The Smith Family Tragedy
By Rev. Rafael Martinez, Spiritwatch Ministries
All tragedies start with hopeful beginnings and the destruction of the family of Joseph and Sonya Smith is no different.
The Smiths were a young African American couple who lived in Mableton, an unincorporated suburb of Atlanta, Georgia who in 2002 found the siren song of the Weigh Down Workshop irresistible. The claims of the Weigh Down Diet resonated with them and it’s sales pitch of getting closer to God for permanent weight loss and family restoration drew them like moths to the flames burning brightly in Franklin, Tennessee.Dreams, however, have a terrible way of becoming nightmares. Until a fateful night later that October, 2003, almost no one outside Remnant knew of their movement's efforts to create a new world of stable families, marital union and obedient children by making them all subject to their own community control.
They came into the Remnant religion in the usual way in 2003 - by a wholehearted submission to the authority of Gwen Shamblin and her hierarchy of shepherding control and then by water baptism in the Weigh Down Workshop warehouse. The Remnant Fellowship community in Franklin opened their arms to another family of “scattered saints” as new recruits were called, finding refuge in the Remnant harbor. The Smiths became popular and well known for their gentle, winsome sincerity and zeal. The couple began losing the weight they were told they needed to, heard the gospel of Remnant through what they called “God’s Diet,” and then joined a local Remnant chapter in Atlanta. Readily giving themselves over to this new faith community, it became the center of their lives. They were advised by their Remnant shepherds that to be serious about changing their lives and glorifying God, their abject obedience to the direction the church leadership was vital. They were examples of unhesitating submission to their leaders.
So the Smiths continued in their quest for righteousness by weight loss and everything else in their lives that this bodily holiness should have brought them. They and their fellow Remnant members readily accepted the larger than life influence of Gwen Shamblin herself and aided by her then lieutenant Tedd Anger. By pre-Zoom teleconference group phone calls, they and their chapter participated weekly in Bible and book studies conferenced through the Franklin hub community and drew spiritual direction and personal structure from what they were instructed. This was how the Remnant Fellowship conducted itself and still does to this day, using streaming video and social media services as their koinonia, using their curricula as a catechism.
With their three sons, Joseph and Sonya enthusiastically participated in festivals, gatherings and the 2003 summer church camp. An opportunity to testify to their life in “the message” of the WDW opened up when a Fox News interview of them in their own home in September that year was arranged. Video clips of interviews with Joseph and Sonya, their son Mykel and other Remnant members in Atlanta were edited into a glowing news segment that spotlit their efforts and hailed the WDW as a venue for personal revolution. There was even video of Josef Jr reading a Bible and the family praying over their dinner. It was a dream come true for the public relations and promotional wings of the WDW business. This was certainly seen as a great opportunity to advance the WDW and Gwen's vision to expand it's market share.
That was until one of the children of the Smiths ended up dead.
That child was identified as Josef. And as the investigation into how his life ended continued, the Remnant "message" authored by Gwen Shamblin and her god began to rightly draw scrutiny in a new and far more probing way from media all over the world. This public firestorm of controversy forever changed how Gwen and Remnant would conduct themselves, a consequential dimension of what life really is like in their Tennessean hothouse.
By all accounts, it became sadly apparent that Josef for some time prior to the Fox News crew visit has been exhibiting severe behavioral problems. It had been resulting in chaos in the Smith household. Records obtained by the Atlanta Journal Constitution included reports by child welfare workers in Henry County, Georgia that "the boy was acting as though possessed by demons, that he was planning to kill people," and "that he was not receiving mental health services." This was a disturbing family problem that the Fox media, of course, never saw. But revealing glimpses of it were alluded to in a webcast discussion Sonya had with Shamblin (CLICK to hear an excerpt). Josef had been disruptive, destructive and violent and the Smiths had been at their wits end in trying to handle an apparently longstanding problem their son had.
