South African Bible Believers
This work is under construction, and comments are invited.
Why do you mention so many splits?
The first reason is that it is a sad historical fact. While the
"Plymouth Brethren" have given a great deal to evangelical Christianity,
they have suffered many splits, particularly in the "Exclusive Meetings".
The second reason is more subtle - it is easier to discuss splits than
broad changes of direction. Just as secular historians find it easier to
discuss and find original source material on wars, it is easier to discuss
and find original source material on splits than on the development of
evangelistic techniques, missions work, etc.
Where and when did the "Plymouth Brethren" start?
Dr. Edward Cronin was saved while a student in Dublin. He was happily
received as a visitor at a number of protestant churches, but when it
became clear he would be remaining in Dublin, he was urged to apply for
"Special Membership" in one of them. Finding the idea of "membership" in a
local church to be distasteful, he withdrew from these churches. In 1825,
together with his two cousins (the Misses Drury) and Mr Tims, he began to
meet in his house in Lower Pembroke Street. By 1827, this meeting had
grown so much that Mr H. Hutchinson offered the use of a larger room at 9
Fitzwilliam Street. By 1830, they were using a large auction room at 11
Given that this movement started in Dublin, the inaccuracy of the
title "Plymouth Brethren" should be clear.
Was John Nelson Darby the founder of the "Plymouth Brethren"?
The first meetings in Dublin were held in 1825. By 1827, J.N. Darby and
J.G. Bellett were attending the meeting.
Darby was certainly one of the most influential figures in this
movement. But the historical facts show that he was NOT the founder.
Who was John Nelson Darby?
Darby, sometimes referred to as J.N.D., was born in 1800. He studied
Law, but decided not to practice. Instead, he became a Church of Ireland
clergyman. He is recorded as being a tireless worker, both as a clergyman
and as an itinerant teacher and evangelist. He began to meet with the
first group of "Brethren" and finally left the Church of Ireland. After
that, he travelled extensively, teaching, evangelizing and planting
churches. His writings fill thousands of page and he composed a number of
hymns. He never married. His personality could sometimes be abrasive and
sometimes be warm. He was a gifted teacher and a deep thinker. He was
extremely zealous for the principle of seperation from evil, which led to
numerous clashes with those whom he felt to be in error. He was the
leading teacher in the early "Brethren" and still exerts a strong
influence, particularly in the "exclusive" meetings.
When did a work in Plymouth England start?
By 1830, there were 5 or 6 meetings in Ireland. At the same time,
Christians in England were becoming exercised about the Scriptural
principles the believers in Dublin were rediscovering. It was also in 1830
that the first meeting in London England started. Darby went to Plymouth
in 1832 at the request of Benjamin Wills Newton. B.W. Newton will be
mentioned later as having precipitated the first and perhaps most
significant split in the "Plymouth Brethren". This meeting in Plymouth was
initially at Ebrington Street, and was later transferred to Compton
Street. By 1840, the Plymouth meeting had grown to 800 persons, and by
1845 to 1200 persons.
What errors did Mr Newton hold?
By 1845, after a number of conferences on the topic of Bible prophecy,
it became clear that Mr Darby and Mr Newton disagreed with respect to
dispensationalism (with Mr Darby holding to dispensationalism, and Mr
Newton rejecting it and holding to Post-Tribulationalism). In 1845, Mr
Darby visited the assembly in Plymouth, and found Mr Newton taking a
prominent position, sharing the preaching duties with only one other
brother (J. L. Harris). Mr Newton also controlled who would could give out
hymns. It would also seem that the Breaking of Bread received a secondary
place to Mr Newton's teaching. To Mr Darby and others, this seemed to be a
return to a system of clergy. Mr Newton also conducted meetings where he
would not permit other recognized teachers among the "Plymouth Brethren"
to even attend. In these meetings, Mr Newton was spreading a particular
teaching. In 1847, J. L. Harris decided he could not continue with Mr
Newton on account of a heretical teaching Mr Newton held. In brief, Mr
Newton believed that the Lord Jesus Christ was under Adam's Federal
headship. This seems like a small matter to some, but it is tantamount to
saying that the Lord Jesus Christ shared in mans Original Sin! By May
1848, most other meetings had rejected Mr Newton's teaching, and
considered the Ebbrington Street meeting to be "leprous". To make matters
worse, literature based on Mr Newton's teaching was being widely spread.
