In late summer 1998, a lawyer named Barbara Duffy stood in front of an all-female jury inside the Tacoma, Washington, federal courthouse. She had just called her first witness in a trial that would drag on for 10 more days. The witness was her own client.
"Have you ever been an ordained pastor?" asked Duffy, blond, pragmatic, and then in her mid-30s.
"No," replied Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff, the plaintiff in this case and publisher of Gentle Spirit, an intentionally quaint magazine with old-style serif fonts and vintage illustrations. Seelhoff, then a 46-year-old mother of 11 with long, wavy hair and a warm face, founded the publication in 1989, gearing it toward large families living economically. The magazine paired cooking guides with articles on joy, loss, natural birth, and homeschooling — and it was the reason she took the stand that day.
For five years, Gentle Spirit had enjoyed continuous bumps in readership, growing enough to fully support Seelhoff and her family — until controversy brought her business to a standstill.
A year earlier, Seelhoff had sued a group of leaders in the Christian homeschooling movement — a politically influential, religious right subculture that originally embraced Seelhoff's articles on teaching at home. From the late 1980s up until 1994, she had been associated with this subculture, which treated homeschooling as part of a religious movement. Its architects, often referred to as the "four pillars," saw homeschooling as a mandate for conservative Christians, a way to raise up Bible-centered future leaders. The headship model, in which the man is considered the God-ordained head of the family, was common, as was the "Quiverfull" ideology — bearing as many children as God gave you, rejecting on principle any means of birth control, so you could have a "full quiver" of children to lead God's fight. Marriage was sacred, and Seelhoff had filed for divorce. Now, she alleged that certain of these leaders had conspired to financially cripple her magazine Gentle Spirit, punishing her for breaking rank. After months of depositions and paperwork, she had finally taken the stand.
"Do you consider yourself a televangelist?" Duffy asked.
"No," said Seelhoff.
"Do you consider yourself an evangelist?" Duffy continued.
Her line of questioning was intentionally absurd. The defense had argued that Seelhoff ran a Christian ministry rather than a magazine, and that when her peers used her brief divorce announcement in Tacoma's The News Tribune as an opportunity to appropriate her subscriber list and publicly shame her, they were simply doing what any upstanding, concerned Christian would: correcting a wayward sister while protecting others from her downfall.
"No," Seelhoff said again.
Why, Duffy now wanted to know, did Seelhoff fail to publish an issue of Gentle Spirit in summer 1994?
Just prior to the issue's scheduled release, Seelhoff's former pastor, Joe Williams of Calvary Chapel in Tacoma, read from the pulpit (during a church service she did not attend) a "letter of discipline" accusing her of "an adulterous affair with lying."
"Because it was a time of great difficulty for me personally, my family," Seelhoff replied. "There was an onslaught of canceled subscriptions. My columnists quit. Many of my advertisers withdrew their ads … The phone was ringing off the hook [and] I was pretty devastated."
She was definitively on the outs with the "pillars."
"I still don't know to this day why they felt it was appropriate to do what they did," says Seelhoff, now 65, of what she refers to as her "excommunication." She spoke by phone from her home on a small farm in Gig Harbor, Washington. "People found out where I lived by going to the post office, then they showed up at my house and wanted me to pray."
Originally, Gentle Spirit was a 600-page book of lessons, recipes, and lifestyle meditations that Seelhoff (then Cheryl Lindsey) distributed to friends. When she began the magazine, after self-publishing the book, she had 23 subscribers. She wrote in a sweet, practical voice, using exclamation points liberally. The publication also featured articles and columns on hospitality and herbalist midwifery written by church leaders and other mothers. Seelhoff shared life hacks: How to feed a family of 10 on $200 a month or how to make 30 loaves of bread in a day. In 1990, she appeared on "Focus on the Family," the syndicated radio show hosted by the popular, gentle-voiced evangelical Dr. James Dobson, and started speaking routinely at conferences.
Seelhoff, like many on the religious right, had taken up the cause of homeschooling; it represented for her a more holistic way of life. She homeschooled her own children and made her living speaking and writing about motherhood and home education. In the five years following the Gentle Spirit 1989 launch, the number of homeschooling families in Washington more than doubled, from 5,536 to 13,584. Cheryl Lindsey had over 15,000 mostly female subscribers and was gaining nearly 1,000 per month.
But all was not well at home. Her husband, Claude Lindsey, had been out of work for four years, according to their 1995 divorce-related filings, and she claims his anger problems had led to abusive behavior toward her and the children. In 1994, according to trial testimonies by Cheryl and her sons, Claude Lindsey moved to New Orleans to live with his mother and undergo anger management counseling.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.