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‘The only way to survive was to surrender’ A decade of house arrest and a lifetime of control

A woman who was born into the third generation of cult followers has revealed how she had to learn basic tasks, such as turning on a TV, in her 30s after growing up in a highly restricted environment. 

Jessie Shedden, 35, escaped from the Plymouth Brethren in 2017, after they had subjected her to house arrest for 12 years in Plymouth. 

Every aspect of Jessie’s life had been controlled; from who she socialised with, where she could work, to what she could wear and where she could travel.

The youngest of eight children, Jessie says her childhood was ‘really devoid of any fun’, with a ban on TVs, radios, festivals, pubs, clubs, and even listening to pre-recorded music. 

When she was 16, she was sexually abused by an older man and told by the Brethern she had ‘brought it on herself’.   

Jessie Shedden, 35, (pictured) shares her experience of escaping a religious cult and saying goodbye to her dying mother after 12 years of house arrest 

Jessie, (pictured) from Somerset, says that every aspect of her life was controlled by the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, of which she was born into. As a child she wasn't allowed to go to places of entertainment like the cinema or theatre

Jessie, (pictured) from Somerset, says that every aspect of her life was controlled by the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, of which she was born into. As a child she wasn’t allowed to go to places of entertainment like the cinema or theatre 

Founded in 1820 the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church has accumulated a following of over 50,000 members across Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the Americas and UK.

‘Attributing a strong and generous charitable spirit to itself’, the Brethren depicts itself as a loving, nurturing, community-focused enterprise.

On the Brethren’s website, it says: ‘We live and work with people from all walks of life, beliefs and cultures. We place great importance upon actively practicing Christianity within our communities and for us this occurs in many ways.’

However, according to Jessie, the current leader of the group, Bruce Hales from Sydney, demands complete, unwavering loyalty. 

The current leader of Plymouth Brethren Christian Church is Bruce Hales (pictured) who lives in Sydney

The current leader of Plymouth Brethren Christian Church is Bruce Hales (pictured) who lives in Sydney 

Jessie explains that she was taken out of school at the age of seven to be home-schooled. She missed out on socialising with her peers and lost her only connection to the outside world

Jessie explains that she was taken out of school at the age of seven to be home-schooled. She missed out on socialising with her peers and lost her only connection to the outside world

Jessie explained that what he says goes, saying: ‘For example if he turned around and said “Nobody’s allowed a yellow sofa,” everyone would turn around and get rid of yellow sofas without really asking why.

‘And if they did ask why they would be persecuted massively, partly kicked out, ostracised, and they would lose their family, their friends, their job.’

Jessie said that members of the church they live on ordinary roads, in homes vetted by elders. 

The property has to be detached  because members aren’t allowed to share drains or any access ways.

There are more than 90 bases in the UK and she said that ‘the environment is one of significant emotional abuse and coercive control.’ 

A 19-YEAR-OLD KIDNAPPED BY HER OWN PARENTS

‘About a year ago there was a girl of 19 who had attempted to escape, she got in contact with me as she had read my memoir and she got out for 24 hours but her parents literally kidnapped her.

‘They got her home and she stopped contacting us, and we knew that was going to happen. We worried about her and her wellbeing. 

‘We got the police involved and the police went and managed to speak to her behind closed doors in a whisper and her parents listened behind closed doors. 

‘The parents barged in and stopped the interview. The police said they could arrest the parents and let her escape. 

‘They went back and her whole demeanor had changed and she said she was fine. They knew it wasn’t the case but there was not anything they could do.

‘I’m just one of many this is happening to’

‘This is people who look like you and I and they are trapped.’

At school, which was her only lifeline to the outside world, Jessie remembers not fitting in with the other children and would be forced to return home for lunchtime, because she and her siblings weren’t allowed to eat with the other children.

The sect also decreed that members’ children kept their heads covered at school and were not allowed to make friendships outside of the church.

Then in 1995, at the age of eight, Jessie and her siblings were taken out of mainstream education to be home-schooled. Cult members at this point began to create their own schools. 

Women were not permitted to wear trousers, jewellery or make up. And members were not permitted to form close friendships with other members, or even relatives.

All travel was subjected to vetting by a committee of elders, as was moving house, getting married and a considerable number of business activities.

When Jessie turned 16 she was sexually abused by an older man outside of the cult.

This was something that she blamed herself for and was told by the Brethren that she had brought the horror on herself.

She explained how priests visited her – older men who wanted to know every specific detail of intimacy.

She said she was ‘re-traumatised by priests who were the same age’ as her attacker, saying: ‘The breach of privacy is just phenomenal.

‘I didn’t even understand it to be abuse until I was 30 when I started to see a counsellor.’

