The Jesus Army and the Independent Inquiry into Childhood Sexual Abuse
IICSA Inquiry - Child Protection in Religious Organisations and Settings
The exclusively male authority of the Jesus Army, delegated from the cruel and unusual senior pastor Noel Stanton, was full of darkness and deceit and nothing of God. It was a personality cult with Noel as an absolute ruler who delighted in crushing people.
Those in the cult who took on a sacred duty to care, and swore a covenant to it, have to answer for the shameful way they treated so many. The leaders who were in charge; it happened on their watch, they let it happen and made it happen.
Oath breakers and traitors. To betray love is its own reward. There is a price to be paid in the heart.
None of this evil generation will see the good land I promised your ancestors.
The JA called itself the "Joshua generation", the J Generation. They didn't read the story right. Only two from that generation believed God and entered the promised land, the rest perished in the wilderness. Historically we know that the Exodus didn't happen and there were few, if any, Hebrews in ancient Egypt. But that's the story.
Despite the great awfulness in the cult there was also a beautiful vision of community and shared lives. It was the leadership structure that was evil, responsible for so much misery and claiming to speak for God. What a blasphemy.What a Great Work of unhappiness. To quote the Christ; a curse on the religious and those who teach law.
I joined the cult as a homeless person in 1996. The page above is page 2 of the precepts, part of the covenant or deed of community from 1992.
The major difference from this document and the practice in 1996 was that by then we were drinking coffee, except a few diehards. I gave up sugar in tea and coffee when I was a kid anyway, due to a traumatic experience with a bowl of sugar in an Anglican church hall.
Here is the first hand testimony of Sally Hirst, on life living in the Jesus Army, to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. The description of life in the JA is accurate and chilling. A potent insight into growing up in a cult.
3 THE CHAIR: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to Day 8 of
4 this public hearing. Mr Tahzib, you are leading us this
6 MR TAHZIB: Thank you, chair, yes, good morning.
7 Chair, our first witness this morning, as you know,
8 is Sally Hirst, who appears on behalf of the Jesus
9 Fellowship Survivors Association. Could we have the
10 witness sworn, please?
11 MS SALLY HIRST (affirmed)
12 Examination by MR TAHZIB
13 MR TAHZIB: Good morning, Ms Hirst. Can you hear and see me
15 A. I can.
16 Q. Thank you very much for attending to give evidence.
17 Just before we start, there is just a few preliminary
18 matters that I wanted to run through with you briefly.
19 The first point is that this isn't a test of memory.
20 You have, I know, a hard copy of your bundle there in
21 front of you, and by all means do feel free to refer to
22 your witness statement and to any other documents that
23 you have in your bundle there.
24 The second point is that we are scheduled to take
25 a break in about an hour's time, but we can stop at any
1 time and for any reason. Just let me know if you need
2 a break, and that won't be a problem at all.
3 Finally, I will ask at certain points for documents
4 to be brought up onto the screen. It may take a couple
5 of moments for the documents to appear, but if the
6 technology works as planned, they should then appear and
7 we should all be able to see them, just to let you know
9 Could you provide for the inquiry, please, your full
10 name and a description of your role within the Jesus
11 Fellowship Survivors Association?
12 A. My name is Sally Hirst. My role within the Jesus
13 Fellowship Survivors Association has been predominantly
14 lobbying for an independent inquiry to be carried out,
15 alongside one of my peers and supporting her in liaising
16 with the police authorities and safeguarding boards
17 locally, and also communicating the truth and liaising
18 with other survivors through Twitter.
19 Q. Ms Hirst, you have a witness statement there in front of
20 you and the reference for that statement is JFS000019.
21 Chair and panel, that's behind tab A1 of your bundles.
22 Ms Hirst, did you sign this statement?
23 A. I did.
24 Q. Are the contents of that statement true, to the best of
25 your knowledge and belief?
1 A. They are.
2 Q. Ms Hirst, as you have just explained, you are part of
3 the Jesus Fellowship Survivors Association. Before we
4 come on to discuss the work of that association,
5 I wanted to ask you a little bit about the Jesus
6 Fellowship Church itself. One preliminary matter: in
7 your statement, you refer variously to the Jesus
8 Fellowship Church, or the JFC, and elsewhere to the
9 Jesus Army. Is it right that these are just two
10 different terms for what is the same church?
11 A. It is, yes.
12 Q. To begin, could you tell us a little bit about the
13 background of the Jesus Army? When was it founded and
14 how did it come to be founded?
15 A. The Jesus Fellowship Church was set up in the early
16 1970s, and the roots of it stem from the Baptist and
17 Evangelical Church. So in 1986, the church broke away
18 from the Baptist Union and Evangelical Alliance and
19 became more and more radical, and from that point
20 onwards, many observers likened the church to a cult due
21 to its teachings and structure. It had quite extreme
22 views, extreme teachings.
