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PBS Series "Colonial House" Enables Family to Share Faith

  • Bonnie Pritchett Baptist Press
  • Published May 25, 2004
PBS Series "Colonial House" Enables Family to Share Faith

WACO, Texas — Jeff Wyers, playing the role of a 17-century autocratic governor in the PBS series “Colonial House,” faced the challenge by turning to prayer.

In addition to trying to communicate the concepts of religious authority alongside the love and grace of Jesus Christ, Wyers – a Southern Baptist pastor – and his family suffered a most public tragedy when the young man who was to become their son-in-law was killed in an auto accident back home.

Even so, God’s timing proved perfect and purposeful for the struggles the family from Waco, Texas, faced during the filming of the series.

"Colonial House," which began airing Monday, May 17, and continues May 24-25, follows in the footsteps of three hugely popular PBS series, each placing 21st-century people in an environment unique to a specific time period. The last series, “Frontier House,” which aired in 2002, had three families living for three months in 19-century western United States. The show aired repeatedly on U.S. PBS affiliates and in markets throughout the world.

Potentially, millions of people likewise will view “Colonial House,” and that, the Wyerses said, is why God allowed them to be a part of the series and why, in the midst of filming the five-month-long project, they faced tests to their faith.

It was on a lark that Jeff and Tammy Wyers filled out the online form for the production in the fall of 2002. They had watched portions of "Frontier House" and laughed at the complaining done by the participants. “We could so do that,” Tammy recalled saying. “Those people are such crybabies!” It was while she was on the PBS website looking for the next airing of "Frontier House" that she came across the application form for the "Colonial House" experiment. The new project would have an entire colony of up to 26 people living in 1628 Maine under Puritan law and struggling not only to survive but also to turn a profit for their sponsoring company back in England.

Not long after filing the application, it became apparent that the producers were seriously considering her family for the series.

“Then it became a serious matter of prayer. … We laid out many fleeces before the Lord,” Tammy said, referencing Gideon’s requests to the Lord for assurances (Judges 6:36-40). The couple knew that the project “was just too big a deal to be a crazy family adventure.... Potentially millions and millions of people would see this.”

What they would see, the Wyerses hoped, would be a family not just talking about faith in Jesus Christ but living it out, seeking to be ambassadors for Christ. Jeff, 47, is pastor of Community Baptist Church in Waco and teaches history, health and Bible at Texas Christian Academy where his children attend school. He also conducts creation science seminars.

Tammy, 44, is a homemaker. Their oldest son, Jeff Jr., 24, could not join the family for the production. Their oldest daughter, Bethany, 20, is a student at Mary-Hardin Baylor University in Texas, studying business and religion. Amy, 17, celebrated her graduation from Texas Christian Academy the weekend of May 22 and also will attend Mary-Hardin Baylor. David, who celebrated his 10th birthday while filming "Colonial House," is a fourth-grader completing his first year of school at the academy. He previously had been home schooled.

When it was finally confirmed that the Wyers family would be a part of the "Colonial House" project, it was time to ask their church family for their blessing. The response was overwhelming. Tammy said 99 percent of the people responded with such encouragement as, “Brother Jeff, you just have to do this. How do you say ‘No’ when God gives you this kind of opportunity?”

The Wyerses told the producers, in no uncertain terms, that their Christian faith was a part of their everyday life. Tammy recalled saying, “It is not our intent to brow beat. But you have to know God is not reserved for Sundays.... Jesus Christ is the center of our lives.... That’s who we are.”

In compiling their “citizens” for the colony, the producers sought out Americans and Britons of varying social, cultural, religious and political persuasions. In the first episodes aired May 17 and 18, viewers were introduced to the Wyerses; Don Heinz, a professor of religious studies and liberal theologian and his wife, Carolyn, a professor of anthropology; John and Michelle Vorhees, who are openly agnostic; and Jonathan Allen, a graduate student who announced to the colony during a Sabbath meeting that he is a homosexual (he was inspired to “come out” upon the arrival to the colony of another openly homosexual man, Craig Tuminaro).

Jeff Wyers knew the potential for conflict was very real and the way he, as the appointed governor of the colony, dealt with it as a Christian was going to be viewed around the world, perhaps with eternal consequences for some viewers.

As Christians, the Wyerses believed it would not be a spiritual stretch to live under Puritan rule. Though the laws of 400 years ago contained what people today would deem as sexist, racist and unyielding, for the most part they were founded on basic scriptural laws by which the Wyerses already lived.

All participants signed contracts stating, for example, that they would live under the laws of Puritan Maine in 1628. But even before the colonists completed their training at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts in May 2003, there was an undercurrent of dissension among the colonists. Jeff knew that viewers would have difficulty separating his role as governor and sole authority over the colony with his true-life role as Christian and pastor. Meting out discipline, he said, could be seen as “Oh, yah. The Christians are in control and see what happens?”

