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.
STONEWALL — Quietly, and out of earshot of Winnipeg, Stonewall had its own mini "British Invasion" a decade ago.
Newcomers from England started to descend on this town just north of Winnipeg that has historically been a limestone quarry and agricultural service centre. They bought homes, started businesses, built a church — all the usual stuff.
Stonewall, Man., is home to a large Plymouth Brethren congregation, one of two outside the city of Winnipeg. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
Stonewall councillors were pleased their town was chosen by the English-speaking immigrants. Local residents were charmed, as North Americans tend to be, by how the newcomers snapped off their words with British accents.
But residents soon found there was something different about the newcomers. They didn’t want much to do with the townsfolk. They wouldn’t socialize with them, other than a few words on the street or in a store. It wasn’t long before local people started to regard them as "standoffish," as one Stonewall resident put it.
In time, the community learned the newcomers were from the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC), a religious sect that practises "separateness" from the rest of society. The two-metre-high iron fence around their church attests to that.
It’s one of the few physical barriers. Most Plymouth Brethren barriers are social. They won’t eat in the same room as non-members, including in restaurants. Brethren are not even allowed to visit the homes of non-Brethren, or "worldly people." They don’t go to the cinema, the theatre or sporting events.
Plymouth Brethren are sometimes thought of as a British version of Hutterites, without the colonies. Both are conscientious objectors to military service; neither group votes; both forbid television and radio in their homes. The Brethren forbid computers with anything other than email functions and some business software, and all their computers and programs are purchased from a Brethren-owned company.
Plymouth Brethren also maintain a dress code, but not one as rustic or obvious as that of Hutterites.
Brethren women are required to wear ankle-length skirts, long hair and some kind of head covering — it used to be a kerchief but now is often a ribbon. The attire is urban, individualized, and becoming less strict to the point where women are now seen wearing designer clothes with hem lines climbing to knee level.
A seven-foot-high steel fence surrounds the Plymouth Brethren Meeting Hall in Stonewall. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
Men dress business casual. They keep their hair short and are clean-shaven — not even sideburns are allowed. While that doesn’t sound like it would set the men apart, it does.
"They are conspicuously well-scrubbed," said a Stonewall resident who has had dealings with the Brethren.
This "new" Christian sect has actually been in Manitoba since the 1880s. The Stonewall group was only the most recent wave. Plymouth Brethren are also in Winnipeg (Charleswood) and the village of Woodlands, not far from Stonewall in the Interlake.
It’s a group that shows quite remarkable business acumen. The Plymouth Brethren bought up half of Stonewall’s industrial park upon arrival, and immediately set up a cluster of companies.
But attempts to learn more about the sect and interview its members showed how it has managed to stay under the radar.
Brethren’s business impact
There are a remarkable number of Brethren-owned family businesses in Manitoba for a religious sect of just 450 members.
The Free Press counted at least 25 small businesses, and there are undoubtedly more. It’s not clear why members of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church are so successful in business. That companies can receive interest-free loans through Brethren might be part of the answer.
Business is a big part of being a Brethren today. Virtually all Brethren work for companies owned by Brethren families. However, PBCC doctrine stipulates that companies stay small.
Winnipeg companies owned by Brethren members include Acure Medical Equipment, Officescape, and Central Dental Supply Ltd., all owned by John Haldane; Applifast Inc.; Insign Architectural Signage; Chemwest Supply; Van Extras; FRS Group Inc.; Acure Safety; Insta-Foil Specialties; Acculift Airmax Inc; Excel Interiors; Meditek; Western Enivronmental Canada, and NP2 (an advertising agency).
In Stonewall, Brethren own at least half the industrial park off Highway 67. Like elsewhere, they do not belong to the local chamber of commerce because that is forbidden. Stonewall companies include Accent Group; Mitybilt Products Inc; Paragon Securities; Arrow Specialties; Lakeland Group and Universal Business Team.
Woodlands-area companies include Northstar Enterprises and Arrow Farmquip, and North American Rail Products Inc. is next door in Argyle.
Plymouth Brethren don’t believe in a church hierarchy. There is no formally designated church leader, such as a salaried priest or pastor, so when I called recently to request an interview, there was no official spokesperson — and no one who felt comfortable speaking for the group.
After about a week of phone calls and numerous referrals, two Brethren men finally agreed to be interviewed — then each cancelled as the interviews neared. Both said they were too busy.
