Molech’s Children: “The Devil in Pew Number Seven” Review

9 min readMar 15, 2021


Book cover: NYT bestseller The Devil in Pew Number Seven by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo (creepy dude in a fedora stands large in front of quaint country church)
Image from

How many times would someone have to target your family with bullets and explosives for you to move them to a safe location?

One? Maybe a malicious prank!

Two? Surely the government will do something!

How about ten?

Oh, and the culprit lives across the street from you and stands there with his friends, laughing at you as you and your family scramble for their lives in the dead of night, sometimes wondering whether one or both of your small children have been killed by blast or bullet. And these blasts come when the guy isn’t either heckling you from the back pew of your church where he isn’t a member or when he’s at home pacing up and down the street all night long, or when he’s having others call you several times a day.

What would it take for you to leave?

This book was my Shabbes read, and I had heard it recommended as an account of when one toxic person causes all sorts of problems in a Christian congregation. My brain registered that it would be a beautiful tale of the community coming together to strengthen and improve its infrastructure. That’s not what this is. Instead, it’s a horror story dripping in dystopian Christian positivity. That feeling you get when you’re screaming at the people on screen, “DON’T SPLIT UP!” or, “JUST LEAVE, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WHY WHY WHY?” doesn’t begin to capture the energy of this story.

Synopsis (includes spoilers!): The Nichols family moved to Sellerstown, North Carolina, in 1969 when the father, Robert, got a job as a pastor at the local church. The extremely volatile John Watts, who was not a member of the church but was powerful in the community (which was described as being an unincorporated area with a couple of roads) for selling wares and owning a shop, proceeded to threaten, harass, and assault the family for almost a decade, unhappy with the pastor’s influence. Several government agencies began their investigations early on, but it would only be proven years later that the man who succeeded in driving the family from Sellerstown, Harris Williams, an abusive alcoholic, had been manipulated by John Watts into believing the pastor was having an affair with his wife and subsequently into entering the Nichols house, shooting Robert and his wife, and taking his own wife hostage. Mrs. Nichols did not survive, but the event was enough to drive the Nichols out, despite the community’s love. The remaining Nichols, Robert, (author) Rebecca, and toddler Daniel, moved back between both parents’ extended families. Robert, having survived a bullet-shattered hip and shot to the shoulder and years of harassment, eventually lost his life in a faith-based mental health facility, leaving Rebecca and Daniel to be raised by their aunt, who had chosen not to have children because she believed her/their god was telling her not to. Rebecca claims her faith and the Christian conceptions of grace and forgiveness saw her through difficult times, and she and her brother forgave Harris and Watts early on. Both culprits were eventually tried and sentenced, but both also got out extremely early. Watts offered to write the Nichols children into his will and they seemed to enjoy a nice relationship with him as a changed man (note: he was 75 when he went to jail) and the siblings reunited with Harris live on the Dr. Phil Show. Harris embraced them and whispered an apology, but refused to say it out loud on the show and was later seen crying in his room, scared that no one believed him when he said he didn’t remember his crime: he had been binge-drinking for two weeks straight prior while Watts poisoned his mind against the pastor, whose wife was Harris’ wife’s best friend. The Nichols siblings gave Harris a personally engraved Bible and everything is sunshine and sprinkles.

The writing is lovely — I cried when Rebecca described losing both her parents, and laughed at her childhood antics — but I also had questions, the answers to some of which I think we can find in the acknowledgments. Mainly, the publisher is the same as that of the author’s favorite Bible.

The book was extremely descriptive, except when it came to a portrait of Sellerstown itself. I couldn’t picture what kind of denomination this was or what the congregation looked like. It was mentioned that Robert Nichols was successful in bringing men to church with their wives and children and that most people in Sellerstown are related, and we do get some lovely description of fields and country life, but if you asked me to describe who was in the pews, what they wore, and what their houses were like, I couldn’t. I can see a landscape with a few personalities and a few houses, but I can’t picture the community.

Given the outstanding level and quality of detail elsewhere, that’s surprising. In missing that, I wonder if we’re missing other things: it is briefly mentioned that there was a Baptist Church where the Black population worshipped, but that’s never elaborated on. A particularly odd event (and missed opportunity) will probably bug me once a month until I die: at one point, a man from the Ku Klux Klan came to Robert Nichols and offered to take care of John Watts. This was brushed off with Nichols stating he’d place his faith elsewhere, but it raises so many more questions about the area: what would the Klan gain from getting rid of Watts? Did the Klan have some sort of relationship with or enmity towards Watts? Was the Klan a force in Sellerstown? Was the Klan trying to gain support in Sellerstown? What were Robert Nichols’ views on the Klan and how did those work with his vision for his congregation? What was the relationship like between the Nichols’ church and the nearby Baptist Church and Black congregants?

We get ample history on the pastor and his wife (author Rebecca’s parents) and one anecdote from John Watts’ history: enraged at someone stealing from his shop, he shot at two leaving customers, killing one, and served no time. I have to wonder why Watts is presented as a Batman-grade ultra-villain-terrorist, because the whole premise falls to pieces if you step out of Christian Americana fluff-mode for even a microsecond (if you’re like me, and you’re not in Christian Americana fluff-mode to begin with, the whole thing is a horror show). There is ample examination of the early Nichols family, but none on Watts, and little on Harris, though Harris is painted sympathetically, probably as a fellow victim of Watts.

