Farm Plays Host To A Low-Profile Sect

Guilderland -- Code violations draw notice to gathering of little-known Christian group "Two by Twos"

Albany Times-Union/July 14, 2000
By Kim Martineau

They don't smoke, drink or watch television. And though their numbers rival groups like the Moonies or Rajneeshees, this conservative Christian sect has managed to remain virtually unknown.

Outsiders call them "Two by Twos'' because ministers travel in pairs to convert new members. But to those who follow the austere lifestyle prescribed by the sect, which rejects churches and other institutions, the religion does not have a name and is referred to simply as "The Way'' or "The Truth.''

Since 1921, three generations of the Knaggs family have hosted a large, somber, spiritual retreat called a "convention'' at their dairy farm. Each summer, an estimated 800 people, mostly from the Northeast, descend on the farm for a four-day religious event.

Despite the large number, most neighbors and town officials knew little about the group's existence until last month. That's when the town got a tip that four buildings on the 165-acre farm near the Watervliet Reservoir violated health and safety codes. The owners had represented the buildings as farm sheds, but when the town's building inspector visited the site, he found men's and women's dormitories, washrooms and cooking facilities inside the buildings.

Town and county officials have ordered the owners to make sure the buildings, septic systems and other facilities meet state code by the time the event starts on Aug. 17.

"When you have these mass gatherings, you want to make sure an accident doesn't happen,'' said town Supervisor Ken Runion.

A Scottish evangelist, William Irvine, founded the group at the turn of the century in Ireland as a reaction to organized religion. For a time, the sect was highly visible, and it spread quickly to other English-speaking countries. But then the group's charismatic leader began to deviate from the sect's principal ideas, arguing that the end of the world was approaching and that ministers should stop converting new members. Irvine was banished in 1914, said Benton Johnson, a sociologist who has studied the sect, and the group developed an aura of secrecy and anonymity that has endured.

The most fascinating aspect about the group, and the key to its survival, said Johnson, has been its refusal to be named or identified. When a reporter asked a local minister, Charles Steffen, what his group is called, he responded enigmatically: "The greatest name there is, is our father's name.''

Members dress conservatively, but not in a manner that draws attention. They don't observe special eating rituals. They have no churches, literature or pamphlets, other than the King James version of the Bible. They are not incorporated as a tax-exempt religious group. They send their children to public schools. Without a name, the group has managed to avert some of the publicity and problems that smaller sects and cults have attracted.

"It's a very clever strategy,'' said Johnson, a retired sociology professor at the University of Oregon.

Because there are no churches, Two by Twos hold Sunday meetings in their homes. They believe the only path to salvation is by earning it, through simple living and the teachings of a minister (you can't be saved on your own). Ministers survive on the donations of members and are called by their first name. The sect traces its roots to the birth of Jesus, not the worldly Irvine, and places its emphasis on Matthew's gospel.

"We tell people to get back to the simple life of the scripture,'' said Steffen. "It's more of a fellowship or a family than an organization.''

Though the group shares some of the characteristics of a cult, its members take a largely passive view of the world and are not violent, scholars say. Guilderland police have directed traffic at the close of the gatherings but otherwise have had no reason to visit the farm, said Chief James Murley.

Besides Guilderland, two other gatherings are held in the Northeast, one on a farm in western New York and another on a farm in Milford, New Hampshire. There are about 85 convention sites across the country.

"It's very quiet,'' said Kevin Lynch, Milford building inspector. "They're very nice people. Very professional.''

But the group, particularly its ministers, has also attracted criticism from ex-members. A West Texan, Gene DeVoll, blew the whistle on Knaggs Farm last month. DeVoll, who left the group after he got divorced in 1996, said he reported the violations because he is troubled by the leadership's secrecy and lack of accountability. He has never visited the Guilderland farm but got his information from a local member.

"These men are very controlling,'' he said. "They hide their money. They wear $600 suits and have $20,000 credit card bills. And yet they stand up and preach 'I have nothing to my name.' ''

All property is owned by individuals who, like the Knaggs, use it for the good of the movement. "We charge no admission or other fees, nor do we take any collections,'' said Albert Knaggs, a minister, in a prepared statement. "We have not advertised our gathering, nor have we sought to hide it.''

The Knaggs are now at work making changes to the farm to comply with code requirements. The Two by Twos expect to hold their convention this summer, as they do every year.

"It's really not a public gathering,'' said Steffen. "It's a gathering of believers. We haven't had any illnesses or problems. We've been very careful. We want to do what's right.''

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