PLEASANTVILLE, TENN. — From a hollow where some residents still drive horse-drawn carts to church, Pastor Michael Pearl teaches hundreds of thousands of parents strategies for rearing submissive, obedient children.
In this small, rural community, Pearl tends a modest flock. It's through a satellite Internet connection and a traveling road show that Pearl captures a following he pegs at more than half a million people. From military bases in Europe to a Pentecostal church in Smithfield, N.C., parents spank their children with rods, "switching" out their bad attitudes, just at Pearl advises. His books on child discipline are sold at home-schooling conferences, delivered to the doorsteps of new moms and passed from pastors to parents in churches across the nation.
That's how Lynn Paddock, a Johnston County mother accused of beating her children with plastic plumbing supply line and suffocating the youngest, learned of Pearl's child-training methods, according to her attorney Michael Reece. He's popular in her church circle, Reece said.
She scoured his books and Web site a few years ago looking for tips on how to control her growing brood of adopted children. Paddock began whipping them with the thin, flexible pipe Pearl heralds as a good substitute for the "rod" described in the Old Testament.
Paddock, 45, is behind bars, charged with first-degree murder in 4-year-old Sean's death. She also faces felony child-abuse charges in connection with the welts that covered the backsides of two of her other five adopted children.
Pearl -- a towering, rugged man with a fuzzy white beard that mesmerizes children -- may face scrutiny in Paddock's case. Reece said he is considering ordering Pearl to testify if the case goes to trial.
"She wouldn't have come up with using plastic pipes on her own," Reece said.
Pearl's methods -- "switching" infants with willow tree branches and older children with belts and shrub cuttings -- make him a controversial character.
Fuss puzzles Pearls
Some parents swear he saved their families, calming frantic mothers and subduing unruly children. Others consider Pearl radical, even dangerous, for steering parents toward practices that Pearl calls the "same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules."
But Pearl, 60, says he can't be blamed for mothers who take his tactics too far and hurt their children.
Paddock and Pearl never met. Pearl's business, No Greater Joy Ministries, can't even find a record that it shipped her their books.
Michael Pearl and his wife, Debi, don't understand all the fuss. Their five children, now grown, turned out well. They are self-assured young men and women raising their own babies to be God-fearing mothers and fathers. Besides, the Pearls say, the top investigator for the Tennessee Department of Human Services inspected their techniques a few years ago and gave them his blessing. A spokesman for the agency declined to comment.
Pearl's books warn parents to never whip in anger, always in joy. Paddock must not have followed instructions, Pearl's son and daughter insist.
By Pearl's math, one-sixth of the nation's estimated 3 million home-schooling families use his training methods.
"The chances of one of them committing a crime is pretty good," Pearl said, shrugging at the question in his churchyard after Sunday services and refusing to say much more.
Rural church his base
There's no sign welcoming visitors to Pearl's Church at Cane Creek. Getting there means driving down a steep ridge where the Tennessee foothills begin fading to plains. Then, it's a left at the hand-painted signs advertising vegetables, crafts and furniture. As the blacktop turns to dirt, a bridge leads to the Pearls' farm. At the foot of a cow pasture, on the bank of a rippling stream, Pearl's loyal base gathers on Sundays.
A private property warning is tacked to a sturdy oak at the foot of the church: a weathered red assembly hall perched on 10-foot stilts to survive floods. On a crisp Sunday morning earlier this month, Pearl, in muddy boots and a bright orange shirt, chirped "good morning" to a wobbly toddler as he strode to the front of the drafty room. Debi, his wife of 35 years, hugged every neck and patted every little head in sight.
Three dozen or so locals -- a third of them Pearl's kin -- settled into plastic garden chairs in the one-room sanctuary. Debi Pearl, perched delicately beside her husband, smiled brightly as her granddaughter fished for a raisin from a snack bag. Older children sat as still as statues.
Pearl prayed for the souls of the murderers and rapists he preaches to each week at a state prison; another man read an e-mail message from a congregation member on a mission in Southeast Asia. Long silences separated their discussions as they waited for one of the men to pick a hymn or read Scripture.