Negotiations continued. Dates were submitted for interviews. I explained my mission was merely to write about a unique immigrant group outside the city, which was entirely true. Upon request, I forwarded a list of questions.
Despite all the negotiations, I was ultimately turned down. All of this took place over a period of three weeks. Ex-Plymouth Brethren members later told me I was being played; strung along until I tired and perhaps gave up on the story.
I fared little better making cold calls to businesses run by Plymouth Brethren in Stonewall. Everyone said they were too busy to talk. At the fifth business I visited, Charles Deayton, at Universal Business Team, which provides consulting and training services to businesses, said he had been expecting me. Word had traveled quickly that a Free Press reporter was making the rounds.
Deayton was candid yet considerate. He basically told me I had the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of getting an interview with a member of the Plymouth Brethren.
"We don’t want to be all over the newspaper," he said. A colleague beside him was more curt. "We’re not interested. We’ve got work to do. Thanks for coming."
All of which is not to imply the Plymouth Brethren here are bad people. They are good and productive community members, most people say. Their businesses have been major contributors to the tax base of Stonewall and provide jobs for many non-Brethren as well as Brethren.
When I googled Universal Business Team, I learned it has offices in 19 countries, mainly assisting other Brethren businesses. But I also saw Universal Business Team is the subject of criticism from a group called PEEB, People Escaping Exclusive Brethren, or "leavers," as they call themselves. (Exclusive Brethren is another name for the most isolationist branch of Plymouth Brethren, which is the one practising in Manitoba.)
A website run by the ex-Brethren also popped up: www.wikipeebia.com. It contained lengthy testimonials from leavers and it included a pull-down window listing "confirmed suicides" of former Plymouth Brethren members. That was my first red flag.
Another red flag was the Plymouth Brethren private school in Stonewall, Sterling North Academy. The grades 3-12 school employs a full complement of certified public-school teachers — but none are Plymouth Brethren. Why would a group that arrived over a hundred years ago not have at least some of its own teachers? There are dozens of Hutterites with university degrees teaching across Manitoba.
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 WinnipegFree Press only about 10 times. By comparison, the Free Press runs about 10 stories a year on Hutterites.
Exclusive Brethren Don’ts
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
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
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
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.
Belonging to Plymouth Brethren is most restrictive for women. They cannot wear makeup or jewelry or dye — or even cut — their hair. Women are not allowed to occupy any position in authority over a man. Their work is mostly secretarial in various Brethren businesses, and only lasts until marriage. Women marry early, and then don’t work outside the home, although exceptions are made for a husband’s business. They typically have large families. Contraceptives are prohibited.
In church services, women sit at the back with the children while the men sit in the centre. The Brethren church in Stonewall is bowl-shaped inside, with the men at the centre, starting with the most important men, usually business leaders. Women and children are seated in the outside rows. Women’s only role is to hand out hymn sheets. They are not allowed to speak.
Smoking is not permitted, but alcohol is. Former members say alcohol is a problem for Brethren and tell stories of abuse. For example, former Man of God Jim Symington was known to imbibe. Symington was a hog farmer from Neche, N.D., before he served as leader of the Plymouth Brethren from 1970-87. A former Brethren member (who will be formally introduced later) tells of seeing Symington so drunk one time, two men had to help him walk into church.
Taylor Jr. had a problem with alcohol. He was caught in bed with a married woman half his age in Aberdeen, Scotland, as detailed in Behind the Exclusive Brethren (2008), an extraordinary book by Australian journalist, Michael Bachelard. The Brethren responded with an incredible defence, saying Taylor allowed himself to be discovered in bed with someone else’s wife to trap his opponents into denouncing him.
Meantime, current Man of God Bruce D. Hales lives in a $5-million mansion, owns a private jet, andForbes magazine lists him as the fourth-richest man in Australia.
Manitoba’s has about 450 Plymouth Brethren members, about one per cent of the Brethren worldwide, but when Symington was Man of God, there was steady traffic through Winnipeg of Brethren delegations going to meet Symington in North Dakota. Because Brethren can’t stay in hotels, delegates were billeted by PBCC families in Winnipeg and Woodlands, making Manitoba the centre of the world for Plymouth Brethren.
While Brethren do help out with community events, such as assisting annual community clean-ups in Stonewall and Woodlands, they must do so separately. They will join walks for cancer but must be left to themselves.
