Exclusive Brethren — Taylorites
by Eryl Davies
Aberdeen, July 1970. Does this date and location have any significance for you? Probably not. However, for those readers who were, or still are, members of the Exclusive Brethren then the date will probably be significant. And the reason? Well, Aberdeen, July 1970 was a milestone for many Exclusives; it was a crisis and a turning point in their movement. I will explain what happened but I need to warn you that there has been a conspiracy on the part of some people to withhold the facts.
Basically, the facts concerning Aberdeen ’70 are as follows. The American, James Taylor Junior (1899-1970) was leader of an Exclusive Brethren group at the time and he was in the United Kingdom during the summer of 1970 for a series of conferences known as Three-day meetings. These meetings commenced on a Friday and continued until the Sunday. Taylor addressed three such conferences in Reigate, Manchester and Aberdeen. Sadly, Taylor had become an alcoholic, at least from 1965, and his general behaviour on occasions was shameful and distressing.
And that was what happened in Aberdeen. In a private home from 23-25 July there was ‘adulterous behaviour’ on the part of Taylor, witnessed by a number of people, as well as ‘obscene language and gestures’ in a meeting on 25 July. The Aberdeen brethren, supported by many from other places, withdrew from Taylor and reported the incidents with the appropriate evidence (including tapes) to Taylor’s assembly in New York.
The report was denied both by Taylor and his followers. What was worse, they refused to investigate the matter. Immediately, all those in membership with the Taylor assemblies had to commit themselves, under pressure and without reservation, to Taylor.
You can imagine at least part of the sequel to this incident. Leaders tried to suppress the facts, hundreds of brethren worldwide were pressurised to support Taylor while some left in disgust and others were dis-fellowshipped or ‘withdrawn from’ for their attitude to Taylor. And that was painful and cruel, as I will illustrate later. But in October that same year, 1970, Taylor died.
Open or Exclusive
At this point it is necessary to pause and view the Aberdeen incident within the broader Brethren background. It was in 1820 that the ‘Plymouth Brethren’ movement started when a group of Christians met in Plymouth, Devon, in England, for worship and the breaking of bread without the support or use of ordained ministers.
A man who dominated the movement in the early years was J. N. Darby (1800-1882) but in 1848 there was a deep division between Darby and the Plymouth brethren. The differences between the two groups were not insignificant. Darby insisted on separating from people who disagreed with his interpretations of Scripture, and a significant number of believers endorsed Darby’s policy and followed him. Those who followed Darby were known as ‘Exclusives’. They believed in a universal worldwide network of fellowships, with strong central leadership and a tight control of members.
In contrast, the Plymouth Brethren were called ‘Open Brethren’. For them, each local assembly is independent. The fellowship enjoyed between assemblies is spontaneous and spiritual, without impinging on the autonomy of the local assembly. The believers locally are themselves directly responsible to the Lord, not a human leader. This represents a major difference between the two sections of the Brethren movement.
Open Brethren commended
I now need to emphasise that I am in no way referring to the Open Brethren in what I write in the rest of this article. They are themselves facing some contemporary issues such as the appointment of a salaried ‘worker’ or even pastor; the audible participation of women in meetings; the process of appointing elders and the length of the appointment; the use of musical instruments in services; modern music; the exclusive use of the Authorized Version; the rightness of forming a recognised denomination; and their ties with historic denominational churches.
Another practical issue is whether visitors should be received to the breaking of bread only on the basis of a formal letter of introduction from their home assembly. Varying attitudes are adopted towards these issues and one welcomes a new openness on the part of many of these assemblies towards other Christians and to co-operation in genuine evangelical activities.
What is also pleasing about Open Brethren is their commitment to missionary work. It is estimated, for example, that one per cent of the total number of members in Brethren assemblies are serving on the mission field. By modern standards, this is in excess of almost every Christian denomination.
Operation World reports that Brethren fellowships in Canada, USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand together have 1223 missionaries. But, in addition, there are many national workers as well as workers from other countries involved in world mission. The position is that several thousand members are currently working in mission. These facts are encouraging and I repeat that I am in no way criticising the ‘Open Brethren’ in this article.
Let me pick up the story again regarding the Exclusive Brethren. F. E. Raven assumed the leadership of this section of the Brethren when Darby died in 1882 but within eight years a major division took place over Raven’s teaching.
The heresies which Raven was accused of teaching were: (1) the denial that each true believer in Christ necessarily has eternal life as a present possession; (2) the denials of the unity of Christ’s person; and (3) the denial of the full humanity of Christ.
There is general agreement that Raven’s teaching was unclear and unsound but there was considerable confusion as well as misunderstanding (not to mention misrepresentation) in the ensuing discussions. It seems, however, that Raven taught the pre-existence of Christ but believed that he only became the Son at his Incarnation.
It is suggested by some that Raven’s wish to ‘study Scripture less and pray more’ freed him and his followers eventually from subscribing to the traditions and teachings of his forebears. Did this lead to the present approach, where the leader makes whatever rules he pleases for the members? Those who disagreed with Raven formed an assembly known as the Tunbridge-Wells Brethren as distinct from the ‘Raven Brethren’.
After Raven’s death in 1903, the leadership of his group was assumed by James Taylor Senior (1870-1953). His contribution was distinctive for two main reasons. Firstly, he perpetuated, especially after 1929, Raven’s teaching that Jesus only became the Son of God after his incarnation. Secondly, he insisted that ‘the ministry’, namely the discussions of the brethren in formal assembly, were equivalent in importance to Scripture.
Further divisions occurred in 1920, 1935, 1951 and 1960-61. In 1970 the Aberdeen dissidents became known as the ‘Strange-Walker Brethren’ and later united with the ‘Ilford Fellowship’ and ‘Frost Group’. A number of small groups, as well as many of the ‘Grant-Kelley meetings’ also reunited in 1973.
It is the Raven/Taylor group, or Taylorites, that I am going to focus on in the next article. James Taylor Sr was succeeded by his son James Taylor Jr who died in 1970. James Symington then assumed the Taylorite leadership, and Symington was followed in turn by John Hales of Australia.
Why call it a cult?
How strong is this Exclusive Raven/Taylor group? There are assemblies in 288 cities in the world and approximately 27,000 members worldwide. They are mostly of European descent. Meetings are held in the following countries: the UK, Ireland, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Argentina, Trinidad, St Vincent, Barbados, Jamaica, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and India. All meetings, whatever the native language, must be conducted in English.
But why call this group a cult? I will explain in the next article but, briefly stated, I will contend that they distort the gospel of grace, undermine the supreme authority and sufficiency of the Bible, devote unqualified allegiance to their leader and enslave themselves in legalism. More of this next time.
Firstly, members must give total allegiance to their leaders. Jim Taylor Sr died in 1953 and six years later his son established himself as his successor. Until this time, the group’s official teaching was of Christ’s sole headship of the church. While the Taylorites still embrace this principle in theory, they deny it in practice.
Consider the evidence. In recent years they have taught that the Lord directs the group through one man. Again, some significant titles are given to their leader such as ‘the Lord’s representative’, the ‘contemporary Paul’, and the ‘great man’ whose position is ‘apostolic in character’.
James Symington, group leader from 1970 until 1987, was known as ‘God’s representative on earth’. His successor, John S. Hales, was described publicly as ‘the personification of the Holy Spirit’. This status was bolstered by the claim that ‘new light’ was being given to members by God, uniquely through him. As a consequence, the leader’s interpretation and application of Scripture were regarded as binding on members.
Most members would not dare to question such a ‘man of God’! And Aberdeen, July 1970, is only one illustration. Consider, for example, Jim Taylor Jr’s adultery there with the young wife of a member. Two independent persons witnessed the adultery. Astonishingly, the wife’s husband spoke later to reporters, expressing support for her. Their opinion? Well, it was ‘quite suitable’ behaviour. Why? Because she was ‘ministering’ to Taylor. A second reason? Yes, Taylor was a ‘pure man’!
There is more. In what was called a ‘Bible reading’ in Aberdeen, Taylor indulged in spells of hysterical laughter and whistling; he also frequently used obscene language. The response? Many who were present in the meetings left the group in disgust. About eighty out of the eight hundred and fifty present in the meetings decided to support Taylor because they believed that, as God’s man, he would not be allowed by God to do wrong. Or else they believed that it was proper for ‘a pure man doing God’s will’ to act in such ways!
The cultic aspect here is frightening. An individual is elevated as leader and then his status is strengthened by claims of ‘new light’ mediated through him. His actions, however wrong, are either denied or justified by members. The leader is beyond criticism. Control of ‘the whole thinking pattern of the membership’ is maintained on this formula in a Waco-type relationship between leader and members. Allegiance is total. To quote Mark Gillingham, a former Taylorite excommunicated in 1990, members have ‘a slavish and fanatical loyalty to the "Men of God"’.
Secondly, tight control is exercised over members. Consider, for example, the ‘Levitical meetings’ started by Taylor Jr. These meetings were based on instructions in Leviticus to ‘shut up’ (isolate or expel) a person or house where leprosy was suspected. At intervals, priests visited to establish whether or not the leprosy had spread.
