Plymouth Brethren

Plymouth Brethren

Plymouth Brethren, group of Christian believers originating in the early 19th cent. in Ireland and spreading from there to the Continent (especially Switzerland), the British dominions, and the United States. One of their notable leaders was John Nelson Darby; the members are sometimes known as Darbyites. They refer to themselves as Brethren, Christians, or Believers. In a reaction against the formality of prescribed ritual, the requirements of ministerial ordination, and other established conditions in the churches of the times, groups of believers began to meet independently in Dublin and elsewhere for spiritual communion. Associations were formed c.1828 in Dublin and c.1830 at Plymouth, England, whence the popular name Plymouth Brethren. Brethren hold differing opinions concerning baptism and expect the personal premillennial second coming of Christ. The Lord's Supper, as a commemorative act of worship, is observed once a week. Followers of different leaders withdrew from time to time from the main body to form new congregations. This tendency to divide was carried over into the United States and Canada by emigrants, who established new meetings of the Brethren there. In the United States there are eight separate divisions, some of the exclusive type, stressing congregational interdependency, and some of the open type, stressing the independence of congregations. Basically fundamentalist, the Brethren consider the Scriptures the only true guide. No officers are chosen to preside over the congregations; the privileges and duties of the ministry depend upon the personal gift of the individual member. Membership in the United States is c.98,000.

See study by F. R. Coad (1968).

The Plymouth Brethren is a conservative, Evangelical Christian movement, whose history can be traced to Dublin, Ireland, in the late 1820s. The title, "The Brethren," is one that many of their number are comfortable with, in that the Holy Bible designates all believers as, "brethren." Christians meeting in so-called, "Brethren assemblies," are commonly perceived as being divided into two branches, the "Open Brethren" and the "Exclusive Brethren.


Despite what the name might suggest, the Plymouth Brethren movement did not begin exclusively and singularly in Plymouth, England, but began in Dublin, around 1827, and soon spread to mainland Britain. The first English assembly was in Plymouth where the movement became well known. The diffusion of brethren assemblies occurred throughout Europe and beyond. Assemblies were also formed through Leonard Strong on New Testament principles in British Guiana among the slaves, circa 1836. Those involved in this return to the simplicity of New Testament church principles were, in the beginning, largely unknown to one another, with no direct contact between the various groups.

The two main but conflicting aspirations of the movement was to create a holy and pure fellowship on one hand and to allow all Christians into fellowship on the other. The first aspiration arose from the abandonment or distortion of many of the ancient traditions of Christendom by the established Church of England, the second from the extreme sectarianism of dissenters, and from the beginning, the emphasis was on meeting together only in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, without reference to denominational differences. Early meetings included Christians from a variety of denominations. The general feeling of dissatisfaction toward the existing church gatherings also led to the formation of the "Oxford Movement," "Irvingism" and other Christian movements of the time.

In Dublin, more than one group of believers met separately around 1827 and for some time were unknown to each other. They were dubbed, "brethren," because of their practice of calling each other, "brother," instead of the titles favored by the mainstream denominations. The first meeting in England was established in December 1831, in Plymouth, primarily by George Wigram, Benjamin Wills Newton and John Nelson Darby. The movement soon spread throughout the UK, and by 1845, the assembly in Plymouth had over 1,000 in fellowship. These became known as, "The brethren from Plymouth," and were soon simply called the "Plymouth Brethren." The term, "Darbyites," has also been used, although it is uncommon and refers mainly to the "Exclusive" branch. Many within the movement refuse to accept any name other than "Christian."

The movement gained rapid popularity and spread worldwide. However, divergence of practice and belief led to the development of two separate branches of the movement in 1848 and despite the disparate nature of the movement, assemblies are still often generalized into two main categories: "Open Brethren" and "Exclusive Brethren."

