Exclusive Brethren

Exclusive Brethren

The Exclusive Brethren are a subset of the Christian evangelical movement generally described as the Plymouth Brethren. They are distinguished from the Open Brethren from whom they separated in 1848. The Exclusive Brethren movement evolved into two main branches, each one containing various different parties.

The first branch is generally associated with William Kelly and encompasses a number of different historical branches. Their doctrine and practice is similar to that of the early Brethren and they are found throughout the world.

The second branch is the Raven/Taylor Brethren who are found mainly in the English-speaking world and who constitute a small proportion of the wider Brethren movement.. The Taylor/Symington/Hales group of these Brethren hold an uncompromising 'separatist' doctrine and their practice has steadily evolved differently from other Brethren groups and also from mainstream Christianity.

General overview

All Exclusive Brethren groups believe that there is a necessary unity of the local church or assembly.

This is expressed practically in different ways by the different groups, but matters of fellowship and church discipline are generally not merely questions of local responsibility; such decisions must be accepted in all meetings. Exclusive Brethren are therefore sometimes described as Connexional Brethren, as they recognise an obligation to accept and adhere to the disciplinary actions of other associated assemblies. For example, where one of their branches has excluded a person from Christian fellowship, that person remains excluded from all other branches, who must then treat the excluded person as a leper (according to the book of Leviticus Bible (King James)/Leviticus#Chapter 15). In contrast, Open Brethren allow each assembly to make its own decision about membership. Needed Truth Brethren are connexional (believing in the unity of all assemblies) even though they are historically associated with Open Brethren.

Excepting assembly unity, there are common threads throughout all Plymouth Brethren groups, most notably the centrality of the Lord’s Supper in the weekly calendar and the format of meetings and worship. Often the distinctions between the many groups are not well understood by other Christians and the general public. The adjective exclusive has been applied to the group by others, partially due to their determination to separate from and exclude what they believe to be evil. Exclusive Brethren usually disown any name and simply refer to themselves as Christians, brethren, those with whom we walk, those in fellowship with us, or the saints. However, the Taylor/Symington/Hales group has specifically adopted the term Exclusive Brethren and applied it to themselves to the exclusion of other groups. In the USA the Reunited Brethren, the Tunbridge Wells and Ames-Booth Brethren are also known as exclusive brethren. In the Netherlands the Lowe-Continental Brethren are "Gesloten broeders" (closed brethren). Dissecting the history and branches of the exclusive brethren, particularly in the 20th Century, can be a challenge as there has been no formal mechanism for documenting their movement's history.

Instead these practices vary throughout the world in both so-called Open and Exclusive assemblies. However, meetings amongst the Taylor/Symington/Hales group are generally closed to all non-members whose views on social issues would be generally seen as unorthodox. This has generated significant debate in Australia and elsewhere as to why locked meeting halls should be supported by public money through tax exemption..


With the exception of Taylor/Symington/Hales brethren, Exclusive Brethren differ very little from the open brethren on theological issues, both hold the Bible as their sole authority in regard to matters of doctrine and practice and both groups rely heavily on doctrine held and propagated by John Nelson Darby. With few exceptions, particularly in regards to whom to accept into fellowship, exclusive brethren have continued to hold the same beliefs that inspired the Plymouth Brethren.


There are perhaps 1,000,000 people who can be roughly classified as Plymouth Brethren worldwide, the majority of which belong to the Open Brethren. Of the rest, there are 40,000 Taylor/Symington/Hales meeting in 300 assemblies in 19 countries with strongest representation in Australia, New Zealand, UK, and North America and smaller groups in continental Europe and Latin America. Few people not born into the Taylor/Symington/Hales Brethren become members, and relatively few of those born into the group leave.

Other Exclusive Brethren groups are found throughout the world, but it is difficult to estimate numbers. These groups are considered to be much stronger than the Taylor/Symington/Hales Brethren in Continental Europe and they are also quite strong in the UK and North America. They are thought to be numerically declining overall in the developed world, while expanding in the developing world where they are much more prevalent than the Raven/Taylor Brethren, e.g. in Central and Latin America and Asia.


Most Exclusive Brethren groups have no formal leadership structure. All the men who speak at services are only to do so as led by the Holy Spirit and in accordance with Scripture (the Bible). As a result schisms can occur in the Brethren over disagreements about discipline and whether the local assembly or other assemblies have authority to intervene in these disagreements. For example, if an assembly in Canada splits over a discipline issue, letters by both factions will be sent all over the world to other assemblies in fellowship. An assembly in Peru, with little knowledge of the disagreement, may choose a side since there can only be one Lord's table. In some cases, the assembly in Peru may also split because the members disagree on which faction to side with. Family connections often influence which side members take during a schism. There are often global family connections due to the emphasis among members to marry within the Exclusive Brethren. The Taylor/Symington/Hales Brethren avoid this by having a structured leadership with a central authority figure to limit schisms.

