I am Ian Carlson and I was born in Dublin in 1932, the youngest of three boys. Dublin is the largest city in Ireland with a population of about one million, but at the time I was born, the population was around 450,000, the vast majority of whom were Catholics. Of the small Protestant population, about 65% would be Church of Ireland (a branch of the Anglican Church), 18% Methodist and the balance made up of Presbyterian, Baptist, Brethren, etc.
My father and his sister had become disillusioned with the Methodist Church while in their late teens, and some years later they came in contact with the workers and both professed without any real understanding of the workers’ doctrine. My father left, the group when he realised that the workers considered all other churches to be false. His sister, my aunt, continued in the meetings.
My aunt’s profession and baptism are rather interesting as they throw some light on Edward Cooney’s outlook and beliefs. The Open Brethren had built a very large hall in Dublin called “Merrion Hall” which could seat about 3,000 people, and it was at a meeting there that my aunt “made her choice”. Before she was baptised by the Brethren, however, she heard about the workers and attended Avoca Convention, which is about 40 miles south of Dublin.
Edward Cooney spoke, and at the end of his address he asked if there were any who wanted to be baptised, and my aunt stood up. After the meeting, Edward Cooney spoke to those who wished to be baptised, and asked my aunt where she had heard the gospel. She told him Merrion Hall, and he would certainly have known that she hadn’t professed through any worker, but he raised no objection and just asked Eadie Weir, one of the Dublin friends, to help her get ready. It is hard to imagine any of the present-day workers displaying such a tolerant attitude, but it shows that Edward Cooney never believed that one could only be saved through the workers.
Religious instruction is part of the school curriculum in the Irish Republic. so I received a certain amount of orthodox teaching. Most schools in Ireland are run by the churches, though funded by the Government, and Mount Jerome, the first school I attended, was run by the Church of Ireland. When I was about seven, we were sent to a Methodist school, and finally, I attended Wesley College, a Methodist secondary school.
Until I was about 8, my mother and father never attended any church, though as children we were sent to the Church of Ireland Sunday School on Sunday morning and usually attended Children’s Service on Sunday afternoon. My aunt then invited my mother to the meetings and my mother professed through Hugh Breen and Joshua Gamble. My brothers and I were told we could please ourselves about whether or not we went to Sunday School, and we decided to stop. We quite enjoyed Sunday School and Children’s Service, but as we were now forced to attend the meetings as well, our decision was hardly surprising.
Until I was about 16, my father did not attend any place of worship on a regular basis, but when I was around 14, my father and I would sometimes go to either Merrion Hall (Open Brethren) or to an inter-denominational service at the YMCA. I enjoyed being with my father and considered either Merrion Hall or the YMCA a considerable improvement on the meetings.
Coming from a divided home, we were never really accepted as being children of the friends. On the other hand, we were not allowed to take part in what the workers considered to be worldly pleasure, and consequently, like most children from divided homes, we tended to get the worst of both worlds. Life, at any rate, became rather dreary, but whether this was due to my mother professing, or the effects of World War II is hard to say, as a lot of changes to our lifestyle occurred about the same time.
Neither of my brothers professed, but when I was 16, my father professed again and continued in the meetings until his death in 1983. He never accepted the idea that only those who professed through the workers were saved, and was aware of many of the group’s shortcomings. He adopted the view, however, that there were faults in all groups, and that there was little to be gained by changing to another church,
I professed through Willy Driver when I was 18. Willy was home from Africa at the time and did not have a companion. At the time I did not realise how unorthodox some of the workers’ ideas were. In fact, it is only since leaving the group that I have come to see the real message the workers were and are preaching. I had always assumed that the workers believed in the Trinity, as they baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but their teaching on the subject seems distinctly hazy.
While the Bible makes mention of the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit many, many times, the workers never speak about Him. If they mention the word “spirit” at all, it is usually to warn against having a hard spirit or a bad spirit, by which they usually mean expressing an opinion that differs from their own. Friends who question the doctrine or authority of the workers are often charged with having a “Bad Spirit”. The workers, in fact, seem to use the charge “Having a Bad Spirit”, in much the same way as communist leaders use the charge “Crimes Against the State”.
A couple of months after I professed I attended my first convention. During the war no conventions were held in Ireland, so as I had not attended any as a child, that first convention left a very clear impression on my mind, and it is interesting to look back and notice the changes which have taken place over the years. In Ireland at that time, baptisms were usually carried out at convention, generally while one of the meetings was in progress, so they tended to be very private affairs with usually only the workers present and those about to be baptized.
On Sunday morning the bread and wine would be passed around the convention, several cups being used, and from time to time these would be refilled from jugs. This was also the custom in New Zealand when I arrived here, and in fact, continued until about 1980. No public address system was used in Irish conventions and during periods of heavy rain, hymns were usually sung, as it was impossible to speak above the noise of rain on canvas.
In addition to the minor changes, however, there is one very important change that has taken place. There was not nearly the same amount of travel on the part of the workers, so workers at a convention tended to be few and mainly local. Consequently, about 50% of the time was left for the friends to speak, and many people in Ireland would speak for 10 or 20 minutes, and some very helpful thoughts would be expressed.
The convention was very much a partnership between the friends and the workers. Now the contribution from the friends has become a farce with so much emphasis being placed on brevity, and on getting the maximum number to speak. In fact, if one listens at convention to what are called “testimonies”, one soon realises that little of what is said can be classified as “testimony”, in any normal sense of that word.
When I professed, most of the older female friends wore black stockings, and the workers still preached against silk and nylon ones. The history of the “Black Stocking Mentality” is quite interesting. When William Irvine left the Faith Mission and formed the “Meetings”, he copied most of the ideas of the Faith Mission, and as the female “pilgrims” in the Faith Mission wore black stockings, he insisted the female “workers” did likewise.
The female workers in turn did their best to impose the same standard of dress on the friends, so despite the fact that the doctrine had no scriptural grounds whatsoever, it was still being preached in the fifties as being the only acceptable mode of dress for female Christians. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had the friends adhered to the doctrine for a few more years when black stockings became highly fashionable.
When I was about 20, we had the meeting in our home, and I was conscious that it caused my parents a surprising amount of stress. I know that my mother always felt on edge when a worker was present, particularly a sister worker. It was certainly true that some of the older sister workers in Ireland had a special kind of ministry: Faultfinding. Oh yes, it can be a full-time ministry, and some of the older sister workers reveled in it.
Faultfinding was not of course confined to the workers. From time to time the friends in Dublin would organise a picnic or game of soccer but almost invariably someone would complain to the workers about some misconduct (real or imagined) and the activity would be stopped. The Irish have a reputation for being “priest-ridden”, so perhaps it is not surprising if the Irish friends seemed to be “worker-ridden”.
I worked near Glasgow for a couple of years, and it is noticeable that the workers seemed to have made little impact in that area of Scotland. This seems strange considering the fact that William Irvine was from that locality. I also spent a year in England near Birmingham where the friends were even more thinly scattered. Oddly enough, although I had little contact with friends or workers in England, I felt very close to God, and I believe I grew more spiritually during that time than during any similar period while in the meetings.
I emigrated to New Zealand in June 1960, and found conditions here, as far as the workers and friends were concerned, very similar to those prevailing in Ireland. This was hardly surprising, as the head worker at that time was Willie Hughes, an Irishman. In 1962, I moved to Auckland where I met my wife Valerie, who is a New Zealander and we were married in 1964. We had four children, three boys and a girl, and we now have one grandchild, a girl.
My doubts regarding the doctrine preached by the workers go back a large number of years. Like my father, I did not believe that the workers and friends were the only ones right, but this did not seem all that important. I see now, however, that the authority of the workers would have collapsed were it not for this myth, and that the workers had a vested interest in preaching “salvation by membership”.
At any rate, about eleven years ago, a Brethren missionary moved into the house behind ours, and I was surprised to see how often spiritual matters came up in their conversation quite naturally. I realised that the friends rarely speak of spiritual things when they come together, nor do the workers when they visit. In fact, I remember one time when I was in the hospital, two brother workers came to visit me, and the man in the next bed overhearing our conversation presumed they were from my work. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh”, and if spiritual things are really important to the workers and friends, one would expect it to show up in their conversation.
About this time I started to visit other churches and also to read Christian books. I found reading Christian books particularly helpful and was conscious once again of spiritual growth.
I had been becoming more and more disillusioned with the meetings but decided to put off a decision until I had revisited Ireland. I had hopes that maybe things would be better over there, and I think it is fair to say they were, but only slightly. While I was there, however, I obtained a copy of the Church Without a Name which impressed me greatly. The book made me realise how wide my area of disagreement with the workers really was, as there was nothing in the book which had not already occurred to me, but usually, only one thing irritated me at a time.
When I realised how the workers had deliberately concealed the history of the group, and made a great mystery of how the group started, when in fact no mystery existed, I lost what little confidence I had in them. Jesus said, “I am the Truth” and it is ironic that those who claim to be His only true preachers have gone to such pains to conceal what is true and propagate a myth.
My daughter and her husband left the meetings in September 1992, and my wife and I left about three weeks later. Since then we have visited various churches and found several where we felt we could have settled. We finally decided on the local Baptist church where we were made very welcome without being pressured, and where there is a strong emphasis on prayer. My daughter and her husband settled in another Baptist church nearby.
Since then four more friends have left the meetings together with three children and are attending the same two Baptist churches (four in one church, four in the other). We have formed our own support group and are in touch with many ex-members both here and overseas. I suspect the workers look upon the eight of us as “The Hamilton Heretics”, but my wife and I have no regrets whatever for the step we have taken and have an assurance of salvation that we never possessed while members of the group. Our decision to leave would have been much more difficult, had more of our relatives been in the meetings, and in that respect, we were very fortunate.
Our hope and prayer are that more of the friends and workers will be willing to take the same step as we have done, and put their faith in Christ, rather than in a group or system.
By Ian Carlson
Hamilton, New Zealand, 1992