Pleasantville, Tennessee -- After services at the Church at Cane Creek on a recent Sunday, a few dozen families held a potluck picnic and giggling children played pin the tail on the donkey.
The white-bearded preacher, Michael Pearl, who delivered his sermon in stained work pants, and his wife, Debi, mixed warmly with the families drawn to their evangelical ministry, including some of their own grandchildren.
The pastoral mood in the hills of Tennessee offered a stark contrast to the storm raging around the country over the Pearls' teachings on child discipline, which advocate systematic use of "the rod" to teach toddlers to submit to authority. The methods, seen as common sense by some grateful parents and as horrific by others, are modeled, Mr. Pearl is fond of saying, on "the same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules."
Debate over the Pearls' teachings, first seen on Christian Web sites, gained new intensity after the death of a third child, all allegedly at the hands of parents who kept the Pearls' book, "To Train Up a Child," in their homes. On Sept. 29, the parents were charged with homicide by abuse.
More than 670,000 copies of the Pearls' self-published book are in circulation, and it is especially popular among Christian home-schoolers, who praise it in their magazines and on their Web sites. The Pearls provide instructions on using a switch from as early as six months to discourage misbehavior and describe how to make use of implements for hitting on the arms, legs or back, including a quarter-inch flexible plumbing line that, Mr. Pearl notes, "can be rolled up and carried in your pocket."
The furor in part reflects societal disagreements over corporal punishment, which conservative Christians say is called for in the Bible and which many Americans consider reasonable up to a point, even as many parents and pediatricians reject it. The issue flared recently when a video was posted online of a Texas judge whipping his daughter.
Mr. Pearl, 66, and Ms. Pearl, 60, say that blaming their book for extreme abuse by a few unstable parents is preposterous and that they explicitly counsel against acting in anger or causing a bruise. They say that their methods, properly used, yield peace and happy teenagers.
"If you find a 12-step book in an alcoholic's house, you wouldn't blame the book," Mr. Pearl said in an interview.
But he acknowledged that the methods are not right for out-of-control or severely overburdened parents.
In the latest case, Larry and Carri Williams of Sedro-Woolley, Wash., were home-schooling their six children when they adopted a girl and a boy, ages 11 and 7, from Ethiopia in 2008. The two were seen by their new parents as rebellious, according to friends.
Late one night in May this year, the adopted girl, Hana, was found face down, naked and emaciated in the backyard; her death was caused by hypothermia and malnutrition, officials determined. According to the sheriff's report, the parents had deprived her of food for days at a time and had made her sleep in a cold barn or a closet and shower outside with a hose. And they often whipped her, leaving marks on her legs. The mother had praised the Pearls' book and given a copy to a friend, the sheriff's report said. Hana had been beaten the day of her death, the report said, with the 15-inch plastic tube recommended by Mr. Pearl.
"It's a good spanking instrument," Mr. Pearl said in the interview. "It's too light to cause damage to the muscle or the bone."
Some of the Williamses' other tactics also seemed to involve Pearl advice taken to extremes; the Pearls say that "a little fasting is good training," for example, and suggest hosing off a child who has potty-training lapses. The Williamses have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
The Skagit County prosecutor said that he was not charging the Pearls and that the case for homicide did not depend on the Williamses' readings or religion.
But Dr. Frances Chalmers, a pediatrician who examined Hana's death for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, said of the Pearl methods: "My fear is that this book, while perhaps well intended, could easily be misinterpreted and could lead to what I consider significant abuse."
The same kind of plumbing tube was reported to have been used to beat Lydia Schatz, 7, who was adopted at age 4 from Liberia and died in Paradise, Calif., in 2010. Her parents, Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz, had the Pearl book but ignored its admonition against extended lashing or harm; they whipped Lydia for hours, with pauses for prayer. She died from severe tissue damage, and her older sister had to be hospitalized, officials said.
The Schatzes, who were home-schooling nine children, three of them adopted, are both serving long prison terms after he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and torture and she to voluntary manslaughter and unlawful corporal punishment. The Butte County district attorney, Mike Ramsey, criticized the Pearls' book as a dangerous influence.
The Pearls' teachings also came up in the trial of Lynn Paddock of Johnson County, N.C., who was convicted of the first-degree murder of Sean Paddock, 4, in 2006. The Paddocks had adopted six American children, some with emotional problems, and turned to the Internet and found the Pearls' Web site, Ms. Paddock said. Sean suffocated after being wrapped tightly in a blanket. His siblings testified that they were beaten daily with the same plumbing tube. Mr. Paddock was not charged.
Some conservative Christian parents reject the Pearls' teachings and have started a petition drive asking sellers like Amazon not to stock their books.
Crystal Lutton, who runs Grace-Based Discipline, one of several Christian blogs that oppose corporal punishment, said the danger with the Pearls' methods is that "if you don't get results, the only thing to do is to punish harder and harder."
Parents at Mr. Pearl's church said they largely followed the couple's approach and were puzzled by the controversy. The Pearls' children, too, say the attacks on their parents are misguided.
"I had a wonderful childhood," said their daughter Shoshanna Easling, 28, who is training her two children the same way. "My parents never spoke to me in anger, and I can only remember being spanked a couple of times."
Mr. Pearl said that Shoshanna was spanked probably 50 times as a toddler but that it soon became unnecessary.
Through book and video sales and donations, the Pearls' No Greater Joy Ministries brings in $1.7 million a year, which they say goes back into the cause. They live in a one-room apartment near the church. In his spare time, Mr. Pearl practices an offbeat hobby: he is a champion knife and tomahawk thrower.
Much of their advice is standard: parents should be loving, spend a lot of time with their children, be clear and consistent, and never strike in anger. But, citing Biblical passages like, "He that spareth his rod hateth his son," they provide instructions for "switching" defiant children to provide "spiritual cleansing."
They teach parents to use light taps to train infants not to roll off a blanket. For older children, parents are told to respond to defiance by hitting hard enough to sting with a willow switch, a belt, a wooden spoon or the tube.
Mr. Pearl describes child-rearing as a zero-sum test of wills. If a verbal warning does not work, he said, "you have the seeds of self-destruction."
That the three known deaths involved adoptees worries Lisa Veleff Day of Portland, Me., who adopted two children from Ethiopia. "These children have been ripped from their home country, extended family, culture and language," she said. "The last thing they need is to be smacked around."
Mr. Pearl said he opposed the adoption of older children. But on the central issue, he and his wife do not waver. "To give up the use of the rod is to give up our views of human nature, God, eternity," they write.
Isolde Raftery contributed reporting from Seattle.