The Remnant Fellowship Church is a religious cult that peddles weight-loss programs and Marina Zenovich’s HBO Max docuseries The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin (Sept. 30) exposes its nefarious marriage of Christian zealotry and self-image counseling. Founded by Gwen Shamblin, who had initially risen to fame and fortune courtesy of her The Weigh Down Workshop diet business, the Remnant Fellowship Church operated as a shameless money-making venture for its creator, who acted like a prophet and demanded complete obedience from her acolytes. Child abuse, misogynistic sexual manipulation, and murder soon followed, although the fate of the organization remains, today, up in the air, since on May 29, 2021, Shamblin, her husband Joe, and five other church members perished in a plane crash.
A five-part non-fiction series whose final two installments will arrive in early 2022 (and will presumably focus on both Shamblin’s upbringing and the fallout from her death), The Way Down is the story of a Tennessee native whose childhood in the Church of Christ—an ultra-conservative Protestant movement that didn’t allow women to speak, pray or preach in public—taught her the value of asserting domination via strict biblical doctrine. At the same time, her constant personal struggles with weight throughout her school years led to her to study nutrition. Before long, she had combined her two favorite interests into one handy solution for the women of America: The Weigh Down Workshop, which forwarded the idea that women should only eat when they feel hunger pains, and to otherwise convert their cravings into worship of the Lord.
The Weigh Down Workshop was a new twist on an age-old strategy (sometimes known as “intuitive eating”), but Shamblin’s charismatic personality and religious fervor helped turn it into a profitable business, and quickly put her on the national-media radar. Eventually spreading to countries around the world, Shamblin’s Weigh Down Workshops became a phenomenon, this despite the fact that they were clearly driven by profit. As numerous Remnant members recall, Workshop events were designed to peddle Shamblin’s books and videos, and to solicit donations (first gifts, then just cash) from attendees. By 1999, the Weigh Down Workshop had become such a lucrative venture, and Shamblin had transformed herself into such a revered guru, that she took the next logical step and established the Remnant Fellowship Church, which Workshop employees and members were expected to join.
That’s not all Shamblin demanded, however. The Way Down paints a picture of a domineering, exploitative entrepreneur who created a machine to feed both her bank account and her ego. Whereas she’d once presented herself as a cheery blonde Midwestern housewife, Shamblin began wearing skimpy dresses and her hair in an absurdly tall beehive-ish bun—a look that former member Rachel Phillips refers to as “a strung-out hooker.” Newly dolled-up, Shamblin built her empire on the notion that being skinny was the way individuals showed their devotion to God, and she gradually started arguing that this reasoning could also be applied to other negative problems like drug addiction and alcoholism. Her weight-loss creed, she contended, was the answer to mankind’s ills, although signs that she was a fraud appear to have been everywhere, from her hypocrisy regarding her first husband (who was a heavyset man that she hid from public view) to her increasingly lavish me-first lifestyle, all of which was funded by her ministry.
Through the anecdotes and commentary of multiple past congregants, experts, and men and women who lost loved ones to the Remnant Fellowship Church—notably, Glen and Carey Wingerd, whose daughter Delaney fell under Shamblin’s spell, as well as Natasha Pavlovich, who found herself in a fraught custody battle with her ex Joe Lara, who married Shamblin in 2018, seemingly for her money—The Way Down details the systems of control employed by the cult. Communication with non-believers was discouraged. Members weren’t allowed to leave without fear of reprisal. Traditional gender roles were promoted to keep women under the thumb of their spouses and male leaders. Children were brainwashed into being docile and submissive. And parents were taught that the best way to keep their progeny in line was with a belt, a glue stick, or their fists.
In that environment, it’s no surprise that unthinkable crimes took place, lowlighted by the 2003 death of 8-year-old Josef Smith, who was murdered by his Remnant member parents Joseph and Sonya Smith for misbehaving. The Smiths were sentenced to life in prison (plus 30 years) for heinously beating their son and, ultimately, for locking him in a wicker box, where he perished due to a combination of suffocation and a blow to the head from the box’s lid. Despite their obvious guilt (and the fact that another one of their children had died 11 months earlier, reportedly of SIDS), the Smiths were vigorously defended by Shamblin and the church, in large part because audio recordings—replayed here—proved that Shamblin had encouraged the couple to engage in harsh discipline. As footage from lectures and promotional videos confirms, Shamblin was pro-corporal punishment as a means of instilling in kids the fear of God, parents, and authority figures.
Shamblin is such an obviously looney-tunes faux-messiah that it’s hard to fathom anyone falling for her schtick. Still, in an early conversation with author Stuart Watson, The Way Down smartly addresses the unique Southern heritage from which she and her fans hailed, where God was everything and physical appearances weren’t far behind. That Shamblin managed to thrive even after rejecting the Holy Trinity with the Remnant Fellowship Church—thereby alienating many—is a testament to her charm. Her tale is also a sad commentary on the body-image issues that plague so many American women, who saw in Shamblin a holy means of correcting the things about themselves that they viewed as wrong.
Shamblin pinpointed an ever-pressing concern for females and used it to her great advantage—no matter the consequences it had for others. Like so many who’ve claimed to have a direct phone line to God, she was a righteous charlatan who preyed upon the very weak and vulnerable souls she pretended to care about, all in service of her greed and megalomania. She was also, in the end, someone who believed that misfortune only befell people who were insufficiently devoted to God. Which begs the unanswerable question: What would she make of her own untimely demise?