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Source : 08/04/1989 Independent Magazine

This militant sect has been widely depicted in the British Press as a sinister Moonie-type cult intent on stealing children from their families. William Dalrymple found the reality rather more mundane.

On Friday 3 December 1976, 24 year-old David Gavin Hooper was seen sitting up late in the Fellowship Hall of the Northamptonshire-based religious sect, the Jesus Fellowship Church. Only a year before, Hooper had been articled to a firm of solicitors in Surrey's mock-Tudor belt. Then in January he made friends with a senior member of the Jesus People (as they call themselves). He was persuaded to visit the sect's headquarters in the village of Bugbrooke, near Northampton, and had been impressed with what he saw. A couple of months later he transferred his articles to Daventry and was baptised into the sect.

At first all had gone well, but over the course of the year he had become disillusioned with the community and was considering leaving; his parents had thought he looked ill the last time he visited them and they began to worry about him. Hooper was a loner: 'No one really knew him,' said one member of the sect who had shared accommodation with him - and it was thus not until the night of 4 December, 24 hours later, that his absence was noted. It had been a bitterly cold winter and the temperature had only rarely risen above freezing. That night groups of Jesus People combed their grounds in Bugbrooke by torchlight. Hooper was nowhere to be seen. On Sunday morning the police were notified and the search continued. A week later his body was found in the snow in the fields outside the village. He was half naked.

The inquest found that Hooper had died of accidental death by exposure, but his bizarre end was never really explained. Yet Hooper's death was not an isolated case. Two years later, on 28 February 1978, another member of the sect, 19-year-old Steven Orchard, died in equally strange circumstances. He was a popular figure among the Jesus People, yet there were rumours that he, too, was considering leaving the sect, having joined four years earlier with his family. Whatever the truth, one evening he finished repairing his Wellington boots and disappeared outside. No one thought it untoward that he was not in his bed, as his dedication to animals went as far as spending the odd night in the byres above the sect's pig farm. The following morning his body was found on the railway tracks behind the house. The inquest in Northampton ruled that his injuries were those that would be sustained by a man who had deliberately placed his head on the line.

Then in June 1986 another young sect member, Mohammed Majid, was found dead, floating in the sect's farm well. There have also been several testimonies by former members who have described how extreme psychological pressure was put on them not to leave.

The Jesus Fellowship Church is no ordinary Christian denomination. The sect grew out of Bugbrooke Baptist Chapel, following the appointment there of the charismatic preacher Noel Stanton. Over 20 years his following has grown to about 1,000 people, the majority of whom live 'in community', in the sect's 60 houses up and down the country. Some of the members are married and have normal jobs, coming back to the community house only to spend the night. Others have taken a vow of celibacy, are given new names and live like monks. They work in the sect's own network of businesses, which include health-food stores, jean shops and a building supply firm; the mother company House of Goodness Ltd, has an annual turnover of £15 million. There are few expenses; the sect members work for nothing, and at the moment of their baptism donate all their capital to the common purse. They are not allowed to smoke, drink or indulge in 'luxuries' such as sugar or coffee, and any essentials that they need - whether clothing, medicine or stationary - must be ordered in advance from the organisation's own central store at New Creation Hall near Bugbrooke.

The profits are easily visible in the sect's public evangelism. During weekends in the summer the Jesus People become the Jesus Army, and, dressed up in symbolic khaki battle fatigues, they wage a war of conversion on the godless of Britain. Huge specially converted double-decker buses tour Britain, along with marquees and portable lavatories. Next Sunday a large rally will be held at the Central Hall, Westminster. They look especially for the unwanted and uncared-for; their evangelists deliberately trawl the squats and dives and dole queues. To some they simply preach their own particular brand of the Good News; others they invite to Bugbrooke in the hope of enlisting them to the community.

The sect's rise has been marked by constant controversy. A 1974 Thames documentary, 'God Came to Bugbrooke', chronicled the disaffection of the local community: 'All that clapping hands and stamping feet - it's not my idea of religion,' said one housewife. 'It's the kissing I object to,' said another. 'I think kissing is a germ carrier.' Since then the cries against the sect have grown even louder. They have been condemned by the local Conservative MP, Michael Morris, rebuked by the Church of England, and expelled from both the Baptist Union and the Evangelical Alliance. Nearly all the tabloids have at some stage attacked them. In 1981 the News of the World exposed the 'brainwashing cult which splits up families and strips members of everything they own'. Then in 1986 the Sunday Mirror planted a reporter in the sect who discovered to her amazement that there was no television in the community house. 'They had never heard of television's top soaps,' she wrote. Other tabloids have compared them to the Moonies and honoured them with banner headlines ranging from the relatively sober 'Jesus Cult Death Probe', to 'Rambo cult' and 'Cult Turned My Son Into Glassy-Eyed Zombie'.

The sect even has, its own one-woman protest organisation. 'They're very plausible at first,' she warned me when I announced on the telephone that I was planning to spend a weekend with the sect in Bugbrooke, 'but they've all been brain-washed of course.'

