Growing Up Fundamentalist
Disgracing the Family
Being responsible for disgracing the family is something that stays with you forever. I disgraced mine more than forty years ago, and the knowledge that I would have to do it was with me for about ten years before I had the courage to act. The full story starts in my childhood.
Every afternoon Gran searched for kindling to light the stove next morning –and the open fire, as well, if it was winter. I helped, picking up twigs, sticks and bark under the box gums in the home paddock.
Once a year Gran said, ‘Miss Alexander’s coming next week. You remember her, don’t you?’
I thrilled with fear and expectation. ‘Yes, Gran.’
I visualised an old lady wearing a long, black dress, black shoes and black stockings, thin, white hair pulled back severely into a bun, a voice stern with authority.
Gran continued, ‘She and Miss Shepherd brought the gospel to us in 1914. It’s the most important thing that has ever happened to us, so I’ll tell you again.
‘When we married, Pa Pa and I attended the Methodist church where he was a steward. I had been brought up Presbyterian, and we married in the Presbyterian church at Coburg, but they didn’t have a church here.
‘One day in April 1914, your Dad, aged five, came running inside, calling, “There’s a lady cycling along the track.” He was excited for we didn’t often see bicycles.
‘As I followed him out, a verse from the scriptures came into my mind. (This was surprising because I didn’t know the Bible very well in those days.) “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2) So I offered her a cup of tea.
‘The lady introduced herself as Miss Hannah Alexander. She said she and her companion, Miss Ruby Shepherd, were evangelists. They had travelled by train from Melbourne to Echuca, bringing a few possessions and their bicycles. On arrival they found a boarding house and inquired whether there were any rural schools nearby. They were given directions to Wharparilla West, seven miles west along the Terricks Road.
‘Next day Miss Shepherd – the younger one – had a cold, so Miss Alexander set off alone. She called at the school and asked permission to hold evening services there. The teacher told her to ask the Chairman of the School Committee, who was Pa Pa. I told her that Pa Pa was sowing wheat and camping four miles away.
‘Miss Alexander then said, if the School Committee granted permission, she and Miss Shepherd would need to find somewhere to rent a room with the use of a stove or a fireplace. Pa Pa’s mother’s room, next to the sitting room, had a fireplace, and it had been empty since your Great-grandmother died in 1909, so I offered it, and Miss Alexander accepted.
‘She had afternoon tea, then cycled to see Pa Pa. He contacted the other committee members and they granted permission.
‘Miss Alexander and Miss Shepherd stayed here and cycled around the district, visiting every home with an invitation to come to a Mission. They had gospel meetings three or four nights a week.
‘The first Mission lasted for six weeks. I took your Auntie Muriel, Uncle Bill, Auntie Ann and Dad to every meeting, but Pa Pa, working on the wheat, missed some.
‘Most of the Protestants in the district attended. People were more religious in those days and many would stop and listen to speakers in parks or on street corners. The Mission was something new and everyone wanted to discuss it.
‘One of our neighbours said this was the first time he had seen preachers living what they preached. Another said that the preachers words were right, but no one could live up to it. Pa Pa told him two people were living it here and now before their eyes. Everyone was impressed because the preachers didn’t ask for money or take up a collection.
‘After six weeks, at the close of the meeting, Miss Alexander invited anyone who felt they had come to know the Lord through the preaching of the gospel to stand. I was the only one who stood. Miss Alexander closed the meeting, saying that the Mission was finished. Later on, I asked Pa Pa why he didn’t stand up, and he said, “I knew the Lord long before they came to the district.”
‘Miss Alexander and Miss Shepherd started a Mission at the Torrumbarry State School four miles away. Several people here said they knew this was the true Ministry. They were dissatisfied with the services in the Methodist church and wanted the preachers to return. Pa Pa, his cousin and others went to a meeting at Torrumbarry and asked the Sisters to come back, so they postponed the Mission there and returned to us.
‘The residence was attached to the school then, and the teacher and his wife refused permission for meetings because the singing had wakened their child. So Pa Pa’s sister, Great-Aunt Mary, invited the Preachers to preach in her sitting room. Then Pa Pa and I and two other families invited them in turn, and they preached for a further six weeks in our homes.
‘When Miss Alexander asked whether anyone had come to know the Lord through the preaching, Pa Pa and I, Great-Aunt Eliza and Charlie (her orphaned nephew), and Pa Pa’s cousins stood up. This was how our church started.
