The prelude to Devil in the Baptist Church: Bob Gray’s Unholy Trinity by local author and Folio Weekly contributor Tim Gilmore includes a telling quotation from Trinity Baptist Church’s current pastor Tom Messer: “Nobody, certainly not Dr. Gray, certainly not me or you, certainly none of us, should be either idealized or demonized.”
Despite the book’s title, Gilmore doesn’t do either of those things. Instead, he blends victims’ testimony, Gray’s sermons and personal analysis as well as powerful black-and-white photographs to bring the reader with him into church pews, back offices, and homes of people impacted by pedophile preacher Robert (Bob) Gray.
“It’s a story I’ve been connected to,” said Gilmore. “It’s personal. My parents met at this church and I attended the high school there in the late ’80s.”
Gray was a pastor at Trinity Baptist Church for 38 years, but he was more than a pastor — he turned Trinity into Jacksonville’s first megachurch, and became a national voice for Baptist conservatism.
“It was a hellfire-and-brimstone kind of preaching,” said Gilmore. “It was angry, foot-stomping, Bible-thumping kind of preaching. He got people fired up.”
As has happened numerous times in recent memory, Gray, a publicly puritanical pastor who protested Elvis Presley, homosexuals and women becoming preachers, is the same man who raped and molested children for decades.
Gray’s crimes against children, which date as far back as 1949, almost came out at least twice: in the early ’80s and again in the early ’90s. After the second hush-up, the church made a deal with the victims’ families that he would leave the country. So Gray went to Germany, where he remained for more than a decade.
The book explains how members of the church were silenced, and told not to go to the police.
“A lot of victims didn’t know there were others,” said Gilmore.
There were disturbing similarities among the victims’ stories. The pastor would bring them into his soundproof office, where he would physically violate them; afterward, he often gave them candy as they left. He scared and shamed the children into keeping the abuse a secret, going as far as reportedly telling one child, “I am like God in this church and you are just a little girl.”
After returning to the United States, Gray was arrested at the age of 81, in 2006. A total of 22 victims — 21 women and one man — filed charges against him but the statute of limitations had expired on many charges. Although the total number of victims could be even higher than 22, at age 81, Gray faced four counts of capital sexual battery. But before he could be brought to earthly justice, Gray died in jail awaiting trial in 2007.
“When Bob Gray got arrested, I think it affected a lot of people,” said Gilmore. “Not only did it shake their faith in God, but also their faith in the church.”
The consequences of Gray’s abuse have impacted the lives of his victims and their loves ones in unimaginable ways. According to Gilmore, one of Gray’s victims committed suicide, at least two others attempted to take their own lives.
Even faced with news of victims’ suicide attempts, Gray remained, as ever, convinced he had been a faithful servant.
“Do you feel you’ve been forgiven by God for what you’ve done?” asked a police officer who interrogated him in 2006. “I know I have,” Gray answered.
The nonfiction book also highlights significant evidence that Trinity Baptist leaders conspired together to hide Gray’s “indiscretions” at the church from the congregation and the authorities for several decades.
Gilmore says Messer told him that he believes Trinity is a family and “whatever happened there was a family squabble that didn’t concern anyone else.”
But today, seemingly unable to shake its troubled past, Trinity Baptist Church has about one-sixth of the congregation that it had in the era of Bob Gray. This book isn’t likely to help attendance at services.
Gilmore explained that the story of Gray had already fascinated him for a long time when he officially started researching it about two years ago. Devil in the Baptist Church is the 13th book written by Gilmore, who also organizes the JaxbyJax Literary Arts Festival. His website JaxPsychoGeo.com illustrates his passion for unique stories of local importance.
Fans of American Horror Story, Southern gothic literature or investigative journalism will find similar elements within the pages of Bob Gray’s Unholy Trinity, which thoroughly fleshes out Gray’s rise to power and the circumstances of the era that allowed him to become such a prominent clergyman.
Gilmore hopes the book will make predators feel less empowered and entitled to assault innocents.
“What’s been important to me in doing this, is that for so long, the church was able to cover all this stuff up because it was kept secret,” he said. “One of the most powerful things people can do is tell stories.”
Devil in the Baptist Church: Bob Gray’s Unholy Trinity is available here.