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A Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement #4



A Commentary on His Book.

“A Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement.”


Chapter 4. Increasing Dissension.  TIMELINE: 1840s

Ironside notes that the issue of ‘the relationship between assemblies’ had been raised with Darby by G V Wigram of London.  The issue was over discipline, and whether decisions taken in one assembly should apply in the others.  If a person was excommunicated in one town, should a neighbouring assembly in an adjacent town then also refuse him access to the Lord’s Table?  In a ‘denomination’ of course, these issues would be speedily resolved by Presbytery or by a Bishop etc, but each brethren meeting was autonomous, and aimed to take their governance only from the direction of the Lord, through the Scriptures.


This question would very soon have to be confronted among the Brethren.

In 1845 Darby returned to Plymouth., where the congregation was now well over 1000 people.  He had been abroad, ministering among the meetings that had been springing up on the continent, particularly in Switzerland, but Brethren in Plymouth had been communicating with him, and the situation at Plymouth was not hidden from him.  When he returned in 1845 he found what Ironside calls, ‘an entirely new order of things.’ (P42).  Newton and his fellow elder Mr J L Harris were dominating the teaching ministry, with an emphasis on preaching, and the ‘breaking of bread’ relegated to a short space at the end of the meeting, contrary to the practice elsewhere among the brethren.  Darby’s visit was not welcomed by the oversight!

There were those within the Plymouth assembly who were discontent with the status quo, those perhaps who had communicated with Darby, and together with Darby they set up a second meeting in the town.  It appears that G V Wigram of London had extended credit to the Plymouth brethren to purchase their two meeting places, one at Ebrington Street, and the original premises at Providence Chapel.  In December 1831 Wigram left the Anglican church and bought a nonconformist place of worship, Providence Chapel in Raleigh Street, Plymouth, Devon.  He later also paid for Ebrington Street Hall.   (I will research this further, using more reliable sources).

When Darby and his group began meeting separately from the Ebrington Street, Wigram withdrew his support from the Ebrington Street gathering, and repossessed Providence Chapel in Raleigh Street, which he then gifted to Darby.  Darby’s new meeting began on the last Lord’s Day of 1845. Darby’s stated rationale for the division was, ‘sectarianism, clericalism and erroneous prophetic views. (Newton was teaching a post-tribulation form of premillennialism, without dispensationalism and the division between the Jews and the Church, – see notes on previous chapter).  At this stage though, there was no suggestion of serious theological error, and many brethren have questioned whether Darby had enough grounds to cause a schism, for example Mr Robert Chapman of Barnstable, who felt Darby had acted impulsively, and too quickly, (p.47) and without thought of the consequences.  Darby himself issued a strong defence of his actions.

In 1847 Darby had opportunity to have an ‘I told you so…’ at Newton’s expense.  Newton had been found guilty of a Christological error.  Ironside, with characteristic prejudice, commenting on Harris’s split from newton that year, states, “This change of attitude was brought about by his discovery that Mr Newton was systematically propagating a line of teaching in regard to Christ that was subversive of Evangelical truth.” (p.54).  Newtowna’s error was in regard to the sufferings of Christ.

In orthodox theology, the purpose of the sufferings of Christ is well summed up in the Heidelberg catechism: “What do you confess when you say that he suffered?  During all the time he lived on earth, but especially at the end, Christ bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. Thus, by his suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice, he has redeemed our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtained for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.”

So the historic view, is that Christ’s suffering was for the sake of the sinner, as he had not any inherited sin of his own, – he was sinless.

Newtown had written a paper, and preached that Christ’s suffering was due to his humanity, which (in effect) was flawed by the inheritance of Adam’s struggles through Mary.  Newton based this upon certain verses in the Psalms, and in Lamentations.

(I interject here to comment briefly upon Brethren homiletics…  There seems to be no form of systematic or biblical theology evident in brethren preaching, to this day.  The common sermon structure is a selection of unrelated verses, from unconnected passages in different books, combined, often to prove some obscure brethren doctrine.  It is the worst possible kind of eisegesis and is probably responsible for many strange doctrines, no doubt including Newton’s aberrant Christology, and Darby’s dispensationalism.  In a conversation, a friend had supposed it may result from the brethren’s love of the Thompson Chain Reference Bible, but if Newton was also guilty of it, that would pre-date Thompson, who began his work in 1890).

There is no doubt that Newton was at odds with Scripture here, believing that because Jesus had ‘become part of an accursed people, who had obtained God’s wrath after continual transgressions, he had become ‘obnoxious to God upon birth’ and this was only partially remedied at his baptism.  It was indeed error.

When confronted with his error, Newton quickly repented of his false teaching, recanted it, withdrew it and apologised:-

I desire to acknowledge it fully, and to acknowledge it as sin; it is my desire thus to confess before God and His Church; andI desire that this may be considered as as expression of my deep and unfeigned grief and sorrow, especially by those who may have been grieved or injured by the false statement, or by any consequences thence resulting.  I trust the Lord will not only pardon, but will graciously counteract any evil effects which may have arisen to any therefrom.” (p.57)

But not before Darby took the opportunity to publicly renounce Newton and use his doctrinal error as a vindication of his actions two year before.  Darby exposed Newton’s error, and more members of Ebrington Street left and joined the brethren meeting at Providence.  A large meeting of Brethren was held at Bath in May 1848, to endorse Darby’s position, and Ebrington Street and Newton were regarded ‘as defiled and leprous.’ (P.59)

Newton was now regarded as an outsider.  He left the brethren, and Plymouth, and established a meeting in London, where he became a firm friend of C H Spurgeon, and continued his friendship with George Muller.  His Calvinistic, post-tribulation non-dispensationalist eschatology would find favour among some of the stricter baptist groups, and would be sustained by SGAT (the Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony) and lather among some Free Presbyterian.

With B W Newton now on the outside, the brethren would be united.  Or would they?


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