Among the various manifestations of the work of the Spirit of God in the last century, reviving and enlightening His people, there was one sphere of Christian fellowship and activity, which had its inception in the early part of the nineteenth century, that has had a far wider influence upon Christians generally than many realize. I refer to what is commonly known as the Brethren movement, or by others denominated Plymouth Brethrenism. Because of the far-reaching influence of this distinctive school of Christian thought it may not be unprofitable to inquire into the causes of the movement, to seek to delineate some of its outstanding features; discover, if possible, the reasons for the antagonisms it has provoked in many quarters, and endeavor to make plain its essential contribution to the fundamentalism of the present day. For that there is a connection between this movement and the present revolt against modernism should be plain to any instructed student of conditions. The Brethren as a whole are fundamentalists. Their fellowship is of such a character that modernism could not be tolerated among them without destroying their assemblies. By far the great majority of outstanding fundamentalist leaders readily acknowledge their indebtedness, in measure at least, to the oral or written ministry of the Brethren, and only the facts that division and dissension have wrought such havoc in their ranks (causing them to seem so hopelessly divided), and that there has appeared among them the manifestation in some quarters of such unexpected sectarian bias, has kept numbers of these from open identification with the assemblies professedly gathered only in or to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That there was a very definite action of the Holy Spirit in exercising many widely separated believers simultaneously along similar lines, eventually bringing them into one outward fellowship, a careful study of the origin of the movement makes plain. As early as between 1812 and 1820, it is proven that letters passed between a group of Christians in New York City, seeking after a simpler and more Scriptural fellowship than they were enjoying, and another group of believers in Great Britain who were also dissatisfied with existing conditions. Some from among these companies were eventually identified with the Brethren, but the true beginning of the movement seems to have been in Ireland in the year 1825.
On missionary fields in South America, notably British Guiana, and in far-away Rangoon, India, similar movements began either at or a little later than this time, and eventually letters were exchanged which showed a remarkable unanimity of views among very widely-separated groups. This does not alter the fact that we must go to southern Ireland for the first public testimony to the conviction which many had timidly expressed.
Though the name Plymouth early became prominent, it was not in Plymouth, England, but in Dublin, Ireland, that the first meeting of the kind was formed. Similar assemblies were shortly afterward found in Plymouth, Bristol, London, and other places; though some of the members composing these groups knew nothing of others similarly gathered together until after the lapse of months or even years.
The first three decades of the nineteenth century were times of much unrest in the Church of England and in the various nonconformist bodies of Great Britain and Ireland. The Wesleyan revival and similar movements had brought new life into communities that had been cold and formal for years. A spirit of inquiry and yearning after better things was abroad. Christians were eagerly searching their Bibles for fuller light as to their responsibilities, both individual and collective. The Napoleonic wars had directed attention to the prophetic Scriptures as never before, and the truth of the Lord’s imminent return was rediscovered after it had been seemingly lost for centuries. That much fanaticism was linked with this there can be no question; nevertheless there was a modicum of truth which, followed out, led to a fuller understanding of the prophetic Word. What was afterward misnamed Higher Criticism (since utterly discredited by archeological findings) was just beginning to attract attention, and real Christians were horrified to find unconverted state-paid clergymen readily taking up the new-views, and some, like Bishop Colenso, a little later, even deliberately attacking the authenticity of the Holy Scriptures from within the church itself. This led many to despair of the organized church as the “pillar and ground of the truth.”
The Tractarian movement with its trend toward Rome, the Irvingite heresy attempting to revive the gifts and the apostolate, the many smaller bodies formed by frequent dissensions among the followers of Wesley and Whitefield, the troubles of the churches of Scotland, and the threatening disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, all tended to cast true believers more upon God and the Word of His grace and to lead them “to seek of him a right way for themselves and their children.” And so it came to pass that out of the unsettled state of the professing body, there grew up several very marked movements within the next half century tending to magnify the name of the Lord Jesus, to exalt and honor the Holy Spirit, to reassert the authority of the Bible as the all-sufficient rule of Christian faith and practice, and to carry the gospel energetically to a lost world, independent of clerical pretension. The great world-wide missionary movement is one of these. The Bible societies may be looked at collectively as another. And what is sometimes called “Brethrenism” is a third, and I am persuaded not the least in point of interest. For though the Brethren assemblies have never been large in numbers as compared with the great denominations of Protestantism, their propaganda has been world-wide, and thousands have accepted their views on many lines who are not openly identified with them.
The names of seven men have come down to us as in some sense the founders under God of this movement or as some would call them the first of the Brethren.
