Folks in the tiny 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 [now known as the "Twelve Tribes"], 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 business 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 a former church member was excommunicated for questioning the gospel according to Spriggs. 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 Hinchcliffe, 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."
There are also no doctors to save lives. Local officials say that the kingdom's reliance on paramedics and a makeshift health facility my 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 have hardly 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, lifestyle and thoughts, and used the Bible to do this."
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 a former member's child 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 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 member's: "we really trust in the Lord to vindicate us."