For over 150 years those known as “Plymouth Brethren” were renown for their command of the Scriptures. This movement exerted great influence over their generation, and their impact continues to be felt in the church. They were held in high esteem by leaders of many denominations. A. T. Pierson, a Baptist minister and author, wrote concerning the spiritual stature of the brethren, “and in those days there were giants in the land.” He was referring to men such as John Nelson Darby, C. H. Macintosh, William Kelly and others. The spiritual power of the early brethren was unmistakable. The movement bore the marks of a mighty work of God. Powerful Bible teaching by deeply spiritual men, earnest prayer, and evangelistic zeal characterized this movement. God’s hand of blessing was evident. One writer reported that by the year 1878, 50 years after the first assembly was established, there were 1,388 gatherings of believers in 29 different lands.1
Many have speculated as to the reasons behind this remarkable spiritual growth. On a human level much must be attributed to the unique manner in which these believers met together. These meetings were often called “cottage meetings” or “reading meetings”. The purpose of these meetings could be for teaching or evangelism. These meetings contributed greatly to the growth of the assemblies. Andrew Miller, an evangelist and author explains from first-hand knowledge on the use of these meetings. “Reading meetings have been the principle means employed by the ‘brethren’ for introducing and spreading truth. Beyond question, they have been greatly used of the Lord for giving both an accurate and extensive knowledge of the divine word. No other kind of meeting so stimulates the Christian to study constantly his Bible.”2
These meetings attracted scores of people from all walks of life. J. N. Darby wrote to a friend, “We have set up weekly scripture reading meetings, two of them in the most worldly homes in Limerick. Our only present difficulty is to keep the people out.”3 It wasn’t uncommon for 25-30 people to gather in a home for a Bible reading. The atmosphere in the home was warm and friendly. Visitors who came felt at once welcome and comfortable. Often British “tea” or a small meal was served to all before the meeting. A time of conversation followed the meal, in which the hosts and leaders would talk to the newcomers and others. This was an opportunity to discern whether guests were unbelievers, and with others, to discover their spiritual needs and problems. Andrew Miller writes about his first visit to a home meeting around the year 1860. “Being invited by a friend to meet a few Christians for a Bible reading, we accordingly went on the evening named. In observing the friends as they assembled, to the number about 30. The subjects of conversation before “tea” seemed to concern the Lord’s work in different meetings. As for general news nothing was said, and the mention of politics would have seemed sheer profanity.”4
These meetings were held on any day of the week and could be held at any hour. There was full liberty to meet together as the Lord led. Meetings might be held at the noon hour in a shipyard or in the early morning or, as was most common, in the evening. Napoleon Noel writes of a meeting that began early Lord’s day morning in London. “A Bible reading was begun in the year 1845 at Mr. G.V. Wigram’s suggestion, on Lord’s day mornings, and they continued successfully for many years with great blessing. Someone would go at about 6:30 A.M. and put the kettle on the stove and cut the bread and butter. Bread, butter, milk and other items already being provided on the previous night by the caretaker. At 7:30 there was a prayer meeting, then breakfast was served at 8:15. Then the Bible reading was held at 9:00; attendance varied from 15 to 25 or more, and occasionally J.N. Darby would come and teach. At 10:30 everyone went for a walk and came back at 11:00 for the Lord’s supper. After 11:00 it would be difficult to find an empty seat for the meeting was much valued and greatly enjoyed.”5
The success of these meetings did not rest merely on its method. There was an overwhelming conviction that spiritual blessing came from hearing God speak through the scriptures. It was the “thus saith the Lord” that they hungered to hear, not the “what does this verse mean to you?” style of Bible study as we often hear in our present day. Godly men spent hours pouring over the scriptures in preparation for the reading meeting. It was evident in those who spoke that deep spiritual learning came not from casual reading, but from long hours of earnest prayerful study. A university professor of our day writes of William Kelly, “It is the manifest mastery of Greek usage which make his commentaries, especially those on Paul’s epistles so valuable. It was his wide and accurate acquaintance with Greek usage that made problem texts plain to him. It is not knowledge gained by a grammar book or dictionary but an acquaintance with Greek usage which is the fruit of long and patient study.”6
The meetings were also marked by prepared leadership. Able and godly men led the meetings and it was soon apparent that they had spent considerable time in the “place of the Most High.” The meetings were usually conducted in one of two ways: either the most knowledgeable man in the scriptures expounded from the Bible, or discussion and questions were directed to him, which he then addressed in the course of the study. A friend writes of a cottage meeting led by Robert Chapman, “In the evening we went to a cottage meeting and for the first time I heard Robert Chapman expound the scriptures. Deep called unto deep as he warmed to his subject. The impression made on my mind is all I can remember, as his bible closed I felt like an infant in the knowledge of God.”7
In that day there was a deep hunger and enjoyment in the preaching of God’s word. Regarding the details of the discussion-question study, Andrew Miller explains, “At about 7:00 P.M., a chapter was named and all turned to it. There was a free interchange of thought as to its meaning, connection and importance and it was apparent who was the most richly instructed in the word, as the questions in time were addressed to him. After a hymn and prayer the company dispersed; it was about 10:00 P.M. 8 The teaching at these meetings was conducted in a manner that is in striking contrast with our day. Today when one gathers in a home for a Bible study the leader asks questions of the learners and the learners teach each other. Ofttimes these studies digress into sharing experiences and feelings from the workplace or the home, comments far removed from the scripture being studied. The sad result is a scarcity of real understanding of God’s word. It is the distinct and unclouded proclamation of the scriptures that challenges the hearts and instructs the minds of the people of God in every age.
