Lindy Jacomb lived in one of the world’s most secretive and controlling sects run by a multi-millionaire leader in Sydney, until she was accused of being possessed by demons and banished.
For 20 years she belonged to a group who call themselves the Exclusive Brethren, renowned for its strict doctrine of isolation, its rejection of the modern world and its tyrannical rules for women.
The sect’s oppressive regime meant Lindy couldn’t watch TV, listen to radio or music, eat or socialise with outsiders, own a pet, play sport, go on holiday, or attend university.
She had to cover her head, never wear trousers or shorts or show any skin.
She couldn’t have a career, work in a job that was superior to a man, or have romances unless they were approved by the sect.
And as Lindy would learn, the sect’s severe punishment and ex-communication of anyone who questioned its leader or his doctrine – a process known as ‘shunning’ – was like being killed off.
Lindy Jacomb (right) as a teenager in the Brethren where, aged 16, she began secretly reading an old Bible and it dawned on her that all the oppressive rules meant it was ‘a sham’
Young Brethren girls gather together at a meeting for the secretive group in Wellington which their ‘Elect Vessel’ Bruce Hales was due to address
Leaving the sect to become a hated ‘Opposer’ or ‘Apostate’ meant all traces of Lindy would be removed from her family’s home. She also risked being the subject of ‘death prayers’ when faithful Brethren would ask for her ‘removal from Earth’.
Lindy said that her brother told her she had a ‘demon inside her’ when she bravely told her family that the sect was a ‘sham’.
‘I told them I wasn’t mental, and that I wasn’t a Satanist,’ Lindy said, ‘ we are taught that anyone who leaves loses their salvation and is going to Hell.
‘My parents said if I didn’t “believe in Mr Bruce” I didn’t belong there, it was like committing suicide.’
‘Mr Bruce’ is Bruce D Hales, a former office furniture salesman who calls himself the Elect Vessel. He is the Sydney-based global leader of his branch of a controversial, 46,000-strong sect, since renamed the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.
The extremely wealthy sect leader claims he is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, and followers regard his word as the true gospel, more important than the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Ironically, it was secretly reading the teachings of Jesus in a tattered old Bible that made Lindy realise the Brethren life was far removed from Christianity.
Bruce Hales and his teams of ‘Universal Elders’ have ultimate control over their followers including where they live and where their children go to school.
And it can all change in a minute, such as two months ago when Brethren HQ issued a decree topped ‘Urgent – destroy after reading’.
Lindy Jacomb (right) was excommunication aged 20 from the Brethren and she has never seen her mother since, nor most of her siblings one of whom told her she was possessed by a demon
Jacomb, who was banished at the age of 20, says that the oppressive rules for women mean they can never have a career and must instead concentrate on home life and having babies
The edict banned overseas trips ‘for pleasure’ and camping for fear of ushering in the ‘last days’, meaning the so-called ‘Rapture’ – an evangelical Christian idea that sinners hasten the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus Christ, which is for believers only.
Under Hales’ leadership and that of his father John – the former leader who dominated the lives of Lindy’s third-generation Brethren family, she says the fear of outside influence was strong.
There was a ban on phones and electronic devices that was so severe even remote controls to open garage doors were forbidden.
The pressure of modern technology forced the Brethren to eventually accept mobile phones, tablets and TVs, but even today followers hire them from the Brethren company Universal Business Teams, which strictly controls the content.
Other rules which come and go include the ban on owning pets due to the fact that the ’emotional bond could come between you and your God’ .
Followers are not allowed to attend ordinary schools, go to university and the only outings are 10 weekly meetings – four on Sundays – which focus on the teachings of the messianic Hales.
Lindy met build Tim Jacomb and they have since forged a life together, with two children, who she regrets her own mother has never met
Brethren women must dress modestly in skirts – never trousers or shorts – with scarves covering their heads
Even as children, female Brethren cover their heads and are taught that women are inferior to men and can never work in a job which has authority over a man
Hales is also called by followers the ‘Man of God’ and his high status accords him travel in limousines, private jets and helicopters.
While Brethren followers live by strict rules, the Hales family enjoy sumptuous wealth and live in mansions a short drive away from the Brethren’s massive Sydney headquarters in the western suburb of Ermington.
Bruce Hales’ business teachings are called ‘golden advice’ within the sect because he is considered a genius.
Last year, Nine Newspapers reported that the leader’s daughter-in-law smashed the property record in the north-western Sydney suburb of Epping after buying a $7.5million house on a vast 4116 square metre plot without requiring finance.
It was purchased by Nerolie Hales, wife of Bruce’s son Dean, who is the global chief of Brethren company OxGroup, a world-leading manufacturer of hand tools, diamond tools, workwear and safety products.
Dean’s brothers Gareth and Charles, who sold their office design firm Unispace in 2022 for $300 million, live in the same street as family patriarch Bruce.
Former furniture salesman turned secretive sect leader Bruce Hales (above with his wife Jenny) flew via private jet to an NZ Brethren conference where followers dined on eye fillet and top shelf whisky
Last year the sect leader’s daughter-in-law smashed property records buying this $7.5m house on a vast 4116 square metre plot in Epping without requiring finance
Bruce Hales’ brother, Stephen, set an Epping record of $4million in 2016 when he bought the heritage Blairgowrie mansion, and that was topped in late 2019 when another Hales family member, Cameron, bought a six-bedroom mansion up the road for $5.75 million.
At a nod from the top, Brethren followers are renowned for moving from suburb to suburb which makes them popular among real estate agents.
In 2022, after more than half a century of living in Windsor, Brethren followers sold 40 houses worth $58million and moved on elsewhere, reportedly on the command of Bruce Hales.
Other Brethren companies include its own supermarket chain, Campus & Co, with branches in Sydney open only to followers, and a booming PPE supplier that was developed during the Covid pandemic.
Lindy Jacomb was part of the last generation of Brethren to attend an outside school before the sect formed an international education arm, One School Global, with its own campuses.
One ex-Brethren woman told Daily Mail Australia that the new school was to ‘reduce worldly influence’.
She also said women worked as mostly unpaid labour for Campus & Co, which Lindy said paid female staff ‘little if anything’.
‘They’re fleecing their own flock,’ Lindy said.
‘The thing that disturbs me about those supermarkets is they are mostly run on the free labour of women.
‘You can see it on their website, proudly boasting about the participation of thousands of volunteers but it’s only because women are put under pressure to stock the shelves, serve, and provide fresh baking and cooking.’
GROWING UP IN THE SECT
Lindy grew up in Auckland with five siblings among a large Brethren community.
‘You have an approved suburb… employment, education and social relationships. You can’t even move house without permission,’ she said.
‘You certainly can’t move to another city and you have to live near the main meeting hall. There’s a strict hierarchy of leadership all endorsed or appointed by Bruce Hales.’
As a child, Lindy wore head scarves and skirts and did not watch television, nor was she allowed to play with other children on her street.
Lindy Jacomb (above) began rebelling during her teen years, eventually being sprung aged 20 and hauled before two male elders who interrogated her about her loyalty to the leader
WHO ARE THE EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN?
The Exclusive Brethren , or Plymouth Brethren Christian Church as they are more recently known, are a break-off from the Plymouth Brethren sect founded in 1829, when it split from the Church of England.
The Exclusive Brethren is believed to have begun in 1848 as an evangelical offshoot led by John Nelson Darby pursuing a separationist policy from Scottish followers in Plymouth, England.
There have been many splinter groups since, with members most numerous in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and North America.
Most Exclusive Brethren adhere to the original doctrines and teachings of John Darby, as does the sect led by Australian John S Hales, and now his son Bruce D Hales, with one of the three sons of the man called ‘Mr Bruce’ expected to take over on his death.
Under Bruce Hales, the sect has been renamed the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church and has continued a strict doctrine of isolation which became popular under two former father and son leaders, both names James Taylor.
It prohibits radio and TV, although widespread technology in the 21st C has forced it to allow use of electronic devices, strictly controlled by Brethren companies.
It discourages socialising with people outside the movement, and followers from taking holidays or moving house without permission from leaders.
The Hales branch of the sect, the PBCC, are believed to have 46,000 members in 19 countries.
‘We were told we were favoured and God’s chosen, that we had “special light”, a special revelation,’ she said.
‘I was the last of my generation to go to a mainstream primary school, before they rolled out One School global.
‘We were picked up at lunchtime every single day because we were not allowed to eat with other children… not allowed music competitions, sports, anything Brethren saw as a “bad influence”.’
