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Plymouth Brethren

A widespread Protestant sect

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Plymouth Brethren, the name given to a widespread Protestant sect originally called by its own members “The Brethren”, which came into being by gradual development in the early part of the nineteenth century. The members themselves protest against the name:—”Who are these `Plymouth Brethren’? I do not own the name. I am a brother of every believer in the Lord Jesus, and, if I lived in Plymouth, the Elder might call me a `Plymouth Brother’; but I do not live there, hence I do not own the name” (Davis, “Help for Enquirers”, p. 20). Several influences concurred towards the rise of the body, and it is not possible to point to any one name as that of the founder. Its first origin seem to have been in Dublin where, in 1828, an Englishman, Anthony Norris Groves, then a student of Trinity College, was a member of a small body of churchmen who met for prayer and conference on the Scriptures and spiritual subjects. The members were profoundly impressed by the necessity of a visible union of Christendom, the center of which they conceived to be the death of Christ as set forth in the Rite of the Lord’s Supper. At first the members did not withdraw from their respective communions, but the first step in that direction was suggested by Groves, who advanced the view “that believers meeting together as disciples of Christ were free to break bread together, as their Lord had admonished them; and that, in so far as the apostles served as a guide, every Lord’s Day should be set apart for thus remembering the Lord’s death and obeying His parting command.” This view, that the ministration of the sacraments and the preaching of the Gospel was the common right of all Christians, became the distinguishing feature of the assemblies of The Brethren which now began to spring up in other places besides Dublin. An important development was soon brought about by one of the leaders of the Dublin Assembly, John Nelson Darby, an ex-barrister who had taken orders in the Episcopalian Church of Ireland and then seceded there from. Having always advocated entire separation from all other communities as the only effective way of procuring true unity, he at length succeeded in attaining this purpose, and is accordingly by some considered as the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, a distinction which others claim for Groves.

The growth of the Brethren had been largely helped by the spread of Darby’s first pamphlet, “The Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ”, which he had published in 1828, and in 1830 a public assembly was opened in Aungier St., Dublin. Darby then started on a tour with the view of propagating his ideas, visiting Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge. At Oxford he met Benjamin Wills Newton, an English clergyman, who first invited him to Plymouth, where Newton was the chief member of an assembly of Brethren which was very active in the neighborhood. From this assembly came the name “Brethren from Plymouth” or more shortly “Plymouth Brethren”, by which the body was subsequently known. From 1830 to 1838 the movement spread rapidly, and assemblies were opened in most of the large towns in England. In 1838 Darby went to Switzerland, where he spent seven years in propagating the views of the sect with considerable success. At the present day the canton of Vaud is the stronghold of the “Brethren” on the continent, and scattered assemblies are also found in France, Germany, and Italy. In 1845 the revolution in Vaud caused Darby to return to England, but he proved a very disturbing element, and from his reappearance must be dated the unending quarrels and dissensions which have ever since been a marked feature of Plymouth Brethrenism. In 1845 having quarrelled with Newton on the interpretation of certain prophecies, he accused him of denying the authority of the Holy Ghost by assuming even a limited presidency over the assembly. This resulted in the secession of Darby with a hundred followers. In 1848 there was another cleavage—into Neutrals and Exclusives. The Neutral Brethren, also known as Open Brethren, supported the action of the Bethesda congregation at Bristol which received Newton’s followers into communion. The Exclusive Brethren or Darbyites, who included the majority of the members, held aloof. These have undergone further divisions since then, so that at the present time there are several different bodies of Plymouth Brethren. As these bodies differ among themselves on doctrinal as well as on disciplinary points, it is only possible here to outline their teaching in a very broad way, passing over the points of difference between the warring sections.

DOCTRINE.—The underlying principle of the teaching of the Plymouth Brethren, and one which explains their action in endeavoring to attract to themselves “the saints in the different systems and to teach them to own and act upon the true principles of the assembly of God” (Mackintosh, “Assembly of God“, p. 24), is that the Church described in the New Testament has fallen into utter corruption, so that it is condemned by God to extinction. This corruption was due to the Church admitting good and evil alike within her pale, and admitting an ordained ministry to exist. They hold that the Church was intended to contain the righteous only, and that all official minis-try is a denial of the spiritual priesthood which belongs to all believers and a rejection of the guidance of the Holy Ghost. From this it follows that entire separation from all other Christian churches and denominations is necessary as a first condition of salvation. But some principle is needed to unite those who have thus separated themselves from other believers. This principle is union with Christ effected by the power of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost is said to preside in the assembly and to select from those present, who all have an equal right to minister, the person or persons who are to be His mouthpiece. The will of the Holy Ghost is recognized by the existence of His gifts, that is the power to exhort or to comfort or to teach. Whoever possesses these gifts is bound to use them for the common good, but the assembly selects from the gifted persons the particular one who is to be the minister for the time being. Such an election is considered as inspired by God. It is employed to ascertain both who is to lead the worship and who is to preach, but women are debarred from ministering in either way. The chief act of worship is the Lord’s Supper, which is given precedence over all prayer and preaching:

“Beware of thinking anything can be of equal moment with duly showing forth the Lord’s death. The Supper of the Lord claims an unequivocal prominence in the worship of the Saints.” (Kelly, op. cit. inf., lecture iii) The weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper is incumbent on all, and no member is allowed to neglect this and remain in the society. Evil living or erroneous doctrine are also visited, first by remonstrance, then by judicial condemnation and expulsion. Infant baptism is an open question among them, but the majority of assemblies practice the baptism of believers by immersion without regard to previous baptism. They reject confirmation altogether. Though they disown an ordained ministry, yet they admit a distinction between those teachers whose ministry is to the church and those whose ministry is to outsiders. The latter are regarded by them as evangelists given to the world by Christ and qualified by the Holy Ghost. They may devote their lives to preaching the Gospel, and must not request, though they may accept, contributions. Their theology is Calvinistic, laying great stress on original sin and predestination, and with regard to morals exhibiting marked Antinomian tendencies.

In their doctrine of justification they attach great importance to establishing a close connection between that gift of God and the resurrection of Christ. Darby in his treatise, “The Resurrection as the Fundamental Truth of the Gospel”, writes: “The saints are regarded by God, as risen in Christ, and consequently as perfectly justified from all their sins; but how does the Saint actually now participate in blessings so great? It is by partaking of that life in the power of which Christ has risen.” And a little later, “I share in the righteousness of God by being quickened with that life in the power of which Christ was raised from the dead coming up out of the grave, all our trespasses being forgiven.” It has been stated that the general doctrine of the brethren on justification was influenced by the teaching of Newman (British Quarterly Review, October, 1873), but the resemblance is merely superficial and the differences are fundamental. The Brethren claim that once the gift of justification is received it can never be lost, and they carry this view to such lengths that some of their writers hold that a Christian ought not to pray for the forgiveness of sins, as to do so would imply doubt of the fullness of mercy already received. They also consider Justification as entirely independent from Baptism, which is regarded as an ordinance of Christ binding on believers but destitute of spiritual efficacy in itself.

The majority of Plymouth Brethren hold millenarian views respecting the Second Advent of Christ. From the beginning they attached great importance to the study of prophecy, and, though they are strong believers in the literal and verbal inspiration of Scripture, they have always made a point of mystical interpretation. The result has been that they have arrived at several strange conclusions, peculiar to their own party. Thus they distinguish two advents of Christ yet to come, the parousia, when He will receive the Church, and the epiphaneia, when He will finally come to take possession of the earth in glory. The former may be expected at any time and may even be secret, but the latter will be heralded by signs. When the former occurs all true believers, living and dead, will be carried to heaven, an event described as the “Rapture”, and then the judgments of God as foretold in the Apocalypse will fall upon the earth. The Roman Empire (identified with the Beast) is to be revived as a special agency of Satan, and its head will ultimately claim divine honors and be received by the Jews, then restored to Palestine, as their Messias. A faithful remnant of the chosen people alone will remain in the world as a witness to God, but this remnant looks forward only to earthly glory under Christ when He shall come to take possession of the earth. When this happens Christ’s empire on earth will be established visibly with Jerusalem as its capital. The saints of the Rapture will reign above the earth, the Jewish remnant will rule on the earth and will enjoy great power and material prosperity. At the end of the millennium there will be a great rebellion against Christ, headed by Satan, and then will come the final judgment as described in the Apocalypse, though it follows that this will be of a different nature from that which the Catholic Church teaches us to expect. For the saints will not be judged at all, their resurrection having taken place more than a thousand years before that of the wicked. When the wicked have been sent to their doom, the new Jerusalem including the saints of the Old Testament, the saints of the Rapture, and the martyrs of the Jewish Remnant, will descend out of heaven from God, and from that time forth the tabernacle of God shall be with men. This fantastic interpretation involves a break with all Christian tradition and necessitates a novel exegesis of much of the Scriptures, especially the Apocalypse and Isaias.

One feature of Plymouth Brethrenism which calls for remark is the special aversion in which it is held by other Protestant sects. This is doubtless due primarily to its methods of proselytism, which are peculiar. An Anglican writer (Dictionary of Religion, cit. inf.) complains that “the body has in the main always directed its propagandist efforts far less towards the large residuum which unhappily lies outside of all churches than to those professing Christianity in Churches already existing. Some of them have gone so far as to openly avow that their mission is `to the awakened in the Churches’ and such efforts as they do make in mission work or city evangelization are as a rule singularly unsuccessful. It is this which has brought upon them the common reproach of being `sheep-stealers rather than shepherds.’ In their proselytism they have made large use of the Press. In 1834 the Brethren established a quarterly periodical called “The Christian Witness“, carried on after 1849 as the “The Present Testimony”. This is now supplemented by several other periodicals and a large number of pamphlets and tracts which are offered for sale at the depots they have established in most large towns. Their chief writers, besides Darby himself, whose collected works fill thirty-two volumes, are C. H. McIntosh and William Kelly who have written a large number of commentaries on various parts of the Bible, and Charles Stanley who wrote on Justification in the Risen Christ, the Sabbath question and similar topics. One scripture scholar of distinction, Dr. Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, severed his connection with them before his death. But their theological literature has not produced any work of value, and, though voluminous, has already passed into oblivion. It is chiefly remarkable for the virulence of the internecine controversies which they have carried on incessantly, for in separating themselves from other bodies the Plymouth Brethren have signally failed to find union in their midst, and the bitter quarrels which have marked the eighty years of their existence have become a distinctive feature of the sect. This their own writers have admitted, and it was one of Darby’s followers, W. H. Dorman, who on separating from him wrote: “No religious movement, perhaps, ever so thoroughly succeeded in defeating its own ends; instead of union it has produced the most hopeless and heartless contentions and divisions that perhaps ever passed current under the specious pretense of zeal for Christ and care for the truth.” It is difficult to ascertain particulars as to the present condition of the body as they do not publish anything in the nature of a year-book and refrain from collecting or furnishing returns.


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