Mitchell, John & Shawna

Church With No Name had no answers for couple
Edmonton Journal, Alberta Canada
February 11, 1996
By David Staples

John and Shawna Mitchell were newlyweds living in a tiny Alberta town when they first came into contact with the Church With No Name.

John was working as a gas plant operator in Hardisty, 180 km east of Edmonton. He had a friend at work, Evan, who belonged to the mysterious Christian sect. Evan was a wonderful man with a great family. One day, he invited John and Shawna to a fellowship meeting. The couple was impressed. Everyone, even the children, got up to speak. Everyone was conservatively dressed and low-key. John and Shawna thought they had come upon some long lost Puritan group, a throwback to the 17th century.

In the next two years, John and Shawna were visited by a few of the sect’s ministers, who called themselves the Workers. Sect members called themselves the Friends. Not only did the sect have no name, but it didn’t believe in church buildings. The Workers had no homes and were unmarried. They travelled in groups of two. They lived in the homes of the Friends, staying a few days, then moving on.

John and Shawna were impressed with the Workers’ simple, unquestioning faith. Asked by John where they went to Bible school, the Workers said that this was it, that they learned by doing.

In July 1991, John and Shawna were invited to attend a convention of the Friends at a farm near Didsbury. The convention seemed idyllic, everything orderly, everyone working hard, happy, gushing love even. The couple agreed this was the closest thing they’d ever seen to early Christianity, to the selfless love described in the Gospels. At a meeting, they stood up and professed, joining a line of believers, a line that the Workers claimed stretched back unbroken to the Apostles.

But is this true?

This is one of the many questions that troubled Shawna and John about the sect, especially after the world opened up to them when they logged on the Internet. Cyberspace teems with pages and messages from ex-sect members.

They call the mysterious sect the Two-by-Twos because the Workers travel two-by-two either two men or two women, going out just as Jesus sent out the Apostles, according to St. Mark. Ex-Two-by-Twos have published books, pamphlets and web pages saying the movement was founded by William Irvine in Ireland in 1897. Irvine, a fiery, charismatic preacher, decided all his followers should go out homeless and unpaid, just as Christ did. He decided the movement should have no name. He taught that salvation was only possible through his group and that converts must hear God’s word through one of the Workers or they would not be saved. He condemned all other churches and worldliness. One of Irvine’s few compromises came in 1908 when he decided not everyone had to be a Worker, that there could be Friends as well.

Irvine sent out missionaries around the world, only to see his movement fracture. In 1914, he was excommunicated. The new leaders of the Two-by-Twos decided that Irvine’s role and the roots of the church would not be discussed, that new Friends would be told that The Truth was first spoken by Christ, then the Apostles, that it lay dormant in time, then sprouted again with the Workers.

The sect is known for its strict rules. No one is supposed to smoke, drink, play cards or dance. They are not to have TVs, radios or many books. Women aren’t to wear make-up, jewelry or pants, but should have long dresses and long, uncut hair, done up in a bun (leading ex-members to refer to them as Bunheads).

The church uses no texts other than the King James Bible. It has no publications and few records. Ex-members say the sect practices mind control. They say its doctrine must be accepted without question and that the Bible isn’t as powerful as the group’s unwritten rules.

Around the world, it’s estimated there are 200,000 Two-by-Twos. In Alberta, the sect has 2,000-3,000 members. Regional leader Willis Propp politely declines to address questions about the sect’s beliefs and history. “I’d like to bow out,” Propp says. “We have some adversaries who like to print negative things about us. We’re not so keen about disclosing things because it might get into the wrong hands.”

Asked about charges from ex-members that the sect is a cult, Propp says, “That’s what our Master was called when he was here 1900 years ago. We expect that from the ex-ones.”

When they joined the Two-by-Twos, John and Shawna Mitchell were overcome by the sect’s friendliness. There were endless potluck suppers and tobogganing and birthday parties. The Mitchells had less and less to do with their old friends and families.

John and Shawna assumed the group must have started up at the turn of the century, when so many other back-to-the- Bible sects started. When John obtained a book on the Two-by-Twos and Irvine, he showed it to a Worker, but he never got a straight answer.

In their essay on their experience in the sect, which will be published in a book about ex-Two-by-Twos [Reflected Truth, compiled by Joan F. Daniel, 1996, Chapter 20], the Mitchells have written, “If you try to get an honest answer from a Worker in regards to reasons for certain beliefs, the result will usually leave your head spinning. You will also feel like your spirit is less than right for asking in the first place. It is a good way to discourage questioning!”

One day, Shawna asked another woman in the group if she at all doubted the story of the sect’s origins, and the woman replied, “Don’t you believe that something so precious to God could be preserved and passed on through his beloved mouthpieces over any age and time? God’s Way is eternal.”

“Well,” Shawna replied, “certainly you don’t believe that the early church looked like it stepped off the pages of a Victorian magazine. Why do all the Friend ladies mirror the women of the turn of the century in dress and hair and make-up?”

As John and Shawna dug into their new faith, they came up with more questions: How could they best love God? What was the way to heaven? Why didn’t they meet in a church? Why did the ladies have to wear long hair?

But while they were full of questions, other members seemed smug to them, certain in their knowledge that other Christian sects were evil. At the same time, the Mitchells hooked their home computer to the Internet. The contrast between the intellectual free-for-all of the Net and the rigid, unexplained rules of the sect bowled them over.

“Our minds had begun to close to other views, to the notion that other people might have a valid way of looking at life,” John says. “The Internet was a way that we were able to talk to other people. . . They want to know why you think things, and you’re trying to explain, and if all you can say is, `We think you’re all going to hell just because,’ well, it’s hard to do that. You start to examine what you’re saying.”

On February 26, 1995, John called up a Friend and said he and Shawna wouldn’t be coming to any meetings anymore. The Mitchells felt peace and resignation. In their essay, they wrote: “We learn best from the mistakes we make. . . God has laid out unique lessons for each of us which can be so exciting if we are willing to keep asking and learning. Don’t let anyone steal your questions!”