23 The majority of members lived in communes, which
24 I think makes them very different to other religious
25 organisations; large hostel-like complexes and smaller
1 properties, and everything was shared. All money,
2 clothes, possessions were shared.
3 All of the leaders were men. Women and children
4 were very much bottom of the rung, in submission to the
5 leadership. There were varying levels of leadership,
6 and at the highest level was the covering authority or
7 the apostolic leaders, which approximately were ten men,
8 and this leadership dictated what the group and what
9 individuals did in all aspects of their lives. So from
10 where they lived, where they worked, and often who they
11 married as well.
12 The church was very insular and isolated from the
13 outside world. The majority of the adults worked for
14 the business's organisations. The timetable was very,
15 very busy, so days and weeks were very structured. So
16 prayer-time groups, meetings, recruiting new members,
17 daily chores. So for children, in addition to school,
18 you would be expected to join in with all of those
19 activities. So very little or no downtime.
20 We were expected to attend meetings several times
21 a week, which were often three/four hours long, and
22 often late into the night, and small children and babies
23 sleeping on stone cold floors and then getting up for
24 school the next day.
25 Q. Thank you very much, Ms Hirst. That's very helpful. We
1 will come on in a few moments to explore the details of
2 daily life within the church together.
3 Just before we do, could you just describe, how many
4 members did the church have nationwide?
5 A. I think, at its height, it had around 2,000 members
6 nationwide, all over the country.
7 Q. What was the demographic of the members of the church?
8 Did they come from a range of backgrounds?
9 A. Yes. At the beginning, they attracted a mix, really, of
10 academics and drug addicts, hippy-type people. Then, as
11 they moved through the years, they targeted more
12 vulnerable people with high needs, so they did a lot of
13 what they would call evangelistic work on the streets,
14 targeting very vulnerable people. So it did change over
16 Q. We will come on, in a moment, to the changes that have
17 taken place in the structure of the church very
18 recently. But historically, how was the church
19 organised, in terms of its leadership structure?
20 A. There were around ten men who were the absolute top.
21 There was Noel Stanton, who is now deceased. He was at
22 the top, and then, under him, there were ten leaders
23 that reported to him, and they dictated to everybody
24 else what happened.
25 Within each house, there was also a leader, so -- it
1 was all males, no women were leaders at that time. And
2 the leadership dictated, really, what everybody did,
3 where they lived, where they worked.
4 Q. I think you referred earlier to what was called the
5 "covering authority" --
6 A. Yes.
7 Q. -- which, if I have understood correctly, was
8 effectively the highest level of the administration at
9 a national level?
10 A. Yes.
11 Q. How were those ten men -- were they appointed? Were
12 they elected? How did they assume that position?
13 A. I believe they were elected by Noel Stanton. I don't
14 recall. Obviously, I was a child at the time. I don't
15 recall how they came to that leadership. But I think
16 they would have been elected by Noel himself, almost
17 picked as his right-hand men.
18 Q. You have talked about that agency at the national level.
19 Now, in your statement, you describe that there were
20 various regional centres. There are seven regional
21 centres that you identify in your statement. Was there
22 any form of leadership at the regional level? Did each
23 of those centres have its own?
24 A. There would have been leaders for every tier, yes. But
25 they would have reported to the covering authority and
1 they would then report to Noel.
2 Q. You mentioned that the covering authority were all male.
3 Was the leadership male at all levels?
4 A. Yes.
5 Q. Something you say at paragraph 1 of your statement, and
6 you have repeated it this morning also in your oral
7 evidence, you describe how the Jesus Army was
8 misogynistic, that all the leaders were men and that
9 women and children were in submission to that
10 leadership, is the words that you used.
11 A. Yes.
12 Q. What did that look like in practice?
13 A. Extreme gender inequality. Girls and women were worst
14 affected, and women were seen as a temptation to men.
15 So there were very strict rules for girls about their
16 appearance and modesty, so they couldn't wear trousers,
17 jewellery, makeup. They had to have their hair long.
18 I mean, I remember myself being screamed at for
19 having bare feet on one occasion as a child, and having
20 no idea why, but that was obviously seen as a temptation
21 to somebody.
22 Celibacy was also -- this is sort of going off
23 track, but celibacy was very much encouraged and
24 enforced by brainwashing and seen as the norm, and any
25 that didn't choose that path were seen as weak. So,
1 again, women were very much seen as a distraction to the
2 church, maybe a distraction to men.
3 Q. At page 2 of your statement, Ms Hirst, for reasons that
4 we will come on to in a few moments, you describe how,
5 in May 2019, members of the church voted to revoke the
6 church's constitution, such that the Jesus Army will
7 cease to exist as a national church. Has this already
8 taken place, and, if not, when will that revocation of
9 the national structure take place?
