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INSIDE STORY: Did ‘jailhouse religion’ save Jeffrey Dahmer?

Nearly 16 years ago, one of America’s most notorious serial killers­ was attacked and killed while cleaning a prison bathroom.
Few mourned the gruesome end for Jeffrey Dahmer, who strangled and dismembered 17 boys and men and cannibalized some of them.
“Most people wanted Jeffrey Dahmer to fry,” Episcopal theologian Kendall Harmon said after Dahmer’s Nov. 28, 1994, slaying at a Madison, Wis., prison.
“Now that he’s dead, they’re celebrating, and they’re absolutely sure he will burn in hell, because that’s what happens to people like him,” Harmon, whose doctoral work at Oxford University covered 20 centuries of teachings about hell, told Scripps Howard News Service religion columnist Terry Mattingly.
But did Dahmer go to hell?
Or is there a chance that we’ll see him — brother Dahmer, that is — in heaven?
How you answer may depend on whether you believe God can work miracles in hearts and minds — even behind bars — or if you brush aside prison ministry (the subject of a Page 1 story in The Christian Chronicle’s August print edition) as “jailhouse religion.”

When Dahmer died, I was a staff writer for The Oklahoman. I’ll never forget talking that day with Curt Booth, a member of the Crescent Church of Christ in Oklahoma, about his role in Dahmer’s conversion.
“I know Jeffrey was ready,” Booth told me. “Today, all the angels in heaven are rejoicing because Jeffrey has come home.”
Booth said he had no doubt about the sincerity of Dahmer’s conversion.
“On the great resurrection day, I’m expecting to see him right along there with Abraham, David, Isaac, James, John and all the saints that have lived right up to the modern day,” Booth said.
Booth usually ministered to inmates at prisons closer to home. But in April 1994, he caught a glimpse of Dahmer on television. Dahmer mentioned that he wished he could “find a little peace,” Booth said.
The Oklahoma church member sensed what he considered the hurt in Dahmer’s voice and eyes. Booth said he thought: “I know somebody who can give you that peace. His name is Jesus Christ.”
Booth sent Dahmer a Bible correspondence course teaching the steps to salvation. Dahmer mailed the answers back and thanked Booth for the course.
“But I still have one problem,” Dahmer wrote. “This prison does not have a baptismal tank and Mr. Burkum the prison chaplain is not sure if he can find someone to bring a tank in and baptize me? I’ve taken all the other steps.”

Booth contacted Roy Ratcliff, minister of the Madison Church of Christ in Wisconsin. Ratcliff set up weekly Bible lessons with Dahmer and baptized him on May 10, 1994. Ratcliff later shared that Dahmer told him he had been fearful of the minister’s visit.
“He dreaded that I might say, ‘No, you’re too evil. You’re too sinful. I can’t baptize someone like you,’” Ratcliff said.
Booth said he contacted other preachers besides Ratcliff, “but they were kind of scared to go in.”
Booth himself served more than four years in a Kansas prison for what he called “thievery.” Behind bars, he studied the Bible. However, he did not obey the Gospel until years later.
After prison, he drank, abused drugs and ended up in a ditch after a drunken night hunting raccoons. When a doctor told him in 1987 that his life was almost over, he remembered all the promises he had made to God in prison and began to contemplate his eternal salvation.
Booth called his nephew, a preacher named Phil Sanders, and asked what to do. Booth, his wife, Jenny, and three others studied with Sanders. All five were baptized in a pond behind Booth’s house.
“An amazing change took place in Curt,” Sanders, a speaker for the “In Search of the Lord’s Way” television ministry in Edmond, Okla., wrote in a tribute after his uncle’s 2005 death.
After his baptism, Booth led more than 1,000 inmates to Christ, including Dahmer.
Upon hearing of Dahmer’s conversion, David Hartman, a member of the Wilshire Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, wrote to congratulate him.

