He was the man who knew the truth about God. On his T.V. show, “In Touch with Dr. Charles Stanley,” he let us have it.
As part of my ‘deconstruction’ of the religion of my youth, I had questions—like I’d heard Charles Stanley got a divorce. What happened there?
According to the “rules” binding even on Evangelical Christian superstars who are megachurch pastors whose media companies bring in $35 million a year, his career as a cleric should’ve been over. He recognizes that in 1995. “If my wife divorces me, I would resign immediately.”
Which isn’t how it went down.
Browsing through old newspapers I realize, to his church, he was nearly a divine figure.
A 1981 ad for First Baptist in Atlanta reads: “We believe that our pastor is a modern day prophet in these last day times.”
His enemies, a 1988 profile notes, call him the “Baptist pope.”
To Anna Stanley, he was the husband who wasn’t there. “I have been a faithful and supportive wife to Charles,” she writes in a 1995 letter to his church. “Long ago, however, Charles, in effect, abandoned our marriage. He chose his priorities, and I have not been one of them.”
By a few accounts, he’d checked out of their marriage in the early 1970s. One of these accounts is his own. In a 1991 book, How to Handle Adversity, he calls it a problem that got ‘handled’. He writes:
In 1970 we moved to Atlanta, and I got too busy. I became married to the ministry and began to neglect my family. It took me several years to see how I was at fault and to put things back in order. Anna experienced a great deal of hurt and rejection during that time. There were moments when I was not sure either of us could go on.
Today I can feel the hurt of a man or woman who sits in my office and cries. I can identify with the husband who wants desperately to change but is not sure where to begin. I know firsthand the frustration of a woman who loves her husband but feels that her love is not reciprocated. And more important than being able to identify with their hurts, I know how to comfort them, not simply counsel them.
A husband who “wants desperately to change” as his wife “loves her husband but feels that her love is not reciprocated.”
What could possibly be going on here?
He mentions Anna or ‘Annie’ in a few of his books. There’s little sense of her personality or presence.
In Is There a Man in the House? (later re-published as A Man’s Touch), Stanley’s 1975 guide to Christian manhood, he tells the story about their honeymoon, and the first meal she ever made for him: fried chicken.
He writes: “I looked around and asked, ‘Where is the gravy?’”
Anna got up, and got right to work. “It was more like jello than gravy, but she learned in time,” he adds, congratulating himself on his handling of the scene. “I could have sulked and wondered: ‘When is she going to learn how to fix a real meal?’ but I spoke up and she responded. I’ve enjoyed a lot of fried chicken with gravy since then!”
She announced the divorce was happening in 1995. She wrote her letter, and sent it to the church to be read at a business meeting which was convened to determine if Stanley “should resign unconditionally or be removed…because he is biblically unqualified.”
If divorcing, he’d be seen as violating not merely Jesus’ teachings on divorce, but Paul’s rules of pastoral character in 1 Timothy 3: “He must manage his own family well…”
But Charles Stanley wasn’t divorced yet — and didn’t plan to get there.
The meeting was scheduled for 6:30 P.M. on Sunday, August 13th, 1995.
Many thousands showed up, though only 3,000 could fit in the sanctuary, with overflow rooms set up to handle more.
By 6 P.M., though, the sanctuary filled with Stanley’s supporters, and the doors were locked. Anna’s letter was ruled out of order, so it wasn’t read. Stanley reassured the congregation: “I am not divorced. Secondly, I don’t want a divorce. Thirdly, my wife doesn’t want a divorce. I’m trusting God is going to put this back together.”
The only note of protest was sounded by his son, Andy Stanley, who’d been developing a side-service for the ‘unchurched’. He resigns. The newspaper reports: “In a letter to the congregation read Sunday, the younger Stanley expressed love for his father but said, ‘I felt my father should step down as leader of First Baptist of Atlanta.’”
In a 2012 profile by CNN, there’s a report of a chilling scene between father and son—the son he’d planned to take over the show.
“Andy,” he said, “you have joined my enemies, and I’m your father.”
Andy later writes: “His closest friends and staunchest supporters rallied behind the theory that I was using my parents’ divorce as leverage to move my dad out so I could move in.”
