By Pamela Ruth Stewart
There is a way that seems right to a man,
but in the end it leads to death. Proverbs 14:12
Life had now changed—inwardly rather than outwardly. I didn’t feel able to discuss what had happened with anyone. People didn’t talk very much about God outside of the meetings. I suppose it was just a follow on from the way the group leadership behaved. Everyone seemed very reserved about showing any kind of emotion or outward religious expression.
In fact, I wasn’t sure if anyone would believe or even understand what I had experienced. But I did know the procedure that the preachers followed to allow people to make a decision to belong to God and the group; so that helped a little. I knew I would just have to wait for the right opportunity in one of the missionary meetings. I felt very anxious about having to wait. Several months later, however, I was given the opportunity to make my decision known in a public way. I had now turned fourteen years old.
As was the usual practice, the missionary meetings were held every spring and autumn in the area. These meetings took place in a mobile wooden unit positioned temporarily on local farmland. We called them Mission Huts. Inside the hut there was a partition at the far end where the two or three missionary workers had their sleeping quarters. I used to wonder how three people could fit in behind that screen; it must have been a squash. How would the others sleep if one of them snored?
There was a wood-burning stove positioned in the middle giving out plenty of heat and used for cooking and boiling water. I loved the smell of the burning wood. I liked to try and focus on these things. It took my mind away from that horrible, cold, hostile atmosphere that made me feel so uncomfortable. In one corner of the hut there was a small pedal organ which I found highly amusing. The person designated to play the hymns had to pedal away furiously to keep the sound coming out.
It was usual on the last night for an invitation to be given by the preachers for an opportunity to make ‘a profession of faith’. The expression used then (and still today) was “Did anyone profess in your meetings tonight?” Or if they were wondering if someone belonged to the group they would ask, “Are they professing?”
As we travelled in the car to the meeting, my mother remarked that this was probably the last night. She wondered if anyone might profess. I remember thinking here was my opportunity at last! I went cold with fear and terror at the thought of having to stand up in front of everyone.
Apprehensively, I entered the mission hut. The tension was building up inside me. I wondered if I would have the courage to stand up. I have no idea what the two preachers said that night; I thought they would never finish! But eventually the senior missionary worker advised that if anyone would like to make a profession of their faith they should stand up when the last chorus of the final hymn was being sung.
My heart started pounding away furiously; it felt like a now-or-never moment. Somehow I had to do it! I had to make known the decision I had made of accepting God into my life.
The words of the last chorus sung were:
While the lamp of life is burning
And the heart of God is yearning
To His loving arms returning
Give thy wand’ring o’er.
At these words a sense of urgency filled my heart. It was only now that my lamp of life was burning; I could not be sure it would continue to burn even until tomorrow or next week, or next month, or next year. Annabel’s death had made me realize the uncertainty of my own lifespan. It gave me the courage I needed. I jumped up like a big spring being released. I stood, shaking and sweating. I felt terribly self-conscious.
But then I felt a powerful, profound feeling of love surround me. I just knew that the words of the chorus applied to me personally; God really was yearning for me to turn and throw myself into His outstretched, loving arms. There was so much comfort in this experience that I was overwhelmed and burst into torrents of tears. Whoosh! It was like a dam bursting forth.
I felt an elbow nudge in my side. I realized that I was being warned to stop crying and it worked. My torrents of tears quickly turned into shuddering sobs. I was suddenly filled with the utmost amount of fear. I desperately tried to suppress myself, sitting down and shaking uncontrollably with the effort of trying to pull back my tears. Displays of emotional outbursts were not approved of in the meetings.
I remembered a conversation that some of the missionary workers had had at my parents’ home. They had been discussing someone whose decision to ‘profess’ they had rejected. They had believed this person should wait until they were less emotionally charged. I did not want to find that I could not be accepted simply because I had burst into tears.
I was in a room surrounded by people, yet I suddenly felt alone and afraid. The crushing anxiety and fear that filled my heart at the thought of being rejected was crippling. It was just too awful to contemplate.
Soon the meeting came to an end. There was no reference made about the people who had stood up to show their decision to profess. As was the usual procedure, everyone silently filed out, shaking hands with one of the preachers on the way out. It was as if nothing had happened. Yet it had been a momentous occasion for me. I felt like a balloon that had suddenly been deflated. As I went through the door, the younger preacher whispered that he would come and visit me, but that was all.
I followed my parents as they walked to the car. Suddenly, one of the older girls ran across and hugged me. It was so unexpected that I had to fight back the tears once more.
A hug can mean more than a thousand words. It was something I never forgot; it meant such a lot to me at the time. I do this now in my chaplaincy work; there are times in tragic situations where a comforting hug is the only way to express sympathy.
Upon arrival home no one mentioned my tears, but I was pleased when my mother promised to get me a new Bible from Allan’s, Publishers of Bibles in Scotland. She also told me that I could now take part in the home group fellowship meetings. And that was that.
It all seemed a terrible anti-climax. I felt drained at suppressing so much emotion, but at least I had accomplished what I had set out to do. Finally, I had let people know that I wanted God in my life.
However, that night in bed, instead of feeling joyful and relieved, I began to worry about what would now be expected of me. Would I be able to meet the required standards? I didn’t feel very confident as I was shy and timid. The thought of speaking in the fellowship meetings filled me with dread. I had no clue about what to do or say about anything in the Bible or even how to pray out loud, though I knew everyone was expected to participate.
I had recently been given a small New Testament distributed by the Gideon’s organization who had visited my school. It was a little burgundy coloured one which I had been so pleased to receive. I had a habit when anyone gave me a book of always checking the ending first. If the story ended in a happy way I would read it, but if the story finished with a sad ending I would refuse to read it.
I remember that my first Bible study took place at school in the playing fields. I sat my friends around me and bossed them into submission. They had to sit and listen to me read the last few chapters of the Bible: Revelations 20, 21 and 22. With eyes like saucers they heard about two destinations called heaven and hell.
At the end of the reading, one friend asked me whether I believed it was true or not. My response was “Of course it’s true!” I told my friend that I was going to make sure I went to heaven when I died. My friends all agreed that they wanted to go to heaven too; it sounded so beautiful with no pain, suffering or death – nothing bad or evil could enter heaven.
We were all happy to read the Bible story because it had a beautiful ending if we went to heaven. We didn’t like to think about hell or the final ending in the Lake of Fire. That seemed too awful. Yet we agreed that God was right and that bad, evil people and Satan shouldn’t be allowed into heaven. They would spoil it for us.
This was my first attempt at teaching the Bible; it just seemed a natural thing to do. I loved it, although I am not sure that my friends did.
But it was very different in our fellowship meetings. The stiff atmosphere seemed to inhibit me and send me scurrying back into my shell.
The meetings took place on Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening. The first meeting that I could participate in was on Wednesday evening. The book of Psalms was currently being read, and Psalm 23 was the one that everyone was studying for on that night. Even though the meetings were organized in different homes, it was extremely formal and stiff. The format for the meeting was that people would come in through the unlocked front door, walk into the room with a nod of greeting and sit in silence until everyone else had arrived. It was normal practice for people to always sit in the same seat for each meeting. Once you sat in a seat no one else would sit there again. We were like homing pigeons – always returning to the same place or seat.
Usually the man of the house presided over the meeting. He was appointed as a ‘Bishop’ by the preachers. His role was to make sure everything and everyone was kept in order. He would choose a hymn out of our book, and someone would start the singing since we only ever sang a cappella (unaccompanied); then the rest of us would join in.
This used to cause me a great deal of amusement because if the person who had started the hymn pitched it too low then as we progressed through the verses the pitch would slide even lower so that everyone would be straining their vocal chords to try to reach the bottom notes. The opposite would happen if it was pitched too high; then people had to just shout or squeak to reach the top notes, and this was even more hysterically funny. Once I just burst out laughing, and everyone looked at me disapprovingly as if I had committed a terrible sin. In most homes there was a piano or keyboard, but they were not allowed to be used. When I queried why we couldn’t use an instrument to help us, I was told it simply wasn’t done and that we didn’t want to be getting “like the world”. It just didn’t make sense to me, and as I loved music and playing the piano, it really frustrated and annoyed me. I thought it was nonsense.
After the first hymn chosen by the Bishop of the meeting, there was a time of prayer. Everyone took part, and usually we would kneel to pray. After this there was another hymn which anyone could choose, and then it was time for each person to speak, in no particular order, about the chapter we had all read. Finally, there was an opportunity to choose another closing hymn. When the meeting finished, there was some general chit-chat and occasionally a cup of tea before we all went home.
I had problems sleeping at night before my very first participation because I was so worried about what I should say. Psalm 23 started with “The Lord’s my shepherd; I shall not want.” When my time came in the meeting to speak, I just managed to blurt out that I was a lamb who loved Jesus. Jesus was now my loving shepherd, and I believed He would always care for me like a shepherd cares for and loves his lambs. That was all I could manage!
As for praying, I just listened carefully to the others and then copied in a parrot-like fashion. We prayed using the old King James style language. It felt strange and unnatural using the words ‘thee’, ‘thou’ and ‘thy’ as if I were an actor putting on a stage performance.
I was relieved to get my first meeting over, but I still had a great deal of questions, worries and concerns about things that I had read in the Bible. I was much too scared to ask any of the preachers; I didn’t find them easy to approach. Even though we had many of the preachers living with us during a series of missionary meetings, they never offered to read or explain the Bible on an individual basis. It simply wasn’t done.
Once, when I did become brave enough to ask questions, I was told that I needed to ask God for a revelation and that I should make sure I attended all the meetings as that was the best way to learn. It made me feel very inferior – as if I wasn’t good enough yet for God to reveal anything to me. I wished that I had never asked.
One True Way
I also began to think about others who didn’t belong to the true church. It seemed an awesome privilege to be brought up in a group that was the only true way left on the earth. We did not have a name to identify ourselves; we didn’t need one. We were the continuation of the church that Jesus had set up in the Bible days. We referred to ourselves as the ‘one true way’.
I felt sad that so many people didn’t know about this and began to wonder if God wanted me to go out as one of the preachers when I was older. It seemed terrible to think that so many people were worshipping God in vain all over the world in buildings and congregations that our preachers condemned as heretical.
I had never been in a church building except through school when we visited the local church to sing some Christmas carols. The ‘true church’ (or ‘body of people’) always met in homes as they did in Bible days. I felt extremely guilty when I went inside the building and was glad when it was finished.
Our preachers had warned us never to get involved with any other church, group, denomination, organization, minister, pastor, theology or Bible training college. They were all condemned as false, and involvement might lead us astray from the true way that we followed, but I felt sad that if I ever got married it would not be in a church building. This church had been really impressive inside. I daydreamed about it; it would be so special to walk down that beautiful aisle in a flowing bridal gown to a wonderful man waiting for me at the end, but that kind of thought was sinful. I rebuked myself for even thinking that way.
Homeless Unmarried Preacher
I thought about becoming a preacher. I thought about what I would have to renounce. I wanted to help others, and I wanted to give my best to God, but I knew that it was a very high standard that I would need to maintain. I would have to give up any thought of getting married.
Our preachers had to remain single. Preachers who met someone they fell in love with and wanted to marry had to leave the mission field. The leaders were very strict about this. I knew someone who offered himself to be a homeless preacher, but when they found out that he had a girlfriend he had to finish the relationship. It seemed a really hard and unloving attitude to me, particularly when God had ordained marriage in the first place. It was also confusing. Most of the disciples and apostles of Jesus had been married.
When I queried the fact that the apostle Paul had written that “forbidding marriage is among the doctrine of devils” (1 Timothy 4:1-3), I was told by a senior preacher that they did not actually forbid marriage. Instead he said that being single was something they felt worked better. When prospective preachers thought about it, they came to the same conclusion. I was now totally confused and perplexed – they had a rule in practice but not in theory; how contradictory was that!