Some have argued that numbers of Brethren have been in decline in the UK since the 1950s, while others argue that assemblies with more progressive approaches have prospered. A blurring of distinctions between assemblies and other non-denominational and house church congregations has occurred as some groups abandon certain principles such as salaried ministry and women's silence. Others have maintained these distinctive principles while updating many traditions and practices, while yet others continue in much the same way as they have for the most part of the 20th Century. The main concentrations of more traditional assemblies in the UK today can be found in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Northern England and parts of the South of England, like Hampshire.

"Open" and "Exclusive" Brethren

The term "Exclusive" is most commonly used in the media to describe one separatist group known as, "Taylorites," or Taylor-Hales Brethren. However, the majority of Christians known as "Brethren" are not in any way connected with the "Taylorites," who are known for their denial of the eternal Sonship of Christ, extreme isolationism, whiskey drinking, refusal to use computers or the Internet and having a cult-like submission to their chosen leader.

With the exception of the separatist Raven-Taylor-Hales Brethren, so-called, "Open Brethren" and "Exclusive Brethren" differ on few theological issues. Some "Exclusives" hold to, "Household Baptism," as opposed to, "Believers' Baptism," which is practiced by the Open Brethren. With the exception of the separatist Taylor-Hales brethren, all assemblies welcome visitors to Gospel meetings and other gatherings. Some Open Brethren assemblies allow any believer to "break bread" with them. These meetings are said to have an "open table" approach to strangers. Others believe that only those formally recognized as part of that or another equivalent assembly should break bread. Similarly, practices of reception among "Exclusive" assemblies vary - many tending to operate a cautious or "guarded" approach to reception and others being more liberal. It is felt by many Brethren that the mutual Communion of their fellowship with bread and wine can be tainted by those partaking whose hearts are not pure before God. Fellowship in the Lord's Supper is not considered a private matter but a corporate expression, "Because we, being many, are one loaf, one body; for we all partake of that one loaf" (1 Corinthians 10:17). A further verse that Brethren refer to is, "Shall two walk together except they be agreed?" (Amos 3:3) Many, both Closed- and Open Brethren hold that association with evil defiles and that the Communion meal can bring that association. Their support text is from 1 Corinthians 15:33, "Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners."

A clearer difference between Open- and Exclusive assemblies is in the nature of relationships between meetings. Open Brethren meetings are generally local assemblies that are autonomous but often informally linked with each other. Exclusive Brethren are generally "connexional" and so recognize the obligation to recognize and adhere to the disciplinary actions of other associated assemblies. One practical result of this might be that, among Open Brethren, should a member be "disciplined" in one assembly, other assemblies may feel free to allow the member to break bread with them, if they are not concerned by whatever caused the disciplinary action of the one in question. A numerically small movement known as the Needed Truth Brethren emerged out of the Open Brethren, around 1892, partially in an attempt to address the problem of making discipline more effective.

Reasons for being put under discipline by both the Open- and Exclusive Brethren include: Someone in the fellowship holding to gross Scriptural error and/or someone in the fellowship being involved in sexual immorality (including adulterous-, homosexual- or premarital sex). In "Exclusive" meetings, a member "under discipline" in one assembly would not be accepted in another assembly, as the Elders generally respect the decisions made by Elders of other assemblies. As "Exclusives" have developed into a number of different branches, often when there was not universal agreement among the assemblies in a specific case of excommunication, a particular act of discipline may not be recognized by all assemblies.

Another less clear difference between assemblies lies in their approaches to collaborating with other Christians. Some Open Brethren will hold Gospel meetings, youth events or other activities in partnership with Evangelical Christian churches, while others (and perhaps the majority of Exclusive Brethren) tend not to support activities outside their own meetings.

Since the formation of the "Exclusives," in 1848, there have been a great number of sub-divisions into separate groups, but most groups have since re-joined with the exception of the separatist "Taylor-Hales" groups who practice extreme separation and whom other Brethren generally believe to be a cult. Except for this group, the so-called exclusives ("Closed Brethren") prefer not be known by any name.

