The Brethren and the Prophets

As some folk will know, I have spent most of my Christian life in the (Plymouth) Brethren (Open section) movement. This article will appear in my book Prophets of the Bible, intending to connect the PBs and the book content.

Coleman Street Chapel – where I connect for much of my PB life

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 I wrote over twenty years ago (downloadable from my website) should appear in a book about prophets of the Bible. The reason is to do with legacy and heritage, which are two driving forces behind this 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, not in any denomination, or group, including the PB – whose heyday has likely passed and, as far as the UK goes, has mostly died or reinvented itself, often ignoring their roots – but rather a faithful remnant meeting 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 and 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, warts 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”, a good deal of credit must go to the PBs.

I should explain more about this often misunderstood and maligned group, the Plymouth Brethren, and its history. There were many factors behind the origins of the PBs, 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 were on display. A further development was the split (around 1845), based more, in my view, on personality than principle. This resulted in two distinct groupings: Exclusive 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). They 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 (which was often mutual), while attracting many who defected from them, looking for a purer form of Christian experience. 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, called to forsake worldliness, love Scripture, beholden to this rather than the traditions of men, meticulously 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 that is my second home, India. I am often touched by those folks who sincerely and sacrificially serve the Lord. While I am keen to reach all and sundry with an interest in Bible prophets,  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 (including their Bible scholarship) many who held responsible “secular” jobs – most recently it was Sir Robert Anderson’s thoughts on Daniel’s seventy weeks. No doubt their insights, preoccupations and perspectives (along with ubiquitous faults and foibles) have been significant factors behind my selection of material and approach to writing.

One piece of feedback from those who read the first edition of this book was that by discussing the Brethren movement, as I have done and doing so early on, in a book about prophets, it might put off some potential readers who are not particularly interested in the Brethren. My response is I wanted to be up front on matters to do with heritage and legacy, and the Brethren story has a significant bearing. One example that springs to mind and has a bearing on why I wrote this book and notwithstanding debatable theological implications is the disdain many leading lights had concerning clericism and objection to a priestly class. Rather, they encouraged their men particularly to be skilled in and be ministers of the Word. I imagine a good number of my readers will share some of that heritage, so may identify with what I wrote. I realise the history of the church contains numerous examples of movements that began in response to a specific need at the time, yet often over time lost their way, as well as not grasping everything that mattered in the first place. The Brethren are no exception.

In a book titled The Pilgrim Church by E.H.Broadbent, who was himself a Brethren missionary, the author gives many examples of movements of radical dissent throughout two millennia of church history, who were often despised, attacked and rejected by mainstream Christianity at the time and were often in a small minority. Yet often they emphasized much neglected and overlooked truth and brought in new life. The Brethren were cited as one such example and in a strange way my own PB background played a part when it came to selection of material. Besides taking an interest in prophecy, especially that to be fulfilled, some of what the Brethren did and said was arguably prophetic. Rightly or wrongly, they gladly accepted being looked upon with antipathy by many in the mainstream denominations as they were faithful to the Lord. My ecclesiology is nowadays rather eclectic and I am not here to promote Brethrenism or any other “ism”, but as we enter into a paradigm when people seeking to be faithful to the Lord will be once again find themselves both rejected by many elements in the professing church and feeling they cannot associate with egregious error and as a result become part of the “remnant”, I feel vindicated by making these points.  

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