Book Review - Holy Rollers Murder and Madness in Oregon’s Love Cult

Cultic Studies Review, 3, (1), 2004

Holy Rollers: Murder and Madness in Oregon’s Love Cult

T. McCracken and R.B. Blodgett

Caldwell, ID: Caxton Press, 2002, 295 pages, paperback. $16.95. ISBN: 0870044249.

Reviewed by: Frank MacHovec, Ph.D.

The authors, a naturalist and a paleontologist with an interest in northwest U.S. history, refer to their topic as the “long suppressed” story of Edmund Creffield’s Holy Roller movement, started in 1903 in Corvallis, Oregon. (They explain that older folks in Corvallis don't want to talk about the Holy Rollers.)

Writing for the general public, the authors present the Holy Roller movement chronologically, with many anecdotes of the people involved and their life situations. The book includes 30 brief chapters averaging 10 pages each, and a 3-page epilogue. Also included is an impressive 15-page bibliography that includes birth, marriage, and death certificates, census data, and newspaper articles of the time.

Creffield, a German immigrant who came to the United States at age 20, was a Salvation Army dropout. His real name was Franz Edmund Crefeld. He converted an experienced Salvation Army officer sent to discredit him, and the Salvation Army later left town—both events evidence of his charisma and verbal skills. Also impressive is how he was able to intrude into the personal lives and lifestyles of leading families in the community. Five feet six inches tall and weighing 135 pounds, Creffield was not physically an imposing figure. His strength was psychological, called a “hypnotic effect” by some who observed him. He began recruiting members using a traditional Christian approach, and then he claimed to be Joshua. Ultimately, he became a self-proclaimed apostle and gradually added his own version of the ideal religion.

Creffield’s strategy was to claim a direct divine connection and the power to “relieve suffering” by the laying on of hands. He appealed to those sensitized by guilt or a deprived childhood, although many otherwise normal people were also converted. His technique was to lower defenses and disinhibit by sermonizing for up to 24 hours to followers, mainly women, who rolled on the floor seeking forgiveness. This ritual, by which followers believed they became “God’s anointed,” was often repeated daily. Creffield’s ability to have women cancel their engagements to be married, deter married couples from having sex, and have others drop out of work or school demonstrated his power.

Members of the movement burned their furniture and prized possessions, belongings that Creffield called “carnal.” Nonmembers were “infidels” to be shunned, even if they were spouses or a member’s children.

As the result of growing public outrage, the sheriff had two local physicians examine Creffield in the presence of a judge and city attorney. They found him legally sane. Released, he escalated his message, prophesying an imminent end of the world, which drew public interest. Media coverage spread. So did rumors of this man surrounded by women, amid growing suspicion that he had sexual contact with them. He urged followers to remove clothing to be like Adam and Eve. Because the law didn’t stop him, a vigilante group of men calling themselves “white caps” descended on Creffield. He was tarred, feathered, and run out of town. A follower took him in and allowed him to continue his ministry in the family home. Creffield chose to marry a 16-year-old follower, but her family committed her to the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society (she was too young for the insane asylum). There, she was diagnosed as “bright but deranged, mind almost unhinged by religious fanatics.”

Creffield moved to Portland, Oregon and claimed he was “the second Saviour.” Page 62 refers to Maud Hurt vowing “to have nothing to do with him”; but, on the next page, she is referred to as Creffield’s wife, an unexplained gap. His effect on the mainly female group members was strong and destructive. They prided themselves on being “brides of Christ,” and allegedly to Creffield as the second Christ. This behavior further enraged the public. When he was seen nude with a scantily clad woman, he was arrested, tried, and convicted of adultery. He fled but was discovered hiding under a follower’s house. Sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary, he was a model prisoner and won release seven months early.

Creffield then moved to Seattle with his loyal followers. He claimed to have caused the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. This claim impressed group members and strengthened his hold on them. A brother whose sister was “ruined” by Creffield shot and killed “the second Christ” on a Seattle street. The brother, in turn, was killed by the sister he avenged. She later committed suicide, as did Creffield’s wife, bringing this tragic history to an end.

The book is written in a style more journalistic than scientific, although it is well referenced. Its major contribution is its description of how a destructive cult can develop in an average community. The narrative shows the vulnerability of otherwise normal people, and the escalation of a charismatic leader’s control over them. Parallels to modern-day destructive cults are obvious, with similarities to Jim Jones’ People’s Church, Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate, and David Koresh’s Branch Davidians. The book offers evidence that wielding total control over others may somehow contribute to a slow deterioration of the leader’s mental state. On the negative side, the book misleads when the authors present whole paragraphs in italics, written in the first person, as if they were direct quotes, when they are obviously conjecture and speculations about what people thought and said at the time. However, this is a minor flaw.

The book provides useful information about the developmental dynamics of cult-like groups and their leadership; as such, it is a valuable addition to the database of how destructive cults develop and to the psychopathology of their leaders. Recommended.