he Plymouth Brethren form a small separatist denomination that emphasizes the coming millenium, or end of the world. According to Owen Chadwick's The Victorian Church, "They began first as a little extreme evangelical group in Dublin from 1827 that believed anyone may celebrate the Lord's Supper [administer Holy Communion] or preach, and received the name when the strange powerful ex-Anglican clergyman J. N. Darby went to Plymouth in 1830. In 1847-49 the Brethren divided, through Darby's rigidity, into Open Brethren and Exclusive Brethren, the latter holding no communion with others. At the best-attended services on 30 March 1851 there were in England and Wales 7,272 Brethren" (36n).
Francis Newman (younger brother of John Henry, who was to become the famous Roman Catholic Cardinal Newman) had achieved first class honors in classics and mathematics at Oxford went to Dublin in 1827 to be private tutor to the household of Serjeant Pennefeather, a leading Irish lawyer. While there he met John Nelson Darby, a curate in the Church of Ireland and Pennefeather's brother-in-law. Darby had been meeting on Sundays with three other men, Dr. Edward Cronin, a convert from Roman Catholicism Francis Hutchinson, son of the Archdeacon of Killala, Sir Samuel Synge and John Gifford Bellet, a classics prizewinner from Trinity College, to "break bread" in a way they believed the early church did. Others began to join with them including, Lord Congelton, who hired an auction room for their growing Sunday meetings.
After Newman returned to Oxford from Ireland he persuaded Darby to visit him there in 1830 and meet his friend, Benjamin Wills Newton, a Fellow of Exeter College. After several visits by Darby to Oxford, Newton invited him to his home in Plymouth where a small group met to study Bible prophecy. The group included George Wigram, a friend of Newton at Oxford and Percy Hall, a navy Commander turned pacifist. Wigram acquired a chapel, which was called Providence Chapel, where regular preaching, especially on prophetic subjects, was given and attended by local clergy and lay persons. The numbers grew mainly in response to Hall's preaching and it soon became an established independent church, larger than either Dublin or Bristol. Of the original group of leaders, Newton was left to carry on. Darby was a traveler and only occasionally present, and Wigram and Hall had moved on to London and Hereford to establish new churches. Newman parted company with the Brethren turning eventually to Unitarianism and free thought.
Newton was still in his twenties. Although he had been a member of the Church of England, he was connected by marriage through his mother to the Fox family and other members of the Quakers. He had left Oxford completely (over the issue of gifts of tongues and healings) and with Darby and others, began to work out procedures for the new church as Hall's preaching was attracting large numbers of people, many who were illiterate. The new church was also joined by the former curate of Plymstock, James Harris (at 40, the oldest member of the group), and Henry Borlase, curate of St. Keyne, Cornwall. In 1835, the group was joined by Samuel Tregelles, a Quaker who had been converted through his association with his cousin, Benjamin Newton. Tregelles worked with Wigram on the Englishman's Greek and Hebrew Concordances and became a foremost scholar in Biblical textual studies. At that time about 80 people attended and over the next few years the assembly grew to some seven hundred.
The growing numbers required a new building which became a pattern for other early Brethren assemblies. As they now no longer could be called the "Providence People" as had been the case to this point, they began to be called the "Brethren from Plymouth" and then the "Plymouth Brethren".
In the center front of the new chapel was the communion table and generally speakers addressed the audience from there. The seating was arranged in gradually ascending tiers in a semi-circle giving the effect of the table at the center of things. They did not take up an offering but had collection boxes at the back of the seating. It was not unusual for people to put jewelry into the boxes which was sold by the deacons and the proceeds given to the poor.
The emphasis on prophetic teaching (Darby at one stage had dated the return of Christ to 1842 though later he disclaimed any basis for date-fixing) led to an awareness of the need to be separated from the world, and so people began to give away what they considered "worldly" in dress, books, and furniture.
A very common meeting was the Bible reading held in people's homes. Andrew Miller, one of the early Brethren writers, recounts that some thirty members gathered together at about 5:30 in the evening for tea [the evening meal]. They were plain in their dress with no ornaments. They did not discuss general news, and politics would have been regarded as profanity. [He points out that the Brethren did not vote at elections]. When tea was ready, things became quiet and they waited until someone prayed. At about seven o'clock people found a seat all having their Bibles and a hymnbook. After a little wait a hymn was sung and a prayer given. The head of the house then asked if any brother had a portion of the word on his mind that he would like to share. Discussion [by the men] continued until about nine o'clock and then after a hymn and prayer the meeting dispersed at about ten o'clock. These meetings were different from the Fellowship Meeting which was a more serious Bible study on a predetermined topic and involved only men, and the Social Tea Meeting which was a home social gathering although it may end in a worship time at about nine o'clock.
From the earliest days there was identifiable authority in the assembly. A presiding elder was appointed to maintain order in the meetings, but unfortunately, Newton, still in his twenties, became autocratic and controlling. Because of his revulsion with the church he had left, Darby was never at ease with the appointment of elders, and as time went by he increasingly devalued the importance of the formal recognition of an eldership. He tended to reject any form of succession or transmission of office as much as he did the choosing of leadership by church election as seen in other dissenting churches. In a similar way, Darby did not adopt the practice of believer's baptism as was by then the practice in Bristol, though it was never a condition of fellowship. He discouraged some young preachers from speaking on the subject, and to this day many of his followers (Exclusive Brethren) practice a modified form of infant baptism.
Coad says, "Of the vigor and the remarkable character of the church at Plymouth there can be no doubt. For a period of fourteen years it enjoyed a success and rejoiced in gifts, such as few single churches have experienced. Yet its documents make one conscious of a radical weakness from the beginning. Much of its teaching and testimony of the church was based on prophetic interpretation, and upon the apocalyptic expectations of apostacy and judgement which that study generated."
But to a real extent, the "heavenly thinking" of the early Brethren grew from their struggle to find a perspective between that of the Established Church and the political agitation of the the Dissenting churches.
[This small denomination plays an important role in both Edmund Gosse's Father and Son (1907) and Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda (1975) GPL].
Chadwick, Owen. The Victorian Church, . London, 1966.
Coad, Roy. (1968) The History of the Brethren Movement. Exeter: Paternoster Press.
Miller, Andrew (slightly revised and abbreviated by G.C. Willis) (unknown date) The Brethren. Hong Kong: Christian Book Room.