It is sometimes said that Mr Newton retracted his error, but while he may
have made a retraction, he later continued to teach the same material.
I do not mean to suggest that those who reject Dispensationalism and
hold to Post-Tribulationalism are heretics (although I hold to the first
and reject the second), but that this was Mr Newton's first divergence of
doctrine with the others. Perhaps Mr Newton felt he had good reason for
taking the majority of the preaching, but in the final analysis, the
church has always been hurt by a man who feels he must maintain control,
and that his teaching is the only teaching that is profitable, reliable,
etc. One should think that in a church with 1200 people, many brothers
were gifted to teach.
Who was George Muller, and what was Bethesda?
George Muller was a German Baptist minister, who later became famous
for his Orphanages and the fact that they existed solely by faith. Mr
Muller became convicted of certain Scriptural principles, and at
Teignmouth began a weekly communion service at which he refused to preside
(he being the Pastor). Mr Muller also refused a stipulated salary. In
1832, Mr Craik and Mr Muller went to Bristol and began working at the
Bethesda chapel, which became an Independent church (not a Baptist church
as is sometimes reported).
The experience with Bethesda affected the Exclusive Meetings (a term
that will be explained later) in a profound way. Since Bethesda was
already established when they came into fellowship with the "Plymouth
Brethren" (and joined as a corporate body rather than as individuals),
after the great split caused by the "Bethesda Question" there was great
suspicion of the possibility of a church corporately coming into
fellowship. After this point, whenever a group of believers became
convicted of New Testament principles (or felt their previous meeting was
holding to error) and wished to come into fellowship with the Exclusive
Meetings, they required that the church disband, not break bread for a
Sunday and then apply individually for reception into fellowship. While
understanding why this seemed a wise course to some, I believe this idea
is at odds with Revelation 2 and 3 where the Lord Jesus Christ calls upon
churches to repent. If it were not possible for a church to repent, He
would not instruct a church to repent. And yet, it seems to me that the
Exclusive position does not allow for this. Furthermore, it seems to me
that it is unrealistic to expect a believer to stop breaking bread with
other believers before being received into fellowship, because the heart
of a believer who is in a good spiritual state will feel the need to
remember Him in His appointed way.
What was the "Bethesda Question"?
After most of the "Plymouth Brethren" had pulled away from Mr Newton
and the Ebbrington Street meeting in Plymouth, some people from that
meeting visited the Bethesda meeting in Bristol, where they were permited
to Break Bread. A number of leading brothers and churches, including some
at Bethesda, took objection to this, fearing that this would open Bethesda
to doctrinal contamination. Mr Muller felt that these people did not
personally hold Mr Newton's heresy, and so he could not refuse them
fellowship. In retrospect, these visitor probably did hold Mr Newton's
teaching. Thus the Bethesda meeting acted independently, and did not
support the discipline that had been placed on Ebbrington Street and Mr
Newton. Mr Darby, among others, demanded that each church judge the
"Bethesda Question" - was Bethesda justified in receiving these visitors.
Those that sided with Mr Muller and Bethesda became known as "Open
Brethren" while those who sided with Mr Darby and against Bethesda, became
known as "Exclusive Brethren".
I know for a fact that this issue confuses those in Open assemblies.
The issue is often presented like this: if a person comes from an assembly
where error is taught, but he or she does not personally hold that error,
should we receive that person into fellowship? In Open assemblies the
answer is "of course we should! Otherwise, we could never receive a person
who wanted to leave an assembly where error was taught". However, it is my
understanding that the people who came to Bethesda were merely visitors,
who intended to return to Ebbrington Street. This brings up the issue, if
these people did not believe Mr Newton's error, why did they not withdraw
from fellowship. If they had withdrawn from fellowship at Ebbrington
Street, and if they really did not hold Mr Newton's error, all would be
agreed that Bethesda should receive them. Exclusive writers have made much
of the fact/possibility that these visitors still held Mr Newton's heresy,
and revile Mr Muller for this, but it is likely that Mr Muller did not
realize this. Great trouble could have been avoided if Mr Muller had been
more careful about who was received at Bethesda, or if he had enquired of
these visitor more closely. Also, great trouble could have been avoided if
Mr Darby had not been so quick to demand that each assembly "judge the
Bethesda question" when Mr Newton's heresy (though serious to the well
taught) was beyond the grasp of many humble saints.
Could the Bethesda Split have been healed?
