The Plymouth Brethren is a closed religious sect. The members run a heavily criticised private school and control an industrial empire that is anti-trade union. Dagens Arbete met John, one of the few who have managed to break away from the brethren. He was completely ostracised, but he found a new life without the brainwashing.
- The Plymouth Brethren is a closed religious sect with strict principles.
- Dagens Arbete has scrutinised 38 companies with a turnover of SEK 678 million. These companies are owned by brethren members.
- The sect runs a private school where the pupils only meet other brethren children. Critics call it tax-funded brainwashing.
- John attended a normal school and worked as a sheet metal worker. It was his way out of the sect.
John took to the bottle.He was 18 and could not cope. The idea was to block his intelligence. His questioning nature. His ability to think freely. A couple of years earlier, John had sought refuge in his upper secondary school’s shabby library. The thoughts in his head kept spinning around and the library provided a sanctuary of sorts. He was not like his school chums. He dressed in an old-fashioned way and went home for lunch. The Plymouth Brethren are not allowed to eat among non-brethren, the ”profane” people. A teacher with Finland-Swedish roots understood the difficulty of not fitting in as a teenager, especially for somebody like John, a child from a sect.
The teacher kept a watchful eye on him and sometimes took him aside to tell him about puberty and life. One day she had a book under her arm. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Forbidden literature for the Plymouth Brethren. John recalls the moment as though it were yesterday. How he became so absorbed in the story about the young man in St. Petersburg with his moral dilemmas and mental suffering that he could not put the book down. There was so much that he recognised in himself. So many parallels to his own situation. What John did not realise was that his own struggle against a totalitarian power had only just begun.
John was born into the Plymouth Brethren, basically the only way to become a member. All marriages and family ties are strictly ’in-house’. The Bible is interpreted literally and they believe that the end of the world is nigh. By living isolated from the rest of the community, the brethren believe they will survive doomsday.
John was painfully aware of what was required to free himself from his ball and chain. The local upper secondary school and the job at a firm away from the Plymouth Brethren made it possible. He broke away in 2006. The following year the brethren were given licence to start their own private school, Labora School, in the Småland province.
“The school destroys any dreams the children may have. They would never say it out loudly, but the school exists to prevent the children from meeting other children outside.”
John was an able pupil and wanted to go on to upper secondary and study Engineering and Technology. Something that remained a pipedream. The brethren would not permit education in which computers, the work of the devil, played a central role. Building and Construction, on the other hand, was permitted. John was practically inclined and chose sheet metalwork. He showed an aptitude for the profession and took part in EuroSkills Sweden, to which he drove 300 kilometres a day. ”I realise now how desperate I was to meet people outside the brethren.”
During upper secondary his resistance grew against the sect. John began to eat at school with his classmates, despite the anxiety this caused. It had been drummed into him that God would punish him. He naturally told his parents that he ate alone. He once wrote an essay about forbidden love, about a girl who was impossible to get because she was an outsider and he was chained down to the Plymouth Brethren. The teacher’s voice shook and her eyes filled with tears when they spoke about the essay. “You know you can get help?” she said. Words that John has never forgotten. Another teacher said to him at the end of term: “I wish you all the happiness life brings. I have a feeling things will work out.”
“She somehow knew that I would leave the sect. If I hadn’t had these grown-ups around me I don’t know how I would have found spiritual peace.”
His school friends and teachers played a crucial part in lifting John’s melancholy. Life within the sect was humdrum. Church gatherings every evening, and weekends spent with other brethren families according to a schedule. John found a way to overcome the monotony early on. As a child he worked at the family’s small printing firm. As for many other children in the Plymouth Brethren, work was an escape from the daily tedium. No friends were allowed outside the sect. He could not join a club or practice any sports. No TV. No radio. Ideally, no comics and only approved books.
Many Plymouth families run their own manufacturing companies. The children are encouraged to help out at the workplace.
“When I was 14, I began working after school and during holidays. I was a machinist.”