‘We had fellowship in our homes on Sundays and Wednesday nights, with Pa Pa and his cousin as elders. We knew we had been saved in the New Testament way with preachers going forth two-by-two as Jesus sent his apostles in Matthew 10. We read our Bibles and prayed morning and evening.
‘The whole district was stirred up. Some neighbours said they knew our preachers were right and no longer believed their churches, but they weren’t willing to repent and accept Jesus as their saviour. They said they had never done anything wrong, so they didn’t need to repent. But repentance is very important. John the Baptist’s message was, “Repent and be baptised”, and Jesus said, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Some people were hostile, but, being born again, we had peace in our hearts.
‘When Auntie Muriel, Uncle Bill, Auntie Ann, and your Dad came to years of understanding, they heard the gospel, repented and made their decisions to serve the Lord, and the cousins’ six children, too, so our numbers increased.
‘When we professed we abandoned all worldliness. We sold our jewellery and engagement rings and dressed soberly and plainly. We didn’t go to Euchre Night at the church, or any of the local entertainments. We witnessed that we were serving the Lord and waiting for His second coming.’
Gran liked giving her testimony, so I often heard it. She kept an Open Home, the front bedroom being ready always, so the Preachers knew they could come and stay at any time. She often told a story from the Old Testament, II Kings 4, about a woman who was hospitable to the prophet Elisha, inviting him in to eat bread.
‘She said to her husband, “Elisha is a holy man. Let us set up a room for him, with a bed, a table, a stool and a candlestick. Whenever he comes by, he can go in and rest.”
‘So they did and, later on, when their son died, Elisha brought him back to life.’
Speaking from Bible verses in the Meetings was called testimony, but real testimony was telling about being saved. Sometimes, near the end of a Mission, when strangers had been attending for many weeks, the Preachers suggested that those who had been saved may like to give their testimonies.
Gran always told the story of the gospel coming to our district. Pa Pa and the others reiterated and said how glad and grateful they were. Dad and his generation said, just because their parents were saved didn’t mean they were saved. They had to hear the gospel and repent, too.
From time to time I heard what it had been like to ‘come out and be separate’ in our district. There had been some ill-feeling at first because those who hadn’t professed felt guilty about not being willing to stand up for the truth.
‘People who hear the gospel never forget the message,’ said Gran. ‘They always know that they rejected Jesus as their Saviour and they will go to hell. Anyone who professes and goes out from the fellowship is even more guilty. People who have known God’s saving grace and spurned it, and allowed Satan to enter into their souls, will suffer the greatest punishment of all.’
By the 1940s, when I was a kid, Miss Alexander was old and arthritic – unable to go preaching. On her annual visits she lay on the bed in Great-Gran’s bedroom, and we saw her briefly. I was afraid she would ask me a question.
At meeting time Pa Pa said, ‘Everyone please speak up, so that Miss Alexander can hear you,’ and I was caught in the tension of Miss Alexander listening in the next room, unseen.
In the western Christian world there is a large number of fundamentalist Christian sects. Many originated in the United Kingdom and Ireland in the 19th century among people who had lost faith in the established churches which claimed to be Christian, but were divided by differences in doctrine.
Evangelical groups with lay preachers instead of clergy were established: Plymouth Brethren, Christadelphians, Mormons, the Salvation Army, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Student Volunteer Movement, the Irish Workers Christian Union and the Faith Mission. Newspapers reported their pronouncements and activities in detail, and gave space to arguments for and against their doctrines.
Meanwhile, in the late 1880s, elementary education had become compulsory, so many people could read and write and study The Bible for themselves. This reinforced their suspicion that the established churches had lost their way.
The sect my grandmother described was started by William Irvine in 1897 when, as a preacher for the Faith Mission, he felt compelled to take the New Testament more literally. He gathered followers as ‘homeless stranger preachers’ to preach to the ‘unsaved’ worldwide.
During religious revivals, many people believed they could worship in any church after being born again, but Irvine’s new Way was exclusive, teaching that only those who were converted through him or his preachers would be saved. He denounced religious training, saying, ‘The more education and the more learning, the more darkness.’
It quickly became a worldwide no-name sect, being open until the 1920s, when unfortunate events led to lying by the leaders about its origins and a retreat from scrutiny. It guarded its privacy, and very little was written about it until the 1980s. Doug and Helen Parker’s, The Secret Sect (1982, MacArthur Press, Sydney) outlining its history and influence, was the first major study. Having puzzled and searched for many years, I discovered this book in the 1990s, relieved, at last to find answers and explanations.
