About the Brethren
“The Brethren Assembly movement emerged around 1826-27 (although it was not seen as such until a few years later), when a few met together in a private house (later, as numbers grew, it was in a hired hall) in Dublin, not to start a new sect, but for the purpose of Christian fellowship, to study the Bible and (later) to share in the Lord’s Supper. They felt that their spiritual aspirations and concerns for God’s work to prosper could not be addressed in the churches they came from, and had a spiritual hunger that needed to be satisfied. Not being under any particular leader, all were at liberty to contribute and did so, for among other things theirs was a reaction against clericalism or minister domination and a movement for spiritually empowering the people. (The extempore nature of Christian gatherings was an important Brethren principle, in order to allow for God’s leading. But the need or desire for organisation and order was never far away. Putting into practice this principle gave rise to some of the tensions and conflicts that later followed.)”
It might seem strange the above quote, from my “Who are the Brethren” paper, that is on my website, should appear in a book that is about prophets of the Bible. The reason is to do with legacy and heritage, which are two driving factors behind the book, and also to clear up potential misunderstanding, given I mention I have been a member of the Plymouth Brethren for much of my Christian life, even though these days I join with the Strict Baptists. I should say, I am not particularly hung up about denominations and see good and not so good in all of them, including the PBs and the SBs. While neither a Liberal nor a Catholic, I work with Liberal pastors on matters like homelessness, asylum seeking and mental health, and mentor, advise and volunteer for a Catholic organization that is helping the poor and marginalized in my community. In my pessimism, I see the future of the church, not in denominations, like the PB whose heyday has past and, as far as the UK goes, has mostly died or reinvented itself, but rather in a faithful remnant that meet in homes or wherever, who love and follow the Lord.
But back to legacy and heritage … the older I get, the more importance I attach to these two things. Part of the legacy I wish to leave, to them who come after me, is this book. As for heritage, the reason why some twenty odd years ago I produced this paper, wrote a thesis titled: “The hearts and minds of J.N.Darby and E.B.Pusey” and a book about the Brethren assembly I have been involved with for much of my life: “Coleman Street’s Children”, all available on my website, was that my associations with the Plymouth Brethren have formed an important part of my own heritage (at least the “Christian” part of it), and I was keen to find out more – worts and all. A further reason, and pertinent to the subject in hand, was that heritage was a significant driving force behind writing this book and might go some way to explain why I have written as I have, and while I completely get why we must “move on”, some credit must go to the PBs.
I should explain a bit more about who this often understood and maligned group, the Plymouth Brethren, are and a tiny bit more about its history. There were many factors behind the origins of the PBs and what they stood for etc., but to know more, read my paper or a book like “Gathering to His Name” by Tim Grass. One early development was a centre based in Plymouth (thus the name) where many PB principles could be seen in action. A further development was the inevitable split (around 1845), based as much on, in my view, personality as principle, and this resulted in two distinct groupings: Exclusive Brethren and Open Brethren – with splits of the splits to follow. None too salubrious, one might say, but all part of that heritage. One of the key persons in the split was J.N.Darby, whose thoughts on prophetic interpretation are touched on later. It should be added, for the sake of balance, that while Darby was arguably the most influential figure in PBism, not just because of his eschatology but as much due to his ecclesiology (including his view, I once inclined toward, of a church that was in ruins), other key influences, and much wider than just PBs, were George Muller (founder of a faith mission to orphans) and A.N.Groves (overseas, cross cultural missions) and form some of the rich tapestry influencing this author’s thoughts.
Going back to the quote, the PBs were not minister (priest, pastor etc.) led and were anti-clericalism, although ironically this did lead to dominant personalities as bad as any Pope, and also led to suspicion by other denominations, while attracting many who defected from them. The PBs put a good deal of store on all parts of the body ministry and the doctrine of the “Priesthood of All Believers”. It is this, along with the PB commitment that all its members were potential missionaries, mandated to preach the gospel to the whole world, its love of scripture, being beholden to this rather than the traditions of men, and meticulous searching out of nooks and crannies other denominations hardly touched, spurred on by its fascination with unfulfilled prophecy and Christ’s Second Coming, that have been factors behind this author undertaking this project in the way he has.
These days, my association with the Brethren is a lot less, although I do preach in Brethren assemblies, especially in the country of my second home, India. While I am keen to reach all and sundry with an interest in the Prophets of the Bible, especially if coupled with wanting to follow the Lord, I am mindful of the debt of gratitude I owe past members of the Plymouth Brethren. No doubt their insights, preoccupations and perspectives (along with faults and foibles) have been significant factors behind my selection of material and approach to writing.