Raised in a secret Aussie religious sect
Elizabeth Coleman was 16 when she learned the truth about the Canberra-based sect she was born into.
The unnamed sect, referred to by ex-members and outsiders as the Two by Twos, is one of the largest in the world. There are an estimated 200,000 members worldwide, with thousands of members scattered across organisations in Australia.
For as long as Coleman can remember, solemn and unsettling worshipping rituals were hosted each Sunday morning at her home. Ten to 15 members, known as "Friends" within the sect, would silently enter the unlocked front door of her family house and sit in a circle of chairs set up in what was usually their lounge room. Her father, an elder in the unnamed sect, would host and lead proceedings.
"Proceedings are very formal," Coleman told news.com.au.
"The elder declares the meeting open by announcing a hymn. Members then take turns to pray, another hymn is sung, and each member gives a short testimony of two to three minutes each - some spiritual thoughts from the week.
"Everyone must only pray then speak once per meeting, and no one must speak unless having their turn. After passing around bread - a pinch is taken from a single slice by each person - and wine - a tiny sip from a communal teacup - another hymn is sung, and the meeting formally closed."
After the meeting, Friends are permitted to exchange pleasantries, but are encouraged to leave quickly, to "keep the reverent spirit" of what just occurred.
"They are not to overly socialise, talk too loudly, or stay for morning tea."
Before Coleman was of school age, she was already aware that her childhood was different to that of others. For one, everyone else had a television set. By the time she started attending a secular primary school, the gulf between her and her classmates was gaping.
"I could go to school, but had to dress differently, couldn't go on school camps or trips, couldn't do various activities with friends, couldn't see films or play in a sports team, or do gymnastics or ballet."
Among the other things not allowed in the sect are: radios, movies, stereos, smoking, drinking, illegal drug use, swearing, gambling, dancing, reading Christian books or literature, Christian symbols, current fads and fashion, and jewellery. Women are barred from having short hair, or wearing makeup, shorts or slacks. Men have to keep their hair short.
Although her father was an elder, his only authority was over the Sunday morning meetings.
The leaders were known as workers and, as Coleman explains, "they call the shots as the ruling class, the priesthood equivalent". They hired and fired elders at will. Despite being a third-generation member of the sect, her father had very little actual power.
The workers would establish arbitrary and often contradictory rules, which members had to follow to a tee. Coleman explains how these rules were often dependant on the whim of a worker.
"Sometimes things as innocuous as coloured shoes or denim jackets were considered evil," she says.
"I learned very quickly that workers held the ultimate authority in our life.
"Anything they disapproved of in even the mildest terms became another unwritten rule."
As with many sects, the workers established an adversarial attitude towards those not in the sect. "Everyone was inside or outside, with us or against us," Coleman remembers. "It causes a lot of cognitive dissonance in almost every aspect of life."
These lessons were hard to unlearn.
"It took me a long time to recognise the thought-stopping mantras drummed into us," she explains. "A thought-stopping mantra is a learned slogan that you learn to repeat to yourself whenever you entertain doubts in the group."
Among these were "Don't let the devil get a foothold" and "The Way is perfect, even if the people aren't".
The Way was the sect's overriding philosophy, used to excuse a multitude of sins.
TWO BY TWO
The Two by Twos move in secret, with no official places of worship, no literature spouting their belief systems, and no official record keeping. They claim not to need nor have any finances, they shun any attempt to name them, or to box them into a congregation, and they claim to have operated for more than 200 years.
The sect has been given over a dozen names over the years, but today is referred to as Two by Twos, The Truth, or Friends and Workers. The group, however, refuses to give itself a name, believing its members are the only real believers, and as such aren't a definable subsect of any Christian church.
"They are 'it'- the only true way, therefore they insist that they are not a denomination, or even an organisation," Coleman says.
"This mentality has led to an overwhelming aversion to being classified, named, registered. To perpetuate this myth, they only register secretly where necessary, and hide any registration details from their members. It is of utmost importance to them that they do not have an official name or headquarters or centrally identifiable presence anywhere on earth."
Another big claim is that they don't take money from members, which Coleman claims is untrue. They simply do not keep records, and allegedly operate secret bank accounts and trusts.
