John Bradshaw - Conversation with Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith
She was raised in a family environment you might describe as severe or extreme, but somehow God delivered her from that. And that process is filled with blessings and lessons that all of us can learn from. She is Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith, I'm John Bradshaw, and this is our conversation.
John Bradshaw: Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith, thanks so much for joining me today.
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: Thank you for having me.
John Bradshaw: What a blessing to have you here. You know, it's hard, sort of, for me to know where to begin this story. I might do so by introducing the book you wrote, "Born Yesterday". I've read the book from cover to cover, it is a compelling read, and it tells a story that, if it's not unique, it's pretty close to unique. So take me back to the beginning. Where did you spring from? We're gonna talk about how you found yourself in a family environment that was... well, it was dysfunctional, but your story isn't the story of dysfunction; it's a story of deliverance. But let's start back in the beginning. Where'd you begin?
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: Well, the beginning beginning, everything was kind of normal for an Adventist military family, and two brothers, two older brothers, mother, father, Dad in the military. So I first actually remember being in Spain; things were pretty normal. But when I was about five, my parents began to read a lot of the special...writings, right? Special testimonies, other writings, books, studying with other people, beginning to attend church less, and do more of these in-group meetings and a lot of the readings and began to decide to adopt all the reforms. It started with more of a focus on "Jesus is coming soon; we need to get serious", all of those things that actually really matter...
John Bradshaw: Sure.
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: ...because they are important. I know I used to get sick a lot, always had stomach problems and this and that. So the first thing, we went vegan, and the sickness started going away. And so we made changes that were actually good. They didn't taste good to me, but they were good, right?
John Bradshaw: Yeah, sure.
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: And then from there it progressed to the dress. So I still remember I was sitting on the floor in my room playing with my little plastic animals, and my mom came in and she was sharing with me that Ellen White says that we should wear our dresses three to four inches from the floor, and that Jesus is pictured with a garment, in Revelations, down to the foot. And she told me, "Your dresses, look at them; do they come down to the foot"? And I was like... I looked at them; I realized, no, they don't. And she said, "Do you wanna be like Jesus"? Well, what five or six-year-old is gonna say no? I mean, of course. I said, "Yes, I wanna be like Jesus". So she said, "Well, we need to think about what to do with your dresses". So, well, actually I ended up coming to her and telling her I wanted to be like Jesus. So she ended up putting swaths of cloth, attaching, you know, just bringing the hems down. And I didn't like it, but I was learning to be like Jesus. Then the diet, we already did the diet, but then the education is where the next big change came, and they felt like they... my brothers were in a Christian elementary school, a church school, but they felt like it was too worldly. And I had not started school. So they decided they would not send me to school, and they would take my brothers out of school. And that was the catalyst for great change because back then homeschooling was not legal in the state of Alabama at all. And so we were reported to the city board of education, and they came out and basically said, "You've gotta enroll your children in school, or we're gonna remove them". And so my father, being a Vietnam military, a Vietnam veteran and a military person, he said, "Really? Okay, we'll see about that". And in the middle of the night, he packed us up in his little Volkswagen van and whisked us off to Arkansas to the Ozark Mountains. And that began the nomadic life, which transitioned into an isolated life on top of a hill in Tennessee.
John Bradshaw: Mmm. So, what I find really interesting, and you've alluded to this, but let's double back around. Your parents started with really good motives.
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: Yes.
John Bradshaw: And none of the things that they were introducing were harmful things. It's good to be modest, it's good to eat well, and it's good to get the very best education that a family feels works for them.
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: Yes.
John Bradshaw: So, they pursued that, and it ended up being...fairly extreme. How does a conscientious person... who wants to do the right thing know where to draw that line? How do you push it without pushing it too far? You know, people who feel conscientious about homeschooling, sometimes they make a stand that ticks off the authorities, and they're within their rights to do so. We already mentioned how you were unwell, changes were made to your diet, which today, today... I mean, veganism is, I mean, it's in.
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: Right.
John Bradshaw: How do you go about incorporating reforms without going over the edge?
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: You know, I love this question. I think we're starting right where we need to. Because I think at the heart of it all is what we can learn. My parents were definitely trying to do the right thing, just like any other parent. And I admire the fact that they were all out for what they were trying to do. But I think that one thing we all can learn is that whatever does not start, remain, and end centered in Jesus Christ is bound to go off. It's just going to. It's gonna go off one way or another. It's gonna fizzle and die out, whatever. If it's not centered in Jesus, it cannot ultimately be balanced and right. And it's not that my parents were trying not to focus on Jesus. It's not a matter of not trying to be centered in Jesus. It's just that you can't give your attention, your emphasis, your time to one thing and still have something else in your view. The only way we can ever get it right is if we keep Christ in the center of our view and do everything to please him, do everything out of a motive of trying to understand his character and be changed by his Holy Spirit into his likeness, and let love moderate everything we do. If you don't do that, you're gonna go wrong. So with diet, and I know we'll get there, but with diet, it started out right, but it went extreme.
John Bradshaw: Yeah, I remember reading in your book about your mom, might have been vanilla, and the vanilla she was using, she told you... you must have been a young kid at the time, "There's an ingredient in there that's used to kill lice".
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: Well, that was vanilla ice cream.
John Bradshaw: Vanilla ice cream?
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: Yeah.
John Bradshaw: Okay, and so that's gone. Now, they're right to read ingredients.
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: Yeah.
John Bradshaw: But I think the word many people would use would be the word "fanatical". So they veered off into a sort of extreme thing. But I think we are ascertaining this can come from a place of genuine conviction.