Within a short period of time the ministry of the leading teachers came to be in great demand. Soon their spoken ministry was reproduced upon the printed page and distributed abroad. The rich ministry known to many in the sitting rooms of England was now transported into the reading rooms of many lands. The world shall never know of all the lives that have been touched and the rich blessing that these numerous volumes have had. Evangelist Billy Graham recounts how the writings of the “brethren” touched his life, stating, “When I was in my teens my mother and father were attending a “brethren” Bible class in Charlotte, N.C. and they fervently studied their Scofield Bibles. My mother began to order Christian books from a New York mail order house and becoming an avid reader, there were always good books lying around the house to read.”9 As tracts and books were read, the ministry became a rich source of blessing to many. Some traveled the seas to be under the teaching first hand. Many of the leading teachers ventured out into larger arenas to accommodate the growing numbers. Harold St. John writes of a visit to one of the larger meetings, “I remember in my youth how the late William Kelly used to come up to London and deliver his annual series of lectures. He would take up perhaps seven lectures on Isaiah, or on the captivity books, and each year he would lecture on some broad portion of scripture. He spent months preparing his lectures and there would be queues outside the largest hall they could get, and the good man would speak in a very studied English for over an hour , simply opening the word of God.”10
The “brethren” were fast becoming leaders among evangelicals throughout the world. Their books and periodicals had now crossed denominational lines. The pulpits of many churches and conferences were now open to them. Many evangelical leaders began to look to them for instruction and guidance. In 1867 an American evangelist traveled to England for the first time; his name was D.L. Moody. This visit would not be to hold a city-wide crusade or to preach in one of the land’s great churches, but to humbly learn. Doubts and heaviness of spirit burdened his heart. The power and passion he once knew in preaching was now gone. A biographer writes concerning Moody’s first visit to England, “Emma encouraged D.L. to go to England for a visit; there were such giants of God’s word there; it would be a great blessing to D.L.; the Plymouth Brethren in Chicago had gotten their priceless secrets from the spirit-filled English Christians. There were men in England like C.H. Mackintosh and J.N. Darby whose books had so blessed him. The motivation for this trip was to cure his own spiritual asthma by contact with British men of the book. The sum total result of this trip was transforming.”11 For the last 160 years, devout men fitly armed with the word of God, prayer, and godly character transformed the landscape of evangelicalism. Convincing exegesis challenged accepted theology. Godly witness inspired worldwide missionary efforts. Faithful ministry spurred the established church to rethink its very foundations and purpose. May it be so again among the “brethren” in our day.
1. Andrew Miller, “The Brethren: Their Origin, Progress and Testimony”. (Hong Kong: Christian Book Room, 1878) p. 51 This estimate comprises only the so called “exclusive brethren”.
2. Ibid, p. 36
3. Napoleon Noel, “The History of the Brethren”. (Denver: W.F. Knapp, 1936) p. 22.
4. Miller, “The Brethren”, p. 42
5. Noel, “The History of the Brethren”, p. 16
6. F. F. Bruce, “In Retrospect Remembrance of Things Past”. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) p.293
7. Frank Holmes, “Brother Indeed”. (Kilmarnock: John Ritchie LTD.,1988) p. 98
8. Miller, “The Brethren”, p.43
9. Billy Graham, “Facing Death and the Life After” (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987) p. 179
10. Patricia St. John, “Harold St. John: A Portrait by his Daughter”. (London: Pickering and Inglis,1959) p. 141
11. Richard Day, “Bush Aglow: The Life of Dwight Lyman Moody”. (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1945) p. 12