Gloriavale Christian Community

Gloriavale Christian Community at a Glance

Screenshot, Gloriavale's official website

Screenshot, Gloriavale’s official website

In the last eight years 65 people have left this tightly-controlled, insular ‘Christian’ community in New Zealand.

That number includes 22 people who have left in March and April, 2015 alone. 1

In our opinion this organization is a cult, both theologically and sociologically.

  • What: Gloriavale Christian Community is a small religious group in New Zealand. It considers itself to be a Christian church (and the only legitimate Christian Church in its locality 2).

    The members of this reclusive, communal sect claim to live a strict conservative Christian life following a very literal interpretation of the bible.

    The group’s website says,

    We seek to live a practical Christian life that mirrors life in Heaven, where there is perfect obedience to God, complete unity of thought, no self-will, no argument or strife, and no sin.

    On one hand it can be viewed as a so-called ‘intentional community.’ 3 On the other hand its beliefs and practices have led to cult-like aspects and controversies.

  • Alternative Names: Outsiders often refer to the group as ‘Cooperites,’ a name the group’s members reject.

    Members refer to themselves only as ‘Christians,’ saying

    While many other groups have accepted nick-names or derogatory names made up by those outside the Church, we refuse to do so, and refer to ourselves only as Christians. Our Churches and Communities are named for the local district or property on which they are found, just as the New Testament does, with examples such as the Church which was at Jerusalem, or the Church of Ephesus. 4

    Note: “We name our children to inspire them, such as Charity Love, Willing Disciple or Trust Stedfast,” the group explains. 5 Many (all?) adults take on similar names, e.g. Steadfast Joy, Elijah Peace, or Faith Ben Israel.

  • Founder: Neville Cooper (who goews by the name ‘Hopeful Christian’), an Australian-born evangelist who was invited to preach in New Zealand. He wanted to establish a congregation that shared his a vision for a church that lived according to the model of the first church of Jerusalem. Cooper founded the commune after his brand of fundamentalist preaching saw him at odds with mainstream Christians.

    The New Zealand Herald says 6

    In 1995 Neville Cooper was jailed for almost a year on sexual abuse charges. He was convicted on the testimony of his son 7 and some young women who had fled the compound.

    Those who stayed in Gloriavale steadfastly supported their leader through his imprisonment.

    Elijah Overcomer, who says he was evicted from the community after questioning Cooper 8 over his conviction and jail term, told NZME News Service 9 that most Gloriavale members weren’t aware of their leader’s indecent assault conviction and previously believed he was jailed for preaching the gospel.

    Most people in there believe that it’s because he was preaching the gospel. So everyone says, ‘oh, evil people put him in jail because he preached the gospel.’

    Most people would not have any idea, and if you told them why he went to jail [they’d say], ‘you’re a liar, you’re just accusing our leader’.

  • Leadership: Neville Cooper is the head of the Church. A booklet that explains life in the Community says, 10

    He and three other Shepherds are responsible for the main spiritual and material decisions. Other leaders, called Servants, take responsibility in managing the community’s six companies, the school, early childhood centres, and aspects of our daily spiritual and practical life. […]

    True to the Bible teaching of equality in the Church, the leaders do not have any special privileges above the other brethren, but serve them through their hard work, example, guidance and counsel. Theirs is a fatherly role, executed in love.

    Since the booklet’s publication, more ‘shepherds’ were added, for a current (April, 2015) total of 11.

    In accordance with the Gloriavale’s understanding of the Bible, only men can serve as leaders.

  • Religious commune, Gloriavale

    Neville Cooper’s religious utopia: Gloriavale Christian Community’s property in New Zealand

  • Locations: The group was founded in 1969 as the Springbank Christian Community, located in North Canterbury near Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand.

    When it became clear the commune of 200+ members would outgrow its property, in 1990 917 ha (9.17 km²) of land was purchased in Haupiri — a locality in the West Coast region of the same island. While workers from the community prepared the pastures, built a dairy and housing facilities, the group gradually moved to the new location between 1991 and 1995. By this time the Gloriavale Christian Community owned 1700 ha (17 km²) of land on both sides of the Haupari river. The property was named Gloriavale in honor of Neville Cooper’s wife, Gloria.

    The group has also bought land in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and is “working there now with a congregation of dedicated Indian Christians to build a community according to the same Biblical principles that we have in New Zealand.”

    The A Life In Common booklet says

    Our population grows continually and we look to God’s leading to start other Christian Church Communities.

  • Membership: An estimated 500+ members. The group’s website 11 says “80+ families” live in the community, with members “from all over the world.”

