1902 Encyclopedia > Plymouth Brethren

Plymouth Brethren

PLYMOUTH BRETHREN, or BRETHREN, are a community of Christians who received the name in 1830 when the Rev. J. N. Darby induced many of the inhabitants of Plymouth to associate themselves with him for the promulga-tion of his opinions. Although small Christian communities existed in Ireland and elsewhere calling themselves Brethren and holding similar views, the accession to the ranks of Mr Darby so increased their numbers and influence that he is usually reckoned the founder of Plymouthism. Darby (born in Nov. 1800, in London ; graduated at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1819 ; died April 29, 1882, at Bourne-mouth) was a curate in the Episcopalian Church of Ireland until 1827, when he felt himself constrained to leave the Established Church ; betaking himself to Dublin, he be-came associated with several devout people who met statedly for public worship, and called themselves " Breth-ren." In 1830 Darby at Plymouth won over a large number of people to his way of thinking, among whom were the-Rev. James L. Harris, a Plymouth clergyman, and the well-known Biblical scholar Dr Samuel Prideaux Tregelles. The Brethren started a periodical, The Christian Witness,. continued from 1849 as The Present Testimony, with Harris, as editor and Darby as the most important contributor. During the next eight years the progress of the sect was-rapid, and communities of the brethren were to be found-in many of the principal towns in England.

In 1838 Darby went to reside in French Switzerland,, and found many disciples. Congregations were formed, in Geneva, at Lausanne, where most of the Methodist and other dissenters joined the Brethren, at Vevey, and elsewhere in Vaud. His opinions also found their way into-France, Germany, German Switzerland, and Italy ; but French Switzerland has always remained the stronghold of Plymouthism on the Continent, and for his followers there Mr Darby wrote two of his most important tracts, Le Ministère considéré dans sa Nature and De la, Presence, et de l'Action du. S. Esprit dans l'Église. The revolution: in the canton Vaud, instigated by the Jesuits in 1845, brought persecution to the Brethren in the canton and in-other parts of French Switzerland, and Darby felt his own life insecure there.

He returned to England, and his reappearance was accompanied by divisions among the Brethren at home. These divisions began at Plymouth. Mr Benjamin Wills Newton, at the head of the community there, who had been a fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, was accused of departing from the testimony of the Brethren by reintroducing the spirit of clericalism. Unable to detach the congregation from the teacher, Darby began a rival and separate assembly. The majority of the Brethren out of Plymouth supported Darby, but a minority kept by Newton. The separation became wider in 1847 on the^ discovery of supposed heretical teaching by Newton. In 1848 another division took place. The Bethesda congregation at Bristol, where Mr George Müller was the most I influential member, received into communion several of Newton's followers and justified their action. A large number of communities approved of their conduct; others were strongly opposed to it. Out of this came the separation into Neutral Brethren, led by Müller, and Exclusive Brethren or Darbyites, who refused to hold communion with the followers of Newton or Müller. The Exclusives, who were the more numerous, suffered further divisions. An Irish clergyman named Cluff had adopted views similar to those of Mr Pearsall Smith, and when these were repudiated seceded with his followers. The most important division among the Exclusives came to a crisis in 1881, when Mr William Kelly and Mr Darby became the recognized leaders of two sections who separ-ated on a point of discipline. This was followed (1885) by the disruption of the strict Darbyite section, two com-munions being formed out of it upon points of doctrine. There are therefore now six sections of Plymouthists:— (1) the followers of Mr B. W. Newton; (2) the Neutrals, who incline to the Congregationalist idea that each assembly should judge for itself in matters of discipline, headed by Mr George Müller; (3) the Exclusives who claim to be the original Brethren, and are represented by Messrs J. B. Stoney and C. H. Mackintosh; (4) the Exclusives associated in Great Britain with Mr C. E. Stuart, in America with Mr F. W. Grant; (5) the Exclusives who follow Mr Kelly; and (6) the Exclusives who follow Mr Cluff. The fundamental principle of the Exclusives, " Separation from evil God's principle of unity," has led to many unimportant excommunications and separations besides those mentioned.

The theological views of the Brethren differ consider-ably from those held by evangelical Protestants (for a list of divergences, see Teulon, History and Doctrines of the Plymouth Brethren). They make the baptism of infants an open question and celebrate the Lord's Supper weekly. Their distinctive doctrines are ecclesiastical. They hold that all official ministry, anything like a clergy, whether on Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Congregationalist theories, is a denial of the spiritual priesthood of all believers, and sets aside the Holy Spirit's guidance. The gradual growth of this opinion, and perhaps the reasons for holding it, may be traced in Mr Darby's earlier writings. While a curate in the Church of Ireland he ' was indignant with Archbishop Magee for stopping the progress of mission work among Roman Catholics by imposing on all who joined the church the oath of supremacy. This led Darby to the idea that established churches are as foreign to the spirit of Christianity as the papacy is (" Considerations addressed to the Archbishop of Dublin, &c," Coll. Works, vol. i. 1). The parochial system, when enforced to the extent of prohibiting the preaching of the gospel within a parish where the incumbent was opposed to it, led him to consider the whole system a hindrance to the proper work of the church and therefore anti-Christian (" Thoughts on the present position of the Home Mission," Coll. Works, i. 78). And the waste of power implied in the refusal to sanction lay preaching seemed to him to lead to the conclusion that an official ministry was a refusal of the gifts of the Spirit to the church ("On Lay Preaching," Coll. Works, p. 200). The movement, if it has had small results in the formation of a sect, has at least set churches to consider how they might make their machinery more elastic. Perhaps one of the reasons of the comparatively small number of Brethren may be found in their idea that their mission is not to the heathen but to " the awakened in the churches."

Authorities.—Darby, Collected Works, 32 vols., edited by Kelly, with supplementary volume, 1867-83; Reid, History and Literatitre of the so-called Plymouth Brethren, 2d ed., 1876 ; Miller, The Brethren, tlieir Bise, Progress, and Testimony, 1879 ; Rogers, Church Systems of the Nineteenth Century ; Teulon, History and Doctrines of the Plymouth Brethren, 1883 ; and article "John Nelson Darby," in Contemp. Bev., Oct. 1885. (T. M. L.)

The above article was written by: Rev. Prof. T. M. Lindsay, D.D.

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