The non-Raven/Taylor Brethren on the other hand have a number of historical branches including:

  • Ames Brethren (USA and Bahamas only)
  • Grant Brethren (USA)
  • Stuart (or Reading) Brethren (a dozen assemblies in NZ)
  • Kelly Brethren (Southern UK and West Indies, etc.), resumed fellowship with Lowe-Continental in 1926
  • Lowe-Continental (Elberfelder) Brethren (all inhabited Continents)
    • The reunited Kelly-Lowe assemblies have 200 assemblies in Egypt, over 100 in Peru, many in D.R. Congo, Africa and India
  • Glanton Brethren (Northern Britain)
  • Tunbridge Wells Brethren (all Continents - but predominantly the Americas, both North and South)

In October 1974, after 50 years of reunions amongst the non-Raven/Taylor Brethren the Kelly Lowe Glanton, Tunbridge Wells Group was formed, uniting most of these groups into one, although a few Tunbridge Wells meetings in both the UK and USA seceded. This group is the largest single group of Brethren on the European mainland. A historical account of how this reunion came about is posted in The "Brethren" Since 1870 by W. R. Dronsfield.

These Brethren are described as "Darbyite" as they do not accept the concept of "progressive ministry" by which the practices and teachings of Brethren evolve according to "current light" or "current ministry". Neither do they accept the concept of "authoritative ministry" as being divinely sanctioned and binding on those in fellowship as is found amongst some Raven/Taylor Brethren. Reunion with ex-Raven/Taylor meetings and reception of ex-Raven/Taylor Brethren has been hampered by mutual suspicion over acceptance, or otherwise, of the doctrines of Raven and Taylor regarding Christ's Eternal Sonship (there being no disagreement over his Deity), Eternal Life, Christ's atoning sufferings in the grave and the matter of addressing the Holy Spirit in prayer and worship.

The Kelly Lowe Glanton, Tunbridge Wells Group has recently suffered from widespread division because of association with certain members of one of the Raven/Taylor parties (Oxted-Rogers group) and liberal (meaning introducing more open communion) and New Age doctrine coming from some Dutch teachers. Some analysis of what lies behind the spectrum of differing groups can be read in 'A Narrative of Facts Regarding UK assemblies. July 1999' by E N Cross and another view may be found on the German Brethren site, in these two articles by Philip Nunn:


The Plymouth Brethren split into exclusive and open brethren in 1848 when John Nelson Darby became involved in a complex dispute over the proper method for maintaining shared standards of discipline in different assembles. After that time, he was recognized as the dominant figure among the Exclusives, who also came to be known as "Darbyite" Brethren.

Although Brethren groups acknowledge no earthly leader, remembering Christ's teaching: "But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren," Bible (King James)/Matthew#Chapter 23, James Butler Stoney (1814-97) became the next dominant figure, later followed by F E Raven (1837-1903), C A Coates (1862-1945) and James Taylor Sr (1870-1953).

James Taylor Sr introduced teaching that 'ministry' from the leadership has equal weight with the Bible. His 'Sonship of Christ' was considered heretical by many outside their fellowship. James Taylor Jr (1899-1970) was the next exclusive brethren leader.

At the Central Hall conference in 1959, a decisive confrontation took place between Gerald R Cowell(1898-1963) of Hornchurch and James Taylor Jr of New York. The latter proposed that more radical, immediate separation from 'the world' was necessary while the former took a more moderate line. Those who later became the Raven-Taylor-Hales Brethren sided with James Taylor Jr and excommunicated Mr Cowell less than a year after the Conference, judging him 'unfit for Christian fellowship'. James Taylor Jr then went on to introduce a raft of new directives including a ban on any member eating or drinking with anyone outside their immediate circle of assembly fellowship.

A considerable number of individuals and assemblies left the Raven/Taylor Brethren during the ministries of James Taylor Sr and James Taylor Jr, chiefly as a reaction to the increasingly restrictive directives of the latter. Some of these leavers joined with other groups of Brethren (including others who left after 1970) or other local churches.

Aberdeen incident of 1970

In 1970 James Taylor Jr, apparently under the influence of alcohol, exhibited increasingly erratic behaviour which came to a head in meetings at Aberdeen in Scotland, where he insulted other members. Following one meeting, James Taylor Jr was witnessed engaging in what appeared to be immoral conduct with a married woman. James Taylor Jr immediately rejected both accusations as lies and the incident definitively divided the Brethren membership worldwide. Very few based near the scene of the events stayed in fellowship with James Taylor Jr (including just two families in Aberdeen) while others, especially those overseas, believed that James Taylor Jr to be a pure man and that this incident was used by God to expose his enemies. James Taylor Jr died shortly afterwards the same year.