I would also have had to give up the right to have my own home, income or possessions. We claimed to follow the way Jesus sent His Apostles out to preach:
Matthew 10:5-15 – Don’t go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but only to the people of Israel – God’s lost sheep. Go and announce to them that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received. Don’t take any money in your money belts, no gold, silver, or even copper coins. Don’t carry a traveller’s bag with a change of clothes and sandals or even a walking stick. Don’t hesitate to accept hospitality, because those who work deserve to be fed.
Similar verses are found in Luke 10:1-10. No one in the whole world was prepared to follow this criterion the way we did. I thought it was very impressive. However, I didn’t understand why no one prayed for the sick or cast out demons.
It was only later on that I discovered that the ‘one true way’ religion had been started by a Scotsman named William Irvine (1863-1947). He was born in Newtown, Kilsyth, Scotland, and died in Jerusalem. He was converted to Christ through the preaching of Presbyterian evangelist Rev. John McNeil in Motherwell and in 1895 joined the Faith Mission as an evangelical pilgrim. In 1896 he was sent to Southern Ireland as a pilgrim preacher to work at Nenagh, County Tipperary. Whilst working there, Irvine claimed to have received a special revelation of Matthew 10:5-15. He claimed that ‘true’ preachers should renounce all possessions, marriage, job, income or wage and become homeless – although they could live in members’ homes. He failed to identify that this specific message was for the 12 Jewish Apostles at that time in Israel’s history and that some of them were also married and had homes! Nor did he realise that these instructions were reversed by Christ just before his crucifixion in Luke 22:35-36.
In 1901, when Irvine resigned officially from the Faith Mission, a warning was placed in ‘Bright Words’ (the official periodical of the Faith Mission at that time) concerning a new sect that was being formed by Irvine.
Of course, I was completely unaware of the founder’s erroneous interpretation; I had simply accepted all that I had been taught from childhood. I liked the thought of being a travelling preacher, but I realised that money could be a problem. ‘Homeless’ preachers had to rely on members to support them financially, but this was where going out by faith in God became real. I had heard preachers say that it all depended upon how much faith you had in God to meet your needs from day to day.
I really thought very seriously about following their example. I admired the ‘homeless’ preachers for the great sacrifice they had made in giving up so much for God. I saw that there was a great need for more preachers like this because people could only come to Jesus and be saved for eternity through a homeless preacher. They would also have to conform to the lifestyle of asceticism that the homeless preachers had instituted.
An Ascetic Lifestyle
We did not have televisions, radios, hi-fi music systems, or any such items in our homes; they were considered evil and worldly. It was really difficult at school. I never told anyone, but when others were talking about TV programmes it was evident that I didn’t have a clue what they were referring to. It was also hard if we had to go on school trips because of the rule we had that females should not wear trousers. To be the only female wearing a skirt was humiliating. My mother eventually took pity on me and bought me a pair of trousers so that I could go on a special school walking trip. It was such a relief. Sometimes I would cry my eyes out because I felt so excluded and embarrassed at being the odd one out in the class. When it became too much I would just disappear to avoid these situations.
I hated school. It was so hard to concentrate in class. I was always so tired after attending the missionary meetings in the evenings. The strained atmosphere always sapped my energy, but I seemed to come alive in the English and Music classes. I loved those subjects. I would lose myself in an imaginary world of words and beautiful sounds. I even joined the guitar group at high school; it opened up a whole new world of songs and music styles, the like of which I had never heard before. The rhythms were exciting and fun – nothing like the dreary hymns we were forced to sing in our meetings. I was invited to sing a solo with a boy who was a fabulous accompanist on the guitar at the Christmas Concert. I thought it so ironic that the song I was asked to sing was “There are no lights on our Christmas tree; we must not spoil the tel-ee-vee (television!)” But it was a fantastic experience and I loved every minute of it. I wished the homeless preachers would allow things like that in our meetings.
I had now reached the age where hair had become an issue. Conformity in hairstyles for females was an important part of the true way church doctrine. We were expected to follow the advice that the apostle Paul gave: that a woman should have long hair because it was her glory (1 Corinthians 11:15).
