The Brutal Excommunication of a Christian Homeschooling Pioneer

She was a rising star of the religious right, with fervent followers across the nation. When she filed for divorce, it all came crashing down.

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 ten 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 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 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 cancelled 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 ten 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 a thousand 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.

At the same time, his wife began corresponding, via early-1990s AOL chat folders on religion, with an inquisitive Christian computer programmer named Rick Seelhoff. Their letters, thoughtful explorations of theology and human behavior, were later included as evidence in Seelhoff vs. Calvary Chapel et. al. She rendezvoused with him in person for the first time at a Dallas conference at which she spoke early in 1994.

She and Lindsey filed for divorce in late June 1994. She married Rick Seelhoff one year later.

Once exposed, all of Cheryl Seelhoff’s personal details spurred a smear campaign of sorts. For the gatekeepers of the Christian homeschooling movement, divorce was an ultimate failing. Like those fire-and-brimstone evangelists who made the religious right what it was in the 1980s (Jerry Fallwell, Pat Robertson), they promoted deliberately patriarchal models, where wife submits to husband. Influential minister Bill Gothard, recently accused of sexually harassing ten women, wrote that when a wife initiates divorce, “She’s exposing herself to Satan’s power.”

Within days of the divorce filing, Seelhoff’s pastor read the letter accusing her of “adultery” and “lying.” Sue Welch, publisher of The Teaching Home magazine, assembled a “packet” about Seelhoff to send to Christian homeschooling leaders. Then in January 1995, Welch published a memo in her magazine referring to Seelhoff’s “false teachings” and stating that she planned to “marry the man who was involved in sin with her.” Mary Pride, an author who criticized feminism and promoted the Quiverfull lifestyle, had just shuttered her magazine Help for Growing Families. She took to AOL, seeing in Seelhoff’s personal struggles a chance to revive her own publication: “Will you support me in making Help a viable magazine that [can] fill the gaping void left by Gentle Spirit?” Seelhoff found herself forced from a world she had nurtured – and without a business to support her family.

In the years after her excommunication, she went from conservative Christian role model to outspoken progressive. She founded a feminist blog, Women’s Space, and went by the name “Heart” online. Certain members of the Christian homeschooling movement found her apparent apostasy unforgivable.

“When I realized it wasn’t going to stop,” she says of the harassment she experienced from 1994 on, “I felt like I didn’t really have a choice but to file the lawsuit.” Sue Welch, Mary Pride and Joe Williams, her former pastor, were all named as defendants, though by trial time all but Welch had settled for amounts they agreed to keep confidential. (None of the defendants responded to requests for comments on this story.)

Seelhoff now sees what happened to her as a sign of what would come as the religious right gained more control over women’s lives. But she doesn’t look back on the decades she spent as a Christian homeschooling mother with any derision. “One of the good things about being in that community was the relationships that I made with women,” she says. “And, honestly, I really miss that part of it still. We went to each others’ births, we watched each others’ babies.”

* * *

Years before her journey from religious right to feminist writer, Seelhoff had embraced progressive politics. Raised in Tacoma, she enrolled at the University of Washington in the late ’60s, where she studied political science, participated in civil rights marches and protested the Vietnam War. There, she met Roland Dent, a young African-American activist affiliated with the Black Panthers. They married in 1972, and she dropped out of school, giving birth to two sons before she turned 21. She and Dent considered raising biracial children a political act. “I never really left that part of myself behind,” she says.

Seelhoff describes her relationship with Dent, who died in the Walla Walla Washington State Penitentiary in 1997, as frighteningly abusive. The first time she left him, she says, he kidnapped the children. Her father helped her get the boys back, and she divorced Dent in 1975. She moved back in with her conservative Christian parents, then acolytes of Bill Gothard, the entrepreneurial Christian guru.

“Part of my return to religion had to do with me feeling an enormous guilt for the pain I had caused my family,” she says now. “But I also felt the need for a community.”

