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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.