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: Right, after a while the focus was on keeping the rule...
John Bradshaw: There it is.
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: ...as opposed to worshiping the Creator.
John Bradshaw: There it is.
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: You can't do both. You can't. And the thing is the more you focus on the rules, the more minute and judgemental and fine tuned you become. And like Jesus said, these things you ought to have done, but not left the other undone, because there's something more important than the little minute details that you choose to make the center of your focus.
John Bradshaw: Yeah, yep, yep. The law is good, we ought to keep the law, but for Christians, the primary focus is the Law-giver...
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: That's right.
John Bradshaw: ...more than the law. And if we keep our focus right, then maybe that's how God guides us. So talk to me about your childhood. I've read in your book about how worship would be... sometimes three one-hour worships in a day, prayers that would last for 20 minutes.
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: Yes.
John Bradshaw: But about your childhood, you found yourself on the top of a mountain in a rural remote part of Tennessee. What was that childhood like?
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: I would say very isolated. By the time we moved up there, I was 9, and then wearing a bonnet. We had been living in a bus before that, just a little small bus, and kind of staying out of the way of the authorities, living in a park, a state park, lived in someone's property, you know, just trying to evade the whole being taken away from our parents... was what they were trying to do... keep that from happening. Anyway, so when we ended up on what we called "The Hill". It was very isolated. There was a house there on the property, but it was... Well, I like to say it was well air conditioned in the summer. I mean, in the... yeah, well air conditioned in the winter and well heated in the summer. It was very old, it had been empty for a long time. There was no one around for a couple of miles, except for one neighbor up the hill, a mile away up the hill. And he was of the same beliefs and thinking that we were. He was the one that encouraged us to come up there. There was no friends and associates and nothing. You know, we were homeschooled, kept at home a lot. We grew our own food, which was great. We made our own clothes. We tended to our own medical needs. I don't know how far in the story I should go, but my brother was horribly burned in a gas fire.
— I wanna ask you about that. Your brother suffered a pretty severe injury, a burn, you write about that in the book, and that was treated at home.
— Yes, so, these are things that later on began to make me realize that probably something was wrong. 'Cause when that happened, I was, I think, 14 or 15, and we did not know what we were doing, but we also refused to take him to the hospital, and, I mean, he was seriously injured, to the point where he could have and probably should have died, but I thank God that was not the outcome. But we were trying to handle everything at home. I remember one time, we had religious trainings. You asked me about the worships. So that's, you know, the Bible talks about morning, evening, and noon. Daniel prayed morning, evening, and noon. And then Ellen White mentions a worship hour. So we used to have one-hour worships three times a day. My dad would dress up sometimes as we would have to memorize large amounts of Scripture, and we'd have to be able to defend all points of faith, interpret the Scripture, and so my dad would dress up like a judge and come out and quiz us on our beliefs. And you had to be able to quote chapter and verse, reference it correctly, and also explain it. And if you did that, then your reward was painless decapitation. If you made any mistakes, then you were burned to the stake.
— Have mercy.
— What's funny is sometimes when I give these talks, people ask me, "So what happened"? Anyway, it was scary. It was supposed to be fun. It was scary, though. Of course there was no media; there was no electricity; there was no...
— No electricity?
— No, there was no plumbing, so no running water. So the whole idea was... the intention was not to take us out to an extreme environment, but the thinking was that Jesus was coming very soon, and we needed to separate from the world and prepare for Jesus' coming. So anything that happened in the process of doing those two things was okay because it was preparing us for the time of trouble and keeping us unspotted from the world so that we'd be ready for Christ's return. So, when the house would drop to 10 degrees above whatever the temperature was outside, and like one night, my heels froze in my own home, in my bed, that wasn't what they intended; you know, it wasn't that they wanted those things to happen. But on the other hand, if they do happen, it's all preparation for the time of trouble.
— Mmm. Yeah, really interesting. So there you were, living isolated, no friends...
— ...wearing a bonnet?
— As a head covering.
— Every day.
— How did that...impress you as a child? You must have felt the need for companionship. Did you feel peculiar, or was it always normal? Did it become normal, or did it become more peculiar as you got older? How did you relate to that?
— So the bonnet came along when I was 8, the long dress, since the time I was 6, the bonnet, 8. I think we were being isolated from people. So I knew I was different, but it kind of also felt normal. When I'd go out in public, I was kind of self-conscious or aware because I knew that I looked different. But at the same time, it was just the way our life was. I did feel alone a lot, I felt lonely, I had two brothers, but they tended to stick together and do things together more.
— So I was alone a lot, and I felt that, and, yes, I had a longing for friends, particularly as I got older as it came to school. I wanted so much to go to school. I wasn't thinking in those terms, because in my mind, going to school was wrong. So you don't want something that's wrong, right? But I had a longing to be around other kids when I was learning. And there was one family that ended up moving up there and stayed for at least a couple of years. It was a mother and her two children; they were eight and... they were five and six years younger than me, so... But they would do their school in their own little trailer, and I couldn't join them, right? We could sometimes get together to haul water and things like that. But there was a lot of separation even then, 'cause you don't want too much mingling, too much mixing. We would get together, but then it was like, "No, let's go to your schooling, sit at your desk in your house. They go to their bus and study there". So I was alone doing those things.
— It seems, too, as I read your book, there are times that... Your dad had a fascinating relationship with you.
— You know, "Women are trouble".
— Before you were born, there were two boys, he didn't want a girl...
— ...just didn't want a girl. Here comes Rachel; now he has a girl, a girl that, at least at one stage, you didn't want. How tough was that?
