A Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement

By H.A. Ironside
Neptune, NJ : Loizeaux (1986). 228 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Kelly Osborne
4.1 (Spring 1993) : 108-110

A review of books that focus on the history of what appears to many a rather minor and obscure segment of the evangelical church, namely, the so-called "Plymouth Brethren," could seem to be unusual in The Master's Seminary Journal. One has, however, only to note that John Gerstner, in his book Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism -recently the subject of a review article in this journal and elsewhere- devotes a complete chapter to the role of the "Brethren" (hereafter, B.) in developing the teachings of Dispensationalism. That brings a realization that the members of this group have had an influence out of all proportion to their numbers.

Though numerous histories of the B. have been published over the last 100 years, this reviewer knows of no publication that treats the subject as even-handedly as Ironside's Historical Sketch. The Plymouth Brethren movement -"Plymouth" being originally a nickname to believers from one of the largest early meetings, which was located in Plymouth, England- had its origin in the 1820's in Ireland and England when small groups of believers throughout the British Isles spontaneously and without knowing about one another began meeting for the purpose of studying the Word of God and "breaking bread" (i.e., celebrating the Lord's Supper). They were dissatisfied with the ecclesiastical pretensions of the Church of England and the Dissenting denominations, and therefore sought to meet in simplicity without any designated leader or ordained clergy officiating. One of these groups met in Dublin, Ireland, and eventually included a young Church of Ireland cleric by the name of J. N. Darby.

From its humble and unorganized beginnings (chap. 1), Ironside traces the growth of the movement throughout Great Britain and the Continent (chaps. 2-3), the first major split in 1848 between what developed into the "Open" and the "Exclusive" branches of the B. (chaps. 4-5), subsequent events and splits among the Exclusives (chaps. 6-10), post-1848 developments among the Open B. (chap. 11), and the failed efforts in the 1890's toward a rapprochement between some branches of the Exclusives and the Opens (chaps. 12-13). In a final chapter Ironside offers some critical comments of his own. Five appendixes of "Miscellaneous Papers and Documents Pertaining to Brethren's History, Methods and Doctrines" end the volume.

As the book's title indicates, Ironside's treatment of B. history is not exhaustive, but he does use primary sources throughout. A word of caution: B. history is difficult to read, partly because of the sometimes laborious style of 19th-century English, and partly because of the complexities involved in the numerous splits as well as the intricacy of arguments about frequently obscure issues faced in those splits. Nor is it pleasant to see the tragic results of decisions and actions taken when, in the course of time, dissension grew and attitude of brother towards brother hardened. Nevertheless, the people of God today can learn important lessons from this.

From time to time, Ironside adds his own comments that often provide a helpful perspective in the midst of the historical minutia (e.g., 7, 20, 29-30, 45, 56, 69, 109-10, 121, 171, 174). Among them several are worthy of special note:

(1) In the earliest days, the B. devoted themselves to the study and practice of the Word of God in a simplicity and humility of mind that puts most late 20th-century believers to shame.

(2) American, and especially, conservative evangelicals might be better served if they concentrated more effort on understanding and following the clear and simple teachings of the Word of God (cf. 174).

(3) The terrible results of speaking or acting hastily and without careful consideration for the ultimate consequences (i.e., in the power of the flesh) ought to drive every Christian to his knees in prayer before he attempts to speak "the truth in love" (Eph 4:15) so that he will avoid speaking the truth without love.

(4) The consequences of spiritual pride in thinking oneself or one's "movement" or "denomination" somehow better than others are dreadful (cf. 174).

Finally, this book would benefit greatly from the addition of name and subject indexes.

In contrast to Ironside's work, H. Pickering'sChief among the Brethren is much easier reading. It concentrates on the positive contributions of many of the B.'s leaders (representing both Exclusive and Open B.) during the movement's first century. Arranged chronologically by date of birth, one hundred brief articles summarize the lives of individuals such as J. N. Darby, C. H. Mackintosh, William Kelly, J. G. Bellett, F. W. Grant, and George Muller. Even many who know little or nothing of the B. movement may recognize some of these names. A number of different authors, including Pickering, contributed articles. This results in a certain "variety of style" (from the Preface). Nevertheless, it is a joy to read about the lives of these men of God, their faithfulness and self-sacrifice in the cause of making Christ known. This book may be used profitably alongside Ironside's work to gain a better perspective on the character and labors of some whose names appear in Historical Sketch solely as opponents in controversy. Chief Men includes a useful alphabetical index with dates at the front of the book.

Loizeaux has rendered the Christian reading public a definite service in reprinting these two volumes that have long been unavailable.