You may have heard of the HBO series The Way Down. It’s about the eccentric creator of the Weigh Down Workshop, a Christian diet plan that eventually led her down a darker path. She later founded the Remnant Fellowship Church in Brentwood, Tennessee.
From there, her path grew even deeper, and many considered her fellowship as more of a cult. Despite insisting that she never made any money from it, people weren’t convinced as the stories of former members were quite compelling. Then, after her sudden death in a plane crash in 2021, her will told a different story.
Who Is Gwen Shamblin?
It’s hard to miss the woman, with her outrageous hair that matched her charisma. She was the epitome of a cult leader. She was charming, steadfast in her views and preached to anyone willing to listen. And you can bet your pretty penny that people were listening, especially since she was preaching about weight loss.
With her book, workshop, and church, Shamblin was on a mission to enlighten people about gluttony, one of the Bible’s Seven Sins. Her mission: getting her church members to fast and starve themselves in the name of religion.
Don’t Love Food, Love God
One attorney put it simply: Gwen Shamblin’s wealth accumulation “was not for God, it was for Gwen.”
It goes without saying that Shamblin preached the word of God relentlessly. She once said: “God has always loved me. What I do in this program is teach people to stop bowing down to the refrigerator and how to bow back down to Him.”
She was devoted, that’s for sure. But everything she built ended up crashing down… literally. Shamblin, along with her husband Joe Lara, and five other church leaders died in a plane crash on May 29, 2021.
The Way Down
The private plane had crashed into Percy Priest Lake in Tennessee around 11 a.m. Shamblin died unexpectedly while the series The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin was being made. It was a shocker, of course, but HBO continued with its project.
The series was in the final days of post-production when the crash happened. Originally, the series was supposed to be three episodes, but after the turn of events, producers decided to make two more episodes. All in all, the series brought to life who the real Gwen Shamblin was.
Showing Her Face in the ‘80s
Shamblin had started her Weigh Down Workshop in the late 1980s. She was seen in the media several times throughout her life, promoting her religion. In 1998, she told CNN’s Larry King, “This money, half of it goes to the government, the other half goes to keep it going so that someone else can be helped.”
A few years later, Nashville’s Channel 5 interviewed her, saying, “Half and half leaves nothing for Gwen Shamblin. That’s not completely true, is it?” Shamblin replied, “Yes, it’s completely true.” It was only after her death that the real story came to light.
A Weight Loss Program or a Cult?
Tennessee-born Gwen Shamblin wasn’t well known before 2021, the year in which both her life and death came to the forefront. Unsurprisingly, she was recognized for her wild hairstyle, as well as being the creator of the Weigh Down Diet and Workshop.
She called it a weight loss program –whose mission states you should only eat when it’s necessary according to God’s will – but others called it a cult. The concept slowly turned into a religious belief system, with Shamblin deciding to start the official Remnant Fellowship Church.
Under the Guise of Religion
The truth is that Shamblin was using harmful tactics in her weight loss agenda, all under the guise of religion. Along the way, she became rich. Filthy rich. But her motivation had to come from somewhere, and like most cases, it stemmed from her childhood.
She was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on February 18, 1955, and spent most of her life there. Her father, Walter Henley, was a doctor, a man whom she admired and later followed in his footsteps. She was always interested in the medical field, which is why she became a dietitian.
Following the Church’s Strict Rules
Shamblin grew up in a very religious household, which should come as no surprise. Her family were followers of the Church of Christ, which is an ultra conservative form of Protestantism. Their church had very strict rules.
The Shamblins’ particular church (each one was independent of the other) didn’t allow female parishioners to speak or preach publicly. That also meant that women were forbidden from being leaders of the church.
Time to Start Her Own Church
Shamblin’s religion made a big impression on her young life; it exposed her to very old-fashioned views of women. Still, she went to the same church for most her life, until 1999, when she decided to leave and venture on her own. She created her own house of God.
On her church website, she wrote that she was raised with “strong faith and foundational values.” Shamblin founded the Remnant Fellowship Church, rebelling against those church laws. She wanted to use her voice to share her weight loss advice. Religion was something she mixed in.
It Started With Her Book
In college, she studied to be a nutritionist. In addition to her deep-rooted ideas on eating and body image, studying nutrition took her down a harmful path to promoting dieting. She soon wrote her first book, The Weigh Down Diet.
Her first weight loss preaching came from within those pages. She wrote, “Every time you reach for food, 15 to 20 times a day, run to God instead.” But she wasn’t the first to promote such ideologies. There were other books from the ‘80s that preached the same message, including The Divine Diet, Body by God and What Would Jesus Eat?
And Then Her Workshops
But Shamblin took things a step further. She turned her book into a workshop, where she added Bible studies. Mixed in were shame and starvation tactics, and she carried it into the early to late ’90s. By 1999, when she left her childhood church, she went even further.
