Workers, Friends, Home Church, The Truth, The Way, Meetings, Gospel, Cooneyites, Christian Conventions, Hymns Old & New
Christians in Hiding: The "No Name" Sect
By Benton Johnson
Revised Jan. 22, 2007

TTT EDITOR'S NOTE:   This essay has been published in the book:  Sex, Lies and Sanctity: Religion and Deviance in Contemporary North America, Mary Jo Neitz and Marion S. Goldman (eds.); JAI Press, pp. 37-55. Permission granted by Author to reprint.

     On a gray and misty Sunday morning in November, twelve cars and two pick-up trucks pull up beside a modest frame house in a residential neighborhood of a small city on the Oregon coast.  Eight couples, some with children, two men and five women of various ages make their way to the front door. All are white and all carry Bibles.  A husband and wife, both in their 50s, greet them at the door.  Everyone is cordial and polite, but there is little smiling and no small talk.  The meeting is about to begin.

     The members take seats in the folding chairs arranged in neat rows in the plain and unpretentious front room.  No programs or bulletins are distributed.  The man of the house, a respected member of the church, sits facing the assembly and asks what hymn should open the meeting.  Someone makes a suggestion, hymnals are brought out and the singing begins.  The hymn is a slow and dirgeful number of six stanzas sung without piano accompaniment.  Extemporaneous prayer follows and continues softly for ten minutes, with each member praying in turn.  None of the prayers refer to personal problems, material needs, or current events.  As the praying continues, tears come to the eyes of several of the members.  Afterwards, in a quiet but resolute spirit, the adults and adolescents give testimony to the meaning and personal effect of the private Bible reading they have done in the past week.  The presiding member presents his testimony last, and then another somber hymn is sung.  It is now time for the Lord's Supper. Someone gives thanks and the bread is broken and passed on a plate from seat to seat.  Grape juice is poured into a common glass and each one takes a sip.  The meeting now ends, but no sermon has been delivered, no collection has been taken and no announcements have been made.  The leader says a closing prayer and the members chat quietly with one another before leaving the house.  Outside, the wind has come up and rain is falling.

     The next August, on a warm and sunny Thursday, a convention of members is in progress.  Hundreds of cars, trucks and campers are parked in a large field not far from Eugene, Oregon.  A traveler on the nearby road might never suspect that almost two-thousand people are gathered in a large open air tabernacle less than a quarter of a mile away, for the tabernacle, the field of parked vehicles, the dining hall and dormitory are largely obscured by trees.  At nine in the morning almost every seat in the tabernacle is occupied.  People of all ages are present, including teenagers and young couples. Almost everyone is casually but neatly dressed.  The men are clean-shaven and have short hair and most of the women wear dresses.  A great many of the women have tied their long hair in knots at the back of their heads.  There are plenty of hard-back hymnals for everyone, but no other written materials are distributed.

    The service opens with a prayer delivered by a man in a dark suit and white shirt who stands on a platform near the center of the tabernacle.  He announces that a hymn will be sung.  It is long and lugubrious.  When it is finished a woman ascends the platform and begins speaking in a quiet, monotonous voice.  No one introduces her and she does not give her name.  She quotes Scripture, urges steadfastness in the faith, complains about the unworthiness of the believers, warns against worldliness, extols the virtues of suffering, and calls for a life of greater sacrifice; but she speaks mostly in abstractions.  She does not tell anyone what to sacrifice or how to endure suffering.  She invites no one to accept Christ and she does not describe the joys of salvation.  Other speakers, male and female, follow her.  None are introduced and all talk in the same vague and dreary way.  Virtually nothing they say has any specific content.  Now and then a past convention, in California or Australia or Ireland, is referred to and a name is mentioned, but there are no references to world events and no pleas to support specific causes or programs.  In fact, during the entire convention no money is solicited, no collections are taken, no announcements are made and no reports are presented.

     Although an outsider would find the presentations boring, most of those in attendance do not, for many have brought writing pads and are busy taking notes.  In one section of the tabernacle a handwritten list of names is circulating to help people identify the speakers.  No laughter, special entertainment, or musical performances interrupt the grave and somber mood.  At recess time, however, spirits rise as groups of people gather outside the tabernacle for greetings and conversation.  There seem to be no strangers at the convention.  Individuals and families move from group to group renewing ties. News from the members in Klamath Falls is conveyed to the members in Cottage Grove and the contingent from Eugene, the largest in attendance, introduces its recent converts.  People surround the platform speakers as they walk to the dining hall.  After lunch, which consists of hometown American food, an older member approaches the man who had led the opening prayer.  She hands him an envelope, which he places in an inside pocket of his suit.  The envelope contains a check for five hundred dollars.

     Few students of religion have ever heard of this somber sect because the members deliberately conceal its existence from everyone except specific individuals they identify as prospective converts.  Although the sect is small in numbers, it has many more American members than such highly publicized movements as the Hare Krishnas or Rev. Moon's Unification Church.  Its policy of secrecy contrasts sharply with the posture of openness and high visibility that characterizes most American religious groups today.  We shall see, however, that this deviant policy is the paradoxical result of a process of normalization that turned a noisy and radical new religious movement into a stable and smoothly functioning sect.  On the eve of World War I, faced with a crisis that threatened its very existence, the sect went into hiding.  It remains there to this day.

Who Are They?