Dahmer sent Hartman $5 worth of stamps, asking him to mail him 25 copies of a Bible correspondence course for distribution to other inmates. In one letter, Dahmer mentioned being attacked in July 1994, months before he was killed.
“I don’t know if you heard, but last Sunday I was attacked while in the chapel,” Dahmer wrote. “Some guy tried to cut my throat open with a razor but didn’t succeed. The razor broke, and my neck was only slightly scratched. I believe that it was only the protective grace of our Great Lord & Savior Jesus Christ that saved me from serious injury or death!”

Bobby Ross Jr. is Managing Editor of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected]

  • Feedback
    I have read several other articles that credited a Mary Mott for sending the bible corespondence course to jeff.I’m confused who really sent them boone or mott
    dennis aaron
    church of christ
    phoenix, az
    May, 12 2013
    does anyone know roy ratcliff’s or booth’s email? if so please send me a message at [email protected]
    Laporte, MN
    December, 13 2012
    So according to the bible, Jeffery Dahmer is in heaven but John Lennon is in hell. Atheists have better morals than Christians because we have to live with our action. We can’t simply ask the invisible man in the sky for forgiveness and then everything okay.
    Thomas Morgan
    Ban Pong, Ratchaburi
    January, 10 2012
    Really, I DO believe that Jeff Dahmer was an instrument of God to show us the greatness of His power over death and sin. In virtue of that, Jeff will be resurrected in the Final Day Judgment. AMEN +
    Northeast NY
    Milwaukee, Winsconsin
    October, 8 2011
    I definitely cried through this article. His conversion gives all of us hope.
    Suzy George
    Fairfax Church of Christ
    Chantilly, VA
    July, 6 2010
    I read with interest your article in the Aug issue of the paper. How thankful we can be for the gospel of Jesus Christ and its power to save (Rom 1:16). Since the gospel is God’s power unto salvation it is vitally important that we preach it just like Philip did (Acts 8:35).It is indeed the power of God to save all those who hear and obey that gospel no matter what they have done or how terrible the sin is that they have committed. In your article you said that God “works miracles in hearts and minds.” It is true that God has all power and can do wonderful things but the power of His word to covert souls is not a miracle like the miracles God worked to confirm His word (Mark 16:20). We use the word “miracle” very loosely today and talk about many things being a miracle but they are not miracles like God used to confirm His word! The power of God’s word to convert souls is not a miracle!
    J.C. Watkins
    White Oak church of Christ
    Chattanooga, TN
    July, 6 2010
    The “GOSPEL” is the power of God unto salvation. What part of this do we not understand…Jesus saves!
    Barry May
    Locust Grove Church of Christ
    Locust Grove, Georgia
    July, 3 2010
    Shortly after Dahmer’s death, I recall reading an article by a well known brotehr, who wrote, “if he actually repented….” he will be in heaven, indicating doubt that a person with such sin could repent.
    The truth is that this could be said of any one us…”if we genuinely repent”.
    In my view, many fail to grasp sin, that any sin persisted in will damn us. I wonder how many of us have pondered the 16 works of the flesh ( Gal 5:19-21) that 9 of them have some aspect of division associated with them, from backbiting to murder. Imagine how many will be surprised on the day of judgment after a lifetinme of slanderous gossip. Sin is SIN! And the Lord said those who practice such will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
    James Mettenbrink
    Brookings, SD
    July, 3 2010
    Nah, “jailhouse religion” didn’t save Jeffrey Dahmer; Jesus did! God consistently saves people like Jeffrey Dahmer to remind us how big His grace is toward us, and how big the grace we dispense to others should be. I read a few years ago of a serial murderer who specifically targeted members of the Church of Christ. When he was found out, the church accepted him. It was a little tough at times, but with the aid of the Holy Spirit the brothers and sisters in Christ learned to forgive him and become a little more like Jesus by working through that.
    Tuscaloosa, Alabama
    July, 2 2010
    Amen! The end of this article was difficult to read through the tears. Jesus came to seek and save all of us, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done, because we’re all sinners and lost. Thanks for reminding us.
    Jay Kelley
    Austin Street
    Levelland, Texas
    June, 30 2010

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