Chapter Five The Bethesda Question And The First Great Division

Many who know little else about the movement of which I am writing, have heard of “the Bethesda question,” and perhaps wondered what was involved in it. This I shall now endeavor to make plain.

Swete the theologian says, referring to the age-long controversy between the eastern and the western churches about “the Procession of the Holy Spirit,” that “it can never be composed until justice is done to the sincerity of both parties.” How often has this been true of similar differences! And most aptly do the words apply to the Plymouth Bethesda question, which rent the Brethren asunder in 1848 and still keeps them divided, though sober men on both sides decry much that then took place whether on the part of Mr. Muller and his associates or Mr. Darby and his friends.

So long as prejudice rules the mind a reasonable judgment can never be arrived at. If each can see but self-will or indifference to Christ’s glory on the part of the others there will never be a healing of the breach.

I desire to recognize the integrity and devotedness of the leaders on each side of the unhappy affair. To question Mr. Muller’s love for Christ and desire to glorify Him is as foolish and sinful as to charge Mr. Darby with selfish ambition and the spirit of Diotrephes. Both were men of God, greatly used in their respective spheres. Their differences were as sad as those that separated the Wesleys and Whitefield in the previous century.

George Muller was a German Baptist minister who had settled in England, and Henry Craik was a Baptist pastor in Devonshire, where the two were near neighbors in the later twenties of the 19th {p. 57}century. God had been leading both along the same road that he was opening up to Dr. Cronin, J. N. Darby, and others in Ireland. At Teignmouth Mr. Muller had begun a weekly meeting for the breaking of bread under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, he himself refusing to preside. This was but a few years after the work began in Dublin, and some months before there was any meeting in Plymouth, or in any other part of England, so far as is now known. Even earlier than this Mr. Henry Craik had been a guest of Anthony Norris Groves in Exeter, and they often spoke together of the fallen state of the church and the advisability of proceeding on simple, Scriptural lines. Mr. Henry Groves, son of A. N. Groves, relates in Darbyism that Mr. Craik said to him on one occasion “It was not at St. Andrew’s; it was not at Plymouth; it was at Exeter that the Lord taught me those lessons of dependence on Himself and of catholic fellowship which I have sought to carry out.”

It is important to note this for there has been an effort by some to exalt Mr. Darby as though he were the prophet of the movement, whereas it is evident that there was a distinct work of the Spirit along the same lines in a number of different places at about the same time.

Mr. Craik and Mr. Muller often conferred together and were of one mind as to their principles and sought to carry them out so far as they had light while still in Devonshire, refusing a stipulated salary and endeavoring to lead the saints into the knowledge of their priestly privileges and of the heavenly calling of the church.

In regard to the establishment of Bethesda chapel I cannot do better than quote Mr. Henry Groves who was thoroughly familiar with the facts. He says:

“While Mr. Muller was at Teignmouth, Mr. Craik was at Shaldon, a village close by, where for some years he had been laboring for the Lord. It was there that they were first drawn together; and when in 1832 it was proposed to Mr. Craik to come to Bristol, he only consented to do so on the condition that his brother and fellow-laborer would go there too. Bethesda chapel was at that time for hire, and was taken for them by a gentleman who had heard Mr. Craik preach; and entering on its bare walls, they labored together during a period of more than three and thirty years. This circumstance is mentioned because of the false assertion often made, that the church at{p. 58}Bethesda was originally the remains of a Baptist congregation. These brethren belonged to no denomination, but brought to Bristol with them those views of church-fellowship and of faith which had marked them in Devonshire, and which led to their being considered by both churchmen and dissenters as occupying the anomalous position of belonging to no party, and who without personal resources were content, as it was said at the time, ‘to minister without salary, and to accommodate their hearers without pew rents.’ But the Lord whom they served has these many years showed that ‘those who honor Him He will honor.’ The Lord has so caused the light of the saints gathered in fellowship to shine abroad that persons from Holland, Sweden, France, Portugal, and other places far and near, have come to learn the way of the Lord more perfectly, and to know the secret of that order, harmony and fellowship which has for so many years characterized them.

