The Sick Biblical Literalism That Puts Children at Risk of Abuse and Even Death

Obey written on handIn 2008, Hana Williams was adopted from an orphanage in Ethiopia and brought to the United States where she died at the hands of her Bible-believing American parents. Their notion of Christian discipline required breaking her will, a remarkably common belief among conservative Evangelicals. To that end, they frequently beat her, shut her in a closet, and denied her meals. Ultimately, she was left outside where she died of hypothermia exacerbated by malnutrition. They were convicted of manslaughter this month.

Whoever spares the rod quoteIn carrying out their obsession with child obedience, Hana’s adoptive parents drew tips from Tennessee preacher Michael Pearl, whose spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child book, To Train Up a Child, has been found now in three homes of Christian parents who killed their adopted children. The title comes from a stanza in the book of Proverbs: Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.

wooden spanking paddleM. Dolon Hickmon is the author of an upcoming novel called 13:24 that includes religiously motivated abuse. Hickmon was raised by parents who subscribed to this kind of discipline, and he speaks first-hand about deep and long-lasting scars from Bible-based childrearing. Hickmon left his 6,000 member megachurch after a pastor seized on Father’s Day as a prime occasion to teach the congregation how to shape and sand wooden spanking paddles. For Hickmon, the sermon triggered memories of the beatings he had suffered as a child—administered by Christian parents and justified by biblical teachings.

While struggling to hold together his faith, Hickmon sent a letter soliciting advice from an online ministry run by the authors of a popular Evangelical parenting manual. He wrote as if he were a father experiencing marital conflict because his wife interfered when he hit their terrified, screaming six-year-old. In reality, Hickmon was describing his own childhood experience. (You can read his letter, which is full of intentional red flags, here.) The response: Your wife is at fault in coming to your son’s defense. Your son uses her. Either she stays out of the way, or you will have to stop being a real Dad. Such is the power of biblical literalism.

Mercifully, secular courts don’t agree that inflicting physical wounds is an acceptable part of parenting. Hana’s parents will be sentenced in October. Their seven biological children and adopted son—they had also adopted a boy from Ethiopia ironically named Immanuel, meaning “God is with us”— are now safe from their abuse. It is noteworthy, though, that as in the case of the Yemeni child brides, American children are being made safer by secular institutions, not adherence to ancient texts and traditions.

Child protections have become established in most countries, and conversations about child-friendly religion are gaining ground. Even so, a growing number of children are subject to patriarchal groups that take parenting priorities from the Iron Age. Evangelical Christians, fearing that their religion is losing ground, have ramped up recruiting activities targeting high school and college students but also young children. Their tool bag includes afternoon club programs and enticing camps. Some churches, like that of TV’s Duggar family, promote a high birth rate, adding young sheep to the fold the old fashioned way. Many churches encourage members—even those who already have numerous children—to adopt.

Kathryn Joyce’s book, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption exposes Evangelical ministries that have resorted to even lies and bribes to pursue their mission of getting children into good Christian homes. A more common criticism is that Evangelical adoption priorities fuel construction of aid-dependent orphanages rather than addressing the underlying systemic issues that cause maternal destitution and death, leaving children parentless.

Many Evangelical families provide a balance of love and structure and moderate discipline that helps kids thrive. But even well intentioned and loving parents can be thrown off by a church or books that hold up spare the rod, spoil the child as advice from God. Troubled kidWhen parenting practices derive literally from the Iron Age texts of Bible, the price can be enormous.

As a child, M. Dolon Hickmon collected bits he’d heard in sermons and adult conversations, trying to understand his fear and hurt. Ultimately he decided the fault lay in himself:

Here are the messages I gleaned from the church of my childhood: that beating children is acceptable—good for them, in fact; bruises and welts are of little consequence; that fear is desirable, as is pained screaming and broken sobbing. I’d heard that kids were to be whipped for the least act of disobedience, with belts and sticks and plastic racecar tracks; on bare skin, and as often as an adult thought was necessary.

