Tracing Diet Guru Gwen Shamblin's Rise and Fall as Told By HBO Max's The Way Down

HBO Max's The Way Down seeks to understand why diet guru Gwen Shamblin's church has been plagued by controversy over the years.

By Cydney Contreras Oct 04, 2021 1:00 AMTags
Watch: The Truth Behind Our Obsession With True Crime Stories

When Gwen Shamblin began The Weigh Down workshops in the late '80s, she was known as one of the few diet gurus that didn't believe in diets. Her methods were, for all intents and purposes, simple to follow and yielded impressive results. 

According to the book of the same title, which Gwen published in 1997, The Weigh Down taught people to "rise above the magnetic pull of the refrigerator and turn to the bounty offered to thousands who have embraced a liberating weight-reduction program in churches across America."

In essence, The Weigh Down diet allows followers to eat whatever they want, whenever they want without exercising. "Jesus declared all food clean," former devotee Gina Graves explained. "What you did was you waited for physical hunger and you ate until you were satisfied. And the times you weren't hungry, you went to God. You prayed. You gave that desire for the food to him."

HBO Max's The Way Down docuseries suggests Gwen allegedly got a bit carried away.

Craziest True Crime TV Moments

The Shamblins Found the Remnant Fellowship: 

It all started when Gwen and David Shamblin split from the Church of Christ to found their own church, The Remnant Fellowship, in 1999.

It was a controversial move for a number of reasons, but the Church of Christ primarily took issue with their teachings because they didn't believe in the Holy Trinity, a.k.a. the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Gwen incorporated The Weigh Down into her sermons, equating one's physical appearance to the strength of their convictions. 


Former Remnant Fellowship devotee Terassee Morris alleged in The Way Down that followers were instructed to fast if they weren't losing more than two pounds a week, even if they were already at their goal weight.

"I was told myself that I just needed to quit eating to lose more weight. I had lost 130 pounds within 18 months, but they wanted me to fast to lose more weight," she claimed. "The faster you do it, the holier you are."

Another member, Graves, contends that Gwen's emphasis on a trim physique was so harmful to the attendees' mental health, it caused eating disorders, depression and other issues. Of the unconventional teachings, Graves said, "The overarching theme of everything she taught in there was always being under God's authority, which was her... And then, everything else was about the weight and what you look like."

The Way Down producers spoke to attorney Gary Blackburn, who claimed that Gwen was so insistent on faith playing a role in the diet, she made The Weigh Down workshop employees attend the Remnant as a condition of their employment. This didn't sit well with the former employees, who hired Blackburn to represent them in a religious discrimination lawsuit in 2000.

According to Blackburn, they settled those cases, though he didn't offer any further details. 

Remnant Devotees Joseph and Sonya Smith Are Convicted of Killing 8-Year-Old Son:

The Remnant had its second brush with controversy when parishioners Joseph and Sonya Smith's 8-year-old son, Josef Smith, died in October 2003. 

According to NBC News, prosecutors said the Smiths physically abused Josef and locked him inside a wooden chest that was then put in a closet. An autopsy determined that Josef died from multiple blows to the head.

Joseph and Sonya were convicted of murder, involuntary manslaughter, cruelty, aggravated assault, reckless conduct and false imprisonment. On what would've been Josef's 11th birthday, they were both sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison.

In the course of the investigation, Cobb County authorities searched the Remnant Fellowship grounds, as they believed the church encouraged corporal punishment. 

Unsolved Mysteries Volume 2: The True Crime Cases to Dive Into Next

Remnant Fellowship babysitter Laura Boone told The Way Down producers that she spoke to the investigators about her experience with Josef, recalling how she was allegedly instructed by the father to "hit [Josef] hard." She refused to lay a hand on the child, alleging Joseph then "took his son into the next room and we could hear him hitting his son hard."

But, according to NBC News, officers testified that they were unable to link Josef's death to Gwen's teachings.