John never once considered that the job was dangerous or that it was forbidden at his age to drive a fork lift truck and operate a machine. He often played on the trucks with the other kids, despite being underage and having no proper training.
“It was a form of child labour, of course it was. But we weren’t forced to do it. We enjoyed it. We attended school because it was compulsory by law.”
To begin work in your teens was normal for the Plymouth Brethren back when John was growing up. Most left school on completing the compulsory nine years. University or college was forbidden. Girls normally only completed compulsory school.
“There was no point in them continuing. Their task was to look after the home and bring up the children.”
As John looked back his eyes darkened. He feels robbed of his youth. He had to grow up fast.
Fear is used to control the members, something John remembers well from his childhood alone in his room. The night is dark and silent. He lies in a cold sweat in his bed in a state of mortal dread. If he falls asleep he will not be able to flee. He is terrified that something might happen, like the house burning down. He does not dare to die right now. Is he one of the chosen few? His impure thoughts makes his blood run cold. He could end up in eternal hell fire with the rest of humanity, the profane people. He struggles to keep his eyes open. Hell is the last thing he thinks about before sleep finally overtakes him.
“The sect is about punishment, ostracism and the control of conscience and freedom of thought. We’re all prisoners of conscience. There are many prisons in the world. The worst ones are those without walls and fences. If you just keep quiet and get on with it then it’s not that bad. But we people are born doubters and things could turn nasty if we start thinking,” John explains.
And his doubts grew and grew. He had open confrontations during meetings in the windowless assembly room. The assembly sat on benches overlooking a stage, similar to a sports arena. John questioned the views of the sect leader, which went against his own idea of reality.
“Anxiety is always in the air. This is because they can’t link reality to the message conveyed by sect leader, Bruce D Hales. Once it was claimed that God wouldn’t want us if were too troublesome. The whole point for me is that God would never abandon us.”
John was seen more and more as a troublemaker. The leaders took the chance to make him a scapegoat. You could always blame John. And John began to tire. He no longer had the strength to be the weed in the well-kept and, on the surface, flawless flowerbed. John took to the bottle. A drinking culture is rife within the sect, even among the younger members. And in no small amounts. Alcohol is not regarded as harmful in itself. A former sect leader referred to whisky as the water of life. Therefore, nobody reacted much when John took to the bottle at the age of 18. He became more confused, but also depressed.
Everything coincided with John getting a job at a sheet metal workshop outside the sect. He joined in with the camaraderie and jargon. In a tough but cordial atmosphere, John witnessed first-hand the things that working professionals have to deal with every day. Like freezing rainy days when no clothes on earth could keep the wet away from the body. Or hot summer days when the roof sheeting was red hot from the sun’s rays. Cursing when the guttering and drainpipes played up, and harmony on the days when everything ran smoothly. John’s work colleagues took him under their wing and overlooked it when he came late for work with tiny red eyes and breath that bore witness to too much drink.
Meanwhile John continued his liberation process by getting a mobile phone and eating with his workmates. But it leaked out that he had acquired a mobile phone. His family were isolated in their home for a week, put into quarantine because their son was considered impure and risked infecting the other Plymouth Brethren. He was also accused of openly criticising Bruce Hales. This is when the Swedish sect leaders tried to slowly suffocate his fighting spirit. John refused to openly admit his sins. He did not think he had done anything wrong.
What nobody knew was that John had seen this day coming. With help from a relation to a work colleague he had already signed a lease for a flat of his own. In summer 2006 he could not take it anymore. He said to a friend: ”It’s time, I’m ready.” He went to his room and packed a bag of clothes and some personal belongings. The older brethren formed a circle to try to stop him. It did no good. John got into the borrowed company car. It was not until he had reversed down the driveway that he dared to believe it was true. He was out. But it was also a painful farewell.
