Reading between the Lines of Pain – in Retrospect
“Less dangerous stories make the world and actions more complicated.” – (Frank 2010, 159).
Writing about individual religious experiences can be a risky undertaking to say the least. Committing words to paper is only part of the task. Taking responsibility for the intention and tone behind those words is the part of the job that is often unacknowledged. As a researcher, delving into the past of others can be a difficult venture, and digging into one’s own past can be an even more disturbing affair. Writing about an ‘other’ allows the researcher to physically distance herself from her subject of study. However, when studying one’s own experience there is no physical distance – the subject study is always with her and thus always on her mind. The past can be painful and it is often difficult to think of the good and to avoid vilifying those who have been unkind to us. When I finished writing the first version of this paper five years ago I decided to let it breathe because at that time I was unsure of my own intentions and figured that surely someone else would write an “academic” article about the group known by researchers as Two by Twos.
Over the last five years there has been much written on the internet in chat rooms and on message boards by ex-members of the Two by Two group and by many inside wondering about their history and how to continue after being exposed to information that they had been told was lies. I have spoken with some of these individuals in passing and still nobody in Canada has taken on the tracing of the history and practices of the Two by Twos academically. One individual suggested that perhaps the reason for this void in alternative religious movement literature was due to the warning of the senior ministers and elders in the group that the act of writing about it for outsiders to see would be an act of sacrilege and could lead to “a lost eternity without Christ” . Whatever the reasons are for the lack of a cohesive historical description – I believe it’s time to begin the dialogue. This paper is the story of my experience of beginning to come to terms with my own history and to discover the history of the Two by Two religious movement.
“Now you know why it’s so important for you to come back to meetings and ask God to forgive you for straying.” These were the parting words of a friend during last night’s telephone conversation. She called to offer her condolences for my cousin’s suicide. His funeral was three days ago.
Yesterday’s phone call was one of many that I had received over the last seven days. What wasn’t said on the phone was spelled out in cards and letters; each written by someone who claimed to love me. Isn’t it interesting how an obituary in a newspaper can inspire an avalanche of unsolicited affection?
Last night’s words join the others reverberating in my mind as I wander absently from office to office. “Next time it might be you lying in the casket – then it will be too late.” I think about these words of comfort from another friend as I empty a garbage can into my cart.
“Working hard or hardly working!” jokes one of the professors as he walks by. I smile, nod, and hope he doesn’t notice my red eyes. Dressed in a charcoal grey maintenance uniform, my recently layered hair brushing my shoulders, I look like an ordinary 22 year old. For the last ten months I have been hiding here, trying to forget my former life, learning how to be normal and to function in the “real” world.
I’m ashamed for being duped by a religious cult, ashamed of wasting the last five years of my life, working dead end jobs, waiting to become a minister in a church I know nothing about. This college has become my refuge, a safe place where I can heal and start again. The workers would never drop in to talk to me here. Not the way they used to when I worked at the agriculture parts store back home.
Another conversation from a concerned friend replays in my head. “Do you know where you are working? Do you have any idea how much danger your soul is in?” Of course I know where I work, what a ridiculous question! As to any potential danger my soul might be facing – it’s just a happy coincidence that this is a Catholic college. I think I understand now why the Catholic and Protestant churches broke away from the Truth  (Crow 1964). And after the week I’ve had I might even start to appreciate the Spanish Inquisition. No wonder the friends and workers have been persecuted throughout history, they just won’t let go (Crow 1964).
Part of the frustration of researching obscure religious movements is that there is often little academic literature published about them. When I first began searching for information about an organization referred to by researchers as The Two by Twos I ran into this very problem. I was able to find some articles on the internet written by ex-members. However, most of these articles were written by people who were angry and hurt.
Much of the available literature by ex-members is focused on exposing secrets and lies that justify individuals’ anger and legitimizes their pain. This creates a space where the omission or lack of acknowledgement regarding the history of this organization has become accepted by some as a conspiracy by the ministers to entrap vulnerable people. The danger of such theories is that this can lead to a loss of religious freedom and an environment where people feel justified in blaming others for choices that they have made. It creates a place where notions about brainwashing are accepted as fact and fear of an unknown “other” can allow for misplaced hostility to grow (Barker 2003).
When I first wrote about the Two by Twos (so-called because their ministers usually travel in pairs), I tried to use a more clinical or scientific approach, spelling out the facts without acknowledging my own experience. I was afraid that if I used a more experience based approach that I would be seen as vindictive and lose credibility as a researcher. However, after reading work by Arthur Bochner, Carolyn Ellis, and Arthur Frank, I have come to appreciate the possibilities of framing my research on the Two by Twos in a narrative format.
In Bochner and Ellis’ presentation of the researcher as the subject, they explain that the use of personal narrative allows the researcher to engage in discovering continuity. This gives them an opportunity for meaning making that they could not otherwise experience in a more traditional methodological format (Bochner and Ellis 1999). Such continuity promotes a development of coherence that is not only desirable but according to Carr (as quoted in Bochner and Ellis) “seems to be a need imposed upon us whether we seek it or not” (746).
Carolyn Ellis acknowledges that there are common shared experiences that occur while individual experiences are evolving in her essay “September 11th and its Aftermath” (2002). By owning her experience of September 11th through narrative, Ellis succeeds in demonstrating the way in which communities can form and are impacted through the shared experience of a common event, while acknowledging that there are differences in the impact of this event on individual lives.
I began my narrative with a story about the event that first led me to begin researching the religious movement that I had been affiliated with. While my cousin’s suicide was not directly related to my research experience, the exploitation of his death by a particular population did inspire me to start comparing my religious experience with other people’s religious experiences. This was the beginning of what has become a ten year quest to find out who the Two by Twos are and where they come from in order to understand who I am and where I come from.
Unlike Ellis’ chaos narrative (Ellis 2002), my story is what Arthur Frank refers to as a quest narrative (Frank 1995). I have taken an experience that left me vulnerable and in a state of spiritual as well as mental unrest and turned it into an opportunity to learn more about myself, the world and others around me. My experience while being unique to me, is not unique to people affiliated with the Two by Twos, and is a common experience that many other people have gone through when trying to find their spiritual or metaphysical homes. Thus, by utilizing a narrative format to present the information that I have learned about the Two by Twos and their place in Canada’s religious history I am continuing to find new meaning in my own experience while respecting a communities’ shared experience.
Until the age of nine, I was raised in a home that was dedicated to a religious organization known to me as “The Truth”, “The Way”, and “The Fellowship”. It was a group that met in select members’ homes on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings for private worship services. The doctrine was grassroots in nature, teaching the need to keep things simple and to follow the New Testament teachings of Jesus as written in the 1611 version of the King James Bible. I was told by the ministers that we used this particular version of the Bible because it was the most authentic English translation of God’s word.
Like many other people in different fundamentalist religious traditions I was taught that The Fellowship was the only right or true church recognized by God. The workers were revered as heroes for their self-less lives. In the spirit of this hero-worship, my brother and I would play “meeting” pretending to be our favorite workers preaching “the gospel” to an audience of stuffed toys and pets. For reasons not discussed with us kids my parents left the group. They also decided at this time that it was best if the family did not attend any other church. Their rationale for this decision was that if The Fellowship was the only right church and if the workers were the only ministers who were ordained by God – then it would be a waste of time and energy to go to any other church.
At fourteen I began to attend an Alliance church with my older brother. A year later he graduated from high school and moved away from home. This left me feeling alienated and looking for something that would feel familiar. It was this feeling of alienation that caused me to seek out the familiarity and comfort of the home based group I was raised in. I believe that this need for the familiar coincided with a series of unrelated traumatic events that occurred between the ages of nine and fifteen. Among these incidents were the deaths of my best friend, a classmate, and my mom’s brother.
Due to the stress of shared grief and a troubled relationship at the best of times between my mother and grandmother, home was generally an overwhelming and unfriendly place to be. In response to the hostility from my mother I chose to spend as much time as possible with the friends (members) and workers in the Fellowship. At seventeen I applied to a psychiatric nursing program and to the ministry of the Two by Twos. I was accepted by both and was awarded several small bursaries. The bursaries while appreciated were not sufficient to pay for my education. After praying and some serious thinking I realized that the ministry (work) was my first choice.
