Dynamic Church Leader Seen As Both Shepherd and Demagogue

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

There are at least a few things about Sam J. Wibberley that both his detractors and his followers will agree on.

Wibberley, owner of a tire business and pastor of The King’s Chapel, is an intelligent, persuasive and committed man, according to people who have known him over the years.

That is where their agreement ends.

While current church members describe the 47-year-old man as a loving, concerned and faithful shepherd, ex-members see him in a far different light. Wibberley, some think, has a dark power and a steely will.

Wibberley always wanted God to do something dramatic in his life, say former friends, associates and some who have been ministered to by the self-styled pastor over the past 25 years. By their accounts, he believed his prayers had been answered 17 years ago, when a middle-aged woman, heralded as a modern-day prophet, walked into his life.

That was in 1981. Wibberley was founder and pastor of the tiny non-denominational Dayspring Church of God in Jewett City, where he still lives today. The two-dozen members, first meeting in homes, were praying for God to reveal himself.

“Wibberley felt the church was in a spiritually dry period,” said Woody Landry, now 45 and no longer a follower. “So we prayed and asked God to lead us. And then, all of sudden, these people came.”

John Hibbert, an English preacher, was scouting out churches in the United States. Hibbert had his own independent, Bible-based church, the Bethel Church, in England. Jean Spademan was in his congregation, and she had come along with him. By her own account, she had been a foul-mouthed sinner until Hibbert persuaded her to give her life over to Jesus Christ.

Spademan — Syro, as she is known — had the gift of prophecy, Hibbert told Wibberley. Her power could guide the Jewett City parish, much

as it did his in England. Wibberley was persuaded. A relationship was formed. It proved to be a critical bond that would change Wibberley and many others.

Wibberley inherited both a business and a strong Christian faith from his family.

Wibberleys have lived for several generations in rural Canterbury. The youngest of five children, Sam, along with his siblings and parents, was active in the Calvary Chapel in their hometown.

He excelled at Griswold High School. He was an A student and successful on the track, cross-country and basketball teams. During both his junior and senior years, he was elected the student council president. Friends and administrators recall him as studious and popular, even politically savvy. They remember he could wheedle small favors from school officials.

In his 1969 graduation yearbook, he’s described as “zany and offbeat, yet sensitive.” The quote under his photograph comes from “Publilius Syrus,” a book of sayings that pre-dates the birth of Christ. It reads: “Speech is the mirror of the soul; as a man speaks, so is he.” His goal was “To know people and life and to be friends with both.”

Wibberley went to Albion College, a small liberal arts college in the Michigan town of the same name. In step with the times, he grew his hair long. Eventually it hung in a ponytail to the middle of his back. He continued to excel academically, majoring in religion and French.

After graduating in 1973 he returned to eastern Connecticut and his spiritual search.

“Sam came to us right out of college with the pigtail and the ’70s thing and very, very bright and very idealistic,” recalled Stan Farmer, founder and executive director of His Mansion.

Then in Plainfield, His Mansion is a one-year residential program that uses Christian-based counseling to help adults with emotional, behavioral or substance-abuse problems.

Despite no formal training in counseling or ministry, Wibberley performed well in the program and helped many people, Farmer says.

“He was very sharp, dedicated, insightful and showed strong leader qualities for a young man,” he said. “He was always thirsting for more of God, some experience beyond what he presently had. The longer he served the less excited he was about what he was doing.”

A few years later Wibberley started Dayspring and eventually cut his ties to His Mansion.

In the early 1980s, when His Mansion had moved to New Hampshire, Farmer and Wibberley met for the last time. Wibberley went to see the new facilities up north, taking along the “English team.”

By that time, Wibberley’s parish, with guidance from Hibbert and Spademan, had started to merge with the Pentecostal The King’s Chapel, which had been called the Norwich Full Gospel Church. In the mid-1980s, the former pastor there, James Oakley, moved to England to be a part of Hibbert’s congregation. He is still there today.

Farmer remembers that Wibberley was eager to see his church grow. Its membership back then was almost up to 100, according to one estimate. In a recent interview, Wibberley said he does not keep membership counts.

