Preacher, prophet founded church ‘to know God’

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

John Hibbert the gifted British preacher. Jean Spademan the long-suffering British prophet.

Believers here and in England credit the two with bringing them closer to God’s “perfect will.” They tout the charm and high calling of Hibbert and the extraordinary, spiritual powers of Spademan.

The disenchanted, however, blame the pair for creating a church so demanding and controlling that it damages lives. They claim that Hibbert, wittingly or not, misguides his flock and that Spademan exploits in her zealotry.

In a recent interview in Jewett City, the two briefly described how they got involved with Bethel Church in England and The King’s Chapel in Norwich, both Bible-based and non-denominational. They talked about their motivations and desires. Neither would answer any questions about former church members, church finances, or their personal finances.

Hibbert, who is 53, felt he wanted “to know God” from an early age. While other English boys were preoccupied with soccer, he was seeking out fiery preachers who extolled salvation through Jesus Christ.

“As a boy of 11, 12 and 13 they could not keep me away from it. I was in every single service soaking up the preaching, listening to these missionaries tell their stories,” said Hibbert. “I can remember standing in these congregations …and with tears streaming down my face and saying, ‘Lord I want to do whatever you want me to do in this world. I want to be your servant for the rest of my life.’ ”

Hibbert grew up in central England. He went to a technical college there and was trained as a professional draftsman. His real passion, he says, remained the church. He soon worked his way up to be an assistant minister in an Assembly of God parish in Rotherham before making his way to nearby Mansfield-Woodhouse. Today he leads Bethel Church in that small town. Married, he is the father of three daughters and a boy adopted from Honduras.

He is trim and fit-looking, with sharp facial features. Quick and emphatic, he can deliver an articulate, stirring message. In a sermon at King’s Chapel shortly before Easter, he spoke about Calvary, God’s sacrifice of his only son, and Jesus’ last moments with the disciples.

“The way that God wants us to take … can be a strange and devious path. We might not understand the path we take,” he told about 70 people attending.

“When God begins to enact his purpose … it is completely contrary to the way we think it would be done. Calvary … was it not an image of defeat?”

As for Jesus knowing he would be betrayed, Hibbert said, “Jesus loved them when they were unlovely.”

In 1972, Hibbert met Jean Spademan. By then a pastor, he was going door-to-door inviting people to visit his Bethel Assembly of God Church in Mansfield-Woodhouse. He knocked at her house

“She only opened the door that wide,” he said, holding a forefinger and thumb a few inches apart. “I saw a hesitation in her eyes. I sensed she was in need. And so that was it.”

He visited and called her repeatedly, ultimately winning a convert.

Spademan remembered that day. “I put the phone down, I ran up the stairs, and I threw myself on the bathroom floor. I said, ‘God, if you’re really there, come into my life and change my life!’ And from that moment, my life changed.”

Through half of her 73 years, Jean Spademan gave little thought to Jesus. Growing up poor, she had children at a young age and claims to have hated her life. Foul-mouthed and impatient, she says, she had nothing to do with organized religion.

“I never believed anybody could know Jesus. I knew of him, but I never believed you could know him.”

The mother of six and grandmother of more than a dozen, she says she has built her life around the love of God. She adopted her youngest daughter, now engaged to be married, in Honduras. It was at Spademan’s urging that the Bethel Church first connected years ago with Finca de los Niños, an orphanage in Honduras.

Neither she nor the pastors would describe the church’s current ties to that country, but former parishioners speculate that plans to closely associate with Finca and build a new orphanage in the mid-1980s went awry over differences in opinion about management and control.

Julie Upton, a British native who once belonged to Bethel Church before moving to Jewett City and joining King’s Chapel, used to clean Spademan’s home. Spademan, she says, is fond of “quality” and has fine China and silver, plush carpets and a house filled with arts and crafts. Upton and dozens of other ex-followers say Spademan loves to shop. In her frequent visits to Jewett City, they say, she sometimes buy containers at Ames for carrying merchandise back to England.

Pastors encourage gifts to Spademan, telling parishioners that she endures so much pain from others’ sinfulness and so much stress from counseling.Spademan’s husband, Fred, was a carpenter by trade. He and most of Spademan’s children are no longer faithful church-goers. Even Spademan, people say, does not go to church.

About a dozen homes on Ley Lane, where the Spademans live in Mansfield-Woodhouse, are owned by church members, Upton says. Visitors from Jewett City stay with families there, often moving from one home to another.

A short, heavyset woman who wears glasses, Spademan moves slowly because of arthritis. She describes herself as a suffering servant of Christ.

“I’m crippled up,” she said. “I live constantly in the worst pain I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. … That doesn’t stop me from doing what I believe Jesus has given me to do.”

Hibbert saw in Spademan more than just another convert to Christ. He became convinced that she had the rare gift of prophecy and could know God’s will and use it to guide his church and its members. Followers began to call her Syro, a reference to a Syro-Phoenician woman in the New Testament who asks Jesus to cast out the devil from her daughter. Jesus does.

As time passed, according to ex-followers, the voice that Spademan heard described the secret sins of people in the parish. That led to “rebukings,” “disciplinings” and “deliverances,” they say, in which pastors tried to expel the various demons and evils — lust, greed, “dandy,” “wimpiness,” among them.

Spademan would not explain her special powers or even confirm she has any.

“If you ask me, have I ever heard anyone outside of a human being, I don’t know,” she said. “You have to draw your own conclusions. Did I hear? Or was it my compassion? Or what was it?”

Hibbert says simply that Spademan has a “prophetic gift” that allows her “to listen to God.”

“She seeks to know what God’s mind is,” he said. “If Christ is building his own church, then we want to do it his way. We don’t want to form a committee and decide what to do like people who run a business do. We want to do it the way God wants to do it.”

Spademan likened herself to a doctor who has to give patients the bad news when they have medical problems. Some people blame the doctor, she says, just as she is being blamed for the bad spiritual news she has delivered.

In the early 1980s, Hibbert, Spademan and others from Bethel Church traveled along the East Coast of the United States spreading the Gospel.

“I have never seen myself as a pastor of a local church confined to one community,” Hibbert said. “I have always felt that I wanted God in some way to use me to make an impact on people everywhere.

”In 1981, he met Sam J. Wibberley and visited his fledgling Dayspring Church of God in Jewett City. Wibberley was impressed with Hibbert as a preacher and the claim that his church had a modern-day prophet.

Today, King’s Chapel — which merged with Dayspring — and Bethel Church are so closely knit they seem like one, despite the great distance that separates them. They are not affiliated with any other church. Nineteen years ago, Hibbert’s church split from the Assemblies of God. The Assemblies of God national office in Great Britain would not comment on the reasons. Hibbert says his congregation felt the Assemblies were too authoritative.

Today, Bethel Church is connected, in ways that remain unclear, to Hope International, a charity registered in England. Bethel is also associated with Righteous & Company, a private business in Mansfield-Woodhouse that sells waterbeds. One of Spademan’s sons, Jim Jenkinson, headed the company.

Hibbert says he is saddened that former followers are attacking the church pastors.

“There is probably somewhere in all of this just a seed of truth,” he said. “But what it has now become has been warped out of all recognition. That a section of the church would try to rip another section of the church to pieces, I think that makes God weep. And I think it is so very, very sad.

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