The overseer of the work in my area at that time suggested that I move away from home as soon as possible and get a job so I could “grow up” and learn to be independent while preparing for the ministry without incurring financial debt. As I would be entering into a life of poverty and celibacy this was an important step to take. It would also allow me to gradually separate myself from the worldly influence of my family.
I lived in limbo for five years taking what jobs I could get with my limited skills. Life was interesting and wonderful. I was living my dream; spending time with the workers and learning what I needed to know to become one of them. Instead of focusing on increasing relationship problems with my family, I was enjoying my “other” family and new friends.
When I was twenty I was approached by a sister worker who thought it would be a good idea for me to work for a woman who was no longer a member of the Fellowship but whose parents lived in another country and were still members. She owned a nanny agency and the workers thought that encouraging specific single women to work for her would be a great way to win her back. It was a win-win situation. The workers got a potential new convert who gave those workers who recommended nannies financial support and the woman received an inexpensive labor pool.
The nanny position that I was offered and accepted was a live-in position with a single mother of six year old twin boys in a nearby city. Due to unjust employment conditions which led to poor health I resigned after six months. This was met with animosity by those ministers involved with recruiting employees for the nanny agency. I was exposed to a number of unjust accusations directed at both myself and others by ministers and some members who had political clout in the organization. Others tried to offer me comfort by saying that God only allows those people whom he trusts to suffer. Several others whom I had come to value as close friends in the group told me that I was being punished for questioning things that were not mine to question.
At this point I decided to leave because I could not in good conscience when accepted into the ministry suggest that people join this church. I could not suggest that people join an organization of other people who might hurt them. I was scared to leave the church because I did not want to go to hell, but I was tired of going through my own hell in the church. This is where my cousin’s suicide and tragic story while not directly related to my experience, intersects with my story. As mentioned in the beginning of this essay my 25 year old cousin committed suicide ten months after I left the Two by Twos. I still don’t know why or how. But I do remember standing beside his coffin, looking at him, remembering how close I had come to committing suicide myself and wishing that his story could have turned out differently.
Throughout my undergrad career I have utilized opportunities in a variety of classes to use the Two by Twos as a topic for research paper assignments. Most of my assignments focused on trying to understand how this marginalized group fit into society, whether it was a cult, sect, new religious movement, and how their religious practices fit into sociological theory. During 2005, while taking a seminar class on Canada’s religious history, I asked my professor what he thought about allowing me to do a paper on the Two by Twos’ history in Canada. After a lengthy discussion during which I explained that I wanted to know about these people because they were my religious roots, he said that the topic was fascinating and encouraged me to “give it a go.”
GIVING IT A GO
I began my quest by setting up camp on the fourth floor of the main library on campus, determined to find any academic literature on the Two by Twos that I might have missed in my previous literature searches. There was nothing on the shelves except for short vague paragraphs in several anthologies on new religious movements (NRMs). At this point I revisited Eileen Barker’s definition of an NRM and decided that the Two by Twos did not meet the criterion of an NRM as defined by Barker.
“…an NRM is new in so far as it has become visible in its present form since the Second World War, and that it is religious in so far as it offers not merely narrow theological statements about the existence and nature of supernatural beings, but that it proposes answers to at least some of the other kinds of ultimate questions that have traditionally been addressed by mainstream religions…” (Barker 2001).
My search for objective academic resources off campus turned up two documents that again provided a generic profile of the appearance of the group. However, I did find one on-line book written by ex-member, Cherie Kropp. While inside the group, I was constantly warned about those “evil-doers who would seek to harm” (everyday rhetoric of the workers) the Truth by writing lies out of jealousy and bitterness. And my few interactions with ex-members specifically the woman who ran the nanny agency and a few other friends who left before I did had been negative. Because of this I had not read or taken seriously the independent scholarship of ex-members like Ms Kropp.
Partially out of desperation I swallowed my fear and contacted Cherie for help with finding information about the Two by Twos and more specifically the history of those in Canada. She immediately contacted three other women. Between the four they sent enough books, articles, and website addresses to get me started. This began a sporadic correspondence during which I received numerous resources from these four women.
WHERE TO START?
Deciding where to begin was no small task. I was literally surrounded by piles of information that touched on many issues that seemed to be sources of controversy among members and ex-members alike. I chose to start with a description of the workers since their occupation had been my main focus as a member. And then to continue discussing the different elements of the Two by Two group as questions and answers presented themselves. I have tried to back up the knowledge presented in the main essay section, however, there are several details in this section that I was unable to find written confirmation for and have had to rely on knowledge that I acquired while I was a member.
The Two by Twos are an evangelical Christian sectarian movement. (Please note that I am applying Roy Wallis’ definition of a sect as discussed by Steve Bruce). The group is seen as a deviation from mainstream religion by non-members. And the group sees itself as having a unique grasp of salvational knowledge (Bruce 1998). They have an international following with the majority of their membership living in North America, Australia, and the British Isles (Crow 1964., Parker and Parker 1992., and Kropp 2000). Their clergy receive no formal theological training, those who feel that they have been called by God to go into the ministry approach one of the senior workers or the overseer of their province or state and express their desire to offer for the ministry, harvest field, or the work.
Workers are not paid a regular salary but live off of the “free offerings” of the friends. Because of this life of poverty, and their transient lifestyles, the ministers do not have their own homes; instead they live with the membership. As for transportation, the vehicles that they drive are owned and maintained by affiliates of the “church” who donate them for use by the ministers. Because the workers are expected to be devoted to ministering to others, they are also expected to live lives of celibacy.
The ministers of the Two by Twos usually travel in same-sex pairs. There have been some special circumstances where women have been paired with men but this is highly unusual and in the past these couples have been married for the sake of appearances or modesty. It should also be noted that the Pauline perspective of the celibate minister, as interpreted by the Two by Twos does not apply here (Crow 1964). Women are allowed to and encouraged to be ministers with the understanding that they are to function under subjection to the men in the ministry.
RITUALS & PRACTICES
The attraction of new members to the Two by Twos is usually attributed to two qualities; observation of the friends’ and workers’ Christ-like examples in everyday life or through impressions of the clergy and members at public gospel meetings usually held in public schools or community centers. Usually the ministers who officiate at these public services will greet attendees at the door while handing them a copy of the hymnal that is to be used during the meeting. They open with a hymn, one of the ministers prays, another hymn is sung and one of the ministers gives a sermon. A hymn is sung after this sermon and the second minister gives their sermon, a last hymn is sung and one of the workers closes with prayer.
Occasionally the ministers will “test” the meeting to see if anyone wants to “profess” their new commitment to God. If a person wishes to become an active member in the “church” they are to stand up while the last verse of the last hymn is being sung. Usually the workers have had an opportunity to get to know the people and do not test a meeting unless they suspect that someone is interested in professing or unless someone has told them that they wish to make a commitment to God.
The non-evangelical worship services that the Two by Twos engage in are held in select homes of the members (Kropp 2000., and Crow 1964). Usually the homes hosting these services are chosen by the ministers because the people are of good report with them and other members. The man of the house usually officiates over the service unless a worker is present or some other arrangement has been made. These meetings usually take place on Wednesday evening and on Sunday morning.
Wednesday evening’s service is a less formal bible study. It opens with a hymn (all hymns sung during private worship services are chosen by professing members) and then those professing members in attendance are given an opportunity to participate in prayer. After the prayer portion another hymn is sung and the professing members of the group are allowed to share a reflection or thought from a scripture reading that has been chosen ahead of time by the ministers (at a yearly conference that takes place during what they refer to as special meeting time). When everyone has shared their thoughts a hymn is sung and the meeting is over.
Sunday morning worship services are similar to the Wednesday meeting format with a few exceptions. The testimony or scripture sharing time is on a passage of the individual’s choice. After the scripture sharing time they have communion. Only those members who have been baptized may partake in the sharing of the bread and wine (grape juice, as drinking alcoholic beverages is frowned on). A prayer is offered for the bread (the broken body of Christ), which is then passed around the room. Another prayer is offered for the wine (redeeming blood of Christ), the glass is then passed around the room. After the remnants have been taken away a closing hymn is sung and the man of the house (or designated other) disposes of the remaining “wine” by pouring it over a portion of dirt on their property and the remaining bread is burnt to ashes. I am not sure why this particular ritual is performed or if it is a standard practice among the Two by Twos. My guess is that this might serve as a private and symbolic recreation of the crucifixion of Christ.
