Family members are reluctant to talk about their brother. Stewart’s youngest brother did not tell his own family that Stewart even existed until they were adults. Stewart went to high school at Liberty High in Allentown, Pennsylvania and graduated in 1954. He was a member of the high school chess club, debate club, and showed acumen for science. He attended Lehigh University for a few semesters before ending his formal education. Former teachers described Traill as an independent thinker who often questioned their knowledge with the confidence that he knew as much or more than they. This unchecked, undisciplined, seemingly intelligent young man would never submit to an employer, a pastor, or any authority but assumed sole authority in every venture of his life. He met Shirley Sones (Rudy) and, in 1959, they were married. Stewart was 23 and Shirley was 17. They had 5 children.
Traill worked as a vacuum cleaner repairman and salesman in the early years of their marriage. At one time he and his family lived in an old school bus. They eventually moved to the Covent Garden apartments in Allentown. Traill later described himself to his followers as being an avowed atheist in those days who went on a quest to discredit the bible. He had studied various world religions with the intent to bring up his own children with some form of belief system. His conversion to, Traill said, Christianity came about with his inability to disprove miracles. According to newspaper accounts, the testimony of members of his organization, and Stewart's own recollections, he became a Christian in either 1964 (7 years before starting the Forever Family), 1966 (five years before the starting the FF), or in 1968 (3 years before he formed the group).
At the first "Big Meeting"(a large all-church gathering) in September of 1973, Traill said of himself that he was "all alone" witnessing to people on the street and in diners before the formation of the Forever Family. He then indicated his delight in the number of people (200 to 250), at the group's first official church-wide gathering. It was apparent in retrospect that Traill saw the growth of the group as his own personal success and a divine endorsement of his leadership.
There is a definite beginning of the Forever Family. What is not clear to members of the group even now is exactly when and how Stewart Traill became a Christian. He hinted to members with various anecdotes about his conversion and in later years told members that he would give his full testimony to them when 3000 were in attendance at a Big Meeting. The group never achieved this goal and so he never spoke about his conversion to them.
The place was Robin Hood Dell in Allentown, Pennsylvania, also known as the Parkway. The time was the Fall of 1971. The Parkway was an open grass area where young people went to hang out, smoke pot, and drink. Robin Hood Dell was similar to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park near Haight-Ashbury. While a popular place for young people to congregate, the Parkway was also a place for churches and groups involved in the Jesus Movement of the late 1960's to preach the gospel to the hundreds of young people who were disillusioned by the established authority and culture of the time.
One night Stewart Traill, his wife Shirley and their 5 children crossed the bridge into the park and met George "Skip" O'Neil. Skip had recently become a Christian. Traill caught his attention by waving his arms and making choking signs because Skip was smoking a cigarette at the time. Traill identified himself as a Christian and Skip responded in kind. Traill wore a black "Get Smart Get Saved" button. Later he would make 150 to 175 red raised letter buttons like his black one to distinguish the members of his group from other Christians. In order to earn a button one would have to memorize 12 salvation verses, picked by Traill, in the Gospel of John. In the beginning of the group Traill charged $1.00 to pay for the button materials. Buttons were mass-produced starting in 1974 and would become the defining logo of the group until the 1980's when Stewart changed the direction of the group. Skip told the other young Christians with whom he had fellowship about Traill. Skip, his wife, and the other Christians lived and would have meetings at 128 S. Church St.; what would become the first Forever Family fellowship house.
Traill invited Skip to go "witnessing"(telling people about Jesus) and to bible studies at the Message Coffee House. According to early members and Christians outside the group in Allentown, Traill attended the Message on Saturday nights at a small Presbyterian church with Skip and the others with him. For the first 2 hours attendees were in small group discussions about the bible. Between 50 to 75 people would regularly attend. The Message attracted all walks of life including a former Hell's angel. Traill and his followers made up about half of those at the Message.
At first Traill got along with the leadership of the Message. This amicable relationship lasted for a few months in the winter of 1971. The leader of the Message, Harold Covert, began to have misgivings about what Traill was teaching those who gathered around him during the small group time when anyone attending could freely choose what group and which teacher to listen to. There was a final confrontation at the Message when the leaders told Stewart directly that he was not welcome there anymore. Stewart was accused of being a false prophet. Traill jokingly deflected this charge to his followers by saying that he never claimed to be a prophet so how could he be a false one. One account, which appears on one ex-Cobu Web Page, describes Traill as "drawing others to himself and not to Jesus." It was plain to the Christians at the Message that Stewart Traill was not doing God's will but his own. At the confrontation, Message leaders told Traill not to come to the Saturday night group gathering again. They suspected Traill of attempting to usurp the leadership of the Message and gain control of those who attended. Traill ignored their excommunication and came to the Message anyway. The police were called to escort Traill from the building. Traill then took those who were dedicated to his leadership and officially formed the Forever Family.
