Short Papers On Church History - The Last Chapter

… If the exposition we
have given of the epistle to Philadelphia and to Laodicea be correct,
we may expect to find in the nineteenth century an entirely fresh work
of God’s Spirit; and chiefly in recovering many truths which have been
long overlooked by the professing church; probably since the days of
the apostles. Philadelphia is the only church that is without reproach
from the Lord; and He commends them for holding fast His Word, for not
denying His Name, and for keeping the word of His patience, which means
the constant expectation of His coming.

These characteristics of an assembly we have not yet
met with in the history of the church. Almost immediately after the
days of the apostles, human inventions were substituted for the Word of
Christ, and human arrangements for the authority of His Name. And
little, if anything, seems to have been said or written on the subject
of the Lord’s return for the church as His bride, down to the present
century. Doubtless there may have been at different periods, some
loving hearts that sighed and longed for His coming; but it was no part
of the truth taught, either during the middle ages, or at the

The doctrines of the unity of the church of God, of the
coming of the Lord as the proper hope of the church, and of the Holy
Spirit’s presence on earth, while Christ is seated at the right hand of
God, were almost entirely overlooked by the Reformers.

Prophetic Truth
The study of prophetic truth was
greatly revived in the early part of this century. In the year 1821 a
short treatise, entitled ‘The Latter Rain’, by the Rev. Lewis Way, made
its appearance. The main object of the writer is to prove from
scripture the restoration of Israel, and the consequent glory in the
land. His poem entitled, ‘Palingenesia’, or ‘The World to Come’,
appeared in 1824. Thoughts on the ‘Scriptural Expectations of the
Church’, by Basilicus, followed it in 1826. The author takes a wider
range in this book than in the former, though the kingdom of Israel
occupies a prominent place.

In 1827 the Rev. Edward Irving endeavoured to arouse
the professing church, but especially his brethren in the ministry, to
a sense of their responsibility as to the truth of prophecy. He
translated the work of Ben Ezra, a converted Jew, on ‘The Coming of
Messiah in Glory and Majesty’, with a long preliminary discourse. This
book was originally written in Spanish, and first published in Spain in
the year 1812. The circulation of these books, with some others that
appeared about this time, and fresh articles constantly appearing in
the magazines, awakened a deep interest in the prophetic Scriptures,
which became at that time an entirely new study, and led to the
establishment of what were called ‘The Prophetic Meetings’, in Great
Britain and Ireland – they were held chiefly at Albury Park in England,
and at Powerscourt in Ireland. Clergymen and private gentlemen attended
those meetings for some time; but, in their reading, it does not appear
that they saw much beyond the restoration of Israel, and the glory of
the millennial kingdom. The relations of Christ to the church, as
distinct from the destiny of Israel and the earth, were not then
clearly seen.

Church Truth
Just about this time the Spirit of God
was evidently working in many minds, and in different parts of the
country, and awakening many of His children to the importance, not only
of prophetic truth, but of what He has revealed in His Word respecting
the church as the body of Christ, formed and energized by the Holy
Spirit. This was specially the case at that moment in Dublin.

A few earnest christian men became deeply exercised in
heart and conscience, as to the low condition of things in the several
sections of professing Christendom, and as to the great contrast
between the church of God, viewed in the light of His Word, and that
which man calls the church. These convictions resulted – though with
deep searchings of heart, and many painful feelings – in a positive
secession from the existing religious systems with which they had been
severally connected. This was a new thing in the history of the church.
The best of the Reformers in all ages had no wish to leave the
communion of the church of Rome, had she consented to the reform of

Nearly all of them were excommunicated. Even the
Puritans, and Wesley and Whitefield, were forced out of the
establishment. But as many are still alive, of those who took this
place of separation in the early part of this century, we shall do
little more than state the origin of this community, and give a brief
outline of its progress. We could not bring down the history of the
church to the present time without giving it a place. But of that which
has appeared in print, and been written by themselves, we may freely
speak. Their writings, in tracts, books, and periodicals, are abundant
and widely spread over the face of Christendom, so that they are well
fitted to speak for themselves.

