||The neutrality of this article is disputed. (July 2011)|
The Exclusive Brethren are a subset of the Christian evangelical movement generally described as the Plymouth Brethren. They are distinguished from the Open Brethren from whom they separated in 1848.
The Raven-Taylor group of these Brethren is probably the most identifiable because they maintain the doctrine of uncompromising separation based on the Scriptural teachings of 2 Corinthians 6 and 2 Timothy 2, believing that attendance at the Communion Service, the 'Lord's Supper', governs their relationship with others, including other Brethren groups and also other Christians. These brethren have one fellowship throughout the world; in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Holland, Switzerland, Sweden, and also in Argentina, South America, but they are more numerous in Australia, New Zealand, UK, and North America  where they are referred to just as the Exclusive Brethren or Brethren.
The Plymouth Brethren split into Exclusive and Open Brethren in 1848 when George Müller refused John Nelson Darby's bias view of the relationship between local assemblies following difficulties in the Plymouth meeting. Brethren that held Muller's congregational view became known as "Open", those holding Darby's 'connexional' view, became known as "Exclusive" or "Darbyite" Brethren.
Darby's circular on August 26, 1848, cutting off not only Bethesda but all assemblies who received anyone who went there, was to define the essential characteristic of "exclusivism" that he was to pursue for the rest of his life. He set it out in detail in a pamphlet he issued in 1853 entitled Separation from Evil God’s Principle of Unity. But a tension had existed since the earliest times, as set out in a letter from Anthony Norris Groves in 1836 to Darby (who was not a believer in adult baptism):
Some will not have me hold communion with the Scotts, because their views are not satisfactory about the Lord’s Supper; others with you, because of your views about baptism; others with the Church of England, because of her thoughts about ministry. On my principles, I receive them all; but on the principle of witnessing against evil, I should reject them all.
For most of his life, Darby was able to hold the exclusives together by his great learning and tireless activity, although several longtime members had seceded after accusing him of similar errors about the nature of Christ's humanity of which he had accused Benjamin Wills Newton. The Central Meeting in London (London Bridge) would communicate with the other assemblies and most difficulties were eventually smoothed over.
But shortly before he died in 1882, things started to fall apart. It all started from an initiative in 1879 of Edward Cronin, one of the Dublin founding members, that paralled Darby's initiation of a new assembly at Plymouth thirty years before. Some members had left a failing assembly in Ryde and Cronin travelled down to break bread with them. When he reported back to London, different assemblies took differing views of his action. Though Darby was sympathetic in private he attacked him fiercely in public. By 1881 an assembly in Ramsgate had itself split over the issue and the division, over an issue not of doctrine or principle but church governance, became irrevocable.
The excluded party became known as the "Kelly Brethren", although William Kelly remained devoted to the memory of Darby and edited his collected papers. But after another division in 1885, when a London assembly excommunicated a brother in Reading over the "standing" of a Christian, the minority in the resultant split (Stuarts) adopted a more "open" approach to fellowship, as did those who followed Grant in America.
A more serious split occurred in 1890 around the teaching of Mr. F. E. Raven of Greenwich. "The seceders from his communion accused him of denying the orthodox doctrine of the union of the Divine and the human natures in the Man Christ Jesus — not indeed in a Unitarian, but in a Gnostic sense." After furious strife in which the leading opponent was William Lowe, many of the remaining assemblies in Britain stayed with Raven but those on the continent separated whilst the American assemblies were split.
Not all of the people remaining in fellowship with Raven agreed with him and this led in 1908-9 to further splits, initiated by actions of the Glanton assembly in Northumberland over dissensions in the neighbouring Alnwick assembly. Once more assemblies had to decide which side to support and this included those as far away as Melbourne, Australia. Thus the Ravens and the Glantons were established. In the same year a festering disagreement in Tunbridge Wells led to a minor breakaway from the Lowe group by a number of assemblies.
In America, Mr. James Taylor of New York was beginning to be seen as a future leader as early as 1897, and on the death of Raven in 1905 as his successor, books of his sermons began to be reprinted around the world. By the time another letter from Melbourne was received in 1920, resulting in the departure of 40 assemblies mainly in Australia, the London faction was also known as the Taylor or Raven-Taylor party.
By 1929, Taylor was denying one of the main orthodoxies of Christianity, that Christ the Son was truly God before his incarnation. This was reflected in the issuing in 1932 of a new version of the Little Flock hymnbook, always a touchstone of Brethrenism. 40% of the hymns in the older version were omitted as "inconsistent with the truth".
After the death of Taylor in 1953, his son James Taylor Jr became the leader in 1959 and it was following his accession that scandals began to appear in newspapers around 1961. Members were forbidden from eating with family not in the movement, they were not allowed to join professional associations or their children to go to university. The most notorious incident occurred in 1970 when Jim Taylor, who had a fondness for whisky, was recorded drunk at a meeting in Aberdeen and was subsequently found with a naked woman not his wife in one of his host's bedrooms. He died a few months later and subsequent leaders concentrated on improving their business control of the sect. The Raven-Taylor-Hales Brethren have become synonymous with Exclusive Brethren in much of the media although numerically they form a minor part.
This account of the Aberdeen incident is disputed, however, by some researchers who have studied the brethren extensively. The Italian Center for Studies of New Religions (CESNUR) has this to say about it:
(Translation from French) “The first episode relates to the previously mentioned Aberdeen conference in 1970, where a Taylor Jr., old and exhausted (he died the same year) was accused not only of criticizing some opponents but also of a moral fault. There is convincing evidence showing that these accusations are false and that they were launched as part of a campaign to destroy and usurp his authority. Some nevertheless believed these implausible accusations and thus there arose the “post-Aberdeen” Brethren 10 dissidents.”
(Original French) “Le premier episode se rapporte à la conference déjà mentionée d’Aberdeen en 1970, où un Taylor Jr. âgé et épuisé (il mourra dans la même année) est accusé non seulement de critiquer quelques opposants, mais aussi d’une faute morale. Il existe des preuves convaincantes démontrant que ces accusations sont fausses et qu’elles ont été lancées dans le cadre d’une campagne visant à détruire et à usurper son autorité. Certains n’en croient pas moins à ces accusations peu vraisemblables et c’est ainsi que naît une dissidence de Frères X « post-Aberdeen ».
However the history of Exclusive Brethren is not only one of division. Eventually several of the groups realised that the divisions caused by personalities clashes or ecclesiastical issues were no longer relevant and reunions occurred. The Kelly and Lowe groups reunited in 1926 to form the Lowe-Kelly group, in 1940 with most of Tunbridge Wells and in 1974 with the Glantons and are often known as Reunited Brethren. Most of the Grant party threw in their lot with the Open Brethren in 1932.
Most Exclusive Brethren have traditionally been described as "Darbyite" as they adhere in the main to the original doctrines and teachings of John Darby, and do not accept the concept of a doctrine that evolves through the teachings of successive leaders. Neither do they accept the concept that teachings of church leaders are authoritative, divinely sanctioned, and binding on those in fellowship, as is the belief of the Raven/Taylor/Hales Brethren.
At one time, all Exclusive Brethren groups believed that there was a necessary unity of the local church or assembly, but some who once were in fellowship with the Raven/Taylor/Hales group have become independent companies modifying their requirements for receiving members to suit individual conscience. Amongst such groups views concerning their way of life and relationships are frequently affected by the varying standards in the general community.
This is expressed practically in different ways by the different groups, but matters of fellowship and church discipline used to be generally not merely questions of local responsibility; such decisions would have been accepted in all meetings. Exclusive Brethren were therefore sometimes described as Connexional Brethren, as they recognised an obligation to accept and adhere to the disciplinary actions of other associated assemblies. For example, where one of their branches had excluded a person from Christian fellowship, that person remained excluded from all other branches, who must then treat the excluded person as a leper (according to the book of Leviticus Chapter 15). This is still the practice amongst the Brethren and no doubt would be claimed by other independent assemblies. In contrast, Open Brethren allow each assembly to make its own decision about fellowship. An exception to this is Needed Truth Brethren who are connexional (believing in the unity of all assemblies) even though they are historically associated with Open Brethren.
