locks eyes with me
and she walks up to me, and she gets down
on one knee and she says, “One day, you will grow up and you will realize
you can leave all of this.” All of us have had to grow up
and leave something, probably not a cult. It might have been an unhealthy
relationship, or a drug habit. Maybe you just have
a really strong sweet tooth. Leaving is incredibly difficult, but it is also completely life-changing. A fun fact that all cults share is that they reject the label “cult.” Even now, 16 years since I left, my parents will give me a list of reasons
why the Assembly was not a cult. So, fine. It wasn’t a cult. It was an evangelical, fundamentalist, non-denominational,
religious, fringe group – (Laughter) whose charismatic leader
could do whatever he wanted. But it wasn’t a cult. Sure, we had some
strange religious beliefs. You might even call them extreme. And we did live
in communal homes together. Maybe we didn’t exactly
integrate into society with silly things like demanding careers. But it wasn’t a cult because we had
mainstream religious beliefs, like “God is all-present,”
“God is all-knowing,” and “women can’t pierce their ears.” (Laughter) We wanted to return to the simple life
of the early Christians. Not sure we knew exactly
how early we were talking. We didn’t want to be
literally thrown to the lions, but also, “do women really need equality”? So, I guess post-Augustine,
but pre-feminist early Christians. (Chuckling) My grandparents George
and Betty were in charge. George was a fantastic public speaker, a charismatic leader and an abusive, narcissistic,
pathological liar. My father was an elder
and my mother was – his wife. But it wasn’t a cult because women could go
to the beach just like anybody, as long as we were fully clothed, because nothing derails
the will of an almighty god like a woman in a one-piece. (Chuckling) The Assembly targeted college-aged kids, vulnerable because they’re
on their own for the first time, and they’re looking for a community, a place where they can connect
with other people. Every summer, my dad would pack up,
my mom, my sister and I, and we would drive to another state
to build the Assembly throughout the US. These trips are some
of my favorite childhood memories. We had good times together and we thought we were doing
“the work of the Lord.” But as I grew up, I started to realize the work
of the Lord has a lot of rules. If you’re wondering
what this life looks like, here is a list of things
that were forbidden: dating, television, science, ambitious females. Those things are so dangerous. (Laughter) Clapping loudly after a performance. God only gets the glory
with the soft clap. Also forbidden: psychiatry,
dancing, happiness, freedom, adorable baby puppies. (Laughter) But don’t worry, there was still so much
in the Assembly that we could enjoy, like – kale. (Laughter) Creepy men. (Laughter) Climate change denial. Pyramid schemes were a big thing. Weird diets. Also enjoyable: anxiety,
sorrow, depression. Untreated, okay? Because
psychiatry is for unbelievers. Cults don’t want to be defined as a cult because it empowers its members
to take a critical look at it. Language in cults is controlled
because language is powerful. This happens in the real world, too. Despite what 98%
of our world’s scientists say, let’s not call it climate change. When I was five years old, my mom was trying to recruit
this hairdresser into our group, so she sent me for a haircut. I told her that my secret hero was
Mary Lou Retton, the Olympic gymnast, and she tried to cut my hair like hers. Basically, I came out of there looking like Javier Bardem
in No Country for Old Men. (Laughter) Maybe a little less murdery. I was ecstatic. My parents were appalled. Short hair was God’s plan for men only. At five years old, I had already
foiled the almighty God in his somewhat specific
and kind of fragile plan for my hair. (Laughter) The Assembly had a school
for all of the kids to go to, through eighth grade. My mom was the principal
for about two seconds, until the elders realized they had
mistakenly put a woman in charge! (Laughter) Women were never encouraged
to be in the workplace, but if they had to be,
they should not be in charge of men. That wasn’t biblical. But remember, it wasn’t a cult. It was a wonderful place
to be a young woman. We didn’t have the burden
of forming our own opinions. The men got to do that heavy lifting. It’s so luxurious
to be told what to think, especially by wonderfully
power-hungry men, like elder Earl. Sure, he didn’t see the wisdom
in a good stick of deodorant. (Laughter) But when I was 15 and I had the gall
to wear lipstick to a church meeting, he had the wisdom to tell me I had distracted him
the entire two-hour meeting, because my lips were on my face. (Laughter) Revlon’s light lip blush number 666 – (Laughter) had kept this poor servant of God
from hearing God’s voice. That was my bad. I needed to apologize. Because the Assembly did target colleges,
I was allowed to go to college. And this was the biggest break of my life. I had to start a Bible study
on campus at UC, Irvine, and I had to live
in a training home in Fullerton. Training homes were the Assembly’s
communal living homes where groups of people would live
with an elder, his wife and kids. Basically, it was a super fun way
of making sure that we had no free time. Cults are all-consuming. They don’t allow their members
to invest in a life outside of the group. But college became a refuge for me. It was the first time in my life I could spend hours of my day
without seeing anybody from the Assembly. And at the same time,
I was getting an education. This world that I had been taught was dark
was actually amazing. Get this: women in the arts, women in science. There was a place
for me there if I wanted it. I started to see how small
my worldview really was. I could have left the Assembly
by then, I was over 18, but in a cult, when you leave,
you’re shunned. And I wasn’t ready
to lose my family and my friends. Women, children and people of color were
second-class citizens in the Assembly, to put it mildly. There was emotional
and psychological abuse, but there was also physical abuse. When I was a young girl,
I saw my uncle abusing my cousins, and I told my dad what I had seen. He told me he would take care of it. And the Assembly did, by covering it up. Shortly after I graduated from college, I found out that my uncle’s abuse
had just continued the entire time. My grandparents had
systematically covered it up, and my own parents
and the leadership in the Assembly had maintained a code of silence,
“trusting the Lord,” when nothing of substance had changed. Cults view professional help
from anybody outside of their group as a threat to their way of life. Women were never to leave their husbands, and we did not believe
divorce was biblical. So, my aunt and cousins had
no safe place to go in the Assembly. It was time for me to leave. I could not be in a group
that sacrificed women and children so that a few men could stay in charge. Staunch loyalty to any group is wrong if it means supporting an abusive,
narcissistic, pathological liar. Thank you. (Applause) Because that abuse and that pathology,
it doesn’t stay up with the leader. It trickles down in the group, and good people end up
doing really bad things. My sister and I left
the Assembly together. We confronted our grandparents
with what we had found out, and George kicked us out of the house. I have never seen my grandparents
since the day I left the Assembly, and my relationship
with my parents is complicated. It takes a lot of work
to unlearn behaviors after you leave something like that. There was a lot of questioning
the paradigm I had been raised to believe, and it was hard. But I can tell you that even
the hardest day of freedom was better than the best day in a cult. So, what does a young woman do once
she’s left the cult she was raised in, besides a lot of therapy? (Laughter) I went crazy, you guys! Crazy. I watched every rated-R movie – (Laughter) that had ever been produced
since the dawn of time, OK? I don’t regret a minute of it. I cut my hair short,
painted my nails Satan-red, pierced my ears. More importantly, I admitted, “I want to have a career. I’m going to be one of those
scary independent women. I believe that I’m a feminist
because women are humans.” I started writing comedy because comedy for me is the absolute
best way to take ownership of my past. Laughing is powerful. A few years after I had left the Assembly, the romance of short hair
and nail polish had kind of worn off. I was walking down the street in LA, when I saw her, a young girl, in a conservative dress. She was standing on this street
corner next to a man, who was yelling the gospel
at people as they walked by. I walked up to her and I knelt down in front of her and I looked her in the eye and I said, “One day, you will grow up and you will realize
you can leave all of this.” Thank you. (Applause)