Those are just some of the rules. Before his death in 1970, Taylor Jr. had issued a total of 390 directives.
Most of my information came from interviews with non-Brethren in the Interlake, emails from Dave Henry, reading Bachelard’s book and exchanging emails with the author, and from internet sources such as Wikipedia and the Brethren web site,plymouthbrethrenchristianchurch.org. What was to be a simple story about an immigrant community in rural Manitoba became more like pulling on a magician’s scarf and finding it attached to an infinite number of scarves.
Woodlands Mb. is home to a large Plymouth Bretheren congregation, one of two outside the city of Winnipeg. The Meeting Hall in Woodlands sits behind a tall wooden fence. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
It was inevitable that if I kept pulling on the scarves, they would lead to people who were either expelled or who had left the Brethren voluntarily. I was not prepared for what they were about to tell me.
Meeting ex-Brethren is like rummaging through a box of broken toys. Each one is missing some piece of themselves emotionally. All the ex-Brethren have children, parents or siblings within the Brethren who refuse to see them.
When you leave the Brethren — or are kicked out — you’re dead to them. Your kids won’t acknowledge you. If you should encounter them, they will glass themselves off, not even meeting your gaze. Your parents will glass themselves off from you. Your friends will glass themselves off from you. Have your grandchildren over? You never will. They will be told you are evil.
You’ll also lose your job because Brethren work for Brethren-owned companies.
I interviewed about a dozen former members who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They admit to being afraid of the Brethren. Almost every one of them had been "withdrawn from" — an innocent sounding term until you hear it so often it takes on a chilling cast.
None of the ex-members I spoke to had been withdrawn from for vice or a venal sin. They were withdrawn from for questioning the doctrine, the leadership or a leader’s words. They were withdrawn from because they associated with non-Brethren or were caught with forbidden technology.
When you leave the Brethren — or are kicked out — you’re dead to them. Your kids won’t acknowledge you. If you should encounter them, they will glass themselves off, not even meeting your gaze. Your parents will glass themselves off from you. Your friends will glass themselves off from you. Have your grandchildren over? You never will. They will be told you are evil.
Many people were withdrawn from for breaking the no-computer-or-cellphone rule, which changed in 2005. Marriage breakup will also result in one of the parties being withdrawn from. One family was withdrawn from because Brethren leaders deemed their home, which was undergoing renovations while billeting visiting Brethren, not up to PBCC standards.
"It hurts really, really bad," said one ex-Brethren parent with grown-up children still in the Brethren. "We don’t want to be bitter. Sometimes, it’s hard not to be. But you have to forgive."
Withdrawing from is how the Brethren leaders keep their members in fear of breaking its rules. "You move one inch out of line and you’re gone," said a former member.
"The consequences of breaking rules is what keeps lots of people from stepping outside those boundaries," said another.
For the protection of these ex-members and their family members still in the Brethren, the following accounts have been greatly generalized. Even people who have left the Brethren are still controlled by them years later.
One person I spoke to got out with his wife and all his children. To hear him, it was like escaping a house fire just in time. He was lucky all his children were still living at home.
Several people I talked to had lost their grown-up children to the Brethren. They don’t see them anymore or if they do, it’s only in passing. Their children will just make brief, polite, heartbreakingly emotionless small talk, like automatons, and move on.
The reason people I interviewed were scared is because even that fraction of contact could be taken away if their identities are revealed.
"The separation with family is just terribly painful and it won’t go away," said one mother who has children and grandchildren who won’t see her. "The only way to heal is to say you were wrong and go back."
Ex-members say you have to go through humiliation to go back. Some people do apologize and return, even after many years away. But many simply can’t bring themselves to truly believe in the Brethren again, even though everyone I interviewed said they still believed in God.
The old limestone kilns in Stonewall, Man. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
One ex-member said the hardest part for him was having his parents treat him like he no longer existed. He recalled bumping into them accidentally on the street one day. "I approached them and said hello. They both looked away and never replied. It was as if I was not there. Those things burn deeply into your inner being," he said.
"Every ex-member has a long string of heartbreaking stories like that. We tend to suppress them because they are so painful." He has let his own kids know that will never happen to them as long as he lives. "The one thing I convey to my kids is my love for them is unconditional," he said.
