Chapter Thirteen Later Developments And Critical Comments

It was in the year 1896 that I became identified with the movement of which I have been writing; at first going into fellowship with the so-called Open Brethren and a little later, after some distressing experiences, casting in my lot with the Grant Exclusives. I have never thus far had occasion to regret the step I took at that time and I have, generally speaking, been greatly blessed, and I hope been permitted to be a blessing to others, notwithstanding the fact that “I have seen an end of all perfection” and have long ago been obliged to take the place of lowly confession and say “I and my people have sinned.”

For a few years I regret to say I was under the soul-withering influence of very legal and narrow views regarding both service and fellowship, but as time went on God graciously gave deliverance and led me to see, at least in some measure, how far I, and others, had departed, not only from New Testament teaching but from the original principles of the Brethren themselves. With this came an ever-widening sphere of service as I recognized my responsibility to seek to help all believers, and to reach the lost wherever the Spirit of the Lord opened a door of opportunity. When called to succeed the devoted Dr. P. W. Philpott as minister at the Moody Memorial Church it was only after much prayer and exercise that I became assured such was for me the undoubted will of God. As the years have passed I do not find my love for the Brethren, nor my appreciation of the precious things of Christ for which they stand, growing less, but rather do I value them more. The preparation of these chapters has been a labor of love buoyed up by the hope that they may be used of God to call many back to the joy of simplicity and spiritual freshness of early days. {p. 172}Heretofore I have been writing of events all of which can either be verified by reliable documentary evidence, or were communicated to me by men who could speak with authority. If I attempt to trace the further history of the movement to any extent I must of necessity rely largely on my own fallible judgment and, I would doubtless often find my estimates of men and their actions decidedly at variance with others far more gifted and godly than I. Therefore I think it wise to close this very imperfect record with a general review of present-day conditions, touching only on principles or referring to documents which are easily accessible.

After the Dunkirk and Pittsburgh circulars and the consequent rejection of many godly brethren like Mr. F. C. Jennings, Messrs. Edward and Nicholas Mauger and other brethren who had ever been esteemed as “guides” among the Grant Brethren since the early days of the movement, there was as we have seen considerable agitation and unrest in the American assemblies.

Brethren beloved and longed-for, against whom there was no charge of wickedness or evil teaching, found themselves in opposite camps and as the years have gone on there has been very little change on the part of the older generation. It is noticeable, however, that the younger believers of all the different fellowships are becoming more and more restive about being whipped into party lines and all are yearning for a broader and more Scriptural fellowship— a return to the first principles of the Brethren which we have seen have been so largely given up.

Shortly after the death of Mr. F. W. Grant in 1898, Mr. Alfred Mace wrote a very full confession of failure in the matter of the Montreal division and henceforth repudiated the very exclusive position he had previously held. A little later Mr. Walter Scott (who had so successfully blocked the entente cordiale of the Exclusive and Open Brethren in 1893) found himself excommunicated by the Stuart, party in Great Britain for the very grave offense of breaking bread with a simple company of believers not recognized as in any particular circle of fellowship! Awakened at last to see what Brethren had drifted into he wrote an arousing appeal entitled, Shall the Sword Devour For Ever? This was circulated all over the world and produced a tremendous reaction. The present writer, however, ventured to reply to it in Help and Food, pointing out that he {p. 173}who first asked that question—Abner—was himself a fomenter of division, and until his own confession of wrong done to the scattered people of God was forthcoming, his appeal could be of little weight. It was probably presumption on my part so to write. It showed the training I had been under. Walter Scott was ever after counted among the “Independent Brethren,” until his death at a very advanced age.

Since those days effort after effort has been made to bring about a better understanding, and certainly party spirit is rapidly declining among the mass, but a few in all parties, generally known as “die-hards,” still insist on the old rigid geographical and disciplinary tests of fellowship. It is noticeable that where Christian liberty prevails the meetings flourish, souls are saved, and a warm spiritual atmosphere is found. But where the opposite is true there is very little in the way of active evangelizing or of edification of believers.

With the new yearning for a more Scriptural basis of communion has come increased exercise as to gospel testimony both at home and abroad. Many have been getting their eyes opened to see the folly of exalting century-old methods as though of equal force with divine revelation and so there has come a better understanding and appreciation of the apostle’s words, “I am made all things to all men if by any means I may win some.” Hence it is not uncommon now to find assemblies putting on earnest evangelistic campaigns with hearty gospel singing and common-sense advertising. In many places it had become an iron-clad tradition that any singing accompanied with instrumental music was opposed to the spirit of the New Testament, through failure to distinguish between singing as an act of worship and singing to attract the needy and careless to hear the gospel. Hence there were in nearly all of the Brethren’s assemblies many unused gifts—people who had divinely-given talents which they did not dare use lest they come under the censure of the more conservative.