     What do these Christians in hiding believe?  How numerous are they?  Where did they originate and how long have they been in existence?  Until recent years these questions were hard to answer because of their determination to remain invisible to the world at large.  They are not listed in telephone directories or most standard reference works and the few serious studies of them that exist are virtually inaccessible either to scholars or the general public.

     I came across this hidden band almost by accident more than thirty years ago when I was teaching a course in the sociology of religion in the state of Texas.  Among my students was a Baptist minister who told me about a strange group of Christians who had befriended him after he had saved one of them from drowning.  He was welcome at their Sunday meetings and assured me that I would be welcome too.  We went together one Sunday to a small house in a lower middle-class neighborhood where some 25 "saints," as they sometimes call each other, were assembled for worship.  Afterwards, he told me all he had learned about the group, which was very little except that they preferred anonymity and seemed to preach a gospel not very different from his own brand of evangelical Protestantism.

     The next year I accepted a job at the University of Oregon, where I occasionally told my classes in the sociology of religion about my experience with the strange underground sect.  One day, after hearing my story, Keith W. Crow, a new graduate student from Portland, came forward and told me that he had been raised in the group and that his mother was still active.  He volunteered to take me to a convention the following summer.  With my  encouragement, Crow collected the few materials available to him and wrote a master's thesis on the sect, which he completed in 1964.  He entitled it, The Invisible Church. (Crow, 1964)  It was the first scholarly study ever made of this movement in North America.

     From interviews, his own experience and a rich collection of letters in his mother's possession, Crow was able to assemble some basic facts about the movement.  He reported that "dozens" of house meetings are held weekly in the Portland area and that conventions are held annually at two rural sites in Oregon, one near Eugene and the other near Portland.  Recruitment is done quietly and selectively, mostly among people who are already evangelical Protestants and need no persuasion of the truth of Christianity.  Those considered ripe for conversion is invited to a "gospel meeting" held in a rented hall.  There the group's basic message is conveyed and people are invited to accept it and join.  Those who do are assigned to a house church and admitted to the network of believers. Crow also reported that the life style of the members is strict and austere.  Jewelry, except for watches and wedding bands, is frowned upon.  Women are expected to dress modestly and such worldly amusements as smoking, drinking, dancing, attending movies and watching television are condemned.

     In expounding its doctrines the group uses no literature other than the Bible.  Special emphasis is placed on the tenth chapter of Matthew's gospel, in which Jesus tells his disciples to travel from town to town proclaiming his message and staying in the home of "worthy" persons.  Attention is called in particular to verses nine and ten, in which Jesus instructs them to "Provide no gold, silver, or copper to fill your purse, no pack for the road, no second coat, no shoes, no stick; the worker earns his keep." (1)  The true path for followers of Jesus, this group of Christians believes, is a life of poverty spent in spreading his word.  This is the basis for a primary distinction they make between "workers" and ordinary members.    It is the workers, who are celibate, have no gainful employment and travel from place to place in groups of two, who really exemplify the Christian life.  It is they who preach at gospel meetings and conventions and it is they who wrote the letters from various parts of the world that Crow's mother had received.  Ordinary members far outnumber workers, but they are in some sense "second class" Christians.  They justify their existence by honoring the group's teaching and by providing services, including lodging, meals, and financial contributions, to support the mission carried on by the workers.  The movement has no other mission.

     When Crow wrote his thesis all he could discover about the group's history was the account they gave of it themselves.  He reported a few rumors concerning a possible founder, but those he interviewed firmly denied that they were true.  The movement represents, they told him, the very earliest form of Christianity and it has been in continual existence since Jesus's time.  In short, the movement has no other founder than Jesus himself.  Over the centuries it has suffered much persecution, which is the principal reason for its obscurity and the low profile it continues to keep.  Moreover, the very worst persecutors have been the Christian churches themselves, which from the earliest times have diluted and perverted the true gospel.  Crow was told that the movement probably reached Oregon early in the twentieth century and he recorded the names of veteran workers both living and dead who were held in high esteem by the members residing in the state.

The Sociology of Invisibility

     How does this religious movement maintain its invisibility?  For one thing, it has no name.  When members refer to it among themselves they speak of "the church" or "the truth" or "the way," but no standard designation exists.  If a casual acquaintance asks, "What church do you attend?" a member is likely to reply, "I worship privately with friends," and let the matter drop.  The refusal to adopt a name is a key element in the group's strategy of secrecy, for a name provides a ready-made symbol to which images and attitudes can be attached.2  No first-hand knowledge of a person or a group is necessary if a ready-made image is available that is associated with a name.  One does not have to know Jews, communists, liberals, or terrorists to have opinions them.  In recent years most people have heard of the Branch Davidians, of Jim Jones's People's Temple, and of the Rajneeshees.  Yet all these groups had far fewer members in North America than this small sect of Christians, which has no name and no image.

     Being nameless is only one element in the group's strategy of secrecy.  Anonymity also requires making sure that the group remains invisible in other ways.  Any public stir it might create would cause outsiders to give it a name, which is how several new religions of the past acquired the names they have today3 From time to time the band of no-name Christians has picked up such names as "Two-by-Twos," "Go-Preachers" and "Cooneyites" but on the whole they have managed to remain anonymous because they have carefully avoided public detection.  They do not form close friendships with outsiders. They construct no church buildings or headquarters, post no signs or notices, keep no membership statistics or minutes of meetings, issue no reports, and distribute no leaflets or tracts.  They have no colleges or bible schools to train their members or their workers.  Their convention facilities are in rural areas and are carefully hidden from public view.  They operate no hospitals or charities and conduct no fund-raising drives.  They do not even exist as a legal entity.  A lawyer or investigative journalist would find no trace of them by examining public documents, for they are not registered with state authorities or with the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt religious body.  Their workers cannot perform marriages.  All property at the group's disposal is in the hands of individuals who are expected to make use of it for the good of the movement.  Convention sites are owned by members and the donations of money the workers receive are theirs to spend as they see fit.  Assets are held in trust and no accounting is made.

