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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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Is it a cult?

Lorne Dawson, a sociologist at University of Waterloo who has studied cults, said the Brethren display many of the same features as other extremist religions, including being "infused with the apocalyptic element," such as the rapture.

But he wouldn’t go as far as to call the Brethren a cult. "’Cult’ is usually a word just to beat people over the head with. There’s absolutely no positive connotation to the word. It’s just a nasty label," he said. Neither is there universal agreement on a definition for cult.

He prefers to say the Plymouth Brethren are "a sectarian group that is displaying cult-like features."

"They are acting more extreme in their behaviour in terms of control over membership, in separating from the world, and in a focus on a special leader. These are characteristic themes in a cult," he said.

People in Manitoba who know about the Brethren reflexively compare them to Hutterites, Old Order Mennonites and Amish.

It’s certainly not a fair comparison with Hutterites. Hutterites have something similar to the "shutting up" phase when a member has done something wrong, called an ausschluss for grave sins, and unfrieden for lesser sins. But it’s extremely rare for a Hutterite to be kicked out.

There are ex-Hutterites, but they left on their own accord. As devastating as that is to the immediate family and colony, ex-Hutterites still return to visit their home colonies. Ex-members will even stay for several days on a colony, although that can vary between colonies, said Mark Waldner, a teacher at Decker Hutterite Colony in western Manitoba.

Hutterites also believe in separation — but separation from the sinful elements of the outside world, said Waldner, not a total separation like the Brethren. And while Hutterites do have a leader, called the Elder, he’s currently a 93-year-old man who is losing his eyesight and lives in a common home like other Hutterites, not in a mansion with his own private jet.

While researching the website of the International Cultic Studies Association, I came across a paper presented by a professor Peter Caws. I was struck by this quote: "If the Taylorite Exclusive Brethren (another name for the Plymouth Brethren) 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."

Did he mean the Brethren are harmful? I asked Caws, professor of philosophy at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and a former Plymouth Brethren member from England.

Yes, he said. Caws maintains the PBCC victimizes the people who are born into it.

"The harm comes to their own members. They’re not a threat in the world with what, 46,000 members," he said in a telephone interview.

"The harm has been extreme. Many, many families broken up. A good many people killed themselves. The minute they deviate from their doctrine, they’re out the window... They’re out on their ear and they’re in terrible shape."

Caws left England to study in the United States and never saw his parents again. He’s 82 now, so that was obviously a long time ago. When he grew up, the Plymouth Brethren was a fairly normal evangelical fundamentalist Christian church. But Caws, like others, blames Taylor Jr. for hijacking the church and turning it into an extremist group.

The Brethren church was fine so long as benign leaders ran it, but once a malevolent personality like Taylor Jr. got in, the group was defenceless, Caws said. There was nothing in its structure to counteract him.

Caws described Taylor Jr. as having an "authoritarian personality who had to have someone obey him and obey blindly. Anyone who deviated a little bit got disciplined.

"No one was in a position to challenge the authority and the only way was to get out, but that meant you lost your family and job."

Little has changed under successors John Hales, followed by his son Bruce — both business people who "saw opportunities," in Caws’ words.


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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