And Shamblin, Anger and the Atlanta chapter were all fully aware of Josef's problem. Dictates for the restoration of order in her family were clear and direct from the top of this "authority line", a clearly defined hierarchy of unquestioned church leadership who exerted absolute influence over those beneath them. The webcast excerpt revealed that this mandate was being pressed by both Shamblin and Anger and had been for an unknown duration of time. This compelling influence was in keeping with the church's top down "authority line" control on its members through their shepherds, where that immediate submission to their direction was required as the leaders thought it appropriate.
The directives from Shamblin's well known teaching tape entitled "Disciplining Children God's Way" had already been mass distributed to Remnant membership and were foremost in all Remnant minds as they considered how to handle the discipline of their children as they misbehaved. Any child's disobedience, according to Gwen in that recording, was a soul-damning "sin" that had be "gotten out" of the child (CLICK to hear excerpt). This tape recording featuring Gwen and another one of her shepherds David Martin about how to discipline children to get sin out of a Remnant child strongly advocated corporal punishment. The punishment, as Gwen authorized it, could culminate in a "showdown spanking" meant to apply continual and repeated spankings of children "over and over and over again," as Martin glibly intoned with relish (CLICK to hear excerpt). With these taped Remnant leadership directives in mind and with their own grasp of the pastoral phone visitation which Gwen and Tedd supplied, the Smiths pressed on with their efforts to reign Josef in. It seemed to have helped for a time thereafter. To Remnant, it seemed that the all vital illusion of control and compliant child obedience was being maintained, thus proving the truth and authority of their spiritual claims.But the problems reoccurred and this time the Smiths' application of discipline upon Josef tragically crossed a fateful line.
In disciplining Josef while trying to control his outbursts, the "punishment" turned injuriously abusive. A CourtTV reporter summarized what happened that warm fall evening in Mableton among the Smiths:
"Sonya and Joseph Smith were watching an online church service offered by the Remnant Fellowship Church on Oct. 8, 2003, but their 8-year-old son, Josef, was misbehaving .. Josef wasn't being obedient and wasn't praying. Josef's then-13-year-old brother told police that his parents decided to punish Josef by putting him in a small wicker box with the lid closed, then tying electrical cords around it to prevent him from escaping. After the church service was over and the Smiths undid the cords, they noticed "Josef wasn't exactly breathing," Doctors determined he was brain dead, and he died a day later at the hospital ..Documented investigative interviews and the medical examiners' autopsy report and photos detail horrific amounts of physical trauma that Josef had suffered in the months leading up to his death in October of 2003. In fact, as we've shared, state child protective services agencies in Georgia since May of that year had long been aware of his disturbing behavior as a result of the concerns of Joseph Smith's daughter from his first marriage and failed to follow through with further investigation. With a safety net so compromised, the curtains on the stage for this nightmare were finally drawn.
The Remnant media mentioned above in the months prior to Josef's death when reviewed show that Gwen Shamblin and Tedd Anger were acting as spiritual counselors to the Smiths by delivering pastoral care and direction as their shepherds. They were acting as spiritual directors to the Smiths. This is a well established fact. In the above exchange of Sonya with Gwen that took place by conference call, Sonya gave no credence to family intervention by certified secular family mental health counselors. She explicitly, deliberately and publicly rejected this avenue of assistance and instead revealed that she did all she was told to do by Tedd Anger to discipline her son. And Shamblin herself even commented on how Josef went from "bizarre" to "in control," triumphantly inferring that his known behavior problems were addressed by their influence.
Despite their shepherds having no formal counseling or crisis intervention training, it was enough for the Smiths that they had been given direction on how to discipline their son. They needed the aid of child counseling specialists (which they rejected) and instead trusted in the clanging cymbals of a narcissistic dietician and a former brash account manager who supposedly knew how to help them as Christian "shepherds." Whether they knew of Josef's physical abuse at the hands of his parents is not the point here as that is not known. What the Smiths did was to follow and lamentably apply this fanciful advise of Anger and Shamblin in such a manner that their grievous chastising of their son left him mortally injured after one night of horror and after too many verifiable incidents in the past had already left him with scars and bruising so distinct that investigators could tell what kind of instrument had been used on him. In post-autopsy reports, Joseph pointed out what these objects were to them directly by pointing to the photos. At the trial, one of Josef's former baby-sitters, Laura Boone, recounted his father's direction on how to deal with him if he misbehaved. In videoed testimony on the stand (CLICK to hear excerpt), Boone under oath testified that Smith told her to "hit him hard."
