Chapter Three Gathering Clouds

It has been a comparatively simple thing thus far to trace out the beginnings and early progress of the Brethren’s meetings. A far more difficult task is now before me; namely, to tell the story of the first great schism that divided them into the two camps of “exclusive” and “open” meetings. To do this in an impartial way, keeping severely to the historical and non-partisan method, requires, it seems to me, an almost superhuman wisdom, something to which the present writer can make no claim. While endeavoring to be strictly impartial, one’s prejudices and predilections are bound to be manifested. It may as well be acknowledged at once that the “exclusive” principle, if not pushed to an extreme, seemed to me for many years to be most nearly Scriptural; but I hold no brief for that wing of the movement, and I have come to the conclusion that it may require greater spirituality to act upon it than most of us possess. I have the warmest admiration for many of those who conscientiously differ from me as to this. I only give this explanation here to make my own position clear, for I fear I shall please neither conservative “exclusives” nor radical “opens” in telling the story as I understand it.

I have already pointed out that all was not harmonious in the Brethren’s ranks during the years that have occupied us. As they increased in numbers and meetings were multiplied, difficulties arose that they had not foreseen in the first happy days.

At this time, while J. N. Darby was undoubtedly the leading figure among the Brethren in Ireland, B. W. Newton was perhaps the man whose learning, ability and piety outshone all others in England, though many remarkable men had become identified with the movement. It was he who was used of God to begin the work at {p. 31}Plymouth, where for fifteen years he was the accredited leader, and from which center his influence, through his printed ministry and frequent visits to other parts of the country, extended far and wide. By 1840 there were over 800 gathered together at the Ebrington Street meeting, where he exercised the teaching and pastoral gifts. By 1845 the number had increased to 1,200. It is questionable if any other assembly of Brethren has ever grown as rapidly. This in itself is proof of the esteem in which he was held.

Mr. Darby did not come to Plymouth until the meeting there was well under way. He was at first warmly received by Mr. Newton, who had met him previously at Oxford, and the saints meeting with him; and he visited them frequently; though for the first few years he preached generally in Anglican pulpits, as he had not yet completely separated from the Church of England. Mr. Newton attended a number of the Prophetic conferences, in Ireland, until it became evident that he and Mr. Darby were hopelessly at variance, both on prophetic teaching and in regard to the nature, calling and order of the church. Mr. Newton was warmly supported in his views by the learned Dr. Tregelles, the textual critic who was in the Plymouth meeting. Mr. Newton was a voluminous writer, as was Mr. Darby; but the works of the former are of a much more finished character than those of the latter, though there is a depth of spirituality about the writings of Mr. Darby that few have attained to. His friends have described Mr. Newton as a polished, scholarly speaker, gentlemanly in his bearing, and most gracious in his demeanor. On the other hand, his opponents dwell on his irritation if crossed, and his unyielding and relentless pressing of his own views in opposition to those of other gifted brethren. He lived to be ninety-three years of age, and after his separation from the Brethren became the pastor of an independent congregation characterized by his particular teaching, in the city of London.

The late venerable man of God, Mr. Henry Varley, well known as an evangelist and Bible teacher in Europe, America and Australia, said to me on one occasion: “If I were asked to name the godliest man I have ever known, I should unhesitatingly say, Benjamin Wills Newton.” He described him as tall and of patriarchal bearing, with the calm of heaven on his brow, and the law of kindness on his {p. 32}lips. His intimate associates loved him devotedly and listened with rapt attention to his expositions.

This was the man who was destined to be the means of rending the Brethren asunder, or at least he was the figure over whom the storm broke. In the minds of many he is to this day the very incarnation of iniquitous teaching.