The house at Bugbrooke certainly fitted the bill. It was a lumbering mock-Tudor edifice with high pitched roof and a forest of tall chimney stacks. I arrived in the late dusk of a cold winter evening and knocked on the door, half expecting it to be answered by Norman Bates. Instead I was greeted by a plump, smiling middle-aged woman with an Emmerdale Farm accent. 'Oh 'allo,' she said, ushering me in. 'You from Press?'

The interior was equally disappointing. The sinister Rambo Cult proved surprisingly middle-class and cosy when at home. The house had once been a hotel and the remnants of the hotel's furnishings - chandeliers, an oak-panelled 'reception room' and a few pieces of heavy Victorian furniture - mingled with the Jesus People's decorations: posters of kittens and sunsets attached to tacky proverbs, holy pictures, a plaster bas-relief of Leonardo's 'Last Supper'. It was like a rather upmarket YMCA. The beaming faces reflected the decorations. There was not a khaki combat jacket to be seen. Instead the young men wore cotton slacks and sandals, while the women opted for long, flowery hippy prints. Many of the folk were surprisingly elderly: ex-bank managers in cardigans and kipper ties, their wives in tweedy skirts. They got up when I came in.

'Would you like a drink?' asked one of the bank managers. 'Tea or Horlicks?'

Everyone was sitting around on sofas chatting and sipping cups of tea. One woman was knitting a jumper. I joined in, making polite conversation about my drive and the M1. An old lady sitting beside me on the sofa cut straight through my small talk: 'I was 86 when I was baptised in the spirit,' she announced loudly. 'It was lovely, absolutely lovely. As soon as you go into the water all your worries disappear.' 'What happens when you come out?' I asked. 'They go and get you a cup of tea.'

Supper followed presently. The Star reported that the Jesus People subsisted on 'potatoes - the staple diet - with something like boiled fish'. But while I was there I certainly ate very well: the meal that night consisted of a generous chicken fricassee followed by elderberry tart. On one side of me sat a technical officer for British Telecom, on the other, a bearded hippy, his wife, and their six alarmingly trendy children.

'Enjoying your supper?' the man asked. 'After reading the newspaper reports, some of the folk that come here won't eat anything we give them - they think we'll drug their food. One pastor who came here last week brought his own banana.'

The Man seemed fairly typical of the kind of person that joined the Jesus People. In the Sixties he had been a juvenile actor with the RSC and he had played a character in the BBC's War and Peace. Early success had led to a quick disillusionment and dabbling with drugs. His marriage decayed and he gave up acting. The Jesus People picked him up in a café in Northampton in 1972. Over the following year he and his wife began regularly visiting the community at Bugbrooke; after eight months they were baptised into the fellowship on a permanent basis. They have never looked back.

Like everyone else I met at Bugbrooke the man was baffled by the press assault on the community; why didn't they recognise all the good work the Jesus People did? They were simply making a genuine attempt to live according to the scriptures. Community life was a little austere, certainly, but in the 20 years he had been with the Jesus People he has seen nothing remotely sinister, while his great brood was evidence enough to disprove the tabloid allegations that the Jesus People banned procreation from their premises.

The eldest of his children, was sitting opposite me. He was 16 and wore tartan trousers. What did his friends at school make of him living in a set-up like this? 'They liked it…Liked the pigs and that. When they came here some of them said they wouldn't mind living here themselves - those that got problems with their Mum and Dad and that.'

'And don't you feel pressurised to stay in the community?' I asked. 'Nah. My parents want me to be good and try to do the right things, but I'm not pressurised. They've made their decision and they'll allow me to make mine. Couple of my friends have gone off and made their own lives. If I wanted to I could do the same - the community would buy me a flat and help me find a job.'

After supper I managed to talk to 'the son' away from his parents. Could he really leave if he wanted to? 'Sure. No problem. I could leave tomorrow.'

'And don't you feel you're missing out a bit here?'

'Nah. At school I see what goes on - you know I've been to parties, tried smoking and drinking, had girlfriends. I ain't particularly overwhelmed by it all.'

The following morning I joined some of the Jesus People at work on their farm to see for myself what went on under the guise of 'voluntary fellowship labour'. According to 'The Star', the Jesus People rose before seven in the morning and everyone, including tiny children, often carried on labouring under arc lights until 3am the next day. The report quoted one ex-member who maintained that he had seen 'nippers of two or three years old out in the fields in December crying their eyes out and shivering, waiting to go home'. The scene I saw at nine o'clock breakfast was very different. A member from British Telecom, who had been delegated to look after me, was besieged by small children begging to be allowed to come with us. He fobbed them all off with promises to take them out to see the lambs when they were born later in the month.

The farm was situated in a dip of land about two miles from Bugbrooke. It was a beautiful low-slung building of butter-coloured limestone topped by a grey slate roof. Over the course of an exhausting morning, two members and I shovelled cake pellets into the troughs of the cattle and sheep, then mucked out a byre ready for the lambs.