On June 4, 2003, the colonists arrived, via tall ship, on the shores of 1,000 acres of Passamaquoddy Tribal land in Maine. At the outset, Jeff did not have the time or energy to deal with dissenters as the colonists concentrated their energies on a key element of colonial life – starting and maintaining a fire. The wood on the misty, foggy, bitterly cold coast of Maine was soft and wet, yet a good fire was essential for accomplishing many of the daily chores. It took almost a week for the group to establish a routine of work and survival.

The first test of Puritan law came from the Michelle Vorhees. Although colonists in 17-century America were required by law to attend Sabbath meetings, she began to balk before the first service. She would give it a try, she conceded, but if it became an affront to her own religious beliefs, she would not continue to attend. Her husband, John, said he would attend for the sake of the unity of the community, but if his wife refused, he would stand with her.

In contrast, Bethany Wyers, then 19, was shown pining for her church back home. Unable to hold back tears, she spoke of the fellowship and worship that were so dear to her. Because of her outspoken convictions and strength of spirit, Bethany was nicknamed “The Rock.” And, this, Tammy said later, was by people who had little understanding of Scripture or to whom they were unknowingly comparing her.

Tammy said the family often was able to share their faith off-camera and even lead a small Bible study with Dominic Muir, a 26-year-old private tutor from England who had become a Christian weeks before the project began and has since applied to seminary.

Little did the Wyers know that the very foundation of the faith they exhibited was about to be shaken to the core and the world would witness their response.

In what would later be seen by her mother as a prophetic statement, Bethany told some of the colonists that no matter what might happen in her life she knew she could get through it with the help of Christ. Four days later the test of that testimony came, with one of the producers relayed the news that Bethany’s fiancé, 19-year-old Caleb Morgan, had been killed in a traffic accident and the Wyerses’ son, Jeff Jr., was seriously injured. Amy’s boyfriend, Noah, had been in the vehicle as well but was not hurt.

In her grief, Bethany ran from the family’s hut, heading for the woods. Her family followed and, at the edge of the trees, poured out their hearts.

The other colonists were told what happened. As the family walked back up the road to the small row of huts, they were met in the street by their neighbors who, by now, had become their friends. In spite of the differences that separated them, there was love and caring among the group that crossed all boundaries, Tammy said.

The Wyerses had to go home. Jeff said the production staff was extremely gracious and helpful. But as he was walking away from the village to a waiting car, he recounted, “There was a Scripture going through my mind: ‘A righteous man swears to his own heart and keeps his word.’” Jeff knew he would have to come back to 1628 Maine.

The Wyerses returned to the 21st century to grieve and say goodbye to the young man they considered a son. As for their son, Jeff Jr., he would need special care for hearing loss – which has since partially healed – sustained in the June 18 accident. While the Wyerses were in Waco, the colonists 3,000 miles and 400 years away were allowed to write –on parchment with quill pens – letters to their governor and his family.

“They were words of love and encouragement,” Jeff said. “They just loved on us.” Tammy said she wept over each letter, some of which mentioned the family’s faith and how they lived it out in ways people did not expect. Those letters, Tammy said, stirred in her the notion of returning to their colonial home. Amy agreed to stay behind to tend to Jeff Jr. Although Tammy hated leaving two children behind this time, she knew God had work for them to complete.

Jeff was not aware of Tammy’s decision as he returned to the colony 10 days after departing. The loss of Caleb Morgan brought the realities of colonial life crashing in on the Wyers family in a way they had not anticipated.

Seen walking alone toward the colony, Jeff speaks in a voice-over: “My perspective has deepened. I’m taken to a new level of the sacrifice [the colonists] made.... They would have gotten messages that loved ones would have died and it’s very real.”

Jeff was now determined to make the project what it was intended to be -- a test of physical, mental and spiritual endurance. As governor, he would soon become torn between meting out Puritan law as governor and bestowing grace as a pastor.

“That was a real problem for me.... You can’t force somebody to believe.... Your pressure becomes the issue and not the Holy Spirit,” he said.

Every decision was made in “a constant state of prayer,” Jeff said, joking of its mix amid otherwise mindless manual labor: “Chop. Chop. Pray. Pray. Chop. Chop. Pray. Pray.”

Enforcing the law requiring Sabbath meeting attendance was the most difficult act he had to take as governor and pastor. During the episode “City of God,” scarlet letters were passed out for violations of the civil laws, such as profanity, blasphemy (taking the Lord’s name in vain) and for not attending the Sabbath meeting. Jeff recounted he had spoken with the Vorheeses off-camera about having to give the letters for missing services and they said they understood. They seemed willing to separate Gov. Wyers from their friend, Jeff. But when the time came to give the letters, Jeff recalled, things changed. People were no longer just playing parts.

Before giving the letters to the Vorheeses, Jeff is shown reading a prepared statement: “The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not to be spread by force of arms nor coercion. Yet, at the same time, we have placed ourselves in a setting in which the civil law requires mandatory assembly together for devotional meeting on the Sabbath. Therefore, any who fail to gather for the meetings have broken the law and without law there can be no society, only anarchy.” The punishment for “disassembles” was wearing the letter ‘D’ and two hours of expulsion from the colony.