The description – a secret sect – is not favoured by the group. Certainly, it has secretive aspects, but it has a public, evangelical purpose, too, for itinerant preachers still conduct gospel meetings, seeking new members. While it is more ‘open’ now than when I was a child, Preachers and members are unwilling to be interviewed or to make public statements.
My first eleven years, were ‘Years of Innocence’, my childhood being carefree – almost idyllic. I knew little about the world outside the farm. In spite of war and rationing, I was secure in a caring home, a tight-knit religious community and rural school.
But this changed when I came to ‘years of understanding’ and was ‘born again’, becoming a member. When I was twelve, I sat through a mission, traumatized by guilt which was relieved at the end when I stood up and acknowledged Jesus as my Saviour and vowed to serve him forever. I then took part in the meetings, praying and testifying on Sundays and Wednesday nights – totally committed. This was confirmed by full-immersion baptism in Dandenong Creek during the next annual Convention of our members.
Rebellion began in the teen years with increasing knowledge of science and society. Eventually, after living a double-life for many years – pretending to believe – I summoned up the courage to break free. It was shocking to discover that I had been caught in a cult.
What does fundamentalism do to the growing intellect and psyche? How can a young person be true to herself, her family and her group, when the demands of each conflict in ways that are impossible to articulate at the time?
Recent studies have led some people to conclude that the sect I was brought up in has many of the characteristics of a cult. The trauma of leaving is not ‘the love (of God) which will not let us go’, but fear because of the mind control subtly exercised by the leaders via their interpretations of The Bible and a code of unwritten rules.
It involves emotional blackmail, too, for the deserter is constantly aware of the shame brought upon her family. It is important for every family to remain intact in its support of the Way. Every member of a family with an unbeliever is disgraced.
As I am no longer a member, I can reflect on my experience and endorse the following words:
If there is one message I want to convey, it is to distrust characters who are both deeply-absorbed and also authoritarian… All authorities, whether political or spiritual, should be distrusted, and extremely authoritarian characters who divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, who preach that there is only one way forward, or who believe that they are surrounded by enemies, are particularly to be avoided.’ (Eileen Barker, New Religious Movements, 1992, London, HMSO)
Ye Must Be Born Again: Growing Up Fundamentalist
Growing up in a semi-secret fundamentalist sect, I was overruled from the day I was born. A dictatorial hierarchy of Preachers (who we called “Workers”) controlled our community by emotional blackmail disguised as love – the love of God.
Rebellion began in the teen years with increasing knowledge of science and society. Eventually I summoned up the courage to break free. It was shocking to discover that I had been caught in a cult. The overruling begins with childhood guilt and continues until “the age of understanding” – about 12 – when the Workers preach the gospel at a mission and the guilty one is saved – born again into God’s family.
“Miss Crawford and Miss Robinson will be coming soon,” said Mum.
A Mission! My heart skipped a beat with a blend of dread and excitement. The two sister Workers would come and preach the gospel, and I would profess and be a child of God. At last!
For two years I had been terrified. I was 13 and I wasn’t saved. If I died I would go to hell because I hadn’t given my heart to God. Being in a family who served the Lord didn’t make me saved; I had to repent of my sins and be born again.
I dreaded it because it was a new step – the most important one in my life – a decision made forever. I welcomed it because Mum and Dad and the friends would be glad that another sinner was saved. I welcomed it most of all because I wouldn’t have to worry so much about dying and going to hell.
For the last two years, I had cringed during storms, cowering in terror as lightning flashed and thunder clapped. Curled up, I hugged myself under the blankets.
“Please God, don’t let lightning strike me,” I prayed. “Don’t let me die. I repent and promise to serve you forever.”
Every night I kneeled and said our bedside prayer: “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Look upon a little child…” but I wasn’t an innocent child any more, and it wasn’t appropriate. I hadn’t responded to the gospel at the Mission two years ago when my sister and two cousins professed. I had rejected Jesus as my Saviour, so I was a sinner. If the Lord’s Second Coming happened soon, I would go to hell.
