Creffield, Brainwashing and Thought Reform

Edmund CreffieldHow did Franz Edmund Creffield gain control over people? It would comforting to put the blame on his followers, to think they were weak. Or loony. Or came from bad stock. Or at the very least that they had wretched childhoods. But, for the most part, they were normal people, people like the rest of us, intelligent, well-adjusted people from good homes.

Chapters in Holy Rollers: Murder and Madness in Oregon's Love Cult that are about people like the ones next door who join a dangerous cult are more unsettling than chapters that areabout murders and debauchery. They are unsettling because it means that anyone--maybe even you--could fall victim to someone like Creffield.

He "was a hypnotist," an in-law of Creffield said as an explanation for how he gained control over his flock.

He had a "look that seemed to cast a spell over a person," someone else said.

"During his schooling he made a particular study of mental telepathy and, it is claimed, became something of an expert in the science of thought transference," someone else said. Correspondence courses in hypnotism were popular at the time, courses that promised to "make women bend to your will."

A look that cast a spell? Mental telepathy? The science of thought transference? And these are statements made by people in Holy Rollers who weren't eventually committed to the insane asylum.

"Brainwashing." That's what most lay people today would say was how Creffield gained control over his flock of Holy Rollers. "Thought Reform" is the term Dr. Lifton would probably use. Robert Jay Lifton, M. D., a professor of psychology and psychiatry at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is viewed by many as the founding father of "thought reform" and is the author of Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.

Consciously or unconsciously, thought Reform is the method cult leaders through out the ages have used to influence their followers. This makes Holy Rollers--in addition to being a good read--a cautionary tale for the steps Creffield used to start his church are similar to the steps many dangerous cult leaders use today to trap people.

Even the most unlikely candidates can be lured into a cult in a short period of time. For example, in 1903, within three days of meeting Creffield, Captain Charles Brooks, an eleven year veteran in the Salvation Army, cried that he was approached by the Devil who was covered in snakes, and that he himself felt as though he was covered in frogs, lizards, and other "hideous reptiles."

"As a means of placating his devilish majesty," Brooks tore off his uniform, hurled it into a fire, and then--as they did in that day and age--swooned. Not only did he join Creffield's flock, but he announced he was also "a prophet." Soon he became Creffield's most trusted disciple.

Soon there after, politicians were left slack jawed when O. V. Hurt, a respected business and family man and one time chairman of Oregon's Republican Central Committee, also joined Creffield's flock Holy Rollers. Hurt left his job, claimed he had "been living in sin," and posted signs on his door that said: "Positively no admittance except on God's business."

Lifton says there are eight 'psychological themes' that can be found in totalistic groups like the Holy Rollers. "In any combination," he says, "they may temporarily energize or exhilarate, which at the same time poses the greatest of human threats"

The eight themes are: Milieu Control, Mystical Manipulation, The Demand for Purity, Cult of Confession, Sacred Science, Loading the Language, Doctrine Over Person, and Dispensing of Existence

To read an article by Dr. Lifton on thought reform in The Harvard Mental Health Letter go to

Want something more in depth? Read Lifton's book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism first published in 1967 by W. W. Norton & Co and then reissued in 1987.

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