— Once again, when you're a child, you don't know that anything is, there's something different. But I do remember seeing a little girl running down the aisle of church say, "Daddy"! and I was wondering what she felt, 'cause I had never felt that. I didn't know what that was that would make her do that. I was curious about my dad, but I was intensely afraid of him. He had a terrible temper, and I also felt a sense of danger with him actually. But I didn't know why. He did have issues, and he was trying to manage those issues, and he didn't know how, and so in his fear and concern that he would make mistakes, of course, I don't know this at the time; it's not till way later I learned some of these things, he pushed me away; he was very cold and austere towards me. And yes, he'd had a view of women: Women caused the Fall, women were trouble, and he wanted to raise me so that I would not be a temptress. So if you can think, at 7 years old, you're starting to talk to a child as if she's going to be a temptress, as if she already is a temptress, and she doesn't even understand what you're talking about. Actually it started younger than that. It started when I was 5 and 6 years old or probably younger than that.
— I found it interesting that your dad would train you how to be a woman.
— Yes. Yes.
— And what was that about? What did that look like?
John Bradshaw: So that started from the time I was about 10 and through the age of 14. When I first started showing the first little signs of puberty and moving into full puberty, he wanted to make sure that I understood how to sit, how to stand, how to walk, how to carry myself in such a way so that I would not cause men to relate to me in a way that would be improper. Because he said that if a man does anything improper towards you, it's because you invited it. So I had to learn how to act in such a way as to not to invite improper behavior. So that would mean like walking often with my head down, my chest pulled in because I didn't wanna flaunt and show myself. That would mean never bending over in the presence of a man, for whatever reason. I remember one time I bent over to get my water jugs to pick them up to go to the stream, and there was a couple of brethren there that were studying the Bible. Sometimes people would come out to learn from us. And I got in severe trouble. My brothers could come along and lay their hand on my shoulder, and I would get talked to later about how I was relating to the young men. He didn't say anything to them; it was always me. It was always, "If a man does something inappropriate, it's because you invited it. You need to modify your behavior so you don't invite this".
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: I intend to remember later in our conversation to come back around to some of those factors that your dad was wrestling with, because I think it's really important. I think it's important to say so now that we'll get to that. So you're dealing with a man who... you know, anybody looking on would say, "What in the world"? And frankly, rightly so. Later on, some information comes to light that gives you a little bit of understanding, probably helped you to reconcile that, and be very, very important that you knew that later on. What effect do you think that had on you in your formative years, this stressing that stuff that your dad was all about?
John Bradshaw: It was very stressful, first of all, to go through it. I always was afraid of not... when I say not pleasing my father, you have to understand, I never had a sense that I could ever please him or that I was pleasing to him, but I was afraid of making mistakes. I was afraid of doing anything that could get me punished or in trouble. So it was stressful in that way. It was frightening, lest I was very afraid of looking bad, of being bad. I wanted so much to be a Proverbs 31 woman. For some reason, I had this weird idea of what that was, so virtuous, and now I read this chapter, and it's all about her being industrious and all these amazing things that was never the focus. It was always that she had this kind of puritanical purity about herself. And that's what I wanted to portray because I didn't wanna be wrong. I already knew I was wrong by being a girl. I didn't wanna be more wrong by acting improperly. So, I'm not sure if that's what you're asking about...
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: Sure.
John Bradshaw: ...but that was what was going on in my mind, the constant fear of doing something that would make me look loose or make me look like a temptress or anything that suggested that I was anything other than absolutely morally pure.
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: What I find so fascinating about this is that, you know, you read the book, the book is "Born Yesterday", and you read those earlier years of your life. People look at that, and well, I would read this. What a nightmare. But I say that keeping in mind sort of the end of the story, the later part of the story. God brought you through that, out of that. You're a tremendously successful professional. So this is a story of redemption. We'll cover more in just a moment. With Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith, I'm John Bradshaw. This is our conversation, brought to you by It Is Written, back with more in just a moment.
John Bradshaw: Welcome back to "Conversations," brought to you by It Is Written. I'm John Bradshaw. And my guest is Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith. She is the author of her life story, a book entitled "Born Yesterday". It's a fascinating read. And I hope you'll take the opportunity to read her book. Dr. Williams-Smith, let's go back. You're a child being raised on the top of a hill. You moved there, and I think you said about 8 years old. You'd been living this peripatetic, vagabond existence, all living in a small van or a small bus together. As you look back, what are some of the things that you would look back on and say, "Yeah, these were tough times". "These were fascinating things I lived through".
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: Well, there are some things that stand out in my mind. We were poor, so... we, you know, started talking about the diet reform, but because of the poverty, it became an impoverished diet. There was a time when we didn't have anything but beans and rice to eat. And then the rice ran out, so we only had beans for a while. There was even one time when the food ran out completely. So my parents told us, "Go out there and find your food," you know. So we were out there foraging, and it was like March, so there was very little, but we did. So the inside of a slippery elm tree has a inner bark...
John Bradshaw: Uh-huh.
Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith: ...that you can eat, and there are roots that you can eat. And there are also little vegetation, little green type things you can eat. So our meal, we found our meal that day. And I think there was other times we had to kind of forage to supplement our food and be able to eat. So those were some tough times. I think, though, that was brought on more by poverty, but there was some religious extreme elements that came into it. Like when I was 10, we went on a 10-day fast, so that was just water and like broth we could drink, not even really fruit juice. I think we had just very little of that. Enemas and all of those things, just trying to cleanse the body, and it was kind of really rough on children. My brothers had a lot of growing pains, constant pains in their knees and this, that because the diet wasn't... although it was intended to be healthy, it just ended up becoming extreme and impoverished. So that was part of it. Of course, the constant trainings, but the other thing wasn't just so much the trainings, it was being taught to be argumentative. So...
