First Meetings of the Plymouth Brethren Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Several small groups of people in England and Ireland—dissatisfied with both Roman Catholicism and the established Anglican Church—banded together to form what would become known as the Plymouth Brethren. While the Brethren never attracted great numbers of adherents, their theology influenced the beliefs and practices of many other British Christians.

Summary of Event

The Plymouth Brethren originated in reaction to organized Christianity in Europe during the 1820’s, particularly the Church of England Church of England;and Plymouth Brethren[Plymouth Brethren] (Anglican Church). The group’s members sought a simpler, truer form of Christianity, one not tied to the state. They believed that an ideal community of faith would emulate what they perceived as the dynamic spirit of the early Church, rather than the rigid hierarchy and clerical or priestly control that developed later. Plymouth Brethren Christianity;Plymouth Brethren Darby, John Nelson [kw]First Meetings of the Plymouth Brethren (c. 1826-1827) [kw]Meetings of the Plymouth Brethren, First (c. 1826-1827) [kw]Plymouth Brethren, First Meetings of the (c. 1826-1827) [kw]Brethren, First Meetings of the Plymouth (c. 1826-1827) Plymouth Brethren Christianity;Plymouth Brethren Darby, John Nelson [g]Great Britain;c. 1826-1827: First Meetings of the Plymouth Brethren[1360] [g]Ireland;c. 1826-1827: First Meetings of the Plymouth Brethren[1360] [c]Organizations and institutions;c. 1826-1827: First Meetings of the Plymouth Brethren[1360] [c]Religion and theology;c. 1826-1827: First Meetings of the Plymouth Brethren[1360] Groves, Anthony N. Newton, Benjamin Wills Cronin, Edward Bellett, John Müller, George Hutchinson, Francis

There is some debate as to exactly when, where, and by whom the first gathering of the Plymouth Brethren was organized. Several small groups with similar concerns about the state of the Christian faith met independently around 1826-1827 in both England and Ireland. These later merged into one, becoming known as the Plymouth Brethren during the early 1830’s. One of these groups, naturally enough, was meeting in Plymouth, Devon, England, by 1831, while at least one other had begun in Ireland. The best known early and influential members included John Nelson Darby, Edward Cronin, Anthony N. Groves, John Bellett, Francis Hutchinson, and Benjamin Wills Newton.

One credible version of the Brethren foundation story states that one group formed around Cronin and another around Bellett and that these two clusters came together at Hutchinson’s home. Long before these clusters formed, though, other similar groups of Christians gathered to worship simply and without clergy while seeking the spiritual gifts they read about in the New Testament, such as speaking in tongues, healing, and visions of future events. Such supernatural gifts were seen as a sign of the imminent return of Christ. The desire to witness the return of the Messiah also gave such Christian enclaves a strong interest in studying unfulfilled prophecies set forth in the Book of Daniel, in the Old Testament, and Revelation, in the New Testament. Prophecy conferences such as the 1833 conference held in Powerscourt in Darby’s home county of Wicklow, Ireland, helped solidify the Brethren into a cohesive whole.

Darby’s role as founder of the Plymouth Brethren is questionable. It is unclear who, if anyone, solely deserves that title, and Darby was at any rate little more than an occasional visitor to the Brethren’s meetings at first. However, when an injury kept him convalescing in Dublin, Darby became a more active participant and eventually became key to the movement. It was Darby’s leadership that contributed to the uniqueness of the Brethren, carving for the movement a place in history while many similar groups simply faded away after their founders’ deaths. Ultimately, Darby broke from the established Church and went on to write forty lengthy books about Brethren theology and prophecy studies.

The Brethren rejected the notion that only a member of the clergy could lead a religious service. In fact, the group condemned the notion of an ordained priesthood as being unbiblical. This condemnation came despite the fact that Darby, the group’s most prolific and prominent member, was an Anglican clergyman, and George Müller Müller, George , another influential early Brethren member, was a Lutheran pastor. Darby, Müller, and other Brethren felt strongly that spiritual gifts and leadership should be open to the laity and that God, rather than humans, should call forth leaders within a community. Within Brethren gatherings, priestly acts such as preaching or even “breaking of the bread” (Communion) could be performed by those who felt called, rather than trained and paid professional clerics. Brethren espoused egalitarianism not only in their religious practices but also in their social lives, as in the case of an English peer who made a point of eating with his servants. They also detested rent pews, a system common to the established Church in which the wealthy would pay for exclusive access to particular pews in a church. This effectively limited poor people’s access to church seating or marked them as charity cases when they had to sit in designated free pews.

