Alright… so I’ve had my nap and finally finished Fleur Beale’s fascinating book, Sins of the Father: The Long Shadow of a Religious Cult. Neville Cooper, who died of cancer at age 92 in 2018, was the founder of the Gloriavale Christian Community currently located on the West Coast of New Zealand. Many people regard the Gloriavale Christian Community as a religious cult. I had not heard of it until recently, when I got a message from a lawyer in New Zealand who invited me to write about it. This book, originally published in 2009, is about Phil Cooper, one of the sons of Neville Cooper, and his first wife, Gloria.
I recently reviewed Daughter of Gloriavale, which was written by Lilia Tarawa, one of Neville Cooper’s granddaughters and one of Phil Cooper’s nieces. Before I get going too far into this review, I have to explain something. Due to a revelation Neville Cooper got from God, he later went by the name “Hopeful Christian”. Many of his followers have also changed their original names, mostly to adjectives that describe a “Christlike” quality. For instance, Neville has children named Hope, Faith, Miracle, and Charity. Lilia Tarawa is one of Miracle’s daughters. Sins of the Father is about Phil Cooper, who is Lilia’s uncle, and six of the children he had with his first wife, Sandy, who was later renamed Prayer. Sandy/Prayer also has another daughter by Phil. Her name is Cherish, and at the time the book was published, Phil had never met her in person. Phil also has a daughter named Jess by his second wife.
Phil Cooper was born in Australia in 1962. His parents moved him and his then ten siblings to New Zealand in 1967, when he was five years old. At the time, Neville Cooper was a traveling preacher who had developed a following and was invited to speak around the country. However, his teachings were at odds with mainstream Christianity. He was considered a fundamentalist. So Cooper decided to start his own community at Haupiri, located on New Zealand’s West Coast. He eventually named the community Gloriavale, in honor of his first wife, Gloria, who had predeceased him by many years. At this writing, several hundred people still live in Gloriavale. The women wear long blue dresses with white headdresses. The men wear blue shirts and blue trousers. The women of the community do what’s commonly considered traditional women’s work– cooking, cleaning, childcare, teaching, and the like. The men work in Gloriavale’s businesses or do manual labor such as farming or construction.
As he got older, Phil Cooper decided he wanted to leave Gloriavale. He chafed under his father’s oppressive rules, as well as his narcissistic and controlling behaviors. When he was sixteen years old, Phil ran away from Gloriavale, eventually landing in Australia. He had nothing, but managed with help from kind strangers. At one point, having landed in Brisband, he met Mormon missionaries who helped him out by giving him a ride. He ended up converting to the LDS religion, knowing that his father would disown him if he knew. Neville Cooper considered Mormonism as “false religion”. But as a sixteen year old, free from the compound, Neville wasn’t that worried about temporarily being Mormon. He bought himself a tape player, something that was forbidden in Gloriavale, and became familiar with the contemporary music of the late 1970s. Eventually, he was tracked down by his sister, Charity, who tried to talk him into coming home. Although he didn’t want to go home, he realized he missed his family, and he returned to Gloriavale to face his father.
When he first arrived home, Phil’s father welcomed him and he was allowed to return to his apprenticeship. But being on his own had given Phil a bit of an attitude that Neville didn’t like. Phil wore a watch, which Neville considered “worldly”, and he didn’t like that the young man had a tape player and listened to worldly music. So Phil was subjected to his father’s discipline. There he sat in Neville’s room, where 25 to 30 of the community’s men were also gathered. Neville severely chastised his son, demanding that he change his name because he didn’t want to be associated with him. Neville took Phil’s beloved watch and smashed it. Phil didn’t react, so his father got his mother and sisters to lay on the guilt, pressuring Phil to give in to his father’s demands for compliance and obedience.
Neville tried to threaten Phil with stories about how terrifying and dangerous the world was, but Phil had just come from the world, so he knew it wasn’t true. Then Neville told him that God would do terrible things to him and he would die a gruesome death if he didn’t repent. Finally, after hours of berating and extreme pressure, Phil cracked because he was exhausted. And then he took that precious tape player that he bought in Australia and threw it on the floor, breaking it. Meanwhile, Phil’s older sister, Faith, and her husband, Alan, had decided to leave Gloriavale with their five children. Like Phil, they found the community’s rules stifling. Moreover, Neville Cooper was a sexual deviant, who dictated just about everything in his followers’ lives, from who they were allowed to marry, to what they named their children, to what they wore and ate. Unlike Phil, Faith and Alan were successful in leaving permanently the first time they left.