“It is further an interesting fact, that there are many assemblies meeting in the north of Ireland, the fruit of the late revival there, which owe their present liberty of church communion and ministry to reading Mr. Muller’s Narrative; and one who is now with the Lord, and was used as the instrument in the Lord’s hand of the awakening in those parts, acknowledged to the writer when he met him at Kells, in 1858, as he did subsequently in Bristol, that the sense of the reality of prayer which he had obtained from reading Mr. Muller’s Narrative, led him to seek for that faith in reference to the conversion of sinners, which resulted in that remarkable revival which then began in the north of Ireland.

“In 1832 the first seven members were received into fellowship in Bethesda. That year cholera broke out, and the Lord wonderfully blessed the ministry of the Word to the conversion of many a poor sinner; and from that small commencement has the Lord been adding continually to the church, till the number in fellowship at present stands about twelve hundred. It will not fail to be noticed by those who have much intercourse with these saints, particularly with the poorer class, how much the paths of practical godliness and of living faith that have been taught and lived have been owned of God, in leading them to follow in the footsteps of those who have sought to be examples to the flock in daily life, not only ‘in word,’ but also ‘in behavior, in charity, in faith, in purity.’ Such was the position occupied by Bethesda; and Mr. Wigram, after the disruption, {p. 59}writing in reference to this time, says: ‘Time was once when Bethesda was Nazarite in character, and derided by the world and by dissenters, and I gloried in fellowship with her reproach.’ “

At first there was a question in Mr. Muller’s mind as to whether unimmersed believers should be received to communion. Were such to be considered as walking disorderly? This probably gave rise to the idea that Bethesda was an independent Baptist congregation.5 But upon consulting the saintly Robert Chapman of Barnstaple he became convinced that difference of judgment as to the ordinance of baptism ought not to constitute a ban to Christian fellowship, and so, ever afterwards saints were received at Bethesda as such and not because of like views on an ordinance.

George Muller’s great work of faith and labor of love in connection with the Ashley Downs orphan houses marks him out as one of the spiritual giants of the 19th century. This is too well known to require lengthy notice here. But I draw attention to it because of the shocking way in which carnal men on the exclusive side have referred to one whose shoes they were not worthy to bear. Of one thing there can be no question. The prayer-hearing God who so marvellously honored Muller’s faith in him never refused fellowship with him when others branded him as contaminated with moral leprosy and with indifference to Christ because he differed with many as to how the Plymouth matter should be handled. One trembles to think what it will mean to answer at the judgment seat of Christ for casting aspersions on a man of God like Muller and personally I would rather cut off my right hand than pen one word of ungracious criticism, though it is my sincere judgment that a mistake was made at Bethesda the results of which have been far-reaching indeed.

The matter was forced upon the assembly at Bristol in this way. When the difficulties at Plymouth came to a culmination and Mr. Newton and those remaining with him were considered under the ban of excommunication some from the Newton meeting went {p. 60}to Bristol and applied for fellowship at Bethesda. This at once aroused a minority, headed by a Mr. Alexander, who protested against their reception on the ground that “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” They felt that to receive persons from Ebrington Street was virtually to undo the discipline at Plymouth and besides was introducing the evil into the meeting at Bristol. Against their protest the overseeing brethren decided that the persons in question were not involved in Mr. Newton’s errors and might after examination be received, which they were, with the result that Mr. Alexander and the other protesters withdrew from fellowship. That this was hasty action on their part I think any thoughtful person will recognize, while on the other hand few will condone the action of the overseers in ruthlessly overruling their objection and admitting the friends of Mr. Newton until a thorough inquiry could be made. Doubtless the Bethesda elders desired to avoid perplexing the simple and raising needless questions as to the exact character of the teaching of Newton. But their action only served to spread the flames, so to speak, instead of putting out the fire. There was much agitation and considerable correspondence between Mr. Alexander and Mr. Darby, and the Bethesda meeting was greatly disturbed thereby.

Finally a meeting of the elder brethren was called and after considerable discussion a letter was drawn up setting forth their reasons for acting as they did. This historic document I give in full. It is known as “The Letter of the Ten”:

“Dear Brethren: Our brother, Mr. George Alexander, having printed and circulated a statement expressive of his reasons for withdrawing from visible fellowship with us at the table of the Lord; and these reasons being grounded on the fact that those who labour among you have not complied with his request relative to the judging of certain errors which have been taught at Plymouth; it becomes needful that those of us who have incurred any responsibility in this matter should lay before you a brief explanation of the way in which we have acted.”

