The thirty-odd years following the break over the Bethesda questions were, in spite of much internal strife, owing to growing ecclesiastical pretension and an ever-increasing emphasis on discipline for minor details of doctrine or behavior, years of marked blessing in many ways. This was, strange enough as it must have seemed to many “exclusives,” particularly true in connection with those so ruthlessly spurned as neutral or loose brethren. Even J. N. Darby owned that “God in His sovereignty has given them much blessing in the gospel.” Their assemblies multiplied and through the labors of earnest evangelists vast numbers were saved. Tract depots turned out gospel papers by millions and itinerant gospelers went far and wide proclaiming the glad tidings of a present salvation through faith in Christ alone. Hundreds more, leaving all for Him who had saved them, went forth to the regions beyond to establish .missions among the heathen. In China, India, the Straits Settlements, Africa and among the aborigines of New Zealand and the islands of the seas, they lifted up the standard of the cross, unsupported by salaries, and unsustained by mission boards at home. Their trust was in the living God who, through His own people, ministered to them, as “for his name’s sake they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles.” F. S. Arnot, the pioneer of the Zambesi country in Central Africa, and later on Dan Crawford of the “long grass country” were among those whose names shall be in everlasting remembrance.
While the exclusive wing of the brethren turned more to occupation with truth for believers, yet they too had many ardent gospel preachers, such as George Cutting, author of “Safety, Certainty and Enjoyment” (which has had a circulation in many languages of about seven million copies); Dr. W. T. P. Wolston, a physician of Edinburgh, Scotland, for years editor of the Gospel Messenger and author of many books; Charles Stanley of Sheffield, the well-known tract writer; and a host of others. But the exclusives shine as teachers. It was in these years that William Kelly started the Bible Treasury and edified thousands by his clear Scriptural expositions. C. H. Mackintosh and Andrew Miller founded Things New and Old, and Mr. Mackintosh wrote his Notes on the Pentateuch, which D. L. Moody, Major Whittle and others found so helpful. J. B. Stoney edited A Voice to the Faithful and Food for the Flock, periodicals of a somewhat different type, decidedly introspective and subjective, which paved the way for what afterwards came to be known as Ravenism. Others there were of equal note, too numerous to mention.
This Branch of the movement had its missions also, though never in so large a way as the “open” section. But they began and have maintained missionary work in the West Indies, Egypt, South and Central Africa, the Guianas and parts of India, Burma and Japan. On the continent of Europe, in America and the Antipodes the movement spread in a remarkable way, but it is noteworthy that the farther removed assemblies were from British influence the more they prospered. I know some will resent this, but the facts speak for themselves.
There seemed a determination on the part of some to centralize the movement in England and particularly in London, and this has ever proven a source of trouble and weakness.
An independent work of the Spirit of God sprang up in the northeastern part of Scotland after the great revival work of Duncan Matheson; and Donald Ross, Donald Munro, John Smith and many more were literally forced outside of denominational lines and began meetings very similar to those of the earliest brethren, though entirely apart from them. A great wave of blessing swept over Aberdeen and adjoining shires extending to the north of Ireland, and through emigration to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
About 1870, meetings such as these were held in the house of my grandfather, William Ironside of New Deer, Aberdeenshire, and a little later my uncle, Henry W. Ironside, came out to Canada and was the means of interesting his elder brother John, afterwards my father, in the movement. At this time Donald Munro and John Smith came to Ontario.
My father’s uncle by marriage, John Rae, was pastor of a Baptist church in Scotland, when the revival reached his parish and, finding himself in hearty accord with it, he came out to the name of the Lord alone. I have heard him tell how tidings of this work, and the fact that the breaking of bread had begun on simple Scriptural lines among the northeast coast meetings, reached the ears of “Exclusives” at Edinburgh and elsewhere. Rejoicing in this evident work of God, yet fearing anything that looked like “independency,” they sent representative brethren to the place where Mr. Rae and others were ministering, in order to confer with them as to the possibility of full fellowship. But to the eternal shame of these unwise and shortsighted messengers, be it said that they had no more sense than to bring before the leaders and the newly-gathered converts the necessity of judging the Bethesda question ere they could commune together! This demand to judge a matter of which most if not all, had never heard, was indignantly refused and the discredited representatives of a narrow sectarianism and rigid unscriptural exclusivism returned to their homes to warn their assemblies against the new movement as already defiled! What mistakes good men make when tied up to narrow principles and bound by carnal prejudices! It was like the Erskines fighting George Whitefield and declaring his work to be of the devil because he refused to own their confederated churches as “the people of God in Scotland.” I believe it was Mr. Donald Ross who refused to listen to anything reflecting on the character or soundness of George Muller (of whose piety and labors he knew something by report), and thereby brought the matter to a head. George Muller must be judged as a defiled man or the Edinburgh brethren would have nothing to do with Mr. Ross or his associates! What humbling facts are these, to be faced at the judgment seat of Christ!
Sometime later it came to the attention of these men of God that a believer’s conference was to be held in Glasgow and, yearning for fellowship, a number of them, including Mr. Ross, decided to go down and see if the meetings were along the lines they had been learning from the Word of God. Instead of suspicion and a demand to judge a question of which they knew nothing, John R. Caldwell and others warmly received them, feeling that they were already commended by the reports that had reached Glasgow of the gospel they preached and the way they had been used of the Lord. Without any questions as to their attitude in regard to disciplinary matters elsewhere, they were welcomed to communion and accorded the platform, to teach and preach the Word. Thus they became unconsciously linked up with “open-brethrenism.” Had the “exclusives” shown anything like the same common sense and brotherly love instead of meeting them with suspicion their whole after-history might have been different.
In the 70’s many of these preachers from Scotland and the north of Ireland came to America and labored with great blessing, particularly in the province of Ontario and in nearby eastern states. Later the movement extended all over the two countries. Alexander Marshall, author of God’s Way of Salvation, started a paper in Orillia The Gospel Herald, and traveled far and wide, leading hundreds of souls to Christ. Donald Ross was ever a pioneer and spent many years in Canada and the States, until taken home.
Through immigration “exclusive” meetings were also started on this side of the Atlantic and so the division was continued in America that had begun in England. J. N. Darby, G. V. Wigram and others came over to minister the Word, and American and Canadian teachers and preachers left all to go out proclaiming the Word of life and truth. Numbers of clergymen getting in touch with the movement became definitely identified with it, renouncing all ecclesiastical titles and preferment. Of these I may mention Malachi Taylor, Frederick W. and Robert T. Grant, A. H. Rule, and E. S. Lyman; to which list could be added many more.
In Iowa, Paul J. Loizeaux, a French Huguenot by birth whose family had emigrated to America, was awakened and saved, and almost immediately began preaching the grace of God to others. A college professor, cultured and of magnetic personality, he became a spirit-filled and flaming evangelist and went everywhere proclaiming the Word, in self-denying dependence on the Lord. Hearing of Mr. Darby, he arranged to meet him and finding himself already in happy agreement with him, he was received into fellowship and almost immediately afterwards other members of the family followed. One wonders what would have been the result if Mr. Darby (like some of his misguided followers) had insisted that he “judge the question” before he would have anything to do with him! Many know of P. J. Loizeaux as the author of The Lord’s Dealing with the Convict Daniel Mann, a remarkable record of the grace of God to a condemned murderer, whom the beloved author met and led to Christ in Kingston penitentiary.. It is a marvelous story of sovereign mercy and has been circulated by hundreds of thousands and I dare say blessed to myriads of anxious souls. The evangelist and his brother Timothy founded the Bible Truth Depot, first at Vinton, Iowa, and later removed to New York, where Loizeaux Brothers’ publishing plant has been turning out fundamentalist literature for the past fifty-odd years.
The Grants were both Church of England clergymen in Canada and were men of culture and piety. They at first were much opposed to the Brethren and considered their teachings subversive of sound theology and proper ecclesiasticism. But through the literature they were led to change their viewpoint and both resigned their parishes to take their places henceforth among these despised brethren who gave no recognition to clerical titles and looked with disdain on costly ornate houses of worship and set forms of service. R. T. Grant eventually settled in Los Angeles and began tract work and preaching among the Mexicans, out of which developed under God’s good hand what is now known as the Grant Publishing House. The founder never so designated it, but after his departure to be with Christ Mr. W. H. Crabtree, to whom the work was committed, felt it but a fitting tribute to the venerable pioneer to use his name. From the first it was a work of dependence upon God, and marvelous were the stories Mr. Grant could tell of answers to prayer for supplies when none but God and himself knew the circumstances. From the unpretentious establishment out on the western hills have gone forth millions of pages of books and tracts in Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Filipino dialects, English and possibly other languages. While a nominal charge is made to those who are able and willing to pay, the great bulk of it has gone out free and has been supplied as heavenly ammunition to missionary soldiers representing all denominational boards or none. Many who criticize the Brethren for lack of interest in missions little realize how much the mission fields of the world are indebted to them for literature that has brought light, life and liberty to many who were in darkness, dead in trespasses and sins, and bound in cruel fetters of ignorance and superstition. Under Mr. Crabtree’s direction the work is constantly increasing.
But I realize I am anticipating. I was to tell of the events of the years from 1850 to 1880 and I have in my enthusiasm run along on some lines to the present time.
During these years the exclusive wing of the movement was hardening and crystalizing in an ominous way in Great Britain. Mr. Groves’ prophecy was proving terribly and pathetically true. The early Scriptural principles were being displaced by a rigid humanly-devised sectarianism which if left unchecked, would have made the Brethren the narrowest and most bigoted denomination outside the church of Rome. In spite of great activity in preaching and teaching, and widespread circulation of sound literature the spirit of judging one another wrought havoc among the local assemblies. Excommunications for the most trivial things were frequent. Discipline became the great question of questions. Claims were made regarding it that, today, seem almost ludicrous, if one forgets how terribly in earnest these brethren were. Then they become sorrowful indeed.
In one such instance (what was known as the Sheffield case at the time) relative to a man adjudged a trouble-maker and therefore excluded from a local gathering, but who wished to commune elsewhere, Mr. Darby wrote a letter, often referred to since, in which he said:
"I understood the breach arose between you and Rotherham by reason of your rejection of Goodall. With the main facts of his case, I am acquainted, for I took part in what passed, and now allow me to put the case as it stands as to him. I put it merely as a principle. He (or anyone else) is rejected in London. The assembly in London have weighed, and I with them, the case and counted him as either excommunicated or in schism. I put the two cases, for I only speak of the principle. I take part in this act, and hold him to be outside the church of God on earth, being outside (in either case) what represents it in London; I am bound by Scripture to count them so. I come to Sheffield; there he breaks bread, and is-in what? Not in the church of God on earth, for he is not of it in London, and there are not two churches on earth, cannot be, so as to be in one and out of another. How can I refuse to eat with them in London and break bread with him in Sheffield? I have one conscience for London, and another conscience for Sheffield? It is confusion and disorder. I do not apprehend I am mistaken in saying you received Goodall without having the reasons or motives of the Priory or other brethren in London. If you have had their reasons, the case is only the stronger, because you have deliberately condemned the gathering in London and rejected its communion; for he who is outside in London is inside with you."
The letter was addressed to a Mr. Spurr of Sheffield and is dated Feb. 19, 1864. At the time of writing Mr. Darby was on an evangelistic and teaching tour in the south of France. Referring to the letter Mr. Henry Groves exclaims with much feeling:
"Beyond the pale of an anti-Christian communion, no such arrogant assumption has been made; and it has been reserved for Darbyism to develop a system, which, upon the smallest basis, should erect the most tremendous superstructure - a superstructure which, in the intolerance of its claim and the boldness of its assertion, reminds us of the days of papal power in the middle ages. How has the humble gathering of the two or three in the name of Jesus, from a “church in ruins,” been forgotten and set aside by this new dogma! and instead of it a position taken which is destructive of Scriptural standing. Can it be believed possible, that those who started with the acknowledgment of the individual responsibility of all saints to Christ, should dwindle down into the position here taken, so as to assert, that being outside their small assemblies in London is “outside the church of God on earth?” That original principles could be so openly repudiated, and former testimony so entirely forgotten! But so it is. These progressive steps in ecclesiasticism it is important to notice, as showing how soon one who excommunicated Mr. Newton in 1845 on the ground of clericalism, should fall into an ecclesiasticism that embodies in itself worse evils than those condemned in another."
But a fairer judgment of the letter will be arrived at if it be borne in mind that Mr. Darby never for a moment held or taught that the little assemblies among which he moved were the church of God on earth. What he did hold most tenaciously was that every assembly of believers should always act as representing the whole church in that particular place. If such a company acted in righteous discipline therefore, the person put away, should, he believed, be debarred from communion everywhere until restored. This would hold equally true if the Christians putting the evil-doer away, in obedience to the Word, were known as Baptists, Wesleyans or by any other name; as well as in the case of an assembly of Brethren.
This principle seems fair and sound, though I recognize it is one that needs to be most carefully guarded, as further chapters will abundantly prove. It is a very easy thing to find an assembly or church moved by prejudice or stirred by false accusations ignorantly excommunicating the wrong party and then just as ignorantly insisting that its action be recognized by all. But I fear it will be said that I am trying to teach principles where I set out only to narrate facts, so I forbear.
In the year 1866 a breach occurred between Mr. Darby himself and some of his most intimate friends, over his matured views on the sufferings of Christ. He published sometime before this various papers purporting to examine into the depths of Scripture’s teaching as to this most solemn of all themes whose mystery grows the more one meditates upon it. Ever since the Newton controversy the extent and nature of Christ’s sufferings had been more or less to the fore in the teaching of the Brethren. ‘Mr. Darby’s book on the subject is still available and I refer any really earnest inquirer to the volume in question. It gave great offense to many at the time of publication. W. H. Dorman and Captain Percy Hall called upon Mr. Darby to disavow its teachings, and as he refused they withdrew from fellowship, followed by Mr. Thomas Newberry (afterward editor of The Englishman’s Bible). These brethren wrote vigorously against the author of The Sufferings of Christ, charging him with having fallen into practically the same errors as Mr. Newton. Captain Hall definitely wrote:
"So like are they to Mr. Newton’s doctrines, that even had they not been as bad in themselves as I judge them to be, I should be quite unable to maintain the place of what is called testimony against Mr. Newton while connected with those who hold what I think to be as bad."
Mr. Dorman and Mr. Newberry charged him with positive heterodoxy in teaching a third-class of sufferings that were not atoning, and insisted that he had taught that atonement was made by “wrath-bearing” rather than by “blood-shedding.”
Yet as one goes over the whole subject afresh it seems plain that each of them completely misunderstood Mr. Darby. On the other hand it must be confessed that his language was most ambiguous, so that it is difficult for another to make clear exactly what he really did teach. But the three classes of suffering are practically these:
(a) Christ suffered pre-eminently when He poured out His soul unto death, to make atonement for our sins. In this He was absolutely alone. In the nature of the case no one could share it with Him. He was the antitypical ark going on ahead into the river of judgment to turn back its waters that His people might pass through unscathed.
(b) He suffered as a martyr for righteousness’ sake - and this of course was not atoning. It was what man laid upon Him and in which others have suffered with Him before and since.
(c) But He also suffered in His deep and holy sympathies, entering into the anguish and sorrows of His people - especially of the remnant of Israel in the last days, beneath the sense of God’s displeasure because of their sin. He entered into this as feeling for them anticipatively. This last is the “third-class, non-atoning sufferings” which caused the charge of fundamental error to be hurled at Mr. Darby. I may have awkwardly expressed it, but it is what I gather from reading his book.
As to the charge that he taught atonement by wrath-bearing and apart from blood-shedding it seems plain to me that only one who overlooked the great mass of his writings on the subject could ever make such a claim.
One might almost as well declare the same of Isaiah because in his great atonement chapter (the 53rd) it is the truth of Christ’s soul being “made an offering for sin” that is dwelt on and nothing mentioned about the actual shedding of blood. The same might be said of Psalm 22.
The controversy became most heated, and Mr. Darby offered to withdraw altogether from fellowship rather than be the means of dividing brethren again, but the other leaders refused to listen to this, and he was prevailed upon to remain. As a result Mr. Dorman left the “exclusives,” declaring that they were now in the position that Mr. Newton’s followers were in 1848. But as the years have passed and Mr. Darby’s doctrinal views on this much-discussed and most sacred subject have become better understood there are few indeed of those who really investigate the matter who do not see in it precious truth to be accepted with reverence and adoring love rather than dangerous error as Mr. Dorman thought.
Had Mr. Darby been less vehement in his denunciation of others he might not have been subjected to such a severe grilling himself. But he bore it with remarkable meekness, his adversaries themselves being judges. As he grew older he mellowed considerably and it is evident that he began to look with dread upon the high exclusive pretensions of many of his followers. One thing he always insisted on; the title of every godly believer to a place at the table of the Lord. The Bethesda split made it difficult to act on this, as it led many to say, “If we cannot receive from assemblies very similar to our own, how can we receive from churches where much that we value is altogether repudiated?” But Mr. Darby never insisted on the refusal of all “open” brethren as such. His letters show that he always tried to distinguish between leaders and those led. That this seems hardly consistent with the “leaven” theory does not alter the fact. The following letter gives his views as to reception; it was written just a few years before his death:
"The question is, as to reception of saints to partake of the table of the Lord with us, whether any can be admitted who are not formally and regularly amongst us. It is not whether we exclude persons unsound in faith or ungodly in practice: not whether we, deliberately walking with those who are unsound and ungodly, are not in the same guilt-not clear in the matter. The first is unquestionable: the last, brethren have insisted on, and I among them, at very painful cost to ourselves. This is, to me, all clear and plain from Scripture. There may be subtle pleas to get evil allowed, but we have always been firm, and God I believe has fully owned it. The question is not these: but suppose a person known to be godly and sound in faith, who has not left some ecclesiastical system - nay, thinks Scripture favors an ordained ministry, but is glad when the occasion occurs - suppose we alone are in the place, or he is not in connection with any other body in the place, staying with a brother, or the like; is he to be excluded because he is of some system as to which his conscience is not enlightened - nay, which he may think more right? He is a godly member of the body, known as such. Is he to be shut out? If so, the degree of light is title to communion, and the unity of the body is denied by the assembly which refused him. The principle of meeting as members of Christ walking in godliness is given up, agreement with us is made the rule, and The Assembly becomes a sect with its members like any other. They meet on their principles, Baptist or other-you on yours, and if they do not belong to you formally as such, you do not let them in. The principle of brethren’s meetings is gone, and another sect is made, say with more light, and that is all. It may give more trouble, require more care to treat every case on its merits, on the principle of the unity of all of Christ’s members, than say “You do not belong to us; you cannot come.” But the whole principle of meeting is gone. The path is not of God."
I have heard, and I partly believe it, for I have heard some rash and violent people say it elsewhere, that the various sectarian celebrations of the supper are tables of devils. But this proves only the unbrokenness and ignorance of him who says it. The heathen altars are called tables of devils because, and expressly because, what they offered they offered (according to Deu_32:17) to devils, and not to God; and to call Christian assemblies by profession, ignorant it may be of ecclesiastical truth, and hence meeting wrongly, tables of devils is monstrous nonsense, and shows the bad state of him who so talks. No sober man, no honest man, can deny that Scripture means something totally different.
I have heard - I do not know whether it be true - that it has been said that the brethren in England act on this ground. If this has been said, it is simply and totally false. There have been new gatherings formed during my absence in America which I have never visited, but the older ones, long walking as brethren, I have known from the beginning have always received known Christians, and everywhere I have no doubt the newer ones too, and so in every country. I have known individuals take up the thought, one at any rate at Toronto, but the assembly always received true Christians; three broke bread in this way the last Lord’s day I was in London. There cannot be too much care as to holiness and truth: the spirit is the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit of truth. But ignorance of ecclesiastical truth is not a ground of excommunication, where the conscience and the walk is undefiled. If a person came and made it a condition to be allowed to go to both, he would not come in simplicity in the unity of the body; I know it to be evil, and cannot allow it, and he has no right to impose any conditions on the church of God. It must exercise discipline as cases arise according to the Word. Nor indeed do I think a person regularly going from one to another systematically can be honest in going to either; he is setting up to be superior to both, and condescending to each. That is not, in that act, a pure heart.
May the Lord guide you. Remember, you are acting as representing the whole church of God, and if you depart from the right as to the principle of meeting, separating yourselves from it is to be a local sect on your own principles. In all that concerns faithfulness, God is my witness, I seek no looseness, but Satan is busy to lead us to one side or the other, to destroy the largeness of the unity of the body, or to make it mere looseness in practice and doctrine; we must not fall into one in avoiding the other. Reception of all true saints is what gives force to the exclusion of those walking loosely. If I exclude all who walk godily as well, who do not follow with us, it loses its force, for those who are godly are shut out too-there is membership of brethren. Membership of an assembly is unknown to Scripture. It is members of Christ’s body. If people must be all of you, it is practically membership of your body. The Lord keep us from it. That is simply dissenting ground.”
It is interesting to know that while in Chicago on one occasion Mr. Darby was invited by D. L. Moody to give a series of Bible readings in Farwell Hall. These were attended by many lovers of the Word of God, but unfortunately suddenly came to an abrupt end as the two clashed over the question of the freedom of the will. Mr. Darby held to what Mr. Moody considered extreme Calvinism on this point, affirming that so perverted was man’s will he could not “will” even to be saved and he based his contention largely on the texts “Which were born not ... of the will of the flesh . . . but of God”; and, “It is not of him that willeth . . . but of God that sheweth mercy.” Mr. Moody insisted that man as a responsible person was appealed to by God to turn to Him and would be condemned if he did not. “Ye will not come to me that ye might have life,” said Jesus to those who refused His message. “Whosoever will” is the great gospel invitation. The controversy became so heated one day that Mr. Darby suddenly closed his Bible and refused to go on, thus losing one of the great opportunities of his life, as it will seem to many.
In after days he and F. W. Grant clashed, though not openly, over the same subject. Separating from Mr. Moody, Darby did not hesitate to condemn Mr. Moody’s work in his characteristic way. In his letters he warned his followers against it as likely to bring a great increase of worldliness into the church. It is a striking instance of how prejudice can blind and mislead an otherwise great man. Were he living today how surprised he might be to see the work begun by the great warm-hearted evangelist a veritable bulwark against both worldliness and apostasy. Mr. Moody ever confessed his indebtedness to the writings of the Brethren for much help in the understanding of the Word, but it was C. H. Mackintosh and Charles Stanley who had the greatest influence. The writings of the former he always highly commended.
Another American leader whom Mr. Darby met was Dr. Daniel Steele, the great Methodist divine, and advocate of Wesleyan perfectionism. He was at first greatly delighted with Mr. Darby’s downright earnestness of purpose and vast knowledge of the Word and attended many of his readings in Boston. But he could not accept the doctrines of grace and considered Mr. Darby’s teaching on the two natures and the believer’s eternal security utterly false.
One day when Mr. Darby was expounding 1Jn_1:7 showing that the subject dwelt on there is “where you walk, not how,” Dr. Steele interrupted with the question, “But, Brother Darby, suppose a real Christian turned his back on the light, what then?” “Then,” replied Mr. Darby, “the light would shine upon his back!” Later Dr. Steele wrote a book against the brethren, called Antinomian-ism Revived, or Plymouth Brethrenism Exposed. This was ably answered by F. W. Grant in Christian Holiness: Its Roots and Fruits, which is now out of print.