For awhile, after he ran away, Phil became an obedient, model son, working very hard to win his father’s approval. In 1981, he decided he wanted to marry a young woman named Sandy, so he asked his father’s permission and Neville agreed. Phil was 18 and Sandy was 21 when they got married. They had plenty of time to make many children, so that’s what they did. Neville constantly reminded his followers of the importance of being Godly and obedient. However, he and the other men of the community used pornography. Young women who put on weight were forced to fast and were verbally abused. Sandy was fondled by Neville, and some of the girls in the community were forced to join the elders in hot tubs. Children grew up living in one room with their parents and witnessing them having sex.
Neville also believed that once girls hit puberty, they were ready to be married and start having babies. Pregnancy was an opportunity for the women not to work as hard, since they were allowed to rest more when they were having babies. Children in the community were involved with overseeing births, most of which took place at home, unless there were medical issues. Childbirth was considered totally natural and something that should not take place in a hospital unless there was a medical need.
In 1995, Neville Cooper went to prison for about a year on sexual abuse charges. His son, Phil, and some of the girls who had fled the community testified against him. His followers remained steadfast in their loyalty to their leader.
Before long, Phil Cooper was once again at odds with his father’s strict rules and abusive methods. When he was 27 years old, with help from a couple of his brothers, Phil left Gloriavale for good. At the time, he had five children between the ages of eight and sixteen months. After he left, he was told by a community elder that he would no longer have any communication with his children. Phil was heartbroken, so he decided to abduct his children, and his wife, Sandy. Again, he was able to pull off his plan with help from a couple of his brothers. Phil and his family eventually landed in the United States, where Sandy gave birth to Phil’s sixth child, a boy named Andreas. Sandy was never happy outside of Gloriavale, though. She went back twice, despite Phil’s protests, because she didn’t think she could live a Godly life without being in the Gloriavale community. After the second time, Sandy stayed, and later granted him a divorce.
But unbeknownst to Phil, when she left him the second time, Sandy was pregnant with his seventh child. He did not know about his daughter, Cherish, until she was much older, and at the time this book was published, had never seen her in person. One of his other daughters, Dawn, also willingly went back to the compound. The rest remain happily outside of Gloriavale. They have been able to go back a couple of times, but with every visit, there is both the pressure to stay and conform to the community’s culty standards, and careful minding of their visit so that they don’t influence anyone else to leave.
Phil and the other children eventually left the United States, having spent some time in the Hutterite Community in Minnesota. One of his children, Andreas, was named after one of the Hutterites who helped Phil. That group was apparently a much nicer one and more Christlike, and they treated Phil and his family with kindness. But they needed to go home and be closer to their family. So Phil and his kids moved to Australia, even though Andreas, having been born in the USA, was an American citizen. They had to get him Australian citizenship.
Fleur Beale has done a fine job with Phil Cooper’s exciting and amazing story of escaping his father’s cult. She’s a good writer, and her style is engaging and interesting. I liked that she included photos, some of which are in color, and is careful to explain some of the more complicated aspects of this story.
Oddly enough, aspects of this story and some of the methods used to get Phil to comply with his father’s wishes reminded me a lot of my husband Bill’s ex wife’s methods. One of the ways Neville would get his children to fall in line was to get other family members to put pressure on them and employ abusive methods like shunning, lovebombing, and group or family pressure. Bill’s ex wife also does this. Younger daughter has said that when she left home, her sisters would call or email her, berating her for being on a “high horse” or being “prideful” and telling her she should humble herself. Incidentally, when Bill was freshly divorced and leaving Mormonism, younger daughter also accused him of being “prideful”. Ex resorted to extreme measures to get her way and always punishes anyone who goes against her wishes. Neville Cooper was like that, too.
Neville Cooper/Hopeful Christian is often described as a very charismatic narcissist. Everything had to be done under his conditions; it was his way or the highway. Bill’s ex wife is the same way, and he has described her as “charismatic”– the type of person who can sell ice to Eskimos. Or, at least she can if they are unaware of the type of person she is.
Neville Cooper sounds like he was the same way, controlling and convincing people to do everything in exactly the way he wanted it done. A wide variety of abuses were employed to keep everyone in line, to include ostracizing members of the community. It’s no wonder Phil Cooper couldn’t stand it anymore. He recognizes that he has some of his father’s qualities, too, although he does his best to temper them. The children who left the compound with him are grateful that he got them out, even though they had to grow up without their mother. Neville Cooper was addicted to power, and he was ruthless in his quests to get it.
This is an excellent book about Gloriavale, and a young man who decided to risk everything to escape it, even though his father was the leader of the cult. Phil Cooper’s story is very interesting, and I think Fleur Beale has done well in writing the tale. I would definitely recommend Sins of the Father: The Long Shadow of a Religious Cult to anyone who is interested in learning more about this community, especially if it’s paired with other books about Gloriavale. It really is an interesting cult– and a reminder that the United States is not the only place where dangerous and charismatic leaders get into power and enslave people.
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