Posts tagged ‘Plymouth Brethren’

April 28, 2018

Abram the Hebrew and sons of bitches: the Close Brethren in Peterhead

 

 

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Big Jim Taylor in the centre

“Get up. You look like nothing. Sit down! You never had it like this before. Eric! Awake? You awake there? Well get up and perform Eric, get up. Get up Eric. Get up! Eric get up. Sit down. You never had it like this before. You stupid people here, what do you think I am? I’m a professor. Here you. I’m not finished with you yet. You nut! Get up. I’m not finished with you yet. Well I’ll tell you this. Don’t you mention any cars any more, remember? So what the hell are you? Skunk. You never had it like this before. That son of a bitch. I very careful using the word son of a bitch because I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know you have to be careful about it. Is everything alright with your bowels? You never had it so good. Stand up Mr. Gardiner. I would like to introduce you to Nicodemus. And will you answer the question that I ask you Nicodemus? You couldn’t. Who are you? Who are you?”

A rant from evangelist and cult leader John Taylor Jr recorded at a meeting of the Exclusive or Close Brethren in Aberdeen in 1970.

Taylor, Big Jim as he was known, wasn’t keen on being interviewed by the press but on one occasion he invited in a journalist with the words:

“I suppose I had better put my pants on. But, quite honestly, I find it more comfortable just sitting in my underpants.”

None of the above is what you expect from a leader of a strict religious sect but then this was a man who attracted adoration and derision in equal measures – well, perhaps not equal. His religious sect lent itself to salacious headlines and it’s easy to laugh at the ridiculous nature of his ardent following but there was also tragedy as a result of the fanaticism of this cult.

This was a religious following that championed whisky as “a creature of God and the Saints” which should be taken liberally as was demonstrated by the main evangelist himself, James Taylor.

James Taylor, Big Jim, the Elect Vessel with status above Jesus Christ,  a Detroit businessman living in Brooklyn, New York whose words were taken as the Truth once he became the boss of the Exclusive or Close Brethren.

The Brethren hit the headlines over bizarre and scandalous behaviour in the 1960s but it was around thirty years later I came across people still talking about them in their stronghold of Peterhead in northeast Scotland where children of sect members had to be removed from classrooms when other pupils were watching educational videos or television because these were the work of Satan. I admit some weren’t too good but that was going a bit far and all hell was let loose at the mention of Halloween. Brethren members were not permitted to read fiction, listen to the radio, eat in restaurants where the ‘unclean’ also ate and of, course, cinema was a definite no-go area.

I had heard of ill-feeling among trawler crews with Brethren skippers from northeast fishing villages and towns refusing to allow non-Brethren, the unclean, crew share a table with Brethren which caused all kinds of practical difficulties  in small boats. Such rigid rules applied not only to eating and drinking with outsiders but within families with husbands and wives and their children forced to dine separately. Where women were members they were still designated as inferior to men and subject to distinct rules. If a non-Brethren woman married into the sect, she would be accepted, albeit with constraints, but her family were outcasts – unable to attend the wedding and prevented from giving their children wedding presents. In fact weddings were more like wham, bang, thank you ma’am as they were confined to the bare bones formal procedure with no reception and no honeymoon. And on the other side of life if a cult member died no unbeliever relative, no matter how close, could attend the funeral and vice versa no cult member could go to a wife’s, parents’ or sibling’s funeral if they were not part of the Brethren. The hurt and ill-feeling caused by this zealous following was intense.

For years I forgot about them until a blog I did on another strange religious cult, the Buchanites, attracted a comment on Facebook from someone who once lived in Peterhead and mentioned the Close Brethren in relation to the Buchanites. For the geographically-challenged Peterhead is in an area of northeast Scotland known as Buchan.

