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A Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement #5



“A Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement.” 

Chapter 5. Bethesda and the First Great Division.  TIMELINE: 1830-40s 

George Muller and Henry Craik were Baptist pastors in Devon, when both became intrigued by the movement that had been developing without denominationalism, without clergy and with simplicity of gathering and worship, as the Lord would lead.  They had met together with a few other believers in that fashion, and Craik had been offered the use of a hall in Bristol.  He insisted that if he were to go, he would want his friend and fellow worker Mr Muller to go also.  Muller agreed, and a brethren meeting began at Bethesda Hall in Bristol.

In 1832 the very first seven members were admitted to the fellowship, Muller at first, as a baptist pastor was concerned that some of the new members may not have been baptised by immersion, and that this would render the communion service disorderly.  Robert Chapman (See separate notes) reassured him, and Muller eventually agreed that mode of baptism was not a bar to communion.*


Bristol, England.   Image by  Free-Photos from Pixabay


NOTE:  Remember that the early brethren were a-denominational at their meetings, and around their communion table people from every denomination and none were welcomed, not because of their church status, but because of their confession of, and love for Christ as Saviour.  Darby was Anglican when he first met with the brethren in Dublin, and remained an Anglican priest until the early 1830’s.  It is important to remember this principle when we consider the reason for the split at Bethesda, for it seems that Darby has now abandoned that stand, and ceased its practice. 

After the split at Plymouth, and Darby’s separation from the people at Ebrington Street, some of the former congregation there asked for fellowship at Bristol.  The question then arose, ‘would the admittance of former Plymouth members into fellowship at Bristol be the ‘little leaven that leaveneth the whole lump?’ A minority of people at Bethesda took this strong position and protested against the admission of the Plymouth people to fellowship, but they were over-ruled by Craik, Muller and the rest of the Oversight, who argued that these Plymouth brethren were not partakers of Mr Newton’s doctrinal error.  The Plymouth Brethren were admitted to membership in Bristol. 

Darby, who had previously excommunicated the entire assembly at Ebrington Street, Plymouth,  became involved; in his eyes the receipt at the Lord’s Table of people who were under discipline by another assembly was a grave breach of fellowship with other brethren.  (The question of the interrelationship of independent fellowships had again become an issue.  What right had Darby to intervene in Bristol, in the business of another autonomous body?  To be sure, a group of the Bethesda Protesters had contacted him – as had a group of people from Plymouth earlier, before his intervention there.  Was Darby now acting as a ‘bishop’ or a doctrinal/disciplinary enforcer?  And with whose consent?). Darby corresponded with a Mr Alexander, one of the protesters at Bristol, causing a great deal of disturbance and discontent at Bethesda Hall.  Ten of the elders of the fellowship including Craik and Muller wrote a defence of their position, for private circulation, now known as ‘The Letter of the Ten,’ seething out the orthodoxy of their brethren at Bristol’s Christology, but insisting that they had no right to interfere in matters concerning Ebrington Street, Plymouth.  One of the reasons they used for their argument, was simply that if every assembly were to devote time to properly examining and assessing the doctrines and practices of every other assembly, the time taken would greatly reduce the time available for the proper work of the Lord’s People, ie. to preach the Gospel.   

Darby objected to this defence, and took great exception to point six, which argued that even if B W Newton were fundamentally at error on a point of doctrine, that would not be a good enough reason to disfellowship the saints of God who sat under his ministry, who may not even have fully comprehended his error (unless it could be established that they too had imbibed the error and agreed with it).  Rather, to bring such saints into a biblically sound assembly would be to rescue them from error.  Darby countered that to admit such people to fellowship would lead to all sorts of wicked and evil being tolerated within the Body of Christ. 

So, to summarise, “What attitude should the brethren take towards those persons who are properly under discipline or excommunication, or those associated with them?”  Here’s the opposing positions now adopted:- 

  • BETHESDA, Bristol: Examine each individual and receive at the Lord’s Table such that have not imbibed false teaching or wilfully endorsed the evil. They became known as ‘THE OPEN BRETHREN.’ George Muller and Henry Craik.
  • PROVIDENCE CHAPEL, Plymouth.  Association with evil defiles the otherwise sound and clean believers, therefore refuse all fellowship with any church or assembly tolerating moral or doctrinal evil.  They became known as ‘THE EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN.’   Darby, Wigram etc.

NOTE:  The terms ‘Open’ and ‘Exclusive’ can be misleading to Christians who are not familiar with brethrenism.  Neither of these terms have any reference whatsoever to the rest of Christendom.  The ‘Open Brethren’ do NOT practice ‘OPEN COMMUNION’ – the Lord’s Table is closed to believers from outside the brethren, and to travel to another hall, say on holiday would require a letter from an elder of the home assembly to vouch for the bona-fides of the person concerned.  In an amusing but true incident, a brethren man from Northern Ireland, a member of the oversight of his own assembly was on holiday elsewhere in the UK.  On attending the Gospel Hall on the Lord’s Day morning, he was refused access to the Lord’s Table because he had forgotten to bring his letter of introduction.  As he left the Gospel Hall he bumped into a lady from his own hall, also entering the Gospel Hall.  Explaining the reason for his early departure, she admitted that she too had no letter.  ‘No problem,” He said.  “I’ll write one for you right now.”  He did, and she was admitted to the Lord’s Table!   

Ironside himself points out (as one who had been disfellowshipped by the Brethren for ‘clericaslism’)… 

 “…It will be seen that the terms ‘open’ and ‘exclusive’ have no relevance to Christians not regularly meeting with them or holding denominational membership, but relate solely to matters of internal discipline.”  (p.72) 

The breach was now irreparable and Darby excommunicated the whole assembly at Bethesda, (and every other brethren assembly that took their part in the dispute) as he had done with Ebrington Street Plymouth beforehand.  With that excommunication the brethren were permanently divided into two factions, the Open Brethren and the Exclusive Brethren, two camps with essentially the same basic doctrines, but both mutually exclusive.    

In closing, Ironside notes that the situation that Darby feared, ie., that Newton’s Christological error would take root in Brethrenism never happened in either camp, and has never resurfaced even to this day.   


AT THIS POINT I PAUSE BEFORE CONTINUING WITH IRONSIDE.  I want to look more closely at the main proponents in the Bethesda Division, and I will do in a series of separate articles.

  * It is common among the ‘Open Brethren’ nowadays to practice baptism by immersion, on profession of faith, as did Muller.  Many of the ‘Exclusive Brethren’ still practice ‘Household Baptism’ as did Darby.

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