Peculiar People

A Christian denomination known for their Biblical literalism and rejection of medical treatment.

Religion: Christianity
Founded: 19th century
Location: Primarily in the United Kingdom
Offshoot of: Wesleyan Christianity
Other Names: Peculiars

The Peculiar People, now recognized as the Union of Evangelical Churches, are a Christian group that traces its origins back to 1838 in Rochford, Essex, England. Founded by James Banyard, a former Wesleyan Methodist, the movement derived its name from passages in the King James Bible, which describe God’s people as “peculiar” in the sense of being special or chosen. The name reflects a sense of special identity, akin to that claimed by other groups like the Quakers and Amish, who have also embraced the term with pride.

Initially, Banyard, a former farm worker with a history of alcoholism, experienced a religious awakening after attending a Wesleyan Methodist chapel, which led him to a life of sobriety and eventual leadership within his newfound community. Alongside William Bridges, Banyard leased an old workhouse in Rochford to establish the first chapel for what would become the Peculiar People. Their faith emphasized a puritanical interpretation of Christianity, gaining traction especially in rural Essex, an area characterized by its conservative agricultural community. This growth led to the establishment of numerous chapels throughout Essex, with the Peculiar People advocating for faith healing and a literal adherence to the Bible. Such beliefs, however, led to controversies, particularly regarding their refusal of medical treatment in favor of prayer, which at times resulted in legal scrutiny and public criticism.

Initially, the Peculiar People were noted for their puritanical version of Christianity, which included a strong emphasis on faith healing. This belief often led to controversy, particularly when it resulted in the refusal of medical treatment for seriously ill members, including children. Such practices eventually led to a split within the movement over the issue of seeking medical help, dividing members into “Old Peculiars” and “New Peculiars” — the latter group being more open to it. The two factions reconciled in the 1930s, with the more progressive stance on medicine generally prevailing​​.

The movement saw its peak membership in the mid-19th century, with 43 chapels, but experienced a decline thereafter. In 1956, in an effort to modernize and perhaps remove the stigma associated with their “peculiar” designation, they renamed themselves the Union of Evangelical Churches (UEC). Today, the UEC operates in a manner similar to other Evangelical churches, though it maintains a connection to its roots through a network of churches primarily located in Essex and London. This transition signifies the group’s evolution from a sect with distinct practices and beliefs to a more conventional evangelical denomination​​.

Throughout its history, the Peculiar People have faced both internal and external challenges. Their stance on conscription during World War I, for example, was a matter of significant internal debate. The church council ultimately resolved to support both those who chose to serve and those who objected to military service on the grounds of their faith. This stance highlighted the tensions between the church’s pacifist beliefs and the external pressures of a society engaged in war​​.

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