With piercing hazel eyes, black greased-back hair and an intimidating scowl, George “Jed” Smock preaches from a chair in the middle of Speakers Circle at MU to about 30 students sitting around him.
The discussion is about the role of men and women in society. Smock believes a woman’s role is to obey her God-fearing husband.
“I don’t think you would find your typical male to be happy staying at home,” Smock said. “It is in the male nature to go out and conquer. I think also that the woman will not be too happy out in the workforce.”
Students pepper Smock with questions and challenge his points. No one becomes abusive or rude.
Brother Jed, as he’s known by those who gather to listen to his seemingly random campus sermons, has traveled the country for 30 years to deliver his brand of preaching. He and his wife, Sister Cindy, and their four young daughters have made Columbia their home because, as Jed says, the city is firmly in the Bible Belt and students are more receptive and have better manners than students in other places they’ve visited.
At Kent State University in 1982, students threw forks and beer cans at him. In the same year, while he was speaking at Syracuse University, a student threw a pie shell filled with shaving cream into his face.
They are a family with a mission. They want to bring the word of God to college students around the country and say one of Columbia’s benefits is its central location.
“Out of college campuses come the future leaders,” Jed said. “The future politicians, businessmen, educators, bureaucrats, lawyers, doctors, Indian chiefs, people who are going to be in positions of influence to determine the future of this country and of the world. So I believe they are key people to reach.”
Jed also said he chose Columbia because of the expectation at MU that anyone can stand in Speakers Circle and speak openly.
“There is a tradition of freedom of speech that has been established on campus, which I think is commendable on the part of the administration,” he said.
He said he tones down his rhetoric for his appearances at MU. But a toned-down “Brother Jed” still does not shy away from sweeping condemnation.
“As of now, many of you are on the road to hell,” Jed said to the crowd of spectators.
He said he takes a direct approach because it is effective.
“You’ve got to get the students’ attention,” he said.
MU student Holly Stillman stopped to listen to him speak for about five minutes.
“I think, more than anything, he acts as a catalyst for discussion between students,” she said.
Jed said college students he encounters now have changed little from the ones he dealt with more than three decades ago.
“Students still want to defend their rebellious, immoral lifestyles of illicit sex, drunkenness, drugs and decadent music,” he said.
In his book, “Who Will Rise Up?”, Jed writes that he was one of those rebellious youths. A graduate of Indiana University, he moved to California in 1967 and became part of the hippie counterculture, before becoming a professor of U.S. history at the University of Wisconsin in 1970.
In 1971, he joined a hippie commune in southern Morocco. There his life was changed when on Christmas Day, a man walked up to members of the commune, planted a cross in the ground and began preaching about Jesus Christ. Soon afterward, he began reading the Bible.
Jed gave his first speech at a rock concert in Terre Haute, Ind., in 1974. He has been preaching ever since, mostly on college campuses. April 15 marked the 30th anniversary of his roving ministry.
He shows no signs of slowing down. On this particular Tuesday, Jed ends his tirade and moves to the back of Speakers Circle, taking questions by the students.
Sister Cindy steps forward and takes center stage. Raising her hands and wrinkling her face, she describes the suffering of sinners in hell, shrieking in a high-pitched whine. A moment later, she performs one of her favorite stories: a sorority girl who screams after discovering she’s been infected after a debauched night of sex.
But there’s a another side to Cindy. She’s soft-spoken and witty when she opens the door of the couple’s home to students on a Thursday night. Her private face is just as surprising as her public mood. With her public mask off, her features are relaxed and her tone is warm.
Bright twilight falls on Victorian sofas and Damascus carpets through the tall, ceiling-high windows. Jed and Cindy Smock welcome a couple dozen friends and curious students to their first open house dinner in Columbia.
They moved from Ohio, their home of 16 years, in March and have experienced a friendly reception from the community.
“People are very polite, and it’s easy to make friends. Our neighbors even cut the lawn for us,” Cindy said.
Although Columbia hasn’t been on their map as often as other campuses — Jed first visited MU in the 1970s, but has only been back in the past two years — their fame has preceded them.
“My daughter’s piano teacher told me he and his wife had one of Jed’s books, and that they really appreciated us,” Cindy said.
The atmosphere is subdued. The curious and combative young college students are shy at first, not knowing what to expect from the usually feisty preacher. Jed and Cindy’s four younger daughters swirl around and offer ice tea and lemonade they had prepared in the afternoon, smiling heartily. There is no raising of voices, no confrontational conversations or ostentatious religious icons scattered around the sober and elegant house.
“I came here out of curiosity to see how they were like in a familiar setting, and it’s surprising how different, less intimidating and nice they are, probably because they don’t feel under attack,” MU student Allyson Beutel said.
When a spring shower ends in a faint rainbow, the guests step out to see the beautiful view. In the lush green yard, the Smock girls play with their dog. Their laughter resonates as an odd juxtaposition to a sign on the porch, which in bold letters condemns masturbators, homosexuals, liars and feminists, among others, to hell. It’s a reminder of the provocative tone of their preaching.
“What I say is never the result of driving emotions but is calculated,” Cindy said. “If we think of the O’Reilly Factor or modern radio commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, they are in your face all the time, use loud voices and strong terms to get people’s attention and interest.”
Cindy and Jed use the same technique, with characteristic gestures and intonations, often bellowing that sinners are bound for the “LAKE OF FIIIIRRRE!”
“Students first laugh at us or get mad, but then they come back and start paying attention,” Cindy said. “What matters is that they listen.”
She hopes those seeds will someday grow. Just as they did with her.
“Repent of your sins, you wicked woman,” were Jed’s first words to Cindy.
It was December 1977 on the University of Florida campus and Cindy was a lively sophomore. Known as the “Disco Queen,” she had participated at 12- and 30-hour dance-a-thons. She also had embarked on a potentially promising career in journalism, but Jed’s words moved something inside her. In a river of tears, she understood her life had been void of real meaning and discovered faith, she says.
Her first spontaneous speech was delivered to some students sunbathing in their bikinis at Bowling Green State University. The girls’ boyfriends threw Cindy in a nearby pond.
“In the ‘70s students had strong beliefs, but lately students have been getting more and more apathetic, which is actually worse than receiving a passionate reaction,” Cindy said.
Far from being discouraged by the episode, she joined Jed in his ministry around the nation and has used her journalistic skills to write religious books and a bimonthly newsletter for The Campus Ministry USA, founded by her husband.
All her time is devoted to their five daughters, Evangeline Lindsey, 19, Charlotte Abigail, 16, Justina Mercy, 14, Martha Marie, 12, and Priscilla Liberty, 9, whom they call by their first and middle names.
“We really wanted to have children, and it’s important for us to have them feel how much we love them. We like to do fun things together as a family,” Cindy said.
Every day, they study the Bible together, play the piano, sing or explore the outdoors. They don’t shelter their children from the rest of the world.
“We took them to the movie theater to see ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and I actually enjoyed it a lot, especially Gollum. He was a very poignant character. He represented how sin can consume you,” Cindy said.
Their daughters have accompanied them on campuses since they were toddlers.
“When we get home, we talk about the day as a family to make sure they don’t suffer from some comments or situations. But they say they enjoy being out with us, probably because some students are nice to us and also they see it doesn’t affect us when others are not,” Cindy said.
Cindy and Jed encourage them to speak their mind and expose them to the beliefs of other religions, in part by receiving people of various creeds for dinner.
While their first “Open House” dinner was held in April, they plan to have more.
“We are thinking of holding one once or twice a semester, and to call it ‘The Last Supper’ since it will be right before finals,” Cindy said, grinning.