After the publication of Mr. Darby’s pamphlet on the Nature and Unity of the Church of God, to which reference was made in the preceding chapter, inquiries began to reach him from Christians in many parts regarding the practical outworking of what he there set forth. The result was the establishment within the next few years of a number of similar gatherings to the one already under way in Dublin. There was no attempt at first to enforce uniformity of procedure in these meetings, and if I may be allowed to record here my profound conviction as to the chief cause of the apparent failure of the testimony of the Brethren and their eventual breakup into many different groups, I should say that it was through their failing to maintain the principle that unity is not necessarily uniformity. If the Brethren had been content to allow the Spirit of God to have His own way in each place, and had not made the attempt to enforce common methods of procedure and church order upon the assemblies as they did some years afterwards, they might have still presented a marvelous testimony to the unity of the Spirit. That this was Mr. Darby’s original thought, the following quotations from the pamphlet in question will make plain:
In the first place, it is not a formal union of the outward professing bodies that is desirable; indeed it is surprising that reflecting Protestants should desire it: far from doing good, I conceive it would be impossible that such a body could be at all recognized as the church of God. It would be a counterpart to Romish unity; we should have the life of the church and the power of the Word lost, and the unity of spiritual life utterly excluded. Whatever plans may be in the order of Providence, we can only act upon the principles of grace; and true unity is the unity of the Spirit, and it must be wrought by the operation of the Spirit ... If the view that we have taken of the state of the church be correct, we may adjudge that he is an enemy to the work of the Spirit of God who seeks the interests of any particular denomination; and that those who believe in “the power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” ought carefully to keep from such a spirit; for it is drawing back the church to a state occasioned by ignorance and non-subjection to the Word, and making a duty of its worst and most anti-Christian results. This is a most subtle and prevailing mental disease, “he followeth not us”; even when men are really Christians . . .
Accordingly, the outward symbol and instrument of unity is the partaking of the Lord’s Supper, “for we being many are one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread.” And what does St. Paul declare to be the true intent and testimony of that rite? That whensoever we eat of that bread and drink of that cup, we “do show the Lord’s death till he come.” Here then are found the character and life of the church-that into which it is called-that in which the truth of its existence subsists, and in which alone is true unity .
Am I desiring believers to correct the churches? I am beseeching them to correct themselves by living up, in some measure, to the hope of their calling. I beseech them to show their faith in the death of the Lord Jesus, and their boast in the glorious assurance which they have obtained by it, by conformity to it-to shew their faith in his coming, and practically to look for it, by a life suitable to desires fixed upon it. Let them testify against the secularity and blindness of the church; but let them be consistent in their own conduct. “Let their moderation be known unto all men.” While the spirit of the world prevails, spiritual union cannot subsist. Few believers are at all aware how the spirit which gradually opened the door to the dominion of apostasy, still sheds its wasting and baneful influence in the professing church . . .
But there is a practical part for believers to act. They can lay their hands upon many things in themselves practically inconsistent with the power of that day-things which show that their hope is not in it-conformity to the world, which shows that the cross has not its proper glory in their eyes . . . Further, unity is the glory of the church; but unity to secure and promote our own interests is not the unity of the church, but confederacy and denial of the nature and hope of the church. Unity, that is of the church, is the unity of the Spirit, and can only be in the things of the Spirit, and therefore can only be perfected in spiritual persons . . . But what are the people of the Lord to do? Let them wait upon the Lord, and wait according to the teaching of His Spirit, and in conformity to the image, by the life of the Spirit, of His Son .
But if any will say, If you see these things, what are you doing yourself? I can only deeply acknowledge the strange and infinite shortcomings, and sorrow and mourn over them; I acknowledge the weakness of my faith, but I earnestly seek for direction. And, let me add, when so many who ought to guide go their own way, those who would have gladly followed are made slow and feeble, lest they should in any wise err from the straight path, and hinder their service, though their souls may be safe. But I would earnestly repeat what I said before: the unity of the church cannot possibly be found till the common object of those who are members of it is the glory of the Lord, who is the Author and Finisher of its faith-a glory which is to be made known in its brightness at his appearing, when the fashion of this world shall pass away . . . The Lord Himself says, “That they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them, that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me” (John 17).
From these extracts it must be plain to any unprejudiced reader that Mr. Darby at this time had no thought of forming a confederacy of societies, organized or unorganized, all of which were to be more or less dominated by some one particular rule. It was rather that he and his associates in those early days realized that the presence of the Holy Spirit on earth to direct and guide in the church of God was in great measure ignored in the existing organizations. He would call Christians back to dependence on the Word and the Spirit, and each group gathering together to the name of Jesus alone would be dependent on their glorified Head and His Vicar on earth to guide them through the Word on all matters of procedure.
By 1830 there were some five or six little meetings in Ireland, and Mr. Darby had been invited to go over to England to meet some Christians there who were similarly exercised. It was not, however, until 1832 that he began a work in Plymouth, having gone there at the earnest request of Mr. Benjamin Wills Newton, a fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, whom Mr. Darby recognized as a man largely taught of God and in many respects a kindred spirit. The two were for some years most devoted friends and fellow-laborers, and it is one of the tragedies of the Brethren movement that they were at last utterly estranged from one another. Of Mr. Newton there will be much more to tell when we consider the first great division among the Brethren.
A meeting began in London in the same year through a brother that Mr. Darby met while in Oxford. Some little time before this, a group of earnest Christians had been meeting in the castle of Lady Powerscourt for the study of prophecy. To these meetings Mr. Darby and Mr. Bellett were invited. Here also they met George V. Wigram, who was to become one of Mr. Darby’s most earnest collaborators in after years. At these meetings a chairman was chosen, and he indicated who should speak on the subject under discussion. It became soon evident that Mr. Darby’s enlightenment on prophetic themes was considerably in advance of most of the others, but the meetings were real conferences, the forerunners of the Bible readings so common in Brethren’s meetings, except that in such meetings a chairman is dispensed with. Many clergymen attended, and quite a few who were linked with the Irvingites, thus giving rise to the erroneous impression that the Brethren movement was more or less linked with the “Catholic Apostolic Church.” These Irvingites, however, soon dropped out, because the teaching was so contrary to what they held.
It was in these meetings that the precious truth of the rapture of the Church was brought to light; that is, the coming of the Lord in the air to take away His church before the great tribulation should begin on earth. The views brought out at Powerscourt castle not only largely formed the views of Brethren elsewhere, but as years went on obtained wide publication in denominational circles, chiefly through the writings of such men as Darby, Bellett, Newton, S. P. Tregelles, Andrew Jukes, Wigram, and after 1845 William Kelly, whose name was then linked with the movement, C. H. Mackintosh, Charles Stanley, J. B. Stoney and others.
It was but natural that from the first the question of the Christian’s responsibility to carry the gospel to “the regions beyond” pressed upon the hearts of these energetic believers. Messrs. J. Parnell and E. Cronin were ardent believers in missions, and shortly after the start of the movement they made the acquaintance of Anthony Norris Groves, in whom they found a kindred spirit. He was a man of singular piety, most catholic in his attitude towards other Christians, and deeply impressed with the solemn responsibility resting upon the church to carry the gospel to “the uttermost parts of the earth” before the return of the Lord, which to him seemed most imminent. He went out himself to Bagdad in Mesopotamia to investigate conditions, accompanied by John Kitto, and here he was shortly afterwards joined by E. Cronin and his sister, J. Parnell and others. They left in September, 1830, sailing for France, intending to cross the Syrian desert for Bagdad. Opposition developed of a serious character and this, with the ill-health of various members of the party, soon led to a disbanding of the mission and the return of most of its members to Great Britain and Ireland. Groves, Cronin and Parnell came back to Dublin, and all were prominently identified with the movement in various ways in after years. Kitto returned to the Church of England, and is well-known as the author of a helpful series of notes illustrating the Scriptures. Though the Brethren’s first mission seemed to end in failure, they have ever been a missionary people, yet this work has been greatly hindered by the divisions that have come in among them.
In the early thirties an apparently independent work of the Spirit of God broke out in the southern part of India, where a number of British army officers began to meet together for prayer and the study of the Word. They came to similar conclusions as to the present state of the church and their responsibility to meet in a simpler manner, taking the New Testament alone as their guide. Many of these gentlemen began preaching in the various districts where they were located, and the work spread until there was quite a stir in British army circles. A number of retired officers in Plymouth took up the testimony and were early identified with it in a public way.
