The Exclusive Brethren crossed my
path through marriage – father-in-law had been brought up as one before leaving
because he liked playing sport, a banned pastime for Brethren. While he never
mentioned the subject, his daughters occasionally spoke of their rather strange relatives who lived nearby in north
west Tasmania but whom
they rarely met.

The story they told that really stuck in my mind was of the rift that
occurred in the family when “Man of God” James Taylor Jr – who with his father James Taylor Senior led the church
for much of the twentieth century – decreed that
members should drink whisky after Sunday worship, after being exposed
as a closet alcoholic.

After 150 years of abstinence, this order from on high
predictably split the Tasmanian Brethren into drinkers and
non-drinkers.
Meanwhile, the group’s stance on the sanctity of marriage and family
values took a hit when witnesses claimed to have found the increasingly loose JTJr in bed with
a married
Exclusive Brethren woman.

These Brethren memories came to mind
in the closing days of the Tasmanian election campaign when members of the
religion produced newspaper ads campaigning against the Greens.

This would surely have incurred the wrath of the Brethren movement’s
forefathers, who founded the movement in Dublin in the late 1820s
because they felt that the established Church had become too involved
with the secular state and abandoned many of the basic truths of
Christianity.

And John
Nelson Darby – the aristocratic Church of Ireland clergyman
who separated the Exclusive from the Open Brethren
in the 1840s – certainly would not have approved. He thought the only way for believers to get
right with God was for them to remove themselves completely from the sinful secular world and adopt a simple and
straightforward relationship with Christ.

Standing for political office, voting in elections and serving in
the armed services were considered right up there with the group’s forbidden “too worldly” activities.

But Trevor Christian and Roger Unwin,
the two Tasmanian members of the Exclusive Brethren congregation who authorised
the anti-Green advertisements, see no conflict. In a letter to the Launceston Examiner this week they put it this
way:

We believe government to be of God
and for this reason we respect it; consequently, although our conscience
precludes us from voting, it equally creates a responsibility to testify to
persons in government and the community to uphold right Christian principles on
which our nation is founded.

Similar arguments have justified
Exclusive Brethren intervention in election campaigns in the US, where they held prayer
meetings and donated money for the re-election of George W Bush.
In New Zealand, they spent some $NZ500,000 producing and distributing to
letter boxes at least eight pamphlets attacking the policies of the Labour and
Green parties.

You can read more about the Exclusive Brethren on the BBC
website
.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW