Beating posh boys for Jesus: John Smyth and his fanatical evangelicalism

This post was originally published here

Barristerblogger generally avoids religion. It is a subject of enormous importance but I have little enthusiasm for most of the arcane disputes over which religious people love to argue, and sometimes to kill each other.

Sometimes, though, it is unavoidable. The story about John Smyth QC flogging posh teenage boys in the name of Christianity is hard to ignore.

First, however, a warning. Channel 4 is a far more responsible outfit than some other news organisations that have peddled salacious stories about boys, sex and “top people.” Nevertheless, fairness to Mr Smyth demands that we keep an open mind, especially if he volunteers an account of his own. 

That said, there is no doubt that the Channel 4 story is grounded in a solid basis of fact. That Mr Smyth knew the named complainants seems incontrovertible. That he espoused (and probably still espouses) a conservative Christian evangelicalism also seems pretty much beyond doubt. When surprised by Cathy Newman’s microphone Mr Smyth chose not to answer any of herquestions – we should not blame him for that – and so we do not know his explanation.

We should also bear in mind that even if Channel 4 has behaved responsibly, any story involving sex, teenagers and the privileged classes is liable to get out of hand; throw in floggings, a top QC (and part-time judge) and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and you can bet that before you can say “Operation Midland” the internet will be awash with hogwash about Uncle John and Uncle Justin bringing out their canes at parties attended by Leon Brittan, Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris.

The story was very vividly told by Channel 4 and more details have since emerged. Some of the beatings took place at Smyth’s home near Winchester. According to one man, Mark Stibbe, he was invited back to the house, and

He made me strip off my clothes and he got out a cane and started to beat me. He said, ‘This is the discipline that God likes, it’s what’s going to help you become holy’.”

The Bishop of Guildford, Andrew Watson, has now revealed that he too was beaten in the shed, a “violent, excruciating and shocking” event, although in his case, unlike some others, it was a one off. He has expressed the view that:

… absolutely nothing that happened in the Smyth shed was the natural fruit of any Christian theology that I’ve come across before or since. It was abuse perpetrated by a misguided, manipulative and dangerous man, tragically playing on the longing of his young victims to live godly lives.”

A third pupil at Winchester, so far unnamed, is said to have been so traumatised by the experience that he attempted suicide.

Smyth’s apparent taste for flagellation first came to the attention of the Church in 1982 after his behaviour was reported to the Iwerne Trust, a Church organisation that, amongst other things, organised “Christian summer camps” for public school-boys. One of the aims was to foster their leadership potential. Mr Smyth was the Chairman of the Trust. To my mind, even without the beatings, the camps sound perfectly horrible on every conceivable level, and so they apparently were for some of those who came under the spell of Mr Smyth. The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was a camper and “dormitory officer” in the early 1980s. Mr Welby has said, and there is no reason to disbelieve him, that he did not know that Smyth was in the habit of beating boys.

Nevertheless in due course the Trust heard disturbing allegations about its Chairman’s activities, and, to its credit, a report was prepared in which shocking details were given:

… the boys were given beatings of 100 strokes as punishment for masturbation and 400 for exhibiting the sin of pride. One was said to have received a beating of 800 lashes for an unspecified sin.

The report says that eight of the boys received a total of 14,000 lashes, with two sharing 8,000 strokes over a three-year period.”
After administering the floggings, “Mr Smyth was said to have kissed the necks of the naked boys after beating them, and to have recited bible verses about the virtues of punishment.”

All the recipients of the beatings were said to be in their late teens or early twenties. It is unclear whether any were under the age of 18, something of potential legal significance.

The report has not been published in full by Channel 4, but the broadcaster displayed a page from the report which revealed a little more beyond the details of the physical violence itself.

First, as the blogger Richard Bartholomew has pointed out, Mr Smyth does not seem to have acted alone. The floggers are described as “operators” and given the letters “J” and “S”. If J is Mr Smyth, he asks, who is S? It is a pertinent question not least because it seems that “S” beat even harder than “J”:

“S, wanting to be the best for God, beat as hard as he could.”

Secondly it gives a decidedly creepy explanation for the beatings:

The motives were always seen as good by operators and participants – the sanctifying of young Christian men and the blessings of fatherly discipline. I believe this but cannot really understand it. Prayer, praise and loving concern in Christ’s name were evident at every point.”

Thirdly, although the report condemned the beatings, it did so partly on abstruse theological grounds that had nothing to do with their possible criminality.

The practice destroys the direct access of the believer to the Lord (Hebrews x.19 etc.) and makes the way always to be through one of the operators with whom sins were shared. This seems to strike at the great Reformation truth, and is very akin to the Roman Catholic system of confession and penance with the list of sins to be shared with J and S, and the severity of the beatings being proportionate to the seriousness of the fall as they saw it.”

Smyth and his fellow operator were being criticised not just for the beatings themselves, but also because the beatings appeared to be a flirtation with Popery. To my mind that seems a relatively minor issue, but of course I am no theologian.

Here I need to make a disclosure: I was a pupil at Winchester College from 1975 to 1979, both my parents taught at the school and my father was “second master” (in effect the deputy head) for about 17 years from 1962, although he had reverted to being merely an assistant teacher by 1982. I therefore grew up surrounded by the school. It was my home as well as my school so you will understand that I feel a considerable affection for the place, and indeed for the excellent former Headmaster, John Thorn, a good and wise man who is now in his 90s.

As far as I know I never met Smyth, although in the late 1970s his name was certainly familiar to many people in the school community. Within the college there was an organisation of evangelical Christians called “Christian Forum” with which Smyth was in some way associated, although how formally I have no idea. He was not a teacher at the school, although his name would crop up from time to time. Some of my more evangelically-minded contemporaries used to receive invitations to Sunday lunch at his house. I never received any of this hospitality, if that is the correct term, so I certainly cannot speak to the truth of his “infamous shed” or of the canes with which he is said to have administered savage beatings as punishment for masturbation or impure thoughts.

I never heard of any violence, although I was vaguely aware of the Christian Forum’s obsessive disapproval of homosexuality. In those days there was nothing very unusual about that: sex between consenting men had only been legal since 1967, and then only where both parties were over 21 and so long as nobody else was present. In the 1970s a belief in gay equality was very far from mainstream; indeed it would probably have been considered eccentric by most. One housemaster even gave a moral lecture to the boys, gravely informing them that “homosexuality leaves a very nasty taste in my mouth.”

By those who were not amongst its initiates the Christian Forum was regarded as a clique occupying the ground somewhere between ridiculous and unpleasant. There was of course something of an overlap with the more mainstream Christianity in the school, but to those on the outside the Forum members seemed inclined towards self-righteousness and sanctimony, and it did not help that they operated in partial secrecy. One particular group used to hold regular prayer meetings in rooms above the school bookshop. On one occasion word leaked out that prayers had been said for my father, a quietly religious but very tolerant man who loathed the Christian Forum both for its evangelical theology and because he didn’t much like many its members, at least one of whom was a member of the teaching staff. The feeling was mutual, although on one occasion it leaked out that the prayer leader – who for all I know could have been John Smyth – was said to have announced that prayers would be held for my father, “because even Martin Scott can be saved.”

As far as I know the only thing my father had in common with Smyth was that both of them owned canes. My father’s was a traditional whippy walking-stick-shaped model, and as a child I remember playing with it until it got lost. When he started teaching in the late 1940s a cane was regarded as an essential tool of the teacher’s trade, like a mortar board or a pocket full of chalk, and he said that he had bought it to kit himself out on his first visit to an educational supply shop. I’m pretty sure that he never used it to beat anybody at all and absolutely certain that he never did so while he taught at Winchester.

Nevertheless, canes were still in use in the 1970s: my own house-master, a normally genial and humane man, beat me with one once or twice, but fortunately his heart wasn’t really in it. Apparently he had had to borrow the cane from the more punitively minded housemaster next door. I certainly never encountered anyone like the Rev Giles Fraser’s headmaster who kept a collection of canes in his study – “Thick ones; thin, whippy ones; long and short. Different materials” – and often sent the young Giles to bed with his “underpants drenched in blood.” My underpants remained very much on and blood-free.

Mr Smyth has described his motivation for beating the young when he was in Zimbabwe, the country to which he moved after leaving Winchester. In an extraordinary letter to parents of boys – it is not quite clear how young – booked to attend one of his Zimbabwe summer camps he wrote:

We must, however, have good discipline and experience has shown that with so many high-spirited boys we need some form of sanction. I never cane the boys, but I do whack them with a table tennis bat when necessary.

Such are the opportunities for pranks that I sometimes have to use this fairly liberally to deter high-spirited naughtiness and to ensure obedience and reasonable standards of tidiness.”

According to men spoken to by Channel 4, he sometimes beat them so hard with table-tennis bats that the bats broke. His ostensible reason for the beatings in Zimbabwe was, it seems, the conventional – if rather old-fashioned – belief in the need to discipline rowdy youths.

He has not been so forthcoming about his reasons for beating young men in his garden shed at Winchester. They were not high-spirited youths playing pranks: on the contrary they were (if my memory serves) polite and well-behaved young students. He did not beat them because they threw bread rolls at his lunch table but because they confessed to impure thoughts. Here we may need to look into Mr Smyth’s writings, which for those of us that did not know him may give more of a clue to his otherwise inexplicable reasons.

Mr Smyth seems to be a man who sees spiritual value in suffering. Unfortunately his personal website seems to have been taken down, but some of his sermon notes are still available. One document entitled 1000 Whys: The Problem of Suffering talks about “personal suffering” being “the path to maturity and greater holiness.”

There develops, doesn’t there, an indefinable something, a fragrance, about those who take their suffering well?”

The word “fragrance” is rather jarring, bringing to mind the extraordinary summing up of Caulfield J in the Jeffery Archer libel trial:

Has she elegance? Has she fragrance? Would she have, without the strain of this trial, radiance?”