     The "no-names" are opposed to secular society and organized Christianity but their passion for anonymity imposes strict limits on the ways they can express their opposition. If they lived communally, as the Rajneeshees did, they would attract attention.  If they picketed churches or abortion clinics, stories would appear in the press and on television. If they operated schools for their children, facilities would have to be acquired and official approval received.4  If they wore special clothes, took unusual names or drove buggies as the Old Order Amish do, people would notice.  Instead, they camouflage themselves by blending into the social landscape.  Sociologist George Simmel (1950) has pointed out that a group wishing to remain invisible runs the risk of public exposure unless it also maintains a degree of secrecy within its own ranks, for there is always the danger that some disgruntled member will reveal its existence to outsiders.  If the group is to preserve its anonymity, it must establish safeguards to limit the damage such revelations may cause.  One such safeguard is to avoid producing a large volume of internal documents, including official records, that someone might steal and make public.  A concern for public exposure may be the principal reason why the no-name sect has no newsletters or other publications even for its own members.  The lack of such internal documents makes it difficult for members to know what is going on within the group, but, as Simmel observes, the less the members know, the less they will be able to tell outsiders if they decide to talk openly about it.  The need for internal secrecy may also explain why the nameless sect has no system of government in which ordinary members participate.  If fact, most members seem unaware that a system of government even exists.  As Keith Crow noted, "there must be some means of assigning workers to geographical areas and making other administrative decisions, but this is never discussed" by the members (Crow, 1964: 13-14).5

More Comes to Light

     In gathering materials for his thesis Crow was unable to discover anything concrete about the nameless sect's history, and his statements and speculations about its size, growth patterns and the finer points of doctrine as taught by the workers were based on sketchy information.  In 1971 he telephoned from Portland to tell me that an Anglican clergyman and his wife from Australia had discovered his master's thesis in the course of their own research on the sect and that they would like to pay us a visit.  Crow and I learned many new things about the group from the Parker, whose little book, entitled The Secret Sect was published privately in Australia eleven years later6.  Although the book was never widely circulated in this country, it was evidently sent to journalists in western North America, for in 1983 stories about the sect, in which the Parkers' book was mentioned, appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Bellingham Herald and several other newspapers.7  During the 1980s two informative booklets were published about the sect (Paul, n.d.; Wooster, 1988)8 and Mary Ann Schoeff, of Seattle collected much valuable information.9 These and other materials are now available at the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, California.l0

Estimating  the Sect's Size

     One of the documents on file at the Institute is an official list of all the sect's conventions held in the United States in l986.  This list makes it possible to devise the best estimates of the group's American membership that have ever been made.  In that year 95 conventions were held at 85 convention sites in the 50 states.  An examination of the list reveals that most of the group's members reside west of the Mississippi River.  There are only seven convention sites in all of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and there are none in New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware.  On the other hand both Idaho and North Dakota have three and Montana, California and Washington each have four.  Two conventions were held at some sites in l986 and all of them were in the west.  California had seven, Washington had six, and Oregon and Montana each had four.  It seems clear that on a per capita basis there are more members of the secret sect in the northwest than in any other section of the United States.

     But how many members are there in all?  Most authorities agree that virtually all the members attend conventions and that each convention attracts between 500 and 2,000 members. In 1964, Crow estimated, on the basis of the number of conventions held in Oregon, that total U.S. membership might be as high as 500,000.11  He had no way, however, of knowing that the group is proportionately stronger in the northwest than anywhere else.  Based on the 1986 list of conventions in all the states, the best estimate is that the national membership in that year was between 47,500 and 190,000.

     There is no way of knowing whether the group is growing in numbers nationally, but there is evidence that it is growing in Oregon.  In 1986 four conventions were held in the state, but according to Crow (1964: 14), only three were scheduled in 1963, which strongly suggests that growth has occurred.  Moreover, judging from the presence of many young adults at the last convention I attended, the group is not suffering from the demographic imbalance that now afflicts the old-line Protestant denominations.  If what I observed is characteristic of the movement as a whole, then the offspring of its many young adults will provide the no-name sect with an ample supply of prospective members.

Doctrines and Discipline

     Other recent documents reveal more about the sect's doctrines and its cohesiveness.  The group does not have a systematic theology and doctrinal matters are rarely discussed. But certain beliefs are uniformly held.  In addition to the Matthew-based preference for the workers' way of life and the insistence on home-based Sunday meetings, members firmly believe that theirs is the only true path to salvation and that one cannot be saved unless one hears this truth from a worker. Simply discovering it on one's own will not suffice.  Moreover, no-names do not believe that Jesus's death on the cross will wash away the sins of all who accept him as their savior; salvation only comes through a life of sacrificial obedience to the instructions and examples of Jesus.l2  All recent authorities agree that the road to salvation for these sectarians is a hard one.  Carol Woster, who spent two years in the group, recalls that one long-time member she knew "seemed to see life as a grieving journey, where after the [Sunday] meeting, the next day she would 'take up the struggle' to go on...."  There is, she found, little "Christian joy or confident hope" among the no-names. (Woster, 1988: 10-11)

