Plymouth Brethren History FAQ
Here is a FAQ on the history of that movement sometimes referred to as the “Plymouth Brethren”. That title is rejected by most of the Christians within these assemblies, but is commonly applied to them. The questions appear in the left column, while the answers appear in the right column. Also in the right column is my analysis of the historical facts. This analysis appears in Italics.
1. 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.
2. 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 Aungier Street.
Given that this movement started in Dublin, the inaccuracy of the title “Plymouth Brethren” should be clear.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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 inquired 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.
9. 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 separated. 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 time!”
Mr Darby is often seen as the hard doctrine-driven man in these matters, and Mr Muller as the gentle man seeking reconciliation. These labels may have some truth, but it is clear that Mr Darby in this case sought reconciliation. A man as sensitive as Mr Muller should have realized that even if Mr Darby’s actions in the matter were wicked, he acted solely based on what he felt was a zeal for the person of the Lord Jesus. History does not record what the “important engagement” was that Mr Muller had, but given the subsequent history of splits, one wonders how important it was.
It should also be noted that Mr Newton’s teaching is not to be found in any of the assemblies, Open or Exclusive. From this point on, the great issue was not Mr Newton’s teaching, but whether all the churches in fellowship with each other should act in a united manner in all situations, or whether each church maintained some degree of autonomy.
10. How did the “Kelly” Division come about? What was the “Ramsgate Question?”
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”.
In Ryde, an Anglican church clergyman became convicted about New Testament church principles, and soon most of his congregation wished to follow him and meet in New Testament simplicity. The clergyman’s name was Mr. Finch, and he was a friend of the now aged Dr Cronin. Unfortunately, Exclusive doctrine required that there could only be one church in a city, and if the believers in Mr. Finch’s congregation wished to be received into Exclusive fellowship, they would be required to disband as a church, and individually apply to be received into the existing (rotten) meeting. Undoubtedly the influence of the Bethesda dispute was the reason why they would be required to disband. Mr Finch refused to disband and join the existing (rotten) meeting. Finally, Mr. Finch and his followers began to break bread by themselves, much in the manner of the first meetings in the 1820’s.
Dr Cronin visited Ryde and tried to help the existing (rotten) meeting in Ryde, but finally left and broke bread in the Finch meeting. When he returned to his home assembly in Kennington, his actions were deemed to be a denial of the one body and tasting of independency. After about 6 months of discussions, Dr Cronin was excommunicated.
Evidently, this was not good enough for some in the Ramsgate meeting. Led by Mr. Jull, a majority decided to excommunicate the entire Kennington meeting for being too slow to excommunicate Dr Cronin. Since some disagreed with this action, the majority seperated from them and began meeting in Guildford Hall. The minority (who opposed the excommunication of the entire Kennington meeting) met at Abbott’s Hill. Unable to obtain the key to their building, the Abbott’s Hill people were unable to break bread the first Sunday after the split.
Guildford Hall sent a message to the Park Street meeting in London requesting that they judge as to which meeting (Guildford Hall or Abbott’s Hill) was in the right. This is what became known as the “Ramsgate Question”. William Kelly could not see wrongness in Dr Cronin’s actions, but the Park Street meeting finally decided that Guildford Hall was in the right for excommunicating the Kennington meeting for being too slow to excommunicate Dr Cronin! Those who refused to accept the Park Street decision (including William Kelly and Andrew Miller) were deemed to be outside (i.e. excommunicated) from the Park Street meeting. J.B. Stoney was the leading man at the Park Street meeting (among those who agreed with the excommunication of William Kelly). This was in 1881. The majority of assemblies in North America sided with Park Street, and against William Kelly.
To anyone not in Exclusive fellowship, this first split among the Exclusives will seem ridiculous. The split could have been avoided at a number of places. First, if one man had not been obstinate about who he was going to marry, a worldwide division could have been avoided. He had to have known that his actions (which were illegal) were going to create a stir. Second, if Dr Cronin had not been so quick to break bread with the Finch meeting (an action he had to know was going to create problems), division could have been avoided. If Ramsgate had not been so willing to interfere in the business of the Kennington meeting (remember that neither Kennington or the Guildford Hall group doubted that Dr Cronin should be excommunicated, they only disputed over whether Kennington was taking too long), division could have been avoided. Finally, if Park Street had not presumed to be the judge between Guildford Hall and Abbott’s Hill, division could have been avoided. Indeed, the conduct of the Park Street meeting both here and later reminds one of Papal Rome.
11. 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 friends.
In 1879 or 1880, F.W. Grant and his brother R.T. Grant were in Toronto. In the assembly, it was mentioned that a young man who was very sick wanted to break bread. Two men from the assembly visited him to examine whether they could receive him into fellowship (even though he was too sick to go to their meeting and simply wanted to break bread as a believer before he died). These two men felt that he had to be sealed with the Spirit before he could break bread with them, and he could only be considered to be sealed with the Spirit when he had seen the finished work of Christ. Believing his grasp of this theology to be insufficient, they left and the young man died without having partaken of the Lord’s Supper. These two men returned to their assembly in Toronto and made a report about their actions.