But Charles Stanley, the godliest Christian, was ready to take on his enemies—son, church, and wife.
The church members in the overflow rooms realized their sound system had been turned off.
They couldn’t hear the proceedings. When it came time to vote, no one came to count theirs. They only see on the video monitor as Stanley assures he’s not getting a divorce, gets a standing ovation, and the resolution is voted down.
The church is in a “siege mentality,” says a woman interviewed about the meeting. “They may attempt to use strong measures to attempt to control even members from entering that meeting, but they can’t bar the Lord.”
One of the excluded church members writes a letter to the editor, printed the following Wednesday. “It was a very unfair meeting,” he reports, asking further why Stanley had sealed all court documents. “Why were divorce proceedings instigated? After members know the truth, then we can make an educated decision concerning Stanley, and not until then.”
Anna clarifies through the newspaper that “the time for, and the possibility of, reconciliation between Charles and me has passed.”
She adds: “I have been dismayed at my husband’s refusal to accept the critical state of our marriage. Instead, he has made repeated announcements from the pulpit that progress was being made toward reconciliation, when in fact, the very opposite was true. I do not choose to contribute to this charade.”
Asked about whether the husband and wife might re-unite, a friend of hers has a more succinct reply. “When pigs fly.”
To follow local coverage of the divorce is to see behind the curtain of a pastor who was different than the mask he wore in public.
A 1995 profile quotes from a 1991 speech by Stanley which had a rare bit of self-reflection. He says:
“I was very, very uneasy unless I was in charge,” he says. “Now I know I don’t appear to be that kind of a person, and I’m not today. But I was very, very combative and very, very competitive. You see, into my ministry I brought the survival spirit. You do or die. You do whatever is necessary to win. It doesn’t make any difference what it is.
He says this “combative” and “competitive” spirit was in his past. It’d have served him well, perhaps, in the difficult days of becoming head pastor in Atlanta, when deacons were openly at war with him. In one meeting, he’d been punched.
He took over, though, always talking up his regular communications from the spirit world. His church approved. Praising his leadership, a member says in 1988: “Moses had to keep his focus on who his boss was — God. I think Dr. Stanley has to do the same thing.”
“Some of them almost worship the man,” says a longtime member, who’d been one prior to Stanley’s arrival.
This profile calls him an “elusive figure,” as many note “it can be difficult to speak with him, even by phone.” He doesn’t really do conversations? With God, he listens. With everyone else, he talks.
Anna Stanley, in contrast, is remembered as a ‘wise’, ‘warm’, ‘Christian lady’. Andy’s wife recalls her mother-in-law in a eulogy: “Anna was never nosey, or bossy, or prone to dispensing unwelcome opinions or advice. In fact, she was such a wise and gracious lady, I would have gladly received more of her guidance, had she been well enough over the years to give it.”
To watch the divorce play out is to see Anna realizing, to get free, she has to go to war using lawyers, public announcements, and maneuvers at church. Her husband has no intention of losing his perch at the top of the Evangelical world.
He doesn’t tell the church about the history of marital agony, which led to his wife’s conclusion it was over.
Stanley, in a 2019 discussion, speaks of when his wife first files. “I’d lived with threats of divorce for many years.”
Andy Stanley is not trying to ruffle his father’s feathers in a 2012 book, Deep and Wide, that has a chapter on the divorce. But he notes his parents’ long efforts at marital counseling, including three weeks with “a highly trained team of counselors and doctors.”
Andy writes: “By the time she filed, the marriage had been dead for years. But they were both so adamantly opposed to divorce that neither of them wanted to file. On one occasion I got so frustrated I actually asked if I could hire an attorney and file for their divorce myself!”
She first filed for divorce in 1993, then amended it to a request for “separate maintenance,” a kind of legal separation. She and her husband can’t agree on terms, so she refiles in 1995, asking for a jury trial.
Little was disclosed about the real concerns. There’s a clue in a report in World magazine of their final divorce decree in 2000. Stanley blamed “childhood difficulties” — without saying whose, or what they were.
