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The closed-door church

Inside the secretive and strict Plymouth Brethren sect in Manitoba

The Plymouth Brethren discourage interaction between their followers and outsiders, and the church encompasses all aspects of social and professional life for its members. Critics say it has gone from being a Christian sect to full-blown cult.

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Plymouth Brethren got their name because their first assembly was in the English port town of Plymouth, more famously known as the departure point for the pilgrims who settled in the United States in the early 1600s.

The Plymouth Brethren formed in 1830 as a breakaway sect from the Anglican church. As so often happens with religious groups, the Brethren thought the main church was becoming too worldly, and set up a doctrine of separation from the world.

Another core belief among Plymouth Brethren is the "rapture." Some historians believe the concept of rapture was even started by the PBCC and later adopted by evangelical groups in the United States. The rapture is judgment day, when God will supposedly sweep up to heaven only the true believers — there are about 46,000 Plymouth Brethren worldwide — and destroy the rest of the planet’s seven billion people in a great conflagration.

Edward Pearce Langrell, the first of the Plymouth Brethren to arrive in Manitoba, settled in Woodlands in the 1880s. He was acquainted with John Nelson Darby of Ireland, the founder of the Plymouth Brethren. Langrell became the first principal at Warren Elementary School. Today, there are 15 Langrells in the Woodlands phone directory.

Plymouth Brethren are now headquartered in Australia, which has about 15,000 members. A similar number resides in Britain, and New Zealand also has a sizeable population. A year ago, six big bus coaches full of Brethren from Australia and New Zealand visited fellow Brethren in Manitoba as part of a cross-country tour.

Even though Plymouth Brethren have been in Manitoba for well over a century, primarily in Winnipeg (Charleswood) and Woodlands, they have surfaced in news stories in the Winnipeg Free Press only about 10 times. By comparison, the Free Press runs about 10 stories a year on Hutterites.

Exclusive Brethren Don’ts

Click to Expand

Appearance

  • Don’t cut your hair (female)
  • Don’t have facial hair or long hair (male)
  • Don’t wear shorts (female & male)
  • Don’t wear trousers (female)
  • Don’t wear make-up (female)
  • Don’t wear any other colour of shirt than white on Sunday (male)
  • Don’t smoke, chew tobacco or chew gum

At home

  • Don’t use or own radios or television
  • Don’t go to the movies, theatres, shows or concerts
  • Don’t eat in a restaurant or go to bars or pubs
  • Don’t own a computer, digital camera, mobile phone, cd player or MP3 player that is not purchased from the EB
  • Don’t read books written by immoral authors, or novels unless they are approved by the EB
  • Don’t own remote-controlled toys or any electronic gaming system
  • Don’t listen to pre-recorded music by non-EB
  • Don’t live on a farm
  • Don’t have in-ground swimming pools at the home
  • Don’t rent or own condos, apartments or a house that is joined at any wall
  • Don’t share sewers or driveways with neighbours
  • Don’t have pets
  • Don’t go to the beach unless it is not crowded
  • Don’t have a heart transplant
  • Don’t watch firework displays

In business

  • Don’t be employed by non-EB
  • Don’t work in non-EB homes
  • Don’t rent space or anything to non-EB
  • Don’t own shares of non-EB company
  • Don’t go to non-EB schools if there is an EB school in your city
  • Don't belong to a professional association (nurses, lawyers, etc), union, or any other outside organization
  • Don’t sell products that you cannot use (cigarettes, contraception)
  • Don’t stay in a hotel or motel
  • Don’t vote or run for public office
  • Don’t go to university

With people

  • Don’t have a cup of tea or eat with your non EB neighbours, parents, siblings or children
  • Don’t have friends outside of the EB
  • Don’t kiss or date before marriage
  • Don’t plan to marry unless you have permission
  • Don’t be gay or lesbian
  • Don’t marry outside of the EB, or outside of your race
  • Don’t divorce unless for fornication
  • Don’t use contraception (no matter how many children you have)
  • Don’t have an abortion
  • Don’t be involved in competitive organized sports
  • Don’t visit graves of the deceased often
  • Don’t miss daily church meetings
  • Don’t question EB rules

One of the stories was about a Brethren protest against having to join unions in Manitoba (1972); another was about members in Vancouver not wanting their children subjected to computers in schools (1990s).

