In the early 1800ís, Christians in England and elsewhere were greatly divided. These were days of unrest, not only in the National churches, but also throughout various independent churches. Liberalism was beginning to gain ground in the Church of England, as was a movement to unite with the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, a group surfaced in London that promoted charismatic tongues and prophesying.
Many clergy of the Church of England were unbelievers and doctrine was in a state of flux. The clergy exercised great control over the people, including administering baptism, the Lordís Supper, and marriage rites. As a result, a number of dissenting groups had broken away from the State church and were operating independently. However clergy in these groups also exercised and controlled their membership.
The idea of Christians meeting together for teaching and for the Lordís Supper, without an ordained minister present to teach and to administer communion, was truly revolutionary at this time.
Out of this unsettled state of the professing church, many true believers were led to form small groups where there was freedom to worship the Lord Jesus in reliance upon the Holy Spirit and according to the Word of God.
THE EARLY YEARS
In 1826, Dr. E. Cronin and Edward Wilson began meeting together in Dr. Cronin's home on Pembroke Street in Dublin, Ireland, each Sunday morning for communion, worship, and the study of the Bible. As students of the Scriptures, these godly men could not feel at home, nor find spiritual food and fellowship, in the Anglican Church. Since they did not believe in church membership (already being members of the Body of Christ), they were not accepted in the relatively few dissenting and independent churches of the day.
Shortly after this, in early 1827, J.G. Bellet, A. Groves, and J.N. Darby also started meeting in a similar manner in Belletís home. By 1830, these, and other similar likeminded individuals, became aware of each other and decided to meet together in a rented hall on Aungier Street in Dublin. This was the beginning of the "Brethren" movement.
They were not seeking to start a movement of any kind, were not in competition with existing churches, nor did they attempt to influence others to do as they were doing. Many of them found in Darby a truly pioneering and God-sent leader. In 1830, J.N. Darby left the Church of England priesthood and devoted himself fully to teaching similar small groups of believers both in Ireland and in England.
It was J.N. Darby who, in the midst of the divided state of the church, first clearly saw the Biblical truth that all true Christians are in fact united as one. He taught that all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are all members of one body, the body of Christ on earth. This transcends human organizations and institutions. It is not achieved through human effort but is an objective fact taught in the Scriptures.
Their chief aim was to exhibit, in a Scriptural way, this common brotherhood of all believers.
They recognized no special membership in human institutions. They considered themselves as members of the body of Christ and members of one another. Their common faith in Christ and love for one another were the only terms of fellowship. They embraced all those whose faith and walk showed that they had spiritual life.
These newly formed groups of Christians, known as "assemblies", were established worldwide within twenty years. In their New Testament simplicity, they referred to one another using a biblical term for believers: "brethren".
Their New Testament manner of meeting in homes and rented halls, refusal of ordained leadership, reliance upon the Holy Spirit for the ministerial gifts, and close-knit fellowship and purity of doctrine, drew many of the finest leaders in Britain (and elsewhere) into this kind of church meeting.
Out of this gathering came some of the most profound truths of the Christian faith. A number of Christian historians have noted that this early period of the movement was one of the greatest periods in the Christian church, surpassing even that of the Protestant Reformation.
The Brethren movement was seen by many as a Scriptural way of freedom from the error and confusion of the day. The members of this expression of church life were ministering deeper growth truth, church life truth, dispensational truth and prophetic truth in a period when the Christians of Britain and Europe knew little or nothing of the primary doctrine of the security of the believer, considering it presumptuous to declare one's assurance of salvation.
The calibre of leadership that entered these simple assemblies was remarkable. Nearly all ranked highly amongst their peers: several were English Lords, one a cousin of Queen Victoria, many were high nobility of England, others were top-ranking Army and Navy officers; still others were highly educated university men. Many were fine scholars, well versed in the classical languages, and not a few of them equal to the best linguists of their day. It is interesting to note that most of these men were less than 30 years old initially.
The legacy of these men remains to this day in hundreds of books and articles. Some of the more well known were J.N. Darby, A.N. Groves, John Bellett, Henry Craik, George Muller, R.C. Chapman, G.V. Wigram, J.B. Stoney, William Kelly, C.H. Mackintosh, F.W. Grant, Henry Moorhouse, Sir Robert Anderson, S.P. Tregelles, and W.E. Vine. For more information on these men click here.
John Nelson Darby
One of the most remarkable of these men was J.N. Darby. During his more than fifty years of leadership among the Brethren, Darby was almost constantly on the move. Although of aristocratic heritage and near-genius mentality, (he was a classic gold medalist at age 18) he loved the poor and always sought to share their lowly homes and simple food.
His ministry covered not only Great Britain, but included France, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Jamaica, Canada, America, Australia, and New Zealand.
During his ministry everywhere, at all times and under all circumstances, Darby was writing deep theological material in the form of personal and pastoral letters, published and unpublished papers, tracts, magazine articles, and book manuscripts. His books are still in print today: over 50 volumes averaging nearly 400 pages each. Darby composed a number fo hymns which are still outstanding for their beauty and rich Biblical content.
Over and above all this, Darby accomplished scholarly work in translating the entire Bible into English, French, German, and the New Testament into Italian.