In July 1849, Mr Darby visited Mr Muller and declared that since Mr
Muller had judged Mr Newton's writings, there was no longer any reason for
them to be seperated. Mr Muller replied, "I have this moment only ten
minutes time, having an important engagement before me, and as you have
acted so wickedly in this matter I cannot now enter upon it as I have no
How did the "Kelly" Division come about? What was the "Ramsgate
In 1876 there was a disturbance at the exclusive meeting in the town of
Ryde on the Isle of Wight. A man wanted to marry his deceased wife's
sister. Since this was forbidden by English law, he crossed over to France
(where it was legal), got married, and returned. This caused a great deal
of bickering. The situation was so bad in the Ryde meeting that J.N. Darby
refused to visit it, describing it as "rotten".
How did the "Grant/Montreal" division come about?
For some years, J.N. Darby and F.W. Grant had disagreed over the
doctrine of the sealing of the Spirit. Darby maintained that one is sealed
with the Spirit when he believes the Gospel. Others maintained that one is
sealed with the Spirit when he trusts Christ. This will seem a minor point
to most who will read this FAQ, but evidently to some it was a weighty
matter. All through this dispute, Darby and Grant remained close
The Reading Division
Mr C.E. Stuart of Reading England wrote a book entitled "Christian
Standing and Condition". In it, he declared that "Standing" has to do with
the ability to stand before the throne of God, while condition has to do
with the unsaved person being "In Adam" and the saved person being "In
Christ". J.B. Stoney declared this to be a complete giving up of
Christianity and a reversal to Judaism. The Reading meeting considered the
charge of heresy raised by Mr Stoney and rejected it, siding with their
own Mr Stuart. The Park Street meeting in London, which by this time had a
reputation for high-handed behaviour declared Mr Stuart and the Reading
meeting to be out of fellowship. 80 assemblies in Great Britain and many
in Australia and New Zealand sided with Mr Stuart, and became identified
as "Reading" or "Stuart" Brethren.
Once again we see two tendencies. First is the tendency for an
individual to seize upon a somewhat obscure point of doctrine and force
churches worldwide to side with then or against them. One wonders if the
strong personalities involved (in this case Mr Stoney) really believed
heresy was being raised, or simply could not tolerate anyone teaching
anything other than what they themselves were teaching. To suggest that
differences of opinion concerning the ultimate meaning of the terms
"standing" and "condition" is a complete giving up of Christianity and a
reversal to Judaism, is ridiculous in the extreme!
The Raven Division
Mr J.B. Stoney was undoubtedly brilliant, but his teaching was
described as "subjective". By this I take it to mean that his meditations
may have warmed many hearts, but would be difficult to categorize as the
eternal and unchanging truth of God. One of his disciples, F.E. Raven was
even more subjective and mystical in his teaching. It is possible at the
start that Mr Raven didn't realize the exact conclusion his teaching would
lead to, but in the end it was clear he denied that Christians possessed
eternal life as a present possession and was confused over the Hypostatic
Union (the union of Christ's Divine and human natures).
If Park Street had exercised more care in not allowing Mr Raven to
teach anywhere (instead of just refusing to allow him to teach in London)
, a cooling off period could have been provided. This might have proved
Have there been further splits in the Raven meetings?
In 1902, the Raven meetings were split. The question was raised of how
simple (and possibly unlearned) believers should be treated if their
meeting is broken up due to the actions of their leading men. The Glanton
meeting believed that simple saints could be received from the nearby town
of Alnwick (where the assembly dissolved). Thus they split from the London
Park Street meeting. The Glanton meeting (and those that sided with it)
achieved some measure of reconciliation with the Stuart and Grant
The Raven and Taylor "Brethren" are generally unreceived by any
other meetings, and few in the "Open" meetings have ever heard of them.
What sources were used in this FAQ?
There exist no unbiased histories of the "Brethren". A number of
important books are now out of print. I have borrowed heavily from H.A.
Ironside's book, "A Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement". Ironside
has some original contributions (having been with the Grant Exclusives),
but much of his material is condensed from Napoleon Noel's 2 volume book,
"The History of the Brethren". Noel's book is very difficult to read, but
is valueable as a source of original material, which he quotes
extensively. Mr Noel writes more about the Tunbridge-Wells split, having
been through it.
Abigail, Shawn G., "Plymouth Brethren History FAQ, Version 0.2, September 1997, Distributed on The Internet by Shawn G. Abigail (firstname.lastname@example.org)"
© 1997 by Shawn G. Abigail