The Kingdom at Island Pond

Source:Factnet archives via xenu directory 
29 November 1982
 Folks in the tiny Vermont village of Island Pond (population: 1,542), nestled
in rugged mountains near the Canadian border, like to say they live in "God's
country." But lately residents have begun to fear that some of their neighbors
may be confusing God with Elbert Eugene Spriggs. A Chattanooga carnival barker
turned self-proclaimed Christian apostle, Spriggs has established a
fundamentalist Christian community -- the Northeast Kingdom Community Church --
in Island Pond and settled 300 devoted followers there. And although the town
originally welcomed the Kingdom, a bitter child-custody dispute between an
ex-Spriggs follower and his wife -- still a group member -- has unleashed
charges of widespread child abuse among members of the Kingdom and triggered a
boycott of half a dozen church-owned businesses by some locals.

    Outwardly, subjects of the Kingdom are a tranquil lot -- quiet young men and
modest women with kerchiefs on their heads. The charges against them became
public at a hearing in which former church member Juan Mattatall --
excommunicated for questioning the gospel according to Spriggs -- sought custody
of his five children, still living with his wife in one of the 13 Victorian
homes that serve as communes. Witnesses testified that all the Kingdom's
children, from tots to teens, received frequent and lengthy bare-bottom
thrashings with wooden rods -- during which they were supposed to smile and
thank their elders. The beatings so upset Charles and Tommye Brown, a couple
recruited personally by Spriggs in Wyoming, that they quit the Kingdom only a
few months after hitchhiking for two weeks to reach it. "I couldn't stand what
they were doing to their children," said Tommye. "I couldn't stand listening to
them cry."

    The Kingdom defends its "spare the rod, spoil the child" philosophy as Old
Testament discipline that drives out the Devil and renders the youngsters pure
of heart. "We're just trying to live a quiet, godly life," says Bill Hinchliffe,
a cheerful, young deacon. Local authorities have not been able to confirm
child-abuse charges because the Kingdom is virtually a closed society that shuns
contact with the outside world. Vermont state trooper Kathy Cunningham has
followed the case closely, but says the police cannot do much. "They've taken
away all our normal ways to detect child abuse," she says. "There are no
teachers to report scars, no doctors to report anything funny."

    Deaths: There are also no doctors to save lives. Local officials say that the
Kingdom's reliance on paramedics and a makeshift health facility may have led to
the deaths of three infants, including one whose spinal meningitis was
misdiagnosed as an ear infection. Cunningham says one of the dead babies weighed
only 13 pounds at eight months but had never been brought to a hospital.

    Elbert Spriggs could hardly have imagined such problems in 1972 when he
founded a shelter for runaways, drug abusers and other alienated youths in
Chattanooga. But when he discovered that his troubled flock was unwelcome in a
local church, he simply began one of his own -- and it soon became a potent
force. "Gene started feeling his oats, and we were working so hard toward the
Kingdom of God that we started to feel like a superior people," recalls Cliff
Daniels, who joined the church at 17 after a long talking session with Spriggs
and later became his right-hand man. Daniels, who quit the church in 1976 before
it left Tennessee, charges that Spriggs "is a father in the truest meaning of
the word . . . he has manipulated people's emotions, life-style and thoughts,
and used the Bible to do this."

    Yankee Thrift: If Spriggs is manipulating his flock in Island Pond, he is
doing it mostly from afar these days. Seldom seen in Vermont, he is reportedly
camping with his fourth wife and one of Mattatall's children in Portugal, where
followers say he contemplates establishing another Kingdom. Back in Vermont the
Kingdom appears to be thriving despite the boycott, thanks in part to two
traditional New England virtues: a reluctance to interfere in the affairs of
neighbors, and good, old-fashioned Yankee thrift. "They do fine work," says one
local, "and they charge a whole lot less than most folks around here." Others
believe that in any case, the controversy is overblown. "I think the whole
disadvantage for the group is that the Jonestown incident has sort of influenced
townsfolk," says Beverly Pepin, a local hairdresser. "The only comparison
between Jim Jones and Gene Spriggs is that when Jones started, he felt he was
the disciple of Christ too." Says one of the church's members: "We really trust
in the Lord to vindicate us."

GRAPHIC: Picture 1, Kingdom members: 'Trying to live a quiet, godly life',
Elaine Isaacson -- Burlington Free Press; Picture 2, The Browns with trooper
Cunningham: 'I couldn't stand listening to them cry', Ira Wyman; Picture 3,
Spriggs: Seldom seen, John W. Coniglio -- Chattanooga Times
the kingdom at island pond

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