After school, Lindy and her siblings would attend religious meetings at the Brethren hall, where men and women were separated.
The women dressed in their skirts and headscarves, and men in plain white shirts, would sit in concentric circles and sing hymns and discuss, mostly, what Bruce Hales had been teaching ‘rather than the Bible’.
Five similar meetings were held on the weekend.
‘There was not much room for leisure, and leisure was not encouraged, holidays and camping not allowed,’ Lindy said.
I’m a person who enjoys connecting with people, which was forbidden.’
In 2002, Sydney businessman Jon Hales died and son Bruce took over his position as Exclusive Brethren leader.
In the early days of Bruce’s reign, young Brethren including Lindy’s older siblings began to ‘push boundaries’ and began ‘going out to a movie or wear a necklace’.
Bruce Hales ‘stamped down on it’ with his legendary May 2003 letter banning digital technology, the internet and, still, fax machines.
When she was 16, in 2004, the brother of one of Lindy’s friends died suddenly from heart failure and she began to ask ‘existential questions’ about life and death.
She started reading the Bible, an old 19th C version from the days of the Brethren’s founder, John Nelson Darby.
‘I could see Jesus’s life was very different,’ she said. ‘He wandered about, ate with all sorts of people, went everywhere.
‘I thought hang on a minute, this guy is completely different, I’m not even allowed to take my neighbour a meal… if there is a God why can’t I go out there and be a teacher or a nurse in the wider world.’
THE GAME’S UP
Lindy said she began questioning Hales’ teachings for the first time, and for the next four years behind her closed bedroom door would write out questions which she placed in a locked briefcase.
‘By the time I was 20 I just had this emperor’s new clothes experience. I all of a sudden realised this whole thing is a sham,’ she said.
‘He (Bruce Hale) is not this divinely appointed man of God who has a direct line to Jesus. Yes he’s clever… but there’s no divine appointment of him.’
Lindy didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t discuss her revelations with her parents, and she knew of an aunt and a grandfather who had been excommunicated and ‘just disappeared’, all photos from the house had vanished and they were never spoken of again.
Lindy Jacomb wearing a headscarf as a symbol of religious groups while doing the Mud Run obstacle race as an awareness fundraiser for her Olive Leaf Network
With no internet, Lindy set up a P.O. Box to write off letters, and began corresponding with a Brethren man with whom she was in a secret relationship.
The man wrote back, discussing his doubts about the Brethren and their plans of leaving, but addressed the letter to the wrong P.O Box number and it ended up on the desk of a sect elder.
The game was up.
Lindy’s parents and then two elders confronted her, the latter in the ‘creepy’ custom of the Brethren, that two older male sect leaders would accost a lone woman without support to discuss a religious crisis.
With her parents, Lindy said: ‘I had already decided I wouldn’t lie, I’d just admit it.
‘It was terrifying, I felt my whole world was falling apart. My parents were terribly upset, they knew they might be about to lose their child.
‘They tried to convince me I was mentally unwell and to go on antidepressants and I would be able to settle back down into being a nice little Brethren girl.’
Lindy secretly kept in touch with her Brethren grandma Anna (above), a ‘secret rebel’ who in clandestine meetings met her great grandchildren, while Lindy’s own mother refuses to see them
Lindy said at times like these Brethren on the brink of being ousted as ‘Opposers’ could be offered money, cars or overseas trips.
When the two male elders cornered her, it was ‘intimidating’ but in the end ’empowering when they said “we will be able to answer your questions” and they couldn’t.
‘I thought “I’m right, this is a sham”. But my siblings stopped talking to me, I was not allowed at church, it was very isolating and distressing.’
Lindy ‘couldn’t bring myself to leave my family’ until her parents gave her the ultimatum to believe in ‘Mr Bruce’ or go.
Jacomb is happily married with two young children (above with her daughter) but she says it took a long time after leaving the Brethren for her to emotionally and psychologically adjust to the free world
All she had was a number for White Pages directory inquiries which she called and, fortuitously, three of her excommunicated Brethren relatives were listed under their original names.
‘I contacted them in absolute fear and trepidation, because I’d been taught they were really wicked, evil people. I truly thought they were Satanists.
‘But they were really kind and authentic, and they were Christians.’
