I Grew Up in a Religious Cult in Essex
Singer Joseph Coward was brought up as part of a church in Essex, known then as New Frontiers International. His experience was one of homophobia, control tactics and a system that bore "all the calling cards of a cult".
The Newfrontiers is a socially conservative Christian group created in the 1970s
that today has more than 1,000 churches across 70 countries. While its neo-charismatic style – exorcisms, preaching in tongues, etc – give it an American edge, it's actually rooted in the working-class pentecostal tradition of England and Wales.
Twenty-three-year-old singer Joseph Coward was brought up as part of the church, in Essex, when it was known as the New Frontiers International. While he feels the NFI might be a different organisation today, his experience was one of homophobia, control tactics and a system that bore "all the calling cards of a cult". After suffering a psychiatric breakdown five years ago, he cut himself away from the group.
My earliest memory is being told about the existence of hell, and that it was something that could only be escaped by being part of this "thing" and believing in Jesus. That was by my mum, who had converted to New Frontiers International at 17 and brought me and my sisters up as part of it.
The NFI interpreted the Bible as literally true, with a particular emphasis on the real presence of heaven and hell. The community was very tight-knit, and as I only really socialised with people from the church, the whole thing was just part of my reality. I certainly didn't pay lip service to it – to me, what they taught was as real as gravity. And anyway, when you're seeing people falling over on the floor during services or praying in tongues, it looks pretty fucking real.
There were all kinds of things like that going on. At one particular Bible camp when I was about 12, one girl was "possessed" and a well-known charismatic preacher was called in to exorcise her. She started roaring and convulsing as the "demon" was cast out.
We'd also pray in tongues – a language that is unique to you and your communication with God. Actually, it's just a noise you make that doesn't mean anything, but you're convinced it does because it feels like it's coming from "somewhere else".
In hindsight, I think it was a case of mass hysteria and mass hypnosis – everybody sort of buys into the same thing, so it just starts happening. During the worship sessions, for instance, the congregation would get whipped up into a frenzy with this fast-paced music, before everything slowed down, creating a sort of trance-like, euphoric state. Everyone's basically hypnotised.
If you don't know about those techniques, which I didn't at the time, you're incredibly suggestible and will do what's expected of you unconsciously – especially when you've got 1,000 other people doing the same thing. So that thing you see on American TV where the pastor touches a congregation member and they fall to the floor? I've done that and it was real. I wasn't making it up.
I think the people leading the congregation and using these techniques aren't necessarily aware of what they're doing. What's probably happened is they've seen it done, and then do it themselves without really understanding it, calling it the Holy Spirit.
When I look back at it now, there was so much that was just bizarre.
When I was about 10 or 11, I was at my friend's house and we saw smoke coming up from his patio. It was summer, so we thought they were having a BBQ, but it turned out they were burning Harry Potter books. I didn't even think much of it at the time.
We also used to go to NFI youth camps, where we were strongly encouraged to attend these seminars on how to live a godly existence. There was a heavy emphasis on your sex life, and I remember having to sit through quite a long talk on why you shouldn't masturbate. It's funny now, but I took it seriously at the time. I thought, 'Okay, this is real shit and we shouldn't be making fun of it.'
There were really harmful aspects of it, too, and it had all the calling cards of a cult: the tight-knit community where everything's in-house, the psychological trappings, intended or otherwise, and the fact that people donated a lot of their personal assets to the group. People made a living from the church.
There was a small group that would make life decisions for people, and the whole setup was far more invasive than it first seemed. One of my friends in particular had a really hard time. When she was 16 she had a boyfriend, and that was just not OK. She felt very restricted and ended up developing an eating disorder. She wasn't allowed to seek treatment because it was firmly believed that this was something that could be solved by church and by prayer.
One thing I'll always remember is a guy who was gay, and who obviously felt conflicted about it because it was against the scripture. He must have approached a pastor about it, because it was then decided that he should "out" himself in front of the congregation and renounce his homosexuality.
Some leaders were there for the power, but I think a lot of people involved were genuine and didn't necessarily realise that what they were doing was manipulative or unhealthy. If you have a core set of beliefs, why wouldn't you use these techniques to convince people they're true?
But when something's based on fairly shaky foundations, one crack appears and the whole thing falls apart – and in my late teens I started to have questions.
READ ON BROADLY: Inside the Weird World of an Islamic 'Feminist' Cult
I'd been told a certain type of person wouldn't get into heaven, but when I started getting into the music scene I had a wider group of friends, and I could see they were good people. I also had questions about my budding sexuality.
I prayed a lot and wanted answers, and my aim, when I was around 18, was to find out as much as I could so I was able to defend my position intellectually. I didn't want to just believe something out of a sense of faith; I wanted to actually study it and figure it out and make sure that what I believed was legit. I'd hoped that this way, my faith would get even stronger. The opposite happened – the more I studied, the more I realised how much of what we were led to believe was based on logical fallacies and blind faith.
I stopped believing altogether and a huge part of my reality fell apart. Where there had been a lot of promise and hope there was just a sudden blankness. I had a breakdown, tried to kill myself and was committed to a psychiatric institute.
There was no real support for me, and after I was let out of hospital I went home (I already lived by myself at this point) and just got on with it. I've been "getting on with it" ever since, and haven't spoken to my mother in years.
I do run into people from NFI – it's interesting how quickly you're shut out once you leave. There's a lot of fear involved. Probably on some level people understand they've been sold a dud and really don't want to confront it. Their whole life is centred around this belief, and doubts are too much to consider when you're that far in.
I do carry a lot of resentment about it; it's hard not to. I just fervently wish it hadn't happened. Believe what you want to believe, but don't push it onto other people. I would consider that a form of abuse because we weren't given a choice, and it really fucked us up.
The church Joseph attended has since disbanded. VICE contacted Newfrontiers prior to the publication of this piece and they declined to comment.
More from VICE:
I Grew Up Believing in a False Prophet
This Is How British Cults Work
The Bizarre and Terrifying Propaganda Art of the Children of God