The origin of the Brethren movement can be traced to a general dissatisfaction with the spiritual state of the denominational churches. This sense of spiritual discontent affected many Christians in the early nineteenth century. They were weary of the worldliness, deadness, and lack of reverence for the Word of God that prevailed in Christendom. They desired to see Christianity practiced in a manner that bore a closer resemblance to the teachings and patterns they observed in the New Testament. During this time of spiritual hunger various renewal movements arose. Some of them, as the Brethren, introduced entirely new testimonies. Others renewed the flame within existing traditions. Of all these movements, the Brethren ultimately proved to have the most robust vision, the strongest devotion to the Scriptures, and the deepest wells of spiritual vitality and stamina.
The first meeting was started in Dublin, Ireland in 1827 through the initiative of Edward Cronin and Edward Wilson, the Assistant Secretary to the Hibernian Bible Society. Shortly after Mr. Wilson’s departure from the Anglican Church in the fall, they began meeting together at his place on Sackville Street, joined by Mr. Timms and Edward Cronin’s two cousins, the Misses Drury. After Mr. Wilson’s departure for England in the summer of 1829, the group moved their meetings to the parlor of Cronin’s house at 13 Lower Pembroke Street. That summer Francis Hutchinson began meeting with the believers. That fall J. G. Bellet and J. N. Darby began breaking bread with them, though Darby soon departed to serve in other fields. In November the meeting was moved to Mr. Hutchinson’s home at 9 Fitzwilliam Square. That winter the original group was joined by another group led by Thomas Parnell that had been meeting in a similar way. In May 1830 the believers moved the meeting to an auction room on Aungier Street out of deference to several brothers of humble circumstances who were uncomfortable meeting in the fashionable distinct of Fitzwilliam Square. During these first few years, the breaking of bread meeting was held early Sunday morning as many of the attendees were still attending denominational churches.
By 1832 there were a handful of meetings including two in Bristol, Gideon Chapel and Bethesda Chapel, and one in Plymouth. Henry Craik and George Müller were active in Bethesda Chapel. The meeting in Plymouth was attended by a number of exceptionally gifted men as J. N. Darby, B. W. Newton, G. V. Wigram, Mr. Harris, and Captain Hall. The Plymouth meeting, overweighted with gift, wielded tremendous influence over the fledgling movement, which led to the movement being called the “Plymouth Brethren” by outsiders, though they themselves preferred to be simply called “Brethren.”
Over the next two decades the movement grew rapidly, adding dozens of new assemblies and attracting multitudes of serious Christians from the denominational churches who were drawn to their simplicity, spirituality, and reverence for the Word of God.
The Brethren suffered a tumultuous period in 1845-1848. Their meetings were roiled with controversy over discipline, reception, and the relationship between the meetings. Ultimately this controversy divided them into two camps, the Exclusives and the Opens. The Open Brethren insisted on the independence of the local church and the open table. The Exclusive Brethren insisted on organic union and the closed table.
During this period the Brethren movement spread far and wide in Europe, the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, North America, South America, Africa, and Asia, especially in India. Growth was fueled primarily through evangelism rather than through the addition of dissatisfied believers coming from other churches. Three well-known characteristics of the Brethren, recognized by fellow evangelicals familiar with the movement, became evident in the early decades of this era and continued for the duration. First, an itinerant ministry, comprised of highly esteemed and influential teachers, that circulates among the assemblies. Second, an unusual love for Christian literature, evidenced by the substantial personal libraries prevalent among the rank and file and by their efforts in writing and publishing, which have sent forth a prodigious array of useful books and magazines. Third, a passionate vision for missionary endeavor, evidenced by their generous giving to missionary causes and by the percentage of their members in missionary service. With regards to the latter point they probably surpass every other evangelical group except perhaps the Moravians in their heyday.
Modern Era (1961 to present)
The Brethren in North America and Europe, especially over the past three decades, declined in both the number of assemblies and the number of believers in fellowship. In some instances the decline was dramatic. The Brethren in many other parts of the world, however, as Angola, Chad, India, and Romania, experienced tremendous growth. Despite the downturn in the West, there are encouraging developments which hint that times of refreshing and expansion may yet visit us before the Lord returns. One example is the growing vision for planting new assemblies, a vision cheered by successful boots on the ground leading the way in this noble endeavor. Another example is the growing hunger in various places for revival — for believers being emptied of self-seeking and filled with a heaven-fired desire to seek the things of God first.
The Brethren continued steadfastly in their exercise for missionary endeavor. Both in their own efforts and in cooperative efforts with other evangelical organizations, they were on the front lines in Bible translation and pioneer mission work, in reaching the Muslim world, in reaching long-closed nations in the Himalayan corridor, and in expanding the work in established mission fields in Africa, South America, and Asia through evangelism, church planting, and Bible education.
In the West the Brethren are facing off with the same culture changes that challenge all Bible-loving evangelicals. They are attempting to be culturally relevant in a world seething with increasing anti-Judeo-Christian sentiment, while attempting to maintain the New Testament testimony intact (a testimony that the world scorns) and resist the siren song of the movement toward intentionally worldly churches. While the assemblies as a whole have largely resisted the encroachments of the worldly church movement, some quarters show signs of weakening. The real danger here is not falling a little short in our efforts to be culturally relevant. The real danger is following the worldly church movement in their departure from God’s revealed will and ways, beguiled by their misguided agenda to appear culturally relevant to a world determined to depart from God.
For Further Reading and Research
A History of the Plymouth Brethren, W. Blair Neatby
A History of the Brethren Movement, Roy Coad
The Brethren, Andrew Miller
A Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement, H. A. Ironside
History of the Brethren, Napoleon Noel
Who Are the Brethren?, F. F. Bruce
The Origin of So-called Open Brethrenism, W. Trotter
Gathering to His Name: The Story of the Open Brethren in Britain and Ireland, Tim Grass
My People: The History of Those Christians … Called Plymouth Brethren, Robert Baylis
The Origin of the Brethren 1825-1850, Harold H. Rowdon
Chief Men Among the Brethren, Henry Pickering
The Origins and Early Development of the Plymouth Brethren, Peter L. Embley
John Nelson Darby, Max. S. Weremchuk
Open Brethren: Their Origin, Principles, and Practice, Hamilton Smith