She was put in contact with a couple in Auckland who generously agreed to give her free bed and board until she had psychologically and emotionally recovered enough to get a job and pay rent.
WATCHING TV FOR THE FIRST TIME, AGED 20
She sat down in front on a television for the first time: ‘I remember watching the weather, seeing the visual depictions of the rain falling down and the wind’.
Filling the day, making choices, just living a normal life was ‘really mentally exhausting… (you had to) let your brain rest for a couple of months, then find a job that is not stressful.
‘I became a dog groomer’.
Lindy later studied with the Baptist Church, and briefly became a pastor, before giving that up last year to start a service for other Brethren who had escaped or wanted to get out.
Meanwhile, she met a builder, Tim, they married and the couple now has two children, and boy and a girl aged two and four.
The Olive Leaf Network has been operating six months as an aid, advocacy and awareness group for former members of all high-demand religious groups, and is about to launch in Australia.
She is reminded daily by her life in the Brethren, whether it’s decades of pop culture and music she missed out on, or the fact her children have never met their grandmother.
Lindy has asked to see he mother for the last 15 years, and now her mother has declined to meet up with her and meet Lindy’s kids.
A statement entitled ‘Urgent – destroy after reading’ issued in June this year banned holidays overseas ‘for pleasure’ and camping in case it ushered in the ‘end of days’
‘She has refused to see my children. Now she’s isolated within the Brethren and lost two of her children because my brother is also out.
‘But she still has other children in the Brethren. That’s the heartbreaking decision, they lose people if they stay in, and lose people if they stay out.’
Her father was excommunicated two years ago when he challenged elders about alleged fraud within the Brethren and was booted out, and although ‘he still won’t eat with others and lives by Brethren principles’ he has come to lovingly know his grandchildren.
Lindy and others critics of the sect believe it has become ‘increasingly materialistic’, as evidenced at a bizarre happening in New Zealand last week when Bruce Hales and his entourage flew in via private jets and helicopter.
Around 8000 Brethren were summonsed at the last minute to attend a conference in Palmerston North, on New Zealand’s North Island.
Schools and businesses were closed down, the Brethren were ferried in planes and coaches and Bruce Hals flew in to the meeting where they guests dined on rib eye steak, fine cheeses and top shelf whisky.
Hales, who reportedly doesn’t like to be seen in public for security reasons, was drive from his helicopter right up to the marquee at the front of the meeting hall and taken inside.
The reason for the snap conference is unclear, although ex-followers say claim that Hales has become paranoid, or at least defensive in recent times with podcasts and social media attacks on the Brethren.
Lindy (centre) with other ex-Brethren relatives and friends farewell Anna with flowers, hymnsa nd eulogies, unheard of at the usual austere sect funerals
In June this year, he released an ‘urgent’ statement topped with the instruction ‘destroy after reading’.
The statement, from ‘Universal Elders’, warned followers against ‘daytrips and overnight trips to other countries for pleasure’, ‘camping overnight… and other accommodation where there are no brethren, including honeymooning’.
The statement said ‘Brethren who have been involved in these activities should release themselves immediately to responsible brothers and quotes a Bible warning about ‘the last days … for men shall be lovers of pleasure’.
This is a reference to a so-called end of time event when all Christian believers will be resurrected to Heaven to meet Jesus Christ and sinners will be left behind on a lawless Earth.
Anna, the ‘secret rebel’ Brethren, is buried at a funeral in New Zealand with flowers after Lindy and others managed to get to the gravesite when sect members were not there
But last week’s Palmerston North conference meant a welcome reprieve for Lindy, who had secretly stayed in touch with her grandmother Anna throughout her 15 year exile.
When Anna suddenly died last year, Lindy was informed and instead of being shunned from the funeral or worse, not even informed of the death, she, her brother and other excommunicated relatives were allowed an hour with Anna’s body, and then time at the graveside.
Brethren funerals are austere, without flowers or hymns, so Lindy made she and the other ex-Brethren relatives and friend gave Anna a warm farewell.
‘She secretly didn’t believe in strict separation and had clandestinely kept in contact. She was secret rebel,’ Lindy said.
One of the relatives was covering the conference and ‘they knew if they treated us badly he’d write about it’.
The Olive Leaf Network, however, is still blocked from access on all Brethren devices.
Daily Mail Australia has sought comment from the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.