Mr. Darby’s gifts and knowledge caused him to be greatly in demand, and he went from place to place strengthening the little assemblies, and proclaiming the Word of God to saint and sinner. In 1837 he felt the Lord was leading him to Switzerland where, he learned, a remarkable work of God was going on in connection with the free churches. At first he was cordially received everywhere, but gradually a line of demarcation was drawn between the free churches as such and Brethren meetings. The work has never ceased in that little republic. It spread from there into France, Germany and Holland. In all of these countries Mr. Darby labored earnestly. His knowledge of French and German enabled him to preach in these languages, and he published many of his works in them also. Translations were made into Dutch and Scandinavian when the work opened up in the northern countries.
George Muller and Henry Craik were co-pastors of an independent church in Bristol, England, but in the early thirties both became much exercised as to the New Testament order of ministry and worship. They were used of God to spread the teaching in their own communion, and practically the entire church took the form of a Brethren’s meeting. Mr. Muller’s great work of faith in connection with the Ashley Downs Orphan Houses has made his name well-known throughout Christendom. It is pathetic to have to record that he and Mr. Darby were perhaps the most prominent parties on the two sides in the first great division among the Brethren. Some one has well said, “If the two could have gone on together, the one would have balanced the other, for Mr. Darby will ever be remembered as the man of truth and Mr. Muller as the man of faith.” This, of course, is not to imply that the truth had not likewise gripped Mr. Muller’s heart, nor that Mr. Darby was not a man of faith, but it is simply placing the emphasis where it clearly belongs.
From 1832 until 1845 Plymouth was one of the chief centers of the movement. There were at one time over 800 Brethren in fellowship there, and many devoted men of God were linked with them. Their first meeting place was known as Providence chapel, and the persons gathering there were known to the townsfolk generally as Providence people, because they refused all sectarian names; but as evangelists and teachers went out from the chapel into the surrounding parts ministering the Word, they gradually began to be spoken of as “some of those Brethren from Plymouth,” and this naturally led to the nickname “the Plymouth Brethren.” This name, of course, was never accepted by them, nor by Brethren elsewhere, but it is the cognomen by which they are generally designated today in English-speaking countries. On the continent of Europe they are generally called Darbyists. Writing of the early days in Plymouth: Mr. Andrew Miller says:
There was great freshness, simplicity, devotedness, and separation from the world. Such features of spirituality have always a great attraction for certain minds; and many no doubt, who left their respective denominations and united with the Brethren had very undefined thoughts as to the nature of the step they were taking. But all was new: they flocked together, and gave themselves to the study of the Word of God, and soon experienced the sweetness of Christian communion, and found the Bible-as they said-to be a new book. It was, no doubt, in those days of virgin freshness a most distinct and blessed work of God’s Spirit, the influence of which was felt not only throughout this country, but on the continent, and in distant lands.
It was no uncommon thing at this time to find valuable jewelry in the collection boxes, which was soon turned into money, and given to the deacons for the poor.
This last item is interesting because it emphasizes one side of things that the Brethren stressed from the beginning; namely, that God’s work should be supported by God’s people. Their preachers and assemblies have almost invariably sought to act on the principle enunciated in 3rd John where, speaking of traveling servants of Christ, the apostle says:
We therefore ought to receive such, that we might be fellow-helpers to the truth. Because that for his name’s sake they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles. 3Jn_1:8; 3Jn_1:7
In order to carry this out, public collections were taboo, but when the Brethren gathered together for the observance of the Lord’s-Supper they sought to carry out the letter and the spirit of 1Co_16:2
Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him.
I do not mean that all the money thus laid by went into the offering boxes, but these sums were disbursed privately by the individual as he felt led of the Lord, or put together in a common collection for the spread of the gospel and for ministry to those in need.
What was true of Plymouth was equally true of many other places where, in their first love and their new-found liberty, companies of warm-hearted believers came together to remember the Lord on the first day of the week according to what seemed to them to be the apostolic pattern; and to search the Scriptures daily and seek to make known to others the precious things they were discovering in them. From the first the evangelistic note was very prominent. It was a new thing in many parts of Great Britain to have these so-called “lay preachers” and in many instances ex-clergymen who had renounced all their stipends, emoluments and ecclesiastical titles, preaching in barns, public halls, theaters, on village greens, the street corners, by the seaside, at race-tracks and in all other places where the public could be gathered together. It was with amazement that people listened to uneducated men from the humblest walks of life, and cultured gentlemen from the highest society, even titled personages at times, all preaching with fervor and holy enthusiasm the same wondrous truths. It was no uncommon thing to hear Brethren spoken of as “walking Bibles”; for, having turned away from traditional views, the Scriptures were their one source of instruction and their one court of appeal. “They found it written” settled everything for them. “Thus saith the Lord” was absolutely authoritative. Troubled with no questions as to degrees of inspiration, they accepted the entire Bible as the very Word of the living God, and the Old. Testament was as precious to them as the New, for they realized as Augustine of Hippo wrote so long ago that-
The New is in the Old concealed;
The Old is by the New revealed.
