Part 01. Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding.

I have rewritten the contents of this blog and published it as a book, called Captive Congregation: My Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding, which is available as a Kindle book or in paperback.

Fourteen years in a mind-control cult known as the Church of Bible Understanding.

I spent my early adult life in the Church of Bible Understanding from 1980 to 1993. Much of my personality and character was formed there. Some of that was good, and some of it wasn’t.

It happened one day, as I was walking through a mall in Worcester, Massachusetts. I had just been at the library, where I was reading about world religions, trying to find some answers about life. I left the library and didn’t want to go home right away, so I walked to the mall. I was carrying two books on Buddhism I had checked out from the library.

Buddhism appealed to me because I thought it could help me “transcend” my problems. Maybe I could take a different viewpoint about my problems or by living above them. Some of the ideas in these books sounded a little far-fetched. Like when the Buddha wanted to cross a river. He didn’t have a boat and apparently didn’t know how to swim. He saw a flock of geese flying overhead and by some way of transcending his physical condition, he became one with the geese and was transported across the river with them and then dropped down on the other side. Fine, I was not going to believe all of this, but there were some ideas in Buddhism that appealed to me, so I checked the books out of the library.

As I was walking in the mall, I was approached by a guy carrying a Bible who asked me, “Can I show you a verse in the Bible?” My first thought was, “Oh, no.  A Jesus freak.” I looked to my left and saw a stairway.  I thought about bounding up the stairs and away to safety. But then I thought, “If he’s into this, he must know a lot about it. I’m looking for answers, maybe he can tell me a few things. I‘ll hear what he has to say.” So I stayed to talk with him. He said his name was Chuck.

He opened his Bible and began to show me verses and explain what they meant. I thought this was great. We’re having a discussion about religion. I showed him the books I was reading and started talking about Buddhism and transcending my problems. However, his intention was not to have a religious discussion.  Instead, he was doing what I would later come to know as “open Bible witnessing.”

This seemed to go on for about 15 or 20 minutes. Chuck went from verse to verse to make his points. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had always believed the Bible was the word of God. He pointed to a verse that said “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.” Somewhere inside myself, I believed this. And here it was in print, in the Bible. How could I disagree with any of it? Maybe sin was the problem I was trying to “transcend?”

It was no longer a nice conversation about religion, as Chuck continued to follow his goal, which was to show me in the Bible how I was a sinner and that I needed to repent and give my life to God. By about this point, I felt like I was hit by a hammer and from there on in, it was a simple matter of him leading me through the steps to salvation.

Chuck asked me if I was ready to pray and get saved. I said I wanted to go home and think about it. He showed me a verse that said “Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.” I had to, Chuck said, pray and get saved right now. Because “now is the acceptable time.”

When I saw that, I decided yes, I want to pray and get saved. Chuck said we should walk a few paces to where we could sit in a fast food restaurant in the mall and pray. As we walked, there were teenage girls sitting on some benches who obviously knew about Chuck and his activities in the mall. They took up the taunt, “Hey Chuck! I see you’ve got another one!  Hey Chuck, you’ve got another one!“ But by this time, I was convinced I needed to get saved and I did not care that the girls were making fun of Chuck and by default, making fun of me also.

As we sat down, Chuck explained to me that he would give me the words to the Sinner’s Prayer and I was to repeat after him. I had some last minute resistance. “Can’t I come to the church and do it later?” “No, you have to do it now.” I bowed my head and repeated the words he gave me. A strange thing happened. When I looked up, everything seemed bright and happy and different. I had just gotten saved.

I’m sure that this whole process sounds manipulative to some people.  Anyone not familiar with cults usually doesn’t realize that cult members believe they are helping people.  As far as Chuck was concerned, it was not manipulation.  He was telling me the truth and doing the best thing for me.  He was not thinking about recruiting me so that I’d defer all my life goals and give up 14 years of my life to promote a cult leader’s agenda and lifestyle.  He was not intentionally recruiting me so that I would in turn go out to recruit more workers under the guise of Christian salvation so they would move into “The Fellowship” and work in church businesses without pay except for a small “allowance.”

I did not know that this conversation had anything to do with joining a group, nor how long I would be involved in that group. Nor could I have known that I would leave The Church of Bible Understanding 14 years later with just a few crates of books, a duffle bag of clothing, only a few hundred dollars in the bank, owning no possessions, property or investments and having never dated or married during that time. I had no family or children. I was glad to get out at age 36 and have a chance to start over again!