Applying punishment for lack of faith or not wanting to go to church forced Jeff to consider whether enforcing such a law – even in a contrived setting – would push someone farther away from God. In a moment of reflection, before a lone camera, Jeff said, “If I, as a man, am a wall between people and belief in Jesus Christ, then I have caused them eternal harm and eternal damage ... heaven or hell.”

When half of the colony stopped coming to Sabbath meetings, Jeff was forced to suspend that law; its enforcement was depleting the workforce and was becoming a heightened source of contention among the colonists. With one civil fire seemingly tapped out, another one was about to flare up.

But not before reinforcements arrived. It had been almost four weeks since Jeff had returned alone to the colony, but he was about to be reunited with part of his family. Tammy was struck by Bethany’s conviction to return to Maine. Her daughter had told her colony friends before the accident that Christ was everything to her – a statement easily made when life is going well, Bethany later admitted. She now had the opportunity to prove her faith. Tammy recalled her daughter saying, “I’ve said it, but now I’ve got to live it.”

And with that they returned to the colony with other new arrivals. Jeff was unaware of their returning and, in an extremely touching moment, is caught on camera as he is reunited with Bethany and then Tammy and son David.

With the Tammy and her two children are nine new members of the colony: three more indentured servants, a merchant/treasurer sent to oversee the economics of the colony and a freeman with his wife and three children. The founding members of the colony are pleased to have the new arrivals.

But the arrival of one of the new colonists was the impetus for a new wave of controversy that crashed through the group and put on trial the Wyerses’ conviction to uphold the truth of Scripture.

During a Sabbath meeting, Jonathan Allen, acting as indentured servant to the Heinz family, revealed that he is a homosexual. Jeff, Tammy, Bethany and David said and did nothing as a smattering of applause followed Allen’s announcement. Allen had earlier confessed his secret to the Hienz family; they embraced him and let it be known there was no condemnation on their part. So following the Sabbath meeting, it was time to get the response from the governor/Southern Baptist pastor.

Quoting Scripture, Jeff simply stated that all have sinned. Instead of embracing people in their sinfulness, he added, the individual should be encouraged, through the power of God, to confront their sin and defeat it.

“I was very concerned that we present the Gospel,” Jeff reflected. But if it wasn’t presented “just right,” he knew viewers would see him – and, by association, all Christians – as a “jerk” and God’s message would be compromised.

“I was very proud of him,” Tammy said of her husband’s response, admitting that her own feelings had not been as gracious toward Allen. “I was angry that he chose that time to do it,” she said of his revelation during a worship service where children were present. This was not a subject she wanted introduced to David, her 9-year-old son, nor the manner in which she wanted it done. A more appropriate venue for the declaration, Tammy suggested, would have been before the colony counsel.

"Colonial House" continues its premier broadcast tonight (8-10 p.m. Eastern or check local listings), including the final departure of the Wyers family. How it plays out on screen has yet to be seen, but Tammy said the stress back home in Waco had become too much for their daughter, Amy, to bear. Suffering from a recurring illness that threatened to hospitalize her, the Wyerses were once again forced to put family first and end their stay in the year 1628. The family had been reunited on site July 22, 2003, and it was now October and time to go home to stay.

Because they were leaving the production four weeks before its conclusion, the Wyerses had the opportunity to gather all the colonists to say goodbye. Jeff said he could not leave these people who had become so dear to him and his family without giving a clear presentation of the Gospel. It would have wrong to do otherwise, he said.

The fall of 2003 was spent grieving and healing, Tammy said, noting, “We just had the sweetest time as a family.”

Since the airing of the first four episodes of "Colonial House" in mid-May, the Wyerses have received phone calls and e-mails from across the country from people they do not know thanking them for their positive portrayal of the Christian faith.

“We feel so privileged. This was nothing we chose,” Tammy said from her Waco home. “We are a family who went through a tragedy and leaned on God … and that was God’s plan.” Jeff and Tammy are convinced it was God’s purpose for their struggle to be viewed by millions so that a family of faith could testify to His sustaining grace.

There is no asking “Why?” Tammy said. They know why. Caleb’s parents know why. The church knows why. Following Caleb’s death, Bethany said, “You don’t ask God, ‘Why?’ You ask, ‘What now?’”

And it is the “What now?” that keeps Jeff and Tammy praying for those in the colony with whom they still keep in touch, and for the millions of people worldwide who will view "Colonial House."

Although the project was a contrived event for television, the hardships each of them faced were very real, Jeff said. His prayer is that people will see and hear Jesus Christ through the testimony of his family – that what was said and done will cause someone somewhere to fall under conviction and to pick up an old forgotten Bible and seek the truth and find salvation.

Photo courtesy of PBS.

© 2004 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.