     In her own encounter with the sect, Woster found the workers to be "unfalteringly nice, self-effacing, ever-gracious in their answers and meticulous in their conduct." (Woster, 1988: 14)  During the long process of persuading her to "make her choice"13 they visited frequently and showered her with attention.  She enjoyed the kindness and quiet dignity of the workers and many of the members, but she also perceived harshness in the way apostates were treated and sensed that many members had a deep anxiety concerning their own worthiness.  One must "fight hard," she observed, "to remain up to the standards which the workers, in their gracious silence, seem to set...." (Woster, 1988: 7)

    Both Woster and others have reported how disturbing it is to be banished, as some are, from this tight-knit religious community and how difficult and painful it is to leave the group voluntarily.  Many who do leave consider themselves deeply flawed for being unable to follow the truth path. (Woster, 1988: l3-14)  Leaving the group was "an intensely personal experience" that almost sent her to a mental institution, a woman told the Bellingham Herald (1983).  "I still can't talk about it," she confessed, even though twenty years had passed since she had left.  Two life-long members who were preparing to leave told the Los Angeles Times (1983) that the "the workers really have strict control" over the members, who are also kept in line through "peer pressure."

A Startling Discovery

     The most remarkable new information that has come to light about the no-name sect concerns its true history.  It has a "past" that has been carefully concealed for generations.  Crow had heard rumors about a founder but they were denied by his informants within the sect.  Like Crow, Doug Parker grew up in the movement and heard rumors which leading workers denied.  In the 1950s he began an investigation of its history that took him to Great Britain, Ireland, and North America and resulted in the publication of The Secret Sect (1982) .

    What Parker and his wife discovered was that the sect did indeed have a founder and his name was William Irvine.l4  Irvine was born in Scotland in 1863, worked as an engineer and was converted about the age of 30 by a Presbyterian evangelist.  In 1895 he joined Faith Mission as a lay evangelist traveling to isolated villages and rural areas of Scotland and Ireland where his earliest audiences were people of limited education and modest means.  Even then, Irvine was highly critical of established institutions, including the churches and their clergy.  One day, while reading Matthew's gospel, Irvine had the revelation that the instructions of Jesus in chapter 10, and especially in verses 8 through 10, were still binding on Christians, though they had been abandoned by the churches.  Irvine felt he had received from God the personal authority to summon Christians to accept this "fundamental rule of discipleship." (Parker and Parker, 1982: 3)  This revelation was the foundation of his movement, which he proceeded to organize by converting people he had met in his work with Faith Mission.  The centrality of Matthew 10:8-10, the Sunday home meeting, the commissioning of both sexes as Christian workers, the rejection of religious denominations, and the refusal to adopt an official name, were present from the outset of the movement and they all originated with William Irvine.

    Also present from the outset was the austere and sacrificial definition of the Christian life.  "I thank God for poverty and suffering," a young worker publicly proclaimed in 1903; "they are our hall marks and credentials." (Parker and Parker, 1982: 14)  In 1954 an early convert told Doug Parker that "You just went with what you had.  No money, no clothes were carried.  You slept in a barn or stayed with people." (Parker and Parker, 1982: 26)  Mary Ann School reports that Irvine once made the remarkable statement that "Hell is a place where everyone will be forced to serve God in the Jesus Way," which clearly implies that the path to salvation is a kind of hell on earth (Schoeff, n.d.).  An irreverent observer of an early convention remarked that "there was not much joyousness and lightheartedness visible on the faces of those who professed to have been digged from the pit of error and placed on the highway of truth." (Parker and Parker, 1982: 21-22).

     In many respects, however, the movement was much different in its earliest years from what it later became.  In addition to having an acknowledged founder, it made little effort to conceal itself and it publicly attacked the established social order.  The Parkers discovered that its conventions(15) , which Irvine first instituted in 1903, were regularly covered by the Irish press.  Irvine considered himself a Christian socialist and his manner of speaking was angry and blunt.  He denounced the rich and his principal disciple "added clownish impersonations of well known religious identities." (Parker and Parker, 1982: 26-27)16  Irvine and his followers also condemned parents who tried to prevent their sons and daughtersl7 from joining the movement.l8  Years later a veteran of these times told Parker that the movement "was a revolution against the respectable and comfortable members of the community who, while claiming to be Christians, were in high positions, looking down on the improvidence of the poor" (Parker and Parker, 1982: 26).  The sect's identification with the poor extended to the personal appearance of its converts, who commonly referred to themselves as "tramp preachers."  A newspaper sarcastically reported that "The use of the razor is eschewed; and those in the highest state of grace, like Mr. Irvine himself, did not use linen collars or shirts...." (Parker and Parker, 1982: 22)

     The movement grew rapidly in its early days.  The first convention, held in Ireland in 1903, was attended by 70 converts.  Like all the early conventions, it was open to the public.  Six hundred attended in 1907, 1,000 in 1908 and 2,000 in 1910 (Parker and Parker, 1982: 12, 14, 18).  Immediately after the first convention in 1903, Irvine and two converts left for North America to establish the work there.  Soon, workers had been sent to Germany, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, China and South America.  Irvine quickly became a world traveler.  He was in San Francisco the night of the great earthquake, and Keith Crow, who did not know the movement had a founder, reported in his thesis that "I have family reports that a William Irvine, from Ireland, stayed for some time with my grandparents" (Crow, 1964: 23-24).  The Parkers report that Irvine attended at least one convention in the Portland area.  By 1913 he had been around the world seven times (Parker and Parker, 1982: 59, 47).

