- Oct 31, 1900 – Merie was born Modest Merrie Lyons. She went by the name Merrie, Mary, and Merie at different points in her life. She was baptized at a young age, but I don’t know how old.
- July 15, 1917 – Married her first husband, Roy E. King. I believe this is the husband who she never heard from again after he went to fight in WW I.
- 1939 – After leaving the church and leading a wild life, she returned in 1939.
- 1951 – Merie’s letters to the editor are published in the Gospel Guardian under the name “Merle” Weiss here and here.
- 1952 – Merie was actively teaching women’s Bible studies in the San Diego area according to an entry in the Gospel Guardian. She also transferred her membership to Imperial Beach Church of Christ about this time.
- 1958 – Merie is withdrawn from by East San Diego Church of Christ for causing divisions, and never returned from that withdrawal.
- 1967 – Merie writes the “Brethren Letter,” an open letter to Churches of Christ where she makes a case against the “liberals” in the ranks.
- 1973 – Merie writes the Holy Spirit Lesson.
- 1978 – Merie writes a postscript to the Holy Spirit Lesson.
- Dec 1981 – Merie passes away after a battle with (I believe) brain cancer. Please leave a correction in the comments if you have better information.
Note: My purpose in this article is to factually lay out the historical events that led to the formation of the Stanton Church of Christ sect we see today. If you have relevant information, or corrections to facts stated here, please let me know by email or give me a call at 208-249-8893.
Merie Weiss was the daughter of a staunch church of Christ member named Mattie Lyons. Merie was raised in the Church of Christ and baptized at a young age. Her given name was Modest Merrie (Mary) Lyons. I don’t know the story of why she eventually went by the name “Merie” rather than her given middle name of “Merrie,” or the more common spelling of “Mary.”
As a young adult, she left the church, and by all accounts, lived something of a wild life. In 1939, her mother invited her back to church to hear Brother Bills, the new preacher at Central San Diego Church of Christ (18th & G). She was “restored” to the church at this time, along with her sister Billie.
Merie spent time at various San Diego congregations, including at least three years at Hillcrest and two years at Linda Vista. Here is a photo of the Linda Vista church building:
One preacher at Hillcrest said he was glad Merie left for Linda Vista when Brother Bills returned from Oklahoma, because in his view, Brother Bills was the only one who knew how to handle Merie. The Linda Vista church eventually started a congregation in Imperial Beach, and Merie went there in 1952 for some time.
When Merie’s mother died, she and her sister, along with some family friends, went to Hillcrest, a congregation established by Central Church of Christ. It was here that Merie started questioning her marriage to Mandell. He was a gentleman about it, and bought her a six-plex. Living rent-free, she was able to provide for herself with the rental income from the other five units.
It was also during this time, during WW II, that my grandparents, the Gipsons, moved from Oklahoma and became part of the Hillcrest congregation. At this time, Merie was not the divisive figure she later became, but according to people who knew her, she was on her way. She had a tendency to draw attention to herself.
Merie was a charismatic leader, starting ladies’ Bible studies at the churches she attended and spending a great deal of time knocking on doors. Because she was being supported by her rental income, and perhaps some extra funds from Mandell, she did not need to work, and could devote as much time as she wanted to her militant activities.
Preachers and members of the churches she attended, on the other hand, could not keep up with her pace, because they had to support their families. Merie therefore developed a reputation as a hard worker who was zealous to build the church, but contrasted herself to the preachers, elders, and members, who she criticized for not being as zealous. Later, I’m told she financed the purchase of the Spring Valley church building, which became her home church and base of operations.
It is likely that it was during these early years that she developed her very effective technique of recruiting church members via a “non-member class” (initially called a “ladies Bible study,” but which expanded to include more than just ladies) as opposed to inviting people first to a Sunday or midweek church service. Simply inviting people to church would have put them into the teaching tutelage of the elders and preachers, while bringing them in through her separate Bible study allowed her to indoctrinate them more fully.
The El Cajon Blvd. Church of Christ sponsored a TV program called “Know Your Bible.” It continues to this day under different leadership by a church in Kansas, modeled after that original program. Listeners who responded to the program were referred to local congregations, whose members would answer the phones and invite them to Bible studies. However, the people answering the phones would frequently get phone calls complaining about Merie telling them they would go to hell if they didn’t listen to her.