She married her second husband, Claude Lindsey, in 1977. By 1982, living in the Tacoma suburb of Puyallup, her two oldest sons were in school, the only biracial students on campus, she says. (Years later, in a 2006 essay on raising her nine biracial children, Seelhoff recalled how elementary school administrators downplayed the racism her children experienced.) A church acquaintance introduced her and Lindsey to homeschooling. Though not yet fully legal in Washington State, the approach posed a hopeful alternative to the struggles her children faced. “I thought, ‘well this is it,’” she says, “I’ll be able to protect my kids.”

She left her job as a court reporter in 1983, and pulled her sons from school. At first, she structured homeschool days as she remembered being taught: with desks, schedules and rote lessons. Over time, she adopted a more holistic approach. To learn about anatomy, for instance, the children would trace each others’ bodies, then fill the outlines with handcrafted parts – pantyhose worked well for intestines. By the end of the 1980s, she had eight children, more than many of her peers, and she began recording her ideas and lesson plans in writing.

If the initial impulse behind Seelhoff’s magazine was to foster connections among Christian women raising children at home, its rise coincided with the galvanizing of the sectarian homeschooling world. As political and religious conservatisms became increasingly enmeshed with each other, more conservative Christians were turning to homeschooling, viewing the practice as vital to their families’ spirituality.

“Legal actions have been taken which have resulted in the strengthening of states’ rights over the education of our children,” wrote Mark and Helen Hegener, concerned publishers of the pedagogy-focused Home Education Magazine, in 1991. Scholar Milton Gaither, who described the leaders of this sectarian world as a “club” in his 2010 book Homeschool: An American History, told me via email that “when [Seelhoff] began Gentle Spirit, she qualified for membership at first, and her fluent writing and compelling stage presence made her famous within the club.” He continues, “But, as you know, her private life was never quite what her public persona made it out to be.”

* * *

In the last week of June 1994, Gregg Harris, author of The Christian Homeschool and one of the “four pillars” of the movement, flew from Columbus, Ohio, where he’d spoken at a homeschooling conference, to his home in Gresham, Oregon. Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff had given the other keynote lecture in Columbus, and the two breakfasted together on the conference’s final day. Claude Lindsey, who received divorce papers on the eve of the conference, had called Harris, asking him to keep an eye on his wife in Ohio.

Seelhoff remembered telling Harris over breakfast that her husband was in New Orleans, addressing his anger problems, but, four years later, on the witness stand at the Tacoma courthouse, Harris (who had been a defendant until settling with Seelhoff months prior) said he knew nothing of Claude Lindsey’s abusive tendencies. After speaking with Claude, Harris called Seelhoff’s former pastor, Joe Williams, who mentioned by name the man with whom Seelhoff was allegedly involved.

According to his trial testimony, Harris decided upon returning home from Ohio to dial an information line in Minneapolis. The operator gave him the man’s number.

“Is this Richard Seelhoff?” he asked, after dialing. Yes, said the man on the other end of the line.

“Is it possible that you lost a credit card in Columbus, Ohio, at the hotel?” asked Harris. Again, the man said yes.

Harris hung up, suspicions confirmed. He then called Pastor Williams and his wife, Irene, to tell them of his discovery. He also called Sue Welch, who often advertised Seelhoff’s workshops in her magazine The Teaching Home. He felt obligated to tell her of Seelhoff’s apparent infidelity, “[i]n order for her to protect the interest of Teaching Home from being used in this scandal,” as he would later say on the witness stand. Days later, he sent an email to his associates at Christian Life Workshops, the organization he helmed, saying he had “withdrawn support for [Seelhoff’s] ministry.” By “ministry” he meant her magazine and public speaking.

“At this point were you aware of any allegations from anyone about abuse by Claude?” the defense lawyer, Rudy Lachenmeier, asked Harris on the trial’s fifth day. “Would it have made any difference?”

“Well, not really,” Harris replied, “because having been a pastor, having been trained and having had some five years experience in the pastorate, nothing surprises me about domestic situations. There’s usually two sides to every conflict.”