The Movement Changes

     Irvine was a charismatic leader.  He had an extraordinary ability to attract people to himself and his mission and to justify that mission on the basis of his own divinely given authority.  Religious movements espousing a truly novel doctrine or way of life are characteristically founded by such leaders.  Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was such a person.  Irvine, like Smith and other charismatic leaders, attracted a following of youthful converts, many of whom spent a lifetime in service to the movementl9.  From the earliest days, his most eloquent and colorful coworker was a man named Edward Cooney, who later attracted such attention to himself that the sect's followers were often dubbed Cooneyites.

     Charismatic leaders are innovators with great personal magnetism who break with existing customs and institutions to propound an entirely new way of life for themselves and their followers.  The new life is conceived in heroic terms that reject such petty concerns as economic security, social respectability, or even a preoccupation with the mundane details of creating a workable organizational structure for the movement. To use Max Weber's words, the charismatic vision "repudiates any sort of involvement in the everyday routine world" (Weber, 1978: 245).  This repudiation, naturally enough, can have disastrous consequences for the charismatic movement itself, for any organization, if it is to survive and grow, needs a regular source of economic support as well as procedures for directing and coordinating its activities.  Charismatic leaders can be the agents of revolutionary change, but their movements will collapse or splinter unless they undergo what Weber calls a process of "routinization" by which changes are instituted in the interest of organizational stability (Weber, 1978: 246-254 ) .

     Irvine himself was responsible for the earliest steps toward routinization.  In 1908, after a period of chastising converts who did not begin traveling according to the mandate of Matthew 10:8-10, Irvine authorized the distinction between workers and ordinary members, a distinction that both secured and legitimated a financial support base for the workers (Parker and Parker, 1982: 25).20  Henceforth, ordinary members did not have to travel without money but could live settled lives, pursue gainful employment and support the workers.  At a very early date Irvine also decided to designate certain workers to act as overseers of the other workers in a geographical area.  When he and his two associates reached New York in 1903, he did not tell them where to travel.  Soon, however, with many others arriving, some method of assigning workers to territories and coordinating their activities was needed, and Irvine made the necessary arrangements, which have persisted to this day.  A third innovation was made in order to pool the money donated by the members so that it would be readily available to rent halls, pay for conventions and buy the steamship and railroad tickets needed to transport workers and overseers to mission and convention sites.  This innovation involved setting up bank accounts in Irvine's name and in the name of individual overseers.

    All three of these innovations contributed to the stability and growth potential of the movement, but Irvine made public only the first of the three, namely the new distinction between workers and members.  The second did not become widely known within the movement except among workers and certain long-term members, and the third was known to only a few. Doug Parker, who once aspired to become a worker himself in Australia, knew that overseers existed, but Keith Crow did not, and no one he interviewed mentioned their existence.21 Crow also wrote that the "finances of the group are, and must largely remain, a mystery" (Crow, 1964: 7, 29-30).  The drift toward a policy of internal secrecy originated with Irvine himself in the earliest days of his movement.

     Why was Irvine reluctant to publicize the two changes? The most likely answer is that he could devise no way of justifying the changes so as to make them compatible with either the letter or the spirit of Matthew 10:8-10.  In the early years, when Irvine's charismatic vision collided with the mundane requirements of organization building he modified the vision in practice while retaining it in preaching.  Now and then, however, someone in the movement would discover that changes had been made.  The Parkers report the outrage an impoverished and ascetic Australian worker experienced when he learned that his overseer had been seen at a bank, checkbook in hand (1982: 42).

     Although Irvine helped initiate the routinization process, he never became a mere "organization man."  If he had, his memory might be revered in the sect to this day.  Irvine never abandoned the notion that he was supremely endowed with an ability to discern the divine will and proclaim it as a charismatic leader.  Charismatic leaders seldom stop announcing new teachings after their first revelations have attracted the nucleus of a movement.  Joseph Smith continued to have revelations after The Book of Mormon was published, and William Irvine had additional revelations as well.  His first new teaching, which the no-name sect still accepts, was the Living Witness Doctrine.  According to this doctrine, announced in 1904, salvation is only available by hearing the truth preached by one of the sect's workers.  Although Cooney and several others later claimed to have accepted the doctrine with misgivings, its announcement caused no crisis because it did not contradict Matthew 10:8-10 and in fact greatly strengthened the legitimacy and authority of the sect's leaders (Parker and Parker, 1982: 18-19).

     But tensions soon began to build within the movement, and their source was Irvine himself.  As their movements grow charismatic leaders have less and less first-hand acquaintance with their followers or knowledge of the group's day-to-day activities, and they are obliged to rely on a staff of lieutenants to carry out their instructions and to provide them with information.  Under these circumstances, many leaders become distrustful of the very staff that they have brought into being.  At the same time, their privileged position allows them to yield to temptations to behave in ways that no ordinary member could get away with.  They may live lavishly, behave brutishly or indulge themselves sexually.

