REBECCA STOTT’s dying father asked his daughter to help him write a memoir of their family’s life in, and escape from, the Exclusive Brethren. He had struggled with the project for years, but painful memories blocked the process.
After his death, she — who had been seven years old when they left the sect in the late 1960s — picked up the threads and followed them back. The result is a dark journey into indoctrination, cruelty, and control — but enlightened and enlivened by the author’s lucid, personal, and passionate engagement with a narrative that becomes as much her story as it is her father’s.
The Exclusive Brethren was originally a patriarchal, fundamentalist sect dissenting from the Anglican Church around 1820. Its leading light was John Nelson Darby, whose idea of a two-stage Second Coming of Christ — a Rapture followed by Tribulation, before the Final Judgement — was a central tenet. In Britain it became known as the Plymouth Brethren.
As dissident sects do, the Brethren broke in two: the Open Brethren and the Exclusives. I grew up in the Open Brethren, which was strict enough (for example, no cinema, no dancing, women kept publicly silent), but we were milk-and-water liberals compared with the Exclusives, for whom even the Open Brethren were anathema.
Stott traces her family’s history in this tight, tribal community, and her father’s rise to national prominence as a preaching elder. She writes tellingly of the siege mentality that was a characteristic of the movement: “everyone outside the Brethren was part of Satan’s army and they were all out to get us. They called them ‘worldly’ or ‘worldlies’.”
The desire for doctrinal purity and separation was driven by a need to be ready for the Rapture. She describes how both she and her father had been tormented, when young, by the terror of being “left behind”.
Part of this was the desperate need for assurance that they were saved: “I worried a lot about the taking-the-Lord-into-your-heart question when I was a very small child. Sometimes I’d be sure he was in there. I’d welcome him in. . . Then a day or so later he’d be gone again.”
If you were not “in the spirit”, or even doubted certain orthodoxies, you would be shunned, not only by your community, but by your family, who could no longer eat or associate with you. In The Days of Rain describes how an already tight grip on loyalty became squeezed even harder, as a new American Brethren leader, “Big Jim” Taylor Junior, exerted a stranglehold. He was described as the “Elected Vessel”, and his word held a quasi-papal sway — effectively turning the sect into a cult.
Stott’s father eventually led his family out of this tyranny of certainty, and she writes touchingly about rediscovering herself in this newfound freedom. The Roman Catholic mother of a schoolfriend helped her find her bearings in a world with no landmarks. “It was all right not to know, Mrs Marsden said. This was obvious to her, but it astonished me to hear it said in plain words like that.”
But the outside was no Promised Land. Her father, almost drunk on liberty, lost himself, became addicted to gambling, ending up in prison for embezzlement to fund his obsession. Rebecca Stott had her own troubles, which she believes are rooted in this background. To new friends, she says, “I couldn’t explain how I’d become a teenage mother, or shoplifted books for years, or why I was afraid of the dark and had a compulsion to rescue people, without explaining the Brethren. . .”
Now, as a university professor, she is still making accommodation with this past. Many ex-Brethren, of all stripes, have to find ways of reconstructing their world and themselves. It echoes the biblical picture of Jacob, who — following his nocturnal wrestling bout with God — limps, wounded, towards the rising sun. Stott’s running commentary is troubling but powerful, and compelling.
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.
In The Days of Rain: A daughter, a father, a cult
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