Book review: 'In the Days of Rain' by Rebecca Stott

By Phynnodderee
 
Prowling round the religion section at my local library, I came across this book by a former member of the Exclusive Brethren and was instantly curious, as I wondered if this group had any similarities to the Christadelphians. I devoured it that evening in a single sitting.





The author

Rebecca Stott was brought up in the fundamentalist Protestant sect known as the Exclusive Brethren, in Britain, in the 1960s and 70s. Her family left the sect after a scandal involving its leader. She is now a novelist, historian and Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing.


The book

In the Days of Rain is the story of one family’s experience in the Exclusive Brethren, how they came to leave the group and how they adapted to an outside world they had always been told was ruled by Satan. Rebecca Stott wrote this book in fulfilment of a promise to her dying father, who was desperate to complete his memoirs but struggled to write about the most painful aspects of his past. Consequently, it is largely her father’s story, a sympathetic but unvarnished portrait of his life and also of their relationship. In telling this story she also provides a first-hand insight into the lives of Exclusive Brethren, the extremely strict rules imposed on them and the terrible consequences of this tight control.

For ex-Christadelphians, there is much that will be familiar here: breaking bread in sombre meeting rooms (known as Iron Rooms as they are usually constructed of corrugated iron), a rigid and ascetic approach to faith, having ‘the Truth’, the absence of clergy, male authority, an instilled fear of the outside world, a sense of superiority to outsiders, hats and headscarves, and puritanism – though most of these are more extreme in the Brethren than in any Christadelphian ecclesia I have heard of.

Like the Christadelphians, the Exclusive Brethren also have 19th century origins and began with a desire to offload the unnecessary baggage and baubles of the established churches and return to a purer form of Christianity. Like the Christadelphians, they appear to have developed from an originally reforming sect to a rigid, controlling one – though the level of control is much, much higher. The main practical difference between the Exclusive Brethren and the Christadelphians is the fact that the Brethren have a single leader who dictates policy and must be obeyed, whereas Christadelphians have to muddle through by a kind of loose consensus process (which nonetheless is quite successful at imposing group cohesion through the suppression of dissent).

Stott investigates how her ancestors first became involved with the Brethren and gives a glimpse of the grinding Victorian poverty that provided such fertile ground for dissenting religious groups in 19th century Britain, including the Christadelphians.

On a personal level I could very much identify with the author’s father, an “aesthete born amongst puritans”, with regard to his love of English literature – an aesthetic sensibility which sat uneasily with his austere faith. I too remember struggling with the dichotomy between my Christadelphian faith, in all its cold and rigid intellectualism, and the pleasure I took in the beauty of poetry and music.

The most shocking aspect of the community described by Stott – which apparently became much stricter with the installation of a new leader in the 1960s, who transformed it from ‘sect’ to ‘cult’ – is the suicides and murders brought about by the strict control and discipline of its members. As in Christadelphia, there are stories of broken families – but it’s all much, much worse. Loyalty to the leader comes before loyalty to family. One is left with the impression of lives hijacked and used without scruple.

The book provides a good example of how totalitarian systems work and raises the question of how far religious tolerance should go. Professionals such as teachers, doctors and lawyers who came into contact with Brethren glimpsed the wrongs in the community, but did nothing. Perhaps this leave-well-alone attitude has changed somewhat with the current awareness of the dangers of religious fundamentalism.

In the Days of Rain left me even more convinced of the importance of secular education, gender equality, freedom of speech and inquiry, and exposure to multiple points of view; the dangers of indoctrination and allowing one person too much power; and the superiority of believing the evidence of one’s own eyes and experience over unverifiable ‘revelation’.

Although the book gets off to a rather slow start (for one who is primarily interested in the sect itself), Rebecca Stott’s prose is compelling and readable and the story she tells is important and thought-provoking.


Notable quotes

Reflecting on the origins of the Brethren and revealing some parallels with Christadelphianism:
“There was something brave and bold, I thought, about these people refusing to kowtow to the Church authorities, rejecting the incense, the idolatry, the angels-on-a-pinhead High Church nonsense of it all... But the trouble is that if you persuade people that this world is a mere waiting room for the next, they’ll come to despise it; if you teach people to believe that Satan is using all of the people outside your Meeting Room to try to stop you from going up in the Rapture, they’ll come to think that all those people are tricksters and devils, or infected with evil; and if the promised Rapture doesn’t come, pretty soon they’ll become paranoid, impatient and obsessive, and they’ll be looking for ways to separate harder.” (pp46-47)


Quoting the words of her father on life in the 1940s and 50s; this will sound familiar to ex-Christadelphians:
Life in the Brethren was a good way of life, provided you were prepared to accept the privations. Very few people came in from outside. We’d all grown up as Brethren. It was the only life we knew. Brethren looked after you and were supportive if people were in trouble. The idea of being out in the world was frightening. You had the feeling that if you went outside the Brethren there’d be no morals at all.” (pp127-128)


On moving on from high-commitment religion:
There are counsellors now who specialise in treating ex-cult members after they’ve experienced long periods of mind control… They used to call this process ‘deprogramming’… I wouldn’t call it ‘deprogramming’, I’d call it ‘decompression’. We’d been a very long way down to the bottom of some kind of sea. There was no easy way back up without getting the bends.” (pp301-302)


Commenting on an Ingmar Bergman film watched with her father:
“…The priest stands looking out at the snow falling across the fields, his face lit up. This is all there is, Bergman seemed to be saying, just the light on the snow. But look how beautiful it is. We are too busy fretting about the next world to see this one in all its strange beauty.” (p357)


 

15 comments:

  1. Thanks Phynnodderee. Libraries can turn up some real gems at times. I can remember years ago reading a book from the library with a title something like "Religion Could be Hazardous to Your Health". It must have struck a few chords that resonate years later.