In another family, a teenage son had been withdrawn from for getting mixed up with drugs. He had a small bag of marijuana and confessed to it out of guilt. The leaders determined he could still live at home, but the family was forbidden to talk to him or eat with him for an indefinite period. This is called the "shutting up" phase, a kind of trial period. The entire family was soon withdrawn from for failing to obey the church’s directives.
One teenage girl was shut up for 37 days in England last year, including missing school, for setting up a Facebook page.
A father who was withdrawn from came home from work one day to discover his wife and children were gone. Brethren leaders had visited her at home while he was away and convinced her to leave her husband and stay in the fold.
Such visits to women at home alone are a common practice by Brethren leaders. What do they say to the wife? They may tell her God will seek retribution by taking one of her children, say ex-members. They will also try to use the wife as a pawn, saying if she stays in the Brethren and separates from her husband, it will encourage him to come back to the church and to God.
'The first year (out of the Brethren), I came close (to suicide) two times,' said a former member. 'It’s very, very real, and it’s very hard to explain to someone how traumatic it is to be treated like that.'
Divorces are a horrible ordeal among Brethren. The Brethren believe only the marriages of sinners fail. If there’s a split, someone’s at fault and has to be withdrawn from, typically the man. He’s out with no job or family and not a friend in the world.
The Brethren will try every legal tactic to prevent him from even having visitation rights with his children. The Brethren hierarchy keeps a massive war chest just for legal custody fights, Bachelard writes. Members are encouraged to leave money in their wills specifically for the legal fund. One tactic is to fire the lawyer representing the Brethren party just before a case goes to trial, delaying the process. Most withdrawn fathers, now out of a job they held with a Brethren-owned company, haven’t the finances to fight.
If they lose a case, the Brethren appeal, no matter how ludicrous the appeal is.
While one man interviewed didn’t want particulars of his child custody case known, it follows closely the pattern revealed in Bachelard’s book, which details cases of children being told a parent "is leprous, wicked or ‘of the devil.’" Children sometimes write letters to their estranged parent telling them they are wicked. Or they will hang up on phone calls from the parent and return letters and gifts unopened. In Australia, a judge in a custody case reprimanded the Brethren for what he called the "brainwash" of children.
The man I interviewed said the Brethren will make false accusations against the father. "What they try to do all along is destroy you." That’s where the suicides come in.
The man, who keeps in touch with other ex-Brethren, says he knows of 30 to 40 suicides among ex-Brethren. He says 95 per cent of the suicides are men, most of whom have been cut off from their children.
"The first year (out of the Brethren), I came close two times," he said. "It’s very, very real, and it’s very hard to explain to someone how traumatic it is to be treated like that."
That’s why the website wikipeebia.com keeps track of suicides. It currently lists 24 confirmed suicides of former Brethren. It’s the fourth website the leavers have created. The previous three were shut down by legal action by the Plymouth Brethren, according to Bachelard.
The stock answer from the Brethren is that they don’t break up families; sin breaks up families.
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.
The Plymouth Brethren Meeting Room in Stonewall, Man. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
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.
Former Plymouth Brethren member Phil Admiraal outside his Stonewall auto repair business in the community's business park. Ironically, several of the businesses now surrounding his are owned by Brethren. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
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.
Phil and his wife Kim Admiraal. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
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."
After I’d made contact with Phil, his sister, Pamela Danylchuk, also agreed to talk. Being withdrawn from was hard on her. Before, she would talk with her mother all the time. Afterward, she did not have contact with her parents and siblings inside the Brethren for the next 25 years. "There was no contact at all. They wouldn’t look at me. They wouldn’t talk to me."
You can get back into the Brethren after you are withdrawn from, but you have to grovel, said Danylchuk. "You have to get down on hands and knees and bare all your sins and suffer," she said. "They make you feel guilt. You are humiliated and made to feel like you’re bad, bad, bad."
Like Admiraal, that wasn’t for her. She had to make it on her own. But it’s even tougher to get out today, she said. The PBCC has even more control over members’ lives than when she was growing up.
When Danylchuk was removed, she was 22, and worked in a doctor’s office. The doctor and his wife helped her immensely. Through work she had contact with the outside world and was able to make non-Brethren friends. Today, Brethren all work for Brethren companies. If they leave or are tossed out, they lose their livelihood.
When Pamela and Phil were growing up, they attended public schools. Now, most Brethren kids attend private PBCC schools. Pamela married someone she knew from public school. It would be much harder for that to happen today.
"It was terrible what they did to people," said Pamela. "My parents were shut up, and then they let my dad back in first but not my mom. Are you kidding me? You can cause people nervous breakdowns, which a lot did, and a lot drank to cover up the pain. You’re so afraid to do anything. You’re told God will strike you down.
"When I left, the doctor I worked for was a Christian, and I started realizing, ‘Oh, you are actually a good person.’ I didn’t have any idea about that... That you don’t have to be in the Brethren to be Christian and a good person."
Admiraal, 55, has been married 32 years. He could never go back to the Brethren. "I’ve got a couple grandkids, three great kids, and a great wife," he said.
He could never do what his parents did to him and his sister. "I couldn’t, no matter what. No matter what your kids do."
He wonders how his parents could be so unforgiving to their own children, over so little. "They chose the Brethren over their own children. In the Bible, is that how you’re supposed to treat your family? I don’t think so."
How could a people who claim to worship a loving Christian God be so cold?
I emailed that question to my contact with the Brethren in Stonewall, Dave Henry. I also asked him to respond to allegations from ex-members that the Brethren split up families. I also asked him whether my questions to him were being viewed or screened by anyone before he answered them.
According to one local, when the Brethren approached the Woodlands community centre for exclusive use one night a week, the community said no, that the rink was community and all were welcome to use it, including Brethren -- but not at the exclusion of anyone. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
Finally, I asked if there have been any recent changes in Brethren doctrine, such as the 2005 decision to allow limited use of computers.
It took him five days to reply.
He chose to interpret my question about the breakup of families to mean the breakup of marriages, which he pointed out is "well below societal norms" among Brethren. This is true, but he failed to mention the apocalyptic consequences of divorce; that one of the parties, usually the husband, is withdrawn from and loses everything including his job, and will have to fight in court just to see his children, who are being actively turned against him.
As to how Brethren could be so cold to family members who are withdrawn from, he turned around the question. "Anyone is free to leave the Brethren," he said. "This is always a matter of regret and obviously, they would no longer be free to participate in church activities."
The one question he refused to answer is whether my questions had been viewed or screened by anyone.
Finally, as to whether there have been recent changes to the PBCC, he said: "The Brethren are a vibrant progressive group who seek to find their way through this rapidly changing world whilst staying true to their core values and scriptural principles."
This was perhaps the most insightful answer of all.
A seven-foot-high wood fence, with steel gates, surrounds the Plymouth Brethren Meeting Hall in Woodlands. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
Barker came into contact with Plymouth Brethren about a decade ago through an organization she started called INFORM (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements), a charitable organization that provides information on religious groups. The Brethren approached her about doing a study for them. She declined, but she was interested in meeting them and staying in contact.
"I went to their houses, they came to my house fairly frequently, I went to some of their services, and I got to know some of them fairly well," she said. "When I go to their houses, they’ve given me a very nice plate of food in another room (separate from the Brethren). They don’t eat in my house but recently they did have a cup of coffee, which they didn’t do five or six years ago."
"They’re delightful people to talk to when you just sort of meet them or go into their homes. There’s nothing strange or weird about them. They’re polite, they play games, they drink. One family I’ve been to quite a lot, the children are very musical."
She also found out "they’re pretty rich." Few people live alone, perhaps only widows. "Old people move either into a part of the house, a granny quarter, or in a small house nearby, perhaps in the garden," she said.
"If you obey the rules and show up to church and do everything, you’re all pretty well protected as for as your material needs."
Barker points out there have been positive changes in the Brethren. About a decade ago, there was something called a "review," where Brethren visited former members to apologize for past treatment and urge them to return to the church. The review, decreed by their Man of God, was an acknowledgement that the Brethern may have been too severe in the past.
"They had a period where they were very, very exclusive and they’ve apologized for that to many people," Barker said.
As the legal battle played out, it became clear that not only could the U.K. Charities Commission find no public good performed by the Plymouth Brethren, it found plenty of bad.
For Danylchuk in Winnipeg, this led to her first contact with her mother and siblings in the Brethren in 25 years. All they could do was talk on the phone; her family had been relocated to Montreal to shore up the congregation there.
"It really isn’t much of a relationship other than that," she said, but she still appreciates it.
Admiraal also received an apology but then never heard from the Brethren again. Like most ex-Brethren, Admiraal felt the review was little more than a feeble one-off.
