Why did Charles Stanley’s wife leave him? The couple’s secretive divorce explained

By okaybliss — ON Apr 20, 2023
Charles Stanley
In Touch Ministries

During his five-decade stint as the leader of First Baptist Church Atlanta, Charles Stanley oversaw the congregation’s expansion into one of the most diverse in the United States. “Dr. Stanley lived a life of obedience and is now receiving the joy of his soul – seeing his Savior face-to-face,” In Touch Ministries tweeted following Stanley’s death on 18th April 2023. 

Stanley’s ex-wife, Anna Johnson, filed for divorce because Stanley chose the church over his family

Anna Johnson
In Touch Ministries

In 1993, Stanley’s wife of over four decades, Anna Johnson, stunned the church by filing for divorce. Anna amended the filing, requesting for ‘separate maintenance’, a kind of legal separation. However, the couple disagreed on the terms of the split, so Anna refiled for divorce in 1995. 

She wrote a letter to the church explaining the reasons for her divorce. “I have been a faithful and supportive wife to Charles,” Anna wrote. “Long ago, however, Charles, in effect, abandoned our marriage. He chose his priorities, and I have not been one of them.”

Stanley seemingly confirmed that he was an absent husband in his book, How to Handle Adversity, writing: “I became married to the ministry and began to neglect my family. Anna experienced a great deal of hurt and rejection during that time. There were moments when I was not sure either of us could go on.”

Stanley noted in 2019 that Anna had threatened divorce for years before taking action. Andy writes in his 2012 book Deep and Wide that neither Anna nor Stanley wanted to accept that their marriage was dead:

“By the time she filed, the marriage had been dead for years. But they were both so adamantly opposed to divorce that neither of them wanted to file. On one occasion I got so frustrated I actually asked if I could hire an attorney and file for their divorce myself!”

Andy notes that Stanley and Anna tried marital counseling, but it didn’t work. 

Charlie and Anna seemed to reconcile when she withdrew the divorce in 1996

In August 1995, the church met to discuss Stanley’s divorce and its potential implications. Stanley insisted that his marriage would stand. He told the congregation:

“I am not divorced. Secondly, I don’t want a divorce. Thirdly, my wife doesn’t want a divorce. I’m trusting God is going to put this back together.”

Stanley’s attempt to pacify church-goers faced resistance. “It was an unfair meeting,” a church member wrote in a letter to the editor of The Atlanta Constitution. “Why were divorce proceedings instigated?” the member protested, noting that Stanley had sealed divorce documents. 

Anna told the outlet that she disagreed with her husband’s assessment of their marriage:

“I have been dismayed at my husband’s refusal to accept the critical state of our marriage. Instead, he has made repeated announcements from the pulpit that progress was being made toward reconciliation, when in fact, the very opposite was true. I do not choose to contribute to this charade.”

However, in 1996, Anna withdrew the divorce, much to Stanley’s joy. He said: “I’m pleased and grateful to God for answered prayer. Especially, I’m grateful to my church for their patience and support and unwavering love for me through this difficult time.”

Andy writes in his book that he and his sister, Becky, knew Anna would refile – she did so four months later. Despite Stanley’s denials, divorce proceedings continued. Stanley reportedly spread lies about Anna and the reasons for the divorce. A church member said:

“The private reason I often heard was that Mrs. Stanley had serious mental health issues and routinely accused Dr. Stanley of many unsubstantiated things due to his long work hours and time commitments with First Baptist Church.”

Stanley remained the leader of First Baptist despite a rule that called for the expulsion of divorced pastors

In May 2000, a judge approved Anna and Stanley’s divorce, agreeing with the petitioner’s assertion that the marriage was ‘irretrievably broken’. 

Due to the secretive nature of the divorce proceedings, few knew the exact reasons why Anna and Stanley divorced. In a 2000 interview, Stanley said the court barred him from giving details about the divorce. However, he claimed the ordeal had made him a better pastor.

Following the judge’s ruling, all eyes turned to Stanley. He’d pledged that he would resign if the divorce happened. “If my wife divorces me, I would resign immediately,” Stanley said in 1995. 

However, the church administrator announced to the crowd that Stanley would remain the senior pastor. Per The Baptist Press, ‘the congregation rose in applause.’ “He is our pastor, and he will remain our pastor,” Jerry Beal, a church deacon, told the publication. 

Stanley wrote in his memoir that God convinced him not to resign: “God simply said, ‘You just keep doing what I called you to do until I tell you differently.’” The church’s bylaws reportedly stated that Stanley would lose his seat if he remarried. 

Stanley didn’t plan to remarry, meaning the senior pastor position would be his until he retired. “I don’t really need a wife,” Stanley told CNN. “God has just filled my life with good things.”

Andy, who saw firsthand the breakdown of Anna and Stanley’s marriage, insisted on Stanley’s resignation. Following the church’s 1995 meeting, The Atlanta Constitution reported:

“In a letter to the congregation read Sunday, the younger Stanley expressed love for his father but said, ‘I felt my father should step down as leader of First Baptist of Atlanta.’”

Andy, expected to take over from Stanley, resigned. A feeling of mistrust that even therapy couldn’t thaw developed between father and son. Andy eventually opened North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia.