J N Darby and the origins of the ‘Exclusive Brethren’

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Extract from George Muller: Delighted in God by Roger Steer


Way back in October 1832, John Nelson Darby had preached at Bethesda and Gideon Chapels in Bristol and commented on the ‘marked work’ which ‘dear brothers Müller and Craik’ were doing. Darby was one of the most influential figures among the early Brethren. Godson of the famous Admiral from whom he received his second name, he was educated at Westminster  School and Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated as a Classical Gold Medallist.

Darby’s was a complex personality. On the one hand, when engaged in one of the many bitter controversies of his life, he could be obstinate, harsh and rude. On the other, he would show himself to be deeply sympathetic and warm-hearted. When travelling, he often preferred to stay with poor families rather than the affluent, and Brethren history, both written and passed down orally, abounds with anecdotes which show that he was especially fond of children – and in turn adored by them.

His natural ability was matched by enormous energy: by his death he had founded and guided some fifteen hundred churches in many countries. His writings fill over forty volumes including commentaries on most books in the Bible. He translated the Bible into three languages and wrote many profound and sometimes beautiful hymns.

Darby said that what led him out of the established church was ‘the unity of the body: where it was not owned and acted on I could not go’. And his early years in the new movement were marked by impeccable non-sectarian principles. ‘This is the true secret of a church well ordered,’ he wrote, ‘perfect largeness of heart, as large as Christ’s … keep infinitely far from sectarianism … You are nothing, nobody, but Christians.’

Although in the early 1830s he had been impressed by Müller and Craik’s work at Bethesda he had gone on to comment, ‘I should wish a little more principle of largeness of communion’. This was an odd comment, considering that Craik frequently preached for non-conformist ministers and enjoyed friendly relations with ministers and scholars of the established church including Dean Alford, Archbishop Trench and Dean Ellicott. Furthermore, Müller and Craik sometimes invited well-known churchmen outside the Brethren movement to preach at Bethesda.

As early as 1835, however, Darby’s early largeness of heart was being eroded by another false principle. In that year, Anthony Norris Groves (Müller’s brother-in-law, home for a while from India) visited Plymouth and detected signs that the Brethren under Darby’s influence  there  were  becoming  exclusive  and sectarian. Instead of being knit together by the truth in Jesus, they were tending to enjoy maintaining a united testimony against all who differed from them.

In view of Darby’s growing influence over so many  newly established  Brethren  assemblies,  Groves  had  written  to  him, referring to Darby’s ‘enlarged and generous purposes that once so won and riveted’ him (Groves), but frankly told Darby ‘you have departed from these principles … and are in principle returning to the city from whence you departed’.

By the middle 1830s the early Brethren movement already embraced divergent tendencies within it. On the one hand, those like Groves, Müller, Craik and Chapman strove to maintain the original  non-sectarian  principle  of  receiving  all  ‘whom  Christ has received’; on the other, Darby and the growing number of churches  under  his  influence  envisaged  the  establishment  of a corporate worldwide witness to the unity of the body of Christ and emphasised separation from evil as God’s principle of unity.

Other tensions emerged. In 1839, after a fortnight’s retreat to consider some matters of church order which had arisen at Bethesda, Müller and Craik had adopted the firm view that there was a need for a recognised eldership and for ordered government within the church. Darby, on the other hand, disapproved of any formal recognition of the gifts of preaching and teaching, fearing that this might lead to the emergence of a select group of ministers. He regarded the recognition of elders  as a restriction upon the free movement of the Holy Spirit,  drawing a false distinction between the arranged and formal (which was ‘of man’) and the spontaneous and informal (which was ‘of the Spirit’).

In the early 1840s, another figure enters the story. Benjamin Wills  Newton  had  taken  a  ‘first’  at  Oxford  and  had  become a Fellow of Exeter College. He became, for a  while, extremely influential  at  one  of  the  first  Brethren  assemblies  in  England – Ebrington Street, Plymouth – the assembly which gave the movement its popular though misleading title. Between twelve hundred and fourteen hundred people regularly used to attend from different churches in the area to hear him preach.

