The "Plymouth Brethren" Movement of the 1800's

One example of a movement which had all the potential of leading to a unity in the Christian community was the "Plymouth Brethren" movement of the 1800's. Its rise and fall is typical of such movements.

"[Edward] Cronin was a young dental student who had been brought up as a Roman Catholic, but had been graciously enlightened by the Spirit of God, and led to personal faith in Christ and into the knowledge of peace with God through resting upon the atoning work of the Lord Jesus...Like many another divinely-quickened soul who for conscience sake had turned his back upon the seeming unity of the papal system, [he] was greatly disturbed and perplexed by the many divisions of Protestantism. It grieved him much to find Christians of like precious faith divided into ofttimes warring camps, (for sectarian feeling was running high in the early part of the nineteenth century), and so powerless in the face of such desperate need. The argument that they were but like various regiments or battalions in one great army seemed valueless to him when he found them turning their guns, so to speak, upon each other instead of facing the common foe...Membership of denominations, as such, he could not find in Scripture, though he did see that there were local churches, made up of the one body of Christ gathered together for the breaking of bread and for prayer in local companies, but apparently one on the ground of the body, receiving one another as such and not as subscribing to special tests or forming minor organizations within the one great organism... He also found growing up within himself a feeling of repugnance to a one-man ministry, for it seemed to him that there was no place for this in the New Testament church...he thought he saw a different order for worship meetings, where the Spirit of God might use whom He would to the edification of all, if believers were subject to His guidance." (From A Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement by H.A. Ironside; Copyright 1985 by Loizeaux Brothers, pp. 10-11)

In 1825 Cronin and one other man were denounced by the local Protestant churches in Dublin for their opposition to the concept of the one-man ministry. They began meeting together for the "breaking of bread" and prayer, and thus began the Brethren movement. That little meeting grew, and word spread of this "new idea." Within a few years a number of other little groups had sprung up on a similar basis.

"There was no attempt at first to enforce uniformity of procedure in these meetings, and if I may be allowed to record here my profound conviction as to the chief cause of the apparent failure of the testimony of the Brethren and their eventual breakup into many different groups, I should say that it was through their failing to maintain the principle that unity is not necessarily uniformity. If the Brethren had been content to allow the Spirit of God to have [its] own way in each place, and had not made the attempt to enforce common methods of procedure and church order upon the assemblies as they did some years afterwards, they might have still presented a marvelous testimony to the unity of the Spirit" (p. 20).

John Nelson Darby was later to become one of the most noted leaders of the Brethren movement. In 1827 he wrote:

"...unity is the glory of the church; but unity to secure and promote our own interests is not the unity of the church...the unity of the church cannot possibly be found until the common object of those who are members of it is the glory of the Lord... The Lord Himself says, 'That they may all be one, as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them, that they may be one, even as we are one...that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me'" (pp. 21,22).

The Brethren movement flourished throughout Great Britain and North America for a time in the 1800's. Although not great in numbers at any time, a "wealth of literature" poured from their leaders, and many of their teachings on such topics as prophecy have been widely accepted, even to this day. Groups descended from the Brethren movement exist today—scattered, divided and small. What happened?

"It will be readily understood that Satan would labor with unwearied energy to destroy so gracious a work of the Spirit of God...As long as the opposition to the truth came only from without, the Brethren prospered, and multitudes received the Word with gladness...but, as in the early church and in practically every movement of the Spirit of God since, Satan set himself to stir up dissension within...Jealousies among ministering Brethren, differences of views as to age-old questions like the subjects and mode of baptism, details as to prophetic events...soon came in to mar the peace and happiness of the little assemblies...A new line of tradition grew up to supersede the old views left behind, and at last divisions came in among the Brethren which have never been healed to this day" (p. 29).

And, the bottom line:

"...divided though the Brethren became, it has generally been leaders who have kept the sheep in the various separate corrals. Left to themselves they would soon flock together around the one Shepherd" (p. 145).

So, today, we have a different century, different people, and different organizations, but nevertheless, it is still the same gimmick!


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