     Irvine, who had always been blunt and forthright, began attacking his workers in public as the movement grew.  At the 1907 convention in Ireland, for example, he disfellowshipped an early convert; in 1908 he rebuked Edward Cooney several times for his "balderdash;" and in l909 he denounced all his workers, except for a small handful, for "having given way too much to fleshly indulgences" (Parker and Parker, l982: 60). In a revealing reminiscence of these times, written in 1931, a former worker wrote that

They are afraid of him and still they like him. It is a pity there is no check on him, that they  cannot control their love, and keep it from becoming worship.... There are a thousand people in the tent and not one of them dare resist his will.  The men on the platform nod to everything he says.... He is a strong man by nature, and used to be a mine boss, and never allowed his will to be  resisted.... The others are only poor echoes of his voice, and in his presence are not able to throw off the incubus of fear that almost paralyses them. (Parker and Parker, 1982: 60-61).

     Thanks to his new role as world traveler and convention speaker, Irvine's life style diverged sharply from that of his poverty-stricken workers.  Rumors circulated about his affairs with women in the movement.  Although no scandal developed, an old timer told Doug Parker that "There is no question that William had a weakness along that line and ... that he had fallen.  I know positively that there were women who have confessed to me of trouble with him along those particular lines" (Parker and Parker, 1982: 61).

A Dramatic Turn of Events

    Charismatic leaders and their movements meet with a variety of fates.  Both Jesus and Joseph Smith were martyred but their movements survived them.  Jim Jones, consumed with paranoia and in complete control of his people, led them to total destruction.  Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, faced with legal problems, abandoned his commune, which soon collapsed.  L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, faded into the background and left his staff in control of operations.  William Irvine was deposed by his overseers, who were able to run the sect quite well without him.

     Irvine's mistake was to announce a new revelation and an entirely new program that, if carried out, would terminate the sect's original mission and destroy the authority of the workers and overseers.  As early as 1912, Irvine was exercising his charismatic imagination in ways that must have been unsettling to those in the movement with an interest in routinization.  In that year he told conventions that it might be possible to travel to the stars and act as saviours to them as Jesus acted for us.  He spoke of Christ's imminent return and referred to his movement as the 144,000 mentioned in the Book of Revelation.  The crisis came two years later, just before the outbreak of World War I, when Irvine declared publicly that he had been divinely chosen to proclaim the final message of Christ before the last judgment and that the age of grace would end in August 1914.  After that date, no one could be saved, which meant that there would no longer be anything for his workers and overseers to do but gather around him and wait for the Second Coming.  Irvine went on to reveal that Christ would anoint him as one of the two witnesses referred to in Revelation 10:1-13, who was to "have the power of drought and plagues" (Parker and Parker, 1982: 62).22

     This bold new revelation was Irvine's bid to restore himself as the sect's sole authority after a decade in which the responsibility for the day-to-day operations of his worldwide movement had effectively passed into the hands of his overseers.  Unfortunately for him, the overseers acted quickly and decisively to prevent him from preaching at conventions.  To justify their decision they spread the word that although Irvine had once been a true servant of the Lord, he had "lost the Lord's anointing."    They directed the workers to shun him and to avoid any mention of his name or his role in the movement23.  In very short order they also destroyed Irvine's earlier stature as a charismatic innovator by explaining that the sect he had founded was actually a collective rediscovery of the earliest form of Christianity, which had existed as small, persecuted bands since the first century.  In effect, Irvine became a "non person" within his own ranks. (Parker and Parker, 1982: 64-65, 70).

     The overseers were able to act as they did because they were all in agreement, they controlled most of the sect's bank accounts, and, thanks to modern systems of transportation and communication, they were able to keep in close touch with one another.  They were also aided by the fact that Irvine was not as well known among members in North America or Australia as he was in Ireland.  Had any of these circumstances been different, Irvine might have been able to quash their rebellion and reassert his authority over at least a sizable fraction of the movement.  As it was, only a handful of followers stood by him, and he died a recluse in Jerusalem in 1947.

     Having deposed Irvine, the overseers might have gone on to solidify their authority and social prestige by urging the sect to restructure itself along the lines of a conventional denomination, with church buildings, publications, titled functionaries, and educational facilities.  To have moved in this direction, however, would have revealed to all the members the embarrassing fact of their own existence as authority figures and the fact that large bank accounts existed.  To many of the members, the overseers were merely respected senior workers.  Irvine had built elements of secrecy into the movement that the overseers were unable or unwilling to remove.  Accustomed to secrecy in the past, they took steps to increase it, first by obfuscating Irvine's true role in the movement, and second, by encouraging the sect to maintain a much lower public profile than it had in Irvine's time24.  Irvine had made a public spectacle of himself at conventions. Henceforth, conventions would be calm and decorous affairs of little interest to outsiders.  Within a few years neat, conventional dress would replace the ostentatious shabbiness of the earlier period.  The movement soon became invisible to outsiders.

A Challenge Overcome

     The overseers' decisions laid the groundwork for the future stability of the sect that Irvine had founded.  But one more challenge had to be overcome before the new policy could be totally effective.  Edward Cooney, William Irvine's most prominent disciple, represented that challenge.  Cooney had sided with the overseers in 1914 but he was not an overseer himself.  Like Irvine, he was an exciting and flamboyant worker who traveled widely and often preached in public.  The overseers successfully brought most other workers into line with the new policy25, but they had difficulty with Cooney, who clearly aspired to become the sect's new charismatic leader.  Cooney tried to undermine the authority of leading workers by publicly attacking them and the routinizing tendencies they represented.  He accused them of suppressing the truth about the sect's history, and he initiated a correspondence with the banned Irvine.  He denounced the Living Witness Doctrine and called for the abolition of conventions as unscriptural and unnecessary.  In addition, Cooney scolded the leading workers for handling money and dressing well, demanded the abolition of the distinction between workers and members and urged workers to resume the original practice of traveling wherever the spirit led them.  He expressed the tension between charismatic vision and the imperatives of routinization quite succinctly when he exclaimed, "I Thank God William Irvine wasn't an organizer."  "You can never organize a person led by the Spirit...." (Parker and Parker, 1982: 71-74)

