After 25 years of preaching about God, hell and salvation, Jerry DeWitt just couldn’t take it anymore.
For too long, he said, he’d been preaching messages he didn’t believe. He was torn by the feeling that he was living a lie.
Last year, the softspoken Louisiana native dropped out of the ministry, stopped going to church completely, and publicly declared that he no longer believed in God.
In short, DeWitt walked away from the only world he had known for 42 years.
“I committed identity suicide,” he said in a talk Monday night (Dec. 3) in a West Toledo library. A fluid talker with an accent bathed in his rural Louisiana background, DeWitt sat around a table and spoke informally and answered questions for more than two hours to 10 people from the Great Lakes Atheists and the local branch of Recovering From Religion.
The local stop was part of his extensive travels to promote his new book, “Hope After Faith,” scheduled to be published next year by De Capo press.
Quitting his job as a Pentecostal pastor was a gut-wrenching decision and one that DeWitt had wrestled with for years. He knew he wasn’t just leaving the ministry; he would be leaving his community and his security.
Virtually all of his friends and church members soon abandoned him, he said. And, he asserted, he was fired by his best friend from a city job he had held for 10 years because of the controversy caused by his new agnosticism.
He said he came up with a joke about the church community’s reaction: “When word got out, I wasn’t surprised about how many people suddenly thought I was going to hell. But I was surprised at how well they were taking it.”
After losing both jobs, DeWitt said he was “humiliated” to stand before a bankruptcy court judge to try to save his house.
His wife left him -- not for dropping out of the church and losing his religion, but for all of the pressures associated with being married to “the most hated man in town.”
“I can tell you the rejection of the community, because I was such a people pleaser, has been grueling,” DeWitt said. “It has had me more than once on the verge of suicide. If it wasn’t for my son, my 20-year-old son, then there’s no doubt I wouldn’t be here.”
One of the reasons he stayed in the pulpit so long despite his raging doubts was to avoid destroying the lives of his family. As a minister and a city official in the small town of DeRidder, La. (population 10,500), he enjoyed a comfortable and prestigious life.
“Life’s not just good for me, life is also good for my wife, my soulmate. Life is also good for my son, the young life I want to shape and mold into a real man and send off to college,” DeWitt said. “And I’m going to screw all of that up because it bothers my conscience [to preach]?”
DeWitt grew up in church. His paternal grandfather was an Assembly of God preacher and his maternal grandparents were leaders in the United Pentecostal Church. Some of his earliest memories were being prayed for by church members for a heart murmur condition as he sat in a chair in the sanctuary. And he recalled resting his head as a toddler in his grandmother’s lap while she prayed in tongues to heal his earache.
“I really grew up thinking I would be a preacher,” he said.
At 17, he attended a camp meeting in Baton Rouge, La. “And lo and behold, it does its thing and I get saved at Jimmy Swaggart’s church,” DeWitt said, triggering a chorus of moans and groans from the atheists around the table. “I mean a really true blue, 100 percent experience. It was truly life changing,” he said.
On the way to the camp meeting he listened to music by Billy Joel. On the way home he listened to music by Swaggart, who is not just a preacher but an excellent piano player.
“The symbolism of kicking out one cassette of the cassette player and replacing it with another is the best metaphor I can give you for how drastically my life changed in that one weekend,” DeWitt said. “I immediately felt compelled to the ministry.”
It wasn’t a charade, he added. He was sincere. “I really was the real thing.”
He started preaching at age 17, became an evangelist at age 19, and later served as a pastor of two Pentecostal churches.
His first theological doubts crept in early, he said, wondering how a loving God could let most of humanity suffer in hell. He said he couldn't "swallow the idea that 99 percent of everyone who ever lived is going to burn in hell forever and ever. "
And he struggled with trying to understand why God would heal some people but not others, including some of the most devout Christians.
His doubts continued to grow over the years and DeWitt felt increasingly trapped until the inner conflict reached a point where he just had to step away from the pulpit.
DeWitt said he now has more questions than answers about spiritual matters and considers himself an agnostic.
“Skepticism is my nature, that’s who I am and always was,” he said. “Freethought was always my methodology, and that’s what put me in the place of wanting to figure it out for myself, not just go sit at some other preacher’s feet and say, ‘Here’s the answers.’
“After 25 years of ministry, agnosticism became my conclusion," he said. "Agnosticism is my personal conclusion about this great big subject. … But based on the evidence, as I perceive it, I gladly say that atheism is my opinion. That’s my opinion on the subject and opinions change, and with the right amount of evidence opinions could change.”
Rev. Tony Scott, pastor of the Church on Strayer, said he considers it a good thing to have questions, because they can serve to deepen one's faith in God.
"I've come to the place in my life that I am very, very thankful that I still question things," Scott said. "It keeps me researching, it keeps me praying."
As for DeWitt's questions on divine healing and eternal damnation, Scott said there is nothing in the Bible promising that God will heal everybody, and, he said, "God really never sends anyone to hell. Hell or heaven is always a choice that a person makes. There is no sin that will send your soul to hell, only the rejection of Jesus."
DeWitt is the first graduate of The Clergy Project, an organization started last year to help clergy who don’t believe in the supernatural leave the ministry. He also is the executive director of Recovering From Religion, which states atop its website: Thousands of organizations will help you get INTO religion, but we’re the only one helping you OUT.
One his greatest fears about leaving the ministry was that, as someone who loves people, his life would suddenly lose all meaning.
“When I committed identity suicide, I truly thought that I was going to work some secular job for the rest of my life and the most I had to ever look forward to again was just coming in and watching “American Chopper” off the DVR. I truly didn’t know that my life would ever have any purpose again, and that was horrible.”
But now he’s found a new calling, so to speak, telling people about his personal journey from Pentecostal pastor to nonbeliever. He is motivated to help the “thousands and thousands of people across the United States” going through the same struggles.
Indeed, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported in October that the number of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation has hit an all-time high -- about one in five American adults.
“I pastor," DeWitt said. "I know atheists don’t like that word, but I pastor every day. I pastor via email, Facebook, phone calls, in person. … I pastor through Recovering From Religion. I pastor, and that’s the joy of my life. That’s what I live for. That’s what I wake up in the morning for is, ‘Who am I going to be able to help today?’”