PERRY HALL, MD. -- The first sign was the Massachusetts license tags. Then all those people camping out in suburban fields or crowding into apartments. And finally, residents of this Baltimore suburb spotted Pastor Carl Stevens himself.

Years ago, he moved his church out of Maine after a confrontation with angry townspeople. This summer, a federal bankruptcy judge blamed him for "an astonishing saga of clerical deceit, avarice and subjugation" and ordered him to sell his Massachusetts chapel and Bible college. Now Stevens has settled -- along with his wife, their brand new $24,000 Sterling 825 SL, a golden Pekingese named Nicky and about 1,000 loyal followers -- among Maryland suburbanites who do not know what to make of them.

Until June, Stevens was pastor of The Bible Speaks, a fundamentalist church with 16,000 members in 25 U.S. affiliates and 23 foreign countries. From an 88-acre campus in Lenox, Mass., Stevens ran a Bible college, a worldwide network of missionaries and a satellite radio operation.

Over the years, former church members and parents of current members have joined with several mainstream Christian groups in criticizing Stevens' recruiting methods and theology. Parents tell of young people who join the church, then break off contact with their families. Some religious scholars who have studied the church say Stevens' followers adore him and follow his every command, even when he asked them to sell their homes and give the proceeds to the church.

In May, a federal bankruptcy judge ruled that Stevens had deceitfully and methodically bilked Elizabeth Dovydenas, heiress to the Dayton-Hudson stores fortune, out of $6.6 million. The judge called the pastor's behavior "despicable" and ordered the church to refund Dovydenas' contributions. Today, to meet the judge's repayment order, a court-appointed trustee is selling off the assets of The Bible Speaks -- the chapel and the swimming pool, the Palm Beach, Fla., condominium with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and vibrating bed, the state-of-the-art TV broadcasting equipment -- all paid for with the heiress' gifts, court records show.

Stevens' lawyer has appealed the judge's ruling.

Still proclaiming his innocence, Stevens quit the church he had built from a tiny Maine Baptist congregation. Telling his followers that "this happens to all good Christians, to Jesus and Paul and Dr. Falwell," Stevens said his church had done nothing but preach the gospel. "We're a college, not a cult," Stevens said. "We're loving and kind."

In July, he moved to Baltimore County, where, he said, "the native Christians want us."

Since then, hundreds of Bible Speaks members have stuffed their few belongings into old cars and sagging vans and followed Stevens to Maryland, without promise of home or job.

They settled in the suburbs of Perry Hall and Fullerton, just down the road from The Bible Speaks church that has been on Belair Road in Baltimore for almost a decade. Another small Bible Speaks church has operated in Columbia since 1981.

If they had no apartment, church members moved in with other followers or camped out in sleeping bags behind a strip shopping center on Rte. 1.

That stopped when Baltimore County zoning officials ordered the church to move its members and some buses they were parking in fields.

Stevens says that about 350 people have come with him. But Bob Johnson, a church member who moved down last month, says the figure is up to about 850. And opponents of the church in Maryland and Massachusetts say they have counted more than 1,000 transient followers.

Whatever their number, The Bible Speaks members are quite evident, at services that regularly draw 700 worshipers, and especially in three town house developments where they have rented dozens of apartments.

If the native Christians wanted Stevens in Maryland, some of them have welcomed the newcomers in an odd manner.

"They can say they're being welcomed, but the truth is they are shocked by the reaction in our neighborhoods," said Doris Quelet, a Perry Hall resident who is working with the Cult Awareness Network and parents of church members to try to get rid of Stevens. "We are afraid for our children and our families. We don't want them here."

"They are infiltrating this area and proselytizing all over," said the Rev. Larry Gesy, a Catholic priest who has organized clerics, educators and residents opposed to Stevens. "They {are} tearing down people's families and faiths and then rebuilding them as they choose to. We're going to cause them enough hardships that they pack up and go."

Several Catholic and Episcopal priests have warned their congregations to be wary of Stevens and to decline offers of free Sunday school for children. Baltimore County Council member William Evans said his constituents are frightened by what they have heard about the church, "but the government is powerless unless we have proof of any wrongdoing."

Stevens, 57, is back on the air with his daily "Grace Hour," heard on religious radio stations in Baltimore and 12 other cities. And he is attracting large crowds to services in motel meeting rooms around southeastern Baltimore County. More than 600 women went to

Stevens' Women's Seminar at the Sheraton Washington this month. And church members say they spend several nights a week "blitzing" -- Stevens' term for winning converts -- in shopping malls, at the Inner Harbor and along downtown Baltimore's pornography strip. "Bring them in!" reads a sign in the lobby of the headquarters of the church, which now uses the name Greater Grace.

A church question-and-answer sheet prepared to respond to worried Marylanders says Greater Grace is looking for a new home for its missionary and church operations. In answer to the question, "Why did you move to Baltimore?" the sheet says, "As each and every man of God is led by God into that call on his life for that service which He desires for us, so, at this time, God has led Pastor Carl Stevens . . . to establish a new ministry in Baltimore."

The church "has been targeted by a group who claim to be protectors of society from certain cult and cultlike groups," Pastor John Love wrote in the message to Marylanders. The church does not break up families, but rather it has a long history of reconciling marriages and children with parental problems, he wrote.

Stevens' gleaming red Sterling and his old silver Lincoln Continental were parked across four spaces in the lot of the Old Forge town house development in Perry Hall one day this month. A knock on the door produced a small man, casually dressed, playing with a freshly coiffed dog.