As soon as the service ended, Pearl rushed past the lingering members to his SUV. He was settled into the driver's seat when his wife beckoned him back to take a picture with his siblings.
One of the Pearls' children says he's a little awkward. Gabriel Pearl says his dad is a genius who has a tough time interacting with strangers; he'd rather be hunting, fishing or practicing his knife throwing. Pearl is a nationally ranked thrower, his daughter Shoshanna Easling said -- so good that a prisoner he won over to Jesus stood against a board and let him throw knives around his body.
Pearl is wary of strangers and doesn't care for reporters. He avoids situations in which he will be censored. He declined a sit-down interview with The News & Observer after the paper refused to sign a contract promising to post the unedited interview on its Web site.
Debi Pearl makes up for his social clumsiness, said Gabriel Pearl, a local contractor. He said the Pearls' ministry would be nothing if not for Debi, the financial brain of the company.
Book sales: $1 million
No Greater Joy Ministries is doing a brisk business. The ministry earned just over $1 million last year from sales of a half-dozen or so books, said the general manager, Mel Cohen.
Up a hill from the Pearls' home, 11 employees answer letters and design six newsletters a year for more than 70,000 readers, Cohen said. "To Train Up a Child," their first and best-selling book, has sold more than 500,000 copies. Used copies are also sold on the Internet and grabbed up at yard sales. Debi Pearl's first solo book, "Created to be His Helpmate," sold 150,000 copies since publication 14 months ago. Business grew so rapidly this past year that the Pearls hired Cohen, a businessman experienced in running Christian ministries.
Cohen said practically all proceeds go right out the door -- to pay for foreign missions, to cover printing costs for the newsletter and translation services to print the books in 25 other languages. The ministry also ships free copies of the books to American soldiers.
Despite Pearl's international recognition among Christian fundamentalists and home-schooling parents, people hardly know him in the community he has called home for nearly two decades. Natives scratch their heads as they try to place him. A cluster of men loitering outside a country store in Pleasantville can't decide whether he's the fellow with the bushy white beard or the lanky guy who used to work at the lumberyard.
Stella Rhodes, postmaster in the nearby town of Lobelville, say most folks around the region figure Pearl is a "half-Mennonite," the kind, she said, that gave in to modern luxuries enough to buy a car.
"Most people around here don't have a clue how big their business is," Rhodes said. "To tell you the truth, I think that's just the way they like it." A decade ago, when the couple started selling their books, Rhodes used to hand-stamp every package the Pearls mailed.
Painful for parents
Highlighter and pen scribbles mar the pages of Joel Killion's copy of "To Train Up a Child." The Wilson father's only daughter, Moriah, is just 2, and already Killion has read Pearl's discipline book four times.
"We're preparing her to be someone's mate one day," said Killion, who works in the banking industry.
Killion picked up a copy of "To Train Up a Child" years ago at a yard sale, before he met his wife, Lauren. He finally read it when Lauren became pregnant. When he saw the book stashed in a goody bag for new parents delivered by a Nash County nonprofit after Moriah's birth, he felt even more confident in its methods.
Applying Pearl's training techniques wasn't easy, Killion admits. Letting his baby girl cry it out from her lonely crib nearly broke the young father's heart.
The regimen was even tougher on his wife, who majored in child development at East Carolina University. "No spanking" had been drilled in her head. Lauren Killion, a stay-at-home mom, said she would sit on the couch and wince while her husband switched Moriah's hand with a twig from a bush.
"I used to think the switch was so mean and cruel," she said. "But all in the hands of a loving parent, it's right."
Moriah is docile, and the Killions say everyone asks their secret. The Killions believe in Pearl's methods so much, they snatch up copies of "To Train Up a Child" and give them to other young parents.
Diana Beck of Fuquay-Varina is a believer, too. She can't imagine rearing her children without Pearl's instruction.
"He's a regular guy giving good old-fashioned advice," said Beck, who attended one of Pearl's seminars at a church in Concord years ago.
Beck relied on his advice to teach her daughter, then 3, to stay in bed after being tucked in. After 23 nights of getting switched with a willow tree branch, her daughter, now 12, finally relented. "Mike Pearl taught me my daughter needed to know there was a limit," Beck said.