Traill would come over to 128 S. Church St. where Skip and his wife lived and give early FF members bible studies he called "nuggies" which stood for "nuggets of gold." Traill's idea was that the bible needed to be interpreted, that one needed to dig or study to find the hidden wisdom and meaning of the scripture. His method of interpretation and his teaching of "the figure system" were, in the beginning of the group's history, a characteristic unique only to him. Traill's "figure" system, put simply, was an expansion of the parables in the gospels. Traill used the system of symbolic language and applied it to all of scripture. His hints and indications and sometimes his downright open proclamations that God had given him "true interpretation" of the bible would solidify the devotion of his followers and alienate Christians outside the group.
To Traill, the Christians outside his sphere were “playing church” and not serious about their commitment to Jesus. His many long "bible studies" were laced with comparisons of himself and his understanding of Christianity to the “game players” who were competing with him for members. Traill also claimed to have the gift to discern spirits. In a bible study on "Personality" in Allentown 1973 at 137 S. Church St. (the group's 2nd fellowship house) Stewart directly said as much; the gift to "look at you and know exactly where you were at spiritually." This meant that the members couldn’t “hide” or have any sense of privacy around Traill. This “gift” would play a significant role in how Traill influenced and manipulated his followers.
Not long after this Traill openly entertained the idea that he was a kind of incarnation of Elijah/John the Baptist. He also hinted at having a relationship with God similar to the one Moses had with God. Traill studied the Gospel of John devotedly and claimed at a meeting that he had written out the entire Gospel of John verse by verse on file cards, 4 times. He also attempted to memorize the entire gospel. But his strength of leadership and link to authority he derived from his studies of the Old Testament. He considered the New Testament “a bunch of flat statements of do's and don'ts” (Traill: John 2 Wine bible Study). The Old Testament was where one’s "desire for understanding could be satisfied." His own creation, the Get Smart Get Saved button was in short Traill's priority from the inception of the group, what would distinguish him and his group from all other Christians; his "understanding" of the bible, “his” true interpretation of the scriptures.
Traill either invented or borrowed a tool to categorize themes in scripture. The Color Code was an early Traill approved-method of how to look at bible verses. Red was for Salvation, Purple for God, Jesus, and The Holy Spirit, Black for Sin, Death, Disease, Hell and the Devil etc. There were 10 colors in all and part of Traill's teaching included color-coding the verses the members studied. Although Skip and the other Christians with him read the bible and had already begun their Christian walk before ever meeting him, it was Stewart Traill very early on who took the lead in giving bible studies and organizing the young people around him. He was 20 years older than most of the early members of his group. His approach in witnessing and gathering members was targeted toward young people. Traill had difficulty persuading anyone over the age of 21 about his views.
The Forever Family met at St. John’s Church, at 128, and 137 S. Church St. They also frequented Walp’s diner. James “Jingo” Stauffer contended against Stewart at 128 and then left with his wife Judy. It was then that 137 S. Church Street (the second fellowship house) was acquired and was the main launch of Traill’s vision for a group of his design: the Forever Family. In 1972 the FF grew from 2 fellowship houses in Allentown to 7 including houses in nearby towns. Traill dropped off a member in Cleveland, Ohio and left him there to start a fellowship house. Most fellowship leaders were in their late teens or early twenties and some had had been Christians for less than a year. Traill was 37. Members were responsible to get jobs and live communally, modeling Traill's understanding of early New Testament church structure. Traill himself lived in his own apartment with his wife and children. It is unclear when Traill stopped his vacuum cleaner business and was supported by his followers. At first he recruited members to help him with his business. It is likely that Stewart Traill became the full-time pastor of the Forever Family in 1974.
The language of the FF was a mixture of the slang of the day, Traillisms, and the figure system Traill insisted existed in scripture. Older people were called cows, young people were lambs or sheep, and people who were considered perverted were swine. The group also used the color code in their talk. If you were into "food browns" it meant that you were "into" eating or indulging your flesh in gluttony. Brown was the color used to signify Human Nature. Someone who was proud or trying to lead was said to be "playing the heavy." The early recordings of Traill's bible studies portrayed him as the sole teacher of the group and his followers hanging on every word. Most of what Traill uttered was punctuated by listeners with a “wooow” or long steam pipe sounds of amazement. Because the culture of the early 70’s was in social upheaval and young people were starving for answers, Traill’s older hippie charisma mixed with his natural intelligence and self-confidence were very attractive to the wayward youth of that time.
Traill wore his black Get Smart Get Saved button on plain button-down shirts he wore open over a t-shirt. Taking after his childhood idol Albert Einstein, who had a closet full of the same shirts and pants for everyday use, Traill settled on an open olive green button-down shirt over a t-shirt, brown work trousers, and tan faux-suede converse sneakers. He had 10 flair pens, one for each color in the color code in his left front pocket. He would later add black pouches to his belt giving himself a quasi-military look. Traill made use of a microcassette recorder often interrupting himself at meetings to make verbal notes on epiphanies or revelations of scriptures that occurred to him. Traill wrote notes on file cards and accumulated hundreds of file boxes and file cabinets filled with notes on bible verses, concepts, and subjects for future workbooks. Traill wore the same clothes every day from 1974 to the late 1980’s. Some speculate that Traill was crudely demonstrating a right ascetic attitude by “not hoping in this life”: a teaching he would visit upon the members for the next 40 years all the while accumulating airplanes and large houses for his personal use.
