Plymouth Brethren Christian Church
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The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC, formerly the Exclusive Brethren) is a cult based in Australia but also active in the UK and elsewhere. It grew out of the wider Brethren movement, which is generally a more benign Christian movement of autonomous low church Protestant congregations.
The PBCC bans members from any contact with non-members, and has shielded child sexual abusers from the authorities; as a result Australian Labor Party ex-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called it "an extremist cult" (although its leadership did donate money to his political rivals — despite a church rule prohibiting political activity).
The Brethren movement originated in Ireland in the early 19th century, with prominent figures Anthony Norris Groves, Edward Cronin, John Nelson Darby, and John Gifford Bellett. It soon spread to the rest of the (then) United Kingdom; in early years it was often known as the Plymouth Brethren, owing to the importance of that city in its development (the term is still sometimes incorrectly used for all types of Brethren). In 1848, the Brethren movement split in two, with factions led by Darby and George Müller, over the issue of whether congregations should be separate (Müller's view) or had a fundamental loyalty to each other (Darby's connexionalist view). Müller's followers are the Open Brethren, and Darby's the Exclusive Brethren. The former took a fairly innocent path of people getting together to pray and worship; the latter were not so nice. Darby was one of the inventors of the theological system called dispensationalism, and as such one of the authors of the end-times speculations that run through evangelical Christianity in the United States.
John Nelson Darby's Exclusive Brethren split from the Open Brethren in 1848 (sources differ on who left whom). Today it is known as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC), and is led by Australian businessman Bruce Hales. It requires a strict policy of separation from non-members (anyone that they do not celebrate Eucharist with): practitioners cannot eat meals with outsiders, watch television or radio, go to the cinema, go to university, have any involvement in politics, keep pets (a distraction from God), or live in a semi-detached house next to non-practitioners or a house with a drain shared with non-members. Hales's church has been accused of abuse and bullying, enforcing separation within families. Hales told members to maintain an "utter hatred" for non-members and advised one member who was upset over not being able to see his unbeliever family to drink poison. They also made payments to cover up child sex abuse, and reinstated a member who while a school trustee had abused two young girls who were living with him and attending his school. They are also very very homophobic. Basically your standard cult.
The PBCC grew out of John Nelson Darby's Exclusive Brethren. Darby was succeeded by Frederick Raven, and then James Taylor Sr. A prominent figure in the mid 20th century was the latter's son James Taylor Jr (1899–1970): in 1959, following a long dispute over leadership, Taylor Jr excommunicated his rival, Gerald Cowell, and issued a series of edicts banning members from associating with non-members. Many members left during Taylor's leadership, joining other Brethren groups. In 1970 there was a controversial incident where Taylor apparently showed up drunk at a meeting in Aberdeen. Taylor died shortly after the Aberdeen incident and was succeeded by James H. Symington. Symington was succeeded by the Australian John S. Hales, and in 2002 passed to the latter's son Bruce David Hales. Hales' movement was rebranded as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church in 2012.
Although PBCC members are not supposed to vote or participate in politics, in 2004 senior Australian members donated US$370,460 to right-wing politician John Howard, and in 2010 they donated AU$67,000 to his party, the "Liberal" Party of Australia.
The PBCC claims to have "300 autonomous assemblies in 18 countries".
While the PBCC represent one particular offshoot of the original Plymouth Brethren movement, there are other more benign churches with a similar origin. Brethren, Christian Brethren, Open Brethren, and Gospel Halls are all names used for a movement of Christians who have no central authority and believe that they shouldn't give themselves a sectarian name (which makes it hard to identify them as a denomination). Their places of worship are commonly known as "Gospel Chapel", "Gospel Hall", "Bible Chapel", or "Christian Assembly". The term Gospel Halls Movement is often used for the more conservative Open Brethren congregations, who tend to call their places of worship Gospel Halls, while Bible Chapels is the name preferred by the liberal congregations, although there is little doctrinal difference.
The Brethren movement in general claims to represent Pauline Christianity, and typically believe in sola scriptura and Bible inerrancy. Their doctrines include justification by grace, that baptism is not required for salvation, dispensationalism, and eternal Heaven and Hell for believers and nonbelievers respectively. They believe each congregation should be independent and autonomous, and oppose salaried clergy (similar to the Quakers and some other low church sects). They prefer simplicity in their places of worship, not even using crosses, and rejecting stained glass and other typical Christian accoutrements; many congregations oppose hymns (other than psalms), musical instruments, and formal liturgies, although some more liberal churches have modern hymns with accompaniment.
Today, Brethren churches are popular in Northern Ireland and Scotland, with Scottish publisher John Ritchie Ltd producing a lot of material, but the movement has spread to Europe, North America and elsewhere. There is a website gospelhalls.co.uk which lists chapels and halls in the UK, but it has no official status. They are typically identified by their use of names mentioned above and their following of the traditions of the original Brethren.
- Man's escape from 'cult' that stopped members from keeping pets or speaking to family, Liverpool Echo, 11 Jan 2020
- Revealed: how Exclusive Brethren members secretly donate to the Liberal Party, Sydney Morning Herald, June 17, 2016
- Exclusive Brethren, BBC Religion
- Open Brethren write to the Charity Commission to stress differences with Exclusive branch, Third Sector, 14 January 2013
- See the Wikipedia article on Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.
- See the Wikipedia article on Open Brethren.
- See the Wikipedia article on Gospel Hall Assemblies.
- Who runs this site?, Tim McShane, gospelhalls.co.uk, accessed 19 May 2021