John Bradshaw: Tell me about that.
— So, you know, you go to camp meetings, and you often see people standing there, and they might be shouting that the church is, you know...
— This or that.
— ...Babylon and this and that. Well, we had a version of that ourselves. We would go to churches from time to time, and it was our witnessing trips, which was basically about causing trouble, often end up at the front row of the church, and we all kneel for prayer. So we collect other people that thought like us, and we'd plan this to go, and then, so you have a row of people wearing bonnets and long dresses and suspenders, and for every prayer, and we would feel like they would do popcorn prayers just to see if we were gonna kneel every time. And of course you'd have to remain "as true to duty as the needle to the pole"...
— ...which means every prayer, no matter how short, you have to get up and kneel, right? So that... and that's what I mean about becoming focused on the rule...
— ...as opposed to the relationship with Jesus. It wasn't about a relationship anymore at this point. I remember one time a lady invited us to her home to eat, and she fixed a vegan meal because she was trying to really do something that she thought... she was sympathetic to us. The ministry had been a little rough with us from the pulpit, accused us of being troublemakers and coming there to destroy the flock, and so she felt bad for us and invited us to come back the next week so we could have a vegan meal. That was the first week of camp meeting. So we did come back the next, but we brought our food. We told her she can't ever prepare a meal that we could eat. And she said, "But I tried. You know, I think I got it all right. There's no dairy," and she just went through everything that she thought she got right. And, you know, I watched, because we would carry flip charts and everything, books, flip charts, all kinds of materials to support what we believed. And I watched her go through this whole, you know, list of things that she had done right. And then we began to question her: "Well, what kind of... we still can't use your food". "Why"? "Because what kind of oil did you use"? Well, it turns out that she didn't use either safflower oil or olive oil; you know, she used some of the other things, so we can't eat it. "Okay, well, if I'd used the right kind of oil, could you have eaten my food"? "No, because what kind of salt did you use"?
— "Salt? What are you talking about"? "Yeah, salt, show us your salt". She brings out, you know, the box of Morton rock salt. That's the whole thing. So we have a whole study. We actually had flip charts and everything, books to support why you should eat sea salt, use sea salt instead of the other. "Okay, well, if I had done that, could you have eaten my food"? "No, we still couldn't have eaten your food". "Why"? "What kind of water did you cook your food in? You know, what water did you use"? "What in the world?"! You know, she is exasperated, and it's like, yeah, tap water, a whole new set of studies. We trot out the flip charts, everything about the dangers of tap water, what's in there, and so forth. And so she finally sits down exhausted and says, "Okay, if I had gotten the water right and used spring water, could you have eaten my food"? "Nope, still couldn't have". "Why"? "What kind of pots did you cook your food in"? Sure enough, regular Teflon and aluminum pots, and we went through everything explaining why only, you know, stainless steel and the cast iron pots. Well, were we technically right about a lot of things? Probably so.
— But even in that moment, as a young person, I felt ashamed because I felt like something was outta balance. It was one of the things that began to make me feel like, no matter how right we were, we were still wrong. Something was still wrong because here this woman had gone through that, and that was barely even noticed. by the way, she never invited us back again...
— ...you know, that kind of thing. There was the time my brother got horribly burned, and here we are putting aloe vera gel on these deep third-degree burns. In his neck, I could see there's like a white tissue, and under it I could see the artery pulsing. It was burned down to that level.
— And we're spreading aloe vera gel on it? We obviously didn't know what we were doing. My brother started screaming with that. He was already screaming in pain. It just got more intense with that. And we were using water from an open cistern that flowed off the roof to cleanse the, you know, to try to cool the burns. He should have died. Another thing that let me know in my own behavior that something was wrong with my thinking: I started keeping a chart of how close to perfection I was because the Bible says, "Be ye perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect". And we believed this was literal behavioral thought, action. For me, sin was about behavior.
— It was about what you say and what you do, what you think, the attitudes you hold. And so to me, if I could just control my behavior, what I said and did, control my thoughts, and have the right attitude, I would be sinless. And I was young, I was 15, but by this time I had actually accepted Jesus for my own Savior. That's a whole 'nother thing right there, how Jesus found me in the middle of that. And he does, 'cause he is relentless in searching for us.
— But he found me in the middle of this extreme environment and still caused me to be willing to surrender my life to him. So I had done that. But my thinking is still off balance and extreme when it comes to religion and all things related to matters of faith. So I started keeping a chart of how close I came to perfection. And, I mean, it was... I'd have it up to 95%.
— Oh. That's pretty good.
— Yes, yes! And one day I actually hit, and I still have the chart, by the way, at home, I hit it, and it's 100%, and I put a little star up at the top and everything, you know, just hand drawn little graph. And I marked 100%, and I wrote in little tiny footnotes, "Praise God! Sinless in every thought, word, and deed for the entire day". Well, I did keep that chart through the end of the month, but I began to feel very, very uncomfortable. Something deep in my spirit was saying, "There's something wrong with this. No matter what you think, how could you think you actually got to being sinless"? And I believed that that could be correct, based on my understanding of sin and righteousness, it was correct, but I knew something was wrong. I couldn't understand then because my teaching wasn't allowing me to understand that sin is a condition that we're born into and that we cultivate and is propagated through everything in our lives. And you can't just simply, by controlling your thoughts and behavior, be sinless. I didn't understand that. I didn't think like that. I was so legalistic in everything I did. But what was happening is that underneath there was this groundswell going on saying to me, "There's something about the way you're thinking and living, and there's something about the way you're being raised that is off balance". And I sensed that I knew that, but I didn't know where to find the truth because I didn't have the right to change anything on my own. I didn't have the freedom to make any... there was a scripture and verse for everything. Our thinking was so black and white and fixed to everything, you know, "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there's no light in them". And everything, we had a scripture, a verse, a Spirit of Prophecy quote. There was nothing about what we believed that we couldn't defend in some way. "Be ready always to give an answer for the hope that is within you". And so we would argue every point of faith. And yet something's telling me, the Lord is telling me, that "This is off balance. This is still not me".