Excepting assembly unity, there are common threads throughout all Plymouth Brethren groups, most notably the centrality of the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion) in the weekly calendar as well as the format of meetings and worship: the distinctions between the many groups are generally not well understood by non-members. The adjective exclusive has been applied to the groups by others, partially due to their determination to separate from and exclude what they believe to be evil. Exclusive Brethren usually disown any name and simply refer to themselves as Christians, brethren, those with whom we walk, those in fellowship with us, or the saints. However, the Raven/Taylor/Hales group being the most universally identifiable has attracted the term Exclusive Brethren and accepted its application to themselves as meaning, the exclusion of, or withdrawal from, evil.
Dissecting the history and branches of the Exclusive Brethren, particularly in the 20th century, can be a challenge as there has been no formal mechanism for documenting their movement's history.
Beliefs and structure
With the exception of Raven/Taylor/Hales group, Exclusive Brethren differ very little from the Open Brethren on theological issues, both holding the Bible as their sole authority in regard to matters of doctrine and practice and both groups relying heavily on doctrine held and propagated by John Nelson Darby. With few exceptions, particularly in regards to whom to accept into fellowship, exclusive brethren have continued to hold the same beliefs that inspired the Plymouth Brethren.
As mentioned earlier, the centrality of the Lord's Supper (Holy Communion) is one of the primary linking threads between the groups, however it is also one of the primary differentiators between the various Exclusive Brethren sub-groups: there are exclusive groups which receive all professing Christians to communion, and there are exclusive groups which restrict access to communion to those who are known to be in their fellowship. The Raven/Taylor/Hales group were generally regarded as having the most stringent and uncompromising views on this. However only two of their services are closed to those who are not members in good standing, the Lord's Supper and the monthly Care Meeting, with well disposed members of the public free to come into Gospel Preachings and other meetings.
Most Exclusive Brethren groups have no formal leadership structure. As a result schisms can occur in the Brethren over disagreements about church discipline and whether other sister groups in other locations have authority to intervene in these disagreements. There are often global family connections due to the emphasis among members to marry within the Exclusive Brethren, and family connections often influences which side of the issue members will take. The Raven/Taylor/Hales Brethren avoid this trend by having a structured leadership with a central authority figure which has maintained unity through the upholding of a universal standard.
Hymns and music
Hymns are a vital part of the worship of Exclusive Brethren. Most branches of Exclusive Brethren use one of the many editions of the Little Flock Hymn Book. All editions come from the same source: J.N.Darby's hymnbook of 1881 which drew on earlier work by George V. Wigram.
All singing is a capella.
A recording of singing at Park Street by "Renton" Brethren (who split from James Taylor Jnr in 1970) can be found on open source audio
It is difficult to number the Exclusive Brethren, with the exception of the Raven/Taylor/Hales group, of which there are approximately 46,000 meeting in 300 church assemblies in 19 countries, with strongest representation in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and North America. Other Exclusive groups now number only 2-3,000 in the UK but there are larger numbers on the European continent and also in North America.
Critics of Raven/Taylor/Hales group have accused it of using cult techniques by controlling all aspects of its members' lives. The group's influence over its members is such that many who have left the group have had trouble adjusting to life outside. To help with this problem, several websites have been set up to assist people that have left the church to adjust back into mainstream society.
Among the various criticisms raised against the church are:
- Members who leave or who are expelled from the group have often been treated with what outsiders may regard as great cruelty.
- Leavers are shunned by members of the group because leavers are seen as having chosen the world and the devil against God, and because they could bring members into contact with the sinful world. The Brethren have been accused of using their considerable wealth and power to punish members who have decided to leave the church and to have allegedly actively used their influence to split families up in order to protect the organization's interests.