Brother Bills tried to reign in her divisive teaching and help her to have more tact, but after he passed away in 1955, her teaching style became more and more divisive and radical. Her ladies’ Bible studies became a platform for recruiting sympathizers to help “overthrow” what she saw as the sexist system of preacher/elder leadership (before the term “sexist” was popularized). This eventually led to her being withdrawn from by East San Diego Church of Christ on 50th Ave. for “sowing discord and division” in 1958. She never came back into fellowship, and to my knowledge, never sought to. The irony is that Stanton holds its withdrawals until death, whether the person leaves of their own accord or not. By their own standard, Christians from 1958 on should not have been associating or eating with Merie. Remember, she didn’t officially declare the “off churches” to have “lost the candlestick” until the mid-60’s or 70’s (I don’t know the exact date).
In any case, her divisive behavior was well known in the San Diego churches, and the preachers at the various congregations considered Merie to be a tough personality to know how to handle appropriately. Her teaching style was particularly harsh, frequently pounding the table and calling out people by name to make her points.
On at least two occasion, Merie sent letters to the editor of the Gospel Guardian under the name of “Merle,” which doesn’t seem like an accidental typo since it happened twice. Perhaps this was a bit of dishonesty on her part, or perhaps the editor on two different occasions misread her name to be “Merle.”
She was very passionate in her dissent from mainline Church of Christ teaching that women should not teach men, yet she was clearly conflicted by her understanding of the Bible on this subject. She would recruit young people from the churches she was a part of to join with her, inevitably wreaking havoc and causing division, but always attempted to maintain the appearance of male leadership in her churches. I’m told she even wrote the sermons for the men she considered novices at preaching (which would have been all of them, at first). It’s interesting that she felt she needed these men to give her the appearance of Biblical legitimacy. I think this was an attempt to maintain a distinction between her and other female cult leaders like Mary Baker Eddy, Ellen G. White, and Amy Simple McPherson, whom she regularly criticized.
Here is a scanned copy of her original letter of withdrawal from East San Diego Church of Christ for “sowing seeds of discord and causing division” in 1958:
At this point, she started the Spring Valley congregation on Grand Avenue, which many of us remember from our treks to this church building for Merie’s Bible studies and weekend meetings. Here is the building now—although it appears to have been modified since I was a kid. I seem to remember it having a steeple on it.
She believed women couldn’t speak at all during “worship” services, which she apparently defined as the opening prayer to the closing prayer of the morning services. After this period of “worship,” though, she felt free to teach from the front as long as it was called a Bible class, often for hours at a time. My memories of her in Spring Valley as a child were of her sitting up front with a T.V. tray as her desk, pounding on it occasionally for emphasis. I always assumed she felt that if she stood, people would think she was preaching, but sitting meant she could get away with calling it “teaching.”
She was a forceful presence in the lives of the people who followed her, and in the subsequent rise of the sect. My dad worked for American Airlines at the time. My parents went briefly to El Cajon Blvd. Church of Christ in San Diego. It is still in existence with some of the same members that were around back then. Here’s a photo of that church building now (I don’t know if it looked the same back then):
My parents spent most of their marriage during this time at the Johnson Ave. Church of Christ in the City of El Cajon. This church also meets in the same place, with some of the same members that knew my parents back then. Here’s a photo:
When my dad was transferred to LAX, my parents went to the Rose Avenue Church of Christ in Bellflower. This congregation is still around as well; here is a photo:
My mom would make treks to San Diego to hear Merie teach. I was told it started off as a weekly trip every Monday. I don’t know how long that lasted, but by the time I was old enough to remember, the trips were mostly on long weekends like Labor Day, Memorial Day, or Thanksgiving.
Merie was apparently trying to persuade my parents to leave Bellflower and start a congregation. My dad did not like this idea, probably because he could see Merie’s negative influence on my mom. I didn’t learn this until recently—I had always assumed my dad was on board with starting the Stanton church from the beginning.
I don’t know the exact chronology, but my parents moved to the home I grew up in in Stanton shortly after I was born in 1968. At some point—I don’t know the date—there was a major personal falling out at Bellflower between my parents and the preacher there at the time, Forrest Moyer (yes, the same Forrest Moyer who was later the target of Merie’s challenges by public letters). This was apparently the catalyst that got my dad on board with starting the Stanton Church of Christ.
My dad told me in 2007 that Merie and her husband Mandell frequented communist lectureships at San Diego State, and even political protests at various points in their life. If this is true, it may help explain her radical, and sometimes authoritarian approach to Christianity.
I remember her teaching style very clearly, because I spent plenty of time listening to her pound the table and yell gruffly at her audiences when my mom would take me on her trips to Spring Valley. She would often publicly call out those not paying attention, or publicly chastise a member whose baby was being too loud. This set a culture for women with strong personalities to rise to the top of the sect and emulate her tactics of fear and intimidation. Her teaching style was harsh and confrontational, and if you listen to a sample of one of her lessons, this is not debatable.