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. This is what my Facebook contact wrote:

“I find the whole cult thing both horrible and hilarious but when I was a kid in Peterhead in the early 60s we were all rocked by the great schism in the Brethren when their boss arrived from the States and started laying down strict new rules. The chosen couldn’t have anything to do with anyone who did not follow these rules so families were split, workplaces became uncomfortable and there were nasty side effects like people taking their cats, dogs, budgies etc to the vet to be put down because Big Jim Taylor had forbidden them to have pets, along with tv and alcohol. It was a cult but there was a funny side because they were allowed a regular bottle of whisky or whatever for “medicinal” purposes and local joiners got extra business building cabinets to hide tv sets in. Big Jim was eventually hounded out when he was found to be living in sin with his housekeeper (headline news in the nationals) but a lot of damage had been done by then.”

In 1964 Jim Taylor, Big Jim or JT – his names are numerous – was in Aberdeen fronting a rally in the Music Hall. It attracted much interest from the press because of the cult’s notoriety and socially destructive behaviour. As my Facebook friend mentioned the edict which drew attention to this odd and fanatical cult and created headlines in the local press was the instruction that members get rid of their pets as love for them would interfere with their absolute devotion to God, “Save all your love for your religion” was how Big Jim expressed it, according to reports.

Then in 1965 denials were issued that any such edict existed. However, a vet in Peterhead was quoted in the press saying he refused to ‘put down’ any more cats, dogs and every other sort of animal owned by members of the Close Brethren in the town – what he described as “Commandment killings.” All kinds of excuses were offered, he said, and when questioned a few admitted being members of the Close Brethren with others denying they were. Clearly telling the truth wasn’t high up in the priorities of their religious bigotry. Interestingly nearby in Fraserburgh the demanded cull of wee fluffy creatures was ignored by Brethren members.

This was a world-wide sect but within several of the fishing villages of Buchan and Banffshire there were plenty willing to be led by the nose by a big-mouthed bigot and bully whose ideas of morality owed more to booze than the bible.

In 1967 he declared shops should shut on Saturdays which meant a big loss of income for shopkeepers as Saturday was the busiest shopping day of the week. Members were torn between making a living and their faith in Big Jim who insisted weekends were to be confined to worship and recalcitrant shopkeepers were pressurised to shut up shop.

In January of 1968 the cult was still making headlines. A fishing boat skipper from Peterhead was put out of the Brethren for hiring two unbelievers onto his crew. There simply weren’t enough sect members to crew every boat and men were hired from places outside the Brethren stronghold. As mentioned above many non-Brethren trawlermen weren’t too happy sailing for Brethren skippers because of the enforced separations on tiny boats which made life unnatural and awkward. There was also talk of strict Brethren skippers entertaining women in their cabins when the boats were in dock which was seen as rank hypocrisy. At the same time younger cult members resisted some of JT’s edicts and a breakaway group formed which defied pet euthanasia, the forbidding of eating with friends and family, dismissing some of the rules as pointless and far from being Christian were more like Nazism.

When people question how ordinary folk can become caught up in extremist movements they need only look as far as Buchan to see the extent of obedience to one perceived as a leader with gullible people willing to comply with outrageous behaviour.

A three-day convention was held in Peterhead in the summer of 1968 with Big Jim driven into town in a white car. The town was filled with vehicles and people; men dressed in smart suits and women wearing fancy hats. Around 1,000 members attended in the Brethren’s lavishly decorated temple – a hall in Constitution Street. Sect members poured in from home and abroad, men taking precedence in the circle of seats at the front with women, who weren’t allowed to participate in debates, consigned to the back of the hall.

Women were encouraged to wear their hair long but tucked up under scarves or hats when outside the home. They were also instructed to dress modestly, although being Peterhead, expensively. Make-up was frowned upon. As for men there were fewer restrictions place on them which surprises no-one.

At Peterhead the split in the movement was discussed along with problems created by ‘mixed marriages.’ Not much detail got out although JT insisted he was happy to talk to the press but locals objected. One local member, Raymond Grugeon, is quoted as confirming there would be no communication with the press, “No, definitely not” he said. And who could blame him since earlier press stories included some far-out behaviour among members of this secretive cult including its anti-puppy edict?

There were grumblings about the interpretation of such edicts: separation of family at meal-times and even couples sleeping together; prohibition of eating in public; membership of trades unions and a ban on life insurance cover.

 

john nelson darby

John Nelson Darby

 

While the sect remained strong in Peterhead allegiance to James Taylor’s sect faded in Fraserburgh. Six feet tall and weighing in at 200 lbs Taylor was the son of an Irish linen merchant but the Brethren’s roots stretched back into the early 19th century. In about 1827 a church minister from Northern Ireland, John Nelson Darby, formed the Plymouth Brethren and, some dispute this, the Close or Exclusive Brethren was an offshoot of his organisation – and very different. It was from 1959 that the Close Brethren first attracted the attention of the outside world with their diktat against mixed company socialising which had a detrimental impact on small communities. 

In common with other strict sects food took on importance non-believers might wonder at. Brethren were instructed they could only eat holy bread, or at least bread made by members, and in zealous atmosphere of Peterhead this was extended to cover any food, including the odd biscuit and cake, cans of soup and even ice cream. You can imagine the reaction among the less zealous townsfolk once Big Jim began to interfere with the partaking of a tasty raspberry ripple cone on a summer’s day. This was a contest between the raspberry ripple and Big Jim. The raspberry ripple won that contest and the edict was withdrawn. Now you might be thinking, like I was, why was there no such outrage against putting down cute little pussies – kittens to very old family pets? But them I’m not one of the secretive select so I can’t answer that.

There was also a reaction against those shop closures on Saturdays and so by 1970 only one adhered to the edict – the Seagull Cleaners run by Brethren member Raymond Grugeon who declined to discuss shop closures with the press but did tantalise them with the suggestion that the Archangel was on his way north from England although he refused to confirm he would go to Aberdeen. This was July 1970.

 

Go to Aberdeen Big Jim did go and I’m sure he regretted that decision. In the August of 1970 the Archangel put out denials he was an adulterer with rumours abounding about his increasingly abhorrent behaviour including at a house at Nigg in Aberdeen when it was said he forced himself on a young man., not to mention women. Such was the reaction to the rumours the sect split with Big Jim holding onto one part and Detroit businessman, Stanley McCallum aka Stanley the Angel, a Detroit factory worker originally from Macduff, in charge of the other. McCallum would later be excommunicated for ‘breaking bread’ with his wife.

In an attempt to protect his reputation JT distributed 8000 copies of a denial of hanky-panky and boozing at Aberdeen – explaining that a glass of whisky appeared by his chair first thing on the morning at a meeting and while participating and listening to others speak on Abram the Hebrew he sipped the drink. A drop of neat whisky, it was explained to the world, was used by JT to overcome his natural shyness. It was not the odd sip of whisky, however, as hard liquor was liberally taken during meetings which might explain some of the most bizarre behaviour noted below. The Close Brethren became a hard-drinking religious cult.

As for the other matter of illicit sex he explained the wife of a colleague had expressed a desire to wash his feet and massage his head. And so she went to his bedroom and lay down on the bed and found herself under the sheet with Big Jim. When they were discovered together naked and with clothes strewn on the floor JT insisted they could not prove whose they were. Whether the woman had time to wash the feet of the great one and dry them with her hair is lost to history. She appears to have been a willing partner in the affair but other women were not and there are descriptions of the man’s bullying and sexual predatory nature that terrified them.

Back in the bedroom in Aberdeen a doctor was called who presumably thinking Big Jim was a competitive sportsman gave him some injections. No flies on this medic who suggested to Big Jim he was sick to which the Archangel answered, “No.” Still in denial mode Big Jim dismissed the charge he was in bed with another man’s wife, saying if he wanted to sleep with another man’s wife it would be cheaper to stay in Brooklyn. But he admitted “It is true she was laying under the sheet on the same bed as myself. But I was on one side of the bed, and she was on the other.”

This is all quite amusing but the bigger picture is of a dangerous individual who preyed on the vulnerable – women and boys and wrecked lives. He was clearly sick which throws blame for the endurance of this cult in the northeast firmly at the feet, washed or not, of its credulous followers.

His behaviour attracted condemnation from some members but there was reluctance to share their views with the press and doors were slammed shut against their enquiries. Nonetheless Big James Taylor’s notoriety within the inner sanctum of the sect was clear for many were troubled by his overtly sexual behaviour, his swearing and habit of insulting fellow-Brethren as bums and bastards.