Great emphasis was placed upon the utter depravity and ruined condition of the human race, man’s inability to save himself or in any way acquire merit; the great fundamental truths of the Holy Trinity; the incarnation, sinless humanity and true deity of the Lord Jesus Christ; the personality and indwelling of the Holy Spirit who had come to earth to baptize believers into one body and to take care of the church in the absence of its glorified head; the substitutionary character of the atoning work of the Son of God, who not only bore our sins in His own body on the tree but in matchless grace was made sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him; new birth through the Word, thus giving eternal life by faith in Christ; the believer’s eternal security as “accepted in the Beloved,” whose intercession in heaven prevails against all the opposition of the enemy; the second coming of the Saviour to call His own to Himself in the air, where in glorified bodies they will be manifested before His judgment seat to be rewarded according to the measure of their service for Him on earth, thus distinguishing between the judgment of a believer’s works at the Lord’s return and the judgment of the wicked at the Great White Throne; the great tribulation following the rapture of the church; the awakening of Israel; the visible return of the Lord to establish His kingdom on earth and His glorious millennial reign to be followed by the eternal day of God, when God shall be All in All in the new heavens and new earth. This is but a bare outline of the precious truths preached and taught by the Brethren. It is not to be supposed that all of these lines of teaching were made clear at once, but as time went on these were the predominant views promulgated by these enthusiastic Christians.
In numbers of instances, as the teaching became known, clergymen and their entire congregations accepted them with deep exercise, and bodily separated themselves from existing systems where these truths were denied. In many cases the breaking of bread was carried on in the simple way with which the Brethren began and with no human leader, but under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, at an early hour, after which some gifted brother took the platform and ministered the Word to edification. If again the writer may be permitted to express his sincere conviction, he would say that had this practice been more universal, the tragic failure of the movement might not have been so marked. This, however, is merely the writer’s judgment, and many will think it open to serious question.
Some of the assemblies were, if one may so say, much more organized than others. Many of them repudiated all thought of leadership, nor would they recognize any systematic arrangements of any kind. Others believed they saw in Scripture that godly elder brethren, answering to the description of bishops given in Titus and Timothy, should be accorded a special place in the local assemblies, and that the direction of things should be largely in their hands. All alike, however, repudiated the idea of a one-man ministry; though it is to be admitted that this often gave occasion to another abuse equally as dangerous perhaps as that which was rejected; namely, an any-man ministry. Mr. Darby and others sought to correct this by insisting on the responsibility of the local assembly to refuse ministry that was not for edification, even going so far as to counsel the saints to rise and leave the room, if an unfit man persisted in attempting to preach or teach after he had been informed that his ministry was not to edification. Perhaps, if the Brethren everywhere had been more particular about this, it would have been better for all concerned.
It will readily be understood that Satan would labor with unwearied energy to destroy so gracious a work of the Spirit of God as that which we have been considering. As long as the opposition to the truth came only from without, the Brethren prospered, and multitudes received the Word with gladness, and many through deep exercise of soul were added to them, but, as in the early church and in practically every movement of the Spirit of God since, Satan set himself to stir up dissension within. It could hardly be expected that it would be otherwise. Jealousies among ministering Brethren, differences of views as to age-old questions like the subjects and mode of baptism, details as to prophetic events; even serious doctrinal divergences, soon came in to mar the peace and happiness of the little assemblies. There were, too, some grievous cases of backsliding, thus bringing the truth into great dishonor. A new line of tradition grew up to supersede the old views left behind, and at last divisions came in among Brethren which have never been healed to this day. These we must sorrowfully consider in our next chapter, hoping thereby to glean some lessons that will be for the blessing of God’s people today who sincerely desire to do His will.
To those looking on from the outside it has often seemed that one great weakness of the movement has been the failure to recognize the true pastoral office. They have felt that in seeking to avoid the Scylla of Diotrephian clericalism, the Brethren were shattered on the Charybdis of extreme individualism.