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)

Stephen Childs


  1. I dont want leave my christian life but i wouldnt remain in cult

  2. anyone else annoyed by the microphones being adjusted such as to make us hear the sound of the mouvement of their mouth? Ted Talks should fix this, it's very distrating in my opinionand this reoccures many times..

  3. She is so funny! It's amazing how much personality and humor she can put into her story

  4. Why make an example off climate change for yes climate is changing sinds the beginning of time and if you do not agree then you have a problem and it is not 98% off the scientists but 97% off the 4000 elected scientists .In the middle Ages it was warmer then it is now that is a fact with no cars or factories .

  5. Theres a difference between following a religion and following Jesus. Remember that.

  6. It’s sad that so many of the things that were forbidden in her cult was also forbidden at the school I went to the last two years of high school.

  7. this is how people hate God because some idiots take the bible the wrong argh! People should read the Bible for themselves and actually find viable resources.

  8. But because these are christian radicals, the world dare not call them terrorists, title is reserved for islam.

  9. What she was in was not Biblical at all. Too bad she threw the baby out with the bath water. I am a very strong woman who loves and embraces the precepts of Christ. Psalm 119. I am liberated, free In Him born in the family of Christ and one day will rule and reign with Him in Glory!! PTL I don't have a religion I have a relationship with The God of the Universe thru the Holy Spirit. First and foremost I understand my freedom yes I mean freedom is through the shed blood of Jesus Christ who saved me from my sin and shame and has set me upon the Solid Rock where my foundation of life keeps my perspective of HIS holiness and mine as well. My dear girl you were in a horrible place growing up but never Born Again.

  10. This could be an AI artificial video with a FAKE FEMALE talikg on stage, using the actual voice of a real female. This is like an author of a book or article or story using a (male or female) pen name to hide his or her actual identity. Very much like practically all Facebook users. (I don't use Facebook etc. I only use My Google Blogger blog to post all sorts of thoughts generated by My awesome brain.) – G

    I never use a fake name. I ALWAYS use My real name. [I always use My real name? Really?] – G


  11. She jumped out of the fire into the frying pan. She like most evangelicals never meet the God-man Jesus. So sad.

  12. I love her sarcasm and humor about her childhood. 😂
    I made a video all about my time in the cult on my college campus. They really do target college kids because they are vulnerable and still have access to their parents money! Check it out if you’d like

  13. Sin duda es muy triste y lamentable lo que viviste, creo que simplemente nunca pudiste conocer verdaderamente a Cristo! por eso entiendo tu frustración … con personas así que nunca reflejaron su amor por la humanidad como podías conocerle. Cualquiera querría salir huyendo… sin embargo espero de todo corazón un día puedas conocerle como realmente es Jesucristo y todo el amor que tiene por ti y por la humanidad, entonces encontraras verdaderamente la felicidad y la paz interior.

  14. People like her will never know God unfortunately because they were taught all the wrong unbiblical things about God . She's a worldly woman now. This breaks my heart. Also, God is a gentleman, He never forces His word upon anyone! The people who raised her into that cult will stand before the Lord and answer Him one day .

  15. Incredible use of Sarcasm, well balanced words and perfectly timed sentences !! 🙏🏻 Inspiring

  16. Dawn =Αύγή, read ARISTOPHANES to feel the breeze of laugh and satyrical comedy to color your life.

    If you watch the movie THE SATANIC SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, you will realize that paranoic environment that resembles the Christian and Moslem religions.

  17. It's incredible that when Christ walked the earth women were treated like door mats. But Jesus thought otherwise. And it was evident in his relationship with women in scripture.

  18. As far as cults go, she just described Islam. Don`t blame God for what people do ! God is spiritual and to have faith in God, is not religion, religion is bondage, faith in God is freedom…you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.

  19. Why no TEDx talks about women leaving that islamic cult? Oh, that's right, they are put to death.

  20. The title (about "Evangelical cult") is wrong because the description of that cult doesn't represent the evangelical churches if don't believe me.. visit one of these. Maybe some people can think that this happened in all the churches.

