Origins (1825-50)

The story begins early in the 19th century. Politically and socially, this was a turbulent period in Britain and Ireland: after the French Revolution many feared that similar events might occur here. The Industrial Revolution and later depression brought widespread unrest and economic hardship. It was a time of rapid change in all aspects of life. In the churches, unsettlement took the forms of dissatisfaction with the perceived worldliness of the churches and a longing for more intense spiritual experience.


Several movements originated around 1830, seeking spiritual renewal and purer fellowship. The Strict Baptists took shape as a distinct body; those associated with Edward Irving formed churches governed by apostles and claiming a restoration of the spiritual gifts and ministries mentioned in the New Testament (they were later known as the Catholic Apostolic Church); what became known as Anglo-Catholicism took shape in the Church of England; and the Brethren came into existence. Their earliest meetings were in Ireland (Dublin especially) and Plymouth (giving rise to the designation ‘Plymouth Brethren’). Their aim was to provide a fellowship in which all true believers could worship together, gathered round the Lord’s Table, and study the Scriptures without being divided by differing denominational allegiances. Early leaders included:

  • The Irishman John Nelson Darby (1800-82), one of many clergy who seceded from Anglicanism;
  • Benjamin Wills Newton (1807-99), an ex-Quaker;
  • George Müller (1805-98), famous for the orphanages he founded in Bristol to demonstrate the living reality of God though his provision for every need;
  • Anthony Norris Groves (1795-1853), a pioneer of Brethren mission.

Early on, the study of Bible prophecy became central to Brethren life; it was a respectable intellectual pursuit at the time, and Brethren became known for their distinctive approach to it, known as Dispensationalism (though this never achieved universal acceptance among them). This taught that:

  • The history of God’s dealings with humanity can be divided up into a series of eras known as ‘dispensations’.
  • In each one, God offers humanity a way of salvation through grace, and calls those who belong to him to be his people.
  • Each ends with the failure of God’s people to fulfil their calling, and the introduction of a new dispensation.
  • Furthermore, this approach distinguishes between God’s heavenly people – the Church – and his earthly people – the Jews; the Church, which began at Pentecost, is seen as a temporary interruption in God’s purposes for Israel; it does not replace Israel, whose restoration is promised in prophecy.

Numbers of serious and frustrated Christians left their churches to join the Brethren during this period. However, from 1845 to 1848 the movement experienced a catastrophic division, which had at its heart a clash of opinions and personalities between Darby and Newton. What became known as Open Brethren asserted that each assembly had the right to conduct its own affairs in the light of its responsibility to Christ, and (usually) to welcome all true believers to the Lord’s Table; Exclusive Brethren followed Darby in asserting that ‘separation from evil’ was the only true basis for the unity of believers, and that this required assemblies to act together: thus an individual disfellowshipped by one meeting was to be regarded as out of communion with all, and any meeting accepting such a person was deemed to have become infected with spiritual evil. (Newton ended up being ostracised by both sides.) Open Brethren normally practised believer’s baptism, but many Exclusive meetings retained ‘household baptism’ of infants. Little love was lost between the two streams, and a pamphlet war raged throughout the rest of the century. At first, most of the influential Bible teachers were among the Exclusives, but in time a number changed sides.


Growth (1850-1914)

Nevertheless, Brethren of both types began to see sustained growth. The major factor in this seems to have been that they turned outwards and increased their commitment to evangelism. Whereas the first generation of the movement had been led by members of the gentry and clergy, this generation saw the rise to dominance of the evangelists and itinerant teachers. Now new converts rather than members of other churches made up an increasing proportion of accessions to the movement. When revival affected parts of Britain and Ireland around 1859, Brethren shared in the resulting activity, and hundreds of mission halls came into being.


Exclusive as well as Open Brethren were active in outreach. Both traditions discovered the power of literature, producing vast quantities of tracts, booklets, and longer works designed to expound the Scriptures. Theologically, they were evangelical, and became known for their grasp of the Bible, but their prophetic beliefs, their rejection of a formally-recognised ministry, and their tendency to assert that the Church was irreparably ruined and that Christians should leave their existing fellowships all helped to make them ‘Public Enemy Number One’ in the eyes of many other evangelicals. Opposition did nothing to make Brethren any more sympathetic to the churches, which they regarded as spiritually dead and theologically untaught.


