If the Taylorite Exclusive Brethren (‘the Exclusives’) were just a harmless Evangelical sect, seeking to be faithful to the gospel, they would deserve our respect and might be left to work out their own salvation. But this description will not fit.
First, they have no consistent evangelical mission but are resolutely private, admitting no outsiders to any service, even though they benefit from laws governing places of public worship. Second, their gospel is not simply the Christian gospel but is weighed down by the edicts of a series of absolute leaders. These edicts are often erratic or based on arbitrary interpretations of Scripture.
Third, they have done irreparable harm to many people, by breaking up families, and preventing their children from acquiring education, developing talents, or thinking for themselves.
It is for the sake of the ‘captive generations’, deprived of their freedom of choice and action by the Exclusives, that I am moved to write about them. I do so humbly, but under the compulsion of what they would call ‘an exercise’.
I am myself a former Exclusive. The sociologist Bryan Wilson argues that the testimony of those who leave such groups is suspect. ‘The disaffected and the apostate’, he says, ‘are … informants whose evidence has to be used with circumspection. The apostate is generally in need of self-justification … Not uncommonly [he] learns to rehearse an “atrocity story” to explain how … he was induced to join or to remain within an organisation that he now forswears and condemns’.
Even if some people meet this description, such a rhetorical generalisation is irresponsible for a scholar of Wilson’s standing. If things were ‘generally’ as he says, no regime (for example Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia) could be effectively criticised by those who left it.
I am not interested in self-justification but, to meet Wilson’s condition of circumspection, I will have to say more about my relations to the sect. I have no ‘atrocity story’ of my own to tell, and leave it to the reader to decide if some of the facts I adduce amount to atrocities.
What follows will sometimes be quite personal, but that is appropriate. At issue is not an abstract body of doctrine but a group of individuals whose beliefs and behaviour affect the lives and welfare of others. It is a moral issue.
The Exclusives deny that they are a sect, claim universal status for their leaders, and assert that their young people remain with them freely. Their actual practices belie this last assertion.
These include the practice of ‘shutting up’ (a form of house arrest); the minute control of everyday behaviour (such as restrictions on travel and the prohibition of domestic pets); the dependence of sect members on one another for employment and financial security; the prohibition of contact with those who have left; and the insistence that marriage, child-rearing, and (where possible) education should be within the sect.
While it was hard to leave before 1960 it is nearly impossible now. I myself left in 1953-4. I had been to University — something now forbidden to the children of the Exclusives, an outrageous restriction on freedom of intellectual development — and had learned standards of evidence and argument.
I became convinced that the beliefs of the Exclusives could be maintained only by wilful ignorance, and they ceased to have any authority for me long before I escaped. Even then, the move was fraught with tension, any suggestion of independent thought or action being greeted with sorrowful reproach.
Escape to USA
I managed it by leaving England for the United States. It was possible at that time to maintain warm, if strained, relations with my family, and even to stay at home when I visited England, but all this was soon to change.
I got wind of the change in the early sixties, when an aunt in Jamaica wrote to me in great distress about a letter she had received from my father. He had been in the habit of writing to her every year for her birthday, but now said that he would no longer be able to do so, because she was not walking in the truth and he was obliged to keep himself from further association with her.
She was a lonely spinster who cherished these rare contacts with England, and his rebuff hurt her deeply. Her letter, the last she wrote to me before her death, was full of bewilderment about it: what sort of Christianity was that?
What sort indeed? Who could imagine a Lord who would take pleasure in such petty cruelty? I remember being struck by the selfishness of my father’s act. In order to satisfy his own righteousness he was willing to wound a defenceless relative.
This has been a pattern among the Exclusives. He would not himself have thought of cutting off my aunt, but like so many other Exclusives he lacked the courage to stand against the then current ministry of James Taylor Jr.
In 1962, on my last visit to their house, my parents told me (their hands resting on books of ministry, a talisman against my own ‘uncleanness’) that I would no longer be welcome there. They maintained this position for the rest of their lives.
I never saw my mother again. When she died in 1980, nobody told me for weeks. I was allowed to see my father, twice, towards the end of his life, although never alone. These were distressingly brief meetings, like supervised visits to a relative in prison.
And I was later told that, in reporting the visits to the local ‘care meeting’, it was insisted, pathetically, that I had not been made welcome. It was important not to be seen by the other brethren as yielding in the matter of family affection.
Doctrine of separation
There are many stories of Exclusives who would have been happy to have contact with lapsed family members but lived in fear that, if they did so, they would be found out. This is no doubt still the case.
As the doctrine of separation hardened, other effects were felt. One of my uncles saw through the corruption of James Taylor Jr earlier than many of his contemporaries and (being more independent and more courageous than my father) left in the middle 1960s.
In 1970 his wife, my aunt, contracted leukaemia, and since she had a twin sister her doctors suggested a bone-marrow transplant, which might have given her a few more years of life.
But the twin was still in fellowship, and the brethren in her local meeting denied this appeal, because my aunt had been ‘withdrawn from’. Within two weeks of their refusal she died.
My uncle wrote to me with justified anger, stressing that the local judgement had been communicated, as the brethren put it, ‘in all tenderness’. In all tenderness they let her die, to safeguard their own purity. He thought it amounted to murder.
Many more examples could be cited (there is a ‘cloud of witnesses’) of the extraordinary insensitivity to normal human decency and morality manifested by the Exclusives in defence of their doctrines.
I turn now to the provenance of these doctrines. The Exclusives claim to rest their beliefs on Scripture, and in a perverse way this is true. There is always a verse to justify whatever decision is being passed down, although the reading of the verse is often idiosyncratic, ignores the context, and overlooks other verses that might cast a different light on the matter.
Sometimes the interpretation contradicts an earlier reading ‘passed down’ by the leadership. At any moment there is an authoritative interpretation, sanctioned by the most recent utterances of the current Elect Vessel (their equivalent of the ‘chosen vessel’ in Acts 9:15).
The virtually papal status of the Elect Vessel, or Man of God, is at the heart of the problem. The Exclusives claim for him the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit and for themselves the mantle of the saving remnant.
The roots of this teaching go back to the character and genius of J. N. Darby, whose rejection of the authority of the Church of Ireland, in which he was ordained, led to the founding of the Brethren movement.
Darby’s dominant personality, and his translation of the Scriptures (the New Translation), that for the Exclusives has the status of original holy writ, seem to have put him beyond challenge.
He was a man of great brilliance but also of great (though repressed) vanity. Consider the salutation in the first entry in his Letters: ‘Dearest Brethren and Sisters: Grace and peace be to you, and mercy from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’.
This is not the language of a 19th century Anglo-Irishman; it is apostolic language lifted from Corinthians or Ephesians. Darby was thirty-one when he wrote this epistle to the Brethren in Plymouth, and he was already casting himself in the role of the apostle Paul.