As for university, Brethren leadership still doesn’t support it.
"I suspect it’s more because they fear they might lose people," said Barker. But the leadership is permitting some tertiary education in such things as accounting, which can benefit their small businesses.
Brethren are becoming adept at working with computers, Barker said. When she mentioned she couldn’t get her printer working, they showed up the next day and fixed it for her.
"It’s possible for them to change, and they have changed," Barker said.
Some of the change is coming because of external pressures, however. The biggest influence in recent years has been a legal battle in the United Kingdom.
The fight erupted when the Charity Commission for England and Wales wanted to take away the charity tax exemption enjoyed by the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.
The job of the commission is to make sure any group that receives tax exemptions due to its charity status is actually doing work for the public good.
The commission could find no public good that the PBCC performed to obtain its charity tax exemption. In fact, any funding raised by Plymouth Brethren went to the church itself to be spent on things like building private schools.
New housing starts in Woodlands are due to the influx of Plymouth Brethren membership to the community. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
"We were told not to give to charities," said one former member in Manitoba.
The Brethren fought back with some of the best lawyers in the U.K. The charity tax break is a massive source of income for the Brethren. If it were overturned, they would have to start paying tax on tens of millions of dollars worth of properties in England and Wales. Donations to its church and schools would no longer be exempted from taxes.
The legal fight lasted two years. As the battle played out, it became clear that not only could the Charities Commission find no public good performed by the Plymouth Brethren, it found plenty of bad. It chastised the church for "elements of detriment and harm which emanated from the doctrine and practices of the PBCC and which had a negative impact on the wider community as well as individuals so as to present a real danger of outweighing public benefit."
It also scolded the PBCC for its disciplinary practices and the impact they have on people who leave.
However, the commission also noted the PBCC indicated a willingness to make changes. When the commission came down with its ruling at the start of 2014, it agreed to extend charitable status for a trial period on certain conditions. In other words, the commission put the PBCC into a version of a "shutting up" phase.
The major condition is that the PBCC must show greater compassion. "No action should be taken in any way to treat vindictively, maliciously or unfairly persons whether within or outside the community, including those who were within the community and who are leaving or have left the community."
Another clause states that PBCC must provide to people who seek to leave its community "reasonable assistance… in terms of support and/or financial assistance."
Perhaps the clincher is this provision: "Reasonable steps should also be taken in these cases to allow the continuation of family relationships where a family member has left the community, including providing access to family members, in particular children."
The ruling left the PBCC with a choice: doctrine or tax exemptions. It is believed to be modifying its doctrine to keep the tax exemptions, but proof will be in the pudding.
"From my perspective, I thought it rather good, because it’s encouraging them to move in a direction I approve of, encouraging them to be more open," said Barker. The Canada Revenue Agency has announced it is also reviewing the tax exemption status of Canadian charities, including religious groups. However, critics maintain the Harper government is just using the review as a witch hunt of NGOs that have been critical of the Conservative government.
The CRA recently threatened to pull its charity tax exemption from the Canadian Mennonite magazine. The CRA maintained an article about Mennonite youth urging the federal government to spend less money on war, engaged in "partisan political activities."
"They do their own thing but if I see them on the street, they stop and talk to me," said Don Walsh, reeve of the RM of Woodlands, speaking of the Plymouth Brethren in the community. "They won’t mix with the community but will do anything for the community that pertains to community."
Woodlands, about 35 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, is undergoing a housing boom thanks to Plymouth Brethren who are moving in from Australia and New Zealand. It’s something the PBCC does, moving Brethren around to either create new communities, like in Stonewall, or prop up old ones, like Woodlands.
Baked beans sit amidst a selection of English treats stocked in the local Stonewall grocery for member's of the Plymouth Brethren, though the grocer says other locals have taken a shine to the imports as well. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
Across Canada, PBCC communities have also set up in Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, Guelph, St. Catherines, London, Tillsonburg, Woodstock, Perth, Kingston, Regina, Oxbow, Maple Creek, Calgary, Edmonton, Abbotsford, and Vancouver.
Besides Neche, Plymouth Brethren are also located in Pembina, N.D., and in St. Vincent, Minn.
In Woodlands, the Brethren are building large, beautiful homes in town, many of them two-storey, in contrast to the older, existing bungalows in the village. One of the new Brethren homes has eight bedrooms. There are about four building starts right now.