In what church leaders say was Stevens' first interview in several years, the pastor called his opponents "people who are anti-Christian. This is childish. This is weird. I can't believe how a handful of people can get everyone stirred up.

"We are a very normal group, committed to the word of God. We just have church and preach the gospel. We have a balance of authority and individual rights. We're starting over. We're not The Bible Speaks anymore. We're Grace College," he said, stumbling over the church's new name. "No, I'm sorry, it's World Outreach. No, Greater Grace World Outreach. Or Maryland School of the Bible."

Stevens said the church has no money. "We don't even ask for money," he said, "not even on the radio." On two radio shows last week, however, Stevens did ask listeners to send "offerings" to the church post office box.

Stevens said he, too, had no money. His new car, he said, was a gift from a follower in Boston. "I'm not into things," he said. "So you can say Dr. Stevens has fancy cars, but it's good stewardship to accept a gift. Hey, would you refuse a Sterling?"

The pastor plans to evangelize throughout Maryland and Washington from churches in Baltimore and Columbia. Stillmeadows Christian Church, the new name for the Columbia affiliate, has 70 members and meets in a rented facility in Ellicott City. Joel Freeman, the pastor, said he plans to buy a church building in Howard County by next summer.

Stevens said he does not turn children against their parents. "The people who say that are people with an ax to grind against Bible-believing Christians," he said in a soft voice, in deep contrast to a preaching style in which Stevens "can at times fulminate from the pulpit in the style of a Cotton Mather," as U.S. Bankruptcy Judge James Queenan described it.

Stevens is a high school dropout who calls himself "doctor" because he has an honorary theology degree for which, the judge said, the church paid a "processing" fee of $160. Stevens has said he became a preacher after God summoned him to a lakeside in Maine where the Lord bathed him in "liquid waves of love," anointing his every word.

Opposition to Stevens, fanned by the Dovydenas case, has been gathering almost since he created The Bible Speaks in 1973.In Maine in about 1973, former members say, Stevens slipped out a back window of his church one night when several church members, upset by the late hours their praying wives were keeping, sought to confront him. Stevens moved his church soon thereafter. In his "Book of Miracles," Stevens wrote, "Through these attacks God made it clear that he desired the Body to move to another area." Three former members said that in the late 1970s several people sold their homes, gave the proceeds to the church and moved to the Lenox, Mass., campus, where Stevens promised to provide room and board. Those people were later charged rent for their rooms, the members said. The Berkshire Eagle, the Lenox area newspaper, found 12 families who gave from $15,000 to $40,000 each to the church. Several of the families later tried to get their money back; the church announced in 1985 that some of those families received partial reimbursement. The church, which said the gifts were entirely voluntary, promised not to raise money in that manner anymore. While Stevens no longer claims to speak for God, former members say he still maintains the doctrine that led investigators specializing in religious groups to label his church cultlike. That doctrine is "delegated authority," the teaching that church members must obey their pastor as if he were the Lord.

Church pastors said Stevens asked the nonprofit, nondenominational Christian Research Institute how he could silence allegations that he was running a cult. The Institute's Elliott Miller said he concluded in 1983 that Stevens "has this excessive, exaggerated view of his own importance, mission and authority. His people are programmed to say that Satan is trying to destroy the ministry."

Three former members said Stevens has told members that they would get cancer of the throat if they spoke against the church. And he has taught that it is not immoral to lie in defense of the church, former members say.

"He'd say it's okay to lie to the public," said former member John Poggi. "And you learn that {the} pastor has a special pipeline to God. A lot of the members are social outcasts, people who were lonely or drinkers or on drugs. He got them out of the depths of sin and straightened them out. When you do that for someone, they're going to stand by you."

Asked whether he teaches that it is permissible to lie, Stevens said only that "the church has always had to defend itself against people who are against Jesus Christ. There's no lying there."

While Stevens ignored or dismissed previous criticism, the Dovydenas suit had to be answered. Stevens hired Norman Roy Grutman, whose clients have included the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Penthouse magazine. Grutman argued that the court could not investigate the gifts from the heiress because the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion protects Dovydenas' relationship with Stevens. Also, the lawyer said, Stevens had not placed any undue influence on Dovydenas; rather, he said, Dovydenas was maligning the church because she was under the influence of a deprogrammer.

But in a scathing ruling that apparently dashed Stevens' hopes of becoming a television evangelist, Judge Queenan said Stevens used deceit and insincerity to exert "total control" over the heiress.

The judge said that in 1983 to 1985, in daily discussions, lunches and private counseling, Stevens persuaded the 35-year-old Dovydenas that she was placed on earth to give money to The Bible Speaks and that her husband was possessed by demons and would soon die a violent death. Stevens managed to replace her financial advisers with persons loyal to the pastor, the judge said.

"She was totally devoted to him," Queenan wrote. "The thought that he would want anything that was not in her best interests never entered her mind."

Stevens got Dovydenas' money and turned the campus hockey rink into a 1,500-seat chapel, built a swimming pool and bought a $120,000 Palm Beach condo for retreats. The pastor said -- and an accountant's report confirmed -- that all the money was spent for church projects.

But The Bible Speaks' assets are on the auction block now, and Carl Stevens has only his people.

"God's really changed my life through this ministry," said Bob Johnson, a computer programmer who moved his family to Perry Hall last month. "Our church came down here, so we came too. We just said, 'Okay, let's go.' "

"This isn't the first time it's happened," said Johnson's son, Sean, 22. "The ministry's had to move before, and each time it does, God blesses it and it grows larger."