The Rev. Wilbert Thomas Sr., a former Ohio minister who went to prison in the 1980s after being convicted of leading a religious cult, has died.
The Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Friday that Thomas, 91, died Wednesday at an Akron hospital.
Born in 1929, Thomas was a native of Waycross, Georgia, who was ordained as a Pentecostal minister. He founded the Christian Alliance Holiness Church in the late 1960s, establishing congregations in Ohio, Texas and Florida and later publishing a book of doctrine outlining the church’s control of its members.
“He had a lot of charisma,” a former congregant told the Akron Beacon Journal in the 1980s of Thomas, who declared himself bishop in 1979. “He was an eloquent speaker. He could make you believe. He was also an excellent musician. The children particularly loved the music and the singing.”
Congregants were expected to give generously to the church and ask permission to make personal purchases. They were not allowed to associate with former members, even relatives.
The doctrine insisted on “the discontinuance of all romantic, social and spiritual ties and links between Christian Alliance members and non-Christian Alliance people, with the rare exception of those expressly approved for special monitoring …”
Another passage said that members’ resources, property and assets were “subject to the discretions of the bishop. … Any person … seeking to subvert this cause … will be exposed and dealt with as an enemy of the church.”
Former members alleged that they were beaten with baseball bats and belts, sometimes at the hands of their own relatives, if they left the church.
One Akron accuser alleged that when she was a teenager in 1979, the bishop ordered her to perform sex acts with him and other congregants. Accused of yelling at a church member, the girl said she was ordered to strip naked and then was beaten by several female congregants.
A man said he was beaten in 1980 for not disciplining his 10-year-old daughter when she did not speak to Bishop Thomas after being introduced to him. The man said he was ordered to take off his shirt and bend over. Other church members beat him until he bowed on his knees, he said.
An Akron couple said they were threatened with harm after they bought a dining room set and record player without permission from the bishop.
A girl alleged that she was stripped and beaten with a belt when she failed to say, ‘Yes, ma’am’ to some of the older women in the church.
“He gets them at a young age and turns them against their parents,” one former member said.
Thomas was convicted in July 1985 on 18 criminal counts and sentenced in December 1986 to 20 years at Riverfront State Prison in Camden, New Jersey. He could have been sentenced to 110 years. Nine other church members were convicted of felonies.
After Thomas was convicted, his followers bought land in Ohio’s Jefferson County and built a communal compound.
Thomas, who also was known as Bishop Aha’al L’Bert, was denied parole in 1993 after authorities said he was still directing the lives of his followers in daily phone calls from prison. Police alleged Thomas had ordered underage followers to have sex with each other as he listened. Former church members said Thomas made as many as 50 collect phone calls daily from prison.
Thomas was 66 when he was released from prison in October 1997. He maintained a tight-knit following and the Ohio branch of his ministry remains active, a former member of his congregation told the Beacon Journal of the USA TODAY Network on the condition of anonymity.
He was married for 73 years to Bertha Thomas, also known as Gracienne L’Bert. She died Aug. 17, 2020, at age 90. The couple had seven children.