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The real story of the Corvallis “naked ladies cult”: How it began

Preacher Edmund Creffield's Bride of Christ Church broke up families, sanctioned adultery and inspired deadly violence in the early 20th Century. Ironically, its practitioners' goal was perfect holiness and godliness.

Startling Detective Magazine, March 1951. Article: "Nemesis of the Nudist High Priest," a sensationalized and largely fabricated version of the story of the "Holy Rollers" of Corvallis, Ore.
Startling Detective Magazine's two-page spread giving its own pruriently
augmented version of the Bride of Christ Church story drew extra
scandal-mongering power from some fanciful artwork. (Image:
negativespin.com) [Larger image: 1200 x 835 px]
Part 1 of 2 articles

In the years after onetime Corvallis resident F. Edmund Creffield died, his legend got weirder and weirder. But then, it was pretty weird to start with, and it was not the kind of story that mellows with age.

By 1951, 45 years later, it reached something of a high-water mark in an story/article in "Startling Detective Magazine" headlined "Nemesis of the Nudist High Priest."

Pulp fans will instantly recognize the "Startling" part of "Startling Detective" as the telltale hallmark of a pulp magazine. And indeed, for the true fan of wild and shameless sensationalism, this article does not disappoint.

Impregnated on behalf of God?

This article paints a fantastic picture of a lascivious con artist posing as a holy man, sharking up a flock of the town's comelier ladies and preying upon their weak, feminine minds with a diabolical message: "Clothing is vanity — let's all get naked and roll on the floor!"

Startling Detective Magazine, March 1951. Article: "Nemesis of the Nudist High Priest," a sensationalized and largely fabricated version of the story of the "Holy Rollers" of Corvallis, Ore.
Edmund Creffield as he appeared in the early 1900s, when he was
leading his flock in Corvallis. (Image: Portland Morning Oregonian)

It gets worse. The article goes on to relate how the "prophet" Creffield, calling himself "the new Joshua," convinced the lucky ladies that one of them was to be the new Mary, mother of the next Jesus, and that he would be standing in for the good Lord in making the necessary carnal arrangements so that could happen.

So, this thoroughly untrustworthy account continues, Creffield started a selection process in which the brainwashed beauties were, if you will, auditioned (naked, of course) behind closed doors, in a process that sometimes involved whips.

No, really.

The "Church of Getting Naked" myth

The whips were a nifty addition to a yarn that was first set to paper by legendary Oregon writer Stewart Holbrook in 1941. (Actually, there's a better-than-even chance "Nemesis of the Nudist High Priest was written by Holbrook under a pseudonym.) Holbrook, delightful though he is to read, simply can't be trusted on stories that touch on religion, and if I were compelled to defend that statement in court, his version of this story would be Exhibit A. In it, he's remarkably snarky and eager to believe and pass on the most lascivious and scandalous of the many rumors that flowed out of this case. Holbrook's article was clearly the primary source for the Startling Detective story.

The real story of Creffield's cult, which came to be known as the Bride of Christ Church, is quite a bit more believable, and more nuanced. It certainly relies a lot less on the once-prominent myth that women are naturally gullible, stupid and (absent the steadying hand of a man) easily led into promiscuity and sin.

In other words, if you're female, you'll find the real story a lot less insulting. But the real story is, if anything, even more disturbing than the augmented ones, because it lacks the comforting feel of stereotype and fantasy. It's a story of good-hearted, well-meaning people who, in the name of goodness and holiness, opened the door to evil and chaos — the story, if you will, of how the saintly can become the tools of Satan.

The real story: Holiness taken to unholy extremes

The story starts in 1903, when Creffield, a thirty-ish native of Germany burning with religious fervor, left the Salvation Army because he thought they weren't holy enough. (I will now pause for a moment so that those of you who are familiar with the history of the Salvation Army can pick your jaws back up off the floor.)

Creffield settled in Corvallis and started preaching, building a flock of super-strict believers.

Creffield's followers were like the most hardcore Pentecostalists you can imagine; at the same time, their extreme simplicity made the plain-dressing Quakers look like French royal courtiers by comparison. They prayed face down on the floor, occasionally rolling over in a sort of power-grovel; hence the perjorative term "holy roller," which may actually have started with this very group. Their church services were loud, sincere and disruptive to the neighbors, full of wailing and gnashing of teeth, and lasted for hours on end, dragging on into the night until the small hours of the morning.

Breaking up homes

Corvallis residents at first got along reasonably well with their new, freakishly hyper-holy neighbors. But things started going sour within a few months. The main reason was, Creffield taught that believers were to have nothing to do with unbelievers. That meant if a man or woman joined the group, he or she was to cut off contact with any family members who had not also joined: wives, husbands, children, parents — whatever.

Here's how that worked out in Corvallis: A married couple would join the church. After a while, the husband would get tired of the extreme self-denial and subjugation to the will of Creffield, and start drifting off.

For the wife, though, self-denial and subjugation to the will of another was a less unfamiliar situation. In 1903, that was the most common vision of her role in marriage. So the restrictions of the church would bother her much less than they would bother him, and she would see no reason to leave the church. He, however, would find it intolerable, and quit going to services.

At some point, then, she would identify him as a non-believer and cut him off.

A live Google map of John Smith Island, on which Creffield and his
followers established an encampment in 1904, before he was tarred
and feathered and ordered out of town. [View larger map]

If there were children involved, they would either stay in the church and be cut off from their father, or leave the church and be abandoned by their mother. It was not a healthy dynamic, no matter how it played out.

Soon Creffield had a reputation for breaking up homes, and a flock consisting largely of women — women who actively avoided their "infidel" family members.

It also bothered the rest of the community that Creffield's cult members were living in a communal house, women and men together. Moreover, their "simple" clothing consisted of a plain cloth wrapper which, one source recounts, was similar to a bathrobe; the outsiders felt was inadequate to protect female modesty, and in any case looked entirely too easy to take off.

The "prophet" starts sounding nutty — and dangerous

By itself, the communal living arrangement would have been bad enough. But Creffield's followers combined it with a mania for secrecy that all but invited other community members to fear the worst. Members vanished from their families' lives into a locked house with barred windows, supervised only by the cult leader and his cronies.

Things got worse. Following yet another pattern that would become all too familiar to the world in later decades (think David Koresh and Jim Jones), the lack of contact with the outside world and the unstinting adoration of his flock started doing things to the mind of the cult's leader. His message got increasingly un-Biblical as he claimed he was receiving instructions directly from God Himself. He promoted himself from "the second Joshua" to "the second Elijah," which, if you know your Old Testament, is rather a big step up.

Startling Detective Magazine, March 1951. Article: "Nemesis of the Nudist High Priest," a sensationalized and largely fabricated version of the story of the "Holy Rollers" of Corvallis, Ore.
Maude Hurt Creffield, the Corvallis woman the prophet married
the day after being tarred and feathered, as she appeared around
the time of Creffield's imprisonment. (Image: Portland Morning

A going-away party, with tar and feathers

Finally, the men of Corvallis organized a little party for Creffield. They marched him and his sidekick, Brooks, to the edge of town, stripped them naked, painted them with pine tar, covered them with feathers, and ordered them to get out of town and stay out.

Creffield responded by appearing the very next day at the courthouse in Linn County, his skin bright red from scrubbing and reeking of the turpentine used to remove the tar, and marrying one of his followers — Maud, a daughter of the Hurt family of highly respected Corvallis pioneers.

The prophet "purifies" a dishy follower

A few months later came the pivotal incident in our story — the incident that would doom Creffield and much of his flock: A man named Burgess Starr filed charges against Creffield for adultery, accusing Creffield of sleeping with his wife, Donna Starr.

Creffield promptly went into hiding. Weeks later he was found, naked and filthy, hiding in a coffin-size hole under a follower's home in Corvallis.

Startling Detective Magazine, March 1951. Article: "Nemesis of the Nudist High Priest," a sensationalized and largely fabricated version of the story of the "Holy Rollers" of Corvallis, Ore.
An illustration from the Portland Morning Oregonian's Sunday magazine
supplement, in which Stewart Holbrook recounted his version of this story.
Note the misspelling of the Hurt family name. (Image: Portland Morning

Hauled into court, Creffield unhesitatingly admitted guilt. It had been part of a vital, God-ordered purification ritual, he explained.

Family members: Who else has he "purified?"

This development electrified Corvallis. All over the area, people started making the same connections. They thought about all these women, refusing the speak to their husbands and fathers, praying and rolling around in somebody's house or on the sect's encampment on a secluded island in the Willamette — under the supervision of an avowed adulterer who saw nothing wrong with having sex with someone else's wife. Could it be Donna Starr wasn't the only one? Perhaps "God" was ordering Creffield to "purify" other women too. Really, given the evidence, it would be hard to think otherwise.

It was probably at this time that the rumors got started about Creffield's alleged plan to impregnate a selected follower on behalf of God Almighty. It's possible that this rumor was true, but I've found no solid evidence to back it up and neither have Phillips and Gartner, who spent a lot more time looking than I did.

This also is almost certainly the point at which cult members' ostracized male family members started thinking seriously about assassination as a solution to the Creffield problem. We'll talk about how that worked out in Part 2 of this report, which will be uploaded a little later this week.

(Sources: Phillips, Jim, and Gartner, Rosemary. Murdering Holiness. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2003; Holbrook, Stewart. Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks (ed. Brian Booth). Corvallis: OSU Press, 1992; Thompson, Lewis. "Nemesis of the Nudist High Priest," Startling Detective, March 1951)

TAGS: #MYSTERIES: #cults #coverup :: #PEOPLE: #progressives #schemers #women #largerThanLife #charismatic #promoters #crooks #crazy :: #CRIMES: #murder-#unwrittenLaw #badLove #manhunt :: # #cultureClash #irony #famous #fail #hubris :: LOC: #benton #lincoln :: #130 #131

Part 1 of 2 articles about the "Holy Rollers." . --PART 2 >>