'One morning of this is more satisfying that a whole week's work as a sales rep,' one man said.

After lunch I visited the pig farm to check if there were any sinister goings-on there. Instead of a team of slave labourers I found a celibate pig farmer from Woking. He wore a tatty jersey, black Wellingtons and was covered from head to foot in pig muck. 'I used to be a painter before all this,' he told me. 'It took a little time to get used to the pigs. Cans of paint can't escape, get ill or die. When I go home at night I'm always worrying about my pigs. I dream of disasters.'

It is impossible to judge a community in a three-night-stay. All the same, it is hard to imagine anything less obviously sinister that the group of constantly grinning Christians I met at Bugbrooke. Anyone looking for Moonie-type stories must be particularly disappointed by the sect's founder, Noel Stanton.

I interviewed him twice during my stay and found him a far cry from the terrifying autocrat portrayed in the tabloids. He looked overworked and tired; he was balding and badly dressed. He appears to live an ascetic life, without the limousines, swimming pools and diamond rings that traditionally distinguish the more controversial evangelical leaders from their orthodox brethren.

Nevertheless, there are aspects of Stanton's sect which do give cause for concern. The most arresting evidence against it is the testimony of a few of the sect's ex-members who have actively campaigned against the Jesus People, and who have published leaflets warning prospective converts not to get involved. An ex-member, now an engineering student at Bristol Polytechnic, is one of the most committed of the critics. He was a baptised member for over two years, and for some of the time was extremely happy. 'I was tremendously struck by the sense of brotherly love.' He remembers. 'If it hadn't seemed nigh to paradise, I'd never have got so involved in the first place.'

He only became suspicious of the cult's aims when a relationship was forbidden by Stanton: 'It was only then that I realised quite how much social engineering went on. They manipulate people's relationships. They can forbid you to talk to someone and totally cut you off from that person. Your life is controlled. You are in total submission.' The man, who left the sect in October 1984, found that it was not easy to survive in the community as his sympathy with its aims decreased: 'You could not question anything. If you disobeyed Noel you were disobeying Christ. Yet there could be no question of leaving: you were constantly reminded that if you left you would be breaking your covenant and would be damned.' He believes that there are many others still with the Jesus People who are desperately unhappy and would like to leave but dare not do so. 'They have very few choices: either stay and submit or else leave and risk damnation. The only other options are to crack up or commit suicide.'

His words are echoed by another former member of the Jesus People. 'You have to fit in,' he says. 'They take away your ability to make your own choices and you cannot express your own opinions. If you don't obey Noel you're accused of not loving Christ.' In the end, he clashed personally with Stanton. 'He turned everyone against me,' he remembers. 'All my old friends cut me dead. One guy came up to me and fell on his knees crying and weeping, saying 'God forgive him.' It scared the hell out of me. Then they began trying to persuade me I was insane - possessed by demons.' Eventually he fled to Denmark in October 1982, but the Jesus People traced him there. 'They kept ringing me up and telling me I had the heart of Judus Iscariot and was under God's judgement.'

The balance sheet for the Jesus People is difficult to draw up. They are an authoritarian organisation and demand absolute loyalty. They have separated themselves from other Christian groups and are unsupervised by any higher authority. With no formal noviciate, they are often far too quick to commit members, far too slow to let the dissatisfied go.

Yet they do much good work. I spoke to one mother who was convinced that her son would long ago have been dead had he not met the Jesus People. He had been a drug addict and a depressive; since he joined Bugbrooke he has been transformed. He is not alone: the community has brought visible fulfilment to many.

The final judgement will depend on the individual. As the Salmon Rushdie affair has shown, England is now, at root, a deeply secular society where extreme expressions of fundamentalist belief are frowned upon. The hostility that the Jesus People have aroused in many quarters reflects the fact that most people now find strong religious convictions utterly incomprehensible. According to Dr Eileen Barker, a sociologist of religion at the London School of Economics, the term brainwashing used against sects like the Jesus People is now nothing more than a metaphor to explain strong religious convictions by people who find them inexplicable: 'Today people find it very difficult to accept that someone could be prepared to sacrifice everything that is normally regarded as important for an idea… There is a fundamental problem of communication. Neither side can understand the other; they have a totally different world vision.'

What Dr Barker meant became clear on my last evening with the Jesus People when I attended one of their prayer services. It was a typical charismatic meeting, with ecstatic members strumming guitars, banging tambourines, standing up, waving their arms around and shouting out the Good News as loud as they could. They prayed for their 'persecutors', they prayed for the world, they prayed for each other, they even prayed for my cold. It was raw, enthusiastic, fundamentalist Christianity without a hint of the self-doubt one comes to expect from modern Christians. It came as an enormous shock to realise that for these people God is as real as the milkman or the bank manager. Their faith is naive, unreasonable and completely out of touch with the twentieth century.

But what, in itself, is wrong with that?