ISLAND POND, Vt. - The Church of Island Pond was founded by a former circus barker, Elbert Eugene Spriggs, who had had three marriages and years of drinking before he became a born-again Christian in 1971.
The church evolved from his counseling efforts with troubled teenagers in his native Chattanooga, Tenn.
The church recruits converts. It sends out "walkers" with backpacks to wander New England on foot and by thumb, seeking apprentices. Recruits come, find they are expected to renounce all their possessions with the church and, most often, they leave.
One father who left was Roland Church, who took his family away, he said, after watching his 13-year-old daughter whipped with a slim wooden rod in her underwear at intervals over seven hours. She and her father told state officials she had 89 welts and that she was beaten for "being deceitful" about a bit of sexual exploration with an 8-year-old boy.
Whippings, says Jeff Schneider, 19, a resident of the church for almost four months in 1982, are known as "getting the rod" and that discipline began with group breakfast at 5:30 each morning. "If kids start whining and crying," he said, "They're told to be quiet. If they cry again, they're given a beating. From a very young age, they're taught total obedience."
There are no toys, he said. The children are taught that fantasizing and pretending are wasteful and wrong. The church's word is "dissipating."
Randy Norman, an investigator for the Vermont Attorney General's office, took a statement from Linda M. Kelley, 29, who lived with her daughter in the commune. She told of a 4-year-old Jeremy Smith.
In the church nursery school, she said, Jeremy "pretended that a block that he was playing with was a truck, and he was disciplined on the spot for it" by being struck 10 or 20 times with a rod with his pants pulled down. When he persisted, she said, he was "scourged" -- given two long beatings in two days. At the end, she described him as "weary, weak, spirit broken, pathetic, repentant, just kind of dry sobs, just broken, pale."
Bill Smith, 28, lean, long-haired and bearded like most men of the church, teaches its children and is the father of two boys and a girl. He said he graduated from Boca Ciega High School and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"I'd say we discipline more than the American society considers normal because we don't see it having a bad effect," he said.