A child abuser, on the other hand, is someone who doesn’t love you. A parent who never gives hugs because he is angry all the time. A child abuser is a drinker, a druggie, or at best some kind of wild animal. An abuser has no reasons or explanations. He just burns kids with cigarettes and gives them broken arms.

My abuser loved me and hugged me, and he overflowed with explanations. I once got an hour-long lesson on disobedience for leaving a crayon on the floor. While the belt clapped with the measured rhythms of chopping firewood, I struggled to commit verses to memory and to answer quizzes on the metaphysical meanings of the word honor in scripture. . . .

I tolerated being degraded, because that was what I thought a Christian child was supposed to do.

Children generally have a hard time protecting themselves from abusive caregivers. Children who are made to believe that God is on the side of the abuser and that they deserve to suffer are all the more unable to fend off physical and psychological wounds. To quote Pat Benetar’s song “Hell is for Children,” love and pain become one and the same in the eyes of a wounded child.

As of late, critics have been raising awareness of the link between certain kinds of religious parenting and abuse. Janet Heimlich, author of Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, recently founded the Child-Friendly Faith Project, a national nonprofit organization that educates the public about the impact that religious, spiritual, and cultural beliefs and practices have on children.

parent-and-child-arguing (2)We now know a great deal about how children flourish and how adults can manage parent-child conflict for positive outcomes. Psychologist Laura Kastner distilled two decades of parenting research into seven basic principles, which provide the structure for her book, Wise-Minded Parenting. When asked to comment on recent tragedies, Kastner suggested that we may have learned a thing or two in the millennia since our sacred texts were written:

Our growing knowledge of child development tells us that authoritative parenting grounded in mutual respect works better in the long run than threats and force. It is a shame that factions among us still support the use of the “rod” when we have abundant evidence that non-violent parental strengths are the key to building success and character.

Tragedies like the death of Hana Williams prompt soul searching. For example, the case has prompted calls for adoption reform. But what shape should reforms take? We cannot exclude prospective parents on the basis of their religious affiliation, nor should we. Many adoptive parents are inspired by their faith to step up and do the hard sustained work of loving and raising orphaned children despite their special needs and challenges.

And yet beliefs matter. They can override compassion and common sense, as Hickmon’s experience so clearly shows. Encircled by like-minded believers, parents and children may get little exposure to outside parenting practices. This means that religious leaders have tremendous power to either cause suffering or to help families develop skills that are grounded in a genuine understanding of child development. As we collectively muddle our way toward a better future, we need to engage in a thoughtful, complicated conversation about parental power and children’s wellbeing, and the positive and negative roles religion can play in finding a balance that helps kids flourish.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles can be found at

Child-Friendly Faith Project
The Fragile Boundary Between Religion and Child Abuse
Imagine No Religion. On Facebook.
Eight Ugly Sins the Catholic Bishops Hope Lay Members and Others Won’t Notice
Don’t Want Pro-Genocide Bible Lessons in Your Public School? Fight Back! Here’s How.

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Musings & Rants: Christianity and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to The Sick Biblical Literalism That Puts Children at Risk of Abuse and Even Death

  1. vera ersilia says:

    I knew such a family who tied their two growing boys to a post inside their home church and lashed them regularly, on Sunday, for their weekly infractions. The father was a home-made preacher of the Church of Christ. It pained me to hear the sounds that often echoed on Sundays before music and hymns were sung. I could not do anything because I was a very young inexperienced woman who had just come to the U.S., and I was Catholic. So: “none of my business”… it was. But it shocked me.
    Years later I heard that both boys had left home as soon as they reached legal age.


    • How horrible to know and to be so helpless.


    • niuginiboy says:

      I’m sorry, but these are flimsy excuses at best. No matter how old you are, how experienced you are, how long you’ve been in a place or what your religious affiliation, to witness abuse (of any kind, religious or otherwise) and say that is was “none of [your] business” because of any of those reasons, just makes you as bad and as culpable as the people perpetrating the abuse.


