In a 2015 interview, a banished member says most of Gloriavale community unaware of leader's past

A lecturer in theology at the University of Auckland said many of the core beliefs of Gloriavale were similar to evangelical Christian groups, but the isolation of the community made it different.

Dr Nick Thompson said the second clear difference of the community was "their intense focus on the authority of this one man Hopeful Christian".

He classified Gloriavale as a sectarian religious movement because of their "sharp distinction" between their community and the outside world.

"I guess all religious groups have a sense of difference from those that done belong, but for some those differences cover a lot more aspects of life than others.


"At one level in their decision to remove themselves from the rest of the world they're not that different from early monastic christian group that have traditionally done that thing."

The difficulties the young couples would have faced in their decision to leave Gloriavale wasn't something Dr Thompson had looked into from an academic level, but he said he felt "concerned" for the members on the outside.

"Reading the coverage I felt quite concerned for the families and hoped that there was some sort of close community to welcome them in and help them readjust.

"It's not just a question of finding a new community but also just of making a living and things like that when you have this very limited skill-set and even education that you bring from [Gloriavale]."

Meanwhile, it has been revealed that most of the families living in the secretive Gloriavale Christian Community are unaware of their leader's sex abuse conviction and believe he was jailed for preaching the gospel, a former member says.

Elijah Overcomer was evicted from the isolated West Coast religious community after questioning leader Neville Cooper over his 1994 conviction for indecent assault on young women, for which he served 11 months in prison.

"Most people in there believe that it's because he was preaching the gospel. So everyone says, 'oh, evil people put him in jail because he preached the gospel'," Mr Overcomer told NZME. News Service.

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"Most people would not have any idea, and if you told them why he went to jail [they'd say], 'you're a liar, you're just accusing our leader'."

It would be difficult to convince the small community in Haupiri to believe their leader had committed such a crime, he said. "No one's going to believe you ... they would take it as an attack on their church."

Mr Overcomer was banished two years ago from Gloriavale after questioning Cooper, also known as Hopeful Christian, over his ability to lead with such a conviction on his record.

Mr Overcomer was eventually joined by his wife Rosanna, who fled the community to be with him, bringing their three children - and another on the way - with her.

That was the "biggest issue" for Mr Overcomer, that men can be evicted and completely cut off from their families. "It's anyone who argues with the leadership or questions or doesn't agree with them is getting kicked out of their own homes, and that's really wrong, and I would like to see that stopped," he said.

TVNZ's Sunday programme reported that a total of 65 people had left the Gloriavale community in the past eight years, including 22 in the past two months.

That was because holes were being exposed in the church leadership, Mr Overcomer said, and people were beginning to believe the leaders had "taught falsely the word of God".

"That seems to be the biggest attraction to people in there, it's like, 'oh so I can be a better Christian outside of here than I can be here'," he said.

"So I guess that's what's winning people over now."

Children dressed in Cooperite clothing walk at Gloriavale, home of the Cooperite religious sect. Photo / TVNZ
Children dressed in Cooperite clothing walk at Gloriavale, home of the Cooperite religious sect. Photo / TVNZ

While some may be encouraged by reports of settlement into the outside world by people like Mr Overcomer, he thought the bigger draw was spiritual. "They would [be encouraged by his story], but then the leadership would say we're false Christians. They would rather us not be Christians because that has a bigger pull on people, because they'll have more confidence in leaving."

His speaking out against the church would be painted as an attack on the whole community, Mr Overcomer said. "They'll get told that Elijah's having a go at the church."

His family had "heaps of help and support from other people" in settling into life in Fairlie, where they now live and work. "We've done really well."

Another couple who left the community after concluding they had been living in a "false system" have also successfully reintegrated into the modern world.

In a statement James and Hope Ben Canaan said their family had settled in well in a new home and a farm job in South Canterbury.

Attempts to contact a representative of Gloriavale were unsuccessful. The church told the Sunday programme: "Our trust is in God and he is still on the throne. His judgments are righteous."

Life at Gloriavale

• Neville Cooper, also known as Hopeful Christian, began the Gloriavale community in Rangiora in 1969.

• In 1991 the community moved to Haupiri Valley, West Coast.

• The Gloriavale website says 80 families live in the community.

• The community's income comes from dairy farming, deer farming and the manufacture of meat meal.

• The members of the church and community wear standardised modest dress and the women wear scarves covering their hair.