But he had written about an unnamed childhood concern.
In a 1986 book, How to Keep Your Kids on Your Team, he writes:
Several years ago the Lord was working me over about some insecurities that I had been dragging around since childhood. As is often the case, these insecurities greatly influenced my ability to accept and love my family. As the Lord continued to give me insight into why I acted the way I did, I felt led to share these with my wife and kids. A family vacation afforded me the uninterrupted time to share all that was on my heart.
Though not dated, his children were teenagers in the mid-1970s, so I’d imagine it was happening then. A profile of the divorce drama notes a later scene, when the childhood drama seems to be back. He takes “a three-month leave, which included hospitalization, in 1977.”
He seems to refer to this episode in a 1985 book, How to Listen to God.
One Sunday I became very ill and had to go to the hospital. All I could do was sleep for the first two days. On the third day, my wife came to visit, and we began talking, because God had impressed on my heart the need to go back to the very beginning of my life and review it up to the present point. I felt He had something to show me, and I needed my wife to help me see it.
Every afternoon we talked. We talked the rest of that week, all of the next week, and all of the next week. For three weeks she wrote and she listened. Toward the end of the third week, my wife looked over a mountain of paper where she had recorded the conversations and said, “I believe God has shown me what the problem is.” When she told me, the problem in my life became clear for the first time.
He doesn’t relay the insight she’d had.
In Stanley’s 2016 memoir, Courageous Faith: My Story From a Life of Obedience, all these scenes are gone, and there’s little about his wife of over forty years. There’s Charles and God, the divine voice he can summon at any time, telling everyone else what to do.
Of his childhood, he tells a story of a father dying when he was a baby, as his mother went to work.
There wasn’t welfare or day care in the Great Depression, and only intermittent help from relatives. He grew up largely alone—in empty rooms.
Thinking her son needed a father, when he was nine, his mom re-married. Stanley describes his stepfather as “very negative, self-centered and bitter,” given to “fits of rage.”
A 1995 profile in the Atlanta Constitution notes: “At one time, young Charles said he drew a knife on his stepfather to keep him from injuring his mother.” The memoir skips that scene, though it notes that, at age 15, his stepfather had slapped him, and he’d punched back.
The obvious career for him was an Evangelical cleric.
He got ‘saved’ at age 12 and the next year decided to become a pastor. He needed a wife fit for the job. In his oft-told story, a deacon at church had walked up to him and said, “Charles, I want you to meet the girl you’re going to marry.”
He wasn’t so sure. “She was a very nice young lady, of course, but she wasn’t necessarily the type I usually went for.” He doesn’t clarify what that means. Anna was a bit different. In college, she’d majored in art.
She was, he writes, “pretty, very bright, artistic, and best of all, she had a deep passion for God.” When he tells her he loves her, she replies: “Thank you.”
He writes: “Well, I wasn’t expecting that! Gratefully, it wasn’t too long before she reciprocated and told me she loved me, too.”
They married in 1955. The wedding announcement is heavy on details of Anna’s outfits worn throughout the day. She likes fashion.
What he needed her for was to pay the bills. In a 1963 profile in the Miami Herald, he says: “Like most preacher’s wives, she went out and worked while I finished at the seminary.”
Their second child, Becky, writes a brief memoir of her mother, who I gather was her second-favorite parent.
She refers to Anna’s “gracious hospitality — her instinct to include people others might overlook, and her unapologetic enthusiasm to share Christ with anyone who would listen.”
Her mother threw dinner parties, heavy with conversation about “forbidden” subjects, politics and religion. “Mom’s knowledge of the Bible rivaled Dad’s, and her memory was equally phenomenal. She could produce the most remote Bible verse to support any of her arguments.”
Her mother has a special ministry to young women in some kind of disadvantaged or dangerous position. Becky writes: “I admit to getting irritated at some of her lengthy phone calls with brokenhearted girls who had gotten themselves in trouble.”
Then, talk of some kind of inner distress: “Mom fought an unseen enemy that none of us ever fully understood.”
Anna, it seems, put on the required performances, then disappears into her bedroom to be alone. Becky writes: “The blank spaces in my childhood, the ones left empty while Mom lay in bed with the blinds closed, used to haunt me.”
A family with shadows and secrets—all committed to the performance they were putting on for the world.
Except Anna, who drifts away from the church. Andy’s memoir has a telling line: “My mom had not attended church for years.” He adds in the CNN profile: “People got used to it, and they quit asking about it.”
Charles Stanley kept up the image of an ideal Christian husband. As he writes in A Man’s Touch, “the Bible says the man is responsible for what happens in his home (1 Cor. 11:3). The husband is the head, or leader, of the wife.”
He sure slung out the advice, coming right from God. At a pastor’s meeting in 1986, the Atlanta Constitution reported, he’d been asked how to balance home and work concerns. “Brother, you’ve asked the heart of the question,” he replied. “Because if a pastor doesn’t make it in his family, I don’t care what else he has to say, he doesn’t say much.”
All along, his wife seems to be in some a deep sadness, which both conceal as best they can. Then, she makes a move.
Stanley keeps saying the divorce isn’t happening.
The legal process goes on, and on, with little sense provided of why. With no income of her own and a rich husband intent on stopping her, maybe that’s not so mysterious.
It causes confusion. A church member recalls: “The private reason I often heard was that Mrs. Stanley had serious mental health issues and routinely accused Dr. Stanley of many unsubstantiated things due to his long work hours and time commitments with First Baptist Church.”
In 1996, she drops the divorce proceedings. Are they back together?
Charles Stanley is interviewed. “Naturally, I’m pleased and grateful to God for answered prayer. I’m grateful for all the people who’ve been praying for us these almost three years. Especially, I’m grateful to my church for their patience and support and unwavering love for me through this difficult time.”
Not too thankful for his wife.
Andy pipes up in the press. “I’m thrilled it happened,” he says. “I think it’s an authentic move toward reconciliation.”
In his book, Andy tells a different story. “My sister, Becky, and I knew better. Four months later, my mom refiled. And the whole thing started up again.”
Deeply at odds with his father, Andy went on to start his own separate church. Then they pull their relationship back from the precipice.
Andy writes: “For the next two years, my dad and I met together with a counselor every week. Sometimes twice a week. In spite of that, he continued to be suspicious.”
For a time, though, family visits all but ceased. Andy recalls inviting his father over once. “By the time the night was over, we were standing in my driveway yelling at each other like a couple of middle-school girls.”
In 2000, the divorce is finally announced.
In his memoir, Charles Stanley says it was “devastating,” and that he mulled whether to resign. He says: “And God simply said, ‘You just keep doing what I called you to do until I tell you differently.’”
Some prominent Evangelical leaders, reported World magazine, communicated that he should take a year or two off “to get his life together.”
But it wasn’t God who said that, so Charles Stanley didn’t listen.
At the announcement at the church that he’d remain as pastor, a report notes: “The congregation stood and applauded.”
Asked about the divorce in a 2000 interview, Stanley says he’s “barred by the court” from giving details. But it’s making him a better pastor. “I’ve had lots of people who said, ‘You know, I couldn’t listen to you because you couldn’t understand. Now you understand.’”
In later years, Charles and Anna “rarely” speak
In her last years, she’s ill. The details Andy gives in the 2012 CNN profile—or rather, doesn’t give—are a little weird.
Only he and his sister, Becky, know the truth, he says. (Becky declined to talk after initially agreeing.)
“I love my mom. In her prime, she was an incredible woman,” Andy says. “Something just caught up with her, and my dad took all the grief for her.”
Whatever it was—they’re not going to say.
Charles Stanley has no thoughts of re-marriage. “I don’t really need a wife,” he tells CNN. “God has just filled my life with good things.”
Anna died in 2014.
“She remained involved in multiple areas of church life until illness restricted her participation,” an obituary reads.
In Stanley’s memoir, he wraps it up nice. “I loved Anna Margaret Johnson Stanley with all my heart, and regardless of what transpired between us, I never quit loving her to the day she died.”
She “passed away peacefully,” the obituary says, “surrounded by her loved ones.” It doesn’t appear he was among them. 🔶