Knowing I would soon take part in the Fellowship Meetings, I took more notice. When the Elder asked: “Would someone like to choose the opening hymn?” I thought: “When I’m a child of God, I’ll be able to choose. It’s nice, but I’ll be scared, and prayer and testimony will be awful – my voice will shake. At least, when I’m praying, with everyone kneeling, no one will look at me. But I’ll be terrified when I stand and speak for the first time.”
I vividly remembered the first testimonies of my sister and cousins two years before, every word being etched in my mind.
I thought about communion. Will I ever be able to stand and give thanks for the bread and the wine? I’ll have to.
I had a sinking feeling: it won’t be long now.
Soon Miss Crawford and Miss Robinson arrived, and the Mission was underway. At every Meeting, God spoke to me through hymns, prayers and preaching.
Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed reminded me that my heart should be soft, like the good ground, ready to repent of my sins and receive the Word of God.
Words from John 3:16, 17 filled my heart with guilt:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
I wasn’t worthy of Jesus’ great sacrifice on the cross, so at last I knew what to ask for. “I want to be saved – to have everlasting life.” I repented, thanked God for speaking to my heart through the gospel, and asked Him to make me His child.
At school I kept thinking that everyone would know about the Mission, for the Workers and the Friends had issued invitation cards at every house before it started. But no one mentioned receiving a card.
I was aware of a great difference between my life and the lives of the other kids. Everyone seemed carefree. No one else had important decisions to make. No one knew the turmoil in my heart – anticipation and dread.
The Mission continued on two evenings a week, with preaching from the New Testament. Zacchaeus, a rich publican, climbed into a sycamore tree to see Jesus pass by: “Jesus looked up and said, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for today I must abide at thy house. And he made haste and came down and received him joyfully.” (Luke 19:2).
The story was familiar, but now it had a message for me because God was preparing my heart to accept Jesus as my Saviour.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me: for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)
Oh, I did want to take His yoke upon me, and I did want rest for my soul. I wanted to stop worrying about going to hell if I died.
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4.17)
I knew that these were Jesus’ most important words, for they were in Mark’s gospel, as well, and in two places in The Acts.
At every Mission meeting, I heard God calling me through the gospel, and I kept repenting and praying to come to Him. I hoped Miss Crawford and Miss Robinson would soon end the Mission. Before every Meeting I wondered, Will I profess tonight?
But they weren’t in a hurry. After a few weeks, they visited everyone in the town again, taking invitation cards and telling people about the Mission. On the Day of Judgement, no one would have the excuse that they didn’t know the gospel was being preached.
Finally, Miss Robinson read the story of Samuel in I Samuel 3 – one of my favourite Old Testament stories. Hannah and Elkanah had offered their son, Samuel, to be a life-long servant to Eli the priest.
One evening God called Samuel. He ran to Eli and said: “Here am I; for thou calledst me.”
Eli said: “I called not; lie down again,” so Samuel lay down.
Samuel heard the call twice more, and ran each time to Eli.
“Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, neither was the word of the Lord yet revealed unto him.”
On the third time Eli realised that the Lord had called Samuel, and told him to answer: “Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth.”
“And the Lord came, and stood, and called as at other times, Samuel, Samuel. Then Samuel answered, Speak; for thy servant heareth.”
I knew that the time had come – at last. God was speaking specially to me, and I would profess.
Miss Crawford preached that when Jesus came to years of understanding, he said: “I must be about my father’s business.” (Luke: 2:49) God was speaking very clearly to me that it was time for me to be about my Father’s business. I was afraid and tearful and glad all at once. We sang:
“Just as I am without one plea,
But that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bidst me come to thee,
Oh lamb of God, I come, I come.”
Before the last verse, Miss Crawford said: “If anyone has heard the call of God, and would like to show His work in their heart, they could stand while we sing the last verse.”
Everyone sang, and I stood up, breathing fast, heart thumping. To my surprise, my sister Joyce stood up beside me. We hadn’t discussed the Mission, and I had no idea that God was speaking to her, but she was 12 and had reached “years of understanding”, too. Miss Crawford smiled and nodded to us, and we sat down. She prayed and thanked God that two more sinners had repented and accepted Jesus as their Saviour.
The meeting was over, and I was embarrassed and too shy to look at anyone. I can’t remember what Miss Crawford and Miss Robinson said to us at the door, but Mum asked them to come to tea the following night, and I knew they would say something then.
I am now a child of God. I was so relieved I poured out all my unworthiness and gratitude to Him in my prayers.
