A Tennessee preacher who advocates doses of physical pain as the best strategy for keeping wayward offspring in check - a swipe from a length of plastic plumbing tubing works well, he suggests - is coming under scrutiny after his teachings have been linked to the deaths of three children.

Michael Pearl, pastor of the No Greater Joy ministry church at Cane Creek in Pleasantville, has garnered a following of Christian parents across the country, many of them members of the home-schooling movement, who take guidance on dispensing of corporal punishment from his book, To Train up a Child, which he first self-published in 1994 and to date has sold nearly 700,000 copies.

The message of the book and of Pearl's teachings - he has a popular website and leads seminars - rests on a literal interpretation of passages in the Bible such as this one from the Book of Proverbs (23.13): "Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die."

Tragically, however, children have died. The pressure on Pearl to explain his child-rearing philosophy grew further yesterday with a front-page article in the New York Times detailing three cases of children dying allegedly after extreme abuse by parents who were disciples of his teaching.


The teachings of Pearl, 66, first came under the microscope after a North Carolina mother, Lynn Paddock, was convicted in the suffocation death of her young son, Sean, in 2006.

At trial, some of her other children, all adopted, testified they had regularly been beaten with plumbers' tubing as Pearl had recommended.

The pastor insists that his book makes clear that smacking of children must never be taken to extremes or lead to bone or muscle damage or bruising. If parents ignore that admonition it makes no sense to blame him or his book.

The surfacing of two more cases will reignite a debate in the US about the use of corporal punishment on children. It is a deeply divisive issue, with Christian conservatives largely embracing it as a legitimate option for parents, while the more liberal parts of society reject it as abhorrent.

The most recent case involves 11-year-old Hana Williams, found dead in the back garden of Larry and Carri Williams' home in Washington state, in May. The girl had been starved and her limbs showed signs of beatings. Denying children food when they misbehave is also discussed in Pearl's book which, prosecutors say, was a favourite with Carri Williams.

Plumbers' tubing, meanwhile, was used in the killing of 7-year-old Lydia Schatz in California last year. Her parents, Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz, were accused of using plastic piping to beat the girl for hours. The Schatzes are serving long prison terms.

- Independent