It was pretty clear the man was an alcoholic with a reputation to drink whisky through the day and with a penchant for champagne when the need arose along with first-class travel, presumably mixing with well-heeled non-believers. Big Jim made the rules for everyone to follow but him. That’s power. And hypocrisy. Although Brethren were not supposed to marry non-believers Big Jim had a non-Brethren wife. It should be said he also had other members’ wives. He particularly enjoyed having them sit on his knee so he could kiss and fondle them as their husbands looked the other way. Women who objected being mistreated so disgracefully were condemned as hostile to his ministry.

Reports of bawdy behaviour involving the Archangel splintered the sect when during what became known as the notorious Aberdeen incident the home-owner and member had attempted to stop adultery in his home Big Jim rounded on him, calling him a “son of a bitch and a bastard.”

 

1959

Assembly of Exclusive Brethren in 1959 in London

 

A year or two back a man claimed he had been raped when a boy by Jim Taylor who calmed him with the words, they were “going to share God’s love.” It’s a situation we’ve become more familiar with in recent times and it should bring shame on anyone who still holds to this moronic, nasty, secretive sect whose members idolised a drunken bully.

I’ve read what’s claimed to be a transcript of a meeting in Aberdeen which comes over as more loony toons than religious gathering. You saw a bit of it at the start, here’s a little more of the abuse, hectoring and insults involved.

“You bastard! You bastard! We need a doctor here. Go to sleep Stanley, go to sleep. We have plenty of hymns, to hell with you. We’re having a very good time. You bum, you. You big bum. Scott! Bum! Scott! Bum! Scott! Bum! Scott! Bum! Scott! Bum! Now you have it. You never have it. You never had it so good. You never had it like this, you nut, you.
(40 seconds pause with bursts of laughter) (Shouting)
JT Jnr: You stinking bum! You stink! Why didn’t you bring some toilet paper with you. Very fine meetings.
MBTJT Jnr: Look at that son of a bitch there.
(Pause culminating again in laughter, stamping and whistling.)
JT Jnr: You never had it like this before. You bastard you.
(Loud laughter, stamping and whistling.)
JT Jnr: Get up. You look like nothing. Sit down! You never had it like this before. Eric! Awake? You awake there? Well get up and perform Eric, get up. Get up Eric. Get up! Eric get up. Sit down. You never had it like this before. You stupid people here, what do you think I am? I’m a professor. Here you. I’m not finished with you yet. You nut! Get up. I’m not finished with you yet. Well I’ll tell you this. Don’t you mention any cars any more, remember? So what the hell are you? Skunk. You never had it like this before. That son of a bitch. I very careful using the word son of a bitch because I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know you have to be careful about it. Is everything alright with your bowels? You never had it so good. Stand up Mr. Gardiner. I would like to introduce you to Nicodemus. And will you answer the question that I ask you Nicodemus? You couldn’t. Who are you? Who are you?
JAF: James Flett.
JT Jnr: Get to hell out of here! ‘ell, I said. ‘ell
An extraordinary …of nonsense and abuse cheered and foot-stamping and laughter.”


The whole piece can be read at: http://www.discourses.org.uk/History/TheAberdeenIncident.pdf

Big Jim Taylor died shortly after his notorious visit to Aberdeen in 1970. His last words have been disputed: some claim he lay back and muttered, “I am coming” while another version insists he was shouting at his wife, “Get out of here woman, you were never with me” when he lay back then a look of horror clouded his face and his mouth opened in fright. And so he died.

 

In recent years the Exclusive Brethren were given charity status and therefore tax relief. When in 2012 the Charity Commission rejected a claim to its charitable status Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke said the Commission was suppressing religion. The sect was duly accorded charity status. I don’t know if it is still regarded as a legitimate charity. The MP was suspended by the Conservative Party for something else and is no longer an MP – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-41866970

http://www.christian.org.uk/news/charity-commission-u-turns-over-exclusive-brethren-case/
https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/community-action-blog/2013/jan/03/christian-brethren-legal-appeal-charity-commission-status