Although it happened more than 50 years ago, and I left the sect when I was old enough to be independent, the sensory images of guilt and joy are etched in my memory still.
One episode stands out in memory as the most humiliating experience in my life – the day I was baptized.
I was brought up in a semi-secret fundamentalist Christian sect which had a worldwide, small membership. We lived on a farm in northern Victoria, and there were several families nearby with whom we had fellowship, meeting in our homes in turn.
At the age of thirteen, I attended gospel meetings twice weekly, the knowledge of my guilt and sin being reinforced in the messages preached by the Sister Workers (Preachers). At the end of the mission, my sister Joyce and I stood up to acknowledge that we wanted to be born again. Thus we entered into the fellowship and participated by praying and testifying in meetings on Sundays and Wednesday evenings.
Christmas and New Year approached, a time when we always attended four-day Conventions of the faithful on a farm near Melbourne. The Friends gathered from our communities all around Victoria to hear the Word of God spoken by the Workers and to renew our commitment. This was the time when the new converts were baptized.
Now that I was a child of God, Convention was highly significant to me. I listened to every word and wrote in my spiral notepad. I was doing a Commercial course at High School and my shorthand had progressed so well that I was able to keep up with the slower speakers. In every meeting, God was speaking to me. And I dreaded the humiliation of my coming baptism.
Humiliation, being good for the soul, was accepted as an aspect of being a child of God. We should be soft and pliable, submissive, willing for God to mould us – like clay in the hands of a potter. We sang, ‘Bend me, oh bend me to Thy will, while in Thy hands I’m lying still.’
I knew the routine because Lorna, our older sister, had explained it to us after she was baptized. In the morning Meeting on the second day, Mr Carroll, our Overseer (Senior Worker), said, ‘Would those who made their decision for the Lord during the year, please stand up.’ Joyce and I stood, as did all the new converts, and he told us where to meet the Sister and Brother Workers in regard to the arrangements.
After breakfast next day some of the Friends, including Dad, drove us down to a quiet place nearby where the Dandenong Creek formed a waterhole between high banks. Two tents had been pitched, one for ladies and one for men. Miss Robinson, the younger Worker who had preached the gospel to us, gave us old frocks and lisle stockings, and helped us to change. Miss Robinson attached my long, dark-brown frock to my stockings at the ankles with safety pins to stop it from floating up. Joyce and I tucked our long, thick plaits under bathing caps.
Soon we heard the Friends singing the baptismal hymn:
Baptised in Jesus’ name,
Renouncing self and sin,
To all the world we thus proclaim:
The Saviour dwells within.
We walked out and stood in two lines – about ten ladies and girls, and eight men and boys. I was painfully aware of how awful I looked, and of everyone watching. Glancing quickly, I saw Mum, Dad and Lorna in the big, singing crowd overlooking us on the bank, and knew they would be glad and tearful.
I tried to think about Jesus’ great love for the world and for me, and how he died on the cross to save me from my sins. I knew this was the way I could show that I had given my life to Him forever. I understood the metaphor of discarding everything of self, washing away the old life and entering into new life with Him – truly born again.
A strip of hessian had been placed on the downhill path leading to the water so we wouldn’t slip. A Sister Worker took the arm of the elderly lady at the head of the line, and walked with her to the edge. Two strong Brother Workers, Mr. Bruce Hitchins and Mr. Evan Jones, were standing hip-deep in the pool. They reached up, took her arms and helped her to step in.
Mr. Hitchins, the elder one, said, ‘I baptise thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.’
Meanwhile, they drew her backwards under the water – completely immersed – then lifted her up and helped her back into the hands of the Sister Worker. The two returned along the hessian – water streaming from the newly baptised lady. Another Sister Worker helped the next lady down. Joyce and I, being near the end of the line, waited and watched.
The Friends began another hymn:
I am now a child of God,
Christ redeemed me by His blood;
For my sins he did atone,
Sought me, sealed me as His own,
Henceforth all my life shall be
Consecrated, Lord, to thee.
After several baptisms, I heard cat-calls, and guessed that local boys had climbed the trees or were playing close by in the creek. I was shocked that they had intruded on something so serious and special. At last, it was my turn, and I walked down by myself.
I’ll remember my baptism till the day I die: the wet hessian under my stockinged feet, the shock of stepping into the cold, muddy water, the grip on my arms, the reverent voice, deep and vibrant, ‘I baptise thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost’, strong arms pushing me backwards and under, water rushing over, being lifted up, the continual singing.