— It's fascinating that you talk about the family being argumentative. And that verse about giving an answer says, give the answer with meekness.
— That's right.
— ..."with meekness and fear," the fear of the Lord. So God began to speak to you in the middle of this. You were looking at your family's behavior, your own behavior, and saying, "This doesn't seem quite right".
— Which is miraculous, I think, that, well, clearly God found a tenderness in your heart, and it's not miraculous that God would speak, but it's wonderful that he does and miraculous that you heard. So, some real changes started to happen. You write that you went off to academy, to high school, to a boarding academy in Canada.
— Yeah, well...
— How'd that come about?
— And then how'd that impact you?
— Yeah, that kind of had a catalyst there. So, it's interesting when you have enough conflict and your way of thinking and being is all argumentative based, that can turn inwards, so conflict entered the family, and eventually my father just up and left. So I was about 16 when he left. I was 16. And so we went through the winter; that was the really worst winter, the one that my heels froze. And we began to realize, my mom and I, we couldn't do this because he took my older brother, and then my second brother left and went too.
— So it was you and your mom on top of the hill?
— Yeah, and so as spring comes on, we realize that we can't tend to, you know, you're talking about plowing fields...
— ...planting crops, you're talking about chopping wood, you know, splitting logs, you're talking about washing clothes by hand, hauling water, gathering kindling, setting fires, and everything has to be manual and done multiple times a day just to get through a day. So we realize we can't possibly do this, and so we ended up leaving. We asked someone who was going to come visit us that summer anyway on the Greyhound bus to send two one-way tickets going there. So we ended up going out northwest. But when that happened, I had been... you have to remember, when I was 14, that's when I surrendered my life to Jesus.
— And from the time I was 14, I began to start praying and asking, "God, help me to understand what I don't know. Show me your heart".
— I gotta jump in here 'cause this is a question I planned to ask you.
— And I think it's a really important point that I think you'll make. You surrendered your life to Jesus, but you write in your book. "I didn't know how to surrender to Jesus". They say, "Give your heart to Jesus," but what does that even mean? I mean, you've right there as a kid, you're confronting the most important questions in Christianity.
— Yes, I didn't know.
— How do I... so how did you work through that? It's fascinating even that you had the question, because those are the questions that far too many people don't even ask. How do you resolve those questions and come to that place where you started to wrap your mind around how to surrender and how to give your heart?
— I didn't have any clear answers. I mean, give your heart to Jesus, what does that mean? Take it out of your heart and hand it to him? How do you do this?
— But what actually happened in the timeframe where I actually ended up surrendering, there was this one verse, 1 John 1:9, "If you confess your sins, He is faithful and just to forgive your sins and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness". And that made sense to me.
— If I do that, he can change me. And I realized at that point in my life that I was no longer in... I knew I wasn't in control, I had never been in control, but I was going through a period of feeling extra lonely, like the loneliness was eating me up inside, and I realized I didn't even have the power to change that. So how could I ever change my life? At that point in my life, the biggest dream I could possibly fathom was maybe one day being able to work at Walmart. And that's because there was a Mennonite girl living a few miles down the road who had gotten a job at Walmart. And I found out about her, and that was my big dream. And so I'm like, "I can't even make that come to pass. This is the way my life is always going to be. I don't know how to change that". And I began to pray and ended up surrendering. I found some quotes in Ellen White's writing, "Messages to Young People": "Dear youth, do you have aspirations and dreams that one day you may stand at the summit of intellectual greatness and even enact laws to change for our nation? You may, every one of you, have your wish. Just keep God first". And I'm trying to think, How could I do that if going to school is wrong? You know, how can I do that if I have no education? How can I do that standing in a bonnet and long dress? How can I do that when I can't talk or relate to anybody? Because I don't have relationships, first of all, and I don't know how to do it outside the context of religion. So I began to turn to the only One I could. And so when my father left and we ended up leaving the property, I knew I was leaving to go to school.
— Why? Because I'd been asking him to make it possible, make the impossible possible, and he did. And so I left. I was just thrilled. I knew things were gonna change. And that became the foundation. Leaving put me in a place where... it was actually Fountainview, where I ended up; Fountainview Academy it's called now.
— It was Fountainview Farms. And I ended up there, and I ran in to someone who understood my legalistic, black and white, very rigid thinking and was able to help me through that and help me to understand other ways of thinking. Simple concept, principles, I had never learned principles. I had only learned laws and rules.
— But the concept of principles helped me to realize that I could change things that were wrong without throwing everything away.
— Was that a rough transition for you? Was it just a welcome transition? I mean, confronting a new reality, even if it's a wonderful reality, even if it's a positive development, can be jarring. Was it jarring, or was it pretty smooth?
— Oh, absolutely.
— It was jarring.
— What I had believed I believed with all my heart all my life, and so, you know, to realize that so many fundamental things about what I believed was wrong was very jarring; it was de-stabling and everything. It was also welcome because something in my spirit had been telling me things were wrong, and I couldn't figure out how to determine what could possibly be wrong. So take the principle of modesty and dress. I thought, you know, Ellen White says that the small bonnet exposing the face and head show a lack of modesty. So she's referring to the little bonnet that, you know, you see and the little cap in the back of the head.
— So that was our reason for wearing the big-brim bonnets. Well, now I'm learning that modesty changes, like how modesty is expressed, doesn't have to stay the same over the course of centuries, right? There was a time when wearing, being modest meant wearing a veil.
— You know, then in the 19th century it was wearing a bonnet. Now it might be, you know, when it comes to head, just doing your hair in a decent, simple, pleasant manner. But the principle is that what you wear should frame your character for people to see Jesus. It should not detract and derail them to your body so that they are distracted from Jesus. I had, I learned that. Once I understood that, it made so much sense. I realized, okay, there's a lot of things that I can do and still be within modesty, within the realms of modesty, if that's the guiding key. But to realize... it's also difficult, too, to get away from black-and-white thinking, because it's very simple.
— Sure. Yeah, it is.
— It's simplistic. You don't have to think for yourself.
— It doesn't require...
— It's just kinda, "What does it say? You do it," right? There's no interpretation; there's no critical thinking; there's no room for the Holy Spirit to need to talk to you...
— That's right.
— ...because you don't have to pray about what you already know. It's written in black and white; it's right there.
— There's no need for nuance.
— Exactly. It's right there.
— And it fits everybody; it coats everybody. We all know what to do.
— Yeah, yeah. You went to school, it wasn't the end. It's really interesting, you wondered if one day you might be able to achieve working at Walmart.
— Which is fascinating. No one would suggest there's anything wrong with working at Walmart. Thank God people work at Walmart, and that's all good. But you've gone on, you've gone on to become a PhD and run a journalism department at a private university, and you've done great, great things. And one would assume there's plenty more great in the pipeline. So let's talk about transitioning through that. You got outta school, you started to pursue further studies, and it wasn't all plain sailing. We've got about a minute, so talk to me about your thinking as you really started to step out into this bold new world.
— I was afraid at times. So, you know, you make a change, but then you become afraid over time that you're going too far.
— So I end up going to college, but then I'm afraid. I find myself very successful academically. After I finally got over some major mountains of learning... it was not easy at first. And then I began to realize academics is my thing. I can succeed. But then I'm afraid of going too far.
— Because somehow what you're raised with, especially if it's this black-and-white, simplistic thinking, represents itself as always being right. And so I found that you could take a person out the wilderness, but you can't necessarily take the wilderness out of the person.
— Fascinating. Well, there's more to cover. You do a great job of telling this story in your book. The book is called "Born Yesterday," and it's certainly worth reading; I hope you'll do so. Her name is Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith. I'm John Bradshaw. We will have more from our conversation in just a moment.
— Welcome back to "Conversations," brought to you by It Is Written. My guest is Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith. So, raised in an extreme environment, God spoke to your heart, he was clearly with you, but there's just a lot of stuff there. You find yourself in academy, a high school, boarding high school, far from home, and before we know it, you are an adult in the world, pursuing an education. Life is on an altogether different trajectory. Now, something I wanna ask about is this: You are quite open in your book that some of the personal choices you made in your life weren't always the best and certainly didn't reflect some of the ideas that you were raised with in terms of right and wrong. But it's a really interesting dynamic when you stop and think about the relationship you had or didn't have with your dad. How do you see the connection there? Clearly there was something missing in your life. You never had a daddy whose arms you could run into. Talk about that.
— I've always had a void in my life. It was there to where I didn't think of it as a void, but whatever it is that little girls felt for their daddies, I never felt that; I felt nothing but fear. And I know that when I was in college, I began to long consciously for a father. It was there before, but I felt it more in college. And of course, eventually thinking, well, I'll get married, which I ended up doing, not, I think for that reason, but for many other reasons, too, mainly I was trying to hold on to what was right. So I found someone that reminded me of how I was raised, but in a more positive way. So, tried to hold on to that. Well, that didn't last. And then I'm finding myself a single mom with two children and this gaping need inside. I mean, I used to feel such gaping pain inside. I remember just trying to do a simple task, like washing dishes; it was just like an envelope of pain would just wash over me. A simple task, just, I don't know why; I can't explain that. I could just tell you at times it wasn't... it could be triggered by certain things, like doing a household task, but it was something I always lived with, but sometimes it would become overwhelming, where I couldn't even do that. Sometimes I couldn't eat; I couldn't sleep; I couldn't sleep in my own bed. Just this deep craving, overwhelming need for something that I didn't understand. And so I think I was always looking for a daddy, I was always looking for a father figure. Part of my problem was I knew that I wasn't going to do the wrong thing, I knew I wanted to do the right thing, and my record of I've never done this, and I've never done that, and I've never done the other, because when I got married, that was the first guy I kissed; that was the first guy I dated...
— ...right? So... and then I'm sheltered in marriage. So...I think that that helped me to be more...I was naive about how human beings and life can work, how nature can work. And so, of course, I began to get some lessons. Then that's affecting me and making me feel afraid and vulnerable and whatever. I go through a lot. I'm not justifying in any way...
— Oh no.
— ...the wrongs that I made, but I can say that in reaching for that father figure, I got more than the father figure.
— Well, I think it speaks to something. So you're raised in this extreme environment, you had a lot to unlearn, an awful lot to learn, and you couldn't possibly know... what you didn't know. You didn't know what it was you needed to know. Only life and sometimes the bumps you go through and experience can lead you to the place where you go, "Oh. Okay, so that's a lesson learned". Life doesn't come with... well, one could say, the Bible, but if you have a certain view of the Bible... life doesn't come with a manual, a how-to, and some of that...