It is only now that she see how vulnerable she was, because in the Brethren children received no sex education whatsoever and weren’t allowed to mingle with the opposite sex at all.

‘You weren’t even allowed to be in the car alone with your cousin,’ she recalled.

Two years later, when she was 18, she went to work for her father who owned several companies, including a  stationery business.

It was at work that she met someone who would change her life – an outsider who was a supplier at her father’s business.

‘I started to date someone on the outside at 18,’ she recalled. ‘When I say date, we would talk on the phone and we might get 20 minutes when I would sneakily disappear on my lunch hour and would meet up somewhere.

‘I don’t know how he stuck it, but it was definitely not what you would call dating.

‘There was no, “Let’s go have a night at the movies,” nothing like at all.

‘No chance of eating together. Nothing. But that kind of went on for four years.’

When Jessie was 16 she was sexual assaulted by a man outside of the cult. When she reported this she was put under house arrest and made to feel like this was her fault

When Jessie was 16 she was sexual assaulted by a man outside of the cult. When she reported this she was put under house arrest and made to feel like this was her fault 

However, Jessie’s relationship was exposed when a family member followed her and saw her with her boyfriend. 

She was immediately subjected to house arrest and was reported to the cult elders, feeding back to Bruce Hales in Sydney.

When the same priests who had put her under house arrest when she was 16, came around again, she said that ‘the only way to survive was to surrender and go along with it all.’

Her privacy was completely removed because her bedroom would be regularly searched, and she wasn’t allowed to leave the house without supervision, even though she was 30-years-old.

It was so invasive that towards end Jessie began to write in code in her diary so she could write down her feelings, so that she wouldn’t explode. feeling like she was in a ‘pressure cooker.’

She said: ‘I’m a fully responsible adult now, not a teenager. I could have children now, I could have my own home, I could have a relationship and I don’t have any of those possibilities at all.’

At the age of 18 she formed a relationship with a man who worked for her dad's printing company but when she was found out was put back on house arrest for over a decade, until she escaped

At the age of 18 she formed a relationship with a man who worked for her dad’s printing company but when she was found out was put back on house arrest for over a decade, until she escaped 

Jessie's privacy was completely removed and at the age of 30, after a decade of room checks and never being alone she felt like a 'pressure cooker'

Jessie’s privacy was completely removed and at the age of 30, after a decade of room checks and never being alone she felt like a ‘pressure cooker’ 

Things went from bad to worse for Jessie, when in 2017 her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and given a few months to live.

Although she had a relatively good relationship with her parents and brother, who had learning difficulties, she had gone through so much trauma and bullying by the hands of the Brethren, including one of her sisters.

Having no one at home or in the cult to turn to, she reached out to the man who she had the relationship with at 18.

Secretly talking to him brought some normality and comfort to her empty life and when she granted small freedoms after so many years she decided to see a counsellor.

Jessie would pretend that she was taking pictures but would go and meet with her counsellor, who along with her boyfriend, helped her form a plan to escape.

She first saw the counsellor in September and by December had moved out.

She gained ownership of her car and found a property to rent but yet again was rumbled, this time by her sister who contacted Australia.

Her family offered to fly her out to Australia and give her £10,000 if she stayed.

Jessie said: ‘It was definitely one of the most painful days of my life, walking out of the back door, seeing my mother who had cancer, who was dehydrated, so thin she was practically a walking skeleton standing at the back door saying to me “You’re not going to go are you”. 

‘You’re feeling the guilt of leaving behind such an ill person who meant so much to you.’

Leaving her family home and the cult hadn’t happened in the way that she had expected, but her parents did come and visit her new home.

Jessie describes how she had to create space around herself and change her phone number so they had to email her if they wanted contact.

She was unable to be with her mother in the end, who passed away six months after she escaped.

Escaping wasn’t the end of her ordeal though because she didn’t know anything of the world.

Jessie didn’t know how to use a TV or a radio and found it difficult to socialise because she had nothing in common with others.

She said that during the first year, every day was like stepping out of her comfort zone. And while she was trying to find herself people would take advantage of her vulnerabilities.

Four years on and Jessie has found a new normal, and has re-learnt how to live her life.

She met her fiancée two years ago and has started her own business.

She says that because of being so heavily controlled she could only be self- employed now and is a writer and coach.