Due to this, females were expected to have long hair tied back until they got older and then put up in a bun or roll on top their head. My hair was straight and smooth; when I left school it was hard to wear it in a bun because if I moved too much it would all fall down or sit lopsided on my head. I had to have so many of those huge hairgrips in my head to try to keep it in place that I felt like a metal hedgehog.
I have lost count of the many hours I would often spend fussing about my hair; at times I would cry with despair as I found it such hard work. Sometimes people would call us the bun-head religion because of the uniform hairstyle amongst the females.
I envied the girls who wore make-up; that was banned for us too. I also loved the jewellery they wore – fancy, colourful necklaces and earrings of all kinds of shapes and styles – but extravagances such as that were strictly prohibited. In fact, only wedding bands were allowed; even engagement rings were forbidden.
It was a very austere and narrow-minded existence, but I accepted it even if it upset me because I believed what the preachers taught: that these things all displeased God. Some of the female homeless preachers were exceedingly strict. One girl was sent out of the meeting because she was wearing white shoes which they considered looked too worldly. We were supposed to be different from the world in how we dressed and looked.
We were also supposed to avoid ‘worldly places’ and activities. We would never set foot in a pub, get involved in card games, gambling and bingo, visit the cinema, theatre, dance halls or funfair parks; these kind of places were strictly out of bounds. In any case, I was so busy going to all the meetings that there would not have been time for such things anyway.
I had been waiting to be told when I could be baptized, and when approval was given I was thrilled. I hoped that once this happened I would start to feel different – happier and fulfilled.
To be water baptized meant you had to be fully immersed in water. Jesus submitted to baptism, not because He had sins to repent of, but because He wanted us to follow His example (Matthew 3:13-17). It was a symbol of washing away the sins of our old life or dying to our old life of sin and rising up out of the waters to a new life of holiness before God.
My baptism took place on farmland where there was a clean stream of running water with a depth that reached well over my waist. I had to dress in old clothes. On top I wore an old coat several sizes too big for me and held together at the bottom with large safety pins. On my head I wore a tight rubber bathing cap to keep my hair dry. A strange sight indeed, but I really didn’t care at all how I looked; I just wanted so much to be baptized.
It would have been great to have had some applause when I came up out of the water but there was nothing. The people who watched were still and silent as was expected on such occasions. I wished that someone would cheer and shout with joy. I was becoming so tired of all this stiff, cold formality. I wondered what God was thinking as He looked down at me. Did He have something special in life that I could do for Him, I wondered? I felt quite emotional; my baptism was a very personal commitment to God. I prayed with all my heart that he would use my life in an extraordinary way.
I looked up at the blue sky and hoped the Holy Spirit would come down and settle on me like a dove – just the way it had happened to Jesus when He came up out of the water (Matthew 3:16). He didn’t though. I was so disappointed, but still I knew something significant was happening. I cannot explain it, but I knew that God had heard my request and would one day answer it.
Getting out was worse than getting in as water-logged clothes weighed me down, although there were helping hands to pull me up out of the water. I walked back to the changing hut, my shoes making the most awful squelching, sucking sound across the grass. Funny, the insignificant things you can remember at significant times! But I was glad I had done it. I felt as though I had achieved something very special in copying the example of Jesus.
Heart’s Frustrated Desire
Despite all this, I remained frustrated and unhappy. Something was missing, but I could not work out what it was. I tried so hard to conform to everything that was required – to keep the exacting standards of lifestyle and behaviour – but it didn’t give me any joy, peace or satisfaction. I felt heavy and weighed down with the burden of it all. From the beginning of my relationship with God it had been my heart’s desire to let God use my life for some special purpose, but there was a deep sense of anticlimax to everything.
The most miserable thing of all was the strange sensation that came over me in every meeting; that ‘reptile house’ atmosphere seemed to be growing out of proportion. Whether it was a missionary meeting or a home meeting, the atmosphere was weird and heavy as if something were in the room. I tried so hard to ignore it and pretend I was satisfied and happy, but inside I was totally freaked out. Worse still was the feeling of shame and guilt that I should feel like this, and I started to wonder what was wrong with me or even if God was angry with me for some reason. Year after year the tension and pressure inside me kept building up and up.
