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Church of Bible Understanding

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The Church of Bible Understanding is a religious organization founded by Stewart Traill, in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1971. Until 1976 the group was named "The Forever Family."Administration is based in Scranton, Pennsylvania.[1]


Organization and growth

The Church of Bible Understanding was organized by Stewart Traill and ten or so brothers who started the Forever Family fellowship houses. Stewart Traill visited the Forever Family fellowships and some of these brothers who originally financed and opened these little communal dwellings later became vacuum cleaner salesmen–repairmen like Traill did in selling refurbished vacuum cleaners at area flea markets in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1971 so that they could have more time to devote to their new church.

Prior to 1971, Mr. Traill lived in an abandoned school bus that he had converted into a trailer dwelling for his family. He was traveling around the Northeast in a beat-up old van, speaking about the Bible to small gatherings of Forever Family members who would chip in for his gas money to come see them every month or two.[2]

Traill was originally an atheist who converted to Christianity after investigating different faiths and finding logical flaws within their teaching. Being a non-conformist in most all that he did, he was unsurprisingly not satisfied with the teachings of other Christian churches because of his contentious nature and often citing the various contradictions that existed within each group, prompting his takeover of the Forever Family as it grew, later renamed the Church of Bible Understanding in 1976, telling the members of the Forever Family they would get tax write-offs and be able to become self-sufficient as to leave more time for witnessing.[3]

Stewart Traill went on the offensive like a marksman when speaking with adults in other faiths of Christianity, belittling them in front of his viewers, so naturally they did not reach any agreements, which led to a charismatic charm that overwhelmed the youth he was preaching to. So Mr. Traill took his antics to the streets, which were filled with young people and teenagers who would listen, often amazed at his outrageous antics.

During the 1970s teenagers and young adults were at an age where friendship and belonging played a critical role in their lives. This could also be said of many other religious groups before and during this time. The group also appeared to reach out to the disillusionment of young people during that decade, and the concept of a loving family doing God's work appealed to many. Traill saw a way to capitalize on this and went for it very methodically over a period of a few years.

Many of these young adults were not delusional but were intelligent, high school graduates and college graduates from good homes, but looking for something different or special to belong to. Some were also dropouts; homeless and wanderers.

With so many people from so many walks of life, it was easy to manipulate them and have them in turn reach out and preach to others.[citation needed] The result was that COBU rapidly expanded to other cities. Houses were simply called "fellowships", and all members could live in them regardless of age or gender. All were taught to leave their families behind and not listen to anyone who would speak negatively about the tactics Traill used to brainwash them with.[citation needed]

Of course, males had their room or rooms and females had their room or rooms. Celibacy was enforced and normal energies accompanying the age group he enraptured was to channel those energies into making an elite self-sacrificing workforce that made him like a king of his own underground kingdom.[citation needed]

Weekly meetings in each geographical area were held in the various local fellowship houses, (as Paul and the Apostles originally did), substantially cutting overhead costs of renting or buying traditional church buildings (but "Big Meetings" were held in locations for large sums of money), which Traill likened to the Amish way of rotating places of worship. They would seek out empty warehouses and rent them for a week or month as would be required and then have porta-potties brought in and send out word to all the fellowships so that everyone would converge for a weekend retreat of intense bible lectures.Most people slept on the floor or had sleeping bags, some had small tents while still some brought pillows or folding chairs.Occasionally they were situated near rivers or lakes and would hold outdoor immersion baptisms during summer months.

After several hours of writing down what Traill was teaching, they would take a break and go out to find food at local restaurants and supermarkets, often hyped up from the meeting and so would start witnessing to whomever they met along the way and tried to bring back new people to hear what Traill had to say. There were many young people eager to serve Jesus and although unconventional the fellowship, as it was referred to, offered a type of camaraderie that made it very appealing for many to join in with, which also served Traill's purposes in establishing a workforce that put other people out of business, since the members donated back their salaries to the 'church' part of Cobu and were all very hard workers.[citation needed] Most enjoyed and looked forward to the Big Meetings even though back in the fellowships they lived in squalor and self deprivation.

Then the meetings would last late into the night with pens racing across memo pads, file cards and notebooks—no time to consider or recount, just to write and take the notes home for later review. When the meeting ended, all would quickly depart back to the places they came from while some would use the meetings to relocate to other states, hiding out runaways from families and law enforcement and providing new home towns for those willing to move to help start new fellowships.[citation needed]

Within three years, there were centers in PennsylvaniaAllentown, Philadelphia, Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh)—as well as areas of Massachusetts, Cleveland, Columbus, Delaware, Wilmington, Detroit, Virginia's, Maryland's, Washington, D.C.'s and Baltimore's Metropolitan and Suburban areas; Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester and New York City, Hell's Kitchen, Bowery, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Metropolitan areas, New York State; New Jersey, New Brunswick, Bayonne, Jersey City, Camden, Atlantic City

Beliefs and practices

Over the years COBU's doctrines have gone through a number of transformations molding it into what it is today. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, its doctrines were more or less evangelical, basic Christian interpretations of the Christian life alongside a unique reading of the Bible.

Along with this basic "born again" theology was a secret interpretation of the Bible which was believed to be exclusive to COBU through Stewart Traill. The Bible was thus read on two levels: one level that was available to all born-again Christians (often referred to as "CCs" (Church Christians") or even, "Contentious Christians," was necessary for salvation. This level was the same as found in all evangelical churches, and was a somewhat literal understanding of the Bible.The other, deeper reading of the Bible was an interpretation that was entirely symbolic and saw the Bible as written almost entirely in code which was called "the figure system" revealed only to Stewart Traill. Both of these understandings of the Bible where considered valid; but once one was exposed to and began to understand the figure system, it was believed that one's salvation depended on what was revealed on that deeper level. Hence Traill's deeper understanding was believed to override the more "superficial" understanding, and members of COBU considered that they were called to a higher calling in his deeper understanding of the Bible, which is to say to listen and do what is taught at the higher level and not rely on their own understanding or comprehension of scriptures.

As members embraced the teachings of Traill and developed a blind trust in him, he once said that he could be backslid five years before anyone would catch on. He referred to the membership as 'the kiddies' and would mock at how gullible they had become.[citation needed] They were charismatically attracted to Traill and became devoted followers; even when circumstances became challenged and obviously were going wrong, they would apologize for Stewart and tell anyone that things were going to get better and that Stewart was aware of the problems and was going to fix them.[citation needed] There was a common belief that he had a special relationship with the Holy Spirit and the gift of discernment so that no one wanted to challenge him openly. The few that did were soon discredited and demoted and or left in disgrace while Stewart developed an untouchable veneer.[this transitioned into brain washing] (This was compared to the same as saying to listen to Pat Roberson or Benny Hinn, etc. but it was insidious.)[citation needed]

Stewart managed over time to cause members to rely on what was pleasing to Stewart as representational of 'pleasing Jesus'. In effect, he became the Holy Spirit's voice to the isolated elitist church and was considered more infallible than the Pope. He never discouraged any of these wrong notions but embraced them as it served his purposes of having a loyal work force that was making him rich and more untouchable. Of course, much of this is overhyped. Traill has never said he was infallible, but anyone who might even mention such was quickely dispatched and discredited before they could convincingly expose him.[citation needed]

COBU members live communally and donate all earnings to the organization. This was manipulated and control voted on as well. They were told that they may receive anywhere up to 10% of the money they earned back for personal needs, as an "allowance" but most never received anything.They were told they would have to simply submit a voucher when needing clothes or medical supplies but that too was hyped as members were convinced to crucify their flesh and to do without worldly possessions, so many walked around in rags self-deprived of simple necessities for fear of being reprimanded for 'indulging in their flesh'.

School beyond high school is not encouraged. Many were attending college and still lived in fellowship, some managed to finish school while others dropped out. At the height of popularity in the 1970s, COBU reported that it had 10,000 members; however, since that time, the church has lost a significant number of members. The church has about 200 members (including a congregation of about 80 members on Haiti).[4] Through his business activities with the church and its members, Traill has access to four planes (one of them a turboprop).[4] and two condominium units in Pompano Beach, Florida. The church formerly owned a home in Princeton, New Jersey for Traill and church members.[2]

COBU owns and operates an antique business called "Olde Good Things", recently profiled in the New York Times.[5]. Olde Good Things and its connection to COBU was featured in an article in The New Yorker of July 30, 2007, pp. 29–30. Through Olde Good Things COBU has outposts in California, Chicago and Scranton and likely in a number of other states as well. COBU also runs a mission and orphanage in Haiti.

Stewart Traill

The son of an ordained Presbyterian minister who was also a college professor, Stewart Traill was born in Quebec, Canada, in 1936. His family moved when he was a child and he was raised in Allentown, Pennsylvania.[2]

After a brief stint at Lehigh University, Traill dropped out and supported himself, his wife, Shirley Rudy, and his five children by repairing and reselling used vacuum cleaners. During divorce proceedings Shirley refused to forsake adultery, whereby Stewart divorced her in 1976 and married church secretary Gayle Gillespie. There are no children from Traill's second marriage. Shirley took custody of the five children and left Stewart, but to this day says that he is a man of God.

In popular culture

COBU was parodied in a 1996 episode of the television program Seinfeld, titled "The Checks". A cult operating under the visage of "Sunshine Carpet Cleaners" is a reference to COBU's "Christian Brothers."[6]


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