      • vera ersilia says:

        Hmmm, it is easy to speak when you are not in the situation and do not know the details of a situation. There was NOTHING that I could have done. I was learning the ways of a foreign country, and discovering a barbaric form of Christianity.


  2. syrbal-labrys says:

    I was raised by an abusive mother who called herself an atheist, except when she was quoting Biblical bits to justify her beating me whenever she had a crummy day. That crap never worked for me.


  3. Mary Kay Barbieri says:

    An excellent and very balanced piece. When I was a prosecuting attorney on the Special Assault Unit in King County, a shocking percentage of child abuse cases (assaults and homicides) arose in the context of parents who were taught that severe child abuse was required by the Bible. Some of these parents were victims too. Thank you for this excellent and compassionate piece.


    • It’s not at all balanced. In all the myriad “christian” beliefs she focuses in on one and lumps all of Christianity together under the one abusive umbrella. I’m not denying that there are people out there who believe and do these things. However, they are a twisting of what the bible actually teaches. There are many, many Christians out there, myself included, who honor women, children, independent thought, and discipline rather than punishment, who would rather train a child to make the right choices for the right reasons, but also honors their right to make their own choices, even if they conflict with what I believe is right, rather than breaking their will. After all, that is what God does for us.


      • VLR says:

        What DOES the Bible “actually teach,” then? There are many, many passages about physically chastising children. Find one that contradicts it.


  4. Good and important article! I hate to admit it, but I was a few years into practice as a marriage and family counselor, having been educated at a prominent Christian university, before I “got” the connection between the biblical justification or “call” for corporeal punishment and the incidence of serious abuse (not mild spanking). It took a secular counselor to help point it out. And the specific parenting advisor in question was none other than James Dobson… not that he advocated abuse or extreme measures, but that too many parents would use his stance to justify their abusing ways.

    My other thought is that many more Evangelical pastors need to speak out clearly and strongly against the rigid, “break the will” kinds of parenting training and the various extremes that go against both the knowledge of good parenting built up now, and plain common sense.


    • todd says:

      From the perspective of an adult, and having survived a childhood where I received such James Dobson influenced abuse, I can say with confidence that Dobson advocates an extreme point of view. Hitting kids is always abuse. Don’t listen to the religious idiots that justify it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. CFB says:

    Reblogged this on lit! * (Commerce & Arts) and commented:
    Parts of this article precisely describe my personal experiences, including the bruises and welts. Unfortunately, also in my experience, most people tend to react to these kinds of stories in personal terms of blame, emotions, anger, forgiveness, resentment, and all the pop-psychology narratives without considering the systemic, religious, cultural, and interpretive problems. In other words, more serious and problematic than my feelings are the rampant falsehoods that multiply when people start reading the Bible. Consider, too, that the worst of my experiences happened between 36 and 33 years ago. This article names at least three cases that are only 5 years old. Even with several charismatic “revivals” and blessings, even with Rick Warren’s rise to stardom, even with the advent of The Gospel Coalition website, nothing has changed. Nothing has changed. Nothing has changed.


    • Thanks for sharing, CFB. First, sorry for your experience!

      As to your frustration that “nothing has changed”, I do think we may have some reason for at least a little optimism. I haven’t researched actual stats re. abuse trends, etc. but I do follow general church and theological trends, and their interaction with cultural, educational ones, etc. Based on that, I do know that the trend away from “buying” whatever conservative leaders (pastors, etc.) put out, seems to be picking up among younger kids. At least a slightly higher percentage raised on a literal interpretation of the Bible and related family style, etc., are either leaving the church, going to more liberal or “emerging” ones or in general bucking older trends involving things like authoritarianism in parenting and patriarchy. I do know many home-schooled youth and some others “escape” this trend by isolation and heavy indoctrination, which tends to drive the conservative further in their direction. But it’s not enough to fully counter the cultural trend, as I see it. But I continue to keep eyes open.