Gwen Shamblin Divorces David Shamblin:

Those who attended the church claimed that in addition to spanking and fasting, Gwen taught women to be faithful servants to their husbands and vehemently discouraged divorce. But, Gwen made an exception to the last point when she met Joe Lara, a divorced, father of one. 

She separated from David Shamblin, her husband of 40 years, in 2018. 

According to former Remnant attendee Helen Byrd, few noticed this change in Gwen's marital status, because, as it was, David hardly attended church or other religious gatherings.


"David was kind of hidden from view. Gwen would say that she loved him and she served him and everything else like that, but he would not come to the festivals, he didn't come to church," Byrd said in The Way Down, speculating that this was because he "definitely didn't represent everything that Gwen was saying was right or righteous because, you know, he was overweight. So, how could he be right or righteous if he was overweight?"

And, according to Joe Lara's ex-girlfriend Natasha Pavlovich, the split wasn't amicable or mutual by any means. Pavolovich said in an interview with the HBO producers that David was blindsided by Gwen's request for a divorce, alleging, "He was begging his wife to stay in the marriage."

Byrd and Graves told the documentarians this was when their faith in the Remnant started to falter, as they believed Gwen was a hypocrite. Graves said it was unfair, explaining, "She has not let any woman divorce their husband ever in that place, and all of us women that had biblical authority, you know, infidelity, we couldn't."

Gwen Shamblin Marries Joe Lara and Makes Him a Leader of the Remnant:

Shortly after Gwen settled her divorce from David, she married Joe in an over-the-top ceremony held at the Remnant Fellowship. On their shared YouTube page, they posted a video titled "The Covenant Wedding of Gwen Shamblin to Joe Lara," which showed the nuptials and reception in all their glory.

Gwen called it true love, but Morris thought Joe married the preacher for her money and influence. Morris alleged, "[Joe] wants to become a country music star; they have a recording studio in remnant fellowship, so, of course, he would marry Gwen."

Remnant attendees were seemingly unaware of Joe's custody battle with Pavlovich, whom he accused of sexually abusing their then-4-year-old daughter. According to Pavlovich, Joe reported her to the police after she told him she planned to move to Chicago with their daughter. 

Courtesy of HBO Max

Elizabeth Shamblin-Hannah's 5-Month-Old Son Dies:

The church members said they began turning on each other after Gwen's daughter Elizabeth lost her 5-month-old son, Henley Shamblin-Hannah.

Graves said details about the infant's death are sparse, admitting, "No one ever really acknowledged that he died. I mean, through word of mouth it kind of spread, but there wasn't an official anything from Gwen."

Rachel Phillips explained on The Way Down that things were kept private, because "the way that Remnant works when it comes to death is you don't grieve, you move on."

But Byrd suspected the death was kept under wraps, because the Shamblins preached that bad things happened to immoral people. "There is a concerted effort to sort of hide things so that you can keep that facade of ‘this is the most perfect place on earth' and ‘this is God's kingdom,'" she explained. "So, when Elizabeth lost a child, it wasn't really talked about."

As news spread, however, the members began to panic. Graves recalled, "Everyone was looking at themselves saying, 'Was it me? Did I cause this?'"

Graves alleged that it got to a point where the Shamblins started interrogating church members. In the docuseries, she said that leaders called them in, recalling how they told her, "We're bringing in strugglers to assess how you're doing because God is bringing judgement on this church and we want to know where it's coming from."

Joe Lara, Gwen Shamblin & 5 Others Perish in Plane Crash:

On Saturday, May 29, Gwen, Joe and more members, including Elizabeth Shamblin-Hannah's husband Brandon, of the Remnant Fellowship church perished in a plane crash. According to a statement from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Cessna took off towards Miami Beach, Fla. at 11 a.m. before crashing in a nearby lake. There were no survivors.

In a statement shared to their website, the church said, "Remnant Fellowship categorically denies the absurd, defamatory statements and accusations made in this documentary—yet another Hollywood attack on religion."

To read the statement in its entirety, click here.

The first three episodes of The Way Down are available for streaming on HBO Max, with an additional two episodes set to premiere in early 2022.

For more true crime updates on your need-to-know cases, head to