He viewed with extreme disfavor any departure from Puritan theology, except on eschatological lines. For him, the church included all the faithful from Abraham down. He considered Mr. Darby’s dispensational teaching as the height of speculative nonsense. He was vehemently opposed to the idea of the church being a special company of whose calling and destiny the Old Testament knows nothing, a line of things emphasized by Mr. Darby, Mr. Bellett and their intimates. When at the Powerscourt meetings the idea of the cancelled seventieth week of Daniel, beginning after the rapture of the church, was suggested by Sir Edward Denny and Mr. Darby, it was readily accepted as the key to the prophecies by G. V. Wigram and J. G. Bellett. It was, however, utterly rejected by Mr. Newton, who maintained that the church must go through the final tribulation and that the “rapture” would be coincident with the “appearing.” Other differences gradually led to Mr. Newton’s absenting himself from these gatherings in after years. He remained at Plymouth with the avowed intention of making that place a center and a model for other assemblies, and by printing press and in public meetings he sought to oppose what many believed to be the special work of the Holy Spirit in recovering precious truth long lost through the church’s declension and partial apostasy.

In April, 1845, he issued a statement showing wherein he differed from the rest, and setting forth what he felt called upon to maintain. I give it in full, though the reader will probably find it ambiguous in some particulars:

“It is my desire to maintain,—

“I. That the twelve apostles of our Lord and Saviour do represent believers standing in acknowledged acceptance before God, through the name of Jesus, and that they represent such only.

“II. That the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are Christian Scripture, in the same sense in which the Gospel of John is Christian Scripture. {p. 33} “III. That the Pentecostal church was not in a semi-Jewish or semi-Christian condition, or in any sense ‘earthly,’ or ‘formed for citizenship in the earth;’ but in a true church position, as ‘partakers of the heavenly calling.’

“IV. That the Epistles of Peter, and the Epistle to the Hebrews or Galatians, are not to be regarded as having a lower character than the Epistles to the Ephesians or Colossians.

“V. That the introduction or presence of Jewish circumstances or characteristics into any particular passage, does not necessarily make the subject-matter Jewish.

“VI. That Peter and the Pentecostal church testified to the ascension and heavenly glory of Jesus, equally with St. Paul.

“VII. That there is no salvation and no life apart from union with the person of the Son of God, and that all who so rise in Him are sons of God.

“VIII. That the church is under covenant promise and dispensation, as much as Israel will be; and is in no sense above dispensation, except in the sense in which all the redeemed receive their calling to blessing in Christ Jesus before the foundation of the world, and therefore independent of circumstances here.

“IX. That the resurrection of Christ, and resurrection in Christ, is never regarded in the Scripture, save as abolishing all personal distinctions such as that of Jew and Gentile, among the partakers thereof.

“X. That heavenly blessings, as well as earthly, were included in the promise to Abraham, and that God never purposed or proposed to accomplish one branch of these promises, without also adding the other.

“XL That ‘the household of faith’ is an equivalent expression to ‘church.’

“XII. That the various expressions, etc., applied in Scripture to the church, afford various aspects or positions of the same body, but do not imply that the church is correspondingly divided into distinct and separating compartments.

“XIII. That Abraham and the Old Testament saints are equally with ourselves included under such passages as the following:

“‘The dead in Christ shall rise first.’ ‘As in Adam all have died, even so in Christ shall all be quickened.’

“‘All onewise.’”

During the years that these views were being developed at Plymouth, Mr. Darby was busy preaching and teaching in Great {p. 34}Britain and Ireland, and on the continent of Europe, particularly in Switzerland where many gatherings had been formed. As assemblies were multiplied difficulties increased, and questions of reception, discipline, and internal arrangement became prominent. The early meetings, as we have seen, were of the simplest character. Persons wishing to commune were not examined as to where they had come from, but were received freely if they gave evidence that they belonged to Christ. As time went on, however, there was a tendency to restrict communion in a way that caused some to fear the Brethren would soon become a sect like those about them. Mr. A. N. Groves wrote in 1828:

“My full persuasion is, that inasmuch as any one glories either in being of the Church of England, Scotland, Baptist, Wesleyan, Independent, etc., his glory is in his shame, and that it is anti-Christian; for as the apostle said, “Were any of them crucified for you?’ The only legitimate ground of glorying is, that we are among the ransomed of the Lord by His grace. As ‘bodies I know none of the sects and parties that wound and disfigure the body of Christ; as individuals I desire to love all who love Him. Oh, when will the day come when the love of Christ will have more power to unite than our foolish regulations have to divide the family of God! As for order, if it be God’s order, let it stand, but if it be man’s order, I must examine whether or not it excludes the essence of Christ’s kingdom; for if it does, I remember the word, ‘Call no man your master upon earth; for one is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren.”

