'It is our right to use the willow cane': Inside the Twelve Tribes Christian fundamentalist sect at centre of childcare controversy

The Twelve Tribes movement has been rocked by a child abuse scandal in Germany. But is the sect simply misunderstood? Jamie Merrill visits its British redoubt to find out

Tucked away down a quiet lane eight miles north of Honiton, the tea room and farm at Stentwood seem like just another tranquil spot on the east Devon tourist trail. The stone-built café is empty though, and the farm isn’t a holiday cottage. It is the home to 40 men, women and children of the Twelve Tribes sect.

Founded in the US more than 40 years ago, the Christian fundamentalist group has only around 3,000 members worldwide. The community at Stentwood Farm was established 15 years ago and joins Twelve Tribes groups in the US, Germany, France, Spain the Czech Republic, Australia, Argentina and Canada.

The setting is tranquil and surrounded by berry bushes and farmland, but the group in Devon, like their brothers and sisters around the world, believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible which controversially approves of chastising children with a willow cane to “drive out the devil”.

In Germany last week, a larger Twelve Tribes community made headlines when, in a dawn raid, police took away 40 children from their parents and placed them in foster homes, amid allegations that they had undergone years of abuse.

Jonathan Stagg, a senior member of the community’s council, gave The Independent a cautious welcome to the farm. “The whole community here at Stentwood Farm is in a state of shock at what has happened to our brothers and sisters in Germany; we’re just shocked that the German authorities have behaved like that,” he said.

The allegations in Germany came to light after the 100-strong group in Bavaria was infiltrated by Wolfram Kuhnigk, a journalist equipped with hidden video cameras and microphones. Kuhnigk filmed six adults in a cellar beating six children with a total of 83 strokes of the cane. He filmed 50 beatings in total.

Kuhnigk claimed to be a lost soul to gain entry. “Seeing this systematic beatings made me want to weep – it made me think of my own two children,” he said later.

Over coffee and a cookie from the community’s Common Loaf bakery business, Mr Stagg defended the German group. “The community there is very shocked at what the authorities did,” he said. “We feel it’s outrageous for them to take 40 children from their parents. We are a peaceful people and are baffled by the injustice of it and the inability of our family in Germany to respond within any legal framework.

“We have known that there is a legal issue in Germany over chastisement, but we believed we need to do what is right in God’s law rather than what the law of any land or state said. That’s really the bottom line of it. We always knew this day could come.”

The 40 members of Twelve Tribes at Stentwood include seven families with about 20 children, who all live together in one converted farm building with communal kitchens. According to Mr Stagg, they make their living operating the bakery, which sells bread at local farmers’ markets, as well as running the tea room and growing their own food.

No children were evident when The Independent visited, leaving Mr Stagg, who declined to be photographed and has since refused to co-operate further, to speak on behalf of the group.

“As a Christian community we take the Bible seriously and believe it’s the word of God,” he told The Independent.

He said: “As you’ll see from our website it’s a fundamental right [to use the willow cane], it’s what we all believe. We who live here believe the same thing.”

Mr Stagg said he did not know how many members used the cane, but said punishment “wouldn’t happen every day” and added: “I think you need to look at the website, because we explain this in detail there and it’s wonderful the way we’ve written it.”

The group’s website states: “We love our children and consider them precious and wonderful. Because we love them we do spank them… When they are disobedient or intentionally hurtful to others we spank them with a small reed-like rod.” Mr Stagg insisted that the community is “still in the realm of English law”.

At the nearby village stores in Dunkeswell, locals seemed unaware of the sect’s beliefs. “They keep themselves to themselves really,” said Vanetta Keitch, a shopkeeper. “It surprises me there are many as 40 of them there though, and I can’t say that I’ve ever seen any children; I didn’t even know there were children there. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve seen any women either. They have open evenings we keep getting invited to, but I’m far too scared to go.”

She added: “They’ve been in here trying to sell their bread and use the post office, but we’d all assumed they were pot-smoking, tree-hugging hippies.”

Ross Maidment, a local taxi driver, said: “I can’t recall ever taking a fare there. I really can’t say I’ve ever heard of the place.” At Honiton train station café, another local who gave her name only as Julie said: “I’ve heard about the bakery and apparently the bread is very good, but we’ve never heard of the Twelve Tribes. We didn’t realise there was a sect up the road.”

Mr Stagg, who discovered the sect while on a cycling holiday to a pilgrimage site in Spain, explains that the group’s children are educated on the site and learn practical skills. He adds that the Twelve Tribes “don’t believe in higher education” and don’t send their children to university or to work away from the group.

A spokesman for Devon County Council told The Independent it was aware of the group and that the children at Stentwood Farm were receiving their education at home.

Locals may not be aware of the group’s views on multiculturalism and homosexuality either. The movement has said that “multiculturalism increases murder, crime and prejudice” and Gene Spriggs, the group’s American founder, has claimed that Martin Luther King was “filled with every evil spirit there is”. The site’s website states: “Homosexual behaviour is immoral and can be mortally dangerous.”

Back at Stentwood, few other member of the sect present themselves and Stagg is uncomfortable discussing the group’s more controversial beliefs, instead focusing his anger on the German authorities.

“If you want to look at German history in the last century you can see a lot of abuse of human rights and parental rights in the case of how they treated the Jews,” he said. “If somebody wanted to make a comparison between how we’ve been treated and the things that happened then, it would be very interesting for the German people to look at themselves and consider how they are treating us.”

“Of course we are aware of the details of the allegations in Germany, but I know who we are and have lived in the community for 24 years, and I feel what we do is just normal parenting. We feel we are no different from families all over the country. There are many children here and they are all very loved and very secure.”

This week the children in Germany, who are still separated from their parents, are due to attend state school for the first time. “I just hope that our brother and sisters in Germany get their children back,” said Mr Stagg. “They are loved by their families and we hope someone in authority comes to realise this.”

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