Rebecca Stott grew up in a world where radio and TV were wicked, women were kept silent, people were imprisoned in their own homes, and believers lived in constant readiness for the Rapture. Her childhood was the claustrophobic world of the Exclusive Brethren, in the days when a dictatorial leader known as JT Junior ruled the church. In this extract from Stott’s book, In the Days of Rain, she describes the crisis that befell the Brethren when they were instructed not to eat with non-Brethren, on pain of excommunication.
IN THE SPRING OF 1960, while he was finishing his last year at Cambridge, my father went for an interview in Birmingham for a job with 3M, the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.
Six foot four in height, aff able, well-built, Cambridge educated, and soberly dressed, my father must have looked and sounded impressive. He came, he told his interviewers, from a long line of travelling salespeople: his father had been a salesman for Dubarry and Roger et Gallet, and he himself had worked in South Africa as the assistant sales manager for the brand-new sales team of Wall’s ice cream. The job would be perfect for him, he told my mother when he was offered the position, as 3M wouldn’t require him to join a union or a professional association.
But by the time, six months later, that he put on his suit and took himself off to 3M’s UK head offi ce in Birmingham, JT Junior had proclaimed that Brethren should no longer eat with non-Brethren, because eating together was ‘an act of fellowship’. The charter once again pointed to Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians 5: 9–11 this time: ‘I have written to you in the epistle not to mix with fornicators,’ Paul wrote; ‘not altogether with the fornicators of the world, or with the avaricious and rapacious, or idolators; since then you should go out of the world. But now I have written to you, if any one called brother be fornicator or avaricious, or idolator, or abusive, or a drunkard, or rapacious, not to mix with him; with such a one not even to eat.’
When my father told his new employers he could not eat or drink with his work colleagues or clients, they accused him of hypocrisy. He’d eaten with them during his job interview, they said. Why not now, only a few months later? He tried to explain that this was a new rule in his Church; that he was simply following orders. He even tried to quote the passage from 1 Corinthians 5, but no one was interested.
It is difficult to convey the scale of the devastation that the ‘eating rule’ caused, not just in the workplace but in Brethren homes around the world. If a Brethren husband was living with a non-Brethren wife, he could no longer eat at the same table with her. If a Brethren daughter had taken her elderly non-Brethren mother to live with her and her family, the mother would have to eat in a separate room. If a Brethren teenager did not want to join the Brethren, he or she would have to eat in another room. Brethren children had to come home from school, or eat at a separate table in the school canteen, to avoid being contaminated by non-Brethren children. My mother picked us all up from school at lunchtime and gave us a meal at home. When we drank the bottles of milk the school provided, the teachers had to usher us into a different part of the room from the other children. No one explained why. I suspect no one really knew how to.
Many ex-Brethren told me stories about how difficult it had been at work once the eating rule was imposed, how lonely and isolating it was. My father’s closest friend during the sixties, William, agreed to meet me for lunch with his wife in a restaurant on the Essex marshes forty years after we’d last seen each other. I couldn’t help feeling we were meeting out there, miles from anywhere, in an almost empty restaurant, because we needed to be sure we would not be overheard. Outside, the halyards of sailing boats clanged against their masts.
In 1960, William told me, when my twenty-two-year-old father was selling tape in Birmingham, William was working in a raincoat factory as a sales representative. He was also in his early twenties, also newly married. He was doing well at work, gaining trust, establishing his place in the team. But with the new eating prohibition, suddenly he could no longer socialise with his colleagues. He had to eat at a different table in the canteen, and explain that this was a religious rule. He didn’t dare break it in case someone saw and reported him.
His colleagues were offended and baffled, he told me. He became increasingly isolated. Every day he felt he was walking on knives, that he might be sacked at any moment. He dreaded lunch and coffee breaks, and would search for excuses to get out of the office. It was impossible to concentrate on work. Soon, he said, he was lurching constantly between anxiety, insomnia, frustration and rage. My father, working amongst the bright, ambitious young men of 3M, must have felt the same.
William knew that what was going on was wrong, but neither he nor his wife had ever lived outside the Brethren; they could not imagine doing that. They were frightened. He’d broken Brethren rules as a young child, just as I had done, just as my father had done. He’d hidden Brethren-banned books like Biggles in the saddlebag of his bike under Brethren-approved books about birdwatching and astronomy. He’d even considered leaving altogether when he was older, but when he’d tried to talk to his mother about his doubts, she’d said sternly, ‘Something’s wrong with you, William,’ and he’d started to wonder if perhaps she was right. When he expressed his concerns about the eating issue in a letter to a family friend, and told her he was thinking about leaving the fellowship altogether, the friend had written back, ‘Are you really prepared to kill your mother?’
A cousin introduced me to an ex-Brethren woman she knew who lived near me in London. I asked her to dinner. ‘Ruth’ – she didn’t want me to use her real name either – was seventy. She and her parents had lived through the JT Junior years. I asked what had happened in her family as a result of the eating rules. She still found it difficult to talk about, she said. Even fifty-five years later, it was painful for her to remember.
She’d been the only child of a Brethren father and a non-Brethren mother. Before 1960 that hadn’t been too much of a problem, she said. She attended Sunday Meetings with her father and uncle and aunts; her mother didn’t. In 1960, when JT Junior began to enforce the new separation rules, her uncle, struggling to keep his job and to comply with the new Brethren rules about professional associations, committed suicide. Ruth was fourteen. Only weeks after her uncle’s death, the local Brethren told her father that if her mother didn’t join the fellowship he’d either have to leave her or leave the Brethren.
Late one evening, two of the local Brethren priests came to their north London home. Ruth watched the whole episode from the top of the stairs. Their home was unclean, the priests said; it would contaminate the local assembly. Was Ruth’s mother now ready to join the Brethren? When her mother told them she wasn’t going to join, they turned to her father. Was he now going to leave his wife? When he said no, that he wasn’t going to leave her, they told him he’d have to leave the Brethren. The two priests then left.
Ruth went to bed as she was told, but the house had ‘an atmosphere of unbearable tension’. She was woken up some time later by frightening sounds from downstairs. She ran down the stairs just in time to rescue her mother from being strangled by her father. He had her on the floor with his hands around her neck. Ruth had to use all her force to pull him off.
‘When he turned towards me,’ she said, ‘it was with an unrecognising, wild look in his eyes unlike anything I’d seen before.’
The next morning a doctor referred her father for psychiatric treatment. Soon after, with her mother still refusing to join the Brethren, the three of them left the fellowship altogether, leaving behind all her father’s family, who would not be able to speak to them again. Her parents stayed together, Ruth said, but their marriage never really recovered.
Everywhere this new hardline separatism was making life difficult for Brethren – sometimes unbearably so – but as my father would tell the BBC interviewer sixteen years later, there was also something exhilarating about that collective suffering. JT Junior kept on telling them that suffering was ‘The Thing’. Consider Christ’s suffering on the cross, he’d roar at them. And you think you have it bad?
Extracted from In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, published by 4th Estate
Photo by Josh Edgoose on Unsplash