You could be forgiven for thinking they were a secret society. They have no headquarters or official representatives. Historically, their groups meet in halls, but the name on the building conceals their identity. Many former members are hesitant of admitting they were ever involved, yet many take delight in meeting someone who passed through the ranks. Yet they were and still are a breeding ground for Bible teachers, evangelists and missionaries scattered throughout the church. Their 'members' have created and sustained ministries that still reach thousands in the UK and overseas, while some church historians consider that the growth in evangelicalism in the mid-1950s was due in part to their influence between the two world wars. Chances are there will be people from your church who have been part of their ranks.??They are the Brethren or 'Christian' Brethren, a group of maybe 1,200 churches numbering some 65,000 believers in the UK. They represent only 4-5% of the total number of Christians in the evangelical wing of the church, and yet have had an impact on the church in the UK out of all proportion to their size. At the same time they are one of the least understood of the groups that make up British evangelicalism.
Their current situation has been documented in a survey, 'Whatever happened to the Brethren?' by Graham Brown (Partnership 0900128240, 2003), which shows that despite their illustrious past, this is a movement in decline in the UK, and that their decline has much to say to the wider evangelical church at the start of the 21st century.
In this article we look at who are the Brethren? What has been their impact on the churches in the UK? And why are some Christians nervous of admitting to being involved? Next month we look at the reasons for their demise and what we may be able to learn from them, whatever our own church or grouping.??Who are the Brethren???A 19th century 'new church' movement ?'The Brethren' conjures up images of men in Sunday suits and women in headscarves, with well-thumbed King James Version Bibles who live in their own pietistic world. In fact the movement was birthed on a new wave of the Spirit every bit as refreshing and radical as the Charismatic Movement which swept through the UK in the 1960s.
In the 1820s little groups of Christians emerged in England and Ireland unaware of each other, mutually excited by the sense that God was leading them to base their fellowship and worship of Christ on the simplicity of New Testament principles and not on the man-made rules (as they saw it), that governed the established church, which they believed to be apostate.
J.N. Darby, a Church of Ireland minister was one of the chief exponents, but there was no one founder as such. A Dublin group emerged around 1827 which included students from Trinity College, Dublin, just before the first 'assembly' in Plymouth, Devon, which grew to around 1,000 by 1848 and gave the movement its early name, 'Plymouth Brethren', when locals outside the church looked for a distinguishing tag. It was a classless movement which in its first 20 years saw 100-200 assemblies spring up across England and Ireland. In England the movement was especially strong in the West Country, around Bristol, Barnstaple and Plymouth and spread north through Herefordshire, to Cumbria and Yorkshire and east into Suffolk and also into the major cities of Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, and London. Ireland saw assemblies flourishing in Dublin, Cork, Westport and Limerick. Some were founded by former Anglicans; some from other non-conformist churches including Baptist, Congregationalist and Quakers.
Part of the 'true church'
The movement's beliefs developed from these early days; essentially those who became the 'Open Brethren' believed in welcoming all who were Christians to meet with them, as part of the 'true church' under Christ as the true head. There was no earthly HQ, no 'ordained' ministers, they were not a denomination, and there was no 'membership'. They preferred the word 'assembly' to 'church' as closer to the New Testament description of a local group of believers. Church was reserved for the universal worldwide invisible body of all who trusted Christ. The Communion service was a distinguishing feature; known as 'the Breaking of Bread' it developed into an unstructured service of Bible reading, short talks, prayer and hymns, focused on Christ and towards the act of remembrance (as the Spirit directed).
