John Smyth and Spiritual Abuse
By Mark Stibbe
Last Saturday morning, my abuser, John Smyth QC, died of heart failure at his home in Cape Town. The police had informed me that the CPS considered there was more than enough evidence to question him and, if necessary, to have him brought back to the UK to face justice. Now the perpetrator of these horrific historic abuses is dead and hopes for justice have died with him.
With future roads now closed, my attention has been focused more on the past. All weekend, after hearing the news, I was reflecting again on one simple question: how did John Smyth manage to groom me so successfully? How did he manage to seduce his UK and African victims into a cult-like religious group, bound by secrecy, marked by brutality?
This question has not been properly addressed anywhere in the media. Perhaps it is time to start a discussion now.
As I have sought answers, I have remembered again the way in which Smyth groomed me for the savagery that eventually followed. Smyth’s tactic was extremelydevious. He would target boys (always handsome boys) and start treating us like sons. He would affirm us with warm comments about our potential, while at the same time talking to us in a fatherly way about issues such as masturbation – a subject with which he was obsessed.
Why did he take on this role?
The answer lies, in part, with his distorted theology. Quoting the Lord’s Prayer, Smyth would remind us that God is called “Our Father in heaven.”
“If God is your Father in heaven,” he would say, “that means he cannot be your Father on earth.”
He would smile as he concluded his argument. “This means he wants me to be your father.”
Smyth’s warped image of God led to him believing with unwavering certainty that he was called to be our spiritual father and we were invited to be his privileged sons.
This laid the foundation for everything.
Why did so many of us, all of us at boarding school, accept this invitation so readily? The answer lies, in part, in our context. All Smyth’s victims were boys and young men who had become separated from their own fathers through being sent awayto boarding school. We were all of us what I call “boarding school orphans.” Our attachment to our fathers and mothers, to our families and home, had been ruptured.
By the time I met Smyth when I was 16, I had been away from home for eight years. As I have written in my book, Home at Last, there was a father-shaped void in my heart, as there is in many boarder’s hearts. This made me very vulnerable to the attentions of someone acting as a substitute father – including a spiritual father.
And this was not any substitute father, either. Smyth was the darling of the Iwerne Minster holiday camps, the famous lawyer representing Mary Whitehouse on the news.
When Smyth started to act in a fatherly role, I was flattered. When he invited us to his home (swimming pool and all), I was overjoyed. How could a boy who was longing for his dad, aching for home, resist such an invitation?
Smyth’s strategy, then, was extremely subtle. He began by assuming a divine position, claiming that God was unable to father us on earth, so he would do it. He then plied us with Scriptures to support not only his beliefs but his behaviour. He would be our spiritual father, and that fathering would take a distinct and ultimately savage form.
Smyth used two Scriptures in particular. Firstly, 1 Samuel 7:14: “I will be his father, and he shall be my son. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men” (RSV).
Smythwould use this passage to claim that good fathers beat their sons. At the time, I never noticed the words “rod” and “stripes.” Nor did I think for a moment that he was intent on interpreting this passage literally.
Hebrews 12 was up nextwith its emphasis on sons receiving painful discipline from their fathers. Smyth focused on verse 4: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”
“You have to shed blood if you’re really serious about dealing with sin,” he said to me on the evening of a beating.All I had to do was submit to his authority, like a good son.
Since I reconnected with these traumatic memories in the autumn of 2016, I have concluded that there is only one term that satisfactorily describes what happened to me and the other victims – spiritual abuse. Yes, there were psychological factors, both in Smyth and in us. Yes, there were physical factors, in the terrible scars of the beatings. But these are in a sense secondary. Smyth was guilty of what was overall spiritual abuse.
This all became clear to me, and to other victims, when I came across a ground-breaking academic book entitled Breaking the Silence on Spiritual Abuse, by Lisa Oakley and Kathryn Kimmond (2013).
What I read was a perfect summary of what I and others experienced at John Smyth’s hands. Smyth’s strategy conforms precisely to the tactics characteristic of spiritual abuse, as defined by Oakley and Kimmond.
Smyth assumed a divine position. He used the Bible to justify his beliefs and his practices – including enforced accountability, censorship of decision-making, the requirement of secrecy and silence, pressure to conform, obedience to him as “spiritual father”, and so on.
He did all thisusing his privileged position within a spiritual context, the Iwerne Minister holiday camps.
Earlier this year, the Evangelical Alliance published a position paper on spiritual abuse, arguing against the use of the term, and calling into question the hard and important work undertaken by Dr Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys at Thirtyone:eight (formerly CCPAS).
It would be true to say that I, and other Smyth victims, were not happy. It wasn’t just the fact that they were denying the existence of something that we had all experienced. It wasn’t just the fact that their arguments against Lisa Oakley’s invaluable work seemed to me to be shallow and unconvincing. It was the fact that they quoted the Smyth abuses in such a superficial way, describing what we experienced as simply physical abuse.
This had the effect of upsetting victims who were already dealing with a lot of trauma and pain. Did the Evangelical Alliance invite any of us to discuss with them what kind of abuse we suffered? No. Did they do due diligence and ask us whether we thought spiritual abuse best describes our experience? No.
Some of us had stood up and told our stories on TV and in the newspapers. Some of us still are. Yet the EA did not seek any of us out to ask whether it was either just or compassionate to use our trauma to bolster an argument that I, and others, would have refuted.
As one victim said: “It could be said that they have proved the very thing they have sought to deny.”
Yesterday, a Channel 4 interviewer expressed surprise that I had “retained my faith,” given the behaviour of my abuser and those who have protected him over the 35 years, and following Cathy Newman’s brilliant news reports in February 2017.
I replied: “After 1982, I think I subconsciously made the decision that I would believe the exact opposite of what Smyth believed.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“That God is the most loving, accepting, kind and gentle Father, that we can know his embrace in our hearts, and that we don’t have to have some human intermediary to do that for us.”
In the end, I believe the spiritual abuse that many of us suffered in the UK and in Africa was due to a failure by Smyth to grasp this. Having spoken to members of his family, I know that his own father was distant, as well as brutal, which is why I have found the grace to forgive him.
The problem is that Smyth failed to deal with his wounds and projected onto God the image of his own father, cultivating in the process a theology of God’s sternness over his kindness. This distortion created a perfect storm for what followed.
Smyth has gone now, and I pray that he finds peace in the Father who is neither cruel nor distant.
I pray that my fellow victims will find healing in that same kind Father, who was so poorly represented by Smyth.
And I pray for those organisations that have covered up the abuses, or who have exploited them, that they will find the grace to demonstrate the Father’s love and justice.
Mark Stibbe is an Author