"They always take money offered regularly by their members, they just make a big show of not having a visible offering taken up during services," Coleman says. "It is done via secret handshakes, envelopes quietly slipping hands, deceased estates.
"This perpetuates the myth that they are different and operate almost seemingly without money. All aspects of their existence are indeed highly secretive, and families of new converts have great difficulty ascertaining what their loved ones have become involved in."
The most enduring name for the sect, and the one used by Coleman, is Two by Twos, due to members' penchant for travelling around the country in groups of either two women or two men - never mixing the sexes - to preach and convert.
HISTORY OR MYSTERY
The sect tells its members they have a direct lineage to Jesus Christ, that they are the one true distillation of his mission. In fact, the Two by Twos only goes back to 1897, when Scottish evangelist William Irvine broke away from the Methodist church Faith Mission to form his own sect.
"We practise no cadging, no scheming, no flouting," Irvine claimed in 1907, back when the group was less secretive about its existence. "In exchange for bread and butter, we give those who are in fellowship with us bread from heaven - a real hearty exchange."
He is also cagey about how the movement is funded, saying, "As for those phases of the work which cannot be carried on without money, all I know is that the money has always been available."
The first public mention of the Two by Twos reaching Australia was in May 1907, when a New Zealand paper, the aptly named New Zealand Truth, exposed the sect.
"Ostensibly, they have no responsible organisation, no headquarters, no offices; but, behind it all, there are, as usual, clever hands and cunning brains," the reporter cannily noted.
By 1914, Irvine had been expelled from the Two by Twos by a group of leaders he tasked with spreading the movement internationally, his expulsion led by Australian overseer John Hardie.
By 1919, he had fled to Jerusalem, followed by a number of devout followers. The remaining members closed ranks and invented a different origin story. All mention of Irvine was forbidden, and he was soon forgotten.
"Irvine's behaviour became problematic in a number of ways, including inappropriate behaviour with the female workers," Coleman says. "He was kicked out, and the remaining workers decided to deny his existence and claim descendancy directly from Jesus - closing the gap, so to speak."
They adopted the motto "The only church not started by a man" and closed ranks.
"This only works if the history remains hidden," Coleman says. "Those who knew were forbidden to speak of it, and later generations were taught a lie and then unknowingly perpetuated that lie."
A journalist from Brisbane's Courier-Mail attended a Sunday morning meeting in 1936, and his description varies little from that of Coleman's childhood. There is a group of about 20 Friends, each of whom recited a prayer, sang hymns, shared bread and wine, and largely refrained from speaking. "There were gaps of silence, in one of which a magpie came up to the door and peered in," the reporter's charming prose goes, "his inquisitive head on one side."
A bombshell book published by a former sect member in 1982 revealed the true origins of the Two by Twos, but given the book was independently published, it was easy for workers to control this leak within their ranks somewhat. It wasn't until the rise of the internet when the veil of secrecy began to lift, as former members connected with each other, started websites, and spread information about the sect.
Dutiful members ignored these revelations, and refused to investigate further, under strict orders from the workers.
"Those who tell the truth are branded as troublemakers," Coleman says of this period.
Coleman soon became one of those troublemakers, and was harassed for years because of it.
When she turned 16, Coleman learned of the true origins of the group, a realisation she calls a "sucker punch to my trust in the leaders". About that same time, she met a boy. He would challenge her belief system and idea of what faith is. It took her three years between learning the truth and leaving the sect.
"I think there was anger, especially initially, at the lies I had been told about the origins," she recalls. "I tried to confront the leaders calmly and honestly, to entreat them to do the right thing and stop perpetuating the lies."
The workers told her to mind her own business, and said they would simply lie if she told anyone of the conversation they had with her. They then started to poison her reputation among the other followers.
"All of that behaviour really opened my eyes to see what I was dealing with, and I guess the gloves came off," she says.
"I made a vow to tell the truth openly and use my identity regardless of the consequences, and never to act or speak against the group anonymously. I would speak out where necessary and possible.
"I had to decide that my ability to speak freely would not be compromised."
Her family's deep ties to the sect caused her problems.
