When the Duggar family caught the public’s eye in 2004 with its first television special, “14 Children and Pregnant Again,” the lifestyle depicted on screen was alien to many viewers.
Conservative Christian parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar did not use birth control, home-schooled their family, wore “modest” clothing — including ankle-length skirts for the girls — and strictly limited influences from the outside world.
Yet some Americans recognized their own values in the fundamentalist Christian family, as well as the influence of one man: Bill Gothard, founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles.
Gothard once filled convention centers and earned endorsements from prominent politicians, and some of his followers were living out his values on national television.
The Duggar family has attended and promoted IBLP events on and off camera. Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, regular speakers at its semiannual Family Conferences in Big Sandy, Texas, have said Gothard’s teachings “changed our lives.”
But today, the IBLP is losing income, and Gothard, 87, has been forced out over allegations that he abused young women working at its headquarters. And the Duggars’ shows have been canceled: “19 Kids and Counting” in 2015 amid revelations that their eldest son molested four of his sisters as a young teen and “Counting On” last year ahead of his child pornography trial and eventual conviction.
“We do not agree with everything taught by Dr. Bill Gothard or IBLP, but some of the life-changing Biblical principles we learned through IBLP’s ministry have helped us deepen our personal walks with God,” Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar said in a statement.
Dramatic rise and fall
The dramatic rise and decline of the influential fundamentalist ministry and its poster family offer a window into the evolving landscape of American faith.
The Institute in Basic Life Principles began in 1961 as seminars by Gothard, an evangelical minister from Illinois with a master’s degree in Christian education.
Over 30 hours, he taught attendees how to lead successful lives by following his interpretation of Biblical principles and warned them away from television, popular music, alcohol, dating and public schools. The group says more than 2.5 million people have taken the Basic Seminar.
At the heart of Gothard’s teachings was the importance of respecting “God-given authority.” He preached a strict hierarchy of divine authority, with Jesus at the top followed by church elders, employers and husbands, who are responsible for protecting their wives and children below them.
In marriage, a man’s role is to provide “servant leadership” while “the woman responds with reverent submission and assistance,” preached Gothard, who has never married.
Treated 'like a god'
One former member said such teachings are damaging. Elizabeth Hunter, 27, was raised in Greenville, Texas, knowing her future role was to be a wife and mother and that her father would one day help pick her husband.
Hunter said her parents had attended Gothard’s seminars and committed to having no television. Like the Duggars, they home-schooled their children using the Advanced Training Institute curriculum, which the ministry said was based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
The family saw the Duggars and Gothard at biannual IBLP events, where Hunter said Gothard was treated “like a god.”
“Everywhere he went, everyone credited him with saving their lives, opening their eyes. Everyone swarmed him,” Hunter, who no longer follows the ministry, said.
The IBLP’s programs appealed to conservative Christians who had grown up in the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and ‘70s and mistrusted secular authorities to help them raise their families, said Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University and author of “Jesus and John Wayne.”
“There is this real market within conservative Protestantism for safe and authoritative advice … Gothard was in at the ground floor of this,” Kobes Du Mez said.
Gothard had prominent supporters. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is quoted on the IBLP website calling the Basic Seminar “some of the best programs available for instilling character into the lives of people.” GOP megadonor Jim Leininger sat on the IBLP advisory board and then-Texas Rep. Sam Johnson on the Board of Directors until 2012.
The Duggars’ wholesome image made them a poster family for the IBLP as their TLC show “19 Kids and Counting” became a ratings hit: Elder daughter Jill Duggar’s two-hour wedding special in 2014 drew an audience of over 4.4 million.
Some saw the Duggars as a curiosity; others felt a connection to their way of life, said Beth Allison Barr, a history professor at Baylor University.
“They could identify with male headship, protecting children from the influences of the world. … The Duggar family epitomized a lot of the struggles that Christian families dealt with,” Barr, author of “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” said.
While the wedding episode was breaking viewing records, the bottom was falling out of the IBLP.
In March 2014, Gothard resigned from the IBLP board of directors amid allegations he had sexually harassed and molested women who worked for the organization.
“My actions of holding of hands, hugs, and touching of feet or hair with young ladies crossed the boundaries of discretion and were wrong,” Gothard said in 2014 in a now-deleted statement on his website that is still linked on his Twitter profile.
The IBLP said an internal investigation it had found no criminal activity but concluded Gothard “had acted in an inappropriate manner” and would no longer have any role in the organization.