I had taken a deep breath so I wouldn’t cough and splutter as some did. When I emerged, I wiped the water off my face, and the Brothers helped me to Miss Robinson who took my arm and walked with me back to the tent. A few minutes later, Joyce returned. We pulled off the wet clothes, dried, dressed and smiled to each other, relieved that the baptism was over.
Soon I heard a sneering voice, ‘Cooled me off, anyway.’ It sounded almost like blasphemy. I turned and saw a girl my age, and guessed she hadn’t understood what baptism meant and how serious and important it was. I knew it was an outward sign of what has been done in the heart – ‘consecrated, Lord, to thee’ – and that it was a decision for life.
Meanwhile, the men were baptised. Then we were driven back to the Dining Shed for morning tea. I felt sick; the morning Meeting was due to start and I would have to speak. When it came time for testimonies, Mr. Carroll asked those who had been baptised to stand up. My heart thudded and blood raced in my veins as I waited, breathing fast. Soon Mr. Carroll nodded to me, and I thanked God for my salvation and said I hoped to serve Him forever.
When the baptism testimonies were finished, there was time for more from the rest of the congregation. Two years previously, after Lorna’s baptism testimony, Gran had stood up and thanked God that the gospel had been brought to her in the early days. In a voice shaking with emotion, she said how glad and grateful she was that her children were serving the Lord, and now her heart rejoiced to see her first grandchild baptised.
Again, many parents and grandparents took up this theme, saying what joy it brought to their homes when their children were born again. People were looking at us, and my face flamed.
Although it happened more than fifty years ago, and I left the sect when I was old enough to be independent, the sensory images are etched in my memory still.
‘Learn the names of the Old Testament books,’ said Dad one Sunday morning, so we did, discovering that chanting in fours made the task easier.
‘Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers,
Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth,
First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings,
First and Second Chronicles,
Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job,
Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Solomon,
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel,
Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Habakkuk,
Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah,
When we were ready we came to the bedroom where Dad lay reading the Bible, and recited. The previous Sunday, we had learnt the New Testament books – a much easier task. Later on, when I came to ‘years of understanding’ (aged thirteen) and professed, being born-again and becoming a child of God, I was glad of the memorisation, for I could easily find my way around The Bible.
I was brought up in a semi-secret fundamentalist Christian sect. We lived on a farm in northern Victoria, and there were several families nearby with whom we had fellowship, meeting together in our homes. We told unsaved people we took no other name but Christian, but among ourselves, we were ‘the Friends’ and our sect was ‘the Way’ or ‘the Truth’.
Sunday mornings were long and tedious. What could we do? The Lord’s day was a day of rest. We didn’t do housework and Mum prepared most of the food on Saturdays. Dad didn’t work on the farm, except at irrigation time when he had to ‘switch the water’, and lamb marketing time when the transport arrived on Sunday evenings for a pick-up. They read their Bibles, prepared to give their testimonies at the Meeting and wrote letters to family and Preachers.
My sisters and I didn’t knit, sew, study or do homework. We played with our dolls and coloured-in. Dad often chose a short psalm for us to memorise and recite, and Mum said, ‘I’m writing to Gran and Papa. Would you like to send a letter?’. We also wrote to Dad’s two sisters and a brother who were all Preachers.
Playing Meetings was a favourite activity. We took a plate, cup and saucer from our dolls’ tea set, filled the cup with water, and asked Mum for a small piece of bread for Communion. Firstly we sang a hymn, then kneeled for prayer. The Friends made up prayers, but we couldn’t, so we said the only formal prayer we knew.
Every evening at bedtime we knelt by the bed and Mum heard us pray in unison:
Gentle Jesus meek and mild,
Look upon a little child,
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to thee.
Help me to be a good girl,
For Jesus’ sake,
It was ‘a form of words’, most of which I didn’t understand. The first line was untrue: Jesus wasn’t ‘meek and mild’. The second line made sense. The third line was incomprehensible: I understood ‘pity’, and ‘simplicity’ was explained as ‘plain and simple’ or ‘innocent’ – ‘you’re only a child’. Why should I ask Jesus to pity me for that? I didn’t want anyone to pity me. I didn’t understand ‘suffer’ in the context of the fourth line. Jesus loved children, so coming to Him should be a joyous thing. Why would I suffer? The fifth line was the most meaningful.