She was growing very popular and started getting all kinds of media coverage. In one of her Weigh Down Workshop videos, she said, “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit? Honor God, with your body… selfish, self-loving and self-centred people have got inside the church, and this is the abomination.”
A “Handmaid’s Tale” Kind of Vibe
Then came the birth of the Remnant Fellowship Church. As you know, it’s unusual for a Christian religious group to be led by a woman. The Remnant Fellowship Church sits in Brentwood, the wealthiest county in Tennessee.
It has about 2,000 church members, and according to the HBO series, its behavior is “reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale or The Stepford Wives.” As it turns out, weight loss goals and religion weren’t all that she preached. She was encouraging extremely unhealthy practices to all the women who joined her church.
Lose Weight and Become Holy
Former members of the church say that Shamblin marketed the church as a way to grow their connection with God. But there was a darker motive. Shamblin was accused of having a cult following for years up until her death. According to News Channel 5, Shamblin held controversial views.
“The faster you lost weight, the holier you are: that was the premise,” a former member said on The Way Down. “Also, the fact you must live under God’s authority, which for this church, meant follow Gwen. She was the voice from God, the prophet.”
Thin, Submissive, and Smiling
A cult, by definition, is a group of people who are brought together by a common bond or belief that doesn’t fall in the mainstream. Shamblin’s cult was downright abusive. According to the docuseries, members of her church were forbidden to be overweight or depressed.
They were also not allowed to be alone or have independence. Instead, they had to be subservient, terribly thin and always positive. Oh, and of course, they had to give their money to the church. It worked well for Shamblin, who was feeding her ego, greed, power, and ironically her own gluttony.
Taking It Out on the Kids
Beyond the dangerous weight loss tactics were the behaviors that members were encouraged to conduct on their children. Former members spoke about how they were encouraged to hit misbehaving children. It wasn’t just a suggestion; members actually did it.
In a worst-case-scenario incident, Josef Smith was beaten to death in 2003 by his parents. He was only eight years old, and his parents were members of the Remnant Fellowship Church. A former babysitter who spoke in the docuseries said she can never forget the incident.
Two Life Sentences but the Church Was Kept Out of It
“Josef’s father took his son into the room next door, and we could hear the father hitting his child severely. Josef was wailing. All the parents acted as though everything was normal. That was the last time I saw Josef,” she said in The Way Down.
Justice was served, for the most part, as the parents were each given life sentences for the murder of their child. But even though the police raided the Remnant church in 2004, no link to the church was ever established in the case. (More on this case further down…)
Suicides and Eating Disorders
There were former members who later decided to take their own lives. Others claim they are still suffering from the effects of eating disorders, body dysmorphia and anorexia. “I was in a very deep depression while at Remnant. Who am I going to talk to?” another anonymous member said in the docuseries.
Glen and Cary Wingerd shared their own story of losing their daughter Delaney to the church. “You know to talk to your kids about drunk driving, the dangers of drug-taking, how to have safe sex: but you never expect to have to teach them not to join a cult,” Glen shared.
Shamblin’s First Husband, David
Throughout her transformation, Shamblin was married to a man named David Shamblin. They married in 1978 and stayed together until 2018. David was one of the founding members of the Remnant Fellowship Church.
David is a relatively unknown figure; he’s mostly just known as being Gwen’s first husband. Together, they started the Weigh Down Workshop for the Remnant followers. David acted as the association’s CEO. The couple had two children together, Michael and Elizabeth Hannah. But in 2018, Gwen decided to end the marriage.
Shamblin Marries Tarzan
In 2018, she divorced David and married someone new – someone better known. She married the actor and country singer Joe Lara. You might recognize him from his role as Tarzan in the series Tarzan: The Epic Adventures, which was on TV from 1996 to 1997.
He was in films, too, like Steel Frontier and American Cyborg: Steel Warrior. In 2002, Lara announced that he was retiring from acting and was going to dedicate his time to music, his other passion. In 2009, he released a solo album called Joe Lara: The Cry of Freedom.
Were They Using Each Other?
Before marrying Shamblin, Lara had a child with actress Natasha Pavlovich. Like Shamblin, Lara was charismatic, attractive and skinny – just what Shamblin wanted in the people she associated with. Lara was a major contrast to her ex-husband David.
The Way Down series posits that Lara and Shamblin appeared to have been using one another. She was using the image and idea of Lara for the show of it, while he was using Shamblin to get a boost in his music career, and perhaps to become a ‘prophet’ himself.
Ashamed of What David Represented
Chances are that Shamblin was ashamed of her first husband’s physique and what people might think, considering she was pushing weight loss down people’s throats. Lara was more fitting to her agenda.
“When Gwen started doing the Weigh Down workshop tapes back in the late ’90s, [David] was very visible. He was very much a part of it,” former member Richard Morris said. Another member, Helen Byrd, added: “He definitely did not represent everything Gwen said was right and rigorous. Because he was overweight, so how could he be right or righteous [to her]?”
After Years of Denouncing Divorce
But if she was going to marry Lara, Shamblin had to get a divorce first – something she had always been against in the past with her Christian upbringing. “All of those years you have told people to suffer through their marriage, but then whenever the spirit hits you, you had a whole change of heart, now it’s okay to get divorced,” Byrd said.
When it came to Lara, people questioned his intentions. “When he met Gwen, I feel like he won the lottery and he also was cast in her production,” his ex-girlfriend Natasha Pavlovich remarked.
Lara Needed the Opportunity
Pavlovich told The Way Down producers that when Lara had met Shamblin, he was working as a handyman and had country music aspirations. “She’s a very wealthy woman so this was a huge opportunity for him.”
The couple didn’t get to enjoy (or use) each other for very long since they were together (along with five others) in the plane that crashed on May 29, 2021. On the plane were: Lara, Shamblin, Jennifer J. Martin, David L. Martin, Jessica Walters, Jonathan Walters and Brandon Hannah.
It’s Still Being Investigated
The group was flying to Stuart, Florida, for a Women Fighting for America event. The Cessna 500 series plane was headed from Smyrna to Palm Beach International Airport in Florida. The crash is still being investigated, and it may take up to two years.
The plane crashed into J. Percy Priest Lake in Smyrna. “Water recoveries make the recovery efforts more difficult,” Eric Weiss, the National Transportation Safety Board spokesperson, said. The investigation is focusing on three main factors: the pilot, the people involved and environmental factors.
Her Daughter Is Taking Over
Shamblin’s daughter, Elizabeth Hannah, decided to take over the leadership role from her mother. Not only did she lose her mother, but also her stepfather and husband, who were both in the plane when it crashed.
Hannah wrote, “At this time in my life, I find myself with the wonderful opportunity to follow in my mother’s footsteps in serving our beautiful church, and I am grateful for her example of decades of laying down her life for others.” What was most sensational in the aftermath of the crash were the details of Shamblin’s will.
She Left Nothing to the Church
It was found that none of the millions she amassed over the years from members of the church was left to the church. In fact, all her estate was to be split between her two children. And yet, the church is still active today.
As of April 2022, more information regarding her life, death, and legacy is to be known. With the second part of The Way Down soon to come out, only time will tell what exactly went down in her and Lara’s last moments.
The Joseph Smith Case
Let’s revisit the 2003 case, when the little boy was murdered by his parents. Joseph and Sonya Smith were both members of the Remnant Fellowship Church. They were convicted of not only beating the eight-year-old severely but also keeping him caged inside a box for days.
The Atlanta couple were members of the church’s Nashville chapter, and they both got life sentences plus 30 years in prison. Prosecutors asserted that the parents locked the boy inside a wooden box and would keep him in a closet for hours at a time.
No Link Was Made to the Church
Authorities also reported that the boy was chronically abused. The official cause of death was a blow to his head. The charges the parents faced included murder, aggravated assault, cruelty to children and false imprisonment.
The investigation led authorities to investigate and raid the Remnant Fellowship Church, but despite all the scrutiny with former members calling it a cult, no link was proven between the church and the murder. Shamblin even expressed support for the parents during the case as the police were investigating the church’s involvement.
The Church Supported the Parents
The church also funded the parents’ legal fees by soliciting donations through a website called thesmithsareinnocent.com. There were even members of the Remnant church who were seen attending the couple’s trial in Georgia.
Followers maintained that the parents’ involvement in the boy’s death was accidental. They posted photos of the family on their website and provided reasons why they believe the parents were never abusive. According to the Remnant Fellowship Church, the buy was suffering from a bacterial infection, which would explain some of the marks on his body (self-scratching from eczema).
Blaming It on the Ex-Members
“How this simple case could get so out of hand is a mystery,” was written on thesmithsareinnocent.com. “Something just does not add up.” The church stated that it believes, “the false accusations were originally initiated by ex-church members.”
The website also stated that the “Remnant Fellowship, Weigh Down, and Gwen Shamblin Lara have been vetted and exonerated by all skilled agencies that would have been able to uncover any form of child abuse. In addition, there has never been any other child abuse charges against the church or members of the church.”
Glue Sticks and Wooden Spoons
It’s strange that the police never took the investigation into the church further, seeing as Shamblin and other Remnant church leaders were accused of condoning beating. Former members revealed how the church promoted punishment with glue sticks and locking children in their rooms with only a Bible.
In a 2004 interview with the Associated Press, Shamblin did admit that the church believes in spankings and even confessed to using a wooden spoon on her own children. Despite it all, Shamblin and the church were let off scot-free.
If strange-looking and oddly behaving cult leaders is something you like to read about, check out the story of Heaven’s Gate…