Anyway Smyth goes on to refer to Hebrews Chapter 12, which contains plenty of material which seems to support the idea that suffering, and even whipping, is a good in itself:

6. For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.

7 If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?

  1. But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.
  2. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?
  3. For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.
  4. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.

It does not seem a very great leap from a belief that “grievous chastening “… yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby,” to the belief that it was Mr Smyth’s holy duty to administer the chastisement.

A great many questions remain.

Both the Church and Winchester College have questions to answer as to why they did not report the contents of the 1982 report to the police. We simply do not know the answer. Channel 4 reported that the School had not done so because the “parents” of the boys concerned asked them not to do so.

The 1982 report was given to both the Iwerne Trust and Winchester College. Neither reported Smyth or his fellow “operator” to the police at the time. With the benefit of hindsight this was no doubt a mistake, although it is not entirely obvious what the police would or could have done. The report makes clear that although some 8 out of the 13 “young men” – it sounds as if they were probably adults in law – had suffered bleeding “on most occasions,” they might not have been willing witnesses for the prosecution. Faced with witnesses who believed that they had been beaten “with the blessings of fatherly discipline” and with “prayer, praise and loving concern in Christ’s name,” it seems very likely that the police would not have pursued the matter at the time.

There is another possible consideration. It is not certain that what Mr Smyth and his fellow “operator” did would even have been considered criminal. Corporal punishment of children was still legal. As late as 1987 a teacher was cleared of assault occasioning actual bodily harm on the orders of a Crown Court judge, even though his caning of a 13 year old boy had left large bruises and weals on the boy’s buttocks. Mr Smyth, of course, is not accused of punishing children, but of beating people who were (in most cases at least) legally adults, with their consent. It may be that the consent was not freely given, but for what it is worth the Iwerne report seems to suggest otherwise.

The criminality of consensual violence against the person was not always clear (and in fact in some respects it still isn’t). In 1993 the House of Lords decided (by a slim 3-2 majority) in R v, Brown [1994] 1 AC 212 that violence resulting in injuries during the course of consensual sadomasochistic sex between adults was unlawful. Reading the speeches of the majority is to enter a different era. One is struck by their Lordships distaste for homosexuality almost as much as by their distaste for violence. There was then (as Lord Mustill noted), and in fact is still now, no direct authority on whether consent is a defence to a charge of wounding during the course of “religious mortification.” It was then, and it remains today, uncharted territory. There is at least a possibility that the courts in the 1980s would have been more forgiving towards violence inflicted out of an ostensibly religious motive than they were in the 1990s towards violence inflicted out of an openly sexual motive.

Of course, one question might have been whether the beatings were at least partly inspired by a sexual motive, despite the fact that nothing unambiguously sexual took place. Interesting – which is another way of saying difficult and uncertain – questions of law might have arisen as to whether consent (normally a defence to a charge of indecent assault) was truly given if Mr Smyth had concealed an underlying sexual motive. Generations of law students have, for example, learned of the case of Williams (1924) 17 Cr. App. R. 56 in which a singing teacher was convicted of raping a 16 year old and indecently assaulting a 19 year old girl having procured their consent by telling them that having sexual relations with him would improve their singing voices. As the Lord Chief Justice put it: “The girl never consented to an act of sexual intercourse; she consented to the act not because she thought it was an act of sexual intercourse, but because she believed it was a necessary operation.”

And providing the young men were under 21 their consent would have been irrelevant to a charge under what is now regarded as the notorious S.13 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956:

It is an offence for a man to commit an act of gross indecency with another man, whether in public or private, or to be a party to the commission by a man of an act of gross indecency with another man.”

But whatever the criminal law might have said about the matter, without the willing participation of the victims no prosecution could have succeeded. In such circumstances one can perhaps more easily understand why the Headmaster – who had a duty to protect his school from what he undoubtedly regarded as the thoroughly undesirable influence of Smyth – would decide that the next best thing to do was to insist that Smyth stayed away from the school for good.

Mr Smyth has made no public comment since the Channel 4 story was broadcast.

The Hampshire Police are now investigating the allegations. It is possible that he could yet face charges.

The Bishop of Guildford may well be correct in saying that what he did “was not the natural fruit of any Christian theology,” but clearly Smyth’s somewhat fanatical brand of evangelical Christianity led him to believe in, or at the very least to pretend to believe in, the spiritual value of flogging young men.

The Bishop of Buckingham took a rather different line from the Bishop of Guildford. He told Channel 4 that some evangelical theology “has an element of violence and nastiness in it … [that] does blind people to what’s going on in front of them … Blinds you to what’s in front of your eyes.”

Mr Smyth cannot now be charged with common assault. That is a summary only offence in respect of which charges must be brought within 6 months.

It is, however, possible that he could face charges for assault occasioning actual bodily harm, wounding, or (if there is evidence of really serious injury having been caused) causing grievous bodily harm; and potentially even for indecent assault. Should he be living in South Africa, where he was last heard of, it would be possible to request his extradition back to England although whether he might have grounds to resist such an application is a matter of South African law beyond the scope of this blog.

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Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly