Church Leaders Strive For Holy Ways

They say anyone is free to leave

The New London Day, Eastern Connecticut, May 30, 1999
By Kyn Tolson and Paul Choiniere

Editor’s Note: Leaders of the two churches in Norwich and England agreed to a group interview, but they refused to discuss any allegations raised by former members or incidents involving them. They would not talk about church or personal finances in any way. They centered their conversation on their faith and how they came together as two congregations with a shared purpose.

Jesus Christ is a forgiving savior but an exacting one. He demands that followers live righteously, in thought and deed. They should pray unceasingly and surrender to God’s will, even when His purpose cannot be understood.

This is the strict theology of The King’s Chapel in Norwich and Bethel Church, its counterpart in England, and church leaders make no apologies for it. Obedience, they have preached, is paramount.

“As a church we want to help people live godly lives, to give our lives,” said Sam J. Wibberley. The 47-year-old leader is among a trio of pastors who has led the American congregation for the past two decades, first in their hometown of Jewett City and now in Norwich.

While some people criticize the church as cult-like in tactics and control, its leaders contend that their only goal is to bring people closer to God. Theirs is a “Bible-based, non-demoninational church,” Wibberley says, and anyone who does not agree with their message and manner is free to go elsewhere.

“We could do many things with our talents, our backgrounds, our time,” he said. “But we live to preach the Gospel and to help, and we shouldn’t be in the position of defending ourselves for simply going out and pouring in the love, the righteousness and the truth to set people free. And that’s what we do, and that’s what we live for.”

In the early 1980s the Dayspring Church of God, led by Wibberley, formed an alliance with the Bethel Church. The pastors of both churches claim that British-born Jean Spademan, who is 73, has the “gift of prophecy.”

The Bethel Church is headed by Rev. John Hibbert, 53, who teamed up with Spademan and came to the United States in the late 1970s looking for followers. After Wibberley linked up with them, he and John V. Monahan Jr. eventually moved their small Jewett City congregation in with the larger one in Norwich. Today, 41-year-old Kevin F. Hamel works with the two men as the youth minister of King’s Chapel.

All the pastors — here and in England — look to Spademan for direction. She often is the prime mover in church affairs both big and small. Communication among them all is steady, nearly constant.

Alan Major was a member of King’s Chapel for several years before he left in 1986.

“They had a very high standard of holiness,” said Major, 42. “If you chafed against it there was the Baptist church down the street. Wibberley warned people about it. It is sort of a spiritual Marine Corps.”

The Lebanon man decided to leave the church, because he thinks some of the teachings did not accurately follow Christian theology. Too much is based on Spademan’s guidance, rather than on the word of God in scripture, he says.

“But I don’t want to be the final arbiter on what is an aberrant church and what is not,” he said. “Those who are members of this church have to make their own choices. But certainly, if it’s not for you, get out.”

Wibberley, Hibbert, Spademan and Hamel said people are never forced to stay.

For Jerry White, who is married and father of four, King’s Chapel is the right place to be. “I never saw a church that is so Biblical as this one,” he said. “All they try to do in this church is love God more, try to be sinless, and serve God more.”

White talked briefly following a recent Sunday service. The highlight of the nearly 90-minute service was a sermon by Hibbert, who was visiting from England. He preached to about 70 adults and children, saying that no sacrifice compares to God’s sacrifice of his own son. It was a passionate, articulate pre-Easter sermon that would have been appropriate at many churches. There was no mention of Spademan, who was also visiting but did not attend the service.

White, like many members, agreed to move to Jewett City at the urging of church leadership. He relocated in 1989 from New Hampshire after meeting church members vacationing there. Hamel, who owns a construction company, has a condominium there, and Spademan and others have stayed as guests.

White has no problem with pastors questioning him about his thoughts and behavior. Everything is done, he says, in an effort to improve his life. “Never once was there anything that was not right on the money,” he said. “Anytime the ministry has ministered to me has been fantastic.”

Cheri Williams lives with her five children and husband in Jewett City.

King’s Chapel, she said “has helped me realize the saving grace of Christ.” She believes that people who accept Spademan’s guidance can draw closer to God.

“We all have gifts. Hers is a special gift to help guide us. When I have been counseled, it was to my benefit. I have become a better Christian as a result,” said the 38-year-old housewife. “(Spademan) is a sister in Christ. I respect her, but I don’t worship her.”

Williams says that many church members give generously, but the choice is their own. She feels that she has received numerous blessings in return for the money she has donated. Williams’ husband, however, is not a church member and has urged her to leave.

In a general response to the claim that King’s Chapel is a cult, Spademan said, “We are being accused by the few that can’t face their own problems. And they like to pretend the problems don’t exist and put them onto someone else.”

She says she is particularly troubled that “people who shared our homes, shared our lives, shared our families” are trying to hurt the church.

“Flesh would say strike back, because that’s what flesh is,” she said. “Flesh likes to strike back.”

For his part, Hibbert said, “I will not be drawn into defending myself, even though I would love to do so. The natural person would love to do so.”

Roberta Braunstein is married with two teen-agers, one of them adopted. Now 51, she has had a law practice in Jewett City for years and has belonged to the church for 14 years.

In the past, she says, she happily participated in the church’s 24-hour prayer sessions, which once were standard practice. The prayers were “for people who had needs,” said Braunstein. The round-the-clock praying, often at Wibberley’s house, was done by different parishioners for different causes, many of which were determined by Spademan.

For one stretch, Braunstein covered the 7 a.m. prayer slot. She says she had no problem taking her son, then in elementary school, to Wibberley’s house, where she would pray for an hour before work and he would catch the school bus.

She has no doubt about Spademan’s special powers. “It’s not an everyday thing. … You check it out by the fruit of what’s been said.”

Spademan, she said, “lives very well … because in her home, she brings all kinds of people.”

Braunstein says she has done legal work for the church but would not elaborate. She says she doesn’t know any specifics about people — American or English — allegedly working regularly at Sam Wibberley Tire for no pay or working without proper immigration papers.

She joined the church a few years after finishing law school in New Hampshire, where she became friends with a woman who eventually joined Dayspring, Wibberley’s first parish.

In 1985, when she was living and practicing in her hometown of Monroe, Braunstein decided to visit her friend, in part, because she felt her church wasn’t filling a need. In a subsequent 24-hour-prayer session, parishioners prayed for her, Braunstein says.

Later, her friend contacted her to say that Spademan “felt she had a little chit in from the Lord about me. I needed to become more spiritually minded and to be more shepherded.”

The pastor at the Monroe church, Braunstein says, had too many parishioners to give her the attention she needed. Spademan’s message “was obviously right,” Braunstein said. She came to Jewett City.

For 18 years, Goldie McPhaul has found strength in the demanding ways of King’s Chapel. She is married to Richard McPhaul, an elder in the church. Both are divorced from others who left.

Her faith, she says, is fueled by the rigorous religious standards.

King’s Chapel has two services on Sunday and one on Tuesday night. There are prayer meetings during the week. Members are asked to live the Gospel in all aspects of life, McPhaul says, and they are constantly on guard against corrupting evil in the world.

McPhaul, who is 45, says she has accepted people — even strangers — into her home, because the church leaders decided they needed a place to stay on their spiritual journeys.

“At one point I had a house where I had 12 people in the house. I did all the washing and all the ironing and all the cooking in the house. And I’d do it again, because that was one little thing I could do for someone to make their life easier.”

People in other churches get involved in social causes to feel good, McPhaul says. At King’s Chapel, they have a higher calling.

“Our lives aren’t about feeling good,” she said. “They’re about being what Christ wants us to be.”

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