When Pastor Joe Williams read his letter announcing Seelhoff’s adultery from the pulpit of the church she no longer attended, he said he “fervently hoped” for “evidence of the fruit of Cheryl’s repentance and restoration and healing for the Lindsey family.” Later, during depositions, the Williamses would admit they knew at the time that Claude Lindsey did not want to restore his marriage.

“The more I recognized the misogyny in traditional Christianity, then the less I could tolerate being part of it,” Seelhoff says now. “I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

* * *

Back at the start of Seelhoff’s stretch as a homeschooling Christian mother, she didn’t anticipate this kind of misogyny. In the 1970s, following the sexual revolution and Vietnam War, revival tent meetings lured restless young progressives. “A lot of people were Christians in those years it seems like,” Seelhoff recalls. “It wasn’t like the religious right, it was like back-to-the-lander type of Christians. What I had in my mind was this as a way to continue my own journey, with support and with another layer of meaning.”

There had been a shift by 1980, however. Evangelical Christian leaders mobilized around conservative politicians, supporting Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. The reduction in welfare funding, free health clinics and subsidized childcare that ensued left young mothers and economically vulnerable families searching for support, and the church rose up to meet their needs. Throughout Gentle Spirit’s first five years, Seelhoff promoted the ideas of the right in ways that appealed to those seeking alternative support systems. “We especially want to encourage women to counter their culture and to heed the call of home,” read the “about us” page of an early 1990s volume. “It is often difficult to do this graciously in a hostile and God-Forsaking culture.”

Yet ultimately it was Seelhoff who was accused by her peers of forsaking God, or at least the behavior codes they associated with godliness. Reverend Phil Lancaster, the publisher of Patriarch magazine, wrote an eight-page open letter to her in the fall of 1994. “You were not a pastor or an elder but you had (have?) more influence in the lives of many women than their pastors or elders,” he wrote. Lancaster considered her failure to follow “biblical standards” an abuse of power. His letter was admitted as evidence during the trial, though he did not appear on the stand. Instead, Harris took up Lancaster’s mantle when he testified on the trial’s fifth day.

“Whether you are Christian or not, hypocrisy is a problem,” said Harris. He then stated, over Duffy’s objections, that he in retrospect felt Seelhoff dressed inappropriately – in a shirt described as “low-cut” – at the Dallas conference at which the two of them spoke (the same conference where she first met Rick Seelhoff). Multiple members of the Harris family have, famously, taken on immodesty: when Harris’ oldest son, Josh, released Christian Publishing Association bestseller I Kissed Dating Goodbye in 1997, he acknowledged: “guys are responsible for maintaining self-control, but [women] can help by refusing to wear clothes that attract attention to your body.” In 2007, Harris’ younger sons, Alex and Brett, would develop a “modesty survey” for their website The Rebelution (which uses as its tagline “teenagers rebelling against low expectations”).

Later in his testimony, Harris referred to Seelhoff as “a sheep,” her former pastor as “her shepherd” (a common metaphor, since Jesus self-described as “the good shepherd” in the New Testament): “If a sheep leaves at what point do you no longer have responsibility to God for trying to care for that?”

“Now, Mrs. Seelhoff we’ve heard a lot of testimony in this case about people who were acting simply out of their caring or love for you,” said Duffy, addressing Seelhoff on the trial’s penultimate day.

“Their behaviors toward me and their demands of me were, I believe, extremely destructive,” said Seelhoff. “Somewhat like, in my opinion, the way maybe people who hunted after the witches believed that this was a loving thing to do.”

Lachenmeier, the defense attorney, dismissed the notion of witch hunts as paranoia during his closing statement. “Folks, there’s only one conspiracy here,” he argued, “and that is there’s a conspiracy to be a good Christian.”

“This is hardly the language of saving souls,” quipped Duffy, less than 24 hours before the jury ruled unanimously in Seelhoff’s favor, awarding her $445,000 plus legal fees.