This Scripture was misapplied by Taylor to mean that a member suspected of sin or of breaking Taylor’s directives was banned from meetings and even from contact with all other members, even close relatives. The ‘priests’ were assembly leaders who visited these individuals and decided their fate. And there are many horror stories.
One husband was ‘shut up’, that is, expelled and banned fifteen years ago from living with his wife and children. Neither his brother nor his wife knew the reason for the decision but they were submissive to the leaders. Such practices place draconian power in the hands of the leadership.
Thirdly, the group undermines the supreme authority and sufficiency of the Bible. In theory, Taylorites acknowledge the Bible’s authority, but in practice they compromise it. One needs to go back to an early Exclusive Brethren leader, F. E. Raven, to appreciate this compromise. Raven wrote, ‘If I had to live over again I would study Scripture less and pray more. The great thing for a Christian is to get into his closet and pray. Prayer and meditation’ (New Series, Vol. 12, pp.136-7). The statement appears impressive, but this emphasis tends subtly towards subjectivity and places the thoughts of a man above the Word of God.
The Bible’s sufficiency is also undermined. For example, James Taylor Sr taught that the Holy Spirit speaks in meetings of the brethren in addition to what is inspired and recorded in the Bible. In other words, we need continuing revelation.
The same man insisted that the Holy Spirit is giving us truth today which was not given to the apostles. This is the significance of their emphasis on ‘new light’ but it weakens the authority of the Bible over the lives and consciences of the members. Nor should you reject the teaching given by the ‘man of God’.
All this, of course, is plain error. Nothing should be added to the Bible. There is no new revelation. And we do not need any; for revelation was given finally to the apostles and ‘once and for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3). All beliefs and practices, even those of prominent leaders, must be tested by the supreme standard and authority of the Bible.
Fourthly, members are enslaved in legalism. Exclusive Brethren teaching on ‘separation’ is based partly on 2 Corinthians 6:17 and Amos 3:3. Taylor Jr developed this teaching, appealing to 2 Timothy 2:19-22 as their ‘Magna Carta’. These verses are regarded as the divinely given basis for disassociating oneself from ‘evil’. Separation is compulsory, especially where there is disagreement concerning doctrine and practice as taught by the ‘man of God’. Contact with those in the world should be minimal. This point is justified by reference to James 4:4: ‘friendship with the world is enmity with God’.
In 1959 Taylor Jr began to further develop the ‘separation’ teaching, urging that members should not eat with non-members. Ten years later a member estimated that Taylor had given 150 new ‘directives’, and others were later added. The result is legalism, with consciences bound by human regulations rather than by the Bible.
Members must not attend religious services outside their exclusive movement or join a trade union or a professional association. Nor must they live in the same building with non-members; even a semi-detached house is unacceptable as it shares a common wall with the house next door! This is applied to paths or drive-ways to houses and even to sewers.
Business links are also prohibited. Sadly, a member must be legally and physically separate from a husband or wife if they have been put out of fellowship.
There are many more rules! TV, films, radio, novels, public swimming, a mobile phone or CB radio are all banned. Nor can they buy life insurance or have a house pet. Beards and moustaches are forbidden, as is dating. A couple who want to court and marry must obtain the approval of the ‘man of God’. Computers as well as faxes are outlawed. In 1982 their leader, James Symington, maintained that computers are linked to the Antichrist. As a result, many members changed careers to comply with this ‘truth’.
‘Freedom’ is how Mark Gillingham describes life outside the ‘prison’ of the Taylor cult. For him, rehabilitation was gradual and, at times, difficult. ‘The greatest release of all’, he reports, is the realisation that as a Christian he has the ability ‘to live a fulfilled Christian life and to worship God acceptably’. He continues, ‘I was given to understand there was no other divinely approved body of Christians’, but adds, ‘I can assure you that they are just about everywhere. I discovered I was free to find them, eat and drink with them, and worship with them’.
Gillingham likens the Taylorite group to the Pharisees in the New Testament who ‘grossly distorted and added’ to the Old Testament Law, ‘placing a great burden on the lives of simple Jews’. He acknowledges, ‘so many of our lives have been blighted with legalistic sectarianism’, but rejoices that ‘deliverance can be found in Jesus Christ’.
Fellowship with Christ
The Clarke family left the group in 1970 over the Aberdeen issue. Sarah was eighteen at the time and had trusted in Christ personally in 1967. What has been her experience? ‘The worst is losing valued friends and relatives’, she reports; ‘the best is rediscovering the joy of fellowship with my Saviour and learning to appreciate the worth of all believers, regardless of "brand name"’. Salutary words indeed. And words which centre on the glorious gospel of Christ, on intimate spiritual union with Christ, and on the unity of believers.
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