It was over, or maybe it was just the beginning. John wanted to do everything that was forbidden. Buy the clothes he wanted. Eat the food of his choice. Stay out late on a Saturday night. Choose the people he wanted to meet. He had a lot to catch up on. Felt stressed, so much to experience. Preferably all in one go.
“My boss was very understanding. I neglected my job for a time. He finally gave me an ultimatum and I pulled myself together.”
His family and roots were gone. He had to stand on his own two feet. There was no family to fall back on. John had contact on Facebook with other escapees around the world, and has travelled to meet several of them in person.
“I sometimes regret not leaving after upper secondary, but I couldn’t. It was only possible when I had my own economy, a network and a place to live.”
John has left the dark years behind him and has become accustomed to life on the outside. He tries not to think back and delve too much in the past and has formed strategies for dealing with overwhelming emotions. He still feels anger. Anger that is directed at the double morality of the brethren. He was quarantined for the sake of a mobile phone. Nowadays both computers and phones are permitted. The sect cannot run their businesses without modern equipment.
“Money is king. The rules are adapted to make it easier to make money. In the hierarchy, the families with the most money wield the most power.”
The spiritual leaders had more say before. But as money has increased in importance, a power shift has taken place. What makes John even angrier is that the politicians and education authorities allow the Plymouth Brethren to run their Labora School. When the subject arises, his otherwise inquisitive and sparkling eyes narrow. In countries like England and Australia it is normal for Plymouth Brethren children to attend their own private schools. John met sect members from all over the world during his years in the movement.
“We in Sweden who’ve attended normal schools have seen something else. The private schools create intolerant monsters who look down on everybody outside.”
It is the children who John mostly focuses on as he tells his story for the first time and openly criticises the sect. He feels it is high time that society takes its responsibility for the sake of the children. During the first 22 years of his life, John saw for himself how the sect cracks down hard on those who have ”impure” thoughts, or in any other way challenge and question the system. The one thing that all sects have in common is that they live behind closed doors and are manipulative. The members consider themselves to be privy to the ultimate truth. The leadership style is authoritarian and a great distinction is made between good members and evil members.
“Yet they still have permission to run their own school. I can’t understand that at all.”
John has never forgotten an excursion in primary school. The class visited a 4H farm where they were allowed to mingle with sheep, hens and rabbits. John was in high spirits and ran around with the other children. The teacher had a packet of custard cream biscuits with her that she offered to the pupils. They sat under a large leafy tree. His classmates sat in happy anticipation of the biscuit feast. John felt only anxiety. What would happen if he accepted a biscuit and ate it in front of his classmates? How would God punish him? He wrestled with his thoughts and felt how the happy moment just evaporated in front of his eyes. The niggling concern and guilt feelings took over. John recalls the event as though it had just happened. How a single custard cream destroyed a whole day. He took a biscuit in the end, he could not resist, but the anxiety remained. When John delves into his past he finds the kind of school memories that most people carry with them. Hilarity, camaraderie and joy coupled with sorrow, alienation and spitefulness. But his strongest memory is of the spirit of community and the group dynamic in the classroom. The different experiences and views of his classmates made it possible to compare the Plymouth Brethren’s way of life with that outside.
When John left he was declared a leper. He is as good as dead in the eyes of the brethren and his family. He no longer exists and has been removed from all the photo albums. Just before he left he thought to himself:
“I’d rather risk ruining my own life than staying, settling down with a wife and children and destroying an entire family.”
John has never once regretted his choice and he has not lost his Christian faith. It has actually kept him going.
“I feel closer to my faith. It feels more genuine. Not the false doctrine of worshiping our exalted ruler Bruce D Hales as a modern day St. Paul.”
When growing up, John was fascinated by trains and railcars. When he got the chance he took his camera with him and photographed goods and passenger trains but he knew that the job of an engine driver was beyond the scope of the Plymouth Brethren. Shortly after leaving, he was sitting in front of his computer one evening and caught sight of an ad for an engine driver training course. On a whim he sent in an application. He gained admission to the course and left the sheet metal business. A boyhood dream had been fulfilled.