‘The Brethren’
In the winter of 1827-8, four
Christian men who had for some time been exercised as to the condition
of the entire professing church, agreed to come together on Lord’s day
mornings, for worship and communion in the breaking of bread, according
to the word of the Lord; namely, Mr. Darby, Mr. – afterwards Dr. –
Cronin, Mr. Bellett, and Mr. Hutchinson. Their first meeting was held
in the house of Mr. Hutchinson, 9 FitzWilliam Square, Dublin. They had
for a considerable time been studying the Scriptures – along with
others who attended their reading meetings – and comparing what they
found in the Word of God with the existing state of things around them,
they could find no expression of the nature and character of the church
of God, either in the national establishment, or in the various
dissenting bodies.
This brought them into the place of separation
from all these ecclesiastical systems, and led them to come together in
the Name of the Lord Jesus, owning the presence and sovereign action of
the Holy Spirit in their midst, and thus endeavouring, according to
their light, “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Matthew 18: 20; Ephesians 4: 3-4
The brethren continued to meet for some time in FitzWilliam Square, and others were gradually added to their number.

The Brethren’s First Pamphlet
Here we have something
most definite and positive as to their principles and starting-point:
something more to be relied upon than general report or personal
In the year 1828 Mr. Darby published his first pamphlet, entitled The Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ.

We may consider this tract as a statement of what the
young community believed and practised, though not in the form of a
confession, and further, as presenting the divine ground on which they
acted. It may also be considered to contain nearly all the elements of
those distinctive truths which have been held and unfolded by Brethren
from that day even until now. Not that the writer thought anything of
this at the time; he was simply making known for the help of others
what he had learnt from the Word of God for himself. But who could
question the guidance of the Holy Spirit in such a production? Surely
He was leading His chosen instruments by a way which they knew not,
that the blessing which followed might be seen to be of His own grace
and truth.
As this paper was the first public testimony of a
movement which was so rapidly to produce such great and blessed results
in liberating souls, we will here give for the convenience of the
reader a few extracts, chiefly as to the unity of the church.
(The “extracts” are omitted as the whole article ‘The Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ’ is in Ministry: J. N. Darby)

The Brethren’s First Public Room
The effect of these statements – so plain and Scriptural – was immediate and great.
found an echo in many a heart. Earnest Christians, feeling and mourning
over the low condition of the churches, welcomed the truth thus brought
before them. Many left their respective denominations, and joined the
new movement. The numbers so increased that in little more than a year,
the house of Mr. Hutchinson was found to be unsuitable for their
meetings. Mr. Parnell – afterwards Lord Congleton – who appears to have
united with the Brethren in 1829, hired a large auction room in Aungier
Street, for the use of the Brethren on the Lord’s day. His idea was,
that the Lord’s table should be a public witness of their position.
This was the Brethren’s first public room.

There they commenced breaking bread in the spring of
1830; and it may be taken as a sample of rooms which Brethren have
generally occupied in all parts of the country ever since. In order to
make room for the Lord’s day morning, three or four of the brothers
were in the habit of moving the furniture aside on Saturday evening.
Many, on their first visit, felt the place to be very strange, having
been accustomed to all the propriety of churches and chapels. But the
truths they heard were new in those days; such as, the efficacy of
redemption, the knowledge of pardon and acceptance, the oneness of the
body of Christ, the presence of the Holy Ghost in the assembly, and the
Lord’s second coming.

“There is some difficulty,” says Mr. Marsden, “in laying before the reader, in a simple form, the principles of this body.
puts forth no standards of faith, nor publishes any forms of worship or
discipline. “It professes to practise Christianity as Christianity was
taught by our Lord and the apostles in the New Testament … The Brethren
equally object to the national church and to all forms of dissent. “Of
national churches, one and all of them, they say, ‘that the opening of
the door to receive into the most solemn acts of worship and Christian
fellowship the whole population of a country, is a latitudinarian
error’. “Dissenters, on the other hand, ‘are sectarians, because they
close the door on real Christians, who cannot utter the shibboleth of
their party …’ “The one system makes church wider, the other narrower,
than God’s limits. “Thus in either way, the proper Scriptural idea of
the church is practically destroyed – dissent virtually affirming that
it is not one body, but many, “while nationalism virtually denies that
this one body is the body of Christ. “That which constitutes a church
is the presence of the Holy Ghost in the assembly. ” ‘It is the owning
of the Holy Ghost as the really present, sole, and sufficient sovereign
in the church during our Lord’s absence’. This is the leading feature
in the testimony of Brethren”.

Mr. Marsden further observes on the subject of ministry, quoting from their writings:
far from supposing there is no such thing as ministry, Brethren hold,
and have always held, from Ephesians 4: 12-13, that Christ cannot fail
to maintain and perpetuate a ministry so long as His body is here
below. “Their printed books and tracts, their teachings in private and
in public affirm this as a certain settled truth; insomuch that “it is
as absurd to charge them with denying the permanent and divine place of
ministry in the church on earth, as it would be to charge Charles I.
with denying the divine right of kings.
“Wherever it has pleased God
to raise up pastors after His own heart, they gladly, thankfully own
His grace, and esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake”.