“Sam was very desirous that we embrace them and somehow become part of their ministry,” Farmer said. “But I smelled a rat. I didn’t like it. This uneducated ordinary woman, having so much power and extra-Biblical revelation. I thought it was dangerous.”

Farmer asked Wibberley and his entourage to leave.

“In all fairness, Sam was actually a fine, young man,” Farmer said. “I am baffled today as to what happened.”

Today Wibberley is graying and wears metal-rimmed glasses. At 6-feet, 4-inches, he’s a towering presence.

Numerous people describe how he can reproach others with frightening zeal. It takes only a word from Spademan, they say, to convince him that someone needs to be made straight in the eyes of God.

Landry, who was with Wibberley from the beginnings at Dayspring, thinks he changed dramatically after Spademan arrived by focusing on people’s shortcomings and failings. Landry says he was kicked out in the mid-1980s for not being pure enough.

“I remember this one call,” Landry said of a telephone conversation he had with Wibberley. “He said he had this vision of God just casting us out, me and some others who could not get past our sins. And he saw God just casting us out and us falling to earth and, like, breaking apart.”

During a recent interview in his home on East Main Street, Wibberley refused to discuss anything about people who have left his church. He says he doesn’t want to dignify their claims. He described his goal as the spiritual growth of those who remain believers.

“If you want to take a safe route, don’t ever try to counsel people, or whatever,” he said. “But if you’re going to stand for Jesus and proclaim the Gospel some people, a few, are going to attack you for it.”

Goldie McPhaul, a long-time follower, calls Wibberley a “loving pastor” who is being criticized for showing people how to improve themselves.

“If someone tells you something about yourself that you don’t like, your first reaction is to turn on the person that is telling you, isn’t it?” said McPhaul. “No one wants to hear things that are not very pleasant about themselves.

“They’re just disgruntled people that have gotten together, and they’re talking a big story and it sounds good,” she said.

The reality, she adds, is that the holier you become the more unworthy you realize you are. And that is the reality some people don’t want to face.

“The closer you get to Jesus, the brighter the light. The brighter the light …the more imperfections you see.”

Julie Upton, a former church member, spent 1994 and 1995 as a housekeeper in the Wibberley home.

Wibberley and his wife, Cynthia, have six children, three of them adopted. All but the youngest, who is in grade school, are adults.

Family members, she says, were often the subject of his righteous wrath. At Spademan’s urging, she says, he has put the older children and Cynthia through the same sort of inquisitions that other parishioners endured. Spademan, according to Upton, demanded that Wibberley “purify” his home if she were going to stay there during her visits from England.

Wibberley became so angered over what he saw as his wife’s unwillingness to repent of lustful thoughts, Upton says, that he cast her out of the church. The couple divorced in February 1995, when their youngest son was a toddler. The little boy remained with Sam.

Ten months later — four days before Christmas 1995 — the couple remarried after Cynthia sought forgiveness, Upton says. Cynthia would not agree to an interview.

What Upton saw in the Wibberley home convinced her to leave the church.

“I saw the treatment of Sam’s kids and vowed I would not let that happen to my son, even if it meant risking the wrath of God and Syro,” she said.

Wibberley joined the family business, Wibberley Tire in Canterbury, in the late 1970s. He soon opened a second store, Sam Wibberley Tire in the Dayville section of Killingly.

Some close to the family say he and his father, Max, would sometimes disagree about how to run the shops. Sam would leave management in the hands of staff for weeks at a time while on trips, described as church missions, in Europe, Latin American and Asia.

Eventually the Canterbury tire store closed, and Sam remained at the Dayville shop. Several people close to him describe the business as a necessary distraction from his real passion, the church.

Ex-members are divided over what his deepest motivations are. At least a dozen see him as a phony who manipulates for power. An equal number say he is sincere, though misguided, in believing that his church has a special connection to God and that his counseling can lead people to salvation.

A person who has known Wibberley all his life but requested anonymity says that, through the church, he has created a lifestyle that suits his personality and interests. He is a powerful leader. He has a large, nicely renovated 1930s-era home in Jewett City. He has traveled extensively.

“Sam has a desire for power and luxury,” said the person. “He is very artistic and articulate and loves beauty and was once a very sensitive person. He loves wonderful things and adventure, and he got all that.”

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