Church of Bible Understanding

A controversial evangelical Christian group with a troubled history of alleged cult activities and exploitation.

The Church of Bible Understanding, originally known as the Forever Family, was established in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1971 by Stewart Traill as a Christian new religious movement with evangelical teachings. It underwent a name change in 1976 and has garnered attention and controversy, particularly for its communal living arrangements and the authoritative leadership style of Traill.

Stewart Traill had a background marked by a sudden and profound religious conversion experience, which eventually led him to depart from traditional church structures. Following his expulsion from a Pentecostal church, Traill began teaching the Bible and quickly developed a following. In 1976, he renamed the Forever Family to the Church of Bible Understanding.

Traill’s leadership was notably authoritarian, with him asserting that he was the sole individual capable of correctly interpreting the scriptures. This led to practices within the group that included encouraging members to sever ties with their families to better commit to the organization’s goals. Members were also required to live communally and were often expected to work for minimal wages, contributing all earnings to the church. Traill, meanwhile, was estimated to have become a millionaire from the group’s activities. Emotional expression was also reportedly discouraged, and no marriages or relationships were permitted among members for decades. In one notable incident, Rev. Bruce Ritter of Covenant House accused CBU of enticing 17 youth out of a shelter with promises of salvation, leading to a state court injunction against the group. As a result of these practices, the organization has faced accusations of being a cult, with allegations that Traill profited substantially from the group’s activities.

During its peak in the 1970s, the Church of Bible Understanding expanded rapidly, boasting 10,000 members and operating 110 communes, primarily based in New York. However, over time, membership significantly declined to a few hundred. The church’s business ventures include “Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning,” which inspired a storyline in the popular TV show “Seinfeld.” Another successful commercial venture is Olde Good Things, a chain of stores in New York City selling architectural salvage and antiques, which has funneled millions into the church.

CBU’s activities extended beyond the United States, most notably in Haiti, where they operated orphanages. However, these facilities have come under severe criticism for poor living conditions and mismanagement. In November 2013, an investigation by the Associated Press revealed sub-standard housing conditions in these orphanages. A tragic event highlighted these issues when a fire in one of their Haitian orphanages in February 2020 resulted in the deaths of 15 children, drawing international attention and criticism regarding the group’s ability to manage such institutions safely. The cause of the fire was attributed to the use of candles due to an inoperative generator.

Stewart Traill, who lived in a church-owned mansion in Florida with his wife and some female followers, passed away in 2018, marking a significant turning point for the Church of Bible Understanding, although it continues to operate both in the U.S. and internationally. The group has consistently been enveloped in controversy, particularly concerning its internal practices and its handling of its business operations and care facilities abroad​​​​.

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