Both "Open"- and "Exclusive" assemblies generally maintain relations within their respective groups through common support of missionaries, area conferences and the ministry of traveling, "Commended Workers."


The Plymouth Brethren are, generally, dispensational, pre-tribulational, premillennial and cessational in their theology and have much in common with other conservative evangelical Christian groups. They believe in the "Eternal Security" of the true Bible-believing Christian with each believer being subject to "grace" and not "law. In the Open Brethren meetings, each local assembly is independent and autonomous, and therefore the characteristics of each may differ to a greater- or lesser degree and therefore describing distinctive characteristics is difficult. Exclusive Brethren meetings are more affiliated to one another, but characterising their meetings is made difficult due to the fact that over the years they have split many times into many divisions. Essentially, therefore, the Brethren have no central hierarchy to dictate a statement of faith, and even local assemblies tend not to give tacit adherence to any of the historic "Creeds" and "Confessions of Faith" such as are found in many Protestant denominations. This is not because they are opposed to the central sentiments and doctrines expressed in such formulations, but rather because they hold the Bible as their sole authority in regard to matters of doctrine and practice. Like many non-conformist churches, Brethren observe only the two ordinances of Believers' Baptism and Communion.

Their notable differences from other Christian groups lie in a number of doctrinal beliefs that affect the practice of their gatherings and behavior. These differences can be summarized as follows:

Avoidance of traditional symbols

Traditionally, meetings would not have a cross displayed inside or outside their place of worship as the focus is on Christ and the Word of God. The Plymouth Brethren view an unembellished room as more effective. Crosses are not typically placed inside homes or worn around the neck of these believers. Other symbols such as stained glass windows for their normal meeting hall have been traditionally discouraged. Their meeting places sometimes have Bible names, e.g., "Ebenezer," "Hebron," "Shiloh" and "Bethel." Sometimes they are named after the street on which they are found e.g. Curzon Street Gospel Hall, Derby. Sometimes after its locality, e.g. Ballymagarrick Gospel Hall. Some use the name chapel instead of Gospel Hall. Services do not follow a set liturgy nor the liturgical calendar of "High Church" groups, such as the Anglican or Lutheran churches.

Fellowship, not membership

Traditionally the assemblies have rejected the concept of anyone "joining" as a member of a particular local gathering of believers and the maintenance of any list of such members. Brethren emphasize the Christian doctrine of the one "Church" made up of all true believers and enumerated in Heaven in the, "Lamb's," Book of Life (Revelation 20:12), rather than by humans. However, as a practical matter, in the late 20th Century many American "Open" assemblies began maintaining informal lists of those in regular attendance at services. This was often to comply with secular governance issues or to offer a directory of attendees for internal use. The Open Brethren emphasize that meeting attendance for the nonbeliever has no direct spiritual benefit (though it is hoped the individual may be influenced to convert). Nonbelievers are not to partake of the, "Breaking of Bread," though this proves generally difficult to enforce in larger "Open" assemblies. Regardless, regular attendance for believers is an act of obedience to the New Testament command that they should not neglect the assembling of themselves together (Hebrews 10:25).

No clergy

While much of typical Brethren theology closely parallels non-Calvinist English and American Baptist traditions on many points, the view on clergy is much closer to the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation in rejecting the idea of clergy. Many Protestant denominations claim adherence to the New Testament doctrine of the, "priesthood of all believers" (1 Peter 2:9,10), to varying extents. The Plymouth Brethren embrace the most extensive form of that idea: There is no ordained or unordained person or group employed to function as (a) minister(s) or pastor(s). However, the Plymouth Brethren as a movement cannot claim full adherence to the doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers. Due to the autonomous nature of the Open Brethren assemblies, each assembly is able, and sometimes does, adhere fully to the doctrine. The spiritual leaders of Plymouth Brethren assemblies or meetings are called, "Elders" (1 Timothy 3:1-7), and sometimes more practical leaders are called, "Deacons" (1 Timothy 3:8-13), are identified. The term, "Elder," is based on the same Scriptures that are used to identify, "Bishops," and, "Overseers," in other Christian circles. There is usually more than one Elder in an assembly and although officially naming and designating "eldership" is common to Open Brethren, there are many "Exclusive" assemblies that believe granting a man the title of, "Elder," is too close to having clergy, and therefore a group of "leading brothers," none of whom has an official title of any kind, attempts to present issues to the entire group for it to decide upon, believing that the whole group must decide, not merely a body of "Elders." (As in all Exclusive Brethren meetings, women are generally not permitted to speak at these meetings at which the entire group makes "assembly decisions.")

Plymouth Brethren groups generally recognize from the teachings of the Apostle Paul's epistles that not all the believers in any one fellowship are suited to give public ministry such as teaching and preaching. (1 Corinthians 12:14,17-20). They believe, however, that each believer receives at least one specific spiritual gift of the many spiritual gifts that God gives to the church (1 Cor. 12:4-6,8-11) which should be employed for the good of the saints (1 Corinthians 12:7).

As a practical matter, many "Open" assemblies have come to embrace the need to financially compensate an individual who has made preaching and teaching his full-time occupation, and these people are sometimes salaried. Such an individual may be termed a, "full-time worker" (or a "labouring brother" or "on the Lord's work"). At a given assembly, there may be no full-time workers, one, or several. It is generally up to the Elders and dependent on the availability of such an individual and the financial means of the assembly. Some "Exclusive" assemblies "commend" men who are dedicated to the work of preaching. Although they usually do not receive a salary as such, gifts are often given to them by the separate assemblies where the commended men preach and teach.

Traditionally, the assemblies have recognized New Testament passages that seem to deny speaking and teaching roles to women, except when working with children or with other women. Some women may also be full-time workers, but their efforts are often limited to these mentioned areas or to supporting roles. Women are generally not allowed to participate in individual speech during the "Breaking of Bread" service.

It is not strictly accurate to say that the assemblies reject the ordination of women. The assemblies reject the concept of ordination altogether. As a substitute practice, a male full-time worker often receives a "commendation" to the service of preaching and/or teaching that demonstrates the blessing and support of the assembly of origin; but, that does not connote a transfer of any special spiritual authority. In some groups, both men and women may be commended to service, but the role of women is limited, again. In recent years some American assemblies have loosened the rules on women participating, such as women singing special music during the "family Bible hours" at their assemblies, though others have reacted by placing more emphasis on this traditional teaching.

Weekly "Remembrance" meeting

A distinctive practice of the Brethren is a separate weekly Communion meeting, referred to as the "Breaking of Bread," or "The Lord's Supper." Although specific practices will vary from meeting to meeting, there are general similarities.

  • The "Remembrance Service" is usually held each Sunday morning (though some assemblies hold it Sunday evening).
  • Where a meeting hall allows for the adjustment of furniture, the table bearing the eucharistic "emblems" (bread and wine or grape juice) will sometimes be placed in the center of the room. Chairs may be arranged around the table in four radiating sections, all facing the table, although this is not a recognized standard.
  • There is no order or plan for the service, rather the meeting is extempore; men (see: The Separate Roles of Men and Women) will (as "called by the Spirit") rise and quote scripture, pray, request a hymn to be sung or give a thought.
  • Most assemblies will not have musical accompaniment to hymns and songs sung during the "Remembrance Service," but have men who "start the hymns" (choosing a tune, tempo, pitch and key and singing the first few words, with the rest joining in shortly thereafter). In some groups, musical accompaniment may be used at the other services.
  • Toward the end of the "Remembrance Service" meeting, a prayer is said in reference to the bread concerning its portrayal as "the body of Christ," perhaps by an individual so appointed or (in a meeting where no one is appointed) by a man who has taken it upon himself.
  • Generally a loaf of leavened bread is used as an emblem of Christ's body. After being prayed over, the loaf will be broken and circulated to the quiet, seated congregation. Congregants will break off small pieces as it is passed, and eat it individually (ie. not waiting for a group invitation to consume it together).
  • As with common Christian practice, wine has been traditionally used at Brethren Remembrance Services as the emblem of Christ's blood. Some individual meetings may use grape juice especially if someone in fellowship may have had an alcohol problem in the past. The emblem of the blood will be served after the bread has been circulated to the congregation and after it has been prayed over. The wine is used as an emblem of Christ's blood.
  • The bread and wine are seen as memorial symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
  • An offering bag, basket or box may be sent around after these two "emblems" have been passed, collecting money given voluntarily for use in maintaining the building, hall or room, to remunerate full-time or labouring brothers or to distribute to the needy. In some cases an offering box may be placed at the door and not circulated.
  • Because some assemblies do not encourage strangers to take Communion, it is the custom of those from such meetings who are travelling to take a "letter of commendation" along with them, so they might be a permitted to take Communion away from their home assemblies. These letters are typically read aloud to those present at the "Remembrance Service" and, as such, serve the purpose of introducing visitors to the meetings so that they can be made welcome and benefit from fellowship. These Exclusive- and Open Brethren meetings operate what is termed a "Closed Table Policy," Any stranger without a letter arriving at such a meeting will be allowed only to observe the meeting. Some Open assemblies welcome any who profess Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord.
  • Some "Exclusive" meetings will differ from "Open" meetings in seating accepted men (men who are "in fellowship") in the front rows toward the table bearing the emblems, accepted women behind the men and unaccepted men and women toward the rear. Other "Exclusive" meetings will seat accepted men and women together (so spouses can be seated together) and unaccepted men and women toward the rear in the, "Seat of the Unlearned," or "Seat of the Observer."

Other Sunday meetings

Following the "Remembrance" meeting, there may be one other Sunday meeting, or perhaps more. Whereas the purpose of the Lord's Supper is predominantly for worship, recalling the person and work of Christ, other meetings will involve Bible teaching, evangelism and gospel preaching (among young and old). Sunday Schools and Bible classes are common. In ministry and Gospel meetings the congregation, seated in rows facing a pulpit or platform, will sing hymns and choruses and listen to Scripture readings and a sermon preached by one of the brethren called to "preach." Bible teaching may be given either in the form of a ministry meeting in which a sermon is delivered or in a "Bible reading" or "Bible study," in which the men discuss a portion of Scripture.

No solicitation for funds

The assemblies do not take up an offering during their meetings, except at the "Breaking of Bread." But, even then, only those in fellowship are expected to give. Tithing - giving 10 percent of one's income - is seen as Commandment for Israel from the Old Testament law and not applicable to the Church. Instead, the amount given is left to the giver and is a private matter between the individual and the Lord.

One reason for not taking up an offering at all meetings is to avoid causing any unbelievers who may be present to think that they might gain a spiritual benefit by making a donation. Some assemblies never send an offering bag round the congregation even at the "Breaking of Bread," preferring to simply have a box or two located at the back of the meeting hall, thus avoiding even the appearance of solicitation for funds. Many assemblies operate a "back seat" or "guest row" during the "Breaking of Bread," so that neither the offering bag nor the emblems of bread and wine will pass down the row of those not in fellowship.

No salaried ministry

See the comments on "No Clergy" above. Most assemblies are led by a group of unordained, "Overseers," or, "Elders," who believe they have been "Called" by God (Romans 8:28)(Ordination is "anathema" to Plymouth Brethren, because the separate "office" of, "Preacher," does not appear in the original Koine Greek language of the New Testament, and, because such ordination connotes to unbiblically separate some believers into a distinctly higher class.). Conversely, an Elder is supposed to be able and ready to "teach" when his assembly sees the "Call" of God on his life to assume that office (1 Timothy 3:2). The Elders conduct many other duties that would be typically performed by clergy of more orthodox Christian groups, including: counseling those who have decided to be baptized, performing baptisms, visiting the sick and giving general spiritual advice. Some "Open" assemblies, especially the larger assemblies in North America, have salaried staff, including some designated as, "Teaching Elders," or "Teaching Pastors." Normally, sermons are given by both Elders and other members of the meeting. Visiting speakers, however, are usually paid to cover expenses such as the cost of travel. Full-time missionaries are often financially supported by assemblies known by them, particularly their home assemblies.

