In reality, there should be no title to this article, as this group really has no name. Cooneyites is a nickname from one of their early leaders, and this is the one we will mainly use here.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the evangelical Faith Mission sent William Irvine to lead work at Menagh in County Tipperary, Ireland. He gathered a few converts around him and held meetings in local Methodist churches. Irvine had originally been helped in good faith but he ended up gathering the local believers round himself as a special leader and then began denouncing all other Bible denominations.
Irvine was fascinated by what Jesus told his first disciples in Matthew 10 and developed a band of followers, who went out in twos preaching his views, living in poverty, with only one change of clothes and no money. In 1900, the Faith Mission disassociated itself from Irvine when he continued to teach his new converts to break away totally from world.
They felt that due to their obedience to the “Jesus Way,” they were the only ones able to fulfil the true pattern of the original disciples on earth, and so they had to be only ‘True Church.’ As a result, they insisted that they should have no name, and ever since, names have been assigned to them, these include Cooneyites, Go-Preachers and 2×2’s.
As Irvine’s following grew, he developed a powerful system of overseers for each local group, with Irvine becoming their travelling leader, speaking to scattered conventions of believers/followers. Followers sold all that they had and gave the proceeds to Irvine. By 1908, Irvine insisted that all his followers must become ‘homeless’ ministers.
Edward Cooney rose from within the group to assist Irvine. He proved to be an impressive and zealous leader, who gave up his ordinary job to become a “tramp preacher.” He made scathing attacks on other churches and ended up encouraging followers to have nothing to do with them at all.
Irvine’s teachings did not stand still and he developed strange doctrines, partly under the influence of Seventh Day Adventists. At one stage, Irvine literally believed himself to be one of the two witnesses referred to in Revelation 3.
Some of his fellow leaders became so alarmed at this that they formed a coalition to stifle him and in 1914 Irvine was excommunicated
All this threw the movement into turmoil, it was then that Edward Cooney and others took control. However even Cooney himself was disfellowshipped in 1928. This led to a cover up of how the group started and today followers are discouraged from investigating the early history of their movement, as they might rake up Irvine’s delusions of grandeur, and the early overseers dirty power struggles. On this score, the movement is quite well protected, as there are few historical papers or diaries and the control of the local overseers remains overriding.
There is no ‘statement of faith’ or clear doctrinal book for this group but the message they give and the lifestyle lived indicates the following.
They believe that they are the only true church and all others are false. They are a direct historical continuation of New Testament Christianity.
They are very unclear in their teaching as to whether Jesus is God or not. Jesus, to them, is the perfect example – someone to build the pattern of their lives on.
Salvation comes to us, not through grace alone, but self-effort is also needed. Salvation can never be a certainty as it will only be decided at the moment of death, and there is certainly no hope of salvation outside of their community.
Very little attention is paid to the shed blood and finished work of Christ. They quote Acts 1:1 and say that they are continuing the work that He began.
Membership to the group is not so much by an inward receiving of Christ as Saviour, but more of an outward conformity to their lifestyle. As such, there is extreme legalism in many areas and a lack of desire to discover the truth of scripture.
The main way that most people encounter this group, is when they take one of their meetings in the locality. This will have no specific name attached, but usually the invitation will give the group away. It will be very plain giving the time of the service, the names of the preachers and insisting that the group is “undenominational”.
The preachers might visit local churches when they arrive in a place. They will sit through the service and then give out leaflets afterwards. They would usually refuse hospitality, are eager to get away and reluctant to give information. We have heard, however, that a number of the younger ‘Coonyites’, as opposed to the older folk, who have not changed, now accept that Christians from other churches are saved and enjoy fellowship with them.
Their meetings are usually full of people of all ages, with all the men in suits and ties; and the women modestly but neatly dressed, all with their hair in buns and without hats. They would often travel from quite a distance.
The following is a first hand experience from someone who visited a meeting held in Surrey in February 2000.
“On entering the village hall, I received a curt welcome and was handed a copy of Hymns Old & New (1987 edition). Some of these hymns were familiar but others were quite unknown. Two young lady preachers led the meeting. They rose and one gave a few words of welcome. A hymn was announced and sung seated. They prayed using ‘King James’ English.’
