Book Review - I Will Disentangle Myself

ICSA Today, 2020, Vol. 11, No. 1, 19-20

Book Review: I Will Disentangle Myself … and Leave

By Bob Williston

Reviewed by Joe Szimhart

LitFire Publishing, Atlanta, GA. 2018. ISBN-13: 978-1641514255; ISBN-10: 1641514256 $36.25 hardcover; $16.76 paperback ( 345 pages.

In his introduction to I Will Disentangle Myself…, Bob Williston lets us know that he is not writing a scholarly account; rather, his intent is to honestly clarify his defection from a relatively obscure new religious movement when he “lost” his faith at age 56 after four decades of devotion. The author has been a teacher and a historian, so he was fully capable of writing a scholarly account—indeed, he dips deep into scholarship in later chapters—but he opts for reflection and self-analysis, much like a diarist. The early chapters explore the intimate interactions he and his family experienced with his religious group that led to his decision to challenge the leadership and risk excommunication. His story reads more like a careful conversation at the kitchen table than a polished lecture.

Williston defected from a fundamentalist style of Christianity variously known as “the Tramps,” Go-Preachers, Two-By-Twos, the Truth, the Cooneyites, the Workers, and the Friends. His former group claims to continue the true, primitive fellowship that Jesus and his Apostles set in motion 2,000 years ago. Scotsman William Irvine founded the Truth around 1897, after he had a born-again experience in 1895 listening to a Presbyterian preacher, Rev. John McNeill. Irvine joined Faith Mission in 1895 but got kicked out for not properly following its disciplines. Irvine was inspired by Matthew, Chapter 10 in the Gospel to restore true Christianity by sending his converts two-by-two and without funds to spread his new message. His converts were known as Friends, while leaders were Workers. Friends and Workers held Truth meetings in their homes. In line with most Fundamentalist denominations, Irvine taught that “learning could prove a hindrance to truth” (p. 128).

Wealth came into the movement through Irvine’s exhortation for converts to sell everything they owned to be preachers or Workers. The Friends were expected to support the Workers. Managing money proved to be as problematic as it would be in any church or cult. Factions developed over subtle doctrinal conflicts early in the movement, with Eddie Cooney’s followers forming one branch around 1928; thus, the Cooneyites. Although the movement eschewed a priesthood with devotional buildings, a hierarchy soon developed, with Overseers at the top regulating Workers around the world. Before the Internet era, the ministry spread by word of mouth, phone calls, and mail. A few critical books and articles about the quiet movement appeared during the 20th century. For the most part, Two-By-Twos, like Latter-Day Saints, blended well into surrounding society and held common jobs, despite adherence to some rigorous rules about having a plain appearance and avoiding popular entertainment, television, and vices such as drinking alcohol.

Williston was raised to believe that the Truth represented an unbroken chain of Christian Workers since the Apostles. During his struggle to resolve internal conflicts, he was shocked to learn that the founder, Irvine, “died in the same year I was born—1947” (p. 129). Although a moral dilemma sparked his disgust with the Worker’s hypocrisies, Williston’s story mirrors a much larger one: Fundamentalist reactions in all religions to the emergence of Modernism, especially since the Enlightenment or so-called Age of Reason. As science methods, inventions, and theories expanded society’s views of time, space, history, and culture, the “truth” in ancient, inspired scriptures came into question. After his devotion shattered on moral grounds, Williston was free to explore outside the Two-By-Two box—his Bible became a work of literature and no longer a sacred object inspired in English by an infallible deification, or a perfect idol, of King James.

Williston turned to scholars such as Bart Ehrman to learn how diverse Christianity had been from the very beginning. He learned that there was no Bible until the 4th century, under Emperor Constantine. All Christian arguments to find prophecies for Jesus as Messiah in the Jewish Torah were either highly flawed or downright mistaken. He turned to the Catholic Encyclopedia to discover that the Jesus story attributed to St. Luke, John, and others borrowed heavily from the ancient Mithraic religion that Roman soldiers followed. Greek ideas and Pagan rituals fed the formation of Christian theology and praxis by the 1st century. He learned from Bible researcher Bart Ehrman that seminarians learn to rationalize conflicts in scripture and flaws in the Gospel tradition. Williston chose not to rationalize; he adopted an agnostic view and chose to live with uncertainty. Modernism found another convert. The Two-By-Twos may have been a comforting belief system as a guide to his social life, but he could no longer abide by intellectual hypocrisy. And at age 70, when he is writing this memoir, he says he is happier for it.

As far as identifying the Truth of the Two-By-Twos as a cult is concerned: Yes, it has some of the characteristics, he notes; but on page 309, he emphasizes: “The Truth is not a cult in the newsworthy apocalyptic style. It is minimally cultic … as an emotionally abusive and controlling cult.” My one criticism, coming from my long career as a cult interventionist, is with what he states on the next page, at the end of Chapter 24: 

But one thing I will never do is encourage anyone who is comfortable among the Friends and Workers to leave. First of all, they’re comfortable and I don’t believe they’re deceived into an eternity of damnation. And pragmatically, you can’t convince a believer of anything. (p. 310; italics are the author’s) 

A true Modernist would avoid saying never in certain terms when it comes to human choice in matters of the heart and mind. The author might meet a truth Friend who could benefit from a challenge someday, and thus be encouraged to step aside from the group. In a way, Bob Williston has already done enough to convince ambivalent believers to leave the Two-By-Twos by writing this book. In my experience, believers in any cult or religion have periods of ambivalence over time, just as the author did.

About the Reviewer

Joseph Szimhart began research into cultic influence in 1980, after ending his 2-year devotion to a New Age sect. He worked professionally as an intervention specialist from 1986 through 1998. He continues to assist people with cult-related problems including consultations via phone and Internet. In 2016 he received an ICSA Lifetime Achievement Award at the Annual Conference in Dallas, Texas. Since 1998, he has worked for an emergency psychiatric hospital as a crisis caseworker. He maintains an art studio and exhibits professionally. His novel, Mushroom Satori: The cult diary was published in 2013.