John had found a way out through a door that is now firmly closed. The children are isolated in the sect’s own school.
“School should be a sanctuary for all children. Labora School is definitely not.”
John tried to overcome his anxieties by taking to the bottle, but failed. Something that gladdens him no end. He has so many plans to put into practice. He has already ticked off a few with plenty left in a life that he finally has control over.
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The school was inspected by May 2014 Photo: Anders Andersson.
(The picture is from 2007.)
THE SCHOOL IS ALLOWED TO ISOLATE CHILDREN
Critics say the Labora School is tax-funded brainwashing where Plymouth Brethren children are isolated from the rest of society. The school has been reprimanded by the Swedish Schools Inspectorate on several occasions.
The Plymouth Brethren opened Labora School in Långaryd in the Småland province in 2007. It was financed by some other private schools using tax money. The school is open for everybody but the local authority has no record of children outside the sect having attended. The school management claim that the curriculum is the same as in other schools. Jakob Widström, union representative, Swedish National Union of Teachers:
“I see the school as tax-funded brainwashing. Laws passed by Swedish Parliament do not apply to these students, things like equal worth and the chance to leave as in other schools. I have never come across a school that is so isolated from the rest of society.”
He is backed up by former head, Kjell Blomster, who has had a dispute with the school committee. He claims that the school exists solely to prevent the children from meeting other children outside the sect:
“By allowing the school to operate, the government is playing a major part in the sect culture being handed down to yet another generation.”
Children are sent to the school from different parts of the country (see the map). Former head Kjell Blomster:
“It’s absurd to transport children in this way.”
For two years at least, extensive distance tuition took place, something that the Swedish Schools Inspectorate severely criticised.
The Inspectorate pointed to the lack of impartiality and universalism, and found that the school did not apply the principle of equal treatment with parents having too much influence over the teaching.
Former teachers say that any literature read by the students must be approved by the parents. Vilhelm Moberg, Jonas Gardell and Pär Lagerkvist are examples of non-approved Swedish authors.
“Teachers tell me they have to put on a theatrical performance when the Inspectorate pay a visit. The Head tells the teachers what to say. If they don’t then they run the risk of dismissal,” says Jakob Widström.
The task of the School Inspectorate is to ensure that schools comply with the Education Act and syllabus. As Labora School is undergoing inspection, Ulrika Palm, sub-divisional head at the Swedish Agency for Education, declines to make a statement, but says: “We have no jurisdiction over how children have it at home.”
Kjell Blomster demands a thorough investigation: “This has never been done. The School Inspectorate can do nothing about the isolation the children are subjected to.”
The School Committee: “The school is open for everybody”
Here is Labora School’s response to the criticism in brief.
The school is open for everybody regardless of religious beliefs and life philosophy. The teachers are responsible for the educational side of things and course literature. The School Inspectorate has inspected the school thoroughly. Students, trustees, head and teaching staff have all undergone in-depth interviews. The School Inspectorate made observations and scrutinised documentation, which gave a complete picture of the operations.
It is the school’s task to judge or question the students’ journeys to and from the school. This is an issue for the children’s custodians. There is no longer any distance instruction, it ended this autumn. The children are happy and are goals and community oriented. The brethren does demand a certain degree of discipline with regard to social life outside the school but the children have a large social engagement and are involved in aid organisations.
“Diversity and breadth would be better”
”Private schools retain their licences as long as they comply with the Education Act and syllabuses,” says Secretary of State Bertil Östberg.
He says it is unfortunate that no children outside the Plymouth Brethren attend the school. ”Diversity and breadth is naturally always preferable at a school like this.”
Critics call the school ”state-financed brainwashing”?
“If the school follows the regulations then the students receive an education that is not based on brainwashing. As long as they comply with the demands as laid down in the Education Act then they may carry on running their school,” says Bertil Östberg, Secretary of State under Swedish Minister for Education, Jan Björklund.
What can the government do about the children being isolated from children outside?