  21. The religion of my family, non-cultish Presbyterian, seemed bizarre to me before age 10, and I stopped attending at 14 when my parents let me. I believed the parts that seemed logical and tossed the rest. By 20, I was a deist, free from all dogma. By 25 I was agnostic, and by 30 I realised I was just hiding from the word atheism when it was in fact my view. I know many atheists will mock one's belief, but for me, belief in God is the least objectionable part of religion. It is all of the dogmatic baggage that separates one religion from another that creates problems. We can all look up into a clear night sky and feel awe, even something spiritual, but man shouldn't be so arrogant as to go beyond belief in God and claim special knowledge of his/her/it's mind as well. Faith and the splendor of nature can give one belief in God, any certainty beyond that is hubris. (out of a family of 6, only 1 Christian remains. The rest of us are now 2 atheists, a deist, a zen Buddhist, and a Unitariarian who is a deist, but likes the fellowship of church)

  22. PraiseYourFatherForDoingGodsWork. LikeJohnTheBaptist. HellIsARealPlaceAndRealPeopleAreGoingThere.

  23. Me: watches a good performance
    Starts to clap
    Me: does a really loud clap to finish off
    Me: oh shi-

  24. I was a United Pentecostal for nearly 14 years . The UPCI claims that they are not a cult and yet only people who believe what they do are deemed to be saved. Only their interpretation of Scripture is allowed , even though in many areas of Scripture it is a wrong interpretation of Scripture . Christians who have a knowledge of Scripture that exceeds that of a UPC pastor or other UPC minister , are seen as the enemies of Bible truth .

  25. The Bible is the word of God! Experience is taught in New Age, Faith is taught in Christianity. Bethel, Hillsongs, most TV word of faith preachers are not true believers.

  26. I'm still in a cult, omg, and it was just recently that I realized, oh sht, I'm in a cult! I'm still trying to escape but it seems so impossible, my parents are really judgmental and expect things from me, and you never want to disappoint your parents… Basically, I live locked up in the house, the worst is that it's not a physical prison, but a mentally one. Well, this video opened my eyes and gave me hope!

  27. As a member of an Evangelical church, I say that cult she was a member of is very twisted. This is what happens when the Bible is used and wrongly interpreted.

  28. Thank! God. That being a Christian is not about a cult, it is about relationship. Very personal relationship.

  29. OMG! Ofcourse you should leave all that crazy people, but left God? You should think that twice.

  30. It sounds like you left one cult to join another. The "Global Warming" (anti-Capitalist) cult. If you honestly look at how both cults are promoted and how they want to control you, you will see the similarities. Fear, intimidation, and you must give up your way of life, all the while giving power wealth and luxury to the "leaders" of the cult. You call us "denier's". We just didn't join your cult. "One day, you will grow up, and you will realize you can leave all of this."

  31. I love her! She came away happier and with an excellent sense of humor. ❤️❤️❤️❤️

  32. That´s terrible, This girl don´t have fear of God, she don`t understand the God`s propouse to her life

  33. I still haven't seen cult, maybe I missed it. sounds more like a different culture that she rebelled out of. like Mennonites  that's ok too. God is the judge

  34. I’m Christian, and it’s rude that she’s making fun of the religion. We don’t do the things her dad described ( that’s not how Christianity works, her dad is just a Sysco who doesn’t understand) but if you still don’t like the religion, don’t use your mocking voice “I almost loved it more than * J E S U S C H R I S T*” don’t like the religion, fine, but don’t mock it and make fun of those who are Christian.

  35. If you accept that God is Love, and I do, then Love NEVER has to forgive, because Love never recognizes the offense to begin with. Meaning, it is quite literally impossible to sin against God. That one fact renders Christianity a cult religion with no basis in reality, not even a decent theory:)

  36. So sad that you lump many solid Christian beliefs in to the "insanity" of the Assembly. Sadly the twisting of the gospel made everything they said seem like it was wrong. I'm glad you got out but sorry to hear how much it has affected your world view and prejudiced you against many solid truths in the Bible. I hope you are able to continue to heal and learn the healthy Christian beliefs as well as turning away from the prejudices which that life experience has given you; so, that, you can have a healthy relationship with Christ in the future.

