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The Archbishop and ‘the Marauders of Plymouth.’


Archbishop William Alexander and ‘the Marauders of Plymouth.’

Most Christians will have heard of Cecil Frances Alexander, the writer of famous hymns, like “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” and the Christmas carol “Once in Royal David’s City.”  She left a lasting legacy.  Outside Anglican circles, less is known of her husband, Rev Dr William Alexander, Archbishop of Armagh.
Born in Londonderry in 1824, Alexander was ordained a Church of Ireland minister in 1848, which places him contemporaneous with the developments at Plymouth, where a former Church of Ireland minister, J N Darby was involved in a dispute with other members of the newly formed Brethren fraternity.  
NPG Ax38395; William Alexander

Bishop Alexander was alarmed by the rise of the new sect and its impact upon Anglicanism.  After his elevation to the primacy of the Church in 1896, he wrote,
“The hill up which our little host must march is steep, and the hail beats in our faces.   We hear the steady tramp of the serried ranks of Rome all around us, the shout of the marauders of Plymouth rises as they, ever and anon, cut off a few stragglers.  We draw close and grip our muskets harder.” [1]
Alexander’s words give us some idea of how he and the established church regarded the early brethren movement.  It seems that to Alexander, Rome was the enemy in a battle for souls, the worlds largest ecclesiastical system, the  system condemned by the Thirty Nine Articles in stark terms:
“As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith. [2]
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” [2]
That enemy, Rome, is steadily tramping in battle, like a mighty army upon the church.  Yet as well as the battalions of Rome, claims Alexander,  there is a more insidious enemy of the church, a guerrilla movement, a group of marauders, raiders, who were not engaged in a full-on conflict, but as plunderers, were picking off the stranglers.  That enemy was ‘the marauders of Plymouth’.  But then the 39 Articles had something to say about brethren-style anti-clericalism as well:
It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of public preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same. And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have public authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.” [2]
So, at the stroke of a pen, William Alexander equated Brethrenism with Rome, the dominant religious movement in Ireland at that time, considering them as much a force to be reckoned with as the most dangerous and spiritually deadly enemy of men. 
It is of course, unlikely that Alexander was unable to theologically differentiate between Roman Catholicism and Brethrenism. The context of his juxtaposition of Rome and the Brethren as the joint enemies of the church is itneresting, for the Anglican church was losing members to both these religious systems.  Perhaps it is better to view this intervention as a reflection on the Archbishop’s earlier association with the Oxford Movement (Tractarianism), a group of scholars, among them John Henry Newman and Edward B Pusey, who favoured a form of ‘High Anglicanism’ (Anglo-catholicism) with a distinctively Romish liturgy.  Many of the Tractarians eventually gave up on Anglicanism altogether and made the journey to Rome, where, as we know, Newman became  Cardinal Newman, (now elevated to the ’sainthood’).  Is it possible that Alexander simply felt that the Anglican Church was being assailed on both sides, losing ground though the defection to Rome of the Tractarians, and simultaneously, at the opposite end of the theological spectrum, losing ground to those who were the opposite of the Tractarians, those who rejected any form of clergy, or ritual, or church order?
It is that strange identification of two vastly different theological movements that causes Neatby (1901) to find Alexander’s statement a good enough reason for anyone to undertake a societal and theological study of these early brethren men.
He writes, 
…Christians that have the honour to be, by so august an authority, in some sense coordinated with the dominant ecclesiastical power of the country in respect of the apprehension with which the Church of Ireland regards them.’1
[1] Cited in ‘A History of the Plymouth Brethren’ William Blair Neatby, 1901, Hodder and Stoughton, London, p.1
[2] The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion, 

From → The Brethren

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