A Gospel movement
But if the style of worship defined their distinctiveness, this was and still is a Gospel movement. Belief in the need for personal salvation from God's wrath to await the soon coming Christ inspired local evangelism through an evening Gospel service, sometimes door to door, street preaching, tract distribution and tent missions. Their meeting places were normally called 'Gospel Halls', which were non-churchy indicating a self-conscious determination to be defined by a Gospel agenda, which announced to the world that this is where the Gospel will be heard. It was no surprise that they should develop 'Counties Evangelistic Work' in 1899 (some 120 evangelists worked in the villages of Britain up to 1945, and still have around 30, now working with non-Brethren churches under the name of 'Counties'). In recent decades some assemblies have changed their titles to 'Evangelical Church' or 'Evangelical Chapel' reflecting both a distancing from their traditional roots, and concern that 'hall' is culturally inappropriate. Though their patterns of evangelism have changed the Gospel remains very much their raison d'etre.
Throughout their history they have given phenomenal support to missionary work, with one of the highest proportions of missionaries to 'members' of any church grouping even today. Neil Summerton, chairman and executive director of Partnership, which encourages independent churches mainly of Brethren background, estimates that there are 20,000 or more Brethren assemblies in as many as 130 different countries. ?
Carriers of the Ring
This role as a Gospel movement may sound unspectacular to us in the 21st century, but their growth as a movement continued when few other groups were self-consciously Gospel focused.
"In the 1920s and 30s they were the 'carriers of the ring' to some extent for evangelicalism," explains Neil Summerton. "Brethren assemblies peaked in numbers (perhaps 1800 in 1930, and then again in 1960) and in the period 1945 - 1960, the Brethren were one of the few groups planting new churches in rapidly-growing housing areas. A little of this was planned and facilitated by visionaries such as the house-builder, Sir John Laing but much of it seems to have been a spontaneous grass roots work."
Harold Rowdon, author of 'The Origins of the Brethren' agrees: "Of course there were evangelicals in all the denominations, and the Pentecostal movement was strong too, but at a time of rampant liberalism in mainstream dominations, it was the Brethren as much as anyone who kept the Gospel alive."
If you believe in every member ministry, the non-importance of denominational labels and the priority of the Gospel you will understand what they were about. Indeed many Brethren were somewhat bemused when, in the later part of the 20th century, denominational cousins came to accept what the Brethren had always stood for. ??Coloured by history?Many inside and outside the church associate the Brethren with behaviour practised by the Taylor branch of the Exclusives: for example: excluding children from school assemblies, not using computers or watching TV, avoiding any form of business relationship outside the fellowship, and ostracising family members who have left the fold - behaviour not dissimilar from some cults. As we shall see, Christian Brethren have sometimes been targets for scorn, but they are quick to explain that these practises are part of some Exclusive Brethren groupings, dating from a split in the ranks in 1848.
To explain briefly, one of the key leaders, J.N. Darby, refused to have fellowship with anyone who had any contact with B.W. Newton, a leading elder from Plymouth, whose views on the person of Christ, he regarded as heretical. An assembly at Bethesda Chapel, Bristol led by George Muller announced that they would receive Christians from Plymouth who did not hold Newton's 'heresy. Darby and others cut off that assembly from fellowship and this marks the chief differentiation between the 'Open Brethren' - open because they were open to all Christians who loved the Lord, and 'Exclusive Brethren' who wanted to exclude those who did not have the 'light' on the truth which they had or had received those who were connected with Newton's Plymouth church.
The Exclusive Brethren went on to split many times and remain a movement largely separate from the Open Brethren and evangelicalism more widely. But when the Media have latched onto the odd behaviour of the Taylor Exclusives, they often tag them 'Plymouth Brethren' meaning some of the mud thrown landed in the Open Brethren lap. This is perhaps one reason why 'Christian Brethren' became the preferred tag in many churches happy to be associated with the movement and why others of Brethren background dissociate themselves from the term altogether.
That's not to pretend that some assemblies did not invite scorn. Their belief that they were the only group following a New Testament pattern was perceived as arrogant, their anti-clerical stance was seen as foolish and their reluctance to be involved in some ecumenical gatherings (although not the only ones to do so), meant that mistruth about them could be perpetuated. Few Brethren were trained theologically, so idiosyncratic interpretations of scripture could flourish, and their dispensational view of scripture, included a view of the end times and the future of Israel which, although not unique to the Brethren, seemed odd to mainstream evangelicals.