Since 1970

After the events of 1970 a large number of meetings felt unable to continue in fellowship with James Taylor Junior and separated from him in the immediate aftermath of meetings at Aberdeen. These have been called the Post-Aberdeen Outs. They continue to hold the doctrine and teaching of Darby-Raven-Taylor(Sr) and gradually "rolled back" the directives that had been introduced during the 1960s and James Taylor Jr's leadership. They have divided several times since then and are very fragmented. Some meetings have become de facto independents while others have joined with Pre-Aberdeen Outs. Some retain the concept of "authoritative ministry" and they have varying degrees of freedom to attend services in other meetings and churches. They have a wide variety of doctrinal viewpoints and practices having reacted to a greater or lesser degree to Taylor's teachings. The Kingston Bible Trust under the auspices of the "Croydon" group produces a selection of ministry in the Darby/Raven/Taylor(Snr) category.

After the Aberdeen division in 1970, the "Outs" meetings continued to have fellowship together until 1972 when they divided into 2 main groups. This division started with some who left the gathering in Edinburgh in support of a brother who was felt to be a member an 'unequal yoke' according to Bible (King James)/2 Corinthians#Chapter 6.

  1. Renton Meetings — Those who, whilst rejecting the ministry of James Taylor Jr, did not immediately dissociate from everything that had been introduced by him, preferring to test each matter on its own merits. The main events of this division started in Scotland but divided the group worldwide. The closed table still operates among these Brethren but it should be noted that they welcome other believers to attend their other meetings.
  2. Non-Renton or Strang Brethren — Those who rejected the ministry of James Taylor Junior but accepted the concept of "authoritative ministry;" i.e., that you could only have fellowship with those with whom you agreed regarding matters of doctrine and ministry. The closed table was still maintained. A new edition of the Little Flock Hymn Book was produced in 1973 for use among this group. This Hymnbook maintained Taylor's doctrines of addressing the Holy Spirit in worship and addressing God as the triune One. It restored many previously deleted hymns from earlier editions, and restored many hymns to their original forms, but added no new compositions. The practice of excising hymns composed by those no longer in fellowship without taking account of the intrinsic worth of each individual hymn was continued. A new version of Tunes for this edition was produced by Frank Frost, Archie Broadbridge and John Mason in 1979. It removed a number of tunes from the 1965 Supplement which nevertheless remains in print at the Taylor/Symington/Hales Depot.

Further divisions amongst post-Aberdeen Brethren

In 1974, further disagreements arose and another division occurred amongst the Strang Brethren. Fundamentally it was between the Oxted Brethren and the Frost or Croydon Brethren. The Oxted Brethren rejected the concept of "authoritative ministry" and wished to maintain "an available mount of communion for every consistent believer" (See Letters of J.N.D Vol.1 p.21) which is very similar to the Darbyite position. On the other hand, the Frost Brethren (named after Frank Frost, one of the signatories of the letter of withdrawal) accepted "authoritative ministry", maintained a closed table and rejected fellowship or shared ministry with other believers.

The Oxted meetings, sometimes known as Rogers Meetings after the late George D V Rogers of Oxted, continued as a loose federation of meetings often drawing on help for ministry from other groups of Brethren and indeed other Christians from other denominations. Oxted meetings allowed members to minister at meetings and churches which are not generally associated with them. They are now few in number and, although they have informal links with each other, there is no centralised control nor is there any list of their meetings. One meeting at Haywards Heath was briefly considered in the 1980s for association with the reunited Kelly Lowe Glanton group, but difficulties arose over matters of doctrine and authority (on both sides) and on perceived Kelly Lowe Glanton centralizing tendencies.

The Frost Meetings divided again in 1991/2 over the issue of "authoritative ministry". The London Party reverted to a more Darbyite pattern of ministry but nevertheless maintain a closed table. They do in some instances engage in Evangelism with other believers and are mainly free to attend other places of worship as well as welcoming others to their meetings. They have reunited with some Raven-Taylor group meetings (the Pre-Aberdeen Outs) which rejected the ministry of James Taylor Junior in the 1950s and 60s.

The Croydon Party, whilst very welcoming of fellow believers to all meetings, are generally unable to participate in Gospel outreach with other believers nor even to enter other places of worship or meeting rooms for burials and weddings where the ministry is not under their direction. They do not allow other Christians to take part in their meetings. In common with the London Group they are not able to invite other Christians to minister among them nor are they able to minister at other meetings/churches but only amongst those with thom they are officially in fellowship. Both of these groups maintain lists of meetings with whom they are in fellowship.