Newton began to raise the alarm against what he considered to be Darby’s strange system of dispensational doctrines which he had developed in order to defend a new doctrine of the timing of the second coming. According to this doctrine, known as the ‘Secret Rapture’, the second coming of Christ will take place in two stages: first there will be the ‘rapture of the saints’  when Christ  will  return  to  take  all  true  Christians  from  the  earth. Only then will the Antichrist arise and usher in the  period of ‘tribulation’. The rule of the Anti-christ will be brought to an end by the second stage of the coming – the public ‘appearing’ of Christ in glory. Newton, however – and he wasn’t alone – objected. If the Church was to be removed before the tribulation began, he asked, who were the faithful ones who, according to the Book of Revelation, would suffer during that period? Newton didn’t see the differences between him and Darby as trivial because he thought that Darby’s theory conflicted with a central doctrine of faith. To Newton, the Church comprised all who were redeemed by Christ; the suffering ‘faithful remnant’ therefore must have been redeemed by an act of God other than Christ’s redemption if they were to be separated from the Church at the first rapture.

Darby asserted that considerable sections of the New Testament applied not to the Church but only to a future dispensation of the restored Jewish remnant.

‘In making that distinction,’ Newton told him, ‘you virtually give up Christianity.’

However, the influence of Darby’s personality meant that his view of the second coming ‘at any moment’ gained a wide acceptance not only within the Brethren movement. Over the years it has been adopted by many evangelical Anglicans and large numbers of  fundamentalists  in  Britain  and  America;   the   process  has been forwarded by the adoption of the theory, and its elaborate dispensational basis, by Scofield in his popular reference Bible.

Newton wasn’t alone in rejecting the new view as a  flawed innovation. Notably Müller, Craik, Chapman and S. P. Tregelles firmly held to the view that certain events must take place before Christ’s return – although that return (not death) remained for them the great hope of the Church. Among Anglicans, Archbishop Trench, Dean Alford, Bishops Ellicott and Ryle were among those upholding the ancient faith.

Sadly these emerging tensions between the early Brethren and particularly between Darby and Newton destroyed the tranquility of  the  Ebrington  Street  assembly.  Soon  after  Darby  returned from a lengthy visit to the Continent in 1845, a disastrous strife between him and Newton broke the peace of the church and almost stopped the progress of the work.

Darby began his own teaching sessions in Plymouth and began to attack both Newton’s doctrines and Newton himself. He  announced  that  he  was  withdrawing  from  the  fellowship at Ebrington Street, a step which he later admitted had been precipitous.

In 1847, the emphasis of the conflict switched to a new point of doctrine, concerning the person and sufferings of  Christ. It was not of course the first squabble in church history, and sadly has not been the last, brought about by finite minds attempting to grapple with both the humanity  and deity of Christ. Darby condemned  some  views  Newton  had  published  in  a  tract  as ‘blasphemous doctrines’ and Müller, who agreed with Newton on the second coming, observed that the views in Newton’s latest tract seemed to imply ‘that Christ himself needed a Saviour’. Craik suspected that Newton’s errors were ‘only those of a rash speculative intellectualist, who is yet sound at heart and seeking to honour Christ’. Later in the year, Newton realised the error of his thinking and published a statement readily admitting that he had erred in his tract. His statement ended: ‘I trust that the Lord will not only pardon, but will graciously counteract any evil effects which may have arisen to any therefrom’.

It is a tragedy that the dispute didn’t end at this point. Darby tried to show that Newton hadn’t really renounced his errors despite Newton’s vigorous profession to the contrary. The result was that the church at Ebrington Street virtually disintegrated, and Newton’s connection with the Brethren ceased. He lived until 1899 retreating into a little circle of churches of his own; he still wrote articles and pamphlets which Müller later said were ‘sound and scriptural’ and which he and his wife read ‘with deepest interest and profit’.

At the end of April 1848, Darby visited Bristol and called on Müller as was his usual custom. Müller invited him to preach the following Sunday at Bethesda, but he declined on the grounds of a previous engagement.

In May two members of the Ebrington Church came to Bristol and applied for communion at Bethesda. One of the men had been abroad during the Plymouth troubles and was therefore admitted but the other application was held over for consideration. Some of Darby’s supporters within Bethesda raised objections to the gentleman’s reception, and Craik then suggested that the three men most opposed to the applicant’s reception should visit him. They did this and pronounced both men clear of Newton’s alleged heresy.

At  a  meeting  in  Exeter,  Darby  then  publicly  announced that he could never again go to Bethesda because the church had  received  ‘Newton’s  followers’.  He  then  confirmed  this  in a letter to Müller; and later alleged that Newton’s followers had circulated  his  writings  within  Bethesda.  Darby’s  followers  at Bethesda now began to press for a formal  investigation by the church into Newton’s teachings (which  had of course already been condemned and withdrawn by their author).

In June, one of Darby’s followers, George Alexander, withdrew from Bethesda; and the elders were forced to summon a church meeting. At this meeting a statement (which became known as the Letter of the Ten) signed by ten of the elders, including, of course, Müller and Craik, was read and sanctioned by the majority of the church. Darby’s sympathisers, however, promptly withdrew from fellowship.

The statement set out the view held at Bethesda concerning the humanity of Christ and stated that while Christ ‘suffered outwardly the trials connected with His being a man and an Israelite – still in His feelings and experiences, as well as in His external character, He was entirely “separate from sinners”’.

The statement went on to give nine reasons why the elders felt themselves unable to comply with George Alexander’s request that they should formally investigate and give judgment on Newton’s errors. Their ninth reason introduced a welcome element of humour into the situation: ‘We felt that compliance with Mr Alexander’s request would be the introduction of an evil precedent. If a brother has a right to demand our examining a work of fifty pages, he may require our investigating error said to be contained in one of much larger dimensions; so that all our time might be wasted in the examination of other people’s errors, instead of more important service’.

Darby didn’t see the joke however and, on a visit to Yorkshire, found that Brethren assemblies there were sympathising with Bethesda. Thus on August 26th  he issued from Leeds a circular excommunicating Bethesda ‘en bloc’ for allegedly receiving holders of Newton’s views into the church! He urged Brethren assemblies everywhere to ‘judge the Bethesda question’.

Müller and Craik showed no signs of panic and took no immediate action. One of Darby’s followers wrote a paper attempting to show that one of Craik’s publications was unsound. However Darby well knew that the able and experienced Craik was solidly orthodox and Darby was reported to have thrown his own supporter’s paper into the fire.

On October 31st Müller decided to act. He publicly announced his personal condemnation of Newton’s teachings and at a series of church meetings made clear that no one defending, maintaining or upholding Newton’s (now retracted) views would be received into communion at Bethesda.

From  that  time  on,  Brethren  assemblies  who  refused  to apply  Darby’s  decree  against  Bethesda  came  to  be  known  as ‘Open Brethren’ (their twenty-first century successors prefer the title ‘Christian Brethren’) and those who followed Darby became known as ‘Exclusive Brethren’. Anthony Norris Groves’ son Henry maintained that more was done at Bethesda to judge and repudiate Newton’s views than at any assembly acting under Darby’s discipline. Darby’s circle of churches came to believe in all sincerity that Bethesda had been cut off for holding Newton’s views; whereas in fact Newton himself had repudiated the errors and the church at Bethesda had never entertained them for one moment.

Bethesda and the ‘open meetings’ which sided with her, steadfastly maintained the independence of each local church in deciding whom it received into fellowship; whereas exclusives argued that this wasn’t ‘practical unity of the body’.

Mrs Anne Evans continued to be a member of Bethesda throughout this sad and turbulent period. She described it as  a ‘time  of  agony  of  intense  sorrow  and  upheaval’. Bethesda was, she wrote: for a time shattered from end to end. Friendships were broken up; families were divided – husband from wife, children from parents, business relations were dissolved, health and even reason wrecked. We (at Bethesda) sadly needed humbling. We had begun to think too much of ourselves. We had increased rapidly in numbers and even in worldly standing, for many had joined us from the upper classes. Our leading brethren, too, were without any check…. All this was more than flesh and blood could stand, so Satan was permitted to come down on us and humble our pride in the dust.

But all was not lost. Anne Evans continued:

At this time of sorrow Mr George Müller was a grand stay to us; he did not lose his head; he held the reins with a steady hand; and when at last Bethesda emerged from the turmoil she was stronger, freer than ever before. We had increased in numbers (by the middle 1850s there were nearly seven hundred members). The orphan work, which was to have come to nought, was the ‘wonder of the world’….

When the great Revival commenced the Open Brethren threw themselves with heart and soul into it. It was the reading of George Müller’s book by two young men that led to it.

But that is a story for a later chapter.