A Short History of the Exclusive Brethren
There are many Christians known as “brethren” who trace the origins of their movement to John Nelson Darby who lived just over 200 years ago in Dublin. Schism and division has been a consistent feature of the movement almost from the start. The following summary relates to the Taylor-Symington-Hales Branch of the Exclusive Brethren (signified by the more recent leaders of this group); arguably the most radical and perhaps controversial of all the groups in the Brethren movement.
The Brethren trace the origins of the movement to John Nelson Darby who was born in London in 1800 into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family. Lord Nelson, a friend of his uncle, Admiral Sir Henry Darby, was a sponsor at young Darby’s christening.
Darby’s mother died when he was five years old and at the age of 15 his family moved to the ancestral estate in Ireland. He took an honours degree at Dublin University and studied law for three years at the Dublin Chancery Bar. But he never practiced law. To the annoyance of his family, he abandoned his legal career and became a priest in the Irish Church of England in 1826, serving in the parish of Calary in the mountains of County Wicklow.
Almost immediately John Darby fell out with church leaders over matters of doctrine and by 1827-28 he was meeting to “break bread” in the home of one of four other dissenting young men in Dublin. The group believed that the existence of an established church and ordained clergy was contrary to scripture. “I can find no such thing as a national church in Scripture”, Darby wrote at the time. In 1832, he had a major disagreement with Archbishop Magee about a requirement for converted Catholics to swear allegiance to King George IV and, in the same year, disagreed with Archbishop Whately about matters of church doctrine.
To Darby, separation from evil was the divine principle of faith, and there followed a litany of disagreements with others about doctrine – and an equally swift condemnation and separation from those with whom he could not agree. A major disagreement about discipline at the meeting of Brethren in Plymouth in 1848 resulted in a major fracture of the movement. The congregation split between those who became known as the “open brethren” and the “exclusive brethren” that followed Darby’s stricter lead. This split remains today and further divisions have occurred in both camps.
As a classically-trained scholar, Darby was a prolific writer. He made independent translations of the bible into English, German and French from the original texts, and compiled a comprehensive synopsis of the Bible. He wrote numerous hymns and essays and travelled widely on visits to assemblies (Brethren meeting groups) in Ireland, Europe, the United States, Canada, and the West Indies.
Darby died in April 1882 and Frederick E Raven, who had left the Church of England as a young man and was a member at John Darby’s local meeting in North London, later took up leadership. A scholarly man like Darby, Raven worked as Secretary of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich before his retirement in 1897. Unlike Darby, Raven was married and the father of a large family.
Although an even-tempered and humble man, Raven’s time in leadership was racked by disagreement and ongoing attacks by others over his teachings, particularly those relating to the state of eternal life and the nature of Christ as a person. After a visit to America in 1898 Raven was accused of heresy, blasphemy and “attacking the Person of the Son of God”. In declining health, he made a second visit to America in 1902 but he died less than a year later in August 1903. A young man named James Taylor from New York had paid a visit to Raven in England during Raven’s last illness and they spent a great deal of time together in discussions. James Taylor became the next world leader of the Exclusive Brethren.
James Taylor was born in 1870 in North West Ireland and was apprenticed in the linen trade. He migrated to New York as a young man and had six children by his wife, Estelle before she died in childbirth in 1901. Taylor remarried in 1913 and in about 1919 he went into business in the linen trade with his youngest son, James Jnr.
James Taylor’s published meeting records spanned over 50 years. Although this was a period of relative stability, there was controversy in assemblies in America and Canada in the early years. Conflict arose in 1920 over the question of assembly discipline; concerning the way in which individual congregations should deal with members who were in error or “sin” and would not change their ways.
Taylor taught that “ministry” from the Man of God (the worldwide leader) was of equal weight to the bible; an idea that was to have far-reaching implications in following generations. He held that the Holy Spirit could show new truth through the words of a spiritual man in the assembly. From 1942, he promoted the idea of giving recognition to the Holy Spirit in hymns and prayers. On his urging, hymns to the Holy Spirit were included in the 1951 revision of the Brethren’s Hymn Book.
Like Darby, Taylor travelled widely to Brethren assemblies in other countries and visited over 300 meeting groups during his lifetime. He died aged 84 in March 1953 and was buried in New York. His son, James Taylor Jnr officiated at his funeral.
James Taylor Jnr was to have a major influence on the Exclusive Brethren over a controversial 10 year period and beyond. At a conference in Central Hall, London, in 1959, a major confrontation developed between James Taylor Jnr and Gerald Cowell from England. Like Darby, Raven and Taylor Senior before him, Cowell maintained a moderate view of associations with “unbelievers”. However, at the conference, James Taylor Jnr advocated a new radical doctrine of separation from the world; from family, from friends, from work mates and from school mates not amongst the Brethren. A major schism developed and many families, particularly those with non-brethren relatives elsewhere, left the Brethren. Taylor was established as the worldwide leader and Cowell was “withdrawn from” (ex-communicated) less than a year later.