Again I thought seriously about forsaking everything to become one of the group’s missionary workers, but I realised that I had to overcome this strange reaction and awareness. How could I go and preach convincingly to others when I was so miserable and uncertain myself?
Once a year it was usual for rally calls to be made for the young people to forsake everything to become missionary workers. The challenge was to “sacrifice everything for Jesus”. This type of call would normally take place at the annual conventions held during the summer months. Several hundred people would gather for a four-day convention of meetings up and down the UK. Preachers from all over the world would attend these gatherings.
I always felt as though they would never end, but there was no way I could get out of attending. It was a compulsory thing to do. I had to sit and pretend I was enjoying it like everyone else appeared to be doing. It was indescribable torture to sit still through each meeting; I just wanted to run as fast as I could, away from it all. The constant, dreary drone of speakers was like buzzing mosquitoes constantly whirring around my head while I spiralled down and down into despair.
A Terrible Secret
When the rallying calls were made, encouraging the young people to sacrifice everything for Jesus, I knew I would be unable to fulfil that calling. I felt ashamed as I saw others give their lives to work in the mission field. In comparison, my own future looked bleak and desolate. I felt God viewed me as a hopeless case.
Finally, I reached the point where I had to admit that this ‘faith’ just wasn’t working in my life, no matter how hard I tried. The guilt of feeling such a terrible, evil presence in the meetings weighed heavy on my young shoulders, but it was so real to me that I found it hard to understand why no one else noticed it. I did everything I could to hide my ‘terrible’ secret. How could I discuss this strange experience I was having with anyone? No one would understand and, worse still, they might even excommunicate me. This was a very lonely and perplexing experience; it just didn’t make sense.
At the time I didn’t understand that God had given me the gift of discerning the presence of a false spirit at work – an influence that distorts Scripture and deceives people to believe and trust in something that God never intended.
A Desperate Prayer
I contemplated my future. It didn’t look promising, and tears were shed most nights. How much longer could I keep up this pretence? Fear gripped me inside like an ever-tightening band. I wondered if I would be able to survive another twelve months, never mind twelve years. Outside, people around me had no clue as to what was going on inside.
One night, in desperation, I pulled back the curtains of my bedroom window and silently shouted, “God, if you really are a God who answers prayer, will you please help me? Show me what it is you want me to do; show me what is missing. I just have no strength left to pretend anymore.”
For some reason I hadn’t really cried out to God with such desperation before. Like a bolt of lightning hitting me, I suddenly realised that because I had felt guilty about my reactions, I had even been trying to hide my pain and confusion from God! How foolish was that! He was there to help me, not to ridicule me. I also realised that the unsympathetic attitude of the preachers towards anyone who had doubts was one that I had assumed God would have also. Even if I shared my experiences with them now after all these years I would not be surprised if they looked at me disbelievingly and unsympathetically.
This revelation came as I was staring at a full moon. In its fullness it just looked so beautiful, peaceful and serene. It was the complete opposite of my mental state, and I envied it. Suddenly everything seemed surreal because, despite my agony of mind, I felt a peace flow through me that was indescribable. I got back into bed and I slept. There was none of the usual anxious tossing and turning that night. These days, whenever I look at a full moon it reminds me of that night.
Psalm 102:19-20 – From heaven the Lord looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die.
Psalm 66:18-20 – If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened: He attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, because He has not rejected my prayers or removed His steadfast love from me!
Little did I know how wonderfully God was going to answer my prayer beyond anything I could ever have hoped or dreamed.
Excerpt Source: Chapter Two ~ Religion’s Hard Road
Book: The Certainty of the Unexpected
By Pamela Ruth Stewart
Publisher: Onwards and Upwards Publishers, U.K.(September 5, 2012)
ISBN 978-1-907509-58-2 (148 pages)
Published with written permission of author and publisher.