“And first, it may be well to mention, that we had no intimation whatever to our brother’s intention to act as he has done, nor any knowledge of his intention to circulate any letter, until it was put into our hands in print. {p. 61} “Some weeks ago, he expressed his determination to bring his views before a meeting of the body, and he was told that he was quite at liberty to do so. He afterwards declared that he would waive this, but never intimated, in the slightest way, his intention to act as he has done, without first affording the church an opportunity of hearing his reasons for separation. Under these circumstances, we feel it of the deepest importance, for relieving the disquietude of mind naturally occasioned by our brother’s letter, explicitly to state that the views relative to the person of our blessed Lord, held by those who for sixteen years have been occupied in teaching the word amongst you, are unchanged.

“The truths relative to the divinity of his person, the sinlessness of his nature, and the perfection of his sacrifice, which have been taught both in public teaching and in writing, for these many years past, are, through the grace of God, those which we still maintain. We feel it most important to make this avowal, inasmuch as the letter referred to is calculated, we trust unintentionally, to convey a different impression to the minds of such as cherish a godly jealousy for the faith once delivered to the saints.

“We add, for the further satisfaction of any who may have had their minds disturbed, that we utterly disclaim the assertion that the blessed Son of God was involved in the guilt of the first Adam; or that he was born under the curse of the broken law, because of his connection with Israel. We hold him to have been always the Holy One of God, in whom the Father was ever well pleased. We know of no curse which the Savior bore, except that which he endured as the surety for sinners—according to that Scripture, ‘he was made a curse for us.’ We utterly reject the thought of his ever having had the experiences of an unconverted person; but maintain that while he suffered outwardly the trials connected with his being a man and an Israelite—still in his feelings and experiences, as well as in his external character, he was entirely ‘separate from sinners.’

“We now proceed to state the grounds on which we have felt a difficulty in complying with the request of our brother, Mr. Alexander, that we should formally investigate and give judgment on certain errors which have been taught among Christians meeting at Plymouth.

“1st. We considered from the beginning that it would not {p. 62}be for the comfort or edification of the saints here—nor for the glory of God — that we, in Bristol, should get entangled in the controversy connected with the doctrines referred to. We do not feel that, because errors may be taught at Plymouth or elsewhere, therefore we, as a body, are bound to investigate them.

“2nd. The practical reason alleged why we should enter upon the investigation of certain tracts issued at Plymouth was, that thus we might be able to know how to act with reference to those who might visit us from thence, or who are supposed to be adherents of the author of the said publications. In reply to this, we have to state, that the views of the writer alluded to could only be fairly learned from the examination of his own acknowledged writings. We did not feel that we should be warranted in taking our impression of the views actually held by him from any other source than from some treatise written by himself, and professedly explanatory of the doctrines advocated. Now there has been such variableness in the views held by the writer in question, that it is difficult to ascertain what he would now acknowledge as his.

“3rd. In regard to these writings, Christian brethren, hitherto of unblemished reputation for soundness in the faith, have come to different conclusions as to the actual amount of error contained in them. The tracts, some of us knew to be written in such an ambiguous style, that we greatly shrunk from the responsibility of giving any formal judgment on the matter.

“4th. As approved brethren, in different places, have come to such different conclusions in reference to the amount of error contained in these tracts, we could neither desire nor expect that the saints here would be satisfied with the decision of one or two leading brethren. Those who felt desirous to satisfy their own minds, would naturally be led to wish to peruse the writings for themselves. For this, many amongst us have no leisure time; many would not be able to understand what the tracts contained, because of the mode of expression employed; and the result, there is much to fear, would be such perverse disputations and strifes of words, as minister questions rather than godly edifying.

“5th. Even some of those who now condemn the tracts as containing doctrine essentially unsound, did not so understand them on the first perusal. Those of us who were specially {p. 63}requested to investigate and judge the errors contained in them, felt that, under such circumstances, there was but little probability of our coming to unity of judgment touching the nature of the doctrines therein embodied.

