January 10, 1980
Steve and Elizabeth Petty spent approximately one year as members of the Vine Christian Community Church. Disappointed and disillusioned, they finally walked away from the group. It took them a year to put their lives and their marriage back together. “It took us a year to repair the damage that was done to us,” Mrs. Petty, a former Chattanoogan who now lives in Sevierville, she said. “I had these terrible recurring nightmares about those people coming in and taking our possessions and taking Steve away from me.”
The Petty’s who met while attending Carson-Newman College became members of the church after they were married in the early 1970’s. Steve was a social worker for the state and Mrs. Petty was a school teacher. Both gave up their jobs after reading a story about the Yellow Deli restaurant operation and the Vine Christian Community Church.
“The idea appealed to us, Mrs. Petty said. We were both Christians and we felt led to perform a Christian service.” Less than a month later, they experienced second thoughts. “It took about a month for us to realize that terrible problems were present in the church.” Steve is quite a crusader, and he felt we should stay and try to correct the problems, but I thought we should leave immediately.
Petty said he began experiencing doubts about the community “when they withdrew from regular churches.” “At first they attended First Presbyterian, but shortly after we came in they began a policy of isolation. The community insisted that they were right and all other churches were wrong. The way I see it, that was the beginning of trouble.”
In the Petty couple’s opinion, things continued to go badly. Mrs. Petty had a growing concern about what she described as “the manipulative mood” inside the organization. She said Gene Spriggs, head of the church, was around the group most of the time back then. “Whatever he said was law and he made decisions through a group of guys known as elders. The elders could never be questioned.” “If you questioned, they made you feel like you were questioning God.” We had to obtain permission to visit anyone and if permission was not given, one couldn’t question the decision. Members even had to ask to get married and then whether they could have children. Whatever Gene said was what the elders enforced. It wasn’t God’s will, but Gene’s will.”
Mrs. Petty said that marriages took place even though one of the parties did not desire to marry. She spoke of a beautiful young woman named Pat, who was forced to marry one of the church leaders. “She approached me crying and said she didn’t know the man and certainly didn’t love him.” Despite the young woman’s protestations, the couple were married. The guy was Gene’s right hand man and I believe he went to Gene and said, “I want to marry Pat.” “Gene decides who gets married.”
Both of the Petty’s said they resisted the mind control efforts which church leaders applied, they said. Unlike most members, they refused turn over all their possessions to the church. “We never signed our car title over to them, which many people did. We kept our radio and stereo.” “You’re constantly told to turn everything over and take vows of poverty.” In the church we didn’t watch TV, listen to the radio, read newspapers or books or go to the library. Most of the members were ignorant of world events.”
While they didn’t turn over some of their possessions, the Petty’s did donate cash to the church. “Liz and I both owned cars when we married. I sold mine and I gave the church a couple hundred dollars,” Petty said. “The church exerted subtle pressure to give.” They implied and taught that the more you give, the more spiritual you are.” “People who gave were loudly applauded.”
The couple agreed that rigid regimentation takes place within the church. As a result, members have little time to think for themselves. Mrs. Petty said a typical day began with breakfast at 7:30 a.m. which consisted of oatmeal and toast. “The elders discussed the work assignments and then the members would disperse to their various jobs.” They would then return for lunch, usually soup and a sandwich. The big meal was dinner, but we ate very little meat. I saw lots of meat substitutes. We ate pretty well in summer because we went to the Farmer’s Market, but in winter it was rough. We ate lots of soybeans.
“A meeting would begin at 7:30 p.m. with Gene usually leading the discussion and prayer.” “It would sometimes last until 11:00 p.m.”
Mrs. Petty worked in one of the Yellow Deli’s, except for her six week assignment as a household communal cook. Her husband was first assigned to work in the carpentry crew which restored houses that the church had purchased. Later he managed the church newspaper.
Their work schedules conflicted and so they saw very little of each other. “When money became tight, Mrs. Petty said, I worked 12 hour days at the Yellow Deli, eating both meals at the restaurant.” “I returned home at night and just fell into bed.” “When Steve finished with work he had to attend the night meetings and they sometimes lasted until 11:00. Often I wouldn’t see him until the next morning.”
The Petty’s left the church when they realized they couldn’t change things. “We told Gene we were leaving because unbiblical things were taking place in the church.” Mrs. Petty said, “Gene told us to get out and not to tell anyone where or why we were going.”
Mrs. Petty, a graduate of Red Bank High School, and her husband, a native of Nashville, are now living happily in Sevierville. She is again teaching school and he is employed as a child abuse social work. They have a small child.
The Petty couple communicates occasionally with other former church members. Cliff Daniels, once a church leader, told Petty that on occasion he became so frustrated in the church that he had struck his wife. Mrs. Petty remembers Mrs. Daniels coming to work with black eyes.
Reflecting on the overall conditions surrounding the church, Petty described the “prison like regimentation.”
Petty said he was willing to discuss his experiences within the church “only because of my concern for various people living within the community.” There are a half dozen who I could just lie down and weep for. I’m not speaking out because I want to hurt anyone but I simply want to shed some light where I think light is needed.”
Remembering her experiences in the church, Mrs. Petty said: It proved to be a very harmful and hurtful year. If I were a parent with a child in that group I would be very concerned.”