About the author


  1. Shallow and pandering to an intended purpose.
    Dull and uncomfortable.
    Uncomfortable because these shallow connections of personal experience to broader cultural differences are vapor.
    Listing grievances on Ted moves the shared conversation backwards.

  2. A delusion held by one is a mental illness. A delusion held by a few hundred is a cult. A delusion held by a million is a religion. Even escaping the clutches of "mainstream" religion is a harrowing experience. Thank God, today I'm an atheist!

  3. I too came out of a similar background, and it is my hope that your leaving that cult was a stepping stone in realizing that all of the gods man has invented are completely imaginary, and that all religious beliefs are false.

  4. an awesome, articulate, witty, perceptive young lady (and beautiful, inside and out) who could have me join her cult of common sense!
    Sounds like she could thrive in Torah life. For honest thinkers only.

  5. I grew up in a different world.. one very much like the one she has described.
    But think God I was encouraged to read.. I began to read the Bible for myself at the age of 2, and consumed every book within my reach. With utter disregard for the control of religion, I found the joy of a relationship with my savior.. and then.. I also caught a glimpse of a woman.. a woman so beautiful and outspoken,a woman who would change my life.. her name was Mae West. In my world women were subservient, and silent!! To be a woman was to remain silent when a man was present. Silent when you’re being beat, silent when you’re angry, silent when you’re molested.. you have no right or say so over your own body.. no makeup no pants no matter how hot or how cold absolutely no britches!!
    Think God my Father listen to me we talked and reasoned together and slowly we walked away from that religion. My Father was a good man who loved God with all his heart..
    My brother was a sick twisted person..
    But my Dad always had my back.
    I don’t know what exactly I would be if I had not had him.. but I really doubt I could have been as strong without him.

  6. Never discount God because humans are fallible.God is about us learning about betrayal, it is sad that in an effort to serve God, many allow themselves to become betrayers of others.
    Lucifer betrayed God. Satan coerced Adam and Eve to betray God. Cain and his descendants betrayed God. Israel betrayed God. Humanity betrays God. Religious People betray God.
    We betray God when we betray each other. God has suffered more than all of us, yet He was willing to die to undo the betrayal and show us how to understand true love by not allowing
    ourselves to become betrayers of others. In a world where betrayal can get you fame and fortune, being faithful, and serving others who take betrayal lightly, will often end up with you as
    the one betrayed. Charity suffereth long and is kind. Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. The deception of this world will never satisfy your soul.

  7. This was one of the saddest thing I've ever watched. I hope she finds peace with the real Savior. I too was raised in a wacky religion

  8. Cults are very dangerous. This is why legitimate churches are traditionally among the strongest resources to fight them.

  9. She left an unpopular conservative cult for the very popular cult of liberalism. Let's see her stand up to their sacred cows like man-made climate change, or the"Green New Deal".

  10. I used to be a christian but love set me free, it took 20 years to decontaminate myself from the toxic lunacy of fear and delusion, only love can release the religious prisoner from the prison of conformity,

  11. This genuinely sounds like just average run of the mill Christianity from my upbringing in the church

  12. Former IFB here. Stay away from all religions and all the gods. They are the definition of tyranny. I've never met a single good religious cult leader.

  13. obviously she grew up in a legalistic church and family who never knew what freedom in Christ is, they lived in a bondage. They have not experienced the love, freedom, and peace in Christ, they were messed up about Christianity and they messed up their kids too. She wanted out of this kind of so called Christian life into the world, I don't blame her, but instead of doing her own research and study to get to know Christ on her own, she completely went the other way, her family drove her away from Christ. It's only fair to give Christ a second chance and experience the true love of the Father. Wishing her the best.

  14. thank goodness for the internet we can share so many view points so we all now can seek our own truth.
    Ps on a different note she beautiful, gentle and respect her witt, insight and strength ..im gonna watch Deadpool the R version

  15. [Romans 3:23-26] "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."

  16. Damn. All of these cults seem like they are lead by some kind of totalitarian communist dictatorship. I mean, you have no freedom, ability to be happy, or rights in these cults. I just feel thankful that I don't have to live in a metaphorical gulag where I can't listen to music or have opinions.

  17. A pathological Liar, who would support him? Do you need to tell us not to support a Liar? I think this woman needs some Counselling.

  18. You were not raise in good bible teaching or sound preaching church. Evangelical church just preach false teaching and not the truth. You should study God's ten commandment your nothing but nut communist who never learn the truth. Roman Catholic longest cult.

  19. The reason religion/cults spread is because the majority of the population were illiterate through 95% of the time Christianity has been around. And only the .001 percent that could read controlled the message of religion. So when people say “well they believed in the Bible for all these years….”. They just believed what they were told by people who could control the message. The reason Christianity has been around so long that it is traditional is people were not educated, not because it has a truth.

  20. What is the difference between a cult and a mainstream religion? One is just a more controlling and rigid version of the other. You can cherry pick anything you want from the Old and New Testaments. Take away the social support, financial support, pomp and circumstance, and you have fairytales based on fairytales and on and on back into the mists of time. I was born into a liberal family whose grandparents were Catholic, Mormon, and Protestant. My parents never pushed any religion on me but allowed me to experience everything. But from my earliest memories the idea of God always seemed silly to me. As a child I used to watch televangelists for entertainment much the way I would watch cartoons. Despite a keen interest in spirituality and meaning I am still an agnostic. God is simply a convenient label that some people put on that which is unknowable. I wake up, take a deep breath, look at the world in its beauty and horrors and realize that it is enough for me.

  21. As you awaken from one dream, you fall asleep into another.

    If I told you that you were in a cult now, would you believe me, or would you deny that you are in a cult?

  22. Do not know why I click on to this,,,but, I'm glad I did. This explains why so many "religious" people are voting for TRUMP.

  23. First I am a married woman of two children. I know there are many cults and I understand that. But those who know the Truth which is Jesus Christ and His Word (the Holy Bible) are responsible for what it says. We must remember that Satan has been lying and deceiving since the beginning and his goal is to destroy what God has put in place(order). If you take Gods order of things out of order you get disorder. And that's what you see today in this world. We need to watch what is of God and what's not. And to the Christ following women embrace your God given roles of a daughter to the King, wife to a husband, mother to your children, helper of the church, if older wisdom to the younger gals. And it goes on and on. We are told not to conform to this world. So let's make sure we are doing what God wants and not doing what we see the world doing. We are to be separate and if we do what they are doing how can we stand out among them. Seek Truth in all you do.

  24. For whatever this is worth, I was a young skull full of mush even after I became a Christian myself but I learned my

    way out of it, so take it from me; the REAL Jesus Christ (Book Of Isaiah, 53: 4-12, Gospel Of John, 1: 1-34 & 8:1-11;
    Gospel Of Luke, 8: 36-50 & 23: 39-43) is far better than what too many so called Christian preachers and teachers
    make Him out to be, and I hope that this helps those who have been scandalized by such false teachings!

  25. I watched this vid w headphones and I can hear the saliva in her mouth moving around… I want to exit out bc of it but it’s a good ted talk lol

  26. The testimony just proves that this woman never knew God. She might have known about Jesus but never experienced His transforming power that brings people to Him, convicts of sin, changes heart desires, gives the fullness of joy, and life everlasting. To go and indulge in sin, without regrets, as she stated – is this happiness, is it freedom? As John Calvin once said, “since those on whom God’s curse remains do not taste even the smallest amount of true happiness.”

  27. I recognize that what she is saying is important. I’m not trying to diminish it. However, the saliva smacking around her mouth is so irritating I want to yell, swallow your spit! Please!!

  28. Excellent!

    1 Samuel 16:7
    But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.

  29. 13:19 "supporting an abusive, narcissistic, pathological liar". Today this is just called "being a Republican".

  30. I always tell my dad that religion is just a cult
    then he makes the argument that religion is too big to be a cult
    So it’s a bigger version of a cult

  31. Every church is a cult. They have their own culture. Their believes are varied. THere is definitely a mind control aspect. A social control aspect. The Gospel is about freedom.

  32. I hate the church cause it starts the wars were in all the time all religions. Christianity is not the truth it's a political cult.