Twelve women alleged in a civil suit that they had been sexually, physically or psychologically abused by Gothard as minors and that the IBLP had covered it up. The case was dropped in 2018, but the women's attorney, Jonathan Mincieli, would not give a reason, citing attorney-client privilege.
The IBLP said in a statement that it had “no comment with respect to the claims alleged,” because of a confidentiality order. Gothard has since denied any wrongdoing. He declined to comment when reached by phone.
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar said in their statement to NBC News: “The public accusations against Dr. Gothard in recent years are troubling and grievous. However, our faith in God is not based on following a fallible human man. … Truth is truth, even if the messenger fails.”
They said they never received any form of payment in exchange for their involvement with the IBLP.
Eldest son accused of molesting girls
A year after Gothard resigned, the Duggars had their own fall from grace. In May 2015, a leaked police report from 2006 revealed that the eldest Duggar son, Josh, had been accused of molesting five girls as a teenager.
In an interview with Fox News a few weeks later, his parents said he had confessed to them, first in 2002 when he was 14 years old, and that some of the victims were his sisters. Duggar was never arrested or charged with a crime related to the allegations.
His sisters Jill Dillard and Jessa Seewald told Fox News they had forgiven their brother.
The reality show was rebranded as “Counting On” and focused on the older Duggar daughters, several of whom had married and appeared to have moved away from their parents’ more conservative beliefs.
Some of the Duggar daughters shed their long skirts for skinny jeans and started posting testimonies on Instagram, where they built followings as Christian influencers.
But the scandal wasn’t over. On Dec. 9, Josh Duggar, 33, was convicted of downloading and possessing child sex abuse images on his work computer. He is awaiting sentencing of up to 20 years in prison and fines up to $250,000 for each of two counts. “Counting On” has since been canceled.
“Our hearts and prayers are with anyone who has ever been harmed through CSAM,” said the Duggars in a statement after the verdict. “As parents, we will never stop praying for Joshua, and loving him, as we do all of our children.”
Barr, the Baylor University history professor, said Gothard’s fundamentalist patriarchal teachings help create environments where abuse is more likely to go unchecked.
“As a man, they have more authority than women,” she said. “Their voice counts more, and women have this propensity to be valued more for their sexual role, so it allows abuse to flourish.”
The organization said in a statement that it "would never condone nor do we tolerate abuse of anyone. There is no teaching by IBLP that women are inferior to men because there is no such teaching in the Bible. From a Biblical perspective, all people are equal in value before God despite the fact that we are all different with varying gifts and talents, and may have different complementary roles.”
Even before the allegations against Gothard and Josh Duggar, the ministry had been struggling financially, according to tax documents.
In 2001, it collected over $41 million in revenue, with $14.9 million from IBLP services. By 2013, a year before Gothard’s departure, total revenue was just $5.4 million, and it was operating at a loss.
In 2018, the last year for which tax returns are available, revenue was back up to $8.5 million after a leap in contributions and an unidentified $6.6 million of “other revenue.” But income from services languished at $1.2 million, its lowest in decades, and the organization’s profits remained a fraction of what they had been in the 1990s.
The IBLP said it still derives income from “donations, conference fees and the occasional sale of unused capital assets such as real estate (other revenue).” Income from conference and program fees has fallen because Basic Seminars are now free online, it said, and shorter programs have replaced extended residential courses.
The growth of Christian publishing houses, Christian family bloggers and streaming megachurch services have made the old model of salvation through a weeklong, in-person conference outdated, said Kobes Du Mez, the Calvin University history professor.
Television and the internet, which Gothard so railed against, have broadened the market and shifted Americans toward other forms of evangelism, she said. But Gothard’s core teachings remain influential because they’re being repackaged by younger messengers for new audiences.
“When you look at evangelicalism as a consumer culture … at books on marriage, sex and how to be a Christian man or woman, you can see Gothard’s fingerprints all over the place, even though they’re not citing him,” she said. “It ends up shaping conservative evangelicalism for generations.”
Caleb Reed, 29, credited the IBLP’s ALERT program, a military-style boot camp for young men, with teaching him discipline and setting him on a path to preaching. The traveling evangelist spoke at the Family Camp in October, part of a new generation trying to focus on what they see as the biblical truths behind Gothard’s teachings.
“There are some things that would be intrinsically Bill Gothard,” he said, “but to the extent that he was communicating truths, that is eternal. That will always last.”