Studying biblical prophecy became an important element of Brethren life. Naturalist and author Edmund Gosse’s autobiography, Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments (1907), even talks about prophecy discussion being a favorite family pastime during his childhood. Gosse’s father led a Brethren congregation in England and was torn between his Brethren faith’s distrust of science, particularly evolution, and his own strong interest in biology.

In addition to prophecy study, an empowered laity, and an egalitarian spirit, another important Brethren theme was unity. This ideal, however, was far from a reality, even within the early Brethren leadership. For example, Newton Newton, Benjamin Wills pressed for excluding or separating from apostates, while Darby vied for openness and forbearance. The two also disagreed on details about Christ’s return. The issue of openness versus exclusion later led to a split, with the two camps becoming known as the Open Brethren and the Exclusive Brethren. Other splits over doctrinal issues followed.

Significance

The Plymouth Brethren never became a large or popular group, yet it was important at its founding, and its ideas and foci continue to affect religious life in Great Britain and elsewhere. Darby’s prophecy speculations, for example, fueled premillennialist expectations that Christ would soon return to gather the true Christians before the apocalyptic end of the world. This line of thinking continues to be part of religious and popular culture today, as seen in the popularity of apocalyptic fiction such as Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s Left Behind series. Darby’s systematizing of dispensationalism (a theory of biblical eras, such as the era of Adam or the era of Abraham) has earned him a place of honor among premillennialists and those who study biblical prophecy. Darby argued that God gives humanity a particular responsibility in each era.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baumgartner, Frederic J. Longing for the End: A History of Millennialism in Western Civilization. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Examines how expectations of Christ’s return and other religious end-of-world scenarios have played out in the culture and history of various nations and groups.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bayless, Robert. My People: The History of Those Christians Sometimes Called Plymouth Brethren. Wheaton, Ill.: Harold Shaw, 1995. In addition to discussing prominent Brethren figures such as Darby and Newton, the author looks at Brethren history from the standpoint of less well-known practitioners of the faith.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Callahan, James Patrick. Primitivist Piety: The Ecclesiology of the Early Plymouth Brethren. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1997. Looks at the distinction in Brethren thought between primitivism and restorationism, as well as providing a thoroughly documented look at early Brethren history and the group’s place in the broader elements of British Evangelicalism such as millenarianism and prophecy conferences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Press, 1989. Provides basic outline and charts about various types of Christian theology, including dispensational, all from a fairly conservative evangelical viewpoint
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gosse, Edmund. Father and Son. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 1989. A thoughtful recounting of a man’s life growing up as the son of a naturalist and devout leader of a Plymouth Brethern congregation in Victorian England
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rowdon, Harold H. The Origins of the Brethren: 1825-1850. London: Pickering & Inglis, 1967. Provides a good entry-level look at the group’s early years by primarily focusing on key relationships between founding members such as Darby and Newton, as well as Müller and Craik.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ryrie, Charles C. Dispensationalism Today. Chicago: Moody Press, 1965. Explains the origins of dispensationalism, including Darby’s role in its formation. Lists the various dispensations, or eras in Christian history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Nathan DeLynn. Roots, Renewal, and the Brethren. Pasadena, Calif.: Hope, 1986. The author is a Christian educator and Brethren member. His book, originally a doctor of ministry thesis, opens with a brief, historical look at the group’s formation and proceeds into a critique of some current practices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stunt, Timothy C. F. “Benjamin Wills Newton.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 40. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “John Nelson Darby.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 15, pp. 117-118, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004. These entries provide a quick glimpse at the lives and careers of two key Brethren founders, as well as offering lists of additional readings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turner, W. G. John Nelson Darby. 1901. Reprint. London: Chapter Two, 1986. Short, laudatory biography written less than a generation after Darby’s death, relies heavily on associates’ reminiscences, as well as excerpts from Darby’s own writings, primarily letters and hymns.

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