Synopsis of The Secret Sect

By Gene & Grace Luxon

This is an overview or synopsis of the book The Secret Sect by Doug and Helen Parker.* The Parkers’ book is a well-documented, historical account of the beginning of this fellowship. In condensing the information in the book and attempting to put events into chronological order, we hope to highlight significant developments and the approximate dates they occurred.

William Irvine, a Scotsman, was converted near the age of thirty at Motherwell Town Hall, Glasgow, Scotland, after he heard a challenging address by the Rev. John McNeill, a Presbyterian evangelist. He attended John Anderson’s Bible College for a short time to prepare himself for Christian service. In 1895, Irvine joined the Faith Mission, founded by John Govan in 1886 for the purpose of evangelizing isolated villages and rural areas in Scotland and Ireland. Pilgrims, who traveled in pairs, conducted meetings in local halls, churches or schools and urged any who were converted at missions to become active members of their local churches. In 1895, Irvine was sent to work in the South of Ireland and stayed in supporters’ homes during missions and depended on Faith Mission funds.

Apparently, Irvine believed that this revelation gave him authority to call out from all churches those who would accept the challenge to attempt to reestablish the unpaid, itinerant ministry. He believed that these verses in Matthew 10 contained Christ’s fundamental rule of discipleship, that it was intended for all time, and that those who followed this pattern could rely upon God to provide all their needs. He claimed that because the clergy had turned aside from what he regarded as Christ’s commission and were provided salaries, homes and church buildings, they had become apostate, their doctrines extraneous and were altogether unworthy of God’s blessing. He decided to break away from the Faith Mission unofficially. However, he continued to accept hospitality and support from Faith Mission members for several years while he spread his beliefs.

Irvine’s teachings excited the imagination of young Christians in the country districts of Ireland. In the fall of 1899, several companions, most of whom had also been connected with the Faith Mission, traveled on an evangelical tour preaching Irvine’s views. In 1901, Irvine officially resigned from the Faith Mission. Edward Cooney, a man of some substance, expressed the opinion that “Irvine was a prophet raised up by God to lead back those in Christendom to the truth as it is in Jesus.” He gave up his business interests in 1901, donated the proceeds to support the new movement and devoted himself to fulltime preaching. Cooney’s intense earnestness and burning zeal attracted large crowds and the name Cooneyites, among other names, was often used by reporters to refer to the group.

The message they brought was well received by people who had difficulty accepting the fact that simple faith in the deity, death and resurrection of Christ gave the believer assurance of salvation. Everyone who heard their message was encouraged to sell their possessions, give to the poor [to the penniless ministry], and go out into the ministry following and preaching Irvine’s interpretation of Matthew 10.

In late 1903, seventy of Irvine’s converts gathered at a farm in Rathmolyon for a convention that lasted three weeks. They gave over all to the common purse and broke family and social ties. Irvine insisted that success would depend upon complete rejection of all Christian doctrine and traditional forms of worship. Eager to oppose worldliness and accept a higher standard of dedication, the new preachers took a vow of poverty, celibacy and obedience.

Irvine revolted bitterly against everything associated with the existing denominations. He had no patience with those who preached trust in Christ as redeemer of men. He called them “the Calvary ranters.” Irvine and his followers felt this new form of discipleship would free them from clerical restrictions and traditional forms and doctrines of the churches. They opposed organization to the point of taking no name for the new movement.

After this convention, late in 1903, some preachers continued in the British Isles but William Irvine, Irvine Weir and George Walker sailed to the U.S.A. John Hardie, William and Mrs. Carroll, and Toni Turner pioneered the work in Australia. Wilson McClung went to New Zealand, Joe Kerr preached in South Africa, James Jardine in Germany, William Jamieson went to China, Jack Jackson to South America, and Jack Craig to Austria. There were missions to France, Italy, Spain, Russia, and the Scandinavian countries. The “Jesus Way” rapidly gained a following as the preachers scattered throughout the world.

