Saturday, March 14, 2009

Brethren Revisited

I grew up around the Brethren and have written about them before. I knew them as the Plymouth Brethren, but I recently learned they actually go by Exclusive Brethen. For the most part, they are good people. They may not be like you or I, but they are good people. Like many from my area, I lived with them, went to school with them, played with them, shopped with them. Really not that unsual for any of us. Some in my own family were Brethren themselves in the past, I have learned. Others worked and broke bread with them.

I also have known some who left the Brethren, and each one had their own reasons. Their leaving took great courage because it meant cutting all ties to their families. It wasn't until I came across the group called PEEBS (which if I remember correctly is an acronym standing for People Escaping Exclusive Brethren) that I fully realized the magnitude of their actions and the consequences thereof. Each individual's story is unique of course, but they all have certain things in common.

Peebs.Net is a website that...
...endeavors to investigate and report the Truth behind the Exclusive Brethren, a group of so-called Christians, and by so doing, help break the chains and break down the barriers that prevent us from seeing our families, friends and loved ones, trapped in what many are calling a bona fide Cult.

Our mission is to educate the media and help those who have left and those who wish to leave a vicious regime that is causing increasing concern world-wide.
Unbeknownst to me (and I'm sure most non-Brethren) - until now - was that at one time, the head of the entire Brethren (world-wide) was from our own neck-of-the-woods, a man by the name of James Symington.

According to PEEBS:
James H Symington - (1914-1987)

James Harvey Symington (JHS) was born to Lyle and Ida (Hughes) Symington on the 28th of August, 1913. He was a Neche, North Dakota, (USA) farmer. He was one of 11 children and was a grandson of Harvey and Louisa Hughes, who hosted the first brethren meeting in North Dakota in a building on their farm.

The family farm was on the wind-swept prairie two and a half miles from Neche. Young James rode a horse to and from town each day to complete a high school education. His theological foundation derived solely from his own studies of the bible and the ministry published by the brethren. He had no other post-secondary education.

Mr. Symington became leader of the brethren as a consequence of a number of fortuitous circumstances. James Taylor Junior died suddenly while the aftermath of the Aberdeen incident was still rippling through the brethren community. Many prominent brothers had been withdrawn from. Several had been summarily ejected in the parking lot of the Nostrand Avenue meeting room in New York by Mr. Taylor. Other prominent figures were variously out of favor. The two Hales brothers, John and Bruce, had recently been withdrawn from. It is not clear whether they had been restored before Mr. Taylor died. In the meantime, JHS had come unequivocably to the support of JTJr, accepting Mr. Taylor's accounts of the incident without question.
His loyalty was rewarded more quickly than he could possibly have expected. Mr. Symington's tenure as leader of the brethren was longer than any other twentieth century leader save James Taylor Senior.

It is said among the brethren that JT Jr "cast his cloak" upon JHS before he died, alluding to an Old Testament story of the selection of a successor by a dying prophet.

The Symington ministry is contained in a set of light brown volumes.

JHS developed the idea that the principal leader should approve all significant decisions. He exercised enormous control, approving weddings, permitting or not permitting people to re-locate, and determining who should be "shut up" or withdrawn from. Note that these decisions were ostensibly made locally, but local leaders were encouraged to seek approval from Mr. Symington. The Neche telephone exchange was expanded because of the volume of telephone calls to Mr. Symington.

JHS prophesied that computers "used for gain" were evil. (The phrase "used for gain" is apparently the loophole whereby the current leadership is allowed to use computers to operate the organization's publishing business.) While JT Jr had tolerated post-secondary education, JHS strongly discouraged it. Towards the end of his life, he actively suppressed any discussion that found value in higher education.

Mr. Symington invented the idea that grown family members should be more dependent on their local brethren than on their families. When a person visited a city where a sibling happened to live, such as while attending special meetings or for some other approved reason, they were often denied the simple pleasure of staying overnight in the sibling's home. Any such visit had to be approved by Mr. Symington and approval depended on the political fortunes of the requestor. Although there is no scriptural basis for this practice, Mr. Symington felt that there were parallels in the treatment of Moabites by the children of Israel and over time, the brethren began to refer to their out-of-town relatives as their Moabites.

One of the principle tenets of brethren doctrine is the belief that these are the "last days". While JT Jr and John Hales each predicted that the Lord would return during their lifetimes, JHS appears to have been a bit less bold. One correspondent recalls hearing him say in 1980 that he did not believe babies born that year would see five years.

JHS assigned meetings to divisions and sub-divisions. All meetings in a division became part of an "interchange".

JHS turned the fellowship into a cash machine, receiving an estimated US$1.5 million per year in brethren contributions. Non-brethren in Neche reported monthly invasions of busloads of brethren who would come to Neche from all over the world to hear the latest Symington ministry. At one point the Internal Revenue Service sent auditors to Neche to investigate possible tax evasion, but no charges were brought.

James Symington died in 1987. At his death he was blind from adult-onset diabetes. He was buried in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the closest meeting to Rochester, Minnesota, where he was being treated at the Mayo Clinic at the time of his death. The brethren had acquired a kidney dialysis machine for him. After his death it was donated to the hospital in nearby Cavalier, North Dakota.
Trivia: Garrison Keillor was raised in the Plymouth Brethren church in Minnesota; an interesting blog post about that, with a quote from an interview, has Garrison sharing about his faith...