She eventually managed to escape and describes the pain she experienced when saying goodbye to her dying mother, who she was unable to be with at the end

She eventually managed to escape and describes the pain she experienced when saying goodbye to her dying mother, who she was unable to be with at the end 

For the first two years after leaving the cult Jessie had to relearn everything and found it difficult to strike up conversations with strangers as she had had different experiences to them. For example, she hadn't watched any TV programmes before

For the first two years after leaving the cult Jessie had to relearn everything and found it difficult to strike up conversations with strangers as she had had different experiences to them. For example, she hadn’t watched any TV programmes before 

She says: ‘I am incredibly lucky, I know so many that have escaped but are still floundering.’

Jessie, who also keeps chickens, met her soon-to-be husband when he came round to deal with rodents. 

He is older than her and has children that are her age. She explains that it makes her feel like she has siblings and his granddaughter is the same age as her nieces and nephews.

She is happy to have the dynamic of a large family again because she’s estranged from her own relatives – all of them are still living in the Brethren.

WHO ARE THE PLYMOUTH BRETHREN? 

The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church was established in the early nineteenth century in Plymouth, southern England. It is a community of over 50,000 members across Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the Americas (including the Caribbean) and the UK. 

They describe themselves as deeply family-oriented; and live, work and pray as ‘Brethren’ – a community of families held together by a common Christian belief.

Brethren believe that the Holy Bible is the true Word of God and that each member is called upon to live a life in accordance with its instructions. Plymouth Brethren members attend regular church services each Sunday to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and preach the Gospel.

It says that there is a strong and generous charitable spirit among Brethren, with many willingly devoting their time contributing to philanthropic efforts to relieve the load on humanity.

One of the most defining elements of the Brethren is the rejection of the concept of clergy. Their view is that all Christians are ordained by God to serve and therefore all are ministers, in keeping with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. 

The Brethren embrace the most extensive form of that idea, in that there is no ordained or unordained person or group employed to function as minister(s) or pastors. Brethren assemblies are led by the local church elders within any fellowship.

Historically, there is no office of pastor in most Brethren churches, because they believe that the term pastor (ποιμην, poimen in Greek) as it is used in Ephesians 4:11 describes one of the gifts given to the church, rather than a specific office. 

In the words of Darby, these gifts in Ephesians 4:11 are “ministrations for gathering together and for edification established by Christ as Head of the body by means of gifts with which He endows persons as His choice.”[32] Therefore, there is no formal ordination process for those who preach, teach, or lead within their meetings. 

Men who become elders, or those who become deacons and overseers within the fellowship, have been recognized by others within the individual assemblies and have been given the blessing of performing leadership tasks by the elders.[33]

An elder should be able and ready to teach when his assembly sees the “call of God” on his life to assume the office of elder (1 Timothy 3:2). Brethren elders conduct many other duties that would typically be performed by the clergy in other Christian groups, including counselling those who have decided to be baptized, performing baptisms, visiting the sick, and giving spiritual counsel in general. 

Normally, sermons are given either by the elders or by men who regularly attend the Sunday meetings—but, again, only men whom the elders recognize as having the “call of God” on their lives for that particular ministry. Visiting speakers, however, are usually paid their travel costs and provided for with Sunday meals following the meetings.

The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, the most hardline of all the Exclusive Brethren groups, has developed into a de facto hierarchical body which operates under the headship of an Elect Vessel, currently Bruce Hales of Australia.

In place of an ordained ministry, an itinerant preacher often receives a “commendation” to the work of preaching and teaching that demonstrates the blessing and support of the assembly of origin. 

In most English-speaking countries, such preachers have traditionally been called full-time workers, labouring brothers, or on the Lord’s work; in India, they are usually called Evangelists and very often are identified with Evg. in front of their name.

A given assembly may have any number of full-time workers, or none at all. In the last twenty years, many Open Assemblies in Australia and New Zealand, and some elsewhere, have begun calling their full-time workers pastors, but this is not seen as ordaining clergy and does not connote a transfer of any special spiritual authority. 

In such assemblies, the pastor is simply one of several elders, and differs from his fellow-elders only in being salaried to serve full-time. Depending on the assembly, he may or may not take a larger share of the responsibility for preaching than his fellow elders

 

Jessie wants to highligh that she is just one of many and there are so many people, right under our noses, who are living in a controlled environment crying for a way out.

A spokesperson from the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church said: ‘We respect Ms Shedden’s decision to no longer attend our church and we wish her well.

‘Her account of her upbringing is also a personal matter and does not reflect the lifestyle, practices, and common experiences of members of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.

‘Our 18,000 members have lived and worked in the UK for nearly 200 years. Similar to other religions, we have our own traditions which relate to our faith.

‘Underlying all of this is care and compassion for those in need – we are currently working with our fellow members across Europe to provide food, clothing, and assistance to those displaced by the war in Ukraine.’

Jessie Sheddon has written about her experiences and published books, which can be found at jessieshedden.com/books 

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