     By 1921 Cooney had become a thorn in the flesh of the British overseers, who tried to get rid of him by persuading him to travel abroad.  But Cooney's preaching created a sensation in Australia, where some of the leaders supported him for a time.  His pleas there for a return to the ascetic principles of Matthew 10 were exhilarating to many and were difficult to counteract without destroying the legitimacy of the sect.  But Cooney, like Irvine, made a disastrous mistake that provided his enemies with the accusation they needed to justify banning him.  In his zeal for following the instructions of Matthew 10, Cooney called attention to the explicit commands in a portion of the eighth verse that had never received much attention in the movement.  In that portion Jesus tells his disciples to "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out devils."  Irvine himself had never attempted to perform miracles, but Weber observed that many charismatic leaders, including Jesus, had done so; and while in New Zealand, Cooney vowed to do so too.  In a public test of his healing powers, however, he failed to fulfil the mission of Matthew 10.  Using his failure as their justification, his enemies immediately banned him completely from North America, his next preaching destination.  By 1928 he had been banned everywhere (Parker and Parker, 1982: 73-76)26.  Cooney died in obscurity in 1961 at the age of 93.27

     After Cooney was disposed of, the nameless sect settled into the obscurity and stability its overseers had sought.  No evidence of a cult of personality was permitted in the movement.  The sect has persisted in this routinized condition for over 65 years without schism or notoriety and it could easily exist without major upheavals for another 65 years.  If Irvine had kept control of the sect's finances or had founded a communal movement instead of a worldwide organization, or if Cooney had succeeded in healing the young woman in New Zealand, the movement might well have developed along radically different lines.  Irvine, for instance, seems to have had some of the temperament of Jim Jones and of David Koresh, leader of the ill-fated Branch Davidians of Waco.  If a group of followers had formed a commune with him in Palestine to await the apocalypse, Irvine might well have ordered them to accept death rather than defeat at the hands of an enemy28.

     Irvine's successors, the Christians in hiding, live quietly among their neighbors and give them no alarm.  They are deviant only in the sense that they hide their movement's existence from the public at large.  In the interest of normalization and security, they have devised a risk-free form of deviance to protect themselves from a course that could have led them to fragmentation or destruction.


Crow, Keith W., The Invisible Church.  Unpublished master's thesis, University of Oregon, 1964.

Parker, Doug, and Helen Parker, The Secret Sect. Preface by Bryan Wilson. Foreword by J. I. Packer. P.O. Box 68, Pendle Hill, 2145, New South Wales, Australia, 1982.

Paul, William E., The "Two-by-Twos," Who Are They?  What Do They Believe?  North Platte, NE: News and Truths, n.d.

Schoeff, Mary Ann, "Doctrinal evaluation of the Jesus Way." Unpublished pamphlet, n.d.

Simmel, George, "The secret society."  Pp. 345-376 in Kurt H. Wolff (ed.), The Sociology of George Simmel.  New York: Free Press, 1950.

Wallis, Roy, "Yesterday's children: Cultural and structural change in a new religious movement."  Pp. 43-58 in Bryan Wilson (ed.), The Social Impact of New Religious Movements. New York: Rose of Sharon, 1981.

Weber, Max, Economy and Society.  Ed. by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950.

Woster, Carol, The No-Name Fellowship. Belfast: Great Joy Publications, 1988


l.  As translated in The New English Bible.  A similar injunction appears in Luke 9:3: "Take nothing for the journey," he told them, "neither stick nor pack, neither bread nor money; nor are you each to have a second coat."  The sect uses the King James Version exclusively, which renders Matthew 10:9-10 thus: "Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses; Nor scrip [bag] for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: (for the workman is worthy of his meat.)".  In the vernacular of the movement, the workers say they are enjoined to travel "without scrip or purse."

2.  Over the years, when I talk or lecture about this movement, the first question usually asked is "What is its name?"  This recurring experience vividly illustrates how important a name is for the formation of an identity.

3.  The best known examples from Anglo-American religious history are the Puritans and the Methodists.

4.  It seems likely that the home school movement, which did not exist in Crow's time, has become popular among the members of the nameless sect.

5.  Crow also reports that "Persons who have been active and devoted members for many years know The Church [the nameless sect) only through the meetings they attend and the few functionaries whom they know personally and with whom they  correspond."  According to Simmel, many secret societies keep the identity of their leaders a secret from their own members as well as from the general public  (Simmel, 1950: 357, 371-372).

6.  Although the Parkers quote extensively from Crow's thesis, the thesis itself was never published.  Crow died in l974.

7.  The Herald story was written by Kathie Anderson and appeared on August 20, 1983 under the headline, "Church without name meets again in secrecy."  The Times story, written by Russell Chandler, was published September 13, l983, under the headline, "Nameless sect travels secret path."  Both journalists attended a convention of the sect in their vicinity and both were able to interview some of the members and workers. I was also interviewed for the Herald story.

8.  Paul's booklet is undated but in view of the fact that the author cites the Parkers' book, it must have been published after 1982.