What never took place and to this day what has never occurred is a church board meeting or an all-church meeting where Traill would be tested according to standards in the New Testament for the office he holds, a vetting process most established churches undertake before hiring pastors and appointing deacons. In the 40-year history of the group anyone who ever challenged or questioned Traill was derided or asked to leave. Some believe that Traill likened himself to Moses and Elijah in order to be unaccountable to the church by the standards in the New Testament. To Traill, Moses and Elijah were lone leaders who only answered to God and therefore were above submitting to authorities on earth for vetting. This Moses/ Elijah comparison also put fear into to the members. Very few questioned Traill openly believing that God would step in on his behalf and exact an Old Testament judgment upon them. In addition to Traill's chosen biblical persona was the mystery of his spiritual beginnings and conversion.
At the beginning and end of the FF there were many “fellowship” leaders, center leaders, super center leaders, but there truly was only one leader of the FF and then Cobu: Stewart Traill. From the beginning Traill took control of the young members. The idea that there were many “leaders” and that Traill was just "one of many" is an illusion. Skip O’Neill was considered by many to be a natural leader but Traill made sure that he and other possible competitors for his office were psychologically torn down or eliminated from challenging him in the future.
Traill devoted most of his time to his newly founded group and this had repercussions at home. His wife Shirley was not interested in the group and was busy with their 5 children: the oldest being 12 and the youngest, 4.
By 1975 there were fellowship houses in Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Canada, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Washington D.C. Traill began flying one of many church-owned airplanes around to the "centers." He was the only licensed pilot in the group. He was accompanied by Gayle Gillespie, an 18 year-old girl (in 1975) who acted as his secretary. The two often shared a room when out in the centers. Traill's wife Shirley complained to members that she was lonely and wished Stewart would be home more. She also confronted Traill at a local diner about his spending time with female members of the group. She poured a bowl of sugar on his head and shouted at him.
Between 1975 and 1976 Traill filed for divorce accusing Shirley of adultery. During this time Traill got some of his followers to kidnap his children and to take them to Atlantic City, then to Canada and to fellowship houses throughout the church keeping one step ahead of the law. Traill’s youngest son wrote about the incident in his autobiography on an ex-Cobu web page.
According to Traill in a May 1976 meeting, at the divorce court the "other man" testified that he indeed committed adultery with Shirley. Shirley's account, which appeared in several newspapers, was that she only had dinner twice with the man in question. She was also heard to shout at Stewart in the diner confrontation that "if he could go out on her, she could do the same." There were reports that Traill had his wife dropped off at bars in seductive apparel in order to entrap her. Traill, according to Shirley, also derided her in front of their children and tape recorded the dealing sessions. Traill then brought the recordings to the fellowship and played the cassettes for his followers.
Some members questioned Traill about his divorcing Shirley. His behavior toward one sister: at a diner he had her sit on his lap and complained to her about his loneliness and neglect at home. Members questioned Traill about his intimate behavior toward his secretary before the divorce was finalized. Traill's answer to one member was, "what makes you think we (he and Gayle) aren't already married in the eyes of God?" Those who did raise objections were sent to outlying centers or pressured personally by Traill to stop questioning him. Traill took one member up in his plane and offered to send him to Montreal. When the member declined Traill took the plane into a series of dives trying to terrorize the member into silence about his behavior toward Gayle. On December 11, 1976, Traill (43) married Gayle Gillespie (19) at the Hotel Diplomat Ballroom in New York. It was around this time that Traill changed the name of the group from the Forever Family to the Church of Bible Understanding (COBU). It was also in 1976 that Traill decided to reduce the membership in the centers and gather the "older" brothers and sisters, average age 24, into the Manhattan Training Center (MTC), the first of many versions of Traill’s "formal training" or schooling to disciple young Christians to maturity.
Traill also began floating an idea in the mid-70's for the church to start a mission in Haiti. At one meeting in Maryland Traill announced that those who left the fellowship would also be guilty of leaving the children in Haiti. The orphanages in Haiti would become a lever for Traill to use against members who sought to leave his group. Currently the official Cobu web site has no pictures of Traill, no pictures of current members of Cobu, but only images of the mission in Haiti and how to support the work. There is, however, a small link on the page to Traill's current teaching on salvation called the "U" Point of View. Haiti became the curtain behind which Traill and his followers could hide and to deflect outside scrutiny.
Newspaper articles about the group have been generally inaccurate about its size in 1976 or its peak membership and attendance numbers in 1977-78. Reporters asking members at the time got wildly exaggerated numbers due mainly to Traill's tendency to emphasize numbers and the group's growth as a projection of his own success as a leader. Traill at a 1974 Big Meeting reveled in the number of official members of the Forever Family: "500, if you include lambs and backsliders." Members kept records of the number saved in a week, the number of "interesteds." A member's faithfulness to Jesus was questioned if he or she hadn't "led someone to Jesus" within that week's time. Based on the church's own financial records and center reports, as well as ex-members' confirmation of names, the Church of Bible Understanding peaked in 1977-78.
Between 52 to 65 fellowship houses existed before the MTC was created. The largest Big Meeting had an attendance of more than 2800 but less than 3000. An ex-member who archived the church's documents compiled a Members directory and found the total membership to be 1,345 actual live-in members of the FF and COBU. This number accounts for anyone who lived in one of the fellowship houses at some time from 1971 to 1978. The number of current members is somewhere around 100. Newspapers have reported membership of the group as high as 10,000 at its peak but there is no support for this claim. Members also claimed that there were as many as 120 fellowship houses at one time but this could only be true if one counted all houses opened and closed by the group throughout its early existence, but even this appears to be an exaggeration. Traill at one Big Meeting in 1976 set a goal of 40,000 saved in one year. During the MTC years the group cited hundreds "getting saved" each week and church-wide statistics were published in the Lamb Ledger (Cobu's newspaper). "Getting saved" for Cobu members meant that they "witnessed" or preached the gospel to an individual and then led the person in the Sinner's Prayer (a scripted prayer) for conversion to Christianity. Traill taught his followers techniques and tactics to "lead people to Jesus." Traill, a former vacuum cleaner salesman understood selling and most of his witnessing "techniques" were nothing more than sales tactics he honed years before he started the FF.
In 1979 Traill had one of the members draw a pen & ink picture for each verse of John chapter 3: 1-21. Cobu’s printing press in Worcester, MA then produced poster-sized replicas of each picture and verse and delivered them to the centers. The members would set up the Art show in a populated area and explain it to passersby with the intent to lead them to Jesus at the end of the presentation.
Traill authored several small introductory workbooks(most were 25 type-written pages in length) which dealt with subjects such as the Second Coming, the Resurrection, Witnessing (Green), The Christian Life (Orange), Conscience, and The Nature of our Lord (Purple). His wife Gayle co-authored with the sisters in the group “The Book” a sort of manual for the brothers to better understand the way women think. Some of the aforementioned workbooks were based on the Color Code in which Traill color-coded verses to categorize their meaning. His color code would be put to a different use in the Manhattan Training Center.
The New York Training Center later called the Manhattan Training Center, the MTC, or "the School" was started in 1976. It was Traill’s first attempt at some formalized Christian training. Traill himself had no formal seminary education or credentials, was never discipled or trained in any seminary or institute, but this did not stop him from implementing his plan for the “older” members of his group. The church rented several lofts on Bleecker St, Jay Street, Spring St, W. 57th St, E. 6th St. and 51st St. Members slept on the floor in sleeping bags. Some lofts had over 100 members living in them with only one working toilet. The few married couples that lived at the MTC found privacy difficult to attain. One couple made a kind of canopy tent in the midst of the dozens of sleeping bags around them. The church set up a day care and nursery for the children of members. Meanwhile Traill lived in Teaneck, New Jersey and put his 5 children in private school.
There were 3 lofts at 15 Jay St. There were separate money handlers and leaders for each floor. Each floor was like a separate fellowship house, only many more people in them, at least 60 per floor. When someone new arrived one just moved over and made room. The basement of Jay St. was the employment office / food prep area where sisters assembled sandwiches for lunches. Members would get a bowl of cereal and a banana on their way out to work, and the place became a haunt for outcast brothers to sleep. Members slept side by side on the floor, male, female. Bleecker St. 5th floor loft was where nightly bible studies were held. There was a loft on 6th St. in the East Village for a few married couples. It was designated a loft, but it reality it was a small apartment. The food committee cooked food in large commercial pots and they would deliver cooked meals (usually ground beef, vegetables and a dessert) to the lofts. Served with the meal was a red drink called Dominade. The lofts had a laundry committee. Members put their dirty clothes in a bag with their names on the bag. It would be delivered back, clean and folded.
Members used public showers on Allen St. near the Bowery loft. If members worked full-time they were allowed to bathe on Saturdays. At the Jay III loft, members had a claw foot bath tub, but it was out in the middle of the room. A couple of sisters would volunteer to babysit in the middle of the week so they could rig up a curtain and take a mid-week bath.
The loft evacuations started when Jay St. was condemned by the NYFD. It was so overrun with mice that they were dropping from the ceiling. Members were allowed to enter only to remove their belongings. They then went to Spring St. until the move to the Diplomat Hotel, and then to the Hell's kitchen apts. on W. 51st St. Members came from fellowships all over the east coast. At first "bad ones" (members) were sent to "the school" (MTC). Nightly meetings took place either at Washington Square Park or at Bleecker St. loft. After Jay St. loft was condemned the city was out to find the other lofts. A series of newspaper articles appeared, reporting on the group.
Those who did not live at the Hotel Diplomat commuted to attend the meetings. Then the church acquired a loft on the west side. The bottom floor was used as a garage to fix vehicles and upstairs, members sat on a wooden floor in "boxes". There were taped off squares approx. 4' X 4'. Down the middle of the floor was one large line dividing the flesh side from the spirit side. This was the beginning of categories. There was a council of "silvers" who were not only good examples of living Christian life, but were also seen as an encouragement to others. Abrupt divisions were made. A member stood up, stated their name and everyone decided if the member was orange (Christian or Spirit), or brown (Human Nature or Flesh). Further divisions were made as the weeks passed. Upper orange, orange neutral, lower orange, upper brown, brown & black.
One of the reasons given for starting the MTC was for the older brothers. They were spread too thin out in the centers and were alone and needed fellowship. Glowing reports of how the brothers were being restored at the MTC were heard in the outlying fellowship houses. Isaiah 58 became the central theme of training. The church was getting back to the lifeblood of the fellowship: witnessing. Traill would travel around to the centers looking for "ghouls", brethren who had a glazed look about them; and off to the school they were sent. Loft life, like the army, was to be rigorous and not comfortable. As months and then years went by, members at the school became the "good guys" and more and more moved to the MTC.
At first members were pressured to seek any employment. Two brothers who worked at the World Trade Center cleaning carpets gave birth to what would become COBU's first successful church-wide business: Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning. Christian Bros. was featured on a Seinfeld episode in which the character George was hoping for the carpet cleaners to speak to him about the bible after cleaning his rugs. In the late 1970’s and early 80’s Cobu was in violation of tax laws which resulted in fines and restructuring of the church business to comply with tax law.
Traill was splitting his time between the MTC & flying to the centers, coming and going via Teeterboro airport. A few sisters helped Traill at his home in New Jersey with various projects. For years, Traill made notes about bible references, on tape and on paper. There was a concentrated effort to get these organized into a reference bible. A van-load of sisters would travel from NY to Teaneck on Saturdays to work on checking, printing, re-checking thousands of bible verses. Sisters stayed over Saturday night and work the next day and then drove back to Manhattan. Traill also spoke about writing a book titled "How to Interpret the Bible." Both projects never came to fruition.
Speculation about Traill’s thinking in starting the MTC varies. Ex-members recall that Traill was subjecting them to severe living conditions in order to prepare them to be able to withstand the coming persecution and the tribulation. It is curious that Traill himself never subjected himself to such training but enjoyed the proceeds of church labor at his home in New Jersey. Those out in the centers who were not producing, either economically or spiritually were threatened with being sent to the school in New York.
Another explanation for the creation of the MTC was that Traill, who was in the process of divorcing his first wife and marrying 19 year-old Gayle Gillespie, recognized that the church at large was affected by his actions and were pulling away from him. Upon entering the New York Training Center (MTC) members were asked to fill out a survey. Nearly 1/3 of the questions were about Traill and his fiancée, probing members for their opinions about the relationship. It is around this time also that Traill’s long-standing opposition and obstruction of members’ relationships and possible matrimony began. For the next 35 years the members of the Church of Bible Understanding would begin and end relationships with one another on Traill’s counsel alone. Even his eldest daughter left the group to get married. In later years relationships were considered “poison” by Traill and discouraged. Some believe that Traill’s opposition to marriage is partly due to his belief that he would lose control of the members and suffer financially if they were to establish any form of autonomy.
The brethren would meet at the Hotel Diplomat in Manhattan. Some of the training that took place at the meetings was direct instructions and pointed criticism from Traill. Members were who were voted Orange were considered “faithful” to Jesus and were able to contribute at the meetings without asking for permission. Those voted Brown needed to identify themselves by name and color and then ask if they could speak. Others were labeled Ghouls or Trips and were sequestered to the “trip” apartments so as to keep them away from spiritually healthy members. Traill was always voted" gold." One of the documents of the MTC gives instructions for members to “check with the silver sisters about any relationships.” Apparently, Traill had given the “silvers” some authority over others in this regard. In the 40-year history of the group Stewart Traill, pastor and teacher of the Church of Bible Understanding, presided over not one marriage ceremony for his followers.
The group provided an allowance of $1.00 a day to working members. Sisters made sack lunches for the brothers which consisted sometimes of just a baloney sandwich or peanut butter and jelly. In contrast, Traill never broke his habit of frequenting local diners and eating his fill.
The Manhattan Training Center was perhaps the clearest example of Traill’s style of leadership, his verbal abuse, and his insidious influence on the members. Meetings at the Hotel Diplomat lasted for hours. Sometimes Traill would sit at the meetings saying nothing for an hour or more. Members stood up and tried to guess why Traill was silent and/or if they were in some hidden way “sowing to a wrong spirit.” Traill would eventually reveal to the members “what’s really going on” usually making an example of one or two members to show how the entire group was failing to “please Jesus” which really meant not following Traill’s “direction.” Traill would often directly question the faith and faithfulness of the members. He would, in the open forum, scrutinize the few marriages that did exist in the group. Traill predicted the unfaithfulness of husbands and wives. Husbands were openly criticized in front of their wives before the group. “Dealing” sessions also lasted hours. The underlying assumption at the training center and throughout the group was that Traill knew truth about everything better than anyone else, that he had the gift to discern spirits and knew the spiritual condition of each member in the room. With this shared recognition among members, Traill was able to tear down anyone within earshot of his pronouncements of “truth.” While Traill abused his followers over their many "failings" he never missed the opportunity project himself as the right example of how to be. The damage and doubt Traill affected upon the members would last, for some members, for more than 30 years after their time at the MTC.
As the MTC failure became apparent in the declining number of members in the group, Traill then started the Philadelphia Lamb House in 1979 and a few years later the Brooklyn Young Sheep House. His vision of a school system whereby he could teach and train young Christians from ages 17 to 24 years old did not die with the MTC. Traill's concept of "education" was evident as early as 1973. At the first Big Meeting he spoke of how to grow his group sending out members to lead young people to Jesus and then send the new converts to Allentown to be taught and trained for 2 years and then sent out to start new fellowship houses. He defined members into age groups. Generally speaking Lambs were young people ages 13-17. Young Sheep were between 17 to 19 years of age. Older Newly Saved ranged from 20 to 30 years old. Middle brothers and sisters were 20-23 years old, and Older brothers and sisters were 24 years of age and older.
The Philadelphia Lamb House graduated 3 classes. At first the Lamb course consisted of only 3 lessons: What Just Happened to You, The Next Few Days, and Faith or Feelings. After the Lamb house was turned over to the Middle brothers and sisters, Traill finished the 20-lesson Lamb course. Once a Lamb graduated, they then moved into the Brooklyn Young Sheep House. In 1983 Traill started the Middle Remedial Program for members ages 21- 23 years of age. Traill's assessment of the Middle brethren was that they were retarded in their spiritual growth and needed a special program tailored to address their deficiencies. The Older brothers and sisters had no program since the MTC and were used by Traill as a constant reminder to younger members as an example of what happens to a member when they do not accept and practice Traill's teaching.
Through the second half of the 70's into the 1980's, Traill spent a tremendous amount of time on Second Coming bible studies, Matthew 24 in particular, and his study of the fig tree. For the members this meant intense focus on preparation and readiness for the end times. Traill's demeanor toward all members and especially the older members of the group was one of intimidation, using fear and verbal abuse to constantly unsettle the believers about their salvation, about their faithfulness to Jesus, and their lack of alert readiness for the second coming. It was in fact a severe form of legalism.
In 1981, Traill persuaded the church board to purchase a large house in Princeton N. J. for him and Gayle to occupy. The house was situated just down the way from where Albert Einstein used to live. The official reason given to the members for buying the house was for investment purposes. Members were told that Stewart and Gayle should live there because they were the only ones responsible enough to keep up the value of the place. Traill furnished the home asking members with abilities in woodworking to build him a desk and bookshelves for his office. He also had a large globe brought in through a second story office window to be placed near his desk. Traill then employed "Gayle helpers" (female members of COBU) to come and live at the Princeton house and help him and his wife with various projects. At this time the members of Cobu lived in large church-owned apartment buildings and houses. The Brooklyn Young Sheep House at 162 Woodruff Ave in Flatbush Brooklyn housed over 100 young sheep and is the main residence of current Cobu today in New York. It had 4 floors, two floors for sisters and two for brothers. Woodworking members made bunkbeds for the group at 162. 515 was a 5-floor apartment building in Hell's Kitchen on the west side of Manhattan. The Philadelphia Lamb House at 6713 Woodland Ave in Philadelphia, formerly an institute for the blind, was occupied by Middle brothers and sisters. There were fellowship houses in Cleveland, Montreal, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Maryland at this time.
In 1982, according to Traill’s youngest son who wrote extensively on the matter, Traill had ordered several brothers to discipline him because of his bad behavior while living at the Philadelphia Lamb house. The brothers held his youngest son down while they beat him with a wooden board. The beating was so severe that members had to take him to the hospital. Charges were filed against 3 of the group’s members and Traill’s first wife Shirley took custody of the all 5 children. As in the case of Traill’s divorce, so also this matter was not brought out into the open before the church and no one asked Traill any questions to determine his culpability. Unknown to most members in the early to mid-80’s was that Traill was groping some of the "Gayle Helpers" who lived at Princeton. One ex-member confirmed this report years after Traill had groped her in his dark room. Traill, an avid photographer who owned his own camera business, took pictures of the female members at poolside in Princeton. Traill also violated another member who is among the current Cobu today. In 1999, 14 years after her time in Princeton as a member of Cobu, a female ex-member wrote down her account of Traill proposing to make her his "half-wife." Her account is on the X-Cobu Web page at http://www.angelfire.com/nm/cobu Others who worked at the Princeton house also witnessed Traill's inappropriate sexual behavior. One member found a Playboy magazine in his office. Some female ex-members have indicated other immoral behavior but refused to go into detail. Traill’s behavior toward some of the female members of the church reached the attention of his second wife Gayle. Some ex-members reported years later that Gayle was going to expose him to the church and so he called a meeting to remake and redo the entire church and at the same time work in his own confession and admission of sin which he hoped would be forgiven and/or overlooked.
The Grace Meeting of March 1989 was perhaps the most pivotal event in the history of Traill’s cult. It marked the first time since the formation of the group in 1971 that Stewart Traill admitted he had taught error, that he was wrong. What was not known to most of the members at the time was the reason for the meeting and the significance of some of things Traill said. By the time of the Grace Meeting, Traill had groped at least 2 females, used pornography, took pictures of “sisters” in swim suits, and attempted to make one of the female members his “half-wife.” His wife Gayle threatened to expose him to the members and so in March of 1989 Traill called a meeting to admit or confess that he had missed the entire basis of salvation, of the gospel: he missed Grace. Mixed in with his teaching about teaching error were personal revelations. According to biblical standards for pastors, bishops, deacons, and elders, Traill was not qualified to even begin the group in 1971 (this, he never mentioned). At this meeting he repeatedly told his followers that he taught error for the last 25 years and only one sister openly questioned Stewart.
At the meeting Traill said, "Ya know the whole while, I never tried to take Jesus' place… in no way and would always speaking against it...and yet that’s what the devil arranged...now think about it...something like that in effect...” Traill’s passive admission that he actually took Jesus’ place meant little to the members of the group at the time. Many left within the year simply because they understood for the first time that Traill was in error and rather than dismiss him as pastor, they left the group. Traill did not speak about his sexual sins but spent hours explaining to his followers how he had missed grace and had taught his version of legalism. For some members the Grace Meeting meant a fresh new direction for the church and so they stayed in the hope that they would finally learn true Christianity from Traill. Less than a week later, Traill went back to his verbally abusive style of leadership. Although the words and concepts Traill used had changed, his place and position had not. The Church of Bible Understanding under the new basis of grace dwindled to just a few hundred members with Traill still in charge. Late that same year he introduced the 1st John Bible Study in which he asserted that true Christians DO NOT sin. Traill claimed to know the “mind of the apostles.” A few months later Traill dropped this teaching also.
In the early 1990's he began teaching something that would become the current doctrine of his cult. At first it was called the Escape Recipe and then just the Recipe. Today current Cobu members use the "U" Point of View, which appears modestly on their church web site. What seemed to be a contortion of the Grace teaching, this Escape Recipe was the banner teaching for the group in the first half of the 1990's. At some of the meetings Traill pressured members to stand up, hold a paper copy of the Recipe over their heads and say, "My name is ________ and I am volunteering for the Lake of Fire" the idea being that the member was not heeding Traill's Escape Recipe and therefore was willing going to Hell.
Church businesses varied. There were storefronts that sold hand-made Haitian goods. Members ran kiosks and were street vendors. The carpet cleaning business was still viable as well as the used van business which peaked in the mid 80’s, the group having a fellowship house in Detroit. The church also ran a donation business whereby large ticket items could be donated by private owners or businesses as a tax write-off and Cobu would turn around and sell what was donated.
In February of 2002 Traill and his second wife Gayle were traveling in the Bahamas. They were in a car accident. Traill's leg was broken. Gayle was severely injured and was in a coma for 5 months. When she regained consciousness it became clear that she had sustained permanent damage. She eventually learned to walk again but her mental capacity was greatly diminished by the injuries she incurred. At a meeting Traill told members that he was free to marry again, that because of Gayle's condition he was single just like them. The members did not agree and so Traill abandoned his search for a 3rd wife. Cobu brought suit against their insurance company to cover Gayle Traill's medical costs but lost the case in court. Apparently, according court records, Cobu lied about Gayle being a church employee and lied about their travels outside the United States. The case is currently in appeal. Here is the front page of the law suit:
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA AMERICAN HOME ASSURANCE CO.
THE CHURCH OF BIBLE
UNDERSTANDING d/b/a OLDE GOOD
THINGS and GAYLE TRAILL
: CIVIL ACTION
: NO. 03-6052
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Kauffman, J. September 6 , 2006
Plaintiff American Home Assurance Company (“American Home” or “Plaintiff”) brings this declaratory judgment action against the Church of Bible Understanding (“COBU” or “Defendant”) and Gayle Traill, a missionary for COBU (collectively, “Defendants”). American Home issued a worker’s compensation insurance policy to COBU for the period running from August 8, 2001 through August 8, 2002 (the “Policy”). Traill was injured on February 7, 2002 and sought worker’s compensation coverage for her injuries. American Home seeks a declaration that (1) Gayle Traill was not an employee of COBU at the time of her accident, and thus is not entitled to coverage under the Policy (“Count I”); (2) Gayle Traill was not acting in the course and scope of her employment with COBU at the time of her accident, and thus is not entitled to coverage under the Policy (“Count II”); and (3) COBU made material misrepresentations to American Home, entitling American Home to rescind the Policy (“Count III”). COBU and Mrs. Traill counterclaim that American Home’s attempt to rescind the Policy constitutes bad faith in violation of 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8371 (“Counterclaim”).1
Cobu started focusing on the antique, salvage, and restoration business. An ex-member had already started his own venture but Cobu, with its tax-exempt church status and with every live-in member donating 90% of their money to the church treasury, began to take over the markets in New York and Pennsylvania. Cobu would outbid its competitors on old buildings that were set for demolition. They then would gut the structures of moldings and fixtures which they would expertly restore for resale. Later the business would take the antique materials gleaned from demolition sites and create furniture and home decor for sale. Like Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning, Olde Goode Things, a Cobu-run business, became the largest and most successful business entity in its line in the country. The church currently has 3 stores in New York, 2 in Los Angeles and a warehouse in Scranton, PA. Other web sites show stores in Chicago and Ft. Lauderdale, FL. http://www.ogtstore.com/ Olde Good Things also has ventures in Canada and in Japan.
Stewart Traill is now 75 years old and lives in a church-owned mansion in south Florida. He told current Cobu members at a not so recent meeting that "they were helping the anti-christ." There are reports that Traill is accompanied often by the daughter of two current members (the young lady is 30 years his junior). Despite Traill's past known behavior and his other known immoral acts with members of the group, the current members will not dismiss him from his office as pastor.
SUMMATION and Analysis:
It is not hard to identify and assess Stewart Traill now. It was much more difficult for the young people of the 1970's to realize who was leading them. Traill's charisma and exuberance dominated the imagination of the youth in Allentown for a time. He then changed tactics to hold his group in place all the while removing in the minds and hearts of members their ability to question him or challenge his leadership. Simple equations like Stewart said= God said and Leaving Fellowship= Leaving Jesus were effective psychological tools Traill used on the young around him.
The most basic and crude analysis of Stewart Traill is this: Stewart Traill was and is a man who never submitted to any authority but asserted his own over young Christians. Whether he became a Christian in the mid-60's is still a question asked by ex-members today. There is a consensus of opinion that Traill started the group with his own purposes in mind and shunned fellowship and contact with other Christians, insisting with great hubris that he was specially called of God and possessed unique abilities which meant that he was destined to lead a group of believers. He was never vetted, never tested. He accepted no counsel from Christian leaders outside his group. For more than 40 years Stewart Traill has trusted his own insight, his own understanding, his own abilities to serve him in his leadership role.
The majority of ex-members have maintained their Christian lives despite the abuse they suffered in COBU. In online forums ex-members have grappled with common questions and issues concerning Traill and their time inside. Some ex-members find it difficult to separate Traill from their own faith in God, a legacy forged in them by Traill. Something distinctive about COBU is that it in truth was and is populated by Christians, actual Christians. It is the opinion of some that the damage Traill inflicted on members would have been much worse if they did not have true faith in God. The current members have all but given up dislodging Traill from his position. It is likely that most members are bidding their time, waiting for Traill to die before making any changes in church leadership.
|Loft and MTC articles1||Loft and MTC articles2||Loft and MTC articles3||Loft and MTC articles4||Loft and MTC articles5||Loft and MTC articles6Loft and MTC articles7||Loft and MTC articles8|
|Alternatives mag. plain type Mar/April 1977|
|1979 1||1979 2||1979 3||1979 4||1979 6|
|Jan 1, 1984||C.O. B. U. Ordered to Stop Taking in Teenagers New York Times, June 9, 1985||THE NEWS ARTICLE ON THE PROPERTY||THE NEWS ARTICLE April 1995||Church of Bible Understanding (COBU) Still Vital, August 16,1999 Cult Observer||PHILADEPHIA MAGAZINE ARTICLE JUNE 1999 BY SABRINA ERDELY|
|On the Traill: Difficult To Peg Reclusive Lead,Scranton Times Tribune/February 9, 2003, By Christopher J. Kelly||Ex-Members Tell of Poverty, Powerlessness,Scranton Times Tribune/February 9, 2003,By Christopher J, Kelly||A Trove of Salvage Unsalvaged Spawns a Mess of Lawsuits,The New York Observer/May 16, 2004,By Nina Burleigh||U.S. taxpayers feed Haiti's hungry, November 19, 2006,Media General News Service, By Sean Mussenden||City council's lawyer sides with reincarnation of the biblical Elijah against the taxpayer,The Scranton Times-Tribune/August 29, 2010, By Christopher J. Kelly|
|Priest Outraged at Cult Infiltration of Youth Home,Father Ritter vs. Church of Bible Understanding||Deprogramming Charges Dismissed||CFF Virginia Program Highlights The Church of Bible Understanding by Linda McNatt Suffolk (VA) News Herald (Dec. 4)||Church of Bible Understanding Enjoined from ‘Helping’ Homeless, Runaway Youth from the N.Y. Daily News||GERMAN ARTICLE ON COBU|