The Frost/Croydon Group suffered another division in 1999 based mainly on matters of "administration," a weakness which has afflicted Brethren of all types from their earliest beginnings.

In 2007, Kevin Rudd, then-leader of the Australian Federal Labor Party, said that "I believe this is an extremist cult and sect," and alleged that it broke up families and hampered education.

Hymn books and music

The Little Flock hymn book exists in almost as many variations and editions as there are distinct groups of Exclusive Brethren. In 1838 (and again 1840) the Central Tract Depot published G.V. Wigram's Hymns for the Poor of the Flock. This was followed in 1856 by his Hymns and Spiritual Songs for the Little Flock which gathered together hymns from diverse collections used among Brethren and on which all subsequent versions are based. This was revised in 1881 by J.N. Darby, an edition which is still in print, published by Bible Truth Publishers of Addison, Illinois, USA and available from Chapter Two, etc. William Kelly revised the hymn book in 1894 and T.H. Reynolds produced his edition in 1903.

Raven-Taylor-Hales hymn books

Amongst Raven-Taylor-Hales Brethren, every new doctrinal development was reflected in renewed activity in hymn composition in English and other European languages especially Swedish. Doctrinal shifts were often followed by marked re-editing of the hymns themselves to bring them into line with current ministry which often necessitated the production of a new edition. The main editions are 1903, 1932, 1951, 1962, and 1973 of which there is a Taylor/Symington (1973 Amendment) edition and a separate Kingston Bible Trust (1973 Re-Selection) edition. From the 1940s, foreign language editions were gradually brought into line with English editions so that Brethren could, where possible, sing together the same hymns in the same metre. The 1962 hymnbook thus appears in varying quality in 10 or more languages. The Swedish editions in particular have a long tradition of translating English hymns especially Gospel songs for outreach. The English editions themselves have included translations from Swedish, French, Spanish and German. Taylor/Symington Brethren use their English Hymnbook universally regardless of the local language.

A new edition, Hymns and Spiritual Songs for the Flock of God was published in New Zealand in 2001 by R.D. Church and E. J. Forrest through the Joseph Bywater Trust. This collection is based on the 1951 edition and gathers together many hymns from all the pre-existing collections restoring hymns to their original wording where possible and adding some new compositions.

KLG hymnbooks

The KLG grouping have had 2 major hymn books since William Kelly's Hymns Selected and Revised in 1894 edition. Following the reunion of 'Kelly' (1894 users) and 'Lowe' Brethren (1881 users) in 1926, the 1928 edition was compiled by William John Hocking and is still in use by a few 'Kelly' and Open Brethren meetings. The 1978 edition followed the 1974 reunion with 'Glanton' Brethren (1903 users) and 'Grant' Brethren (1881 users) and is used by these "reunited" Brethren. This latter book has drawn more widely from Hymns in common use but does not contain hymns addressing the Holy Spirit in line with traditional Darbyite teaching. Foreign language editions have developed and continued in their own distinctive traditions.

Gospel hymns

Gospel Hymnbooks have been produced by most branches of Exclusive Brethren. The Little Flock editions have always contained a selection of Gospel Hymns but both Raven/Taylor and KLG wings of the movement have from time to time used separate (sometimes privately printed) collections of Gospel Hymns in the gospel, and outreach meetings. Chapter Two have re-published The Evangelists' Hymnal, edited by Dr. W.T.P. Wolston. This book is used by some Glanton and some Open Brethren assemblies.

Tune books

Little Flock Tune Books have been published in 1883, 1904, 1932, 1954, 1965, and 1979. Charles Theodore Lambert's edition of 1932 published both words and tunes with an appendix "Containing a few hymns suitable for the Christian Household". It is still published in SOL/FA by the Symington/Taylor Depot. The other Tune Books had Tunes only, listed in metrical order. The KLG 1978 hymn book and the Gospel Hymn Book were both published with a music edition. UK tunebooks have drawn particularly from German Collections and all editions (but especially the 1965 edition) have drawn on Exclusive Brethren tunewriters and musicians to produce collections of a high calibre both in terms of musical editing and in the quality of the compositions themselves. Composers of note include T. Willey, T. Collins, Miss La Thangue, Miss S.M. Walker, C. Leflaive, C.T. Lambert, Benjamin Christiansen esq. R.A. Evershed, Peter S. Pope, E. Carrén, John F. Harvey, and Gordon Miller.


External links

Search another word or see exclusive brethrenon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature