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A Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement #2



A Commentary on His Book – #2

“A Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement.”

Chapter 2. Widening Borders.  TIMELINE: 1830-1845.

Ironside continues to lament the divisions in Brethrenism, while at the same time refusing to be overly critical of those very men who caused the divisions.  Ironside opines, ‘The chief cause of the failure of the testimony of the Brethren, and their eventual breakup into many different groups… was through their failing to maintain the principle that unity is not necessarily uniformity


Powerscourt House, Dublin

Darby had published a leaflet on the ‘Nature and Unity of the Church’, which led to other similar groups meeting in similar fashion.  Ironside’s opinion is that within these local meetings, ‘it is not a formal union of the outward professing bodies that is desirable… true unity is unity of the Spirit…’.  He sees such unity expressed in the Lord’s Supper, and a common expectation and desire for the Lord’s return.  These two principles of unity, he argues, are bound together in the central act of Brethren worship, the ‘Breaking of Bread’ which is observed weekly, and in a manner where Christians ‘gather around the table’ For Christ’s command is to observe this form of fellowship, ‘till He come.’  Ironside quotes some passages from Darby, and concludes that, ‘Mr Darby at this time had no thought of forming a confederacy of societies, organised or unorganised, all of which were to be more or less dominated by some one particular rule.’

But back to the history, And here Ironside forsakes chronology a little, to introduce the Plymouth connection, perhaps because it was the Plymouth meeting that loaned its name to the later movement.  In 1832, Darby began a Brethren meeting in Plymouth, at the request of one Benjamin Wills Newton, who would later be a leading figure in the first Brethren division.

Earlier in time however, a group of Christians, from several different denominations had been meeting at Powerscourt House on the South side of Dublin, where Lady Powerscourt had a great interest in the study of prophecy.  People of different denominations attended, and to these meetings Darby and Bellett had been invited.  There they met George V Wigram, (of whom more later).  It was at these meetings that (and I expose my own prejudices here) the brethren invented the doctrine of the Rapture, which Ironside describes as ‘…the precious truth of the rapture of the church…’.  These meetings at Powerscourt were the origin of the Brethren ‘Conferences’ of later years, and the doctrine developed at Powerscourt largely formulated Brethren doctrine held to this day.

Back to Plymouth again.  (Ironside’s recitation of history is as chaotic and confused as his understanding of Christian theology – but again that’s only my opinion!). A number of British Army officers had returned from India and joined the meeting at Plymouth…

No, we’re going to jump again, this time to Bristol, where George Muller and Henry Craik were the co-pastors of an independent church, both becoming inclined towards Brethrenism.  Muller was a man noted for his faith, and his work with orphaned children, and he later, in opposition to Darby, became one of the chief protagonists in the first great division.  

Back to Plymouth – again, again.    Plymouth became one of the main centres of Brethrenism in the UK., with as many as 800 believers meeting there in Providence Chapel, – ‘Providence People.’  Ironside here introduces a paragraph on how these early meetings were funded, for they lifted no offerings, and demanded no tithes from the people.  Financial support came from the NT principle outlined in 3rd John, where speakers and preachers were supported and given hospitality by the church alone, not seeking money or finance from the ungodly.  Offerings were by means of a box, as they sought to obey 1 Corinthians 16:2, Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.  

Early Brethren Doctrine.

Ironside lists the doctrines which these early Brethren held as follows:-

  • The Utter Depravity of Man.
  • Man’s inability to save himself.
  • The Doctrines of God, Trinity.
  • Christology: The incarnation, sinless life, humanity and true deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.  His substitutionary atonement, taking upon himself our sin, and clothing us in his righteousness, his intercessory work,
  • The personality and in dwelling of the Holy Spirit, who baptises believers into one body, and cares for the church.
  • The New Birth, through the Word, giving eternal life in Christ.
  • The eternal security of the believer as accepted in the beloved.
  • The second coming of the Lord (Pre-mill, dispensationalist) with a differentiation between the judgement of the believer at the `Lord’s return and the Great White Throne.
  • The Millennial of Christ reign on earth.

These doctrines attracted clergymen, laity to abandon their traditional denominations, even their stipends and titles, to meet with the Brethren. Ironside notes that the ‘Breaking of Bread’ was held at an early hour.  This was so up until the 1990s and is still perhaps the case today in some meetings.  When I asked a Taylorite Brethren man why they met so early, his candid reply was, ‘It’s so that people like you on’t attend!’

Ironside finishes the chapter with a discussion of the Brethren’s failure to recognise the ‘true pastoral office’ an observation that perhaps owes more to his own personal rejection by the Brethren following his acceptance of the offer to be pastor of the Moody Memorial Church, an assembly where Brethren doctrines and practices were mirrored.  However, he records that some of the Brethren would have no offices whatsoever in their assemblies, while others allowed elders to be recognised.  None of them held to a ‘one man ministry.’  The difficulty, Ironside admits, is that to have no ‘one man ministry’ amounted to having an ‘any man ministry.’  Darby sought to address that problem by saying that all ministry should be ‘to edification’ that the local leaders should ask a preacher to desist if he was preaching without edification, and advised hearers to rise and leave if the ministry offered was unsuitable.  Needless to say it’s unlikely that such advice would be strictly followed, with powerful personalities able to have their own way in public ministry.

Ironside notes other sources of dissension.  Jealousies among preachers, differences over the subjects and mode of baptism, details of prophetic events, and serious doctrinal differences.

Divisions happened which persist until this day.


From → The Brethren

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