Furthermore, some practices of the tighter Brethren seemed bizarre. Their concern that non-believers might celebrate communion and eat and drink judgment on themselves (1 Cor 11: 29) although well-intentioned, led to some absurd incidents. Elders would prowl at the door of the assembly like bouncers, more concerned to keep people out than welcome them in. The story is told of an eminent evangelical leader, being refused entrance to a Breaking of Bread service, while on holiday because he didn't have a letter of commendation from his home assembly! As he returned to his guest houses he met two young women staying at the same place who were travelling to the same assembly. "I trust you have a letter of commendation, or you won't be welcome," he said.
The women looked shocked. "No we haven't."
"OK then, wait a minute and I will write you one!" he instructed. Thanks to his note the women could attend.
How has their influence been felt?
Influential members?The Brethren's impact upon the evangelical movement has never been by force of numbers. In spite of the large assembly in Plymouth, they are traditionally no larger than 200 (there are exceptions) with most assemblies planting before they grew too large so there were few 'flagship' churches whose numerical 'success' warranted interest from the rest of evangelicalism. Indeed Neil Summerton told Christianity, "The Brethren model simply doesn't work in a larger congregation." Furthermore, even at their height in the 1950s, the Brethren were never a large percentage of the evangelical church.
Rather it was their belief in the principles of non-denominationalism and the priesthood of all believers, that freed Brethren men (it was predominantly men) to work with other Christians in the founding of Gospel ministries. Brethren were involved in the founding and/or support of a number of evangelical bodies, (albeit with different names at their foundation) including CIM and the Faith Mission generally, UCCF, the Bible Societies, Scripture Gift Mission, The Evangelical Alliance, The Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research, Scripture Union, Stewardship, Covenanters, Crusaders, Operation Mobilisation, as well as their own Echoes of Service - an organisation that existed to keep intact the partnership between the sending church and the missionary but without operating as a missionary organisation (which was seen as unbiblical). London School of Theology and Moorlands College. The latter was founded by Brethren for the Brethren movement though for the last generation an inter-denominational College. And most significantly, they were also heavily involved in with Billy Graham's Harringay crusade in 1954, the success of which restored so much confidence to evangelicalism. Nearly one in three of the counsellors came from a Brethren background, and as we shall see next month, the repercussions of this Crusade were to have a major bearing on the future of the Movement.?
It may be wrong to exaggerate the Brethren's impact on evangelicalism, but their impact has been out of all proportion to the size of the movement, or the strength of their profile.
Influence by once remove
More recently some of their influence came when people from their ranks were touched by the Charismatic Movement and chartered a different course. Being cessationist as to the so called 'sign gifts' , the Brethren was not a comfortable home for many whom God touched, though many Brethren principles would stay with them. So an extraordinarily high proportion of the early movers in the Charismatic Movement once called Brethren, 'home'. These included Arthur Wallis (the grandfather of the New Church Movement), Graham Perrins (one of the original seven who pioneered many New Church principles), Campbell Macalpine (one of the expanded group of Fourteen who was influential in charting the course of the New Streams), Gerald Coates(also one of the 'Fourteen' who founded Pioneer People) and Roger Forster (who founded Ichthus Christian Fellowship), all left traditional brethrenism, though in many cases took many of the principles with them.
Hence it was Brethren who had built upon and replaced their understanding of 'church' that were to influence evangelicalism in a far greater way than would have been possible had they remained tied to their cessationist roots.
