Book Review: Bleeding For Jesus – John Smyth and the cult of Iwerne camps, by Andrew Graystone

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Review initially posted on my Goodreads account, where I rated this book as 5/5.

I first heard of John Smyth and his appalling behaviour a couple of years ago, when the scandal around Jonathan Fletcher first broke. Fletcher was the minister of Emmanuel Church in Wimbledon from 1982 to 2012, and myself and my family were members of it from 1999 to 2009. It’s a wealthy and powerful church – or at least it was – and Fletcher was an outspoken and controversial, but respected and revered leader. Uncompromising and single-minded, there was something of a personality cult around him, and he was hero-worshipped by the very prosperous and privileged congregation, many of whom were extremely influential people in the world of business and politics. Fletcher was closely involved in Iwerne camps, run for boys at elite public schools, and designed to build in them a very uncompromising evangelical faith, while preparing them for influence and high office in the world of work and public life.

Anyway, in 2019, it became commonly known that Fletcher had been involved in some very disturbing spiritual and physical abuse, humiliating and sexually assaulting young men he was responsible for mentoring. The whole business has been appallingly handled, and Fletcher has so far largely escaped justice. The revelations that have come out of the church strongly indicate that he spent years building systems that would leave him free to abuse, and he maintained loyalty and silence through what was effectively a reign of terror. I think there’s much we don’t know about what he did as yet, and I fear he’ll take that information to his grave, as so far he’s been completely unrepentant and refused to co-operate with any enquiries into his disgusting behaviour. It’s left me very angry indeed – I was a loyal member of his congregation, who gave a lot of time, money and effort to the church at a time when I had a lot of problems of my own to deal with. I was never directly abused by Fletcher, but I now recognise that his supposed “benign dictatorship”, which was often joked about, was a literal reign of terror as far as many young men were concerned. I feel that people like me, who attended the church in good faith and believed in what it was doing, have been taken for mugs and used as human shields, as Fletcher publically condemned homosexuality and sex outside marriage, while privately indulging in some very sick and twisted sexually-motivated abuse.

Anyway, much of the media coverage of the Fletcher case turned the spotlight onto Iwerne camps, and someone Fletcher and his brother, also a minister, clearly knew well – John Smyth. This man was a well-known barrister who in the seventies was involved in a number of high profile cases relating to public morals, often campaigning and fighting alongside Mary Whitehouse. He was a well-known “family values” campaigner with a very uncompromising evangelical faith. He was involved in the Iwerne camps for many years, and it also transpired that he was fond of literally beating the living daylights out of the young boys he befriended and mentored. This went on for some years in the UK, and when he was found out in 1982, the Iwerne leadership tried to hush up the whole thing, silence the victims, and enable Smyth to quietly leave the country. He moved to Zimbabwe, where he started running similar camps – the abuse got even worse, and a 14-year-old boy died on a camp in 1992.

Sadly, Smyth died in 2018 without ever facing justice. Channel 4 broke the story in 2017 and confronted Smyth, but no police action was taken before his death in South Africa. The suffering of his victims has been absolutely horrendous.

This book tells the whole sorry tale of what Smyth did, why he did it, how the story emerged, and the terrible injustices, collusions, mistakes and missed opportunities that followed. Jonathan Fletcher’s own abuses are also touched upon, as they come from the same culture, and were allowed to happen because of a very particular set of beliefs, and the idea that the Gospel must never be brought into disrepute.

The author deserves hearty thanks for bringing this awful tale to light, and for telling the story of the unfortunate victims of Smyth. The graphic descriptions of the abuse they suffered is extremely disturbing, and made my skin crawl. Smyth used brutal grooming and manipulation techniques to terrify his victims into silence, picking on vulnerable young men who he beat viciously in a soundproofed shed in his large garden. He even kept nappies in there for them to wear afterwards, to contain the blood. He was free to abuse for at least twenty years, while leadership of the Iwerne camps dithered and ignored the pleas of victims for help.

This was a hard book to read, as I’ve had my own extremely negative experiences in church, although they were nowhere near as bad as this. Unfortunately there’s much I recognise here, as the particular form of uncompromising evangelical theology, combined with public school culture and an authoritarian atmosphere, creates an environment in which abuse is almost inevitable. You can’t believe the sorts of things these people believe about God without it making a terrible mess somewhere.

The author looks at the life of the founder of the Iwerne camps, Eric Nash, and his life was an odd one. There were so many warning signs that were missed, and his huge influence and strange lifestyle ended up being replicated over many generations. There’s no doubt whatsoever that abuse got ingrained into Iwerne culture, and this has got a foothold throughout the more conservative parts of the Church of England.

This book is a hugely important read for anyone concerned about abuse of power in religious environments, and what can be done about it. Personally, I’ve lost my faith over things like this, and I think the whole evangelical package is so corrupt and harmful that it’s completely irredeemable. It angers me that Emmanuel Church still exists with many of the same leaders, the Iwerne camps continue to take place, and the trust that runs them hasn’t done anywhere near enough to accept responsibility and compensate victims, who have been absolutely ruined by Smyth’s perverted violence.

I very rarely give books five stars, but this one is a deserving case, because very rarely are stories like this told, and it’s very important that they are. It’s left me thinking about a lot of my own experiences, and what I should do to ensure that no-one goes through the same things that I have.

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