I was later to come to understand the tremendous pressure Chuck was under. He and others in the group were under constant pressure from the cult leader, Stewart Traill, who was known to members as “Brother Stewart,” to go out and gather more people for the group. While at the same time being under constant condemnation for their shortcomings as human beings and lack of faithfulness to Jesus, or at least to the Jesus as portrayed by “Brother Stewart.” No one could be faithful enough, or if their performance was deemed acceptable for a time, no one could be faithful for long enough of a period of time for Jesus to be satisfied with them. They would know when Jesus was satisfied with them when Brother Stewart said so. And, Brother Stewart was always telling them that Jesus was not satisfied with them.

This treatment had a curious effect on people. It caused them to work harder. Much harder. In order to “please Jesus.” In order to finally be found acceptable to him.

Initially, I was shielded from the negative aspects of “The Fellowship,” as it was called, by my well-intentioned recruiters. I didn’t know about all the people who had left the group. I didn’t know what the criticisms by ex-members and those outside of the group were. My recruiters put the best possible spin on everything. In fact, they believed this would help me. I didn’t need to know about the internal problems of the organization, I needed Jesus and I needed to grow as a new Christian. They gave me interesting Bible studies. They said that living in The Fellowship was a wonderful way to live.

There was a bit of self-serving in all of this too. One of the things Brother Stewart was unhappy about was the dwindling number of church members, which meant fewer workers to carry out his plans. It was in church members’ best interest then, in order to stave off some of that anger, to try to increase the size of the flock again with new members, fresh faces who were unfamiliar with the ways of Fellowship life, who could receive “Christian training.”  And in rebuilding The Fellowship to its former size (and income producing capability) maybe Jesus, or rather Brother Stewart, would be once again be pleased with them. So I was given the most gentle and sugar-coated as possible introduction to life in The Church of Bible Understanding. The way was paved with promises of joy and happiness, of purpose in life, of a bright future here and in the afterlife. The hope of being saved from a sinful world and of being saved from myself, a sinner. No, they said, I didn’t have to move in and live communally with the group, but wouldn’t that be the best way? That way I would always be surrounded by Christians in order to be strengthened in the struggle against sin, the world and the devil.

(In Part 02, which can be read by clicking on the menu on the top right, I talk more about what lead me to move in to the cult and what my first year was like there.)

7 Responses to “Part 01. Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding.”

  1. Louise Says:

    It seems homelessness and unemployment is a big motivating factor in joining a cult.

    • James Says:

      When I joined COBU, I was neither homeless nor unemployed.

    • Doona Cavnar-Goding Says:

      to Louise: I wasn’t homeless when I joined in 1976, but I did have emotionally distant parents and uncaring siblings…this was a new “family”! And our family never went to church so I had no Christianity in which to compare COBU to…what did I know? I was happy to live among these “nice” people and follow Jesus, and ended up there for ten years!! Praise God, He rescued me from that legalistic life and revealed HIs true self to me. Doona Goding

  2. Matt Says:

    I find it interesting that the recruiter was able to pick the right personality type. It could have been random chance but he manged to choose the one guy who was questioning his faith.

  3. john wood Says:

    This is well written. I’ve read about what to do with the older brothers meeting. I was disturbed recalling those meetings. I now understand more clearly how destructive he still is. I was in the forever family from Oct 1975-Aug 1980. Please feel free to contact me.

  4. jimmyhendrix Says:

    I wasn’t homeless but wanted to know more about God but didn’t realize it until I met two members from the church. I still thank God for them this day. Wether ” Brother Stewart ” had wrong motives or not I wont defend him here….it was my choice to join and left despite tremendous pressure from the group members. I felt that I couldn’t be a Christian outside of COBU. But by Gods grace I am… He chose me and kept His promise to never leave me. So much more to say..1984 to 1986

    • James Says:

      Jimmy, I think I remember you. You were at Woodruff Avenue, 4th floor. It was good you were able to leave, despite the pressure. Sometimes a desire to serve God can keep people there. I remember thinking I could not be a Christian outside of COBU, especially because I feared (and we were always told to fear) the pressures of sin, the world and the devil, all of which would instantly overcome us if we left the church. But after a long time, I began to realize that I was not likely to be able to stay a Christian in COBU because of all the pressures put on us by Stewart Traill and this way of life. (Some of those pressures were to deny the obvious truth about God and this life and to follow along with Stewart’s self-serving and twisted view of Christianity – giving place to that in my life was equal to denying the truth about God that I could see in the Bible. Plus we had to cut off and deny parts of ourselves that God gave us to freely enjoy in this life, such as marriage, time to ourselves to rest and think, and the ability to pursue our own interests and to employ the talents that God gave us for what God intended them to be used for.

      I hope all is going well with you and that you continue in the faith. It’s good to read your comments.

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