10 A. I believe it has taken place, yes.
11 Q. Is it right that independent local congregations will
12 continue to exist, but they won't be affiliated to
13 a national church structure?
14 A. That is what we have been led to believe. I think some
15 have already appointed interim leadership teams.
16 I don't know too much about this. Obviously our concern
17 is how safeguarding will be monitored and I think my
18 concern would be that safeguarding is going to be even
19 a bigger issue if they're all going to be individual.
20 Q. It may be that you are not able to assist with this, but
21 do you know if those local congregations are, or will
22 be, registered with the Charity Commission?
23 A. I don't know.
24 Q. Just one final point, sort of by way of preliminary,
25 really: at paragraph 1, you describe that there are
1 seven centres currently in the country -- in Coventry,
2 Northampton, London, Sheffield, Leicester, Birmingham
3 and Kettering. As far as you're aware, will all of
4 those continue to exist following the revocation of
5 the national church's constitution?
6 A. I'm unsure on that, because I don't know how their
7 finances are. So I don't know if they are all still
8 open. I know some definitely are, but I don't know if
9 they all are or if they plan to continue them.
10 Q. Ms Hirst, I want to move on now to explore with you in
11 a little more detail what life was like within the
12 Jesus Army, and I know that you have already begun to
13 touch on this. One of the things that you say at page 1
14 of your statement is that the majority of members lived
15 in these communes which ranged from large, hostel-like
16 complexes to small properties. Could you describe for
17 the inquiry something of what life was like within these
18 communes? So what would a typical day within one of
19 these communes look like?
20 A. For children -- obviously, I can speak from my own
21 experience. So we did go to school. That was the only
22 time we left the commune. Before school, possibly
23 having to do chores. After school, the day would have
24 been chores, tea with everybody in a large room. Being
25 made to sit and finish your food was a very strong --
1 you wouldn't be allowed to leave until you had finished
2 your meal and, often, if you hadn't eaten your meal, you
3 would be told to eat it the next day for breakfast.
4 There would be meetings long into the evening on
5 a majority of the nights, so it was virtually impossible
6 to complete schoolwork. School was not encouraged.
7 Education wasn't encouraged, particularly for girls. So
8 even though schoolwork was completed when possible, it
9 was very much as a side, if there was time, but the
10 meetings and the priorities of the church came first.
11 Often, during the meetings, which was very traumatic
12 as a child to witness, we often witnessed exorcisms,
13 lots of talks of demons. Obviously the people living in
14 the house often were very vulnerable, mixing with people
15 with extreme mental health needs, violent criminals. So
16 very little play. Play was generally discouraged. It
17 was seen as a pleasure, and pleasure and enjoyment were
18 seen as sinful.
19 There were no competitive games, no toys unless they
20 were constructive or creative, and anything else was
21 destroyed or given away, often in front of the child.
22 Even books were censored and had to be approved.
23 There were no extracurricular activities, so sport,
24 music, trips -- trips with school, unless they could be
25 classed as educational, and that had to be discussed by
1 the leadership and agreed on.
2 So obviously that led to a lot of isolation and
3 bullying at school and being shunned by other children
4 and also teachers at times. Natural talents very much
6 Living simply in the houses was a priority, so
7 personal preferences were discouraged. Even, you know,
8 if somebody had a food allergy, that would be classed as
9 just irrelevant and not a thing. So loss of personality
10 and individuality was very much the idea. Personal
11 possessions were not allowed, everything had to be
12 shared, and that was the same for children. You would
13 have second-hand clothing, everything was shared.
14 No access to TV, radio or newspapers, so as a child
15 then attending school, you had no idea, you couldn't
16 ever share in what you'd attached on TV the night before
17 or what was going on in the world, really. No
18 festivals, no Christmas, it was not celebrated, and we
19 were taken out of school around -- so at the end of
20 term, we were taken out of school around -- before
21 Christmas, we were taken out of school so that we
22 wouldn't be involved in any of the festivities or
24 As I said about the very strict rules for girls, and
25 then the sermons also, so the regular meetings on most
1 evenings of the week and on a Sunday, they last pretty
2 much all day. They were very authoritarian,
3 manipulative and often, actually, overtly sexual nature
4 in front of children discussed, especially Noel. He
5 seemed almost obsessed with talking about celibacy,
6 homophobic language was used. It was very strange,
7 looking back.
8 We lived with our parents within a group of lots of
9 people, but there was very minimal access or input from
10 parents because they were also responsible for the
11 welfare and development of others, often young single
12 women, and that came very much at the cost of their own
13 children's need.
14 Then we were encouraged to move away from our
15 parents at a young age, so teenagers, to live in another
16 community house. So the family ties were not encouraged
17 at all. You were expected to go and live and then
18 another male would oversee you, and then another male or
19 female would be responsible for your welfare, and these
20 were called caring brothers or sisters. Those
21 relationships very often led to abuse, because there was
22 no regulation, nobody checking who these people were.
23 Q. If I may just come in there, please, which was just
24 a question around the accommodation arrangements. So
25 you described how, if I have understood you correctly,
1 as younger children, children would be living with their
2 parents, but would be separated once they reached the
3 age of -- once they became youths, effectively. Could
4 you just describe what the sleeping arrangements were
5 like, both for families and then also for youths when
6 they moved away from their parents?
7 A. So if you were living in, obviously, a house with other
8 people, as a very young child, you may be sharing a room
9 with a sibling in a family unit, but from around the age
10 of 12, you would be often sleeping in a room with -- so,
11 myself, I had to share a room with four single women,
12 adult women, and often -- I remember one or two of these
13 regularly changed as somebody off the street would come
14 in, and mentally unstable. I remember frequently waking
15 up to people shouting in the room, people shouting over
16 my bed, and that was as a 12-/13-year-old. So even
17 though I was still living in the same house as my
18 parents, I was already being moved out of that family
19 unit and expected to share a bedroom with adults.
20 Q. Ms Hirst, one of the things that you say at paragraph 1
21 of your statement is that those who wanted to leave or
22 who left the church or who challenged the leadership
23 were character assassinated, cursed or shunned.
24 A. Yes.
25 Q. Could you just give examples for the inquiry of what
1 this would look like in practice?
2 A. So people that were wanting to leave would be -- had
3 indicated they wanted to leave would be prayed over
4 very, very heavily by groups of men, rebuked in public,
5 shouted at, screamed at, and then, if they did go on to
6 leave, nobody could ever -- we were told we were never
7 to contact them, never see them again. I know of people
8 that left and then died, some, you know, by accident or
9 natural means, but then we would be told that that was
10 God's judgment on them that they had died.
11 They were spoken ill of, cursed. I remember people
12 leaving, and then the room having to face the exit and
13 curse that person that had left, and obviously
14 witnessing this as a child was highly traumatic and
15 brought so much fear, growing up with that fear that, if
16 you left, awful things would happen to you.
17 Q. You've described there the attitude and the posture
18 towards those who left. Just building on that, what was
19 the attitude within the church to those who weren't
20 members -- in other words, to wider society? How were
21 they viewed within the church?
22 A. So for those that weren't anything to do with the
23 church, do you mean?
24 Q. Yes, exactly.
25 A. Apart from the children going to school, there was no
1 contact with the outside world; there really wasn't.
2 Even the GP was part of the church.
3 Apart from the evangelism on the street to try to
4 recruit new members, there was just no mixing at all
5 with those from outside.
6 Q. Was there ever any discussion about outside agencies or
7 institutions or the government -- did members have views
8 about any of those things?
9 A. We were taught to be very suspicious of outside
10 organisations, and there was a lot of negativity even
11 about going to the doctors, that "God would heal" type
12 attitude. If people did question or raise concerns,
13 this was seen as a threat to the church. I do remember
14 teachers at school, you know, almost asking the
15 children, "Are you okay?" You could tell they were
16 concerned that things weren't right, but it's almost as
17 if they didn't know what to do and there was no way for
18 the outside world to approach the church. It was very,
19 very insular.
20 Q. Ms Hirst, you have described there, and also in your
21 statement, something of what life was like within these
22 communes. To what extent does that reflect what happens
23 within these regional centres today?
24 A. I think -- it's very hard for me to answer because these
25 were set up much later, after I had left for a fairly
1 long time. So I can't answer. I think things have
2 changed, and we are very -- but that's come from very
3 much us as an association exposing the truth and really
4 demanding that things are faced and addressed. I think
5 their safeguarding has changed. I know that women now
6 have some leadership roles, but I'm unable to answer
7 exactly how it looks like on a day-to-day basis.
8 Q. It may be that you are not able to assist with this, but
9 are you able to tell us anything about how those
10 centres, these regional centres, operate today? Do
11 members of the church still live at those centres in the
12 way that they used to? What sorts of activities take
13 place? Are you able to assist with that?
14 A. I don't know. I know that they have an outreach, so
15 things like food banks, that type of thing, for the
16 vulnerable on the streets.
17 I don't know. I think the centres are actually --
18 rather than accommodation for people to live in,
19 I believe they are more centres that people can access
20 where they hold their meetings, so almost like halls
21 where they hold meetings and run courses for people.
The testimony continues with questions on the more modern setup of the church (now almost entirely defunct), the police investigations and prosecutions.