Separate roles of men and women

There is no distinction made in Brethren teaching between men and women in their individual relation to Christ and his "vicarious atonement" for them on the cross, or their individual position before God as believers. However, in most Brethren meetings, the principle of male, "Headship," is applied, in accordance with teaching found in several passages in the Bible, including 1 Corinthians 11:3, which says:

"But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God."

Thus most Brethren meetings reserve leadership and teaching roles to men, based on 1 Timothy 2:11,12...:

"A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent."

From this, Brethren teaching traditionally (there are regional exceptions) outlines a system in which the men take the "vocal" and leadership roles, and the women take supportive and "silent" roles. In practical terms, what is traditionally seen is that the men are fully responsible for all preaching, teaching and leading of worship. Therefore, in most Brethren groups, women will be heard to sing the hymns along with the group, but their voices will not otherwise be heard during the service. Often the men are, practically speaking, the only ones involved fully and vocally in all discussions leading up to administrative decision making as well. Within "Exclusive" groups in particular, matters up for debate may be discussed at special meetings attended solely by adult males called, in some groups, "Brothers Meetings."

As to the reason behind women covering their heads at meetings in some groups, 1 Corinthians 11:5,6 says:

"But every woman that prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered."

For this reason, some meetings will be characterized by the women wearing head coverings ("loaners" in some assemblies are available at the back for women who have come without a covering). It is not traditional, however, for Brethren groups to insist that women who are "not covered" be "shorn" or "shaven," despite the wording of 1 Corinthians 11:6. Head coverings typically take the form of a tam, beret, or similar hat which can be more aptly described as a "head topping," rather than as covering the head in any real way. Sisters in "Exclusive" gatherings quite commonly wear a headscarf or "mantilla" (a lace/doily-like Spanish veil) on their heads. It is a fairly common misconception that "Exclusive" women characteristically wear a shawl over their heads, though no doubt individual women may at one time or other have resorted to this.

Further, due to the wording of 1 Corinthians 11:3 and some other passages, in regard to family relationships, in many groups, wives are expected to, "be in subjection unto their own husband as unto the Lord" (Ephesians 5:22), husbands are to "love their wives even as Christ loved the Church" (Ephesians 5:25) and children are to "obey their parents in the Lord" (Ephesians 6:1). There is no controversy over the last two phrases, though there may be over the first.

Over recent years the practice in some Open- and Closed Brethren assemblies throughout the world have developed to leave questions of head coverings, levels of female participation and responsibility mainly to the discretion of individuals and groups.

Some Brethren of both "Open" and "Exclusive" persuasion seek to be completely untouched by changing attitudes within society regarding the role of women. They view the abandonment of the traditionally practiced doctrine of "Headship" as evidence of an overall apostasy (or moral deterioration) within Christendom and as leading to disorder and eventual anarchy within their fellowships.


Assemblies generally hold a cessationist position and believe that the "sign gifts" ceased on the completion of the Canon of Scripture. Early Brethren leaders in the 1830s investigated and dismissed the claims of the Catholic Apostolic Church in regard to charismatic gifts.

Although essentially non-charismatic, it has been known, however, for individuals to leave an assembly to meet with other Christians who hold charismatic views. Conversely, it has been known for Christians leaving a charismatic circle and meeting up with a brethren assembly after being unconvinced of the reality of the "sign gifts" being displayed. It has also been known for an "Open" meeting to split over charismatic/non-charismatic disagreements.

In the UK, Smith Wigglesworth and W.F. Burton left Brethren assemblies to become well-known pentecostalists. In the 1960s, David Lillie personally became convinced of the validity of "sign gifts" and formed in effect a hybrid, "Pentecostalised Brethrenism," with what that group considers as New Testament styles of church government. Roger Forster, the founder of Ichthus Christian Fellowship, and Gerald Coates, another eminent leader in the charismatic movement, also originated from the Brethren.

Other practices

Gatherings and meetings

Assemblies might also have weekly meetings which might include: preaching/teaching services, missionary reports, Bible studies and prayer meetings. There is frequently a Sunday School for children and youth groups for teens. Although women do not verbally participate in the Breaking of Bread service, in some groups they take part in Sunday School, teach classes, conduct ladies meetings and are generally very active in "Camping" ministry.


During the weekly Breaking of Bread service, hymns are traditionally sung unaccompanied by any musical instrument, though some assemblies may have instrumental accompaniment. In some assemblies, hymns sung during the other types of meetings are accompanied by piano or electronic organ, though this practice varies among assemblies. Other musical instruments are used at some assemblies. Some assemblies blend traditional hymns with contemporary "Praise & Worship" music accompanied by bands. One of the unifying features in each of the different branches of the Brethren is a common hymnbook. The first collection used among the united assemblies was, "Hymns for the Poor of the Flock," from 1838 and again in 1840. Another such hymnbook, used by Exclusive Brethren (Tunbridge-Wells and Ames) dating back to 1856 is called, "Hymns for the Little Flock," the first edition of which was compiled by G.V. Wigram. A revision was made, in 1881, by J.N. Darby. Also widely used among Open Brethren are, "Believer's Hymnbook," "Hymns of Light and Love," "Echoes of Grace," "Hymns of Worship and Remembrance," sometimes known simply as, "The Black Book," and, "Hymns of Truth and Praise," known as, "The Red Book."


The influence of the Plymouth Brethren upon evangelical Christianity exceeds their relatively small numerical proportion. The movement today has many congregations around the world.

Christian Missions in Many Lands (CMML), in the United States, Missionary Service Committee (MSC), in Canada, and Echoes of Service, in the United Kingdom, serve as support agencies for Brethren missionaries, helping with logistics and material support. These agencies help to equip and support those sent from local churches. Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission, kept strong ties with the Open Brethren, even though he was raised a Methodist and later was a member of a Baptist Church. The concept of "Faith Missions" can be traced back through Hudson Taylor, to the example of the early Brethren missionary, Anthony Norris Groves.

J.N. Darby, one of the original members and perhaps the most well known of the movement, wrote over 50 books including a translation of the New Testament and is often credited with the development of the theology of "dispensationalism" and "pretribulationism".

Many leaders of the contemporary evangelical movement came from Brethren backgrounds. These include Geoff Tunnicliffe, CEO of the World Evangelical Alliance; the late British scholar F.F. Bruce; Brian McLaren of the Emerging Church movement; 1950s Auca missionary martyrs Ed McCully, Jim Elliot and Peter Fleming; Walter Liefeld, NT professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; Jim Wallis, American Christian activist and founder of Sojourners Magazine; and the late preacher Dr. Harry A. Ironside, who wrote the, Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement. Radio personality Garrison Keillor was raised among the Plymouth Brethren, whom he sometimes refers to as the, "sanctified brethren," in his News from "Lake Wobegon" monologues. Peter Maiden, the current leader of Operation Mobilization, also came from the Brethren.

Since 2004, the separatist Raven-Taylor-Hales Exclusive Brethren have become politically active. Formerly, they embraced non-involvement, "in the things of the world," because they are "citizens of heaven." These heterodox Taylor Exclusive Brethren have been responsible for the production and distribution of political literature in the Australian, American, Swedish, Canadian and New Zealander national elections. For more details, see Exclusive Brethren. These Taylor Brethren are atypical of other streams of Plymouth Brethren, which distance themselves from the "Taylorites." Many mainstream assemblies discourage political involvement, sometimes to the extent of not voting in democratic, free elections. A criticism could be leveled that the movement, with its upper-class roots, lacks compassion for the plight of the underprivileged. For example, it was left to William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury and other politically active Christians to work toward the abolishment of slavery and improving the welfare of factory children in the 19th Century. However, this can be viewed as unfair criticism when reflecting on the light of George Müller's ministry caring for homeless orphans and also on some of the sacrifices of its missionaries such as Anthony Norris Groves. It is more reasonable to state that the Brethren are more concerned with people's spiritual rather than their physical condition. However, where physical help is given, it is tended to be given directly and not through secular organizations.

Notable members

Film portrayal

The Exclusive Hales branch of the Plymouth Brethren are portrayed in the film, "Son of Rambow," as trying to restrict the creativity and freedom of the film's main character. The Plymouth Brethren are also featured in the book, Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey, and in the film adaptation. Oscar is raised by a strict Plymouth Brethren father and rebels by becoming an Anglican priest. Sir Edmund Gosse wrote the wellknown book Father and Son about his upbringing in a Plymouth Brethren household.

Notes and references


  • H. K. Carroll, Religious Forces in the United States (New York, 1912).
  • Adams, Norman - Goodbye, Beloved Brethren. (1972, Impulse Publications Inc) ISBN 0-901311-13-8
  • Coad, F. Roy - A History of the Brethren Movement: Its Origins, Its Worldwide Development and Its Significance for the Present Day. (2001, Regent College Publishing) ISBN 1-57383-183-2
  • Grass, Tim, Gathering to his Name, Carlisle: paternoster, 2006.
  • Ironside, H. A. - Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement. (1985,Loizeaux Brothers) ISBN 0-87213-344-3
  • Neatby, William Blair - A History of the Plymouth Brethren, (1901); Reprinted by Tentmaker Publications covers the first seventy years of the Brethren movement. Free download site
  • Pickering, Henry, Chief Men Among the Brethren, (1st ed. 1918 London: Pickering & Inglis), Loizeaux Brothers, Inc. Neptune, NJ, 1996, ISBN 0-87213-798-8
  • Smith, Natan Dylan. - Roots, Renewal and the Brethren. (1996, Hope Publishing House) ISBN 0-932727-08-5
  • Strauch, Alexander. - Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership. (1995, Lewis & Roth Publishers) ISBN 0-936083-11-5
  • Stunt, Timothy C. F., From awakening to secession : radical evangelicals in Switzerland and Britain, 1815-35, Edinburgh : T&T Clark, 2000, ISBN 0-567-08719-0
  • Teulon, J.S. - The History and Teaching of The Plymouth Brethren (London, 1883) Free download site
  • Response by William Kelly to J.S. Teulon's Plymouth Brethren Free download site
  • Biography of A. N. Groves, by his widow, (Third edition, London, 1869)
  • Biography of Henry Craik, by Taylor, (London, 1866)
  • Dorman, The Close of Twenty-eight Years of Association with J. N. Darby (London, 1866)
  • Henry Groves, Darbyism: Its Rise and Development (London, 1866)

For hostile criticism:

  • J. L. C. Carson, The Heresies of the Plymouth Brethren (London, 1862) Free Download 19mb
  • W. Reid, The Plymouth Brethren Unveiled and Refuted (Second edition, Edinburgh, 1874-76) Free Download 17mb
  • T. Croskery, Plymouth Brethrenism: A Refutation of its Principles and Doctrines (London, 1879)
  • A. Miller, Plymouthism and the Modern Churches (Toronto, 1900)

Other sources of information are writings by B. W. Newton and W. Kelly.

See also

External Links

Open Brethren

Exclusive Brethren

Sites critical of the Exclusive Brethren

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