“One preacher then read from Luke 8 (King James Version – a good number of folk followed in their Bibles) and spoke on Jesus’ parable of the sower. Much emphasis was made on Jesus being the one who helps us understand about eternal life. When we listen to God’s gospel we need to remember it; our hearts must not resist it if we want to bear fruit; we need Jesus and his salvation in our hearts and lives. Good hearts are those that listen to God’s gospel.
“What matters is the state of our heart as we listen to the gospel. Our hearts need to feel we need God; we need His help and strength; we need Him to show us the way to heaven. We need to feel God teaching us, so the gospel can grow in us. Although what is happening now may seem insignificant, our honest hearts can grow.
“There is so much power in God’s word to change us if we only admit it. We need God to prepare our hearts and plant the gospel in them and he wants to make our hearts soft and needy. Therefore, the seed of the gospel of the life of Jesus can grow in us and make us more effective in him. We need to know God’s softness in our hearts; we need His word to grow in us and to have an effect in us.
“After another hymn and a prayer, the second preacher read a second Bible passage from John 4. The Samaritan woman did not know Jesus at the beginning, but she did at the end of her meeting with Him. Therefore, we need God to work in us by Jesus. We need to receive life from God when the voice of Jesus speaks to us and makes us alive to God. Jesus did not reveal Himself to the woman straightaway. She could have gone away and not have been saved. We too must learn to know more and not go away.
“When the Samaritan woman heard Jesus talk about living water, she could have left the matter and become stuck – but, no, she came through. Jesus needs to speak to us and we need to love him. God sent Jesus to allow us to find Him for eternal life. Jesus loved the Samaritan woman but he did not tell her this. She had to listen to Him and learn from Him, so that He could help her one step at a time.
“Now the woman came to know Jesus and she shared this with others. The more they listened, the more they understood, the more they loved and the more they saw they needed to respond to Jesus. Do you love Jesus? Has Jesus revealed Himself to you? We can know Him; we can have the experience of being born again. We need to be honest with God and be just as we are. We need to confess we do not know Jesus and we need to come to find Him and love Him.
“The meeting closed with a prayer and the room was tidied and vacated. Group members spoke amongst themselves. One man greeted me and commented on the weather. As I left, one of the preachers said she was pleased I came. I asked her whether I should read the Bible, if I wanted to know more about Jesus. She said: Yes, this is the only literature we use. I did not comment about their leaflets or their hymnbook.“
The Cooneyites’ outreach style seems to be aimed at those who already call themselves Christians, and not unsaved folk. It has a mixture of some evangelical Biblical truth, freely sprinkled with error, ready to snare the unwary. The older members especially still remain separate and exclusive from all other church groups. They are trained never to enter into any prolonged discussion of what is right or wrong in Christian matters. They never argue and never take literature from others. They have a constant air of “humble superiority” and usually refuse to give any name to their group, merely smiling whenever they are asked. Their meetings and lifestyle seem to lack any true joy, life and enthusiasm.
It should be noted that the above experience and summary is the view from an outsider and many Cooneyites would not agree with all the conclusions.
Cooneyites are a religious people who believe that their “Jesus Way” is the only means of getting right with God.
The testimonies of ex-Cooneyites who have drifted away or been disfellowshipped for some minor offence confirm the Group exists under extreme legalism. Their claim to be exclusive is one of the main marks of a cult rather than a true mainstream Christian group.
The teachings from these True-Preachers have to be held as absolute truth and any questions or doubts are frowned upon and could be viewed as disobedience. Another sign of cultic tendencies.
Their convictions about Overseer control and about their sole correct interpretation of the Bible also reflect a cult. This goes hand in hand with their refusal to extend God’s salvation to anyone believing in Jesus Christ outside of their Group.
The regular members of ordinary Cooneyites must contain many honest-hearted people who really try to love God and do their best to serve Him. As such, we must pray to meet them individually and to seek to befriend them and win them for Christ.