“We have clear regulations and the School Inspectorate has the possibility to intervene. I do not know how they have reasoned and I cannot and should not have any control over how the Inspectorate deals with individual cases.”
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THE NERVE CENTRE OF THE EMPIRE
The Plymouth Brethren have built up a manufacturing empire with a turnover of SEK 678 million.
Dagens Arbete has found 38 Swedish companies with a link to the Plymouth Brethren. Many of them are located in Ljungby and Smålandsstenar in Småland province, where most of their members live. But there are also companies around Stockholm, Gothenburg and Helsingborg. According to their latest annual financial reports, the companies made a pre-tax profit of over SEK 40 million. The workforce totals around 200.
The companies sell loading pallets, plastic products, fencing, venetian blind material, clogs, etc. The children, the boys in particular, begin work and help out in the workplace at an early age. There is evidence that young boys drive trucks without any formal training, sometimes under the influence of alcohol. Employees have seen young boys operating dangerous machinery. Dagens Arbete has been in contact with several people who have worked at Plymouth Brethren companies. They dare not join a union because the Plymouth Brethren refuse to sign collective agreements, preferring to employ sect members only. If new skills are required then an outsider would be allowed in to teach them then asked to leave.
The Plymouth Brethren are reputed as being skilled entrepreneurs with a good business acumen. They work hard and seldom take a holiday. The families all pull together to make the companies a success. The women are sometimes employed in the offices. According to the sect’s Bible interpretation, women are not allowed to hold higher positions than men.
The companies: “We comply with the labour laws”
Dagens Arbete asked leading brethren to reply to the criticism. Here is what they said:
The Church does not own, run or have any influence over the companies and dismisses the claims that it is a cult or a sect. They find it difficult to believe that children work in their companies. Swedish labour law is complied with and there are rules for dangerous and heavy work tasks. Everybody has to be trained and qualified.
Young men have never driven trucks without formal training or when under the influence of alcohol. Employees may join a union but collective agreements are against the Plymouth Brethren’s beliefs. Salaries and social insurances exceed the collective agreement.
Women do have higher positions than men. Many young women have leading positions in the companies. The Plymouth Brethren have never heard of employees being dismissed after they have taught members new work skills. More than one third of employees are not members of the church.
Smålandsstenar is the Plymouth Brethren’s stronghold in Sweden. Several companies are located on an industrial estate just outside.
- Manufactures plastic products for the health service.
- In 2007, IF Metall called a blockade of Wingplast for failure to sign a collective agreement. Wingplast took IF Metall to the Labour Court. The company claimed there were no IF Metall members at the workplace. The company won the case. IF Metall was ordered to pay SEK 100,000 in damages.
- Sales: SEK 28,610,000
- No. of employees 11
- Pre-tax profit/loss: SEK 2,041,000
Persiennmateriel AB in Smålandsstenar
- Manufactures and sells venetian blind material.
- Sales: SEK 23,144,000
- No. of employees 6
- Pre-tax profit/loss: SEK 3,219,000
- Manufactures fencing and gates.
- Sales: SEK 78,188,000
- No. of employees 16
- Pre-tax profit/loss: SEK 4,349,000
- Trades in photo frames, mirrors and paintings.
- Sales: SEK 10,079,000
- No. of employees 4
- Pre-tax profit/loss SEK -552,000
Ji-ma S kandro
- Manufactures loading pallets.
- In 2006, the Swedish Forest and Woodworkers’ Union called a blockade of Wingplast for failure to sign a collective agreement. It took five months for the parties to reach agreement. No agreement was actually signed but the parties agreed on the conditions of a collective agreement.
- Sales: SEK 24,761,000
- No. of employees 11
- Pre-tax profit/loss: SEK 969,000
- SEK 46,095,000
- No. of employees 16
- Pre-tax profit/loss:
- SEK 3,804,000
- A few years ago the Plymouth Brethren built a new assembly hall in Smålandsstenar.