There were also two curious wire stories out of London, England, dated 1964. The stories concerned then Brethren leader Jim Taylor Jr., who had left London ahead of schedule for the United States amid denunciation from the British Parliament, the British press and even the Methodist Church for breaking up families.

The stories described the Plymouth Brethren as a "small, very strict, secretive nonconformist sect" that abides by a strict interpretation of this Biblical text: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers."

One British MP produced a list of 60 families that he claimed had been split up by the Brethren. A British woman claimed her husband left her after 31 years marriage because she bought a radio and television.

While the Brethren have always practised separation from the rest of society, they were more mainstream prior to the 1960s. Then, Taylor Jr. started to put his stamp on things. The Brethren have their own pope-like figure, called the Man of God. Taylor Jr. served in that role from 1959-70. He had a predilection for making up rules. It was Taylor Jr. who introduced the hard-line doctrine of separateness, starting with banning members from eating and socializing with non-members.

The rules included everything from banning men from wearing shorts (thy naked, spindly legs are an abomination, presumably) to who should take out the garbage (that falleth to the husband, naturally).

One decree from Taylor Jr. was that Brethren farmers could no longer live on the same property as their livestock. Since the Brethren near Woodlands were largely cattle ranchers, the edict triggered a small housing boom there. Brethren farmers to this day must commute to their farms.

PBCC members once celebrated Christmas and Easter with fellow Christians around the world. Taylor Jr. declared it should no longer be thus, although Dave Henry, president of Accent Group in Stonewall and a leader in the Stonewall Brethren community, told me in an email that the Brethren "respect these holidays and enjoy these days with our families and friends."

A PBCC member can only live in or do business in a freestanding building; that is, in a structure not touching a building owned or occupied by non-Brethren. Otherwise, Brethren risk "contamination" from worldly people. That rules out living in an apartment block. Children don’t move out of the home until they marry.

"You could be 60 and still be living in your parents’ basement," one ex-Brethren said. Every marriage has to be first approved by the Man of God.

You can’t go on holidays, period. If you want to see fellow Brethren in another province or country, the church has to approve your travel. Air tickets must be purchased through a Brethren business. You can’t stay in hotels (see the "freestanding building" rule). Wherever you go, you have to be billeted by other Brethren. Even swimming in public is forbidden, but that rule is said to be loosening. You can own a swimming pool only if the house comes with one, but you can’t have one installed. Their churches, called meeting rooms, don’t have windows.

Until 2005, Brethren banned cellphones, computers and fax machines. The Internet is regarded as a "pipeline to filth." Now, Brethren businesses provide cellphones and computers with software called "Wordex" that permits only word processing, spreadsheets, accounting programs and email, but no Internet. Skype is also prohibited.

(I asked Dave Henry in an early email whether radio and TV are allowed. He responded: "It is not that they are ‘not allowed’ – they do not want them," he said of Brethren members. "The radio and television have become 'pipelines of filth' intruding into households and disrupting family life." I later saw Henry had copied this answer verbatim from the official Plymouth Brethren website. Ex-members said my emailed questions would have been screened by either the current Man of God, or an assistant, in Sydney, Australia.)

Brethren are not allowed to read novels, and newspapers and magazines are discouraged. You are not allowed pets. When Taylor Jr. issued this directive, Brethren families had to put to sleep their cats and dogs and goldfish while tears streamed down their children’s faces.

Why are there no Brethren teachers in their schools? Or any Brethren nurses or doctors for that matter? Because Taylor Jr. decreed universities are swirling with sin. Members cannot attend. So, all its teachers are non-Brethren. The certified teachers are not allowed to even utter the word university, or encourage students in any way to attend post-secondary schools.

History

Updated on Saturday, May 10, 2014 at 8:57 PM CDT: Fixes typo.

May 12, 2014 at 11:34 PM: Correction: Superb Sprinkler Service is no longer owned by a member of the Plymouth Brethren.

August 18, 2014 at 3:47 PM: Note added.

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