  33. This anti-divorce stance is common even in non-cultic evangelical churches. A pastor told me flat out that he admired a woman who stayed with her husband who physically battered her. This was in response to a friend leaving her emotionally and mentally abusive husband. She would have been permitted to leave (but not actually file for divorce) if he was smacking her around. But not if he was simmering in rage and shouting, threatening, and belittling her and their kids.

    He used the ACTUAL battered wife as an example of upstanding Christian wifeliness.

  34. Jesus is not a religion. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Read the gospel and follow Jesus not people..

  35. I love her bubbly personality. Despite her hard past, she still manages to smile and make jokes about this dark subject. She’s so strong and such a great role model

  36. Mixing some common sense with deductive reasoning, and afterlife possibilities…

    Those religious people in north america who can hear voices (in English) when they pray, are already in a multidimensional quandary

    The English language didn't exist on this continent until about 3 to 4 hundred years ago…even less in some places.

    So these prayerful, who hear voices, whose voices are they actually hearing, relative to the place they are praying at? Lost souls don't necessarily know they are dead, no more than them living like they were dead when they were 'once' alive…still attached to their identity

  37. I have realized that christianity is a cult, because Jesus NEVER established christianity, neither did he even use the word "christian", and he was not a christian himself.
    Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven, which is a government, not a religion.

  38. I'm confused about the "climate change" part. I don't necessarily understand how that is "scientific". In fact, climate change has become a cult of its own where we are not allowed to question it or deny it. Have you left a cult only to find yourself in another?

  39. ❤️I love that this sister got free from man made bulkshit!!!

    God never intended for people give certain persons all power, authority and honor! And I hate when people try to manipulate the Bible to control people!!!!

  40. I want to share this pictures of Jesus & of mary, i took in my backyard Jan2019, i myself was shocked, when i saw jesus face in the clouds, CLICK next to my name, God bless you.

  41. My problem with Christianity they make it sound easy too make friends or get a soulmate. I learned that the hard way it's not like that if you don't look like a GQ model some people will stick their nose up at you walk on by. Or if they only like you for how much money you have in the bank drinking a nice car owning a fancy house. These things go against what Jesus said he said not too judge outer appearance of a person judge them by their hearts and personality. I'm a child of God all though I been heart by so called Christian's I didn't let it come between me and God I'm not religious. Jesus had a problem with religion Jesus hung around sinners he wasn't boring he was invited too sinners parties the very ones the churches look down on are the ones Jesus go after. Religion traditions of men make the word of God void even Jesus said that.

  42. All churches are a cult, because Jesus never asked one to create one and deceive other people to go in. That includes the big and small churches, famous and non famous.

  43. After Yemen, don’t be surprised of any inhumanity from The USA Ruling Regime; on the boarder, in Venezuela… and more

  44. Evangelical Christianity is the flip coin of Wahhabi Islam, created by Anglo Saxon Zionists at around the same time in the 18th century

  45. There is a big difference between a Cult, Church, Religion, and knowing Christ died for our sins that we might live with him forever if only we believe. Don't let a few crazies stop you from seeking Yeshuah! He is the only way to the Father, the way the truth and the life!

  46. She like to be on stage , and also she has the talent of his father to speak in front of the people but she sucks better than her mother :)(()

  47. @16:00 I am NOT religious to the extent that I don't even believe in an afterlife.  But this display of emotion was contrived.  She's right, of course, but a very poor speaker.  And why is she married?  This only perpetuates patriarchal nonsense.  Ridiculous.  Abolish marriage.

  48. A lot of evangelicals try to control and manipulate followers I'm a believer in the god of the Bible but lots of churches do not want you if they can't manipulate or control you

  49. There is a major difference between religion and relationship with God. To group them together is a big mistake and most will group them together.

  50. Ok but not ok unless she does not swap bondage to the Assembly with bondage to the American culture. The American culture is a whole lot easier to digest but in the end can be a hard task master like controlling church leaders.

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