In the 1980s, Tennessee dietitian Gwen Shamblin might seem like one of the countless providers of weight loss programs. But her program, the “Weigh Down Workshop,” had a religious connection that electrified her followers – and would propel her to found her own creepy and dangerously restrictive church, according to a new docusery. As her power and influence grew, her hairstyle grew – into a dizzying tower of frosty blonde.
HBO Max’s “The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin”, the first three episodes of which debut today, follows the rise and fall of Shamblin’s Remnant Fellowship Church, which has been labeled a cult and implicated in the death of at least one child.
According to the film, Shamblin had begun to preach strict discipline in all areas of life, not just eating – including encouraging parents to beat their children with glue sticks, which left no mark if they were behaved badly. (The church released a statement saying it “categorically denies the absurd and defamatory statements and accusations made in this documentary.”)
Shamblin – who became Gwen Shamblin Lara when she married in 2018 – was not there to be interviewed for the doc, as she and several other church members died in a small plane crash in last May. But footage of his testimony in the case of the death of 8-year-old Josef Smith is shown in the first episode of the documentary, which then returns to explore the beginnings of Shamblin’s rise to cult leadership.
Raised in the ultra-strict Church of Christ, Shamblin landed gold in the early ’80s when she paired up a fairly simple weight loss program – basically, one that you shouldn’t eat food until. what you hear your stomach growl, then control your serving sizes – with Bible teachings.
âHonor God with your body,â she heard on one of her first motivational tapes. “I teach people how to stop bowing down to the refrigerator and how to bow down to it.” But soon, as former band members on the show claim, she brought shame on those who weren’t losing weight fast enough, or stopping it, and insisting they either do extreme fasts or quit. completely to eat.
Yet the Weigh Down workshops have spread like wildfire to evangelical churches across the country. Shamblin decided that God wanted her to found her own church, which she called the Remnant Fellowship Church, because it was the only “remnant” of the true Christian faith; unlike dieting, this religion was controversial, partly because it rejected the Holy Trinity favored by most Christian religions and partly because it was ruled by a woman. In this religion, there were two deities: God, and hardly second, Gwen Shamblin, according to doc. âI have good news,â she told her followers. âI found the church of God. She founded the church in 1999 in Franklin, Tennessee.
Gradually, the ex-members say in the document, church members became more and more zombified by Shamblin’s teachings, which grew more and more savage. (In a taped interview, she praised the effectiveness of prison camps as a weight loss technique.) The women looked like characters from “The Stepford Wives” or “The Handmaid’s Tale,” closely following the instructions strict life standards of Shamblin. Their ultra-disciplined children were dressed in strangely old-fashioned clothes: âI would say turn-of-the-century ruffles,â says one ex-member, âand a lot of lace. The little boys looked like little Lord Fauntleroy. Shamblin’s teachings have increasingly focused on controlling these children.
Then, in 2003, Joseph and Sonya Smith of Atlanta were convicted of murdering their 8-year-old son, Josef Smith, whom they had chronically abused by locking him in a wooden box and cupboard; the cause of death was a blow to the head. They were sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison.
The couple were members of the Remnant Fellowship Church, which defended them against charges of cruelty and murder – while denying any guilt. But Shamblin’s own voice says it all: âYou have a kid going from weird to under control,â she says in the doc. âSo, God be praised! “