In a paper lately written by Mr. Darby about the
Brethren at the request of a French journalist, we have not only the
facts, but the thoughts and feelings connected with their beginning.
“We were only four men,” he says, “who came together for the breaking
of bread and prayer, on the authority of that word, ” ‘Where two or
three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of
them’, Matt. 18: 20, and not, I hope, in a spirit of pride and
presumption; “but deeply humbled at the state of things around us, and
praying for all Christians, and recognizing all those in whom the
Spirit of God was found as true Christians, members of the body of
Christ, wherever they were ecclesiastically. “We thought of nothing
else but satisfying the need of the soul according to the Word of God;
nor did we think of it going any farther. “We proved the promised
presence of the Lord; and others, feeling the same need, followed in
the same path and the work spread in a way we never thought of in the

It is very apparent from this extract, that the
Brethren had no thought of constructing a fresh system, or of
reconstituting the church as God had constituted it at first – of
restoring it to its Pentecostal glory. This was the snare into which
Satan wiled that otherwise noble soul – Edward Irving. But the Brethren
seemed to have had no plan, no system, no organization. They held the
common faith of all orthodox Christians with regard to foundation
truths; but, having received light from God’s Word as to what the
calling, position, and hopes of the church are, they could no longer
remain in what man and the world called ‘the church’. These thoughts
and searchings of heart issued, as we have seen, in the secession of
many individuals from the various bodies of professing Christians, and
in their coming together for worship and communion on the ground of the
“one body”, as formed and directed by the “One Spirit”.

The Spread of the Truth
Mr. Darby, who seems from
the first to have had a love for travelling, or rather for carrying the
truth from place to place, soon after the formation of the meeting in
Fitz-William Square, set out on his mission; and in a truly apostolic
spirit he has steadily gone on for fifty years, and never more so than
during the last ten or fifteen.
Limerick was the first place he
visited. He held reading meetings, to which some of the gentry and
clergy came. Thomas Maunsell, who lived there, worked with him, and was
the active labourer for a long time. Mr. Darby went on to Clare, which
led to the Lord’s work at Ennis, where Thomas Mahon went on with it. He
then went over to Paris, saw some Christians there, and had readings in
the same quiet way.

On his return to England, he visited Cambridge and
Oxford, and then went down to Plymouth at the request of Mr. Newton,
where he met with Captain Hall, who was then preaching in the villages.
Reading meetings were held, and ere long, a few began to break bread.
This was about the year 1831.

The Origin of the Title ‘Plymouth Brethren’
first public meeting-place in Plymouth was called ‘Providence Chapel’,
and, as they refused to give themselves any name, they were only known
as ‘Providence people’. But when the brothers began to go outside the
town and preach the gospel in the villages – then a rare thing – they
were spoken of as ‘Brethren from Plymouth’, which naturally resulted in
the designation, ‘The Plymouth Brethren’. This new title rapidly spread
over England and elsewhere. As the numbers increased, the little chapel
was bought and enlarged considerably. The effect of the truth on the
hearts and consciences of the Brethren was soon manifest.

There was great freshness, simplicity, devotedness, and
separation from the world. Such features of spirituality have always a
great attraction for certain minds; and many, no doubt, who left their
respective denominations and united with the Brethren had very
undefined thoughts as to the nature of the step they were taking. But
all was new: they flocked together, and gave themselves to the study of
the Word of God, and soon experienced the sweetness of Christian
communion, and found the Bible – as they said – to be a new Book. It
was, no doubt, in those days of virgin freshness a most distinct and
blessed work of God’s Spirit, the influence of which was felt not only
throughout this country, but on the continent, and in distant lands. It
was no uncommon thing at this time to find valuable jewelry in the
collection boxes, which was soon turned into money, and given to the
deacons for the poor. But the bloom of this new movement was soon to be
blighted by the subtlety of Satan.

Mr. Newton, though one of the earliest labourers in
Plymouth, seems never to have entered into the truth of the position
occupied by Brethren, but, almost from the first, to have pursued a
course distinct from the others. The tendency of his teaching, though
for a time most speciously disguised, was to undermine and neutralize
those distinctive truths which the Lord was bringing out by the
ministry of the Brethren, and to set up afresh, though in another form,
all that had been renounced. His aim was clerical position and
authority; and thus practically denying the first principles of the
church of God, he fell into the snare of Satan. Several of the Brethren
who had laboured much in Plymouth, not feeling happy with Mr. Newton’s
course, left to work elsewhere. Mr. Darby went abroad, Captain Hall to
Hereford, Mr. Wigram to London; and Mr. Bellett, at this time, was
ministering with great acceptance in Dublin.