9.  I am indebted to Ms. Schoeff for correcting an erroneous remark I made about the sect's doctrines that was quoted in the story published in the Bellingham Herald.  A few weeks after the story appeared she sent me a detailed account of its doctrinal views.  She has been collecting materials on the sect for more than ten years.  Roy Wallis (l98l) included some material on the sect in an article comparing the Children of God with other new religious movements.  Wallis obtained his information on the sect from the Parkers' then unpublished manuscript.

10. I am grateful to Dr. J. Gordon Melton; Director of the Institute for making his file on the sect available to me and for permitting me to make photocopies of some of the items it contains.  This is probably the most extensive inventory of information on the group that is publicly available in the United States.

ll. The problem of estimating total membership is complicated by the possibility that some members may attend more than one convention each year.  Crow, who grew up in the sect, thought that few did.  Other observers, however, have claimed that many do.  In my calculations I have followed Crow's assumption, which is supported by the fact that many of the l986 conventions were held concurrently and could not have been attended simultaneously by the same people.  For example, two of the four Oregon conventions and four of the seven California conventions were held on the same dates.

12. According to the recent evidence (Paul, n.d.; Schoeff, n.d.; Wooster, 1988), the sect has little to say about the resurrection and entertains doubts that Jesus was truly God. Though many within it believe that Jesus will soon return, the group seems completely insulated from the effects of the premillennial, pretribulational dispensationalist theology that has swept through a large portion of the conservative Protestant community during the twentieth century.  See Woster (1988), Schoeff (n.d.)

13. This phrase is commonly used in the movement to refer to the act of conversion.

14. His surname rhymes with Mervin.  In a few early newspaper accounts it is misspelled as Irwin or Erwin.

15. Irvine apparently modeled his conventions after the famous conventions at Keswick.

16. In an earlier draft of their manuscript that Crow and I read in 1971, the Parkers reported that Irvine often reproached the churches for requiring an educated clergy.  Whoever heard     Irvine would ask, of  the Rev. Jesus,

17. The Parkers report (1982: 46) that in 1903 20 of the 70 workers were women.

18. Much of the antagonism toward the sect in its early days came from parents who were outraged that one or more of their sons and daughters had joined Irvine's movement.  The Parkers report that in 1907 "an English farmer, the father of several converts, roused an estimated crowd of three thousand people at Sudbury, Suffolk to drive the preachers out of the town." (Parker and Parker, 1982: 31)  Parental outrage was also one of the major driving forces behind the anti-cult movement that emerged in the United States in the early l970s in response to a new generation of religious movements with a strong appeal to youth.

The denunciation of parents and others who impede the work of Jesus is a dominant theme in the tenth chapter of Matthew.  It is in this chapter that Jesus tells his disciples to shake from their feet the dust of any town that will not heed their message and assures them that in the Day of Judgment that town will meet a more dreadful fate than befell Sodom and Gomorrah. It is in this chapter, too, that Jesus proclaims that he has come to set son against father and that he brings not peace but a sword.  In comparison with Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, the chapter is grim, ascetic, paranoid and vengeful.

19. The Parkers report, however, a high rate of defection among the very earliest converts.  Of the nine original "tramp preachers," six eventually left the group (Parker and Parker, 1982: 10).

20. To this day, no collections are taken at the sect's meetings and conventions.  Crow reported, however, that "my paternal uncle... believes that the workers are skilful in extracting money from members, and that his parents gave them in the aggregate, a very large sum." (Crow, 1964: 25, 30-31)  The Parkers report similar stories from Australia.

21. Occasionally, the overseers were obliged to have dealings with public authorities, which they concealed from the members.  In 1942, for example, the overseers for the eastern and western United States corresponded with federal authorities to secure draft exemptions for the workers.  They provided Selective Service with a brief history of the movement and a form for certifying the ministerial status of individual workers.  The Parkers' book contains a photocopy of the letter from the eastern overseer, which is written on stationery listing convention sites and designating the sect as "Christian Conventions Representing Assemblies of Christians Using This Name Only." (Parker and Parker, 1942: 117-120, 125).

22. This section of the Book of Revelation is as ascetic, vengeful and turbulent as Matthew 10.  As one of the two witnesses, Irvine would have the power to cause plagues, but he would also be killed and the mirthful mockers of God would dishonor his corpse.  In three days, however, he would be summoned up to heaven to the terror of his enemies, seven thousand of which would perish in an earthquake and the rest would do homage to God.

23. Because Irvine was well known in Ireland, many members there sided with him, but instead of remaining and promoting a schism, he left for North America, where he was less well known.  In 1919, with the war over and the British in control of Palestine, Irvine departed permanently for Jerusalem to await Christ's return.  Although no schism occurred, Irvine received generous gifts of money from sympathetic members for the remainder of his life (Parker and Parker, 1982: 65).

24. In this connection it is interesting to note that the overseers saw to it that no announcements of Irvine's rejection were ever made at conventions.  Consequently, news of it never reached the press, even in Ireland, where annual press coverage of conventions had become routine.  The overseers communicated their new policies privately within the movement. (Parker and Parker, 1982: 64)

25. The Parkers present a vivid account of how the overseers dealt with members and workers who refused to conform to their new directives. (Parker and Parker, 1982: 69).

26. Cooney's banning did provoke a schism, which began in Ireland when overseers gathered to ban him in Great Britain.  But the great majority of members and workers remained loyal to the overseers, and Cooney's small movement lasted only a few decades (Parker and Parker, 1982: 76-78).

27. Like Irvine, Cooney was supported for the rest of his life by the donations of well wishers (Parker and Parker, 1982: 78)

28. In this connection, see note 22.

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