Annual conventions were established and during the first decade thousands attended. They were patterned after the Keswick Conventions began by an Anglican clergyman, Canon Hartford-Battersby, following the spiritual revival of 1858-59 in Britain. The conventions served to further indoctrinate and recruit converts who would leave all and follow the example preacher. Between 70 and 100 preachers were sent out yearly after 1903. Preachers were exalted as living witnesses of Jesus Christ. It was believed that by virtue of their practice of self-sacrifice and homelessness they overcame the world and its values and lived in obedience to the pattern of Christ.

The new workers were directed to use the Bible exclusively and preach without previous study or preparation [extemporaneously] where and when the Spirit led them. The emphasis was on following the direction and revelation of the Spirit rather than on biblical knowledge. This led to a diversified interpretation of the Scriptures influenced by differing personal experiences. Any education or theological training was looked upon with disdain. Personal dress and hair were to reflect modesty and a protest against worldly fashion. When Irvine was challenged on the basis of Matthew 10 to justify the right of the “sisters” to preach, he brushed the matter aside with the words, “If a man goes to the Bible to prove that a woman shouldn’t preach, he is a fool.”

Irvine and his associates expected all their converts to become preachers. So when many convention-goers expressed a desire to support the mission but considered the demand of complete sacrifice a practical impossibility, Irvine denounced them as sham hypocrites and reproved the preachers that had allowed in the nonpreaching members. Some who felt strongly that nonpreaching members were contrary to the nature of the movement left it. Inequalities arose because while popular leading preachers enjoyed special privileges of hospitality and were well supported with gifts from the growing membership, it was obvious that many preachers were truly poor.

Both Irvine and Cooney experienced inner conflict regarding this emerging body of followers. Finally, in 1908, Irvine sanctioned house church gatherings meeting regularly on Sunday and midweek. Elders were appointed from among the prominent laymen to lead these meet­ings of ten to twenty followers. The church in the home became equally important as the preacher without a home. From that time there has been a definite distinction between saints and workers.

As the movement spread into parts of the world where it had never been, the hardships endured by being a homeless, penniless, itinerant preacher was accentuated by the lack of regular support. From the beginning, it had been decided that the movement would have no formal organization so that the individual preacher would have freedom to follow the Spirit’s leading. No one foresaw the malnutrition, illness, nervous breakdowns and early death that plagued many who attempted to keep the severe principles that their seniors taught them were Christ’s requirements.

On the other hand, the senior workers had a comparatively comfortable lifestyle and traveled the world over to oversee the increasing number of conventions. It is believed that Irvine encircled the world seven times in fourteen years for this purpose. Banked money was concealed from other workers and a cruel indifference was shown toward some who had urgent medical and material needs. There was a gradual emergence of authority over the workers by the overseers. At conventions the overseers demanded all the money that had been given to the workers as donations and returned to each only enough money for the journey to their specified field of labor.

By the end of the first decade of the movement, there were unsettling developments. Irvine antagonized his fellow preachers when he publicly denounced some and was partial to others. He exhibited a disturbing contradiction in character. His dedication in earlier years yielded to an exercise of privilege and power. The harsh, sarcastic remarks he made in public contrasted with his tenderness to children and favored individuals.

Eventually, sharp differences of opinion arose, primarily regarding Irvine’s new Adventist and prophetic beliefs which he called the Omega gospel. He felt that God had ceased to bear witness to his Alpha message, as he described his earlier teaching of Matthew 10. He believed in the imminent return of Christ, that he was one of the two witnesses in Revelation 11:3 and that his followers were the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7:4. The overseers feared a clash of loyalties would cause divisions among the members, some in favor of Irvine and some in favor of them. Those who eagerly accepted and preached his interpretation of Matthew 10 as a revelation from God in 1899 could not accept his prophecies of 1914 as revelations from God.

The overseers felt Irvine had lost the anointing of God and he was no longer worthy of their loyalty. They decided that Irvine was expendable for the sake of the Kingdom and he was prevented from all further contact with members. His rejection was not made public at the conventions and convention-goers around the world were largely unaware that their leaders were in disagreement with the founder. The overseers successfully implemented Irvine’s exclusion in their own territories. From then on, Irvine’s part in founding the movement was ignored and it was asserted that there had been no earthly founder. Most of the worldwide membership submitted to the overseer’s exclusion of Irvine but there were others who defended him. Any worker or saint who expressed support of Irvine or refused to deny his role as founder of the movement was also excluded from fellowship. The true source of the preacher’s authority, the Living Witness Doctrine, was also concealed.