— ...is learned through difficult experience.
— Yeah, I think when you're a teenager, you're younger, adolescent, early adolescent, teenager, you can make mistakes, and there's some room for...
— Right. Yeah.
— ...learning from that.
— When you're in your late 20s and 30s, you know, or... yeah, I think I was in my late 20s and early 30s, there's not so much room...
— That's right.
— ...for mistakes. And what I like to focus on in this is: But God. Because he never... even your mistakes, he uses them to... he's not, he never wants you to do those things; it's never condoned for you to do those things. But in the midst of your very mistakes, he can transform that into something by which he can reach you and save you. And so I was receiving some of the love or the affection that I longed for, but he brought me to the place where I realized, "I don't want it like this. Like, I want what I can be proud of, that I don't have to hide, I don't wanna be ashamed of; I don't wanna be scared to death that someone might find out about it. I want the kind of love and affection that I can have with my head up and my eyes open, and everyone knowing it, you know, who cares what anyone thinks". And so what happens... see, when God says, "Don't do something," we can take that as a label, as a command, and say, "Okay, I'm gonna obey it because you said I have to do it". What God is trying to get us to do is we realize that "You don't want to do this because I have something so much better for you, to live differently". Even if it comes with the lack of the, you know, something you think you want, you realize it's so much better for you than taking a compromise. But in the midst of what I was going through, God reached out to me directly and let me know that "I love you. I want you to know that I love you". And I had always known that Jesus loves me when I'm good, right? My upbringing had taught me that, like, if I could get it right, if I could get through a day or a week without making mistakes, modesty mistakes, I never earned my father's smile, but maybe he wouldn't be reproving either, so I could almost feel like he was satisfied, right? But I'm not learning that Jesus loves me when I'm bad, because I see that scowl; I hear that harsh tone; I get that punishment, right? And in the midst of me making mistakes, I'm talking about in the midst of me making mistakes and doing things that I'm not supposed to do, that's when God directly reached out to me and spoke to my heart and said, "I just want you to know that I love you".
— Pastor Bradshaw, that transformed my life. That changed me from being... I started out being rule, law based, and there was a shift to being principle based. And I think there's always a place for laws and rules. And there's a huge place for principles. And I use principles for all my life to guide me now, loving my parents, choosing to have a relationship with my father, even when I didn't feel it, principles guiding my life; I don't regret having that. But what I needed was something more. I needed the deep heart relationship with God, being able to know that he loved me, that he's not sitting there waiting to condemn me, doesn't mean he's condoning the wrong that I do, but it means that that doesn't define who I am to him.
— This incredible transformation took place. I wanna ask you about your relationship later with your dad, but I'm gonna do that in just one second. You were forbidden to go to school.
— And the education you got was on a mountaintop someplace, a mile from your nearest neighbor and more miles from the nearest people outside your neighbors. Today you have two doctoral degrees, a PhD and a...
— EdD. Mm-hmm.
— Doctor of education, yeah. That's an incredible growth; that's an incredible development. So somehow God, you know, God has brought you from there to here, indicating that miracles really do happen. Talk to me about your father. Later on you had something of a relationship with him, but I was really interested in your book, you know, I'm reading about your dad, and I'm scratching my head, I'm going, "No, there's something here; there's something here, I betcha". And later on you bring it out in the book, and I go, "I knew it".
— Yeah, yeah.
— Talk to me as much as you can about a little of that, because I think it's important to explain some of what was really going on in your dad's life...
— ...and experience that kind of drove him to be the way he was. We're not seeking to exonerate him; it's not about any of that.
— But what did you learn about your father, and how'd that impact you?
— Sure. Well, there's two points of revelation. And one happened a little earlier where my father ended up helping me to understand why he had always been so severe and cold toward me. He had made some mistakes when I was too little to remember, they weren't the worst mistakes that could happen, but they were definitely brushing the edges, and he recognized it himself. And he became very afraid of doing the wrong thing, of ever hurting his daughter. So his way of treating me was to push me to the edges. The way I interpreted that was that I was wrong, and that I was bad, but I didn't know he was trying to protect me from things that he didn't understand how to deal with.
— So that was a major revelation to realize what had been going on with my father. Then toward the end of his life, two years before he passed, he had a heart attack, and he ended up deprived of oxygen, which caused brain damage. So they brought him around, but then he has brain damage, so he couldn't walk and feed himself. And he couldn't really talk as well as he wanted to. And when they did the whole diagnostic things with him, they... I learned things that I didn't know. So, for one, he had PTSD...
— ...which wasn't surprising. I did know that.
— But I learned he also had touches of schizophrenia.
— And I didn't know that. And then, probably the most surprising of all was to discover he actually had a brain tumor. And see, we don't know how we're affected physically with what's going on inside of our bodies.
— And what the doctor told me is, he said, "That brain tumor could have been there for a very long time".
— "It could have been affecting his behavior for a long time. You'd have no way of knowing," he said, "but that brain tumor is not something new; that's been there for a long time". So that was amazing to discover this. So sometimes you judge people, and you don't really realize what they're dealing with. And they don't know either. That's why Bible says, "Judge not, and you shall not be judged".
— That's right.
— Because you never know what you're judging.
— That's right.
— And I'm so thankful that when I learned that about my father, it was also after years of having chosen to love him anyway. But I didn't have any emotional connection to him. What happened was, once he fell sick like this, I realized that I loved my father, and I wanted to take care of him. And I begged God to spare his life so that I could care for him a while and let him know that I loved him.