"Leaving is traumatic," she explains. "It devastates your family, and your friends will no longer see you. I still experience bouts of despair over the separation caused in families and friendships by this (sect)."
The yearly camp conventions that members attended were filled with horror stories of those who left the group and were "struck dead in an accident within days or weeks". This was divine punishment, according to the leaders, and although Coleman was believing to see through the stories by the time she left, it still weighed heavy.
"When I initially left, my mother was convinced I was going to die imminently."
She has now been married to the boy who challenged her beliefs for 24 years. But it wasn't a simple transition to day-to-day life. She suffered post-traumatic stress disorder for close to a year afterwards, not realising what was happening to her until she met others who shared her experience.
"After that I equalised somewhat, but still couldn't talk about anything to do with the group without it triggering the PTSD again. This continued for literally two decades and wasn't really solved until I wrote a book about my journey to the outside. Studying similar (sects) was also an enormous help for the process."
The book she wrote was Cult To Christ, which details her life story. It was the process of laying it down in black and white that helped her to mend.
"I had to come to terms with how much I had been conditioned against outsiders, particularly other Christians. It took a while to relearn that it is OK to form close friendships with the people around you and invite them into your life."
As Coleman was a fourth-generation member, with a large extended family still in the group, this was especially hard.
"When I left, I didn't have a single known family member on the outside. That was tough."
Thankfully, her parents and both her brothers left shortly after she did, meaning her immediate family were all freed from the sect.
"Sadly this makes them outsiders within their own families."
SEXUAL ABUSE IS RIFE
As with many other sects, Two by Two has been under fire for both alleged and charged sexual abuse against minors.
In 2011, Ernest Barry, a former "worker" of a Victorian sect of Two by Two was convicted of five indecent assault charges on a minor. In 2014, Chris Chandler, another Victorian worker, pleaded guilty to child sex charges.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, according to Coleman.
"The group's insistence on protecting their system and reputation at all costs has come at a high price - many victims ostracised, and perpetrators protected.
"This leadership's continued insistence that The Way is perfect stops them from acknowledging the sexual abuse within their own ranks and dealing with it effectively.
"Survivors of abuse who try to seek justice for themselves are blamed for bringing The Way into disrepute - an unforgivable sin in the eyes of the members and leaders."
WINGS, an organisation made up of former sect members, submitted a heavily redacted document to a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious groups.
"WINGS is aware of situations in the past where families (of abused children) have been threatened with excommunication if they report the matter to authorities or don't meekly accept the advice from workers, often to do nothing," the shocking document reads.
Elsewhere, it notes a victim was instructed by a worker to "heal herself in silence". Another was asked if she wished to "open that can of worms".
The shady bookkeeping and lack of official status also denies victims any possibility of financial compensation.
"They continue to deny any form of corporate responsibility for the consequences of the culture they have created, and this angers me greatly."
Despite her experiences, Coleman is still a Christian, although she defines her faith as a personal relationship with Jesus.
"I am very wary of any church which claims to be 'it', or that denigrates other churches," she explains.
HEALING AND GROWING
"It is a process, and you'll know when you're ready to take the leap."
This is Elizabeth Coleman's advice to those hoping to leave a similar situation.
She suggests finding those who have left ahead of you, getting support, and reading relevant books.
"You can start doing all this while you're preparing for the final exit," she advises. "Many of us are still debriefing in support groups 20 to 30 years later."
She explains that a common misconception about sects is that the members are weird or gullible; on the other hand, she says she has found followers to be "excruciatingly normal".
"Anyone can get caught up … no matter how intellectual, educated, articulate. (Sects) provide an intense form of connection and belonging - adoption into a tribe. We all want that."
Coleman is now 45 and has been free of the sect for 26 years.
She works as a finance and development officer, as well as an author, running a blog about her journey. She lives in Canberra with her husband David, the same man who helped her begin questioning the belief system she was born into.
Coleman has moved through her anger and confusion, and onto an unfamiliar feeling: freedom. This year she is finally fulfilling her childhood wish and taking up mature-age ballet - a discipline she was forbidden from studying as a child.
As she explains it: "Making new friends, taking up new interests, enjoying simple pleasures like clothes, champagne, and films openly is an underrated form of integrity."