That this was the mind of practically all these early Brethren I think has already been made clear, but this word from Mr. Darby written in 1839, in a letter to Rev. J. Kelly, will serve to clinch the subject:

“Whenever Christ has received a person, we should receive him. That false brethren may creep in unawares is possible. If the church be spiritual they will soon be made apparent; but as our table is the Lord’s and not ours, we receive all the Lord has received, all who have fled as poor sinners for refuge to the hope set before them, and rest not in themselves but in Christ as their hope.

“You say, ‘Would you receive a Roman Catholic?’ If a Roman Catholic really extolled Jesus as Saviour, owned his one sacrifice {p. 35}of Himself as the sole putting away of sin, he would have ceased to hold the error and delusion by which the enemy has misled some souls who are still, I trust, precious to Jesus; he would cease to be a Roman Catholic in the evil sense of the word, and on those terms only would he be with us. I repeat, then, we receive all who are on the foundation, and reject and put away all error by the Word of God and the help of His ever-living Spirit.”

The last clause will seem rather bombastic and conceited, but it is well to remember that Mr. Darby wrote jerkily and did not always fully express what was in his mind. Besides, he was still a young man, just thirty-nine years of age, and not yet disillusionized as to the impossibility of any company of believers putting away all error. His letter at least shows how different were his views from those of many today who glory in being known as his followers while forming sectarian circles of the narrowest conceivable kind.

But as to the inter-relation of assemblies Mr. Darby early taught what afterwards came to be known as exclusivism. He believed geographical distance did not relieve of responsibility to act in unison and he sought to press upon the assemblies or gatherings of Brethren their responsibility to act together in matters of discipline. This alarmed A. N. Groves, who after his return from Bagdad found what seemed to him positive evidence of the formation of a confederation of meetings which he considered would eventually put the Brethren back again on full sectarian ground. In that year he wrote a letter to Mr. Darby, whom he regarded as the leader in introducing new views, which those afterwards called “Open” Brethren have looked upon as almost prophetic, and every “exclusive” must admit it contains much food for thought. He says:

“I wish you to feel assured that nothing has estranged my heart from you, or lowered my confidence in your still being animated by the same enlarged and generous purposes that once so won and riveted me; and though I feel you have departed from those principles by which you once hoped to have effected them, and in principle returning to the city from whence you departed, still my soul so reposes in the truth of your heart to God that I feel it needs but a step or two more to advance, and you will see all the evils of the systems from whence you profess to be separated, to spring up among yourselves. You will not {p. 36}discover this so much from the workings of your own soul, as by the spirit of those who have been nurtured up from the beginning in the system they are taught to feel the only tolerable one; and not having been led like you, and some of those earliest connected with you, through deep experimental suffering and sorrow, they are little acquainted with the real truth that may exist amidst inconceivable darkness: there will be little pity and little sympathy with such, and your union daily becoming one of doctrine and opinion more than life or love, your government will become—unseen, perhaps, and unexpressed, yet one wherein overwhelmingly is felt the authority of men; you will be known more by what you witness against, than what you witness for, and practically this will prove that you witness against all but yourselves.

“It has been asserted . . . that I have changed my principles: all I can say is, that as far as I know what those principles were, in which I gloried on first discovering them in the Word of God, I now glory in them ten times more since I have experienced their applicability to all the various and perplexing circumstances of the present state of the church; allowing you to give every individual, and collection of individuals, the standing God gives them, without identifying yourselves with any of their evils. I ever understood our principle of communion to be the possession of the common life, or common blood of the family of God; these were our early thoughts, and they are my most matured ones. The transition your little bodies have undergone, in no longer standing forth the witnesses for the glorious and simple truth, so much as standing forth witnesses against all that they judge error, has lowered them in my apprehension from heaven to earth, in their position as witnesses . . . The position which this occupying the seat of judgment places them in, will be this: The most narrow-minded and bigoted will rule, because his conscience cannot and will not give way, and therefore the more enlarged heart will yield. It is into this position, dear Darby, I feel some little flocks are fast tending, if they have not already attained it, making light, not life, the measure of communion.” [Italics mine].