This was also the era when Brethren became a missionary movement. It is claimed that no other Christian tradition, apart perhaps from the Moravians, has seen such a high proportion of its members become missionaries. Brethren are now found in over a hundred countries worldwide, sometimes in much larger numbers than in Britain. During the 1870s, the agency which became known as ‘Echoes of Service’ was founded by Open Brethren: it did not send out missionaries itself because this was regarded as the local assembly’s responsibility; ‘Echoes’ was simply a channel for funds and information, although the Editors of its magazine inevitably accumulated a store of knowledge over time which gave their advice considerable authority.


With growth came division. Open Brethren saw a small schism in the 1890s, leading to the formation of the ‘Church of God’ (sometimes known as ‘Needed Truth Brethren’ after their magazine); they reject the idea that each congregation should be autonomous in favour of a Presbyterian-style pattern of inter-church relationships. Exclusive Brethren saw a succession of divisions from 1881. The largest one, often known as the Taylor Brethren, has developed into the withdrawn community misleadingly known as ‘Exclusives’ today. They have one man as their global leader, seen as the contemporary equivalent of Paul, deemed to be in receipt of divine guidance which must be followed by all members. Other Exclusive groups should not be confused with them, and have remained theologically closer to Calvinist Evangelicalism.


Prosperity (1914-45)

After World War I, British Evangelicalism was largely demoralized: theologically weak, often poorly led, and on the defensive against the world and the religious establishment, Evangelicals sat on the margins of religious life. But Open Brethren in particular offered a contrast: evangelistically active, solidly taught, growing, and with a lay leadership which was often well attuned to the issues of the day, they experienced continued growth, especially in the new suburbs springing up all over Britain. (The growth was not entirely unconnected with the fact that several Brethren were house-builders, most notably John Laing!) Agencies such as Counties Evangelistic Work sponsored tent missions in many places, which not infrequently resulted in the formation of new assemblies. It seemed to many that, in footballing terms, the Brethren had the ball at their feet. The future of British Evangelicalism looked to be theirs, and Brethren were influential in developments in that sphere, such as the founding of London Bible College (now London School of Theology).


Loss of Confidence (1945 onwards)

Sadly, expectations would be unfulfilled. World War II produced a questioning spirit in all areas of public life, from which churches were not exempt. One Brethren magazine editor, Frederick Tatford (1901-86) asked whether the Brethren were in danger of becoming a ‘back number’. Like other Evangelicals, they engaged in vigorous evangelism, but many could not understand why so much of the blessing which came through Billy Graham’s crusades in 1954/5 was experienced by the churches which they had tended to write off. This was a great stimulus to a process of self-questioning which has not ceased. With it has come a tendency for individuals to reject their Brethren heritage, and for progressive congregations to describe themselves informally as ‘were-Brethren’.


Open Brethren experienced increasing internal tension, as they struggled to respond to the impact of rapid cultural change, the rise of Reformed theology, unfavourable media coverage of ‘Exclusives’, the Charismatic movement, and the more general decline of British Christianity in terms of numbers and public role. Nevertheless, they have contributed much to wider Evangelicalism. The Scot F. F. Bruce (1910-90) played a key part in the growth of evangelical biblical scholarship; others filled prominent roles in public life, such as Brian Mawhinney (b.1940), former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.


Many Brethren have left the movement, reversing the early flow into it: some reject their past, but there are ministers and members in all denominations who speak of what they owe to their upbringing among the assemblies. But it should not be concluded that Brethren are on the way out. Worldwide, they are growing, especially in countries such as Angola, Chad, India and Romania. This is undoubtedly a fruit of the movement’s traditional orientation towards world mission. Furthermore, there are significant aspects of the Brethren ethos which deserve to be appropriated more widely, such as their traditional focus on breaking bread together as the heart of church life and their deployment of the gifts of each member. At their best, Brethren continue to have much to offer the wider Christian Church.


-Dr. Tim Grass

This article 
is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Grace Magazine (July 2008).

Dr. Grass has authored a masterful one-volume history of the Brethren movement. Click here to learn more.

Further Browsing:

  • For The Origins and Early Development of the Plymouth Brethren, an academic Th.D. thesis by Peter L. Embley, dealing with the history of the first 20 years of the movement, click here.
  • For the text of Henry Pickering (ed.), Chief Men Among the Brethren (2nd edn, 1931), a collection of brief biographies of most of the early founders of the movement, click here.