      • CFB says:

        Hi Howard — Thank you for your reply. Maybe I went too far by saying nothing has changed. I’m sure my case was not typical, and the case described in Talerico’s post is not terribly common. I guess if I put a finer point on it, I would say I’m concerned that the Bible seems to be a free-floating, context-free book particularly adept at lodging virulent thoughts in some minds. Meanwhile, “biblical authority” and “biblical” and “inerrancy” and even “high view of Scripture” are used forcefully yet without much definition — which, in turn, allows a single verse or a few verses to become poisonous. Considering the Temptation of Christ, whether as myth or fact as one will, either way, the Devil used proof-texts much like the scariest sort of Bible-applier.


    • Claire says:

      That is a brilliant point about the devil using out of context scripture to tempt Christ.


  6. lara/trace says:

    Reblogged this on lara (author-blogger) and commented:
    …”Tragedies like the death of Hana Williams prompt soul searching. For example, the case has prompted calls for adoption reform. But what shape should reforms take? We cannot exclude prospective parents on the basis of their religious affiliation, nor should we. Many adoptive parents are inspired by their faith to step up and do the hard sustained work of loving and raising orphaned children despite their special needs and challenges….”


  7. bigstick1 says:

    Reblogged this on Critical Thinking – A World View and commented:
    The disease of religion.


  8. eagoodlife says:

    Reblogged this on The Life Of Von and commented:
    Excellent post -what more is there to say?


  9. TruthSurge says:



  10. Charlene says:

    Not so many years ago a group of Americans protested against the opening of a Moslem temple near Ground Zero in Manhattan. They were concerned it was a training school for jihadists intent on harming innocent Americans. Is there anyone more innocent than a child? Will these same people protest against these Churches remaining open?


  11. Ibrahim Sumrain says:

    It is important to be mindful of the harm that may come from unfair generalization and dangers of stereotyping; however, the three monotheistic religions adopted a similar approach of how to manage family life. God, being the source of control has become the example to follow. It is about control. God is not a democratic concept. God is not about being fair and allowing people to grow up via experiences and maturing to become a responsible person. The dictates from these religions must be followed, and this gives people who thirst for control to find the their ultimate support and justification.
    These books and those who follow them are afraid of and not willing to consider the alternative, which is to manage family life in an authoritative manner.
    Having said that, the incidents mentioned represent an extreme interpretation of instructions that are not meant to lead to such tragic end. The New Testament encourages love and forgiveness as well.


  12. Susann Tarico says:

    Valerie, I have read many of your articles and have been amazed by your thoughtfulness, your wisdom, and the extensiveness of your research. I realize you have personal experiences as well that prompted you to write this article. I also was abused as a child by both my parents, and so were my 2 brothers and my sister. However, I have never hit my son with my hand or any objects, even though I was raised Catholic, and as an adult became an evangelical Christian. People who do evil will use all kinds of rationalities, and abuse is committed by flawed people who call themselves religious and flawed people who call themselves atheists. Evil is even committed in the secular world – evil is committed everywhere.
    I am still a flawed person as well, but faith healed some of my brokenness. I believe in a living and loving Father God.


    • Thank you, Susann. I appreciate your kind, thoughtful responses to my articles when you weigh in–especially because some of the articles themselves have an edge. I get so frustrated with the harm being done. Most of my other evangelical family members avoid reading what I write, probably because they feel like that is the only way they can keep liking me. :)


      • Valerie, if you can’t be liked for who you are as a thoughtful human being, and your family’s ‘faith’ can’t handle that, then you can rest assured you did the right thing by leaving. Bible-conditioned souls have an amazing way to rationalizing and justifying their beliefs no matter the consequences because while Christ spoke of compassion, yet the bible-church combo has a way of conditioning the mind (that is what a mind control manual is for, you see), and making it justify injustices and cruelties done “in the name of God” and then they turn around and condemn the muslims for doing the SAME THING as bible god does! The cognitive dissonance I have seen is amazing. The only thing that can do THAT kind of mind twists that I’ve seen is the subconscious programming that takes place on a level of which most of them are not even aware of. And part of the programming is to ‘defend the faith’ and defend God (or at least the imaginary god in the bible). It’s sad. I give you much credit for taking these chances of losing your family all because you have a critical thinking skills which can see past it all. But you’re not alone.


