LENOX — The Rev. Carl Henry Stevens Jr., founder of the controversial The Bible Speaks church in Lenox, and later the Greater Grace World Outreach in Baltimore, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure. He was 78. After a $5.5 million lawsuit prompted Stevens to leave The Bible Speaks' sprawling campus on Kemble Street in Lenox, he formed Greater Grace, which lists more than 25 affiliated churches nationwide, including one in Lee.
Stevens' ministry was marked by controversy, with former members alleging on Internet sites that the church practiced mind control, sexual misconduct, child molestation, fraud and extortion.
In 1987, 11 years after Stevens brought the Bible Speaks to Lenox, a court ordered the pastor to repay a Lenox woman $6.5 million that he had persuaded her to donate to his ministry. The suit accused Stevens of deceit. The amount was reduced to $5.5 million on appeal.
Despite the controversy, Steve Andrulonis, an assistant pastor and spokesman for Greater Grace, said in a phone interview yesterday that Stevens will be remembered as a man of honesty and conviction.
"He stirred things up because he was a man of strong opinion and conviction," Andrulonis said. "And the controversy came from not being wishy-washy. You'll get different opinions on him, people thinking this way or that way. But in my opinion, he was very steadfast."
Berkshire County residents had mixed feelings yesterday about the ministry created by Stevens, which now operates more than 460 churches in 70 countries.
James Bisgrove, a former student at the Stevens School of the Bible located on the church's Lenox campus — now the home of the Shakespeare & Company theater group — said the church did "some wonderful and some terrible things" for the county.
"There were bus ministries to help feed the poor and things like that," said Bisgrove, 58, of Pittsfield, who later became president of a group aimed at convincing people to leave the church. "They were doing a lot. But at the same time, Stevens was (ruining) the background."
Frederick Regan, a former member of The Bible Speaks in Lenox, said he left the church after four or five years, but his daughter remained at the school. Now a resident of Woburn, he said he thought the church came between him and his daughter, and that Stevens' death will draw reactions on two extremes.
"The ones that are still in the church will see him as an apostle," Regan said. "Other people who are not, or who never were, will see him for what he was."
Pastor David Stambovsky, leader of Greater Grace in Lee, said members of his church are glad the suffering has ended for Stevens, whose health had declined in recent years.
While an international memorial service will be held for Stevens in Baltimore on June 14, Stambovsky said he and members of his congregation will reflect in their own way about the man who led their religious journey.
"He was a real friend of ours and of many people from the Berkshires," Stambovsky said. "We know what the effect has been of the underlying events in the Berkshires. But all I can say is, he spoke of God's promise, and it stirred up a great following in New England and throughout the world.
"Over the past 200 years, many men and women have been advocates of Jesus Christ. Pastor Stevens was one of them, and I think history will record that."
A message posted on the Greater Grace Web site by Thomas Schaller, who became the lead pastor of the organization in 2005 when Stevens began to experience declining health, reads in part: "We will continue to reflect on the great privilege of walking with a true man of God. The fruit around the world speaks of God's great grace towards all those that delight in his word. Pastor loved His Word."
To reach Amy Carr: firstname.lastname@example.org, (413) 496-6233.