My Brethren roots and a history of the Brethren in Scotland

My Brethren roots and a history of the Brethren in Scotland

I was recently passed a link (by the author, Neil Dickson) to an article he wrote recently, titled: “The Brethren in Scotland: A Historical Overview during the Long Twentieth-Century”.

My last blog article was titled “Bible Genealogies and Family Trees” and one word that connects the two articles is “roots”. In my article, I considered why knowledge of family trees can be important when coming to a view on why things are as they are and that also applies to the Bible record. I also made mention “one of my interests is church history, in particular that of the denomination I have long been associated, the Plymouth Brethren, and is my attempt at discovering more about my own spiritual roots”. From the aged of 13 until now, aged 71, I have been associated, one way or another, with the Brethren, and for 40 of those years this has been the main tradition I was a member of. For much of that time I was a member of Coleman Street Chapel, Southend-on-Sea, England.

Coleman Street Chapel

Some 25 years ago, I began to seriously study my Brethren roots, resulting in three papers around the time and, more recently, I wrote two Bible centric books that was part a result of the teaching I have been exposed to in the Brethren – all five works can be freely downloaded from my website, with I hope more to come:

  1. Who are the Brethren
  2. The hearts and minds of J.N.Darby and E.B.Pusey
  3. Coleman Street’s Children
  4. Prophets of the Bible – the Second Edition
  5. Song of Songs, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes

While no longer a member of a Brethren assembly (my own one closed 8 years ago, and then we decided to look outside the Brethren for a church to join), many of (but by no means all) my beliefs and attitudes arose as a result of my Brethren upbringing. My assembly, which began in 1900, reached its heyday early in the Twentieth Century (pre-War), with a membership of over 300 and a Sunday School of 500, but at the end with a small elderly congregation and a building needing repair, it was decided to close the work and give over the building (that was in trust) to a local Pentecostal fellowship.

There are positives and negatives and a whole raft of lesser in consequence issues of what goes (or should go) on in church life, which one might put in the “can agree to disagree” and “you won’t find the perfect church” categories, although the challenge for me personally is distinguishing essential beliefs from desirable ones, finding a spiritual home where I can contribute and fellowshiping with those who honour the Lord. Big Brethren positives include them taking seriously the teaching of the priesthood of all believers, the need to preach the Gospel to all, the importance of studying the Bible (even more obscure parts) and a right perspective that this world is not our home and therefore they were not compelled to please the men of the world, and as such they were called to suffer at the hands of those who don’t honour the Lord as they did.

A big negative is the sense they were the true church by virtue of holding to all the right teachings and others not doing so, a failure sometimes to distinguish the traditions of men from the imperatives of scripture, a lack of balance when it comes to emphasizing the crucifixion at the expense of the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus and, too often, a lack of societal involvement. Some areas of teaching, like the Secret Rapture and the Second Coming, the role of women in assembly life, how/when to preach the Gospel, whether or not the sign gifts of the Spirit are for today and how to relate to Christians outside the Brethren, have been bones of contention.

As I see it, no denomination (I include the Brethren, although in the old days many would have denied that term applied to them) has the whole truth and while light (holding to sound doctrine), many members felt strongly about, matters, life (living as Christ would have us live) does even more so. But there were big variations among assemblies that have widened in recent years and an often-overlooked international perspective, noting many countries in the world have a strong Brethren presence, brought about, in part, by the missionary endeavour of early Brethren. My assembly closed after, of the 5 assemblies and 3 missions that it had planted, one of the assemblies had closed, all its missions had closed; 2 of the assemblies seen as more traditional (tight) have dwindled in numbers and look likely to close soon, with the remaining 2 (loose), while still seen as going concerns, have dropped many of the distinctives often associated with Brethren assemblies. I am told, what I see locally is not an uncommon pattern, at least in the UK.

Which brings me to Neil Dickson and his “Brethren in Scotland” article. I have known Neil since early on when I found he shared my passion into researching Brethren history. He still pursues, and writes on many of those interests. The abstract to his article reads: “The Brethren were pervasive in Lowland Scottish society during the twentieth century. At the beginning of the century in Scotland, they had spilt into three main sections: the Open Brethren, the Exclusive Brethren, and the Churches of God. Schism was a recurring feature in the last two sections, and this paper traces the history of the various secessions and offers an account of why they were prone to division. Using the sociological typologies of sect and denomination, this paper examines the relationship between the Brethren and Scottish culture and society, including social class, use of leisure, and withdrawal and engagement in the cultural and business worlds, noting commonalities and variegations across the various streams. The final sections examine the growth and decline of the various streams and the reasons for both”.

I found this well researched, packing much into its 18 pages, article to be relevant and informative, as I would expect from this author. While my view of Brethrenism is restrictive, the author makes a lot of points that I have also noted and it seems that matters, like how the Brethren movement adapted to cultural changes, follow a not so dissimilar pattern to what I have observed locally, including how the Brethren appeared at the start of the 21st century as compared with the start of the 20th. I liked that the author gave enough historical background to helpfully set the scene on how things came to be and were at the start of the period covered and that he attempted, with a good degree of success, in covering the whole of Scotland and the various strands of Brethren to be found in the land, in his research.

While my own interest is particularly in the Open Brethren, I liked that he covered other sections: Exclusive and Churches of God. There was a strong emphasis on sociological factors, although I would have liked to know more about what made members tick and how they impacted the culture. But there were lots of insightful commentary, e.g. concerning “the sect being a protest group belonging to a socially outcast minority, which, over time and through economic transformation, evolves into the middleclass denomination” and the tension between the conversionist and introversionist tendencies within the movement. I liked his coverage of key figures in the movement and what their influence amounted to, and his sensitive coverage of some of the various schisms. He often touches on issues affecting the movement outside of Scotland, such as war time participation, the right approach to modern leisure pursuits, like watching football and cinema going and attitudes to not overtly gospel related community participation beyond being a reliable etc. professional / tradesman and a good neighbour.

Reading the article, although not as deeply as might be desirable, especially noting an extensive list of references that merit checking out to come to a fully rounded view, was a worthwhile and insightful exercise. Regarding the future for the Brethren, I have no axe to grind, as I am no longer an active participant, besides which, the future that matters is that of THE Church. Whether the movement, like many in history, will die altogether or, as has been seen in some of the assemblies considered in the article, come to terms with changing times (some dismissively compare with throwing the baby out with the bath water), or members, who are grounded in and sympathetic toward Brethren beliefs and practices, continue to throw in their lot with other movements, or whether we will see a new Brethren, taking elements from other traditions, including new churches often founded by ex-Brethren, remains to be seen.

I confess to missing some aspects of Brethrenism, such as the “old fashioned” Breaking of Bread meeting, a correct understanding of ekklésia (assembly) of being called from the world to serve God, the imperative upon all to preach the Gospel, the empowerment of the laity to be ministers of Christ and every member is a missionary. I am not precious about the “funny” ways often seen in traditional Open assemblies that have not been adopted by other groups. I do not agree with every view on ecclesiology and eschatology expressed by its leading lights, noting it did not turn out to be a major barrier to me being a Plymouth Brother. My spiritual formative years (late teens to early twenties) were influenced by the Brethren.

It was also the time when the charismatic movement emerged, which affected most denominations. Most Brethren leaders were anti this new variant of Pentecostalism, but not all, and some left to avoid conflict or, as some saw it, to find new wine skins to contain the new wine. I saw myself then as between both camps, and looking back can see positives and negatives in both camps, and while there is something to be said for the old ways there is a need to adapt to change, a failure of which has been contributory to the Brethren demise. Notwithstanding the “flaws”, I am grateful though for the sound grounding that I received in the Brethren assemblies I associated with, because of its focus on the Bible and love for the Lord, and the example of many members when it came to living godly lives. While sometimes they over emphasised what not to do and got hung up on things that did not matter, there was a love for the Lord and a call on members to be holy as the Lord is holy.

Those who read my writings will discern in them a mixture of pessimism and optimism regarding the CHURCH (or the Remnant as many early Brethren saw themselves). Pessimism over deception (e.g. the “plandemic” and wokeism and the true story behind issues like climate change, election fraud and Ukraine, to add to a string of false doctrines), schism (besides matters to do with faith, how many good Christians have fallen out over the issues of the day), apostasy (e.g. shedding basic beliefs, once seen as fundamental without being necessarily fundamentalist) and a lukewarm approach (losing one’s first love) to matters of faith, but optimism because the only Church that matters is the one the Lord is building, doing so from unlikely material in unlikely ways, including using members of the Brethren.

Footnote: Well done Neil Dickson for sharing with us some of the story of the Brethren in Scotland, which otherwise might be lost. I reckon my days of writing much about Brethren history are now over, but there is a story to tell, especially internationally – I would have loved to tackle India, my second home! “Gathering to His Name: The Story of the Brethren in Britain and Ireland” (2006) is a book by Tim Grass (Neil Dickson often refers to this) and is a good read. “The Exclusive Brethren in Scotland: A Historical Overview, 1838–2018”, by Neil Dickson, is available as a free electronic download. His 2003 book, “Brethren in Scotland 1838-2000”, is worth a read for those wanting to know more about the subject. Check out here for his 2000 PhD thesis: “The history of the Open Brethren in Scotland 1838-1999.

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