      • Thank you. My Evangelical family members and I mostly manage to remember that we love each other –by avoiding the topic of religion.


    • Raine says:

      Yes the bible-believers too often do give rationalizations to abuse their children as “God’s will” permits (as they see it). But the reason YOU personally didn’t harm your children is DESPITE your faith, not BECAUSE of it. As a former believer; I couldn’t in my heart do to children what the god of the bible says to do at times in terms of “discipline”, since that god needed to learn empathy apparently). I know first hand what it is like to experience religiously motivated abuse and other abuses that come from the “religious mindset” let’s just say, and the worst kind of all is the religious abuse.

      The child believes that what they are getting is DESERVED because they are bad intrinsically and they have to have the badness beat outta them. Great way to cause life-long psychological harm! Because God loves us? Only in the bible- trained (conditioned) mind can that go together and even make sense! It used to to me too until I recovered from the soul splitting abuse I dealt with. God ‘the Father” is an abuser whose message of ultimate shame just for being born helps to mold the children to obedience (even unto death) so that that way then they grow up, their minds will be so warped and they wont’ be able to sort out love from abuse (and they will be slaves who never question the world around them nor at least not too deeply). I spend most of my adult life healing from all those kinds of “disciplines” and those were used to keep me in line so as to accept the other abuses. God of the bible is so awesome isn’t he? He is after all, a MAN of war (Exod.15:3). War and the excuse for supporting it, are usually tied up in the damaged self, with no identity of existence apart from this loving Father God of War and oppression, who has to viciously and violently attack it’s ‘enemies” (thought we were supposed to pray for them not kill them…oh well). I guess he’s so jealous, he can’t stand the thought of his slaves worshiping anything other than him (if he were real). Praise ye the Lord! And of course God HAS to be a MALE right? Because women are the WHOLE REASON for the fall of the human race in that theology. THAT alone has been a great excuse to abuse women through out the centuries. But God is so awesome ya know. I don’t mean to offend you. I just have a hard time with the endless STOCKHOLM SYNDROME thing I see on the part of those who feel they must DEFEND Bible God.


  13. veronique2 says:

    Thank you for this article. This is at the heart of the problem inherent in our society: patriarchy. It has ruled our society, our beliefs, even how we eat (Read The Sexual Politics of Meat aka meat is “men’s food) etc. We just constantly replay examples of male domination and it will never change unless women start really rising and demand serious change. And it starts by changing themselves first.
    Some time ago, I wrote a blog that may interest you in the light of this article.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Claire says:

    I believe that there are many kinds of evangelicals, and though I don’t share their beliefs, it is clear that for some their faith is only a foundation for goodness. We should label the others what they are: Christian Extremists. They are instigators of hate and terrorists in their own homes.
    Let’s continue to be careful to distinguish them from the sincere believers who practice kindness.


    • By Christian Extremist, do you mean those who are Fundamentalist? The bible claims to be from God and is to be followed every single word (Matt.4:4) and it is supposed to be perfect in training us up into godly persons. But it’s fruits show otherwise. So, if you believe it’s from God then you DO need to obey every word, but if it’s not the words from God, then why bother with it? I am amazed how the black and white thinking of “either or” which fundamentalist like to use, doesn’t make it to estimating the bible’s veracity. It is either the Word of the God of all Creation OR it iS Not. Which? And if it’s not the word of God then why make people beholden to it? Can’t have it both ways. Sorry.