Some of his loyal followers respected Irvine’s warning of an impending famine and sold homes and farms so that he was able to bury thou­sands of dollars worth of honey, wheat, olive oil and other food at Nuevo, California. Irvine spent the years of World War I in North America, writing to friends all over the world securing support that continued for the remaining 33 years of his life. In an attempt to remove Irvine’s influence and conceal his role in founding the movement, Jack Carroll, James Jardine and George Walker visited him in 1917. They encouraged his delusion that he was indeed one of the two witnesses. Irvine then traveled to Jerusalem to bring the last message to the world and await the fulfillment of prophecy. Irvine later described what he set out to do in preaching Matthew 10 as Jesus’s commandment for preachers of all ages as a “great experiment”.

In 1914 the Ministry of War in Britain required the registration of any of military age who desired exemption from war service. There was another clash among senior workers in the decision to register as “The Testimony of Jesus.” Later, Edward Cooney openly expressed regret that he went against his conscience in order to go along with his fellow workers. Although outwardly he submitted to the overseer’s demands, he began to reflect on the upheaval the group was experiencing. He felt the movement had departed from God at some point and as a result, had lost their founder and experienced division.

Meanwhile, Joe Kerr, who some claim had originally introduced the Living Witness Doctrine, reviewed and renounced it while preaching in South Africa. He declared that he had seen “the true marks of Jesus” in people who were outside “the way”. The other workers condemned his position and warned members that he was an apostate, and they were forbidden to support him. As a result, he suffered severe malnutrition before he could find employment and subsequently lost his eyesight.

Cooney remained convinced that the need to follow the Matthew 10 ministry had been a revelation. He came to the opinion, however, that it had been a mistake to accept the Living Witness Doctrine. He maintained the fact that he had been converted at the age of seventeen while he was a church member. This was a disturbing reversal from the accepted anti-clerical position and from the Living Witness Doctrine which restricted salvation to those who put professed through the “true way” preachers. He was also disturbed by the growing power of the overseers, the loss of freedom of the preachers to preach anywhere the Spirit moved them, the distinction between saint and worker, and the dishonest account of their history that excluded William Irvine. In 1921, the overseers discussed the widening gulf between Cooney’s persuasions and their own position. They decided he should go overseas to mingle with other workers and hopefully “be set straight.” This did not occur. Instead, he continued to preach a return to the original poverty, equality principle. He then attempted a physical healing on a sick young woman hoping to fulfill a command in Matthew 10 and Luke 9. Already antagonized by Cooney’s teaching, this new development angered the workers in New Zealand, and they banned from further fellowship anyone who defended him as a “servant of God.” Many who were loyal to Cooney started their own meetings.

In 1928, some Irish members contacted Irvine in Jerusalem dining Cooney’s enforced withdrawal from preaching. They hoped Irvine would return to put matters right. Instead, Irvine wrote to Cooney in the U.S.A. requesting him to go to Ireland. By the time Cooney arrived, several overseers had travelled to Ireland, warned members to have no fellowship with Cooney, and planned a meeting designed to excommunicate him. Some members in Ireland requested a meeting with Cooney in the presence of local elders so that they could judge the truth of the complaints against him. This meeting was denied and any who kept their homes open to Cooney became outcasts from their brethren. Eight workers were also “put outside the camp” with him. By the end of 1928, Cooney’s worldwide exclusion from the group was accomplished.

Even though shaken and grieved by the loss of many of his converts, Cooney continued to be encouraged and supported by his isolated followers. Because of this, he was able to travel widely to have fellowship with them. Unlike some of the preachers, he had preached wherever the multitudes congregated, Hyde Park, London, Tower Hill, the Sydney Domain, and the heart of New York. And as late as 1954, he or his followers could be found preaching and singing from “Hymns Old and New” at the “Diamond Corner,” Enniskillen, North Ireland, on a Saturday afternoon. He was dedicated to his calling as an itinerant preacher and maintained it almost to the end of his 93 years. He died on June 20, 1961, at the home of friends in Australia.

The excommunication of Edward Cooney and his supporters caused a significant disturbance but soon was displaced with other concerns. The leaders had the difficult task of preventing further publication of an article entitled “The Cooneyites or Go- Preachers and Their Doctrines” that had appeared in “Our Hope” magazine in the May 27, 1929 issue. A former member who wrote an “Open letter” was quoted:

You deny the atonement made by our Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary’s Cross. This is the foundation of all our blessing (Romans 3:25; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14). Your denial of this classes you with every anti-Christian sect…everywhere in Scripture we are shown that the blessing flows to us through the death and blood-shedding of Christ, which you deny. I know that you teach that we are saved by the life of Christ, quoting Romans 5:10…but no thoughtful intelligent reader of Scripture could take that clause to mean Christ’s life on earth before His cross.

Contention arose between Jack Carroll and George Walker in the U.S.A., overseers of western and eastern territories respectively, resulting in a strained relationship between these areas that continues to the present. A three-way split took place in Australia (Christian Assemblies of Australia) made up of those loyal to the overseers, Cooney’s supporters, and Irvine’s supporters. Members are not often aware of the manipulation and shifting balance of power taking place among the older workers who would seek to assume leadership. They are convinced that perfect harmony exists within the fellowship. Any attempt to discuss a disagreement through open dialogue is unacceptable and may lead to dismissal. A subtle fear of the workers pervades the fellowship and members are afraid to question or displease them. The appearance of unity and harmony is maintained even at the expense of not addressing legitimate questions and concerns.

Disagreement also arose in 1942 when it became necessary to register with the U.S. Selective Service system for exemption from military service. George Walker registered the movement as Christian Conventions and supplied a brief statement of its history, beliefs and activities. No mention was made of the founder, only scant reference to the early years in England, and no mention of the origin in Ireland. Realizing that the disclosure of the registration would disturb many who were proud of both the presumed apostolic origin and namelessness of the movement, the overseers excluded from fellowship both saints and workers who spoke out against it.

For example, Irvine Weir, who had come to the United States in 1903 with William Irvine and George Walker, made known his disapproval six years after the 1942 registration when he first became aware of it. The consequences of his stand were, according to his words, “I was cut off from those with whom I have associated in spiritual fellowship for more than fifty years.” This is one of many revealing personal experiences recounted in “The Secret Sect.”

For an idea that began in 1899 with one man’s revelation, this early development of the fellowship was remarkable. In just nine years there were over 600 workers worldwide who were going out two and two to preach. This growth occurred in spite of the fact that six of the original nine “tramp preachers” left the movement when they believed that the teaching and methods became unscriptural.

Further Observations

The growth of the fellowship was particularly rapid in Australia, New Zealand and the Western United States. However, there has been a history of major upheavals (some of which have been recounted in this synopsis) and the method used for discipline and control has often been exclusion from the fellowship. This has taken its toll and in recent years the growth has appeared to be relatively static. During the last few years, there have been only one or two new workers added annually to the existing staff in each state. While visiting several 1987 conventions, a senior worker expressed grave concern over the few men entering the “harvest field.” He termed it a “crisis situation.”

The impression that this fellowship is the continuation of the original apostolic church is a vital part of the attraction for its adherents.  Correspondents with workers overseas and the presence of visiting workers at the conventions strengthen the sense of an international fellowship constituting “The Family of God.”  Believing that they are a part of this worldwide family and joint heirs with Christ, their elder brother, provides a significant sense of security.  They believe that by following the only true ministry and remaining faithful to the way, they have the exclusive access to salvation.  All others, regardless of their faith, are considered to be unsaved.

Source: Has the Truth Set You Free? First Ed. 1990, Appendix A, pp. 221-229.

*The Secret Sect, Doug and Helen Parker, MacArthur Press, Sydney, Australia, 1982