Throughout the book, the Nichols family makes numerous trips from Sellerstown to relatives elsewhere, occasionally when the violence against them intensified. There is ample acknowledgment of how fortunate the children were to have so much available family after losing their mother, when their father was slipping further and further away due to mental and physical illness, and once they were orphaned. There is even acknowledgment that mental health was important, as several times the author mentions how the family took breaks from their situation to rejuvenate — including moving to a different area where the activity slowed down substantially — but they always returned to their house, the parsonage (home sponsored by the congregation near the church) across from the devil. Each time they left, the community continued to sustain them, including when Robert Nichols left for treatment following the murder of his wife and his injury, and they were sustained until he returned to resign months later.

It‘s mind-blowing how the Nichols family returned time and time again, and how far the tragedy escalated. Baby Daniel’s crib wound up covered in shrapnel with him in it; young Rebecca awoke to shots being fired through her window and unwittingly sat up in bed, but luckily was not hit. In a perfect example of how toxically positively this is presented, the author likens her brother to Daniel in the Christian Bible, stating he was withstanding persecution. Baby Daniel’s survival is treated as a miracle: had he only changed position slightly, he would have been killed. How heartwarming!

Except it isn’t heartwarming. Daniel was an adult who made his own choices, including those which landed him in the lions’ den. Babies don’t make choices for themselves; they don’t choose where they are and they don’t take moral stances. Baby Daniel didn’t choose to put himself in the line of fire: the Nichols family chose to place him and Rebecca in that situation over and over and over again. I can’t believe I have to write this, but here we are: if sleeping position has saved your children’s lives more than once, it’s time to consider moving. When law enforcement are involved and investigating but the danger isn’t stopping, it’s time to get out. When you know what the source of lethal danger is, you can avoid it, especially when you such a deep well of social (and allegedly divine) support. Daniel in the Lions’ Den isn’t a heartwarming, romantic story, but another horrific tragedy that wasn’t. Daniel was persecuted; the Nichols’ parents versus John Watts was a standoff of wills, passing the Nichols children through the fires of Molech.

The horror doesn’t end once the family leaves Sellerstown. It goes from an episode of a strange TV show melting into pandemonium to a marshmallow and sprinkles toxic positivity dystopia with ad nauseum references to forgiveness™ and grace™. The act of not forgiving (gasp!) is equated to holding oneself captive, which is somewhat valid, but there’s no latitude (or uh, grace™, as it is used here) given for orphan Rebecca’s grief here: anger, even as part of her grief, is framed as a moral impediment to overcome, and the only way to overcome that anger is to forgive and continue to forgive. Forgiveness is framed as the ideal state and something one who is grieving is “struggling with” on a moral level. To make it worse, there was discussion on who orphan Rebecca was “really” mad at, the landing place was Christian “god,” and that would just be something she’d have to overcome, instead of, y’know, learning to live with the grief and accepting that as part of loving someone and being human. Interestingly not mentioned in her crusade for forgiveness was that time passes, childhood ends, and distance from an event can make it easier to process in small doses, instead of some form of arrival at a conclusion of grief.

Imagine faulting an orphaned child who lost both of her parents extremely traumatically as morally “struggling,” convincing her she is the one with the problem, and she goes down a lifelong path of trying to come as close to perfection as possible, believing very normal emotions and residual trauma is moral stumbling. In something that adds a great deal of context to how we’re meant to view this author’s world, the author references “even” trying to hang out with non-Christian (whoa!) friends and finding they didn’t have her sense of “inner peace” because they weren’t trusting in her god’s wisdom, but their own— during her own years of turmoil immediately after becoming an orphan and the constant references to simply consulting Christian scripture on one’s own. Apparently it’s never okay to admit you’re not at peace, even as a child. That’s a level of horror I did not expect, but makes perfect sense given this was published, per the author’s acknowledgments, that publishes Christian Bibles, including her personal favorite. In the later chapters, the book turns into more of Q and A on forgiveness and grace where many different translations/versions of Christian scripture are quoted in longer form. If you’re looking for an example of how Christians apply supersessionism, this section is a great one.


Should you read this?


What you’re NOT getting (unless you’re Christian, maybe):

A heartwarming story about a congregation overcoming a toxic member and implementing reforms for an overall healthier and more positive environment.

What you’re not expecting:

A dystopian Christian horror show that involves extreme child endangerment and gaslighting.

Content warnings*:

Death, infertility, child loss, mental illness, emotional abuse, gaslighting, stalking, harassment, hostage situation, marital abuse, substance abuse, religion.

*Note on my content warnings: I’ve listed some potential content warnings to help readers decide when they are ready to read a book. This does not mean the book is bad, vulgar, or gratuitous. It helps readers prepare themselves to read the book, especially those of us, including myself, who have trauma attached to certain topics.




My Orthodox life; Netflix would never | returning STEM student 🌋| SKYWARN-trained storm spotter/chaser | aspiring shomeret ✡️