Her caustic teaching style is no doubt why the church doesn’t talk about Merie much anymore. They have a large collection of tapes of her lessons, including duplicates and even some MP3s floating around. But like Seventh Day Advents, who try to minimize Ellen G. White’s influence on their church, Stanton tries to minimize Merie’s influence on their early years.
At the time, her tapes were systematically distributed throughout the “brotherhood” as the primary means of keeping the sect “unified.” Not anymore. Younger members who didn’t know Merie personally were so turned off by her that they no longer encourage anyone to listen to those recordings. My mom says that the tapes are not at all “locked up,” so I would encourage people to start requesting tapes or CD’s. If truth doesn’t need to be afraid of a lie, they should gladly oblige.
Merie wrote a number of open letters and lessons to the mainline Churches of Christ at the time in her efforts to reform what she saw as egregious errors. These included studies such as the Church Lesson, Holy Spirit Lesson, and the Moyer Letter. These lessons reflected her opinions on various subjects, ranging from paid preachers to theology of the Holy Spirit to worldliness and complacency in the church.
She believed she had special insight from God and that the Holy Spirit would lead her into all truth, but many of her lessons contain wildly out of context exegesis of scripture that she never recanted. This obviously calls into question the whole basis for her leadership of the sect and its claim to be the last remaining One True Church.
While they have, as a group, deviated from many of Merie’s original teachings and man-made rules, they still won’t throw her under the bus, because that would call into question the whole basis for the foundation of the sect. They still adhere to her core belief that the sect she started was founded on “the truth” and is the only “one true church” in existence today. Those in the old guard who have tried to continue holding up Merie as an authority on doctrine have been gradually pushed out of the group, and now consider themselves to be the last remnant of the One True Church. (If this changes, please let me know and I’ll update this page).
In short, Merie was a divisive figure in Church of Christ history, but not well-known to most mainstream members, because her schismatic correspondence was with preachers who had no interest in airing Merie’s opinions with their congregations. The sect has continued to grow, but it is mostly hidden in plain sight in the 30 or so communities nationwide they are located in.
Merie had been married to a man who fought in one of the world wars, I believe it was World War I. He never returned from the war, so Merie assumed he was dead, and married a man named Mandell Weiss. After reaching the conclusion that she didn’t know with certainty that her first husband was dead, and that this meant she was not free to remarry, she separated from Mandell and moved next door, or at least very close by. They remained friends, from everything I could tell, and continued to spend time a lot of time together. He never became a Christian as far as I know.
Merie’s belief in dissolving marriages due to a perceived past “unscriptural divorce” radically affected the teachings of the church she started. Many marriages have been dissolved and children left in split homes due to the church’s changing (and therefore wrong) doctrines on divorce and remarriage. (Remember that staple teaching growing up…if the church changes it’s doctrine, it can’t be the One True Church?)
Mandell was independently wealthy and a big donor to the arts, with $1.2 million being provided to fund the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts. I’m told by an anonymous source that he made most of his money as a founder of Fedco, Price Club, and Costco. My dad has told me that Merie and Mandell went to communist lectureships at San Diego State. This is plausible, since Fedco was set up as an employee-owned collective, a sort of capitalist expression of the “collectivist” philosophy of the workers needing to participate in the wealth their labor generates.
I haven’t been able to verify (yet) if the affection for communist philosophy is accurate, or how well-versed she was in collectivist thinking, but I did verify that there was a controversial communist professor at San Diego State (Harry Steinmetz) during the 50’s who made headlines for his radicalism. If Merie was influenced by the idea of collectivism and communism, this could help explain Merie’s radical militant approach to Christianity, and her authoritarian, top-down style of leadership.
This collectivist philosophy may have also contributed to her teaching that welfare from the state was a gift from God designed purely for the benefit of Christians so they wouldn’t have to work as much and could do more church work. This teaching was prevalent in the church for quite some time—I remember expressing my disagreement with it during the short time my wife and I spent in the Ontario congregation in 1992.
For me, I always viewed welfare as a safety net, and felt that God’s people should be the ones with the strong work ethic providing a safety net for the world (ideally through our private generosity). In a perfect world, the church shouldn’t be the ones resting leisurely in the safety net of society, we should be its social safety net.
The following places are named after Mandell Weiss in the San Diego area:
- Mandell Weiss Eastgate Park
- Mandell Weiss Theatre (La Jolla Playhouse)
- Mandell Weiss Forum (at UC San Diego)
The Mandell Weiss Charitable Trust is still in existence, long after his death, but I don’t know if it is actively managed or if it is still involved in supporting the arts or other causes. Mandell’s name also shows up in various Los Angeles Times articles about the arts.