  37. Even the Bible says that you should test the spirit first because not all who proclaims Jesus is biblical.

  38. But is there really any distinction from a cult and the rest of the religious realm of thought? I'm sure the cults are terrible, and unnecessary, but even outside of cults; women are still forced into marriages they don't want, we still mutilate the genitals of both genders at one point or another depending on what faith you follow. And ultimately all of these beliefs stem from one common theme. A book written by a mortal man, or in some cases men, but worshiped as if god itself wrote the book. There will be a time when Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, all religious teaching will fall to dust. And it is wise to remember that the only thing separating mythology and religion, is popularity. Think for yourselves, men aren't their fathers, and women aren't their mothers. You don't always have to believe in the same thing as everyone else.

  39. Bless her for making this informational but also funny because I was laughing pretty hard

  40. Girl get that silly looking smile off your face. Snarky smile like you cute and funny when all you are doing is blaspheming Jesus Christ. BYEEE.

  41. Native American: What a good day.

    Native Siberian: Let's go to the Evangelical church I mean it's not a cult.

    Native American: *Migrates to America.*

  42. It is unfortunate that Dawn Smith was not able to discern the difference between her parents’ Cult and the Person of Jesus. She essentially threw out the proverbial baby with the wash water. Christ would have rejected her parents’ cult as well, but she, unfortunately, ended up rejecting Him, … and then placed a seed of doubt in a little girl as an older woman had done to her. She will regret doing that one day because as Jesus warned in
    Mark 9:42: "If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea."

  43. I was there. I hitch-hiked to California in the spring of 1967. First time I had been out of the Mississippi valley. It was a remarkable experience. I would highly recommend it to any 22 year old.

  44. Beautiful. I love free thinkers and their stories of getting to the moment of epiphany.

  45. A very moving testimony about such a restrictive world. I hope she was right about the little girl.

  46. This was really touching. The fact that she broke through the vicious cycle and was able to give someone else that same chance is very touching. I personally know a person that left a cult, and I think that you are very brave to be able to share this story. Others will be inspired by you.

  47. Such a shame that you did not end up within the true church of Jesus Christ. 😔
    Instead…a phony so called church that called themselves Christians. Not everyone who hold a bible and propheses Christ is a Born Again Christian (meaning one with true Salvation).

    A Born Again Christian is known by their fruit. Also, anyone who lives in the Spirit given at the moment of Salvation…knows well, that a Christian is that those with an outwardly manner, soft voice, or have tones of verses memorized. It's about the condition of the heart. Jesus said it over and over again in many different ways so that the Pharisees and all could understand it. 🙄 We also know from Matthew 13:34, "…For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks."

    Soooo…I'm sorry sister that you feel shy, are quiet and embarrased by being bold, because there was still a better, less aggresive way for you to evangelize and share the gospel in obedience to God's will. Instead, you chose to leave the faith and have your moment of spot light by dishonoring your own parents and the rest of the church of Christ.

    Luke 9:26-38 New International Version (NIV)

    26 "Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of themwhen he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels."

    Forget all about deeds and religion.

    Just follow Jesus Christ…who's very name means Salvation. ❤ Blessings.

  48. Everything I hate about the branches of Christianity. The book says specifically how to act and has Jesus tell you exactly what he expects. But all you see is people doing they’re own thing while putting the Bible on the cover. It’s like a the world war Z book VS the movie. If it were a school assignment you will get an F.

  49. I just want to put a comment in here that explains that the Bible does not condone nor advocate for unequal treatment or abuse of anybody. The Bible is one cohesive story all pointing to Jesus Christ who was and is the full embodiment of truth and love. He commands all His followers to emulate Him and to follow His example in all that they do. Yes, of course they will stumble, but they will always get back on the track of following Him and loving others and respecting others before themselves because that is what He did.