J.N. Darby was one of the most outstanding biblical scholars in the history of the Christian church, whose impact is comparable to that of Martin Luther.
THE LATER YEARS
The Plymouth Assembly
The assembly in Plymouth, England was started in 1831, and by 1845, had grown to over 1200 believers.
At first a fairly fixed order of service was used in Plymouth, as in Dublin. Advance arrangements were made for who would give thanks for the bread and wine, passages of Scripture and hymns were chosen ahead of time, and prayer was restricted to elders.
Recognized gifted teachers taught, while at the same time there was provision for others to exercise their spiritual teaching gift under the direction of the presiding elder. For many years, J.L. Harris and B.W. Newton ministered on alternate Sundays.
Over the years, the assemblies developed a more spontaneous form of worship in the Lordís Supper. Some welcomed this development while others considered this an unwarranted innovation.
In the 1840ís there were several gifted men who ministered the word at Plymouth; B.W. Newton who specialized on prophetic themes, J.L. Harris on the doctrines of grace, H.W. Soltau on the types and sacrifices, W.H. Cole on exhortations to a godly walk, and S.P. Tregelles, who specialized in perfecting the Greek text of the New Testament.
Newton was a gifted orator, who could enthral the crowds; he became the dominant individual in the assembly.
The Plymouth Problem
Two problems arose at Plymouth. In 1845, B.W. Newton established clericalism in the Plymouth assembly by becoming its pastor. This was seen by many assemblies as taking an independent action, which was contrary to the overriding principle of the unity of the body.
The second and more serious problem was that Newton was teaching heretical doctrine concerning the person and moral glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. He taught that Christ was born under the federal headship of Adam. The essence of this teaching was that Christ had inherited a sin nature from Adam.
Darby, upon his return from Europe, where he had been ministering for several years, became aware of Newtonís heretical teaching and confronted Newton. However, Newton refused to withdraw his false teaching, and so Darby was forced to withdraw from fellowship with the Plymouth assembly. Many others, having been made aware of the problem, also left and joined Darby.
There was disagreement in the assemblies as to how to deal with those who left the Plymouth assembly and who were seeking assembly fellowship elsewhere.
Two issues needed to be dealt with: the heresy and the clericalism introduced at Plymouth. There were several concerns. Why had they remained in this assembly under false teaching for several years before leaving? Had Newton's teaching contaminated them? The concern was to ensure that the heretical teachings of Newton were not allowed to be propagated within the other assemblies. Another concern was why they had chosen to stay in this assembly when it had taken an independent course of action and established Newton as pastor.
Up to this point in time, all of the assemblies had operated in concert as a demonstration of the unity of the body of Christ. It was decided that those who had come from Plymouth would be carefully examined on the issues and that a collective judgment would be made by the leadership in the assemblies as to the conditions under which these individuals would be accepted.
Several from the Plymouth assembly applied for fellowship with the Bethesda Assembly in Bristol. The leaders of the Bethesda Assembly, including George Muller, upon examining the persons in question, decided that they were not involved in the Newton error and received them into their fellowship. By doing so, Muller acted independently of the other assemblies without adequate consultation and discussion.
A number of individuals in fellowship at Bethesda felt that the concern had not been adequately addressed and withdrew from fellowship at Bethesda until the situation was fully resolved to their satisfaction.
They appealed to Darby and he supported their contention. As a result, a long and protracted struggle ensued, affecting Brethren assemblies worldwide. Each assembly in the movement had to judge the issue of the Bethesda Assembly's decision and act accordingly.
The agonizing result was division: some favoured the position taken by Muller and the Bethesda assembly; others sided with Darby and the assemblies with which he was associated.
From that time forward, there have existed two arms of the original Brethren movement. Those who followed Darby are known as "closed" Brethren. They are an inter-dependent group of assemblies meeting on the ground of the one body of Christ, having a restrictive policy of reception of believers to the Lord's Supper. Those who followed Muller are known as the "open" Brethren. They act independently and have a more open policy of reception.
Today, all branches of the Brethren repudiate Newtonís heresy on the person and moral glory of Christ. Christ was not born under Adamís federal headship. Christ did not have a sin nature inherited from Adam, as he had no human father. He was entirely without sin.
The closed assemblies continue to strive to keep the original basis of gathering - that of the unity of the body of Christ on earth. Over the years there have been a number of divisions in the closed assemblies. As of 1973, all branches of these assemblies were reconciled with each other. In 2000, one group of closed assemblies separated from the others over the issue of occasional fellowship with open brethren.
The open brethren continue to meet on independent grounds, but this is no longer a point of division between most open and closed assemblies.
Other branches of the brethren, which remain separated from the main body of open and closed assemblies are:
1. The inter-dependent Exclusive Brethren of the Raven-Taylor-Hales group, having an authoritative structure, an extreme separation policy for members, and an absolutely restrictive policy of reception;
2. The Needed Truth Brethren, an inter-dependent branch of the open brethren formed in 1892, with an authoritative hierarchical structure, holding that there is only one true church in each city, and having a restrictive reception policy; and
3. The Gospel Hall Brethren, an independent branch formed from the Scottish revivals of 1859, with restrictive reception policies, and sometimes known as the "tight" brethren.
More detailed information on the history of the brethren can be found on the references page.
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