  15. todd says:

    Gee, thanks for nothing Mom and Dad…


    • acknowledge the influence of your parents, forgive them, and then take personal responsibility for your own actions, choices and beliefs. Best wishes to all in recovery. :)


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  18. Gnarlodious says:

    I know this is true because it happened to me. The preacher told them “Spare the rod and spoil the child”, so we were whipped routinely on our bare butts. Many times we were not allowed to go to school because they were afraid our black and blue legs would bring a truant officer. We lived in the country so the parents could whip us isolated from neighbors who might hear us scream and intervene. This happened back in the mid ‘70s, when people were less aware of the problem. My parents have been in prison for 16 years and I personally could not care less.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a nightmare. Childhood with intermittent torture.


    • shatara46 says:

      Bullies come in all shapes, sizes, genders and organizations. They are psychopaths. They self-gratify by inflicting pain on victims and whatever excuse they use is just that, an excuse. This problem is rife planet-wise, with and without religion, though the Christian religion provides a convenient excuse in Christian thought dominated cultures. My father was such an abuser and in later life his propensity to inflict violence on children (myself) developed into sexual predation with other children. By then he was no longer using his religion as an excuse: he had none. He was “helping” these children. He preyed on the poorer kids and bought them things. Point is, the problem is in “man” rather than in religion. Take away religion and the problem remains, perhaps may even exacerbate. In any case some other justification will be used. On the other hand, from a “nature” perspective, the problem, while real, has little or no effect on the species as a whole, if one considers its overwhelming success at dominance of the rest of nature. Perhaps this tendency to love violence is what makes man so incredibly “successful” vis-a-vis all other sentient life. Child abuse is but one aspect of the countless ways man inflicts gratuitous pain on others. The conclusion is simple enough: the source of the problem of violence in man is in man, not in his “gods” or systems.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Christian says:

    I am going with Devout Christian’s stand. In our religion, there is in no way an acceptance of abuse. The “spare the rod, spoil the child” does not mean, “Beat the crap out of your child and laugh about the result”, nor was it ever meant that way. There is a difference between abuse and punishment.
    I am only a teenager, and yes, I was punished when I was younger. At the time, it seemed like it was the worst thing that could happen, but I did realize that I deserved it. Now, I am glad that I was spanked. I am on very good terms with my parents, and I am proud of the way that they brought me up.
    All that I can say is that most of you had parents who did not actually care about their religion, and just used certain passages as laxatives for themselves. Or that all you are trying to do is soothe your angry, childish, and immature feelings, like I used to do. I would make up certain parts of the ordeal, way under exaggerating my part of it and blowing up my parents part of it. Some of them sound very similar to the crayon story of Dolon Hickmon. He sounds like he can’t forgive and forget.
    Finally, don’t group all Christian religions together. These sound like isolated cases, where the parents had anger control issues, and the Bible in absolutely no way condones this. The breaking of the child’s will is not in there either, nor is killing or beating a child for little or no reason. If you complain about discipline for children, why don’t you complain about civil laws?


    • Let me ask you to consider this: Why does your emotional reaction to this article direct you to defend religion rather than defending children? People who engage after reading an article like this do so typically because something they care about feels threatened. The fact that your instinctive reaction was “must protect religion” not “must protect children” says something really, really important about Christianity’s hierarchy of priorities and about the power of religious belief to shape and direct our moral emotions.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. fantomex9 says:

    @Christian: I’m sorry, but there is no ‘loving’ way to spank anybody. If you can’t do that to your aged parents who live with you, to your spouse, or if your child can’t do that to other kids at school or their siblings, they there’s no way you should be able to do that to your child, and you should be arrested for assault and battery the same as if you did it to anybody else or the people I’ve mentioned above. Christian, Muslim, and Jewish fundies need to be told that this is wrong and dealt with as the law allows a lot more than they do.


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