TIME MACHINE: The Walk & Shiloh

Charismatic preacher founds church, builds compound near Kalona

The Shiloh complex south of Kalona is shown in this 1983 Gazette photo.
The Shiloh complex south of Kalona is shown in this 1983 Gazette photo.

Forty years ago, people were worried about cults, especially after more than 900 people committed suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, at the behest of the California cult leader, the Rev. Jim Jones.

It fueled speculation about the 300-acre retreat south of Kalona known as Shiloh, which was home at one time to more than 300 people.

Shiloh was created in 1974 by the Church of the Living Word, a fundamentalist church also known as The Walk started by John Robert Stevens.

It’s still there and operates a conference center and school for prophets.


W.J. Stevens brought his family to Washington, Iowa, in 1933 where he formed a congregation and eventually built a church called the Christian Tabernacle.

Stevens’ son, John Robert, was born in 1919 and, as a young teen, preached in his father’s church, continuing as an evangelist after he left to attend college.

John Robert was ordained at a Foursquare Gospel church in Oklahoma in 1947, but he moved to the Assemblies of God church in 1949 after a dispute. He left that denomination, too, over doctrinal differences.

In 1954, John Robert founded his own church, Grace Chapel in South Gate. Calif., in Los Angeles County. He also hosted a local radio program at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday. He’d found his niche.


In the 1960s, he began having prophetic visions and revelations and founded the Church of the Living Word, later the Living Word Fellowship, which continues today.

In 1966, John Robert came back to Washington, Iowa, for meetings with his father, returning to Iowa a number of times over the next several years.

On Thanksgiving Day 1970, the Washington church headed by his father incorporated and changed its name to the Church of the Living Word.

In 1971, Harvey Bender, an Amish farmer who had heard John Robert on the radio, deeded land to The Living Word. In 1974, the church broke ground for a church retreat, called Shiloh, south of Kalona.


In 1978, John Robert’s wife of 40 years, Martha, filed for divorce.

In her petition, she stated that John Robert operated a $40 million religious empire, that his net worth was between $1 million and $2 million, and that church funds provided her with trips to Monte Carlo, Europe and the Bahamas. John Robert hired famous lawyer Marvin Mitchelson to represent him.

The divorce case revealed that although John Robert had a mail-order degree from the Chicago Bible School, he was not a graduate of any college or university.

An art collector, he owned five houses in California, a house in Hawaii and a 20-acre farm near Washington, Iowa, according to the divorce pedition. All of his bills were paid through the church.


By 1979, Shiloh was attracting so much unfavorable attention that the community opened its doors to reporters in March.

John Robert conducted a tour of the $5.5 million property, showing its truck farm, advanced communications system and three-story dormitory with 100 rooms. All of his remarks were recorded by a Shiloh member, just in case the media got something wrong.


In 1980, John Robert married Marilyn Holbrook, but cracks were appearing between father and son.


A series of lawsuits followed in which John Robert attempted to take control of the Living Word church, which was controlled by three people: John Robert; his father, W.J.; and Fred Bickart, W.J.’s son-in-law.

By January 1982, Bickart — testifying at a Shiloh member’s criminal trial — said he was no longer part of the church or The Walk.

He claimed the sect’s followers prayed for the deaths of people they thought were witches and kept files on members as a way to control them.

Sociologists and psychologists said that kind of behavior led them to believe the organization was a cult.

W.J. Stevens, though, believed his son was influenced by his followers’ adulation. They called him “Papa John,” the Prophet, the Man of God and the Door Opener Apostle, and declared he was divine. They believed he was the door to salvation.

In a May 1983 special report in The Gazette, Bickart said for a long time, John Robert’s leadership had been accepted, but “things began to change and we began to fear that (the church) was being turned into a cult.”

“All of the former members contacted tended to distinguish between the Washington church and the Shiloh center, something that local residents also do,” The Gazette reported.

The Washington church, with W.J. Stevens still as its pastor, changed its identity to the Berean Fellowship. A member described W.J. as “all right. He’s just an old-time preacher.”


In 1983, John Robert said he would not pursue the lawsuit against his father and brother-in-law, saying he had cancer.

He was reportedly undergoing laetrile treatments in Mexico and died June 4, 1983, at age 62.


John Robert’s widow, Marilyn, married Gary Hargrave and took over the Shiloh property, leading The Living Word Fellowship in developing a master plan for the property.

The campus today covers 200 acres, with an adjacent farm, and includes a lodge, dining hall, amphitheater, trails, a dormitory and offices, with a local church and a school of prophets, according to its website.

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