- For the most part, members who have left the Raven/Taylor/Hales group are completely ostracised. Members are not permitted to live with those who have left and this causes families to break up; remaining members do not speak, eat or otherwise socialize with those who have left the group's membership. To leave the group, either voluntarily or to be excommunicated, means to be asked to leave one's home, and the subsequent breaking of all normal family relationships with those who remain within the group.
- Since virtually all of the Raven/Taylor/Hales members work in other members' companies, to leave the group means also that they have to give up their jobs, in addition to their family and their home.
- Accusations by former teachers in Raven/Taylor/Hales group schools that the group "brainwashes" children in order to control everything that children do in life; a former teacher was quoted as saying "the children are told what jobs they will do and who they will marry. They were not being equipped to live in the outside world".
Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, said in 2007: "I believe this is an extremist cult and sect," and "They split families and I am deeply concerned about their impact on communities across Australia.".
Later comments in 2009 appear to be at odds with Kevin Rudd's earlier statement. In the aftermath to the Black Saturday fires in Australia in February 2009, a book commemorating the response and sacrifice of the emergency services, was published by students from a Brethren school, and the profits from the sales of this book were given to CFA stations to help with the replacement of lost equipment. Kevin Rudd wrote the foreword for the book and described the Brethren school, as a 'resilient community coming together in response to this crisis'.
David V Barrett in his Book on The New Believers expresses a counter to Rudd's earlier view, "Family life is important to the Exclusive Brethren: they devote a lot of care and attention to their children, who are brought up within a consistently sound moral code." He refers to the group as a sect but not a cult, which he shows is an unwarranted pejorative term when used in general parlance.
The Exclusive Brethren were accused of providing over half a million dollars to the campaign of George W. Bush, another half-million to the campaign of New Zealand National leader, Don Brash, and large amounts to the campaign of Australia's John Howard. The Brethren Church claims it has never engaged in political activity. Individual citizens, they claim, have the right to express their concerns and encourage principles which they support or believe are right, although Exclusive Brethren do not - as a matter of principle - vote.
The media attention on the brethren has been particularly active in Australasia. In 2007, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation current affairs television program 'Four Corners' aired an investigation into a claim of secret campaigning by the Exclusive Brethren alleging that church elders had met with both the then Australian Prime Minister John Howard and the Treasurer Peter Costello and had allegedly provided them with their support. The programme revealed that the Brethren had a vigorous and largely untold political history going back at least to 1993, and provided evidence of a trail spelling out how its members have spent millions in state and federal elections and overseas, including the USA.
In the Australian state of Tasmania, tens of thousands of dollars was given in a campaign against the Greens in the 2006 state election claiming the Greens policies regarding transgender and inter-sex people would "ruin our families and society". This led to a complaint to the Anti-discrimination Tribunal and some private individuals issued an apology to partly settle that complaint. Further legal action regarding this complaint is ongoing. The published apology however was paid for by an agency acting for the Liberal Party which has led to calls by former Senator Bob Brown for politicians to declare their relationships with the group and called for an anti-corruption inquiry into their influence.
During the 2005 general election, the National Party leader Don Brash accepted covert assistance from the Exclusive Brethren. This assistance included organizing a separate electoral canvassing and advertising campaign that attacked the socially-liberal policies of the incumbent Labour and Green coalition government. This strategy backfired and contributed to Prime Minister Helen Clark's second re-election.
Critics asserted that the Exclusive Brethren's canvassing campaign was such that at one stage it had "threatened the Government" of that country. Ex New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark accused the sect of hiring a private detective to gather dirt on her and husband Peter Davis, who was photographed kissing one of the couple's oldest friends, Dr Ian Scott, who is gay. Due to the ensuing public backlash against the Exclusive Brethren's canvassing efforts, Brash's successor Prime Minister John Key explicitly rejected any assistance from the Exclusive Brethren during the 2008 election.
Controversy over the Brethren in Britain revolves around the practice of "shutting up", where families or persons are confined to their homes, and is used to punish members who break rules. In May and July 2012, six girls from the independent Wilton Park School were allegedly confined for 37 days after making a Facebook page. This claim was denied by the school Trust, who subsequently invited the Local Authority to investigate.
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