To many also has come an awakening as to the way they have neglected the apostolic injunction: “Let all things be done respectably and by arrangement” (I Cor. 14:40, literal rendering). The result has been a recognition of the importance of more systematic service for the Lord, which is already bearing blessed fruit. Needless to say, they who prefer human tradition to the present energy of the Holy {p. 174}Spirit look with disfavor on any change from methods and practices that have become hoary with age, but have no more actual Scriptural authority than methods more in accord with the times.

What the future holds in store for this movement if our blessed Lord tarry but a few years longer no man can predict. But one thing is absolutely certain: Brethren must either break from traditionalism and go on with God, as the Spirit leads through the opened Word and the sanctified judgment of men who have understanding of the times, or they will themselves be literally broken to pieces; in which case the unity they originally aimed at keeping may be nearer than we think. The late Captain R. Carey-Brenton, one of the most devoted missionaries ever in fellowship with the assemblies, who died in Mexico a few years ago, said to me once: “I have been so burdened about our divisions, and have been praying that God would bring our divided gatherings together. Lately I was watching a man break stones and I observed that it was only when the boulders were all broken to gravel that they became one. It may be that God will have to deal in the same way with us!” His words are impressive and well worthy of our consideration.

Perhaps the gravest failure we have made as a people has been in dissociating ourselves in thought from the great mass of our fellow-Christians. It is a common thing to make a distinction between “Christians in systems and believers gathered to or in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” To consider this a special privilege is but spiritual pride of the most elusive kind. And each fellowship of Brethren is as truly a system as any other body of believers. If any one doubts it let him venture to act on his own initiative, or as he believes the Spirit leads, contrary to custom, and he will soon find out how sectarian an unsectarian company of Christians can be!

Nevertheless it seems to me any unprejudiced student of the movement who really knows his Bible must see that the primary object of the Brethren has been to get back as nearly to New Testament order and teaching as is possible in days of apostasy such as we live in. But the mistake has been in claiming the presence and authority of the Lord in a way other Christians cannot claim them.

Some years ago Dr. James Black10 of Edinburgh, Scotland, published {p. 175} a lecture in which he attempted to appraise the Brethren movement, which was reasonably fair though containing some inaccuracies, undoubtedly the result of faulty information. The following answer appeared in The Witness, an organ of the Open Brethren and may be of interest in giving the view-point of one of the people thus criticized by the learned Doctor:

Dr. James Black on the “Plymouth Brethren”

On a recent journey to Edinburgh, the writer enjoyed a pleasant conversation with a Presbyterian fellow-traveller, in the course of which Dr. Alexander Whyte was referred to, and afterwards his successor, Dr. James Black, of St. George’s, Edinburgh.

Dr. Black, I was informed, had been giving recently a series of lectures on “Freak Religions,” in the course of which he had ably exposed Mormonism, Russellism, and other American patents, a particularly useful thing to do.

A day or two later I saw the July number of the United Free Church magazine, The Record, and found there an article by Dr. Black on “The Plymouth Brethren: How They Arose and What They Believe,” and was led to wonder whether this was the substance of a later lecture which classified the people so nicknamed among the freaks! I hope the Doctor doesn’t place these much-abused folks in the same category as the Mormons!

Be it said, that the article is kindly in tone, and written without bitterness. It is somewhat in the style in which a venerable Cardinal of Rome would write of United Presbyterians. The only approach to warmth is when the writer deals with the views of “Plymouth Brethren” on the subject of the Christian ministry, and any man may be pardoned if he wax warm defending his hearth and home.

Some of the writer’s strictures are fully deserved. Sorry divisions in the history of these protesters against sectarianism give ample room for many a jibe; but the Doctor is merciful, remembering, no doubt, how hard unity is to preserve; so hard, indeed, that even Scottish Presbyterianism hasn’t succeeded in it.

In one or two matters Dr. Black is evidently either misinformed or uninformed. For instance, it is less than fair to speak of “present ineffectiveness at home and abroad of ‘Plymouth Brethren.’”With all humility, their record in the foreign field is grievously wronged by such a statement. The Doctor cannot have read Echoes of Service, or have perused {p. 176}their Missionary Prayer-list, or he would not have made this statement. As regards work at home, we take leave to inform Dr. Black that in spite of the allurements of the times, the social auxiliaries from the pulpits of our land, there is a great and growing volume of young life in and about the churches of those whom he terms “Plymouth Brethren.” Things are not important in proportion to the noise they make.

His suggestion of the origin of “Plymouth Brethren” will not do. The naughty-boy-who-ran-away-from-home theory does not fit the facts. The separate and spontaneous movements in British Guiana, Ireland, England, Italy, Russia, and Germany cannot be so accounted for. The “movement” at the first was a return to the Scriptures as affording all requisite instruction and guidance for corporate as well as individual Christian life; an endeavour to carry out what is written without qualifying or nullifying it by giving equal authority to sub-apostolic traditions, medieval Church councils, or “modern thought.” The need to maintain such a position is more urgent today than ever, and Dr. Black simply misses the whole point when, with fatherly benevolence, he bids “Plymouth Brethren” recognize that their day is past, and come back like naughty children now repentant to the bosom of mother-church.