However, it is very evident that many Brethren were already beginning to feel the need of some clearly denned rule as to matters of discipline, and as to this A. N. Groves and B. W. Newton represented two extremes, while J. N. Darby seemed to take a middle {p. 37}path. The latter would have the disciplinary act of one assembly ratified by all if Scriptural authority could be shown for the action. Moreover he would own as New Testament assemblies only those meetings where common principles and similar teaching was held, and where there was a definite testimony against evil in life or doctrine. At least this is what he was tending to. Mr. Groves, on the contrary, would cast each assembly directly upon God, refusing the thought of ‘interference’ by others. He held to the independence of each local meeting. And as to discipline he counted largely on spiritual power within repelling or else expelling unworthy intruders; a principle Mr. Darby also recognized, but not as relieving meetings of their responsibility. Mr. Newton on the other hand would organize each assembly, appoint elders and deacons, recognize pastors; and these various officers would constitute an official board to handle the affairs of the local church.

This he sought to carry out in Plymouth and in this he was ably assisted by Dr. Tregelles, and by J. L. Harris, a former Anglican clergyman of marked ability, who was recognized as co-pastor with himself.

The great majority in Plymouth were thoroughly satisfied with this arrangement, while a very small minority were very restless under it and felt that the whole principle of Brethren’s meetings had been gradually given up. Looking back through the years one can scarcely escape the conclusion that it might have been better if the minority had quietly separated and begun a new meeting in another part of the city—not in antagonism to the older Brethren, but where fuller liberty could be enjoyed, and then have waited on God to show the next step. As it was they were in frequent correspondence with Mr. Darby and his co-laborers, and upon his return from the continent he was persuaded to go to Plymouth, which he did, very much to the disgust and indignation of Mr. Newton’s particular friends. He denies that he was sent for, but he certainly was urged to go by many who viewed with alarm the changed conditions there. He has given a very full, and, it would seem to me, a very fair account of what followed in his “Narrative of Facts,” a lawyer-like document in which he tells why he acted as he did at Plymouth in the months that followed. But we must leave consideration of this until the next chapter.

In closing this very imperfect section may I add that a careful {p. 38}perusal of the early writings of the Brethren shows that there had been a gradual declension and lowering of the standard after the first happy years. Worldliness had crept in, with its accompaniments of pride and vain-glory. To this G. V. Wigram bore trenchant witness. Many Brethren became occupied with themselves, and commonly wrote and spoke of their companies as “the latter day remnant,” “the godly residue,” “the Philadelphian church,” and similar self-laudatory expressions, obnoxious to a spiritual mind. They looked with supercilious contempt on saints as godly as themselves—or even far more devoted—who remained in the various organized bodies, and were not backward in claiming in some instances exclusive possession of the table of the Lord. Is it any wonder that a holy God, who loves all His people, equally, blew upon such pretension and permitted circumstances to arise which scattered and divided them, and made them a witness rather to the power of the flesh to break, than to the power of the Spirit to keep the unity He has formed?

Yet are there not lessons to be learned from the failures of the Brethren to maintain that unity in the bond of peace? Do we not, only too frequently, see devoted men of God, leaders in the present mighty work of the Holy Spirit; the protest against modernism,—arrayed against one another because of divergent views on minor details, instead of standing together against the evil they seek to combat? We may well be reminded of Nelson at Trafalgar who, coming on deck and finding two British officers quarreling, whirled them about and pointing to the ships of the adversary, exclaimed, “Gentlemen, there are your enemies!”

That it was the leaders who were chiefly responsible for the threatened breach of communion seems very evident. The rank and file were simple, godly Christians rejoicing in their liberty from what they regarded as sectarian bondage, and were, generally speaking, ardent gospelers going out into the streets and public places, as well as in their rented halls and chapels, to carry the glad tidings of a known salvation received by faith and evidenced by the love of the Spirit. That Satan hates this we may be sure and so he sought to destroy the testimony by sowing discord among brethren.