The Two by Twos do not believe in infant baptism (Piepkorn 1972). They see baptism as a choice to be made by an individual who is professing and wishes to show a deeper commitment to Christ. Baptisms in Canada usually take place on Sunday morning before the first worship service at one of their yearly conventions. The baptism is performed by a senior male worker who wades out into a small body of water. Each baptism candidate wades out to him and is then immersed three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is a private ceremony that consists of a brief sermon about the significance of baptism and prayer for the candidates. It is restricted to members and ministers only and of this population, family or close friends of the baptism candidates. Those members who have gone to witness the baptism usually sing a hymn while the immersion takes place.
The Two by Twos are a faith-based organization they believe that they are saved by the grace of God and through the blood of Christ. However, they do not believe that once saved means always saved, nor do they support the teaching of the trinity. They believe that the only way a person can be saved is through revelation and as member of their organization. The Two by Twos do not accept the doctrines of other religious organizations as inspired by God. They believe that they are the one true church and that all other religions are a result of unwilling people who left and took their own way (Crow 1964).
They also believe that if a person who has professed to believe in God and has committed his or her life to Him through their “church” leaves, that they will be judged more harshly at the end of life than if they had not been a member. This means that ultimately when the person who has left the “fold” dies that they will head straight to a lost eternity (hell). Part of this is because they are held responsible not only for their own lives and choices but also for the lives of others close to them that they have kept from seeing the “truth” because of their own selfishness and unfaithfulness.
Unlike most mainstream religions the Two by Twos discourage reading other sources of church doctrine, they seem to see these books as worldly influences that could distract followers from the truth that is spoken in the Bible. Part of their explanation for not using these sources is that they see themselves as the New Testament ministry that Jesus started and thus there is no need for them to know about church history. The other reason they give for not reading about church history or the doctrines of other churches is that these books are written humanly and not inspired by God like the Bible was.
In August 1897, while evangelizing on behalf of J.G. Govan’s Faith Mission movement, in Kilrush, Ireland, William C. Irvine met an individual named John Long. The two men traveled to Nenagh where they started a revival that developed into a small sectarian group that they named the Go-Preacher Testimony (Kropp 2000., Crow 1964., and Gardner 1995). The group flourished in Ireland, where Long and Irvine joined forces with recruits such as Tom Turner, George Walker, John Hardy, and Edward Cooney. During 1901, Irvine left the Faith Mission movement and struck out on his own with a few colleagues in hopes of developing the “utopic church” written about in the book of Acts in the Hebrew Bible. In 1903, Irvine and several fellow ministers moved onto Scotland, China, Australia, and North America. By this time they were referred to as Tramps, Tramp Preachers, or simply Pilgrims by press and others (Walker 1942).
According to Cornelius Jaenen (a scholar of ancient religions and a member of the Two by Twos in Ottawa), the late 1700s and the 1800s brought the beginning of a Celtic religious revolution (Jaenen 2003). Many of the evangelical groups that formed were unhappy with a variety of social issues that were developing at this time. Class issues, capitalism, and economic corruption were becoming problematic in the established churches. Breaking away from the constraints of these mainstream churches gave people an opportunity to get back to the basics (a “purer” form of Christianity) and a chance to make the gospel more accessible. Until this time the lower classes were not privy to the knowledge in the Bible; everything was read to them and interpreted for them by priests and clergy.
Another issue that these movements were trying to fight was the exclusion of women from the pulpit. It was these grassroots religious movements that started to incorporate women into positions of ministry. The Two by Twos continue to place women in the pulpit; however, as already mentioned they are seen as inferior to the men in the organization. Therefore, I do not believe that this has added to the increased status of women in the religious arena. There are several reported cases where women have been subjected to severe disciplinary measures for not obeying the orders of the men in the ministry (Massey 2001., Kropp 2000., and Chapman 1993).
The immigration to America was a natural move. These fringe grassroots movements saw America as the same New Jerusalem and Promised Land that the mainstream churches did. However, groups such as the one led by Irvine became increasingly unhappy with the growing acceptance of multi-culturalism in the United States. They saw Canada as the same virgin territory that their mainstream counterparts were also intrigued with. For these people Canada was a place to restore and hopefully maintain the pure Christianity that they had been fighting to return to in their homelands (Jaenen 2003).