About half of the 500 inhabitants of Woodlands are Brethren, Walsh said.
"They are good neighbours," he maintained. "You always hear people say they’re going to take the town over. They actually came to me and said they’d heard the rumour and that wasn’t their intent."
The economic activity is welcome. Northstar Enterprises, a Brethren business that builds cattle corrals, employs about 35 people, both Brethren and non-Brethren. It is currently located in a bunch of old Quonset huts on a farm, but the company plans to build a facility in town in a few years.
"This group here seem to have lots of money. They hire locals. They’re good for the economy," Walsh said.
Brethren have also provided an economic boost in Stonewall. Bedroom communities don’t have the kind of light manufacturing companies the PBCC have started. The companies make everything from security doors and shutters, to school furniture, such as desks and chairs, much of which is sold to First Nations.
There are about 20 Brethren businesses in Stonewall, alone. Stonewall Mayor Ross Thompson estimates they add about $800,000 a year in tax revenue to the town’s coffers.
"They’ve had a considerable impact on the town from a business standpoint, and from a civic standpoint in being good citizens," he said. For example, Brethren helped out when the Quarry Park Interpretive Centre burned down, supplying a temporary building and some office furniture. Thompson estimated there are 50 to 60 Brethren families in Stonewall now. "They’re an asset to the community," he said.
The PBCC influence is noticed elsewhere.
The Family Foods in Stonewall has a section of British products expressly for its Plymouth Brethren clientele.
It includes Duerr’s Mincemeat, Daddies Tomato Ketchup, Baxter’s Victorian Chutney, and HP sauce in both pepper and fruity flavours. The store has Best of Britain tags, with the British Ensign on them, to delineate the products. Many of the products are at the request of the expatriated British citizens, said store manager Dave Kalnuk.
As ex-members point out, the Plymouth Brethren can’t be blamed for being born into a conservative religion that controls their entire life from birth to death, and provides them with little means to survive in the outside world. To leave the church means giving up so much.
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, andunfrieden 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.
Jill Aebi-Mytton, a counselling psychologist in London, England, recently did a large-scale study of the mental health of former PBCC members.
Aebi-Mytton was raised a Plymouth Brethren. Her parents left when she was 16, but not everyone got out. Her older brother stayed in. An aunt and uncle also stayed in. Curiously, the aunt and uncle were part of the group that relocated to Stonewall in 2003 to start a new Plymouth Brethren church. They came from Liverpool. They were at quite an advanced age to be called upon by their church to relocate, and died within a few years.
Aebi-Mytton doubts much change will come from the Charities Commission ruling in her country. She wanted the case to go to a public tribunal with personal testimonies. "We wanted the detriment and harm to be made public rather than kept private and concealed," she said. Instead, the commission only accepted written witness statements.
Even so, there was much to like in the ruling. "It is an extraordinary situation that (the Charities Commission) has to tell a church to show compassion. It’s quite unprecedented, really." But there are also questions about how much power the Charities Commission has to enforce its ruling, she said.
Her study found people who leave the Brethren or are withdrawn from are poorly equipped to make their way in the outside world,. Many suffer traumatic symptoms such as nightmares, intrusive thoughts, distressing memories and flashback. Sixty-four per cent of those she surveyed had sought professional help from psychologists or counsellors.
"It’s a massive trauma, leaving. It requires a lot of guts and resilience. The ones with the most resilience make it, and those with less don’t."
Among the 264 ex-members surveyed, more than half had children or parents still in the Brethren; 68 per cent had brothers or sisters in and 23 per cent had grandparents in.
Did they ever see them?
The survey found 64 per cent of respondents saw their family in the Brethren either never or less than once a year; 60 per cent said they want more contact but are refused; and nearly all of the rest, 35 per cent said, neither side wants contact.
Aebi-Mytton recalled her own family experience with the Brethren. Relations between her and her parents, and her brother, have been continuously estranged. He once called her "the epitome of evil." But she knows how much it pained her mother to lose her son and not be able to have contact with him.
"It’s like a living death. It’s like they’re dead to them but not dead," she said.
"Once someone dies, you can grieve. You get to point where you still feel sad but it’s OK. But when they’re still alive, you don’t reach that point. You can’t grieve them because they’re still alive. My mother used that term. ‘It’s like the living dead.’"