The Brethren had always shunned most forms of commercial entertainment but now a stricter regime applied. Movies, radios, TV, books and magazines, cinemas, dancing, bars and hotels, restaurants, holidays and parties were forbidden. Professional associations were not permitted nor was a university education, voting, keeping pets or celebrating Christmas. Eating and drinking with “non-brethren” was now expressly forbidden.
Over the next 10 years until his death in 1970, James Taylor Jnr issued a continual stream of “directives” that regulated the behaviour of the Brethren in exacting detail; prohibitions against women working, wearing slacks, using make-up or cutting their hair. Prohibitions relating to facial hair on men and rules about working on Saturday or Sunday, required attendance at meetings, bans on public swimming, life insurance and organised sport. The list of rules, compiled later on the internet, numbers in the hundreds.
Perhaps the most controversial event during James Taylor Junior’s leadership occurred at Aberdeen in Scotland in July 1970, in the last year of his life. Taylor led a three-day meeting at Aberdeen and stayed at the home of James Gardner. Over the period, other guests in the house noticed that the wife of one of the guests spent long periods alone in Taylor’s bedroom, apparently with her husband’s blessing.
Taylor led a meeting in the afternoon of Saturday 25 July 1970 where he appeared to be under the influence of alcohol. Audio tapes and a purported transcript of the meeting record Taylor slurring incoherently at times and using abusive and blasphemous language. After the meeting Taylor retired to Gardner’s home where according to other guests, the female house guest again joined Taylor in his room. James Gardner (with the assistance of Stanley McCallum) investigated, and as he claimed in his subsequent letter to the Brethren in New York, found Taylor in bed with the naked house guest. Confronted, Taylor abandoned the rest of the meeting and flew home to New York the following morning.
Taylor claimed that the incident was a test of support for his leadership and he labelled Gardner’s house and the Aberdeen assembly as “leprous”. Almost everybody associated with Aberdeen was ex-communicated. The scandal split the Brethren and many of those close to the event left the fellowship. Only two families in Aberdeen remained but assemblies further away, particularly those in Australian and New Zealand where defences could be marshalled, stayed largely intact.
James Taylor Jnr died less than three months later on 14 October 1970 at the age of 71. In the month following Taylor’s death Robert Stott, a trustee of Stow Hill Depot, the Brethren publishing house, privately published a comprehensive record of the Aberdeen meeting and the evidence of witnesses in a paper titled “If We Walk In the Light”. The paper was circulated throughout the Exclusive Brethren world but in the congregations that remained, mere possession of it became justification for immediate ex-communication.
After some jostling for leadership, “Big Jim” Symington, a pig farmer from Neche, North Dakota, emerged as the new “elect vessel”. Symington claimed to have been nominated as the new leader by Taylor in his last days. Symington’s leadership was marked by the ruthless ex-communication of rivals and further separations of members for infringing the rules. Children were separated from their parents, wives from husbands and families split. And the rules also became stricter. Common house walls and common sewer lines with “worldly” neighbours were banned, as were computers, mobile phones and fax machines. Symington reinforced the ban on university education and reduced the maximum age that Brethren children could attend high school to Year 10.
Jim Symington made one significant financial change during his tenure as the world leader. Often splits within the assembly resulted in the loss of church buildings and land if a majority of trustees left the Brethren. This caused an inconvenient loss of property. To prevent this, Symington arranged for all church trust deeds to be changed so that the world leader and his successors have a power of veto over any changes to the property trusts of Exclusive Brethren anywhere in the world.
Worn down by alcohol and in poor health, Symington died in 1987 at the age of 74. The focus of leadership in the Brethren then switched to Australia and New Zealand which had been least affected by the splits and upheavals of the Taylor and Symington years.
Attention moved to John Hales, an accountant from Sydney. However, John Hales and his charismatic brother W Bruce Hales had both been ex-communicated by James Taylor Jnr in 1965 for bringing a commercial system into the assembly. The “System” reached its zenith in the mid-1960′s when the Hales brothers were beginning to intervene in the financial affairs of ordinary Brethren members, to the extent of requiring full disclosure of their financial affairs and, in some areas, requiring that the Brethren fill out timesheets accounting for time spent each day. John Hales was ex-communicated three times; in 1965, 1976 and 1979. His brother, W Bruce Hales, who was married to James Taylor Junior’s daughter Consuelo, spent the 1970′s and 1980′s in exile.