    These families live in four large ‘hostels’ on the property.

    “About 35 babies are born a year, keeping the population young and keen to maintain a way of providing their needs throughout life.” The website also says the community is “not looking for large numbers of people, but fully dedicated believers who are willing to forsake everything to serve the Lord Jesus Christ.”

  • Finances:The commune is totally self-contained and self-sufficient.

    Gloriavale’s members work in eight business ventures which the community operates as the ‘Christian Church Community Trust’ — a tax-free charity.

    The New Zealand Herald says 12

    The trust’s annual returns for August 2013 through July 2014 show it is worth more than $36.6 million and made a net profit of more than $1.86 million in that year.

    Former members Elijah Overcomer and Mordecai Courage told Campbell Live the trust owns everything in the community, and when members leave they take nothing with them.

    Workers do not get paid. Instead, income from the businesses “goes into a common purse which meets our living expenses and development costs.” 13

    The group’s foremost business is dairying.

    Gloriavale’s meat rendering plant is the world’s largest producer of a powder known as cervine meal, which is exported to the USA and Asia as a specialized ingredient for pet food. The same plant produces tallow, which is exported for use in pharmaceuticals. Among other projects the community also operates a deer enterprise and an aircraft repair firm.

  • Beliefs and practices: Gloriavale Christian Community claims to be a Christian church, modeled after the first church in Jerusalem (see Acts 2:41-47).

    But the group practices and promotes King James-onlyism — an aberrant teaching that considers the King James Version to be the only legitimate English-language Bible version.

    On its website, the group makes available for downloading a booklet titled, “What We Believe” (A Concise Summary). 14

    In the FAQ section of its website the group explains

    The book “What we Believe” was written only as a summary of our beliefs as taken from the Word of God. It is not our final authority; that honour belongs to the Bible. “What we Believe” is updated from time to time as God leads us to more truth.

    That said, the booklet reportedly is more important that the community’s leaders would have us believe.

    Fleur Beal writes

    The book, researched and written by Fervent Steadfast who is second in command of Gloriavale, sets out the way its members should live, what they should believe, and how they should behave. It has the same importance as the Bible, and is Neville Cooper’s interpretation of the Bible. 15

    As often is the case with these type of groups, What We Believe is a mixed bag — a mix of sound Christian doctrine with bad theology and overly restrictive policies.

    This rather detailed ‘Statement of Faith’ (of sorts) includes a note that says

    This is only a summary of what we believe. It is not an official version and has no legal standing. However, it is a true and faithful summary of the essential beliefs and practices of the Christians at Gloriavale.

    However, a booklet mentioned earlier — Gloriavale: A Life in Common — declares

    Committed members of the Community expect themselves and each other to keep the principles of ‘What We Believe’, so that we may all live and work together in peace and unity.

    One of the steps involved in becoming a Christian, according to What We Believe, is baptism:

    Be immersed in water as a believer (to bury the old man of sin and to rise in the resurrected power of Christ to walk free from sin.)

    A Life in Common adds this:

    Baptism is essential to salvation from sin, and through it the Lord adds the believer to His Church.

    The teaching that people must be baptized in order to be saved is aberrant at best, and heretical at worst.

    On its website, the group says

    The Church at Gloriavale is one local Church in the whole body of believers, wherever they may be. 16

    However, in What We Believe

    Christ does not build many different churches in the same local area, each with different beliefs and practices, and competing with one another for members. The true church in a local area will not be difficult to the true Christian to recognize

    James Ben Canaan, who left Gloriavale together with his family in March 2015, told local station Radio Live that

    James Ben Canaan and family, after leaving Gloriavale

    James Ben Canaan and family, after leaving Gloriavale

    [t]he reason he left was because the community leaders always taught the members that the only way to live as a Christian was within the compound. Ben Canaan had heard other preachers outside Gloriavale on the internet and knew that was not true.

    The leaders also told members that no-one else taught Christianity the way they did.

    “You are not allowed to question and if you do you are put down pretty quickly.” 17

    Among the practices described in A Life in Common:

    • We don’t celebrate Christmas, which is based on the ancient Roman celebration on 25 December for the rebirth of the sun god & the unscriptural ceremony of the Mass;
    • We name week days and months numerically (5th Month etc) as their normal names glorify pagan gods;
    • We do not wear wedding rings; […]
    • We do not keep special days, such as birthdays and anniversaries;
    • We name our children to inspire them, such as Charity Love, Willing Disciple or Trust Stedfast;
    • We wear modest clothing, and do not adorn ourselves with jewels, fancy hairstyles or makeup.