A neglected heritage
It may already be clear why many churches and individuals are like the SAS, when it comes to talking about their Brethren past. Many are tired of being wrongly labelled as 'like the exclusives', others want to distant themselves from traditional Brethrenism, which with some exceptions has stood apart from the developments in evangelicalism that have characterised the last 25 years. The Christian Brethren are the Skodas of the evangelical world. Just as the Skoda car has never quite shaken off their negative image in spite of re-branding and a VW engine the Brethren have suffered through negative perception and caricatures, sometimes from evangelical leaders who should know better, and without the means or desire to re-brand. Many Christians would say the same things of a Brethren assembly, that they would of a Skoda: "I wouldn't be seen dead in one."
Yet ironically, many of the principles they stood for have become part of mainstream evangelicalism, which would be significantly poorer but for their input. Thousands have come to faith in the UK and elsewhere, many more have a warmer appreciation for scripture for being with them.
Maybe it would be better for evangelicals to acknowledge their contribution and learn from the way in which parts of the movement have declined and some parts have sought to recover, lest they fall into some of the same traps? It is to that subject that we will turn next month.
Brethren background who's who
(* denotes he/she is known to still be part of a fellowship which has a Brethren heritage)
- FF Bruce, well-known theologian and former professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis in the University of Manchester.?Harry Darling, former principal, Wye College, London University.
- David Gooding, professor emeritus of Old Testament Greek at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland.
- Robert Gordon, professor of Hebrew, at Cambridge University.
- Sam Leinster, dean of the University of East Anglia Medical School.?Harold Rowdon, former Church history lecturer at London School of Theology.
- W.E. Vine, greek scholar, theologian and author of the well-known 'Expository Dictionary of NT Words'.
- Hugh Williamson, regious professor of Hebrew at Oxford University.
- Donald Wiseman, professor emeritus of Assyriology at London University and founder member of Tyndale House, Cambridge.
Business, politics and public life
- Ram Gidoomal*, businessman, London mayoral candidate for the Christian Peoples Alliance.
- Lord Brian Griffiths, economist and Conservative party adviser.
- Sir John Laing, builder and founder of the Laing Trust.
- Sir Brian Mawhinney, former Conservative party chairman.
- Neil Summerton, senior civil servant.
- Sir Peter Vardy, chief executive of a large chain of motor dealerships, funded a pioneering City Academy School in north-east England.
- Charismatic Movement?Gerald Coates, founder of the Pioneer network.
- Roger Forster, founder of Ichthus Christian Fellowship.?Campbell Macalpine, author and widely travelled preacher
- Graham Perrins, leading light in the early development of 'New Churches'.
- Arthur Wallis, widely regarded as the father of the charismatic movement.
- John Allan*, youth ministry specialist
- Sharon Anson, evangelist and Christian leader.
- Doug Barnett, evangelist and Bible teacher (still in Brethren background church)
- Steve Brady, principal Moorlands College.
- John Buckeridge, editorial director CCP.
- Clive Calver, president of World Relief, former director general EA.
- David Clifford, Moorlands College former principal.
- Derek Copley, Moorlands College former principal .
- Roy Crowne, national director of Youth for Christ.
- Nancy Goudie, author, broadcaster, singer.
- Eric Hutchings*, evangelist.
- Jonathan Lamb, director of Langham Partnership and regular speaker at Keswick.
- Eddie Lyle, executive director of Release International.
- Peter Maiden*, international director of Operation Mobilisation and chair of Keswick Ministries.
- John Martin, former editor, Church of England Newspaper: now with CMS
- Luis Palau, International Evangelist.
- Rob Parsons*, author and founder of Care for the Family.
- Charles Price, author, radio teacher and senior pastor of Peoples Church, Toronto.
- Dick Saunders*, evangelist.
- Neil Summerton, chair & executive director of Partnership.
- Hudson Taylor*, cross-cultural missionary pioneer and founder of China Inland Mission.
- George Verwer, founder of Operation Mobilisation.
- Thomas Barnardo*, founder of Children's homes.
- JWC Fegan, founder of Fegan's Homes
- George Muller, founder of Muller homes