R.T Grant heard their report and was appalled. He immediately wrote an article on the topic and sent it to his brother F.W. Grant, who was editing a magazine. The article was published, placing the Grant brothers in direct conflict with Darby’s teaching. Lord Adelbert P. Cecil, a follower of Darby, was allowed to answer R.T. Grant’s article in F.W. Grant’s magazine. Darby, very sick at this time, wrote a pamphlet of his own on the topic. After consideration of this, F.W. Grant wrote a book entitled, “Life in Christ and Sealing with the Spirit”. Regretably, Darby had died by this time, and Darby’s followers took this as a direct attack made by F.W. Grant against a dead man who was not able to respond.
Adelbert Cecil found some who sympathized with him in Montreal at an assembly called the Natural History Hall, and a letter rejecting F.W. Grant’s ministry was drawn up. 38 people signed it, although it would seem that a number of them didn’t understand what they had signed. At a meeting of the assembly, despite protests, a motion placing F.W. Grant out of fellowship was rammed through. About one quarter of the exclusive meetings in North America sided with Natural History Hall and London’s Park Street meeting, and about three quarters refused the Natural History Hall judgement, either out of respect for F.W. Grant or out of protest against the methods used by Lord Cecil and his associates. Shortly after this, Adelbert Cecil died in a boating accident on Lake Ontario.
Most will see the issue of when we are sealed with the Spirit as a rather fine theological point. One wonders at the wisdom of forcing simple saints to take sides in such debates. When one has wrestled with a deep theological issue for years and finally reachs some conclusions about a matter, one should not be surprised if it takes time for others to see and accept it. Too often, a man will study an issue for years, make up his mind, teach it from the platform and expect all others to immediately adopt it.
F.W. Grant should have been more careful in considering how his book would be received, and ignorance cannot be pleaded since a number of brothers warned him against publishing it. The followers of Darby should have realized that this was not a personal attack upon their dead leader, for Darby’s own letters revealed the continuing closeness between himself and Grant.
12. 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 second recurring tendency is for the Park Street meeting in London to act as a virtual “Church of Rome”. While firmly declaring that a local church had the right to bind on earth and thus bind in heaven (i.e. the judgments of each local church are binding on all others), Park Street regularly went against the judgments of other local churches and acted as an ecclesiastical authority. No matter now many brothers of learning and repute an assembly may have in fellowship, care must be taken that a prideful authoritarian attitude does not develop!
13. 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).
In November 1889, in response to serious concerns being raised, Mr Raven declared he would not teach in London (where the Park Street meeting was) and he would not attend the London meeting, if the brethren so desired. However, he was just as active preaching in meetings outside London.
In Greenwich, there was division over Mr Raven’s teachings. Some people who sided with Mr Raven tried to go to the meeting in Bexhill, but were refused. Evidently the Greenwich meeting eventually sided with Raven since Bexhill proceeded to declare Greenwich out of fellowship. A number of well known brethren sided with Bexhill, but the Park Street meeting sided with Mr Raven and declared the Bexhill meeting to be schismatic and out of fellowship. C.H. Mackintosh remained at Park Street, not because he held to Mr Raven’s teaching, but because he was tired of the continual battles.
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 beneficial.
Bexhill had the right to refuse fellowship with the Raven party, but then placing Greenwich out of fellowship only fanned the fires.
By this point, London’s Park Street meeting has become increasingly irrelevant to most “Brethren”. So many have broken fellowship with them worldwide that fewer people cared about another split in their ranks. The attitude could be summarized as “Raven was a heretic and we would want no fellowship with him, but we have no fellowship with Park Street anyway, so who cares.”
14. 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 meetings.
The Raven meetings were further split by the teachings of Mr James Taylor Sr. (who denied the Eternal Sonship of Christ) and his son, Mr James Taylor Jr. Apparently these meetings suffered further divisions and as far as I know are entirely excluded from fellowship from all other meetings (open, closed or exclusive).
The Raven and Taylor “Brethren” are generally unreceived by any other meetings, and few in the “Open” meetings have ever heard of them.
15. 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 valuable as a source of original material, which he quotes extensively. Mr Noel writes more about the Tunbridge-Wells split, having been through it.
This FAQ is provided for information purposes only and does not necessarily represent the practice of any particular group of Christians. The author is not responsible for any errors or omissions, and will gladly receive any corrections. This FAQ is copyrighted to maintain the integrity of the material. This FAQ may be redistributed freely provided it is redistributed in its original form (unedited and unmodified). This FAQ may not be redistributed for financial gain. Where necessary this FAQ may be cited as follows:
Abigail, Shawn G., “Plymouth Brethren History FAQ, Version 1.0, August 2018, Distributed on The Internet by Shawn G. Abigail”
© 2018 by Shawn G. Abigail