    In fact, visitors are warned that “Women should wear respectable clothing, such as dresses or skirts, not jeans or slacks.”

    Regarding dating, courting and marriage the booklet says

    A man seeking a wife will pray and seek God’s will with his parents and leaders before approaching his bride. The couple refrains from any physical contact at all during their courtship, which may last only a few weeks. […]

    Couples hold hands for the first time as they make their vows, and then embrace and kiss for the first time with great love and feeling, the prelude to marriage.

  • Controversies: The insular nature of the Gloriavale Christian Community is based on its extremist interpretation of the Bible.

    The NZ Cult List says

    [T]here are strong signs the community may be a cult, including a single unquestionable leader (Neville Cooper/Hopeful Christian), exclusivism (salvation is only possible within the group {although they officially say they tolerate other churches}, the outside world is evil), fear, guilt and intimidation (leaders are not to be questioned, members are made to feel guilty for having doubts), information control (restricted access to newspapers and Internet, no knowledge of common technology such as cellphones or ATMs, members do not know why the founder was imprisoned), relationship control and shunning (restricted contact with the opposite sex and the outside world, completely barred contact with former members, even spouses and parents of young children). Interviews with former members from April 2015 highlight some of this. As mentioned in this NZ Herald article, Campbell Live (reporter John Sellwood) also asked former members “a series of questions related to the definition of a cult, to which they responded “yes” to each one in relation to Gloriavale.” The interview is here on the 3 News site. Particularly sad is the how the mind control has affected relationships.

    In the opinion of the publishers of Apologetics Index, Gloriavale Christian Community is a cult — both theologically and sociologically.

    Theologically this group is a cult of Christianity, as its theology — as well as its practices based on that theology — places it well outside the boundaries of the Christian faith. In other words, the organization does not represent the Christian faith, and its members cannot be assumed to be Christians.

    Sociologically, the group employs many cult-like tactics, including information control, shunning of ex-members — to the point of cutting of contact with family members, and controlling who may visit or leave the property.

    In an ‘intentional community’ people can join or — in particular — leave as they wish; the latter without such consequences as having friends and family members cut off all contact.

    As the Timaru Herald reports

    The commune has been under intense scrutiny recently after former members of the community came forward with accusations of brainwashing, physical punishment and sexual abuse, including against girls as young as 12.

    Also

    Members who have left Gloriavale … claim the community is “controlling” and suffocating”, with ‘elders’ often resorting to psychological or physical abuse to keep people in line. Members are forced to abide by a dress code and taught that makeup and jewellery is “wrong” and “not Biblical”, they say.

    Ex-members also say those under the age of 16 cannot decide to leave for themselves and allege the practice of the sexual abuse of girls by older men.
    – Source: At a Glance, 3 News, New Zealand, April 24, 2015

    However, former member James Ben Canaan — who along with his family left the commune last March — says the media reports on the alleged abuse have not been totally accurate. He also does not belief Gloriavale’s members are brainwashed, but then provides some insight into the cult-like tactics employed by the group’s leaders:

    Speaking to Radio Live, the father of 12 said sexual abuse and beatings were not condoned and against the community’s core beliefs.

    He conceded there was physical punishment such as being smacked on the backside, “but not physical punishment that has been described on television, that is way over the top”. […]

    He said the only abuse he was aware of was the mental pressure from leaders if members did not conform or wanted to leave. He disagreed that community members were brainwashed.

    If someone wanted to leave and spoke to the leaders about it they would be asked to attend a meeting with about 12 to 15 leaders who would try to talk them out of it “forcefully”.

    It was that potential pressure that led the family to leave at night, secretly, taking only a few clothes and some blankets. Some other families had been separated when one had been talked into staying and the other had left, he said.

    All members must sign a form to give all their money to the Goriavale trust or they are not allowed to get married. Everyone has a bank account but no one knows how much is in it. When Ben Canaan and his family left they discovered the truth. Each had $5. 18

    An example of the extend to which members indeed appear to have been brainwashed is seen in this video. It features an ex-member who visits the community in an attempt to see her sister — whom she has reason to believe wants to leave Gloriavale.

    She does not get to see her sister, mother or brothers. Instead he father meets her, at the gate, and denounces her.

    At the end of April 2015, reporter Jehan Casinader was allowed inside the Gloriavale for the first interview with Neville Cooper in nearly a decade.

    Hopeful Christian says blessings are plentiful in Gloriavale, but if people do not want to receive them, they are free to leave. The reality is, those people have no financial means to leave. They do not have their own money or transport. They are isolated. Some of these people have had no experience of the outside world.

    So, what of the families who have left the sect? Christian places the blame squarely on them. He describes them as “weak”.

    Christian says some of those people wanted to enjoy the “benefits” that Gloriavale offers, without being willing to contribute. He accepts that many people have departed Gloriavale, and reveals that some have done so in the middle of the night, with the assistance of outside parties.

    And yet, the community’s leaders refuse to answer specific allegations made by ex-members. 19

    In our view, its practice of a) destroying relationships on the basis of (false) religious beliefs and b) of making it extremely difficult for people to leave makes Gloriavale Christian Community not just a cult, but a destructive cult.

This is a work in progress. More information will be added.

This is “an experimental 8 minute documentary examining life inside a secluded religious community on the West Coast in New Zealand.” Directed by Cody Packer.

Research Resources on Gloriavale Community

Books

  • Sins of the Father: The Long Shadow of a Religious Cult [Kindle Edition] [Contra] Written by Fleur Beale, this book tells the story of Phil Cooper — Neville Cooper/HopefulChristian’s son. Neville Cooper was convicted on charges of sexual abuse in part based on his son’s testimony.

News Archive

Profiles

See Also

Videos

Websites

  • Gloriavale Christian Community [Official website] The community’s history, beliefs, practices, et cetera as presented by the group itself. The site has been expanding from about the end of April 2015, as the community is under intense media scrutiny.

Notes:

  1. John Weekes, Gloriavale leaders close in, New Zealand Herald, April 22, 2015
  2. Gloriavale believes there is only one true Christian church in each geographical location.
  3. Wikipedia: Intentional Community.
  4. FAQ, Gloriavale Christian Community, official website: www.gloriavale.org.nz
  5. Downloads, A Life in Common: The Experience of the Gloriavale Christian Community, Gloriavale Christian Community, official website: www.gloriavale.org.nz
  6. Rebecca Quilliam, Father tells of rescuing kids from West Coast cult, New Zealand Herald, April 23, 2009
  7. At his father’s trial, Phil Cooper testified about the man’s obsessive control over the sex lives of his followers — with Neville going as far as ‘becoming involved in their intimate situations.’ See “In God’s Name,” 60 Minutes, TVNZ, June 10, 2007. Available on YouTube, and embedded here.
  8. Scott Yeoman, Gloriavale: Two couples tell of leaving religious community, Monday April 20, 2015:

    He [Elijah Overcomer] told TV One’s Sunday programme that he asked Cooper about his sexual abuse charges, and if it was right that he was a leader in the community.

    ‘”Do you think it’s right that you’re a leader here?’ Because as far as I knew, the scripture said that [the leader] had to be blameless outside the church as well. Obviously no convictions like that anyway, and he said I had no right to ask him those kinds of questions.

    “He puts his hands on my head and says, ‘Elijah, in the name of Jesus Christ, you’ve got evil spirits in you’.”

  9. Patrice Dougan, Sophie Ryan, Gloriavale: ‘Intense’ focus on Hopeful Christian, The New Zealand Herald, April 21, 2015
  10. Downloads, A Life in Common
  11. Gloriavale Christian Community, official website
  12. Sophie Ryan, The finances of Gloriavale: $36.6m in assests, New Zealand Herald, April 23, 2015
  13. Booklet, A Life in Common
  14. The cover of the booklet also states, “Gloriavale Christian Community School.” It can be downloaded from Gloriavale Christian Community, the group’s official website: www.gloriavale.org.nz
  15. Fleur Beale, Sins of the Father: The Long Shadow of a Religious Cult: “For the 400 inhabitants of Gloriavale, his word is law – despite his 1995 conviction for sexual abuse. His son Phil Cooper, as headstrong as his father, had to escape. But Phil’s wife Sandy was bound to the will of Neville and his brand of eternal salvation. And so began the monumental tug-of-war between father and son: a son who wanted to give his children a chance in the world. This is a true story of power and control, of abductions and night raids, of hearts broken and those trying to mend. It’s also the story of the long shadow cast by the unyielding vision of one man, and the hope and resolve of one family to restore its shattered past.”
  16. Beliefs, Gloriavale Christian Community, official website: www.gloriavale.org.nz
  17. Former Gloriavale member breaks media silence, The Timaru Herald, May 1, 2015
  18. Former Gloriavale member breaks media silence
  19. Jehan Casinader, Gloriavale: The Hopeful Christian interview, Stuff.co.nz, May 3, 2015
This post was last updated: Aug. 30, 2017    
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