Monday, 4 January 2010

The Peculiar People and the limits of parental choice

Few counties in Britain have given rise to their own special Christian sect. The Peculiar People were founded in Essex in the 19th Century and their practices have left us with a case of precedent which is still relevant today.

The Peculiar People, peculiar in this context meaning "special" rather than "strange", were an offshoot of Wesleyism. Members believed that God did not want them to use doctors and so even when they or their children were very ill, they would rely upon the power of prayer rather than seek medical treatment. There is scriptural backing for such a position; Epistle of James. Chapter 5 verses 14 and 15;

"Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord."

In 1875, a member of the Peculiar People did just this when his two year old son was gravely ill, calling for an elder of the church called George Hurry, who was an engine driver. The child died and the father was convicted of manslaughter. This case established British law that parents are obliged to take care of their children's health and that personal beliefs cannot be respected if they pose a risk to a child. It would be interesting to see what would happen if an unvaccinated child died of mumps or whooping cough and whether the parents would be held legally responsible for the death if they had declined to have their child inoculated against the illness.

Precisely the same principle of course applies to education as applies to health and wellbeing. Parents have a duty to see that their child receives education, just as they have a duty to guard his health. Just as the Peculiar People had to accept that their own strange ideas would have to give way to modern views about the treating of illness, it seems likely that some home educating parents soon will have to see their own individual methods of education give way to the majority view of what is wholesome and good for their children. The fact is that nobody owns children, not even their parents. Just as we now acknowledge that a parent who relies upon faith to cure a case of diphtheria is actually a danger to his child, so too must we accept that one who relies upon homeopathy is in the same way culpable. We are moving towards a similar situation with education, where a parent whose views on the subject diverge too greatly from what is generally considered sensible may well find herself being told that her child's education is suffering in consequence. The principle behind these two cases is identical; that the welfare of children is of paramount importance and that parental choice has strictly delineated limits.

The Peculiar People are still around, but these days they are known as the Union of Evangelical Churches. they have dropped the reliance upon anointing with oil and consult doctors when necessary. The case of R v Downes, cited above, still has relevance in family law to this day and if the present craze for avoiding vaccinations continues, it is highly likely that we will be reading about it again before long.


  1. Isn't there a difference between a parent avoiding medical treatment for a child who is seriously ill (even with the best of intentions) and a parent avoiding a medical treatment that might, at some point in the future confer some protection on their child, or, given that we are talking about a population with a diverse genome, where the treatment itself might be a risk to the child's health? The father of the child in the religious sect avoided medical treatment for moral, rather than medical reasons.

    And both are different to education, which is an ongoing process and not definitive; there could be differences of opinion over whether an education is suitable or not. There's less ambiguity about whether a qualified doctor has been consulted or whether a child has been vaccinated.

  2. That's the most amazing coincidence. I read that information about the Peculiar People last night on Wikipedia. I'd never heard of them until then. (I happened to be on the Plumstead page looking for a reference to something in my personal history and spotted the link to the Peculiar People there. My dad was born and grew up in Plumstead and his family were members of the Plymouth Brethren, also mentioned on Wikipedia's Plumstead page, so I was curious to discover if there was a connection.)

    Jehovah's Witnesses, I recall, don't allow blood tranfusions for religious reasons, which has probably got them into trouble from time to time.

    With regard to the situation we're moving toward in education, I have to say I disagree with you completely. The view from where I'm standing suggests the emergence of a new and unprecedented culture of student as consumer - what the customer wants, where, when and how they want it - that will spell the end for 'one size fits all' concepts such as a "national curriculum" or imposing on everybody the educational ideas of the majority for no reason other than that they're the ideas of the majority.

    Of course, I could be standing in the wrong place. Or, indeed, looking in the wrong direction.

  3. Interesting. My father's family also come from Plumstead. No shortage of spooky coincidences today!

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