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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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How could a people who claim to worship a loving Christian God be so cold?

Ex-members blamed Taylor Jr. They said under him, the Brethren morphed from a mainstream Christian sect to a cult.

People inside are trapped, said former PBCC members. "The trouble is, we believed it fully," said a former member. "You’re indoctrinated from birth."

"The hold the church has on you is intense," added another ex-member.

The church has invented a system of control, they say. First, you have to be born into the church. It’s been almost impossible to join since Taylor Jr.’s time. Then the church controls your life from birth to death. You attend church seven days a week, every night after work, again on Saturday, and four times on Sunday, starting with a 6 a.m. service. Start to miss and you can be withdrawn from.

The church helps arrange marriages and finds you a job, writes Bachelard. In the 1960s, Taylor Jr. also introduced what he called "the system," which required members to record their actions every 15 minutes and submit their records to church elders. The practice was done away with but is reportedly coming back again, especially for people in business.

The church micro-manages people’s lives. As one ex-member stated, "every part of your day, every action you take, there is a regulation for that. If you do something wrong, you can lose everything."

Said another former member: "You’re scared of the outside world when you’re in (the Brethren). It’s like looking through a window and you don’t understand what’s going on. Once you’re out, it’s the freedom, the freedom of thought, the freedom of movement. You’re not constrained. Any thought against the Brethren is considered a sin. My mind was liberated."

"A pen warmed up in hell," to quote Mark Twain, comes to mind when Phil Admiraal tells the story about his wife Kim’s response to an offer from the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.

Phil Admiraal had been out of the Plymouth Brethren for many years and married to a non-Brethren woman when the couple got a knock on their door.

It’s something the Brethren will do sometimes, try to get someone to return to the fold no matter how many years have passed. On this occasion, they urged Phil to return to the Brethren by making an apology. Kim was present, and asked what would happen to her? She could also join, they said. Of course, she could never see her side of the family again.

At that point, Kim proceeded to blister the paint on the walls with her views on what the Brethren could do with their offer.

After chasing Brethren members for interviews for several weeks without success, and then ex-Brethren who didn’t want to talk, and then ex-Brethren who talked but didn’t want their names used, it was manna from heaven to interview a straight shooter like Phil Admiraal. He is an on-the-record kind of guy. He has nothing to hide. And he’s not afraid of the Brethren.

Admiraal left the Brethren when he was 20. He and a woman from California who was also Brethren had fallen in love and wanted to marry. (The Brethren have a network across the globe for matching up young men and women.) As is the Brethren custom, Admiraal had to obtain permission from the Man of God. In this case, it was Symington in Neche. Because of the proximity, Admiraal had to ask permission in person.

Symington asked him why he would be any better of a husband than his brother, who had been kicked out of the Brethren for a serious sin. Symington didn’t like Admiraal’s answer, which was something along the lines that he wasn’t his brother, so he forbade the marriage.

Admiraal was furious. He told Symington no one was going to tell him what he could do. That kind of back talk will get you tossed out of the Brethren faster than adultery or murder. Admiraal flew out to California to see his fiancé, but she broke off their engagement because she didn’t want a life outside the Brethren.

Admiraal returned to live with his parents, who were in a "shutting up" phase because they had violated some rule. They were not allowed to attend church, socialize or speak to anyone in the church except elders. When this happens, people leave meals for you outside your door.

Eventually, Brethren leaders presented them with a deal. The parents could get back into the church, but they had to throw Phil and his sister out of their house and withdraw from them (Phil’s sister had been excommunicated for attending a party of non-Brethren).

The parents accepted. Admiraal had little contact with then afterwards and they are now both deceased. The last time he talked to his mother, on the phone, she warned him of the impending "rapture."

Admiraal has been out for more than 35 years, which allows him to talk more freely than other former Brethren interviewed. The weird thing for him is that he moved to Stonewall two decades ago to get away from the Brethren in Winnipeg. Today, his business, Admiraal Auto, is surrounded by Brethren businesses in Stonewall Industrial Park.

"Once they kick you out, they pretty much destroy your life," he said. He had no post-secondary education and no friends outside the Brethren when he left.

"In the church, they instil in your mind that the Brethren is the only way. When I left, I was terrified. I started drinking like a fish. Then I found out there are a lot of good people in the world."

He got a job at Landeau Lincoln car dealership in Winnipeg. He remembers a co-worker inviting him over for dinner. "I was terrified. I’d never eaten with a non-Brethren before in my life." He’d always liked cars, and Landeau gave him the opportunity to work his way up.

Like other ex-Brethren interviewed, Admiraal doesn’t wish ill on people in the Brethren. He believes a lot of them wish they could get out. "It’s not like they’re bad people. They’re not. It’s just that they live with such strong religious beliefs of a cult," he said. "I don’t agree with how (the church) controls people’s lives."

He recalled his upbringing in Charleswood. "We didn’t have a bad life. You were brought up with a good set of morals."

There wasn’t a Brethren school, so he attended public school. He felt ostracized at times. For example, he had to step outside for the Lord’s Prayer. (You are not allowed to practise religion with another fellowship.) "You couldn’t eat with the rest of the kids. You couldn’t socialize with them," he said.

He remembers regular trips to Neche because the Man of God was there. It’s Admiraal who observed Symington’s drinking problem.

Admiraal believes there isn’t a Brethren family that hasn’t been divided by the church’s strict rules about separateness. "A lot of people are afraid to come forward," he said.

"They live in such a sheltered, protected environment that they're afraid (of the outside world), which I was, too."


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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