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A Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement. #1



A Commentary on His Book.

“A Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement.”

I’ve a personal interest in the Brethren movement, even though I have profound differences with their doctrinal basis and church polity.  Under this category I look at their history, in an attempt to unravel the torturous splits and divisions that have plagued the movement.

In this particular series of posts, I will chart my progress as I read through ironside’s book on the history of this religious movement; one with which I have some passing acquaintance, and I intend to comment in writing on my impressions and perhaps provide a little much needed analysis.  This is NOT a book review, but rather an essay, with additional material and illustrations, based on the structure of Ironside’s favourable (if not fawning) coverage of Brethrenism and Brethren history.


First Impressions.

The book is a paperback which appears to be a self-published reprint by ‘Solid Christian Books’. There is no publisher’s location, and the book was printed by Amazon in 2016.  The original date in the Preface is 1941.  Ironside has a brethren background and is highly sympathetic toward them, even though his acceptance of the pastorate of Moody Memorial (Independent) Church in Chicago has broken his formal association with them.  The account of the history of the Brethren at first seems to be uncritical and from a favourable point of view.  Brethren people are treated with great respect and no critical or adverse analysis of their views, beliefs of actions seems to be offered, other than to question the wisdom of their penchant for division over relatively minor issues.  I read on…



H A Ironside

Chapter 1. The Beginning of the Movement.   TIMELINE: Early 19th Century.

‘The Brethren as a whole are fundamentalists.’  Ironside’s opening paragraph admits to a narrow minded fundamentalist within Brethren ranks.  This had several effects:

  • In its favour, this protected the movement from modernism, in the mid 19th century, when German and other theologians were introducing the ‘Higher Criticism’ which brought many of the mainline denominations into error.
  • Brethren Fundamentalism spread, influencing many other evangelicals outside their own circles.  The influence of dispensationalism, aided by the Schofield Bible, and a semi-Pelagian soteriology greatly affected the Irish Baptists, and the early Pentecostals in NI, at least up until the 1980’s.  
  • The influence of brethrenism was greatly hindered by this fundamentalist attitude, which seems to have fostered an uncompromising spirit, leading to divisions and splits over seemingly trivial matters, a poor witness, and a source of some sorrow among brethren people and families divided by such divisiveness.  The phrase, ‘There’s brethren and there’s brethren,’ – a reference to the differences between halls – can still be heard today.
  • Ironside also refers to ‘an unexpected sectarian bias,’ which seems to have derived from this fundamentalist attitude.  The idea that ‘we alone are correct’ is noted among some brethren circles even today.  I visited a relative of my wife’s, some years ago, and a Brethren evangelist also turned up at the home we were visiting.  In conversation he asked what my occupation was, and when I informed him I was a Christian minister, he immediately reached into his coat pocket and produced a large bundle of tracts.  He peeled off several of them, and held them out to me, with the remark,  ‘You’ll need to read these.’


What were the societal and religious factors that influenced the Brethren pioneers?  Ironside notes:-

  • An early 19th century restlessness within the professing church, a desire for a simpler form or fellowship and worship.  He mentions similar desires in America, England, Ireland and further overseas, even in India.
  • The Napoleonic Wars, which had turned people’s thoughts toward the end of the age, the apocalypse and the return of the Lord.  This eschatological emphasis became an early feature of Brethren preaching and doctrine.
  • Anglicanism was on a downgrade.  The Tractarian Movement  in the Church of England was promoting a Romeward trend, while the Higher Critics were doing their best to undermine scriptural authority.  Priests and Bishops in the established church could be far from evangelical, gospel preachers.  Meanwhile in Ireland the move toward disestablishment was disrupting the church.
  • In the other denominations, the fervour of the Wesley revivals was dying, leaving splits and divisions, while the influence of Edward Irving was gaining strength, encouraging an early form of charismatic experience, and a restored Apostolate. Strangely though, the Brethren had no qualms about adopting and expanding Irving’s eschatology, the pre-tribulation rapture theory.