“Cheryl Seelhoff was – and still is – a very dear friend, and it was not easy to write about her lawsuit, and it won’t be easy now,” Helen Hegener wrote in a recent email. Hegener now lives in Alaska, where she’s written 12 books about local history and the Iditarod, but in the 1990s, when she and her husband Mark helmed Home Education Magazine, they published blow-by-blow accounts of the trial. Hegener wrote in her email, “We knew there must be others who were treated in similar ways who didn’t have the strength or resources to fight back like Cheryl did.” In the magazine, they also wrote at length of the destructive power wielded by the “four pillars” and problems with homeschooling for ideological, political reasons over pedagogical ones. Organizations like the Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out and Coalition for Responsible Homeschooling, founded by activists raised in the Christian homeschooling movement, continue Hegener’s work now, promoting a reformed approach, one they say puts students’ needs above parents’ ideology.

The influence of the ideological-political strain has perhaps entered a new phase, one in which homeschooling itself is less central than policy. Prominent political funders (the Greens of Hobby Lobby, the Mercers of Renaissance Technology and Breitbart) have ties to the Christian homeschooling world. Michael Farris, a homeschooling advocate and one of the advisers to the defendants in Seelhoff’s case, later co-drafted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which played a central role in the 2014 Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby ruling, when the Supreme Court determined that companies can refuse to cover contraception for employees based on religious principles. Farris’ organization – The Homeschool Legal Defense Association – sent a letter to Congress urging them to approve Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, since DeVos, like them, believes that education is “ultimately a mom and dad decision.”

Seelhoff too took a turn at campaigning herself, running for president in 2008 for a feminist revival of the Free Soil Party, originally an abolitionist party founded in 1848. “It was more like a consciousness-raising exercise,” she says. “We hoped it would raise the profile of feminist women who were apart from the mainstream, and it did for a while.”

Her campaign coincided with attacks on her blog Women’s Space by hackers who went interchangeably by Legion and Anonymous (the famed hacktivist group). In vitriol and insatiability, these attacks resembled the censure she’d experienced over a decade earlier. In 2007 and 2008, around the same time Anonymous was hacking Scientology websites, its members started a rampage against feminist blogs, a bullying effort that went viral. Hackers were already watching Women’s Space when user Biting Beaver, who frequently visited the message boards, drew their ire in a post about finding her adolescent son looking at porn. If she’d known this would happen, she wrote, she’d have had an abortion. Often, Seelhoff would delete incendiary comments, but this one opened the floodgates. Hackers overwhelmed her site with traffic, shutting it down and posting pornographic videos. Rape threats arrived in her inbox. Biting Beaver’s contact info was posted online, and hackers threatened to kidnap her son. A page on the satirical, NSFW site Encyclopedia Dramatic archived the hack, mocking Seelhoff’s history with Gentle Spirit and her presidential campaign.

“The attacks were like an atomic bomb,” says Seelhoff. Other women who weathered parallel attacks echo her memories: Mary Borsellino of Girl-Wonder.org ended up ill from stress in the emergency room. Jill Filipovic of Feministe started therapy to cope. Filipovic told Jaclyn Friedman, who wrote about the hacks for Bitch, that she would have liked to start a dialogue between herself, Seelhoff and others, “but that becomes difficult when the first logical reaction to harassment is to hide all of your personal and contact information.”

“I don’t go anywhere where Anonymous is going to track me down again,” says Seelhoff, who stopped blogging in 2008 and still keeps a low profile online. She returned to court reporting after her trial, and has continued to work in law in the greater Seattle area since. She briefly started a print publication, The Farm at Huge Creek, an attempt to combine her feminist politics with the sort of homesteading conversations Gentle Spirit engaged. She never did find a feminist corollary to the sense of community she’d felt as a Christian homeschooling mother, living among other mothers who also felt at odds with mainstream culture and wanted a different world for their families.

“I don’t know how to recreate that,” she says. “I do hope that young people find a way, because I see that as the ideal.” It’s an ideal she desired and looked for on both sides of a political spectrum, but it’s one for younger generations to realize.