Who Are the Brethren: Volume 1

The missionary enterprise described in this and the following volumes is probably the most notable aspect of what is popularly called the Brethren movement. As the story of the missionary enterprise begins with Anthony Norris Groves and his associates, the story of the Brethren movement as a whole also begins with them.

The people called Brethren are often so described because they prefer to be known by a designation comprehensive enough to embrace all their fellow-Christians along with themselves. Those with whom this record is concerned are sometimes distinguished as Open Brethren because their church order differs from that of their friends who are known as Exclusive Brethren.

The Open Brethren have no central organization. They belong to a large number of local churches or assemblies, spread around the globe. Each of these local churches is independent in its administration; there is, no federation or union linking them together. Yet there is a recognizable family likeness among them, and their sense of a spiritual bond is strong.

The Brethren movement originated around the year 1825, although the Brethren commonly insist that their roots are really in the apostolic age, for they aim as far as possible at maintaining the simple and flexible church order of New Testament times. Indeed, the nineteenth century witnessed the beginning of a number of spontaneous movements of the same general character in various parts of the world. Some account of these is provided in the later chapters of the late E. H. Broadbent’s The Pilgrim Church, a work now fifty years old but still well worth reading.

So far as the British Isles are concerned, the founders of the movement were a group of young men, many of them associated with Trinity College, Dublin, who tried to find a way in which they could come together for worship and communion simply as fellow-Christians, in disregard of denominational barriers. They had no idea that they were starting a movement; still less had they any thought of founding a new denomination, for that would have defeated the very purpose for which they came together. It appears to have been under the influence of Anthony Norris Groves, who was on a visit to Dublin from his home in Exeter early in 1827, that they began to observe the Lord’s Supper together regularly.

From Dublin the movement spread to England. In England the first identifiable meeting of Brethren was established at Plymouth in 1831, hence arose the popular term ‘Plymouth Brethren’. Another important early meeting of Brethren was Bethesda Chapel, Bristol, which had as one of its pastors the German-born George Muller, best known for the orphanage which he founded in Bristol in 1836 and which survives to the present day. Muller provided a personal link between the movement in the British Isles and similar movements in Europe.

Muller acknowledged his indebtedness to the influence of Anthony Norris Groves, whose sister he married. Groves was a man of large-hearted sympathies, who never forgot that the things which unite Christians are immeasurably more important than the things which divide them. ‘I would infinitely rather bear with all their evils’, he said of some people with whom he seriously disagreed, ‘than separate from their good.’ Whether what he took to be ‘evils’ were really so or not, his words express an attitude which Open Brethren acknowledge as their ideal.

The missionary enterprise launched by Groves continues to the present time in every continent. Some Brethren missionaries have been pioneers in more senses than one. Among them were two Scots, Frederick Stanley Arnot (1858-1914) and Dan Crawford (1870-1926), who in the succession to David Livingstone explored areas of Central Africa previously uncharted by Europeans. It was Arnot who in the 1880s opened up to the knowledge of the outside world what is now the Shaba province of Zaire. Brethren missionaries have been specially active in Central Africa, India, China and Latin America. To meet the requirements of national governments their missionary work is registered in some countries under the designation ‘Christian Missions in Many Lands’.

>The Open Brethren have no doctrinal peculiarities. They hold the historic Christian faith, because they find it plainly taught in the Bible, which is to them, as to other heirs of the Reformation, ‘the only infallible rule of faith and practice’. They are wholeheartedly evangelical in their understanding and presentation of Christianity, proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as the all-sufficient Savior of all who put their trust in Him and as the only hope of mankind. For this reason they find it specially easy to co-operate in Christian witness with others who share this evangelical emphasis, and in many inter-denominational causes their influence is greater than their numbers might lead one to expect.

It is practice rather than doctrine that marks them out. Among Open Brethren baptism is administered only to people who make a personal confession of faith in Christ, and the mode of baptism is immersion. Normally, they observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday and hold that the Lord’s Table is for all the Lord’s people. This is their most distinctive gathering. When they meet for communion, together with any Christians who care to join them for the occasion, their devotions are conducted by no presiding minister and follow no predetermined sequence, but are marked nevertheless by a reverent spontaneity and orderliness. Various brethren contribute to the worship by suggesting suitable hymns, or by reading and expounding a passage from the Bible.

The Brethren have no ordained ministry, set apart for functions which others cannot discharge. A considerable number do give their whole time to evangelism, Bible teaching and pastoral care, but are not regarded as being in clerical orders. The various local churches are administered by responsible brethren called elders or overseers. These have no jurisdiction outside their local churches, and inside them they try to guide by example rather than rule by decree.

The Brethren have always manifested a supreme lack of interest in their numerical strength. Their numbers are difficult to assess, partly because no precise statistics are available and partly because there is no official line of demarcation between Brethren meetings and other independent evangelical churches. A common estimate of their strength in Great Britain and Ireland is 100,000, but this is at best approximate. They are to be found in all grades of society and all walks of life.

F.F. Bruce

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