Incredulously, Ironside (p7.) without any further explanation, notes that out of this milieu grew several other (other than the brethren?) organisations to stand counter to the religious philosophies of the age including the Bible societies and the great worldwide missionary movements.  I say incredulously, because the worldwide missionary movement owes much more to the Puritan view of eschatology, the Post-millennialist hope of a converted world, with the nations worshipping the Lord, from coast to coast, in a time of holy righteousness, than to the father more fanciful eschatalogical expectations of the Brethren.

Ironside then begins a short sketch of the very early days of the brethren, in Dublin, Ireland, naming some of those early pioneers.  Here the account is informative, though not at all analytical. He gives some details of:-

  • Dr Edward Cronin.  Around 1825 Cronin was attending a Congregational Church in Dublin, but he was troubled by the idea of a ‘one man ministry,’ excessive denominationalism, and seeking a simpler meeting, he began meeting with one other person on Sunday mornings.  This grew as by ones and twos others joined in, until a sizeable meeting became established, and they began to meet in a sizeable room in Fitzwilliam Square.
  • Rev J N Darby.  John Nelson Darby was an Anglican Curate, ministering in the hills of Wicklow, and by all accounts a conscientious minister, who travelled many miles by foot, and late into the night To attend to the spiritual instruction of his flock.  Trained as a lawyer, and called to the ministry, Darby is described in the book as a man of weak appearance, whose stature had become stunted by his ascetic lifestyle, who cared little for his appearance. In 1827 the Archbishop of Dublin sought state protection for clergy in the exercise of their duties.  Darby objected, for why should people about the business of the Lord have to seek comfort from the world?  It was at that time that he began to meet with the small group meeting with Cronin.  As time went on he decided that his affections lay with the Brethren and  he resigned his curacy, and departed from Anglicanism.
  • Other men meeting in Dublin in those early days, of whom less was known were J Parnell, W Stokes and George V Wigram.

In an interesting note on p.13, Ironside records that Darby had ceased to read any books other than the Bible.  While it is admirable and essential to make scripture reading our priority, and just as essential to realise that only the Bible is the inspired, inerrant word of God, the idea of abandoning the works of Godly men throughout the centuries who had commented on God’s Word, had written systematic theologies, etc., cannot have been helpful as the early Brethren constructed their theological dogma.  The idea of ‘accredited authors’ still persists in some Brethren groups, and reading other authors outside the Brethren discouraged.

That early meeting soon shifted from Fitzwilliam Square to a borrowed auction room in Angier Street.  The meeting was still regarded as a group of malcontents who ordered their meetings among themselves, deciding in a week by week basis which of them should distribute the elements of the Lord’s Supper, and who should speak.

Throughout this chapter Ironside is at pains to explain that although he refers to this movement as the ‘Brethren’ he does so only for convenience, for the Brethren themselves do not formally use that term.


From → The Brethren

  1. Tom Wyatt permalink

    Thank you for actually posting my comment. I would rather not take up each of your points as we could continue an interminably long and fruitless correspondence; I would just remark that your knowledge of Brethren gatherings is either nil or very nearly so, or else it is somewhat extensive. Because what you have said in reply to me contradicts your statement “one with which I have some PASSING ACQUAINTANCE.” That hardly suggests sufficient first-hand knowledge of the subject.
    One other brief thought, I find it strange that within a very limited evaluation you have used the same illustration/anecdote three times!
    I am sorry that I appear to have offended you personally, but I fail to understand how you could begin to compare your MA in Theology with a man who translated the Scriptures into a number of languages including English, French and German.

  2. Tom Wyatt permalink

    With due respect and acknowledgement that you are a true believer, I must just make two observations if you will permit me. Your knowledge of the “Brethren – commonly so called” is about as commensurate in accuracy as my knowledge of Congregationalism: NIL!
    Secondly, you assertion regarding J.N.D.’s translation of Matthew 18:20 is fallacious, “we” do not use it as a vehicle to accuse others of gathering to a denominational name, although perhaps in some instances that may be the fact. Furthermore Darbys’ translation of that verse is not unique or without support. He renders it “gathered unto;” Young in his Literal Translation: “to,” Kenneth S. Wuest :”into,” T. Newberry in his margin has “unto,” W. Kelly: “unto.” All of these men were excellently versed in the original languages of the Scriptures, all transcending your own feeble knowledge in these things.
    I said just two observations, but I must make a third. You have never experienced any of “our” meetings, Braking Bread, ministry, prayer or Gospel preaching meetings, thus rendering you incapable of understanding what actually transpires on these occasions. You have given full rein to your own suppositions and conjectures without any true foundation. I would dare not comment on the “way” in which you conduct your services, I am entirely ignorant as to it.

    • Thank you Tom, for your comments, I appreciate the time that you took to help me, and to add to my understanding. And thank you for your candour, although as I will explain, you are basing some of your critique on wrong presuppositions. I also feel that you have been offended by this essay, and I sense a ‘defensiveness’ in your remarks. To cause offence was never my intention. The history project is not intended to be critical of the brethren, but to ‘critique’ their early history. In fact some of the essays in the project have been very positively received by brethren people, – see for example the essay on A N Groves. Even this essay doesn’t seek to deliberately demonise or attack the modern brethren people, of either division, but simply to explain the historical context of the reluctance on the part of some of them (OB and EB) to acknowledge other assemblies of believers as ‘representing’ the invisible church. (And that’s another debate entirely, for in fact we don’t think they do either).

      Let me reply to your two points.
      On your first point, you say my knowledge of the brethren is NIL. You then say, ‘You have never experienced any of “our” meetings, Braking Bread, ministry, prayer or Gospel preaching meetings, thus rendering you incapable of understanding what actually transpires on these occasions.’ How do you know that? It is hard to live in NI without some interaction with the brethren. In fact I have attended many OB meetings over the years. To be fair, I haven’t included much of my personal experiences of brethrenism in my writings, because I really want to be fair to them, and to be objective in historical research. (And because I couldn’t afford the divorce settlement!). I’ve had some fantastic friends among the EB as well, particularly among the K-G people, and even among the Taylorites, – (although to be fair most of these have now left that group). No, sorry, I have personal, actual, intimate interaction with the brethren, and not all of it has been positive.

      Secondly, you dispute my translation of Matthew 18:20, and you cast aspersions on my ability in Greek. (Actually you don’t do yourself any favours there, for when you descend to a personal attack you kind of demonstrate that you’ve got no argument). I have an MA in theology. Newberry, Kelly etc, would hardly be considered as impartial in the matter, even though you say that they were well versed in Biblical languages – and I’ve no doubt they were. I’ve included a bibliography at the bottom of the page, so that you can see my sources. Some of these are contemporary with the early brethren movement, some critical, some complimentary, some purely historical reflections. Darby’s doctrines and beliefs are well rehearsed throughout and commonly understood. There is no dispute among scholars, either pro or anti brethren about his doctrine of the church, or about his influence upon the early brethren.

      Finally, you say that you are entirely ignorant of the way that we conduct our services. I wonder why? Let me finish with an anecdote. A brethren evangelist called at my door, quite a few years ago now. He knew who I was, knew my name and knew my wife’s name. Handing me a bundle of gospel tracts, he invited me to attend a series of meetings in a portable hall that he was erecting at the end of the road. I replied that I’d like to go, what time was the service on Sunday? He replied, 8.30pm. I said I’d be there, but that the service at our church was at 6pm, would he like to come to our service first, and then I would go to his? He declined, rudely, then shoved his foot into the door to give me a lecture. I can give you his name. However, that man in NOT typical of most of the brethren.

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