The inconvenience of John Hales’ history was resolved quickly at a special meeting in October 1987 at which it was agreed that the facts presented which led to John Hales being withdrawn from were false and the assembly’s judgement was therefore wrong. Rehabilitated, John Hales was duly acknowledged as the new leader world-wide.
Finance and business became the dominant theme of John Hales’ leadership. Borrowing and lending between Brethren became more common which resulted in strong commercial ties between individuals (and thereby to the church). Hales also began to build high schools for Brethren children, the first of which was built in his own Sydney suburb in the early 1990′s.
John Hales died in January 2002 at the age of 79 and attention focused on his youngest son, Bruce D Hales, an accountant and successful businessman like his father. Bruce Hales attended a special three-day meeting of prominent Brethren in the UK in June 2002 which cemented his leadership. Of the seven times that leadership in the Brethren had changed, this became the second time where leadership had passed from father to son.
Two significant things have occurred so far under Bruce Hales’ leadership. The first, the “Review”, occurred in 2003 when many former members who had been withdrawn from over the previous 30-odd years were invited back into the assembly. In many cases, assemblies ruled that incorrect judgments had been made and apologies were offered. Internet sites used by ex-Brethren were abuzz with news of the contacts made and many “outs” took advantage of the amnesty to reunite, albeit briefly, with their long-lost families.
However, if internet messages are any guide, very few of those approached took advantage of the offer to rejoin. And it appears that often the overtures only served to open old wounds. Internet messages from the time attest to the bitterness of some of those approached; that families had been split apart irretrievably over matters where they were later judged to be innocent.
The second, more public move came in 2004 when the Brethren became politically active in support of conservative governments in the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. This changed a fundamental tenet of the Brethren, around since John Darby, that governments are chosen by God and that interference in the political process could frustrate God’s purpose. To a group that has historically shunned the limelight, this move also had the unwelcomed effect of attracting worldwide media attention to the Brethren; investigating every aspect of their lives, beliefs and behaviour. Current affairs shows on Australian television began to run regular “exposé’s” of the Brethren, often focused on their beliefs, their illusive leader, their “members only” meeting places and their schools.
Although no detailed public accounting exists, the Brethren are currently thought to number about 43,000 worldwide; with about 15,000 in Australia. Almost all growth comes from births as conversions into the faith are practically unheard of. Many, if not most Brethren school children are taught in Brethren schools from age 11 to 17 and when they leave school, young Brethren usually work in Brethren businesses.
Girls work in Brethren businesses until they marry. University education is not permitted. Because many Brethren children now spend most of their school years in Brethren schools and their working lives in Brethren businesses there is little opportunity for them to become exposed to the outside world. Financial transactions between Brethren create further binding obligations that deter “waverers” from leaving the fold. However, under Bruce Hales’ leadership, some of the more stringent rules have been relaxed and access to new technology such as mobile phones, digital cameras and fax machines is no longer banned. And, at the moment, ex-communication seems only to be used in the most blatant and intractable cases.
This history is based on the personal experience of the author, discussions with former members and a search of the very limited number of available documents about the Exclusive Brethren, (particularly those relating to contemporary events). Every effort has been made to present this history objectively.
Bruce D Hales (2007), Living Our Beliefs: the current way of life of the Exclusive Brethren
Hager, N (2006), The Hollow Men: a study in the politics of deception, Craig Potton Publishing.
Kuns, J and Rainbow, G (Editors), My Brethren – Bibliography – F E Raven (1873-1903)
Kuns, J and Rainbow, G (Editors), My Brethren – Bibliography – James Taylor (1870-1953)
London Conference (1959), at My Brethren
Quentin McDermott (2006), “Separate Lives”, Four Corners, ABC.
Quentin McDermott (2007), “The Brethren Express”, Four Corners, ABC.
Stott, R (2007), If We Walk in the Light. Personal paper by Robert Stott, at
The Aberdeen Incident, July 1970, at Peebs.Net
Turner, W G (1944), John Nelson Darby, C A Hammond, London.
James Taylor, Jr (1899-1970), at Wikipedia
www.peebs.net – (News, Forums, Guest Book, Resources)
A Short History of the Exclusive Brethren first appeared in is reproduced with full permission from the author and David Tchappat.
Copies of David Tchappat’s Breakout may be ordered from the following resources:
Abbey’s Bookshop - http://www.abbeys.com.au/items.asp?id=237716
National Library of Australia - http://shop.nla.gov.au/product_info.php?products_id=11183
For an even deeper insight into the Exclusive Brethren cult and how it operates, we recommend Michael Bachelard’s ‘Behind the Exclusive Brethren’ which is available on Amazon and other online bookstores.