In using the term in this sense, I only do so in order to avoid continual circumlocution and lengthy explanations; for those who hold the principles of gathering which I purpose examining in these papers, have from the first refused any names that would be distinctive or that could not be applied rightfully to all of God’s people. Therefore, they speak of themselves as brethren, believers, Christians, saints, or use any other term common to all members of the body of Christ. With this explanation, I trust I shall give offense to none in speaking of them hereafter as the Brethren, and using the capital in order to make clear who are intended, though its use is utterly condemned by these Christians themselves.*(1)
The seven above referred to are Edward Cronin, Edward Wilson, H. Hutchinson, William Stokes, J. Parnell afterwards Lord Congleton, J. G. Bellett and John N. Darby. Of these it would seem that Edward Cronin was the chosen instrument to first affect the others, or at least to first act on his convictions, though the last two had been thinking and studying along the same lines independently of the rest for several years.
Mr. Cronin was a young dental student who had been brought up as a Roman Catholic, but had been graciously enlightened by the Spirit of God, and led to personal faith in Christ and into the knowledge of peace with God through resting upon the atoning work of the Lord Jesus. Sometime after his conversion, on account of ill health he was sent to Dublin. This was in the early twenties. After taking his degree as a doctor, he remained in Dublin until about the year 1836, and devoted the major part of his life afterwards to the ministry of the Word. It was during these years from 1825 onward that the movement of which I write really had its inception.
Like many another divinely-quickened soul who for conscience sake had turned his back upon the seeming unity of the papal system, Edward Cronin was greatly disturbed and perplexed by the many divisions of Protestantism. It grieved him much to find Christians of like precious faith divided into ofttimes warring camps, (for sectarian feeling was running high in the early part of the nineteenth century), and so powerless in the face of such desperate need. The argument that they were but like various regiments or battalions in one great army seemed valueless to him when he found them turning their guns, so to speak, upon each other instead of unitedly facing the common foe.
Yet all alike welcomed him when he went among them at first, and rejoiced at his deliverance from Rome. He was allowed to communicate with them at the table of the Lord as a visitor, but when his stay in Dublin became prolonged, he was urged to choose a definite church and settle down there, as church tramps were looked upon with great disfavor and special membership was insisted upon. Which church to choose troubled him exceedingly, but eventually he became a member of the Independents at a meeting on York Street, and sat under the ministry of the Reverend W. Cooper. His mind, however, was not at rest, and he was unable to understand why the one church founded by the risen Lord should be so broken and divided outwardly. At last he decided carefully to read the New Testament in looking for light on this particular subject. As he weighed the utterances of the apostolic writers and studied the history of the early church, he saw no place for denominationalism, as such, in the Word of God. It became plainer and plainer to him that the one church builded on Christ Himself, of which He was the Corner Stone and in which every believer is a living stone placed there by the Holy Spirit, was the only church contemplated in the Bible. He saw that this church was also spoken of as the body of Christ of which the risen Lord is the glorified head, and that believers ever since Pentecost have been baptized by the Spirit into this body, thus becoming members of Christ and members one of another. “The Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” Membership of denominations, as such, he could not find in Scripture, though he did see that there were local churches, made up of the members of the one body of Christ gathered together for fellowship, for instruction, for the breaking of bread and for prayer in local companies, but apparently one on the ground of the body, receiving one another as such and not as subscribing to special tests or forming minor organizations within the one great organism. How much of this was clear to him at once it would be hard to say, but he soon began to speak of what he was learning to others. He also found growing up within himself a feeling of repugnance to a one-man ministry, for it seemed to him that there was no place for this in the New Testament church, but that gifted men exercised their ministry as led by the Spirit in dependence on the Lord, and that the idea of one minister set over a church was foreign to Scripture. He did not mean by this to deny that in many places the responsibility for preaching or teaching the Word might be largely restricted to some one gifted individual, but he thought he saw a different order for worship meetings, where the Spirit of God might use whom He would to the edification of all, if believers were subject to His guidance.
Writing of his early experiences years afterwards, he says: “This liberty was continued till it was found that I became resident in Dublin. I was informed that I could no longer be allowed to break bread with any of them without special membership. This left me in separation from them for several months, and then feeling unable to attend their meetings from the growing feeling of opposition to one-man ministry, I was left exposed to the charges of irreligion and antinomianism. This affected me to such an extent that it was a season of deep exercise of heart, and separation from many that I loved in the Lord; and to avoid the appearance of evil, I spent many a Lord’s day morning under a tree or a hay-stack during the time of their services. My name having been publicly denounced from one of their pulpits (Rev. W. Cooper’s), one of their deacons, Edward Wilson (assistant secretary to the Bible Society), was constrained to protest against this step, which led ultimately to his leaving also. Thus separated, we two met for breaking of bread and prayer in one of his rooms, until his departure for England.” This was in the year 1825 and, therefore, may be said to be the first meeting on the ground afterward taken by the Brethren. After Mr. Wilson left; two of Cronin’s cousins, the Misses Drury, also separated from the chapel at York Street because of sympathy with their relative’s views, and they were joined by a Mr. Tims who was a bookseller in Grafton Street. These four met together for the breaking of bread regularly in the back parlor of Edward Cronin’s house in Lower Pembroke Street. Others began to hear of the strange little meeting with what many considered, the narrow and bigoted views, and various persons became affected by the same teaching in regard to the unity of the body and the presence of the Holy Spirit on earth to direct and guide in ministry. It was in 1827 that H. Hutchinson found them out, and as the meeting had now increased somewhat in members, he offered the use of a larger room in Fitzwilliam Square. Very little now is known of Mr. Hutchison, but he was evidently a gracious holy man, for J. G. Bellett wrote of him in after years: “His memory is very dear to me and much honored by me.”
It was in 1827 that Mr. Bellett and J. N. Darby became definitely identified with the little meeting started by Edward Cronin. The first of these became in after years a well-known writer on Scriptural themes, but not of the kind that appeals to the mass. His books are deeply spiritual, meditative in character, rich in their ministry of Christ, and manifesting an insight into the mysteries of God but rarely found in this workaday world. Bellett had literally steeped himself in the truths of Scripture, and his wrapt soul delighted in the Saviour therein revealed. No one can read his “Evangelists,” “Patriarchs,” or other “Meditations,” particularly the “Son of God” and the “Moral Glory of the Lord Jesus Christ,” without a spiritual quickening, if at all a lover of Him who is the central theme of the Book of God. Mr. Bellett has left on record a letter giving an account of the movement from the time of his connection with it, though not going back to the actual beginning in 1825. We shall quote from this letter later.
John Nelson Darby was at this time a young curate of the Church of Ireland. Born in 1800 he was, at twenty-seven, a devoted laborer in work and doctrine, whose yearning soul made him count no effort too great if he might be a blessing to others. He had passed through deep waters ere he found his feet firmly planted on the Rock of Ages, and he realized how much people needed establishment in the Word of grace. He says himself that “There were three years in my life when the only Scripture that gave me any comfort was the 88th Psalm, and that was because there was not a ray of comfort in it; yet I was persuaded a saint had written it, or it would not be in the Bible.” For a time he had hopefully followed the will-o’-the-wisp of Tractarianism, and as a high churchman, he looked with a bigoted youth’s disdain upon all other professing Christians, “hoping they might find grace through the uncovenanted mercies of God,” but fearful that they were living and dying “without the benefit of clergy.” One who knew him well in his early days, and of whom Mr. Darby had high hopes at that time, but who became one of the first of the modernists, Francis William Newman, brother of Cardinal Newman, has written of him under the title of the “Irish Clergyman”:
“This (John Nelson Darby) was a young relative of his, a most remarkable man, who rapidly gained an immense sway over me. I shall henceforth call him the ‘Irish Clergyman.’ His ‘bodily presence’ was indeed ‘weak.’ A fallen cheek, a bloodshot eye, crippled limbs resting on crutches, a seldom-shaven beard, a shabby suit of clothes, and a generally-neglected person, drew at first pity, with wonder to see such a figure in a drawing-room. It has been reported that a person in Limerick offered him a halfpenny, mistaking him for a beggar; and if not true, the story was yet well invented. This young man had taken high honors at Dublin University, and had studied for the bar, where, under the auspices of his eminent kinsman, he had excellent prospects; but his conscience would not allow him to take a brief, lest he should be selling his talents to defeat justice. With keen logical powers, he had warm sympathy, solid judgment of character, thoughtful tenderness and total self-abandonment. He before long took holy orders, and became an indefatigable curate in the mountains of Wicklow (Ireland). Every evening he sallied forth to teach in the cabins, and roving far and wide over mountains, and amid bogs, was seldom home before midnight. By such exertions his strength was undermined, and he so suffered in his limbs that not lameness only, but yet more serious results were feared. He did not fast on purpose, but his long walks through wild country and amongst indigent people, inflicted on him much severe deprivations; moreover, as he ate whatever food offered itself (food unpalatable and often indigestible to him), his whole frame might have vied in emaciation with a monk of La Trappe . . .
“I was at first offended by his apparent affectation of a careless exterior, but I soon understood that in no other way could he gain equal access to the lowest orders, and that he was moved, not by asceticism, nor by ostentation, but by a self-abandonment fruitful of consequences. He had practically given up all reading but the Bible; and no small part of his movement soon took the form of dissuasion from all other voluntary study. In fact, I had myself more and more concentrated my religious reading on this one book; still I could not help feeling the value of a cultivated mind. Against this my new eccentric friend (having himself enjoyed no mean advantages of cultivation) directed his keenest attacks. I remember once saying to him: ‘To desire to be rich is absurd; but if I were a father of children, I should wish to be rich enough to secure them a good education.’ He replied: ‘If I had children, I would as soon see them break stones on the road as do anything else, if only I could secure to them the gospel and the grace of God.’ I was unable to say Amen; but I admired his unflinching consistency, for now, as always, all he said was based on texts aptly quoted and logically enforced. He made me more and more ashamed of political economy, and moral philosophy, and all science, all of which ought to be ‘counted dross for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord.’ For the first time in my life, I saw a man earnestly turning into reality the principles which others professed with their lips only . . .
“Never before had I seen a man so resolved that no word of the New Testament should be a dead letter to him. I once said: ‘But do you really think that no part of the New Testament may have been temporary in its object? For instance— What should we have lost if St. Paul had never written, ‘The cloke that I left at Troas bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments?’ He answered with the greatest promptitude, T should have lost something, for it was exactly that verse which alone saved me from selling my little library. No! every word, depend upon it, is from the Spirit, and is for eternal service.’
“In spite of the strong revulsion which I felt against some of the peculiarities of this remarkable man, I for the first time in my life found myself under the dominion of a superior. When I remember how even those bowed down before him who had been in the place of parents — accomplished and experienced minds — I cease to wonder in die retrospect that he riveted me in such a bondage.”
This young man was the youngest son of John Darby of Leap Castle, King’s County, Ireland. He was educated with a view to the Irish bar at Westminster and Trinity College, Dublin, but deciding not to practice law, he took orders in the Church, much to his father’s disgust. Mr. Bellet writes as follows:
“It was in the year 1827 that the late Archbishop of Dublin, in a charge delivered to the clergy of his diocese, recommended that a petition should go up to the legislature seeking increased protection from them in the discharge of their ministerial duties, as the teachers of religion in these lands. John Darby was then a curate in the County of Wicklow, and often did I visit him in his mountain parish. This charge of his diocesan greatly moved him; he could not understand the common Christianity of such a principle, as it assumed that ministers of Christ in doing their business as witnesses against the world for a rejected Jesus, should, on meeting the resistance of the enemy, turn round and seek security from the world. This greatly offended him. He printed his objections to such a principle in a pretty large pamphlet, and without publishing it or putting it on sale, sent copies of it to all the clergy of the diocese. All this had a very decided influence on his mind, for I remember him at one time a very exact Churchman (as I may speak), but it was evident his mind had now received a shock, and it was never again what it had been. However, he continued in his mountain curacy, at times, as a clergyman, visiting different parts of the country, either to preach sermons or to speak at some meeting of the religious societies.”
He was thus just in the state of mind that would make Mr. Cronin’s views agreeable to him, and he and Bellett together with others met frequently with Cronin to study the Word of God. On a number of occasions, while still a clergyman in the church, Mr. Darby joined the little company for the breaking of bread, but as the months went on, he felt the incongruity of going on as a clergyman, and he withdrew from the Church of Ireland and identified himself wholly with the Brethren.*(2)
It was a little later that another earnest man threw in his lot with them—Mr. J. Parnell, afterwards Lord Congleton. He was an enthusiastic adherent from the first and soon became a leader among the Brethren. A man of singular devotion to Christ, and yet judged by some to be of extreme and erratic tendencies, his influence was largely felt in the movement. It is painful to have to record that in after years he and his early associates felt they could no longer work together.
Of W. Stokes I have not been able to learn anything more than that he was prominently linked with the company from about the beginning of 1827.