“6th. Even supposing that those who inquired into the matter had come to the same conclusion, touching the amount of positive error therein contained, this would not have guided us in our decision respecting individuals coming from Plymouth. For supposing the author of the tracts were fundamentally heretical, this would not warrant us in rejecting those who came from under his teaching, until we were satisfied that they had understood and imbibed views essentially subversive of foundation-truth; especially as those meetings at Ebrington Street, Plymouth, last January, put forth a statement, disclaiming the errors charged against the tracts.

“7th. The requirement that we should investigate and judge Mr. Newton’s tracts, appeared to some of us like the introduction of a fresh test of communion. It was demanded of us that, in addition to a sound confession and a corresponding walk, we should, as a body, come to a formal decision about what many of us might be quite unable to understand.

“8th. We remembered the Word of the Lord, that “the beginning of strife is as the letting out of water.’ We were well aware that the great body of believers amongst us were in happy ignorance of the Plymouth controversy, and we did not feel it well to be considered as identifying ourselves with either party. We judge that this controversy had been so carried on as to cause the truth to be evil spoken of; and we do not desire to be considered as identifying ourselves with that which has caused the opposer to reproach the way of the Lord. At the same time we wish distinctly to be understood that we would seek to maintain fellowship with all believers, and consider ourselves as particularly associated with those who meet as we do, simply in the name of the Lord Jesus.

“9th. We felt that the compliance with Mr. Alexander’s request would be the introduction of an evil precedent.” a brother has a right to demand our examining a work of fifty pages, he may require our investigating error said to be contained in one of much larger dimensions; so that all our time might be wasted in the examination of other people’s errors, instead of more important service.

“It only remains to notice the three reasons specially assigned {p. 64} by Mr. Alexander in justification of his course of action. To the first, viz., that by our not judging this matter, many of the Lord’s people will be excluded from communion with us”—we reply, that unless our brethren can prove, either that error is held and taught amongst us, or that individuals are received into communion who ought not to be admitted, they can have no Scriptural warrant for withdrawing from our fellowship. We would affectionately entreat such brethren as may be disposed to withdraw from communion for the reason assigned, to consider that, except they can prove allowed evil in life or doctrine, they cannot, without violating the principles on which we meet, treat us as if we had renounced the faith of the gospel.

“In reply to the second reason, viz., ‘that persons may be received from Plymouth holding evil doctrines,’—we are happy in being able to state, that ever since the matter was agitated, we have maintained that persons coming from thence—if suspected of any error—would be liable to be examined on the point; that in the case of one individual who had fallen under the suspicion of certain brethren amongst us, not only was there private intercourse with him relative to his views, as soon as it was known that he was objected to, but the individual referred to—known to some of us for several years as a consistent Christian—actually came to a meeting of laboring brethren for the very purpose that any question might be asked him by any brother who should have any difficulty on his mind. Mr. Alexander himself was the principal party in declining the presence of the brother referred to, on that occasion, such inquiry being no longer demanded, inasmuch as the difficulties relative to the views of the individual in question had been removed by private intercourse. We leave Mr. Alexander to reconcile this fact, which he cannot have forgotten, with the assertion contained under his second special reason for withdrawing.

“In regard to the third ground alleged by Mr. Alexander, viz., that by not judging the matter, we lie under the suspicion of supporting false doctrine, we have only to refer to the statement already made at the commencement of this paper.

“In conclusion, we would seek to impress upon all present, the evil of treating the subject of our Lord’s humanity as a matter of speculative or angry controversy. One of those who have {p. 65}been ministering among you from the beginning, feels it a matter of deep thankfulness to God, that so long ago as in the year 1835,6 he committed to writing, and subsequently printed, what he had learned from the Scriptures of truth relative to the meaning of that inspired declaration, ‘The Word was made flesh.’ He would affectionately refer any whose minds may be now disquieted, to what he then wrote, and was afterwards led to publish. If there be heresy in the simple statements contained in the letters alluded to, let it be pointed out; if not, let all who are interested in the matter know that we continue unto the present day, ‘speaking the same things.’ (Signed)

Henry Craik,

George Muller,

Jacob Henry Hale,

Charles Brown,

Elijah Stanley,

Edmund Feltham,

John Withy,

Samuel Butler,

John Meredith,

Robert Aitchison.”

I do not hesitate to say that it seems clear to me that far more importance has been attached to this document than it deserves, or than the signatories ever expected it to receive. It was manifestly never intended for widespread circulation nor as establishing a precedent which other assemblies were to follow.

It was simply a declaration by the leaders at Bethesda of their judgment at the time and of their reasons for acting as they did. Persons might or might not agree with them but there is certainly no ground to question their motives, nor is it brotherly to charge them with lack of conscience and with neutrality as to Christ because in their judgment the Newtonian question should not be forced upon hundreds of simple believers. Mr. William Trotter, author of The Whole Case of Plymouth and Bethesda, boldly accuses the signers of want of uprightness, because one of them, Robert Aitchison, afterwards seemed to swing over completely to Mr. Newton and left the Bethesda fellowship. But this is uncharitable to say the least, and while he was ever an admirer of Mr. Newton there is no evidence so far as I have been able to discover that would prove he held Mr. Newton’s views {p. 66}when he signed the paper, He is not the first man who repudiated at one time what he accepted at least in part, later on.

The crux of the whole matter is paragraph 6. Mr. Darby felt this was a most dangerous principle, as undoubtedly it is, if it be not qualified. He considered that it opened the door to all manner of defilement in the shape of evil teaching and wicked principles. It was like receiving infected persons, or suspected ones at least, from a plague-stricken house. His soul revolted from it with horror as a most grievous evidence of indifference to Christ. He, the Holy One, had been attacked. Bethesda would put peace before righteousness and would not take the trouble to guard the assembly from such fearful errors as had been made manifest at Plymouth. His sincerity cannot be rightly questioned. The pity is that he failed to realize that Messrs. Muller and Craik were undoubtedly as desirous of honoring Christ as he. The question was how best to do it?

And it should be emphasized that again and again it has been shown that the Ten at Bethesda did not mean to commit the assembly to intercommunion with assemblies holding false doctrine, but rather sought to so act as to deliver souls by receiving them in hope that they would not have any further fellowship with their former teacher. Mr. Muller and his associates were thinking of the saints. Mr. Darby was thinking of Christ. His stern hatred of any system or doctrine that detracted from the glory of the Holy One of God filled him with indignation toward what seemed to him to be neutrality and indifference. He never wavered in this judgment to the day of his death, but on the other hand he never contemplated the wholesale refusal of brethren who did not see eye to eye with him, that many of his followers and associates insisted on. His later letters prove this conclusively.

It is to be regretted that there was so much correspondence by letters and that the leaders on both sides did not get together in brotherly conference after the letter of The Ten was written that they might carefully go into it together, but doubtless neither party had the slightest realization of how widespread the division would become over this vexed question.

Stripped of all unnecessary details it simply simmers down to this: What should be the attitude of Scripturally-gathered assemblies {p. 67}of saints, to persons themselves properly under sentence of excommunication, or to those associated with them? Bethesda and those of like mind practically said, “Examine them individually and receive such as have not inbibed the teaching or wilfully endorsed the evil.” These were called “Neutral” or “Open” brethren by the others, who maintained that inasmuch as it is written “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump,” an assembly tolerating known evil is like a leprous house and any intercommunion with it, receiving from or commending to it, is but to spread the defilement. Association with evil necessarily defiles the otherwise clean and sound believers. Therefore they would refuse all fellowship with any church or assembly tolerating moral or doctrinal evil. They maintained also that if one were excommunicated for Scriptural reasons by any company of Christians, he was by that act properly excluded from every assembly of saints on earth until by repentance and confession he was re-instated. These were known as “Exclusives.”

Thus it will be seen that the terms “open” and “exclusive” have no reference to the Brethren’s attitude toward Christians not regularly meeting with them or holding denominational membership, but they relate solely to these matters of internal discipline.

Reverting to the question under discussion, it may help to get the exclusive point of view if I quote verbatim from William Trotter’s Whole Case, in regard to events immediately following those already delineated. He writes:

“A meeting was held in Bethesda, October 31st, 1848, in which Mr. Muller gave his own individual judgment of Mr. Newton’s tracts, stating that they contained a system of insidious error, not here and there, but throughout; and that if the doctrines taught in them were followed out to their legitimate consequences, they would destroy the foundations of the gospel, and overthrow the Christian faith. The legitimate consequences of these doctrines he stated to be ‘to make the Lord need a Savior as well as others.’ Still, while recording so strong an individual judgment as this, Mr. Muller said that he could not say Mr. N. was a heretic, that he could not refuse to call him brother. And he was most careful in maintaining that what he said was not the judgment of the church, but his own individual judgment, for which {p. 68}he and he alone was responsible. As to the paper of ‘the ten,’ and all the steps connected with it, he justified them entirely, and said that were they again in the circumstances they would pursue the same course. And what, I ask, is. the natural effect of such a proceeding as this? On the one hand the individual judgment against the evil lulls to sleep consciences that are beginning to awake. People say, surely there can be no danger of unsoundness where such a judgment against evil is recorded as this. While on the other hand the door is left as wide open to the evil as ever; and Satan is quite satisfied if you will only let it in, whatever strong things you may say against it.”

Bethesda, however, indignantly repudiated the charge of neutrality, indifference to Christ, and of leaving the door open to the evil.

Meeting after meeting was held to see what more could be done. Mr. Newton’s tracts were more carefully examined by the leaders, and finally so decided a pronouncement was made against them that all of his friends withdrew from the meeting. This, in the eyes of “open” brethren cleared Bethesda completely. And it is related by Mr. Muller himself that in July, 1849, Mr. Darby made him a personal call and acknowledged this. That interview was so brief and unsatisfactory, however, that it accomplished nothing toward reconciliation, but rather widened the breach,

Mr. Muller’s letter is self-explanatory.

“Breslau, Germany, April 30, 1883.

“Dear Sir: On my way back from a missionary tour in Russia and Russian Poland to England, your letter—of April 6—has been forwarded to me to this place. The reply to your question is this: In July, 1849, Mr. Darby came to me to the New Orphan House No. 1, on Ashley Down, Bristol, and said, ‘As you have judged Newton’s tracts, there is no longer any reason why we should be separated.’ My reply was, ‘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!’ I have never seen him since.

Yours truly, George Muller.”{p. 69}

There is no way now of getting Mr. Darby’s side of this regrettable incident, as he had departed to be with Christ two years before the letter was written. It is known, however, that he never acknowledged having declared that Bethesda had cleared herself of complicity with the evil. But he would be a bold man who would question the veracity of so godly a brother as George Muller, though some allowance should be made for prejudice and intervening years, as nearly thirty-five years had elapsed between the event itself and the letter relating it.

One wonders if these two men of God would have permitted any engagement, however important, or prejudices, however strong, to keep them from arranging a full brotherly conference, if they could have foreseen the years of strife and sorrow, the heartbreaks and family estrangements, the bitterness and dissension, and above all the stumblingblocks thrown in the way of others seeking after the truth, which resulted from leaving this sad affair unsettled. It would almost seem as if these two men of God had it in their power to end the division then and there and both missed the opportunity.

To go into further details here would only weary the reader and be without profit to anyone. Suffice it to say that everywhere that Brethren met — on mission fields and in the home lands — the Bethesda question was carried and they were thus torn asunder into two conflicting camps — yet holding the same truth.

Newtonianism never again lifted up its head among them. And as for Mr. Newton himself he had no further place in their assemblies, whether open or exclusive. He lived to be 93 years of age, and in all his later teaching there is no hint of the views he held at the time of the strife. Neither have his early teachings “leavened” the brethren of either class, for as intimated above it is everywhere repudiated, yet the division continues and men unborn when it occurred take sides for or against Bethesda and walk apart from one another still; though there are not wanting evidences that the Spirit of God is moving in many quarters toward the revival of first principles, which may in time lead to restoration of fellowship between brethren long separated.

The many divisions among both branches, of which I have yet to write, have in themselves contributed toward this much-to-be-desired end.

5 The Bethesda congregation was not originally a Baptist church. This error has been repeated over and over again, and many imagine they see in it the root cause of the whole after trouble, in that the church as a whole is said “to have been received into fellowship, instead of insisting on individual examination.” But this is all a mistake, and altogether wide of the mark

6 Pastoral Letters, by H. Craik.