— And God did; he spared his life until I realized, "This is selfish. He's suffering; he doesn't wanna live like this". And I told God, "Well, don't keep him for my sake, just so that I can show him that I love him". I don't know why; I just really wanted to do that. I wanted him to know. I guess I realized that he also grew up without love too.
— Mmm, sure.
— And he needed it, and I wanted to bathe him in that, but I couldn't, I couldn't give him what he needed. And so finally I told the Lord, "Don't hold him for me". And my father passed on within three months of me making that prayer.
— Not allowed to go to school, you earned a doctorate twice, you're raised with no media, and you're the dean of a journalism school, a journalism department at a university, journalism and communication. I mean, come on.
— Ironic, huh?
— Yeah. Maybe God has a sense of humor.
— I think he does.
— You experience some bumps along the way. You're ludicrously, happily married to a wonderful human being. I wonder if this puts you in a place where you have a real empathy now for people who might be sort of where you were years ago, families where your families were.
— Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
— Do you ever wanna rush up to people and say, "Look, I could help you"? Do you ever get the opportunity to minister to people and explain to them, you know, share a little bit of your story? I know your book would do that.
— Yes. Probably one of the ways that I'm able to do that most is through the book and also talks like these. Because you find people with thought extremism everywhere.
— That's right.
— Not everyone has lifestyle extremism like we did.
— Yeah, yeah.
— But my case takes what is actually far more common than you may realize and puts it in such strong relief that you're able to see things about this, that is common, by virtue of what is not so common. What I find, especially talking in churches and things like that, you always have pockets of people like that. And just like with myself, there's that disturbing feeling that something's not right. They're not gonna admit it, they're not gonna talk about it, but you find they're fascinated with a story like this. They wanna hear that. You cannot help a person who's trapped in extremism and legalism by arguing with them.
— You can't. All you can do is have a relationship with them, because there may be a time that they wanna talk to somebody. And if you've always been understanding, if you've never made fun of them, if you've always shown care for them, then you might be the person they turn to. I've had people come to me like, "I need to talk to you. I've never told anybody this, but this is how I was raised, or this is what my family is like, and I don't know what to do about it". And I can't tell them the path out, but I can tell them what God did for me and tell her there is hope to break away from this, that you don't have to throw away everything just to find the center in Jesus. Like, the center's right there. But you need to focus on Jesus, and he will bring your life into balance. He will help you to understand, but there are things you have to do that can also help. I was about to go into a teaching mode; I don't wanna run ahead. I wanna talk about things you can do.
— Oh, you're okay, we've only got a couple of minutes anyway.
— Well, one of the things I found, and, for example... and I don't mean to bring any doctrinal controversies up here, but I was raised on King James only, right? Well, when I would read this, the same patterns by which I learned these scriptures would pop into my mind. You think about it; you could read, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son". But what are you hearing? Are you hearing, you know, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life"?
— Or are you hearing, "For God so loved the world"?
— Yeah, two very different renderings of the same verse.
— Same word.
— But the recording in your head is very different.
— What is it? What spirit? What attitude? What mode is it coming out of? So I chose to change to a different translation so that I could hear it, the words that God was speaking. And that was so important. There was a point where I just...yeah, go ahead.
— I wanna ask you this. Maybe this is all we got time for; let's see. Talk to me about who God is to you now. Who is God for Rachel today? When you're a kid and the only picture you get of God is the one transmitted to you via your parents, and things are harsh and exacting and difficult and severe, maybe you start to see God being a little bit like that; I don't know. Who do you see God as being in your life and experience today?
— So to be honest with you, the default is always to see him as severe; that is the default. I have to... the Bible talks about "by the renewing of your mind"...
— Mm, sure.
— You change by the renewing of your mind.
— God has to work with my thinking to help me realize he is not what I by default think he is. So I by default stay away from him. I by default wanna hide myself from him, just like Adam did, but I have to remember God is my "very present help in trouble". God is the one who hears, he is the one who cares, he is the one who knows, he has the heart of a father, and even though I can't go back to my birth father to know what that feels like, I have become a parent, and I know the compassion I feel for my own children. And I have to realize, as great as that compassion may be, God's compassion is far greater, and this is how he feels toward me. So no matter what your default thinking may be, put that aside now and realize...so talk to him; go to him. You've messed up; don't hide. Talk to him; seek this heart, this covering, and I tell you what, Pastor Bradshaw, God is faithful to every promise he has made.
— Every time I call, he responds. He may not respond in a way that I hear or perceive, but he does. Sometimes it's looking back, sometimes it's in the moment, but I realize he cares deeply about his children, all of us. Everyone, all of you, he cares about. But we don't realize that if we have the wrong image of God in our minds. So I understand him to be my "very present help in trouble".
— I understand him to be my salvation. I understand him to be the one who is there for me, no matter what, and that he loves me with that love that I didn't receive. But he said he always loved me. And he has sought me with "everlasting love". And he rejoices over me with singing.
— I wanna thank you so much for joining me today. I was impressed when I read your book. It's been a joy to speak with you. This has been great. You've offered hope; you've pointed us to the God of heaven; you've encouraged us to think positive, appropriate thoughts. You've been a great blessing. God bless you and your ministry, your teaching ministry, and your ministry outside of the classroom. Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith, thank you.
— Thank you, Pastor Bradshaw, for having me, it's been a blessing, and may God bless you.
— Outstanding. Thank you for joining us. What a blessing this has been. Looking forward to seeing you again for another conversation. She has been Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith, I have been and continue to be John Bradshaw, and this has been our conversation.