Berry Byrd, a Pentecostal minister in Smithfield, says "To Train Up a Child" is the most brilliant parenting book he'd ever read. This month, he ordered 25 copies and passed them out to young parents in his congregation.
"I sure wish I had this book when my boys were growing up," Byrd said. "This 'timeout' business just doesn't work."
Byrd doesn't worry that a mother less than 10 miles away hurt her children after reading Pearl's books. He urged his parishioners to use common sense.
Nurture or abuse?
Although mainstream pediatricians might consider Pearl's methods extreme, corporal punishment remains popular. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, 45 percent of parents spank with their hands.
Twenty-five percent of the more than 1,400 North and South Carolina parents surveyed whip with an instrument. Almost 3.5 percent said they spank with an instrument on places other than the buttocks. Desmond Runyan, chairman of social medicine at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine and author of the report, deems such methods abusive.
Over the years, the use of corporal punishment has declined. More and more pediatricians urge parents to avoid spanking, though some still think corporal punishment can be used appropriately.
"People are recognizing that 'Spare the rod, spoil the child' is way-out-of-date advice from 200 years ago," Runyan said.
Pearl promises a life most moms yearn for: children who mind and love them for their discipline.
"I was sucked in. I wanted to be happy and wanted happy children," said Chris Jones, a mom from Georgia who eventually gave up Pearl's techniques. "He makes you think he has the ear of God."
A recurring theme among critics is that Pearl's ministry is like a modern-day cult with the Internet as its commune. At his urging, most parents are shy about admitting they are Pearl followers, even in close-knit church circles. Pearl has written that parents who follow "God's pattern of child rearing are 'slammed' in modern periodicals and must look over their shoulders to see if they are being observed."
Instead, they seek out one another on a word-of-mouth Internet directory, where they tell of their child-rearing successes and arrange social gatherings.
Jones said Pearl attracts frazzled mothers dealing with troubled children.
"You have people that are so needy, and there's such danger in them going too far," said Jones, who says she abandoned Pearl's training regimen after realizing she had alienated her small children.
"You have to suppress your natural instincts and natural mothering to be able to do this," she said. "I learned that there is a good reason something is trying to stay your hand."
Mothers never suspect a backlash because Pearl's books and newsletters are filled with stories of happy, godly children. The trick: training them while they are young. He urges fathers to tempt the little ones with an off-limit toy. When the child reaches for it, the father is advised to swat his hand or leg with a rod.
Pearl explains in "To Train Up a Child" that he used this strategy to keep his kids from going near a shotgun. Pearl also gets creative: When his children were toddlers and strayed to the pond's edge, he pushed them in and let them flounder to prove how dangerous the pond could be.
Undoing Pearl's views
Pearl's critics find such child rearing abusive, and they try to steer parents away from his guidance. Crystal Lutton, a Christian counselor from Arizona, spends her days helping moms "unlearn" Pearl's techniques. At least two Web sites and countless blogs rail against the Pearls' ministry, calling his books child-abuse manuals. In the United States, critics have posted hundreds of scathing reviews of his books on Amazon.com.
Overseas, a group in England is trying to block a home-schooling magazine from being distributed there because it advertises Pearl's books, said Michael Fortune-Wood, a home-schooling father and editor of a home-school journal. They are also lobbying Amazon UK to stop selling the Pearls' books.
Meggan Judge, a mother in Alaska, wishes someone had stopped her from following Pearl's instruction sooner.
"Thirty times a day, I was striking my son. He wasn't even 2 years old," Judge said. "I kept waiting: Where is this joy we were promised?'"
She slowly gave up Pearl's methods three years ago after locking her son in his room one afternoon for fear that she would hurt him.
Years later, hearing of Lynn Paddock's story, Judge knows she's lucky. She suspects she could have been driven to such lengths if she hadn't met a community of other Christian mothers on the Internet who urged her to abandon Pearl's teachings.
"Without a doubt, I know I would have been capable of that," Judge said. "Anyone who says they wouldn't is a liar. I never knew I had anger issues until I started using his methods."
Staff writer Mandy Locke can be reached at 829-8927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.