As to their “not seeking to save the world, but to save a people out of it,” their “rejecting the ancient practice of all the true ‘Catholic’ churches (being educated, we had all along imagined there was but one Catholic Church) of baptizing the children of believers,” and their “celebrating the Lord’s Supper every Sunday,” they plead guilty; but are prepared to discuss these things over an open Bible with Dr. Black or anyone else who can show therefrom the error of them.

That they have no separate, ordained, educated, and maintained ministry or clergy is a statement that is only partly true; for they recognize a separated, educated, and maintained ministry, though the manner of its separation, education, and maintenance differs from that considered essential in Presbyterianism.

The humorous account given to the Doctor by the two young people who were leaving “Plymouth Brethren” for Presbyterianism, of how in the church they were leaving, “the Spirit always ‘led’ the same boring old elder,” could be matched by the accounts of some who prior to coming out from Presbyterianism have been bored fifty-two Sundays per annum for half a lifetime by a dry-as-dust “educated” minister, without hope that the {p. 177}boring process would be interrupted until the Lord took him to Heaven.

The views on “ordination” most shock the Doctor, however. “It shocks me,” he says, “to think that any stray man, without preparation, is presumed to be able to lead and guide the worship and thought of the people.” It shocks “Brethren” also to think such a thing. They are yet more sure than Dr. Black that “many so-called lay’ members can do this more usefully than many ministers”; so sure that they believe every member of a church to be under direct obligation to the Lord to fulfil whatever measure of ministry has been committed to him, and accordingly seek to give him opportunity so to do; being convinced that not even to Dr. Black has the Lord given all the gifts whereby He would minister to the needs of the congregation year in and year out, for “the Spirit divideth to every man severally as He will” (1 Cor. 12:11).

On this subject Dr. Black appeals to history—if to the history of the church they are deaf to such an appeal—but if to the inspired history of the New Testament, they ask for one instance of a man being chosen by a church to be its teacher or pastor, or to evangelize; for one instance of a salaried minister under agreement to be responsible for the ministry of a particular church.

That an educated ministry is essential, they agree with Dr, Black; but as to the kind of education essential they differ from him. Other things being equal, a liberal education is to be preferred to a broad-school one. Yet the essential thing in a minister of Christ is that he shall have been educated in a way no university can guarantee—that he shall have been divinely taught, that his soul shall be rich in its experience of God and that he shall have spiritual understanding of His Word.

Since they must choose, “Plymouth Brethren” prefer a ministry which, though Doctors of Divinity stigmatize it as uneducated, is exercised by men whose qualification lies not in scholastic degrees merely, but in spiritual capacity, energy, insight, and devotion, rather than expose themselves to that “learned ministry,” much of which is in such terrible evidence today, exercised by men whose aim appears to be to explain away on rationalistic lines every vital doctrine of our most holy faith.

Though Dr. Black may continue to regard “Plymouth Brethren” as “hard-shells” (his own expression), we assure him that some of them at least will continue to intercede that he may {p. 178}be kept faithful and fresh to fulfil the ministry which it is so evident he has received in the Lord.

J. B. Watson.

A few words from one of Mr. Darby’s letters, written as late as 1870, eleven years before his death, will show more clearly than any remarks of mine could do how far some of the Brethren have departed from their own first principles. If these views had been carried out the entire history of the movement might have been happier, and thousands of devoted saints helped who have rather been hindered.

Dear —:

There is no difference between breaking bread as a Christian, and fellowship, though some may not be always there; because the only fellowship or membership is of the body of Christ, and if a person breaks bread and is thus recognized as a member of the body of Christ, he is subject to all the discipline of the house. I may not enforce constant attendance with us only, because he may come with the desire to show unity of spirit, and yet think that his ways are more orderly conscientiously. If his heart be pure (II Tim. 2:22) I have no reason to exclude him; but if anything in his path require he should be excluded, he is liable to it like any one else. But I know no fellowship other than of membership of the body of Christ. Being met, the question is has he done anything which involves disciplinary exclusion?

Only I believe Brethren alone walk in consistency with the fellowship of saints in the unity of the body; but I know no particular corporation as that body—not even Brethren—nay, these least of all. This would deny themselves. Though they have this, that they meet on principles of that unity, but for that reason must own all its members, on the one hand, and maintain its discipline on the other.11

Yours affectionately in the Lord,
J. N. D.

These are still the principles on which many of the assemblies act. This is particularly true in Great Britain, where Brethren are, generally speaking in the very fore-front of real evangelical testimony. It is to be hoped that in days to come there will be an even more widespread return to early practices.

10 Knowing Dr. Black personally I am sure this gracious and kindly minister did not intend to misrepresent the “Brethren.”

11 Italics mine. H. A. I.