The first workers to arrive in Canada (Kropp 2005) landed in Manitoba and Montreal in 1904. Harry Oliver, Tom Craig, John Doak, and George Buttimer (formerly of the United States) started things off in Montreal. In 1906, the first convention to take place in Canada was held in Toronto, in a rented house and tent. I am not certain if Irvine attended this convention however, he did mention in some of his letters that he attended meetings (worship services) in two places in Canada between 1906 and 1907. In 1907, John T. (Jack) Carroll was the overseer of the work in Western USA and Western Canada (Kropp 2006). He was one of the first to pioneer the ministry of the Two by Twos in British Columbia. As the workers moved throughout Canada and the United States, house churches were established and their membership increased. The main tool that helped establish and increase the membership of the Two by Twos in the early years was the evangelism of the transient, homeless ministers. This evangelistic nature of the ministers as was demonstrated by the pioneering workers of the early 1900s is still visible in the workers of today.
PAST “WORK” ISSUES
In reflecting on the life-style that the ministers of the Two by Twos have been expected to accept as part and parcel of serving God, the question of how did these people survive in the early days when they were expected to live off of the kindness of others persists. In the early years, one of the reasons why the Two by Twos started to flourish and were able to attract new members was because they did not pass around an offering plate. This was part of the Celtic restoration agenda as explained by Jaenen in his writing.
The early workers did not always survive. In fact many of them died young (Parker & Parker 1982). When the ministers started out in the work they were expected to sell all that they had, this was in keeping with the New Testament teachings of Christ, but this is where the resemblance ends. For some reason, some overseers forgot that when Jesus told the disciples to go and sell all that they had, that he also told them to give the money to the poor. Instead certain overseers expected the new workers to give the money from the sale of their possessions to them. In theory this money was to be divided among the workers so that they would be able to take care of their needs, but this rarely happened, and on the odd occasion when overseers were confronted about this they usually became defensive and angry.
In Australia Arthur McCoy asked overseer Willie Hughes why he had kept a secret bank account that he had been storing money in for many years while making the other workers live in conditions that gave new meaning to the word poor. Willie Hughes answered McCoy in anger with a simple “I didn’t have to tell you”, after this McCoy was accused of being an enemy to the truth and of teaching false doctrine (Parker & Parker 1982).
Because of the stringent rules that Irvine enforced and allowed the overseers to enforce, many ministers, regardless of location, endured poor health due to starvation. The effects of poverty for those in Canada often meant that they did not have the proper clothing, shelter, or transportation that would allow them to stay warm in the winter. One case that the Parkers refer to was of a female worker who lost all of her fingers to frostbite because she had to take her gloves off in order to untangle her horses harness in the cold (Parker & Parker 1982).
A point of interest that has fascinated me over the last six years about the Two by Twos, is that they still enjoy a large international membership of approximately 600, 000 (Research & Information Services 2007). In the earliest days, the attraction for converts was the fact that it did not cost them any money. It is impossible to find any official and updated information regarding the current status of the Two by Twos in this regard. I have had the opportunity to speak with a woman who left the organization after being expelled from the ministry for refusing to cease contact with several individuals who had been excommunicated from the group. This woman said that there were certain workers, particularly overseers who were (and still are) adept at getting older people to will their estates and or assets to the ministry.
There are current members that I could talk to who do remember the early days, and who might be able to confirm any changes in the policies or practices of the Two by Twos that I have discussed in this essay. Unfortunately gaining access to this population has proven difficult partially because of my past affiliation with them. However, I was able to communicate with a senior male worker from the group. When I asked him what the group said about William Irvine’s former involvement, he explained that while they did acknowledge that Irvine was a minister in their faith during the late 1800s and early 1900s that they were not comfortable with the notion of claiming that any one man was the founder of their faith.
In future studies of this organization I hope to address the following questions: What is it about this group that continues to draw people to it? Do the ministers still live the impoverished and celibate lives that Irvine dictated? How have circumstances changed over the years for the organization? And have they had to change in response to the times? These are among the many questions that remain unanswered about the Two by Twos.
By Cindy Owre
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FOOTNOTES: Part of the Two by Twos’ vernaculars for referring to Hell.  The group preaches that they are the continuation of the gospel that Christ preached and that other religious groups left the true teachings of Christ.