Scranton Times Tribune, Feb. 9, 2003
BY CHRISTOPHER J. KELLY, THE SUNDAY TIMES
With his flowing, snow-white beard, fiery eyes and habit of holding Scripture over the heads of his followers, Stewart Traill could easily pass for Charlton Heston in the Hollywood epic, “The Ten Commandments.”
He has likened himself to Moses, John the Baptist and the prophet Elijah. His followers have wagered their lives on the accuracy of these comparisons. Those who have left his controversial religious group and outsiders who study it, however, say the mysterious leader of the Church of Bible Understanding has more in common with P.T. Barnum than Jesus Christ.
Prophet or con man? Like a shadow at twilight or a single drop of rain in a cloudburst, separating the man from the mystery swirling around him is not easily done. Members of the group, also known as COBU, refuse to discuss him. Mr. Traill avoids the media religiously.
It is only through the testimony of ex-followers and newspaper and magazine clippings that a portrait of the 67-year-old man behind the curtain at Olde Good Things emerges.
“I don’t believe anybody really knows him,” says Jim Greiner, 51, an ex-member of COBU who was once one of Mr. Traill’s most trusted lieutenants. He left the group about 11 years ago, after 21 years as a true believer.
“You don’t just get to talk to Stewart,” Mr. Greiner says, pointing to Mr. Traill’s distance from even his most devout followers. This barrier acts as a buffer between the leader and “inconvenient questions,” he says.
“For years, I was the only one of the brothers who could talk to Stewart,” Mr. Greiner says. “If you wanted to get a message to him, it had to go through me.”
A MINISTER’S SON
Stewart Tanner Traill was born in Quebec in 1936, the second of Donald and Lorraine Traill’s three children. He grew up in Allentown, developing early interests in science and religion, the latter of which has been attributed to his father, a Presbyterian minister and college professor.
The high school yearbook for Mr. Traill’s 1953 graduating class describes him as an unconventional thinker who relished being different from his fellow students. The description of the 17-year-old Mr. Trail reads:
“Even in the ninth grade, Stuart (sic) Traill put to use his fantastic ideas. One day he was seen with a paper bag on a string tied around his neck. When questioned as to its purpose he simply replied that it would save him a trip to the wastepaper basket should a teacher ask him to deposit his gum.”
In 1978, a former teacher told a reporter that Mr. Traill had his own ideas about how subjects like physics should be taught, often interrupting class to debate the instructor’s approach.
“We locked horns continually over his inability or unwillingness to approach his studies methodically,” the teacher said. “I told him, ‘Stewart, your biggest problem is that you cannot be bothered with the basics.’
“I’m not surprised to hear he’s started his own religion. There were probably threads of genius running through him, if only he had applied himself.”
As a high school senior, Mr. Traill announced plans to build a cyclotron, or atom smasher. He convinced US Steel and General Electric to donate parts and won the consultation of the physics departments of Lehigh and Princeton universities.
Mr. Traill’s physics aptitude, however, was long on terminology and short on substance. While he sounded like he knew what he was talking about, his professors at Lehigh said he had little scientific knowledge to back his words. He abandoned the cyclotron and dropped out of school, finding work fixing vacuum cleaners and reselling them.
THE COLORS OF FAITH
In 1959, Mr. Traill married Shirley Rudy. They had five children. An atheist on his wedding day, Mr. Traill later said that becoming a father prodded him to establish a connection with a higher power. After studying several religions, he settled on Christianity, but he saw a basic problem with the faith — Christians were misinterpreting the Bible.
Announcing that the book was actually written in a color-based code only he could decipher, Mr. Traill went to New York to preach his version of the Gospel on Greenwich Village street corners. It was a new, tough interpretation of Scripture, heavy on repentance and retribution and light on grace and forgiveness.
Using dramatic catchphrases like “Deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me,” Mr. Traill returned to Allentown and assembled a small band of teenage acolytes that would become the nexus of the Forever Family. A few years later, the group would be incorporated as a nonprofit religious organization and renamed the Church of Bible Understanding.
In 1976, Mr. Traill divorced his first wife and won custody of the couple’s children. He soon married Gayle Gillespie, his 20-year-old secretary, at the Diplomat Hotel in New York City. They are still married.
Two years after the divorce, Shirley Traill told the New York Daily News that Mr. Traill refused to let her see their two youngest children, and that he had taught their older children that she was going to hell.
Despite the troubles between them, Mrs. Traill said she still believed her ex-husband was a devoted servant of God.
“I still say Stewart’s a good man who doesn’t take anything from the church for himself.”
EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES
The description ex-members give of Mr. Traill’s appearance in the early years of COBU conjures an image of a quirky revolutionary: 6-foot-4 with glasses, long hair and a wild beard. He dressed in welder’s pants and yellow Converse sneakers and wore a utility belt with pouches for tiny Bibles. He carried a suitcase phone.
While his outfit was eye-catching, ex-members say Mr. Traill disliked being looked at. Followers whose eyes hung too long on the temperamental leader were called “ghouls.” Staring at Mr. Traill was called “ghouling.”
Followers would wait hours for Mr. Traill to show up for “Big Meetings,” gatherings that sometimes brought thousands of COBU members from different cities and states together under one roof. The meetings were usually held in rented theaters, gymnasiums and roller rinks.
Always late, Mr. Traill would burst into meetings, making grand entrances worthy of a rock star. Sometimes, he would get right to teaching. Other times, he would make the group sit in silence on the floor for hours. Mr. Traill opened many meetings with a favorite quote, 1 Corinthians 4:21: “Shall I come to you with a rod or with gentleness?”
Ex-members say he rarely came with the latter. Instead, they say, Mr. Traill badgered members into sharing their deepest secrets, which he would then use against them. He often promised to reveal his life story to them, but not until at least 3,000 members turned out for a Big Meeting. It never happened.
Mr. Traill’s critiques were brutal and relentless, ex-members say, and he bullied followers into continuing the self- and peer-bashing when he wasn’t around to handle it himself. He said their salvation depended on it.
“He’d really come down hard on them and you felt so incredibly crushed, you couldn’t function,” George “Skip” O’Neill Jr. told the New York Daily News in 1979. Once Mr. Traill’s top assistant, Mr. O’Neill said his old boss was a genius at using the weaknesses of others against them.
Calling Mr. Traill a “master manipulator,” Mr. Greiner says the man he once saw as Christ-like keeps followers in line by capitalizing on their deepest fears and disappointments. For Mr. Greiner, it was an unhappy relationship with his father.
“Stewart finds your weakness and uses it to control you,” he says. “He knew that my thing was to please him. Whatever I did, it wasn’t good enough for my father. He said I was a punk, and that I’d never amount to anything. I tried my hardest to earn his respect, but it never came.
“It was the same with Stewart, but every once in a while, to keep me going, he’d praise me in front of the group. It made me feel good, but if I was really following Jesus, that wouldn’t have mattered to me.”
‘WHAT KIND OF MAN…?’
In the early ’80s, four COBU “brothers” were convicted in Philadelphia for beating Mr. Traill’s youngest child, Donald, with a belt and a board. The boy, 12, at the time, was admitted to Children’s Hospital in serious condition after the attack.
“We didn’t want to hit him with the board,” one defendant testified, “but the belt had no effect. We stopped when the board broke.”
Why would they beat the son of the man they revered? The brothers said Mr. Traill ordered them to after Donald was accused of shoplifting. The judge sentenced each to five years probation. Mr. Traill was not charged.
“Of course he wasn’t,” says Beth Davies, 44, who joined COBU at 16 and left at 30.
“Stewart is always very careful to have someone or something between him and whatever goes wrong. He can say he didn’t actually beat Donald, but think about it: what kind of person would order someone to do that to his own son?”
The kind who is cold to the suffering of others, according to Ron Burks, a clinical coordinator and counselor for Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio. The nonprofit residential treatment for cult victims is the only facility of its kind in the United States.
“Stewart Traill is one of those rare people leading a group like this who is not terribly sincere,” Mr. Burks says. “Most cult leaders are sincere. They’re twisted, dangerous people, but they’re very sincere. This person is not sincere. His thing started as a con, and I think he’s come to believe some of his own con, but he’s not sincere at all.”
A respected authority on the psychological dynamics of cult leaders, Mr. Burks says his research points up “scary similarities” between Mr. Traill and habitual criminals.
“He fits the profile in that he seems to feel little remorse for the suffering of his followers,” Mr. Burks says. “It doesn’t seem to register with him that people are hurting. When people express their pain, it doesn’t seem to get through, and that makes him one of the most frightening people I’ve ever heard about.
“For someone like that, the ends justify the means. People like that hook into the best of what it is to be human, and then betray it for their own benefit. That’s what’s so scary.”
IN HIS OWN WORDS
Transcripts and tapes of past COBU meetings show that Mr. Traill apologized for leading his followers astray at least once. At a 1989 Big Meeting that came to be known as the “Grace Meeting,” Mr. Traill — who had recently admitted to “straying” with a young female member of his flock — was suddenly preaching a new gospel of forgiveness.
After years spent relentlessly punishing his followers for even the most trivial transgressions, he was asking them to cut him some spiritual slack. For many members who would leave over the shocking request, it was too much to ask.
“You see, in other words, here’s another explanation,” he said. “In some sense or other, I have a framework somehow, that I can keep going — does that make any sense?–that you don’t have. I wasn’t seeing grace, nevertheless I could include enough of it in some sort of pseudo-framework to, ah, keep going, enough to, ah, seem right. Got it?
“You know the whole while, I never tried to take Jesus’ place. No way and I was always speaking against it. And yet that’s what the devil arranged. God purposely made me blind to it …
“And who is the emptiest of all? Me. I was devoid, I was unconscious of grace. I really wonder if some of you were more aware of grace than I. I really think so, because it’s zero with me.”
Prophet or con man? Whichever he is, Mr. Traill’s supporters and detractors all agree it’s a role he was born to play.