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

by T. McCracken and Robert B. Blodgett



For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man.

Matthew 15:19-20


GardnerOn Friday, September 16th, Creffield was tried in Circuit Court before Judge Alfred F. Sears.  The case for the state was presented by Assistant District Attorneys G. C. Moser and H. B. Adams.  Creffield--with God presumably in the ether nearby--represented himself.  As it was expected that some of the testimony would be indecent, Judge Sears ordered the courtroom doors closed.

The prosecution called only five witnesses.

Burgess Starr testified that as soon as he heard of the illicit relations between his wife and Creffield, he made the complaint against him.

Donna Starr testified--her baby sitting in her lap--that she had committed adultery.  She said she was inspired by God to do so “for the purging of my soul of devils.”  She said she did not regret it in the least, she knew she was right, and she had acted of her own free will and volition.

John F. and Coral Worrell testified that both had been Holy Rollers “until Creffield made an improper proposal.”  John testified that he then “notified” Creffield to keep away from his wife and his home.  Coral said she had seen Creffield and Donna Starr “kiss each other,” that she had seen “them in a room together,” and that they had had “relations” in her home.  She said the public called the sect “The Holy Rollers,” but the members called themselves “The Brides of Christ.”

Esther MitchellLewis Hartley testified that his wife and daughter were Brides of Christ and that, in consequence, his daughter was in the insane asylum.

After Lewis testified, the prosecution rested its case.

That was the state’s case? disappointed spectators wondered.  Where was all the tawdriness?  No juicy tidbits to whisper and gossip about?  Why bother closing the courtroom doors?

The state could have produced more salacious testimony--could have had witnesses elaborate on the improper proposals Creffield had made, could have had witnesses tell why the Holy Rollers called themselves the Brides of Christ, could have explained why being a Bride of Christ was enough to drive some hopelessly insane.  But the state chose not to.  They didn’t want to shame Creffield’s most innocent victims--shame them more than they had already been shamed, that is.

“The acts of that man Creffield were so terrible,” William Gardner said, “that to those who did not actually know the facts it is hard to believe.  The newspapers have not printed half.  They cannot, for the story is too revolting for print.”

Gardner, superintendent at the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society had cared for three of the sixteen-year-old girls who were Brides of Christ--Esther Mitchell, Mae Hurt, and Florence Seeley.  They had told him that all the things Creffield had been accused of had happened.  They spoke of “Creffield’s lust,” and the “criminal relations” he had had with them--and worse.

“Many things have come to light through confessions of former followers never even imagined by those who placed the worst construction on his motives and acts,” the Telegram reported.  Alas, those interested in the lurid details--and who wasn’t?--were disappointed in that none of the most scandalous acts were revealed at that time.

The revolting story the girls told Gardner was about what had happened in Frank and Mollie Hurt’s house in December of the last year. At that time Joshua told his flock that God had again spoken to him, had given him some new teachings, new teachings that he now desired to be revealed to the Holy Ones.

“But,” Joshua said, “it is not for me to tell you what these teachings are.  You must ascertain them for yourselves through prayer.”

He preached about David and Bathsheba, the Hittite’s wife. David, upon seeing Bathsheba washing herself, “sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness: and she returned unto her house.  And the woman conceived, and sent and told David, and said, I am with child”--II Samuel 11:4-5.

Joshua kept the Holy Ones in constant prayer so that they perhaps wouldn’t think beyond what he preached to them, wouldn’t think about the rest of the story, wouldn’t think about what happened to Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. After Bathsheba was with child, David sensed that embarrassing questions might be asked in nine months, since Uriah was away in battle.

David called Uriah back home, told him to go to his wife. Uriah, however, wouldn’t leave his soldiers.  So David set Uriah up in a situation where he was sure to be killed.  Uriah was slain, “and when the mourning was past, David sent and fetched her [Bathsheba] to his house, and she became his wife, and bare him a son.  But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD”--II Samuel 11:27.

Joshua didn’t speak about this.  Instead he proclaimed: “Holy people need not wear clothing.” Drawing the curtains, Joshua undressed--exposing how he was “most wonderfully endowed by Mother Nature.”  He said that “clothing was intended to cover up sin and shame, and if the heart was made pure there was no sin, therefore should be no shame.”  So all the Holy Ones undressed.

He started to chant, swaying his arms and body.

Soon everyone in the room was chanting, swaying, and crying loudly.

He rolled on the floor, and the Holy Ones rolled with him.

“When one is living in the Holy Ghost he cannot sin,” Joshua cried.  “He lives a pure life.  We are told in the Bible that the Apostles lived without sin.  They lived by faith.  I can live the same way.”

He spoke of cleansing oneself of sin, of attaining purity, of love, and of Jesus.

What must I do to be holy?  Let us turn to Romans 12:1.  Paul says, “I beseech you, therefore brethren, by the mercies of God that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”  Paul was speaking to the converts.  Their sins were washed away, but they had not taken the next step, and that was to make their consecration complete.  The apostle urged them to give up all to the service of Christ, who had redeemed them, so that they might receive the Holy Ghost and become holy men. A sacrifice.  There is a condition--a complete one. Have you made it? . . . 

Do not be discouraged.  God wants to use you, to cleanse you, to purge you from your inbred sin, baptize you with fire, and enable you to come up to His commandment to live a holy life.  If you are willing to meet the conditions, give yourself a living sacrifice, holy unto God.  Put yourself on the altar, fully given up to do His bidding, to follow Him wherever He leads.  Claim the promise, stand firm upon it, and the witness of the Spirit will come, and will baptize you with His love and make you a holy man--make you victorious over the world, the flesh and the devil. . . .  The man or woman who is not willing to pay the price to become a soldier of Jesus Christ will fall sooner or later, for “without holiness no man shall see the Lord.”  Take time to be holy.

After hours of exhausting prayer one of the Holy Ones approached him and said God had spoken to her.

She said that she believed that He--Joshua, God’s Elect, the Second Savior--like Christ, could purify her.

She wanted to give up all in the service of Him.

She wanted to make a living sacrifice to Him.

She wanted to be put on the altar by Him.

She wanted fully to give herself up to His bidding.

She wanted to follow Him wherever He led her!

Hallelujah! Creffield must have thought.

He told the Holy Ones that this woman was right, that this was what God had desired be revealed to them.  Creffield said that he could now reveal what God had wanted them to know all along--that his true mission as Joshua was to find the woman who was going to be “the mother of the second Christ.”  This is why he had been sent to them.

“Christ would come again as He did before,” Joshua said, “a babe born of a virgin.”  Joshua said he didn’t know which woman was to be the mother of the second Christ, but that he knew it was to be one of the Holy Ones--now to be known as “The Brides of Christ.”

Which one of us? they all wanted to know

Joshua didn’t know.  It could be any one of them.

Any one of us?

Yes, any one of them could be the mother of the second Christ.

How is this possible?  How can all of us be candidates to be the next Mary if the second Christ is to be “a babe born of a virgin”?  Plainly not all of the women in the flock are virgins.  Some at this very moment are lying on the floor next to their offspring.  How can these women be virgins?--women such as Sarah Hurt, here with her three children; or Cora Hartley, here with her daughter.

Once sanctified, Joshua said, they were all virgins in the sight of the Lord--“Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled”--Titus 1:15.

Creffield said that God had told him that like “Mary of old,” the next Mary would need someone like “Joseph of old” to protect her.  God had told him that he, Joshua, was to take on this role as the new Joseph.  And as this new Joseph, he was to play a more active role than the first Joseph had played in the first Christ’s birth.  The new Mary would be purified and be ready to be the mother of the second Christ only after she had made love to him, Joshua.

God had told Him who the new Joseph was to be, but not who the new Mary was to be? Why?

Because, Creffield said, it didn’t matter who the new Mary was because God had also instructed him that he, Joshua, was to lay his hands upon all of the Brides of Christ to purify them.  This was because the other women in the flock, those not destined to be the mother of the second Christ, were still destined, according to their dispositions, “to be goddesses of love or duty”--”Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith”--Romans 12:6.

They would all be considered Brides of Christ.

“Jesus Christ, I tell you,” Joshua said, “has chosen me to purge the flesh from sin of all those who are willing.”  He assured them that what he was about to bid them to do--“free love”--did “not partake of the quality of lust,” but was “the will of God.” He assured them that no matter what he did, because of who he was, Joshua, God’s Elect, the Second Savior, he was incapable of sin.  And so were they.

Attie Bray & Mae HurtAnd why shouldn’t there be enjoyment in glorying for God?  Were they expected always to be suffering for God, exhausting themselves by praying and rolling for days on end, sleeping on bare floors so they would know cold, fasting so they would know hunger, estranging themselves from their friends and families?  They had done their penance.  Now it was time for the reward God had always wanted them to have, for them to become Brides of Christ.

And so orgies--in the name of God and purification--were held in Frank’s house during the Christmas season of 1903.  Mothers were “debauched in the presence of their daughters,” and daughters were debauched in the presence of their mothers.

And after all had been debauched--purified--Joshua instructed the women and girls to submit “themselves to the lust of other men.”  The only other men left in the flock were Frank Hurt, Charles Brooks, Sampson Levins and Lee Campbell.

All of Creffield’s flock--young and old--gave up all in the service of Him, Joshua, God’s Elect, the Second Savior.

All of them made living sacrifices to Him.

All of them had themselves put on the altar by Him.

All of them fully gave themselves up to His bidding.

All of them followed Him wherever He led them.

All of them, that is, but Sarah Hurt.  She refused to submit to him--to make love to him.  Joshua finally said that if Sarah would not submit to him, he would drive her out of the church and God would smite her. All she would see in the hereafter was her “soul plunging into an everlasting, burning, seething Hell.”

So, rather than risk eternal damnation, Sarah risked Hell on earth and became a Bride of Christ by making love to her son-in-law in front of her children, just as they had made love to others in front of her.  Very Old Testament this business of mothers being seduced in front of their children and their children being seduced in front of their mothers.  Is it any wonder that Sarah Hurt was now considered hopelessly insane?

After Joshua had made love to all the women in his flock in Corvallis he said God finally revealed to him who the new Mary was going to be. First of all, he said, despite what Esther Mitchell had told officials at the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid society--and perhaps what some of them believed--he himself was not God.  God was the head of their church.  He was merely the “visible head” and Maud was their “spiritual mother.”  Despite this error, Creffield said, Esther had found favor with God, that she was a saint, and was now their church’s “spiritual God.”  She was also going to be the mother of the second Christ.

Since Esther, sixteen-years old, was still locked up in the Aid Society, she was also the only virgin--by the usual definition of the word--left in Creffield’s flock.

Donna Starr had kept in touch with Esther by secretly meeting her in the Aid Society’s cellar.  It was during one such clandestine meeting that Donna relayed the wondrous news to her, that she had found favor with God and was to be the mother of the second Christ.  “Glory to God,” the sisters shouted while embracing each other.  “Down with the devil.  Victory!”

Superintendent Gardner--unaware of Esther’s meetings or of her new status with God--worried about Esther’s mental health, noting that for some unexplained reason she was suddenly getting worse.  “Her case is one of the most pathetic I ever knew,” he announced publicly.  “Unless she changes for the better soon we will ask to have her consigned to the insane asylum.  She would pray all day, kneeling by her bedside if permitted so to do.”

Donna Starr and Frank Hurt were detailed to abduct Esther from the Aid Society, but their attempts failed.  Officials there didn’t know why the Holy Rollers so desperately wanted Esther, but they feared that unless they did something, Esther would eventually be abducted--and that certainly wouldn’t help her sanity any.  So, they put Esther on a train with her brother Perry, and shipped her to Blueford, Illinois, to live with her father, Charles Mitchell--“a man of strong peculiarities and eccentricities.”

After Esther was sent to the Midwest, Joshua continued to “purify” the other members of his flock.  Just because the mother of the second Christ was trapped in Illinois didn’t mean mean they shouldn’t fulfill their destinies to be goddesses of love or duty.  Nothing would stop him from helping them purify themselves--not tarring and feathering, not getting married to Maud Hurt, not even there being a warrant out for his arrest.

While Creffield had been hiding under the Hurts' house, he had gone on purifying.  “There were prayer services and purification services almost daily,” O. V. said. “When I was away at work he would come out from under the floor and hold his orgies in my home.”  Creffield made love to all of the women of his flock.  Even Mae, O. V.’s “little girl.”  Mae may have been sixteen, but she would always be O. V.’s “little girl.”

“I learned from her lips all that had been going on,” O. V. said. “As I held her on my knee, she told me the story.”

“The only thing that kept her father from prosecuting Creffield,” Gardner said, “is he did not want the publicity which would probably be detrimental to his daughter hereafter.”

Had Creffield been found guilty of having sexual relations with teenage girls, he would have been sent to prison for a very long time--possibly for the rest of his life if he somehow were to meet an untimely death in prison.

O. V. felt the worst had already happened.  His wife was hopelessly insane and nothing could undo what had been done to his little girl.  Why go through more public humiliation by revealing it all in court?

It was a decision he regretted.


And the king loved Esther above all the women and she obtained grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti.

Esther 2:17

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