Playing Meetings, after prayer we sang another hymn, then had testimonies. Because we didn’t have anything to say, we used a made-up language, usually beginning, ‘I thought how compardids and all lardids…’, and continued for a few seconds in mournful voices. We finished with ‘For Jesus’ sake, Amen.’
One Sunday morning when we were playing Meetings on the front veranda, Dad came out and told us not to say ‘Amen’, so we said, ‘Huh-hmm’, instead. We gave thanks for the bread and nibbled it, then for the ‘wine’ and sipped, and finished with another hymn.
The real Fellowship Meeting was at 2 o’clock at Gran and Pa Pa’s (Dad’s parents’ home) one week, and at Dad’s elderly cousins’ the next. At the hottest time of the day, we arrived wearing our ‘Sunday best’, including hats, and sat in a circle in the Meeting room, which was the sitting room. At Gran’s, we three sat with Dad on a big sofa so deep our legs were straight.
The elders conducted the Meetings in turn. If it was Pa Pa’s turn, he announced a hymn or invited someone to choose, then Dad began the singing and everyone joined in. Then it was time for prayer and we knelt with elbows on chairs or sofas. After every member had prayed we sat up again and sang another hymn. Then it was time for testimonies. Members stood in turn, read some verses and explained how these had been helpful during the week.
At Communion, Pa Pa invited someone to give thanks for the bread. Then the bread, wrapped in a white serviette, was passed around and members took a pinch from the exposed edge. Pa Pa invited someone to give thanks for the wine, and the grape juice was passed from member to member in a cup, each one taking a sip. Finally, we sang a hymn.
Our Meeting consisted of twelve or more people to testify, and twelve or more children. It probably took an hour and a half, but it seemed to go on forever. When there were visitors Pa Pa said, ‘As there are more people today, please try to keep prayers and testimonies short.’ But most didn’t.
For me, testimonies were extremely boring as people read more and more verses to amplify their message. The older they were, the more they found. We girls took hankies and folded them in various ways, sometimes copying each other. I ‘counted down’ (nod, nod, nod) around the room: seven have spoken, five to go; eight have spoken, four to go… The slowest speakers always waited till last. Sometimes I counted to a thousand in my head while the Meeting dragged interminably.
Beforehand Dad cut a ‘Steamroller’ into tiny pieces, and we each took several and tied them into the corner of a handkerchief, ready to unwrap and suck if we had to cough. At every third or fourth speaker, a tickle started in my throat.
If we girls looked at each other and smiled or mouthed a few words, then looked at Mum, she shook her head. Sitting with Dad, we didn’t dare move. All the parents were stern; all the children sat still.
When our Preachers visited, they said, ‘Your Meeting shows that it is possible for children to sit still and listen from a very early age.’
After the Meeting, everyone talked on the veranda for a while, and our family often stayed for tea with Gran and Pa Pa. Gran was an invalid (with a ‘bad back’), and she had a ‘helping girl’ who lived in. The helpers were daughters of the Friends. They usually stayed a year or two, and we girls enjoyed their company when they had time to play with us. On Sunday evenings, while the helper and Mum were busy preparing the meal, we played, helped Gran feed the chooks and watched Pa Pa milk two or three cows.
At Gran’s big dining table we sang grace. Children were seen and not heard, so we were silent during the meal. If something mysterious was said and I wanted an explanation, I asked Mum later. The discussion centred on the Friends and the Preachers, and sharing news from letters: where missions were being held, whether unsaved people were attending or anyone had professed, and the progress of Missions overseas. We were part of a worldwide family — the children of God.
On Sunday evenings Dad lay on the sofa in the kitchen and read a Bible chapter to us while we combed his hair. When he came to an unsuitable verse, he stumbled a little, then paraphrased or skipped over it. In this way we heard all the stories of the Old Testament: the Creation, Cain and Abel, Noah’s ark, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, Moses in the bullrushes, the plagues, the flight from Egypt, the commandments, Samuel, Joshua, David slaying the giant, Daniel in the lion’s den, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo in the burning fiery furnace, Job…and the New Testament stories, too.
Although this was forty to fifty years ago, and I left the sect when I was old enough to be independent, the sensory images of our boring Sundays are etched in my memory still.
Edel Wignell is an Australian freelance writer, compiler, journalist and poet who writes for both adults and children. Please obtain her permission for reprints: firstname.lastname@example.org
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