We have consistently stated that we don't believe Shamblin or Anger directed the Smiths to intentionally abuse or murder their child. But we also are certain that responsible pastoral intervention should have steered this troubled family to professional help and that they totally failed their parishioners on this point. I was personally able to tell Tedd Anger, in answering a question by his bumbling lawyer during a 2010 deposition made as they again sued me for slander that had Josef gotten real help, he might still be alive.
That is my own pastoral corrective I will be forever glad I had a chance to look him in the eye to quietly yet unapologetically declare. Gwen was out of the room, drinking her Diet Coke and fretting about her daily schedule. Anger just blankly looked at me as the questioning continued. They lost their second attempt to litigate me into silence and the Judgment Day will have an infinitely higher court for them to answer at.
The trial lasted for a couple of months in the spring of 2007, and when it concluded, the Smiths ultimately were convicted of the murder of their son Josef. They were found guilty of abusing their child to death, in a twisted home life where the parents cooperatively engaged in a campaign of physical beatings of an apparently highly disturbed and mentally ill child supposedly meant to save his soul. Their most recent legal appeals exhausted again, the Smiths now continue to serve life sentences in the Georgian prison system for the murder of their son. The hubris of Remnant insistences they were victims of twisted justice are still online to find and read. We won't link to this patently deceitful waste of bandwidth here. To this day, Remnant members still view their incarceration as a gross miscarriage of justice and readily defend the Smiths as choice and precious people of like faith.
The premature 2003 death of Josef's younger brother Milek was never investigated further (it was believed to be SIDS related) and Mykel would go on to be convicted for robbery and sentenced to a 10 year prison term in April 2017 in South Dakota after an armed hold up at a Sioux City convenience store in 2015. Curiously, there was no known protest of Remnant membership on his behalf at the hearing in U.S. District Court there. The online 2017 calendar Remnant has posted shows that at that time in April, Remnant's attention was fully focused upon yet another glitzy Passover religious celebration meant to remind reinforce their elitist indoctrination as God's chosen people. No one from Remnant Fellowship that we are aware of was there to advocate for Mykel as he was sentenced to 10 years behind bars. No website exposing a perversion of justice on his behalf or exposing misunderstanding of his career in crime is on the Internet.
Yet the Smiths press on and still push the Weigh Down "Message" to their fellow inmates as a prison "ministry", their belief in their religion remaining unbroken. It must surely be increasingly more and more difficult for them to reconcile their plight and the destruction of their family with a sign of blessing from God. This "Message" certainly must be getting more difficult to convey to their incarcerated peers. But false gospels preaching false views of Christ by the power of false and unholy spirits generally are found to be pretty tough words to bear (2 Corinthians 11:4).
To have to painfully recount this episode is bad enough, but it becomes a cautionary retelling of established fact that those involved or involving themselves with Remnant should be aware of. The Smith tragedy demonstrates just to what extent Remnant's authority will go to utterly and ruthlessly control the lives of its members and what it will do to defend the degree of immoral and unethical control over the minds and hearts of its slaves they demand. This intrusive and immoral manipulation of human lives goes on today at so many levels within Remnant Fellowship. The willingness of Remnant members to consider their own internal leadership's counsel as the final word for their personal direction perpetuates a subculture of abuse that has grown far more insidious since 2003. The testimonies of ex-Remnant members document this too painfully well.
For all of their self-congratulatory focus on themselves and the appealing, warm tone they inspire, the gilding on their cage and the glitter of the chains remain. It doesn't change the nature of Remnant's Orwellian culture of authoritarian manipulation. It all just has great photography, laughing children, and lots of smiles. The coercive pressure of "shepherds" upon their flock is still as relentless as gravity. The trap is real. The bondage is substantial. The fear of man redefined as a fear of God is deeper than ever.
And the Smith family dream, like the Remnant Fellowship agenda for those under its control, still is a nightmare.
Back To The Spiritwatch Home Page