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    1. I had to look that book up - is it 'Religion May Be Hazardous to Your Health' by Eli S Chesen? It seems to be about the potential cognitive development problems that may be associated with religion when it is presented in the 'wrong' way. Could be an interesting read, though it has probably been superseded by lots of other research by now. Thanks for drawing my attention to it, Richard!

      And yes, libraries are invaluable repositories of free knowledge for the curious mind :)

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    2. Sounds about right. It was a long time ago I read it. I know it is quite different in style and content to the book you reviewed but it sprang to mind while reading the review and I was very pleased to see a new article on the website, so I commented.

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  2. Thanks, Phynnodderee,
    You`ve whetted my interest in trying to get hold of a copy of 'In the Days of Rain'. Another book I`ve heard about, which again, I may try to obtain is, "'Knock Knock' - Who`s There?", The Truth about Jehovah`s Witnesses, by Anthony James.

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    1. Sounds interesting, Mancott. Took me several minutes to get the title :)

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    2. I think I`ve also come across "Christadelphianism Astray from the Bible", by A J Pollack, published, I believe, back in 1930, which was probably getting at "Christendom Astray".

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    3. Looking up that title took me to this list of Christadelphian-related publications: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bibliography_of_Christadelphians

      It's an interesting combination of things by Christadelphians (including some of the well-known names) and those who disagree with them (including A J Pollock, who according to Wikipedia was from the Plymouth Brethren - from which the Exclusive Brethren developed).

      Traditionally Christadelphians have been prolific writers. Is this changing now with the general decline in the intellectual status of the community? (That's not a snide remark - I've seen CDs themselves comment that Bible study and the general intellectual tone are on the decline.) Thoughts, anyone?

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    4. There is also a cover-illustrated list of Christadelphian Office book publications at www.thechristadelphian.com/christadelphian_office_books.htm and from my own knowledge many of the authors are now not with us, and a good many were old men some fifty or more years ago. So, very few up-and-coming Christadelphian writers?

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    5. There would be the traditional publications from the Christadelphian, the Testimony, and now I think the Tidings. Often series of magazine articles, but I think historically that's where a lot of Christadelphian content has come from. Printland in India has published quite a few over the years, but I don't know where they are at now.

      There's a significant strand of Christadelphian intellectualism that seems to be outside the mainstream. Willow Publications and the eJournal of Biblical Interpretation (many books by Andrew Perry, but also ones with many contributors like "Reasons" and "More Reasons"). Also a few books by the Burke brothers. Perhaps others. This group of people are also probably the people that I hear talking about the decline of intellectualism in the general community.

      I don't have a good basis for comparison, though.

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    6. Mancott, I think that may say more about the declining position of the Christadelphian, and maybe of the magazines in general. Plus they did put a lot of effort into digitising old books a few years back, and they have a much longer back-catalogue than other Christadelphian publishers.

      I sometimes read the Christadelphian, but few among my peers would have read it. Not sure how representative that is.

      I did see frequent notifications of new books, but most of them were not published by The Christadelphian.

      I think the consensus position of the intellectual strand I talked about yesterday is that both the Christadelphian and the Testimony are moving (or have moved) towards conservatism and fundamentalism. Both of them are considered to have been more scholarly in the past. In today's age of self-publishing, part of the response is for these groups to publish their own books.

      Another article I recently saw friends approving of from that general intellectual group: http://living-faith.org/2017/12/22/the-bible-proves-archaeology-true/

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  3. Hope my local library has the books mentioned........sound like great reads.
    I would like to mention also A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway published 2016.
    He tells it all beautifully.If you were to choose a religion, a couple really stand out and conversely many more than a couple don’t!!! The end paper suggests that it would be an excellent book for young readers.

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    1. Thanks for the tip, Helen! If anyone's interested, The Guardian has a review here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/14/a-little-history-of-religion-richard-holloway-review

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  4. In the days of rain- this book is exceedingly good and well written about what life in a sect can be like. My experience in the CDs in the 70’s and early 80’s was just as bad as Ms Stott records. We may have not had a leader at the top in Birmingham giving out the rules but I had bother from the Recording bro and his AB’s. I came from a strict family 3rd generation CD. I remember as a child being in tears on Sunday mornings because I couldnt remember the correct answers from the blue Christadelphian Instructer before I went to Sunday School. I experienced nothing but ridicule and problems from fellow work people when I started work, because I had been told by the CDs it was wrong to be in a trade union and from that my colleagues found out that I was not allowed to have anything to do with politics. I knew nothing of pop music or cinematic films. Television was more or less banned and what books we read where vetted. Life is not easy for the strict CD embarking out into the world as I found out.
    I was questioned, begged and subsequently shunned by family when I decided enough is enough and left.
    Thirty years on I am still treated ‘differently’ from the rest of the family.
    I would certainly recommend another very good read ‘Leaving Alexandria’ also by Richard Holloway.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Gorse. I'm sure many of us can relate.

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    2. My family, although at least 3rd generation CD, were a little less overbearing. I was allowed to watch TV, read books of my choice and mix with friends from outside the meeting. Thus it wasn't such a wrench and step into the dark when I decided I wanted nothing to do with religion in my teens.
      I can however sympathise with others who weren't so fortunate to have a more balanced upbringing. One of my Sunday school peers, who's father is a big shot preaching brother, is hopelessly immersed in the cd world. Everytime I bump into him he vacantly bleats about me leaving and what a good idea it would be for me to read the Bible and get back on track.
      When I asked if he had ever considered that he might be wasting his life chasing a fantasy world that doesn't exist, his look of confusion was pitiful.

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