It is a mistake to suppose, as some have thought, that the Brethren movement was founded upon particular views of prophecy. It was not until about 1830 that the truth of the coming of the Lord began to grip these earnest men as they searched the Word of God. What particularly marked them from the beginning was their belief that there is no Biblical warrant for the idea that the Lord’s Supper was ever intended to be the badge or exclusive possession of a sect or party; that no ordained clergyman needed to preside in order to render the remembrance of Christ in this way valid, but that any two or three gathered together in the name of Jesus, whether for prayer, worship, or to take the feast of love, were guaranteed His presence in the midst. They did not see in Scripture any evidence of a clerical system in the early church at all, but recognized that the Word taught the priesthood of all true believers having access into the holiest by the blood of Christ. Acting upon this, after much exercise and in fear and trembling at first, they began the breaking of bread on the ground of membership in the body of Christ alone. Neither were they actuated by what has come to be known in after years as “separation truth.” Their concern at first was not so much with separating from the evil that was coming into the denominations, but rather that they desired to find a simple and Scriptural basis upon which all Christians could meet in happy fellowship. Nor did they intend to judge or condemn others, because meeting apart. This is made very manifest by Mr. Darby’s earliest tract on the subject, “The Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ.” This was published in 1827 and aroused a spirit of inquiry in many places as to the possibility of carrying out the simple principles it enunciated. There is no doubt that Mr. Darby himself saw much more clearly than others of the little company the rising tide of apostasy, and already the loyal Christian’s responsibility to separate from evil when fully manifested, was becoming clear to his mind; but it was not until after the Brethren movement was thoroughly under way that he himself set forth his views in a paper entitled “Separation from Evil God’s Principle of Unity.” In fact, at the very beginning, he himself dreaded anything that looked like schism from the established order. Edward Cronin makes this clear in the following paragraphs which I have taken from a letter he wrote years afterwards, giving his recollections of the origin of the movement:
“At this time J. G. B. and J. N. D. were more or less affected by the general state of things in the religious world, but were unprepared to come out in entire separation, and looked suspiciously at our movement, still able to attend and minister in the Church of England, as well as to come occasionally to our little assembly.
“We soon began to feel, as humbler brethren were added to us, that the house in Fitzwilliam Square was unsuited, which led me to take a large auction room in Angier Street for our use on Sundays, and, oh! the blessed seasons to my soul, with J. Parnell, William Stokes and others, while moving the furniture aside and laying the simple table with the bread and wine on Saturday evening — seasons of joy never to be forgotten, for surely we had the Master’s smile and sanction in the testimony of such a movement as this was.
“About this time G. V. W. [that is, George V. Wigram] paid us a visit from England, having some intention of joining the Mission party to Bagdad. From that time to my leaving Dublin (1836) there were continual additions of evangelical Christians, all of us with very little intelligence as to the real character of God’s movement among us.
“Special membership, as it is called among dissenters, was the primary and most offensive condition of things to our minds, so that our first assembling was really marked as a small company of evangelical malcontents. We all felt free up to this time, and long afterwards, to make arrangements among ourselves as to who should distribute the bread and wine, and take other ministries in the assembly. We were also, from ignorance or indifference, careless as to conscience and godly care one of another. I am led the more to make this observation owing to the frequent way in which some of the early brethren who are now in separation from us accuse us of departure from first principles in our present actings. Nevertheless, I am convinced that even at that time we would no more have tolerated false doctrine than now. The comfort of many who loved us, but never met with us, was our staunch orthodoxy as regards the mystery of the Godhead and the doctrine of grace and godliness.
“I would remark here a feature in the ways of God in the beginning of this movement, how in and through obscure individuals, and in distant places and diverse positions, the substance of His grace and truth dwelt in us; and though, as I have said before, with little intelligence, led us in paths more or less agreeable to the mind of God. It is striking that those able and honored brethren, J. N. D., J. G. B. and G. V. W.,*(3) did not constitute the embryo of it, while God has used, and continued to use them, in divine intelligence and development of principles as to His church, etc.
“I have repeated somewhat on this point, owing to the charge alluded to above; whereas God’s ways with us were, and are still, a gradual unfolding of His truth, discovered to us in various practical details. So that what in the beginning was no bigger, as it were, than a man’s hand (when we were few in number, and weak and defective in understanding), has expanded itself to meet the necessities of thousands, gathered on the same principles and to the praise and glory of his grace.”
The references in this letter to Mr. Wigram and to the Bagdad Mission will be more fully explained in the next chapter.
(1)* I have often said myself and repeat here, that I am only one of “the brethren” as long as no capital B is used.
(2)* For Mr. Darby’s own account of his early experiences, see Appendix A.
(3)* The Brethren have from the beginning been in the habit of designating their leading teachers by the initials of their names with the perhaps mistaken idea that they were hiding the identity of the human instruments in order that God Himself might get the greater glory.