False Doctrine Detected
Soon after the year 1845,
when the numbers at Plymouth, Devonport, and Stonehouse had reached
about a thousand souls, troubles arose which caused the first breach
among the Brethren; but it was not until 1848 that what had been
strongly suspected by some came to the light and brought matters to a
crisis at Plymouth. It was discovered by Mr. Harris – through copious
notes of Mr. Newton’s lectures accidentally falling into his hands –
that he had been diligently and systematically teaching, not only that
which is ecclesiastically, but that which is fundamentally heretical as
to Christ.

When this became known, brethren in all parts were
deeply affected by the sad tidings, and numerous meetings were held in
different parts of the country to investigate the charges. Nearly all
were agreed, after much prayer and confession, that the doctrines which
Mr. Newton had been teaching were not only false, but utterly
subversive of all that is essential to Christianity. But though they
were thus agreed as to the character of the heresy, they were divided
in their judgment as to the principle of separation from it. One part
thought that the poison of the doctrines – which had been insidiously
taught for some years – might have infected more than were yet
manifested; and, therefore, they could have no fellowship with any who
sympathized with the doctrines, or had fellowship with their author at
the breaking of bread.

Others thought these terms of communion were too
strict, that each one applying for fellowship should be examined, and
if it were found that they neither understood nor had imbibed the false
doctrines, they should be received, even though they came from Mr.
Newton’s meeting; that every true Christian should be received on the
ground of his individual soundness in the faith, no matter from what
meeting he came. But many strongly objected to this way of dealing with
so grave a matter. They maintained that the glory of Christ was in
question, as well as the purity of His assembly; that, on this
principle, the door was left open for the heresy to come in and that it
was giving up the unity of the church of God, as the ground of action,
and going back to independency.

The Division
On this point the Brethren divided. The
one part maintained, that, on the principle of the one body, a person
coming from a meeting where false doctrine was known to be held, is
tainted, though personally sound; and that in receiving one member of
the community all are received. This they sought to prove by the divine
principle which the apostle applies to the assemblies at Corinth and
Galatia: “Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?”
other part adhering to the open ground which they had adopted, the
breach widened, and reconciliation became hopeless. Thus the Brethren
have stood from that day until now. Their history is well known. Only
one thing further need be noticed.

From this time, the term, ‘The Brethren’, as found in
statistics, or controversial and other writings, applies almost
exclusively to those who adhered to the original principles of
Brethren. In the census of 1851, three years after the division, the
writer concludes his article by stating that
“The number of places
of worship which the census officers in England and Wales returned as
frequented by the Brethren was 132; but probably this number is below
the truth, in consequence of the objection which they entertain to
acknowledge any sectarian appellation”.

In a list of meetings which they publish annually for
the convenience of Brethren who may be travelling, they give the
addresses of 523 in England, 48 in Ireland, and 75 in Scotland. There
are also a goodly number on the Continent of Europe, in Australia and
New Zealand, in the West Indies, in Canada, and in the United States.
And indeed almost everywhere, if we may believe the testimony of ‘The
Southern Review’ [of April 1877], which says:

“The Society, or order of Christian men, usually
styled, ‘The Plymouth Brethren,’ has already, and almost without
observation, spread over the face of the civilized world. “It seems, in
fact, to have stolen a march on Christendom, and must now – whether for
good or for evil – be acknowledged as a power in the present awful
crisis in the world’s history, or tremendous conflict between the
powers of light and darkness. “That it is felt to be such a power, is
evident, from the fact of the controversy about Plymouth Brethren
coming up all over the Protestant world, just now, and by the
innumerable articles, pamphlets, and volumes, which this widespread
controversy has called forth. “We have placed, at the head of this
article, only three references to the literature connected with this
controversy, but, if we had so chosen, we might easily have embraced in
our list the titles of more than a hundred volumes of the same

The above article is written with great vigour, extends
to seventy-nine pages, and discusses the question of ‘Plymouth
Brethrenism’ more fully than any of the “hundred volumes” referred to
that have come under our notice.

The writer, being a Methodist, of course does not agree
with all their doctrines, but he admires their zeal in spreading the
work, admits that he has profited by their writings, and heartily
rebukes their unfair critics.

Andrew Miller