    The Bible explicitly condemns the mistreatment of all people and calls us all to love one another. when Jesus was asked what is the greatest Commandment, He responded that Loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength was number one and that the second greatest was loving your neighbor as you love yourself. He showed us the ultimate example of this in His laying down His own life for His people. He said "greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for one's friend." He demonstrated that to us perfectly and calls all of His followers to do the same.

    The Bible has been misconstrued so many times throughout history but if any of us are indeed willing to humble ourselves and to read it ourselves, maybe even just the New Testament, we will see the true message of The Bible. That message is that the God of the universe is holy, loving and just and in the overflow of His love He created the universe and He created man. He made man to walk with Him and to obey Him, yet man fell away and chose sin over God. Through that first sin, we all inherit original sin and therefore have a tendency to choose sin over good. We have all lied, stolen, cheated, looked with lust, etc and for that, God should judge us. We are His creation and we choose to rebel against Him everyday. Therefore, if God is just, which He is, He should judge every single one of us. And yet, what God does is not condemn everyone, but rather He chooses to send His own Son, with whom He had eternal communion and perfect harmony, into this broken world to live the sinless life that you and i could not and will not live, and then to be delivered up onto a cross by His own creation. He was beaten, mocked, scorned and crucified by the very people He created. Then, on that tree, God imputed to Him all of the sins of His people and punished Jesus in our place so that our sin might be put away with. Through doing this, God upholds justice, through his dealing with sin, and shows mercy by punishing Christ in our place. He then raised Christ from the dead on the third day as a proclamation to the world that His sacrifice was sufficient and now, He offers Christ's righteousness to anyone who will acknowledge their sin, repent (turn) from it and trust in Jesus Christ with their whole being.

    The message of the Bible is one of incredible love. So many passages have been misconstrued and manipulated throughout history by a variety of groups, but if we will take the time to humble ourselves and read the Scriptures for ourselves, we will find the true and loving message of God in the very pages of His word that He has delivered to us.

    I hope and pray that you all will do this and that The Lord will bless you all and bring you to Himself. He is the only true source of comfort, the only truth, the only rest and the only joy in a generation that is so bent on hurting and harming one another. God bless you all.

  50. It’s amazing and very disappointing that after this woman’s testimony viewers still can’t see the corruption and arrogance of accepting a belief in the supernatural. Time to grow up and take responsibility for your part in the human family.

  51. To me finding a connection to God has been an inner journey of self-discovery. God works in different ways through different people. Most of the crazy, evangelical churches that have become normalized nowadays in the US are deeply stuck in their fundamentalism, robbing their attendants of their critical thinking abilities, and making them unable to see the real essence of God and the humanity in others who are "not like them" ; they are the most judgmental and small-minded people I have ever come across. So far off from the message of the gospels of Christ….this is not even counting the part about science denial or even acquisition or its understanding to say the least. And let's not forget about their agenda of supporting political demagogues and populists (either shade of the political spectrum) that appeal to the masses by moving their more primal emotions such as fear, hate, and ignorance. The religious force should never be turned into a political force, as it is clearly now the case. Keep your religious beliefs more to yourself. Don't ever loose your capacity for independent thought-God gave you your own brain for a reason-, and please (!) don't post a thousands memes on your social media thanking Jesus after you have had your kale salad. Always keep the faith up, regardless of your denomination or personal beliefs, but seriously secularism should become more prominent. It will prove to be favorable in many ways for everyone involved.

  52. My father is an Evangelical minister. So much of this echoes my own experience in that subculture. The day they disowned me became my day of freedom.

  53. She is describing something along the lines of the SeventhDay Adventist Church.

  54. I've never understood why certain Christian groups make a practice of following old testament practices instead of the gospel. I can understand conservative Jews doing so, sure. But for any Christian it seems so obviously incorrect.

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