Who Are The Brethren?

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Who Are The Brethren?

The Brethren, or ‘Christian Brethren’, are given this name because they prefer to be known by a designation comprehensive enough to embrace all their fellow Christians. There are two main groupings among them, commonly described as Open Brethren and Exclusive Brethren. The terms ‘Open’ and ‘Exclusive’ are intended to denote their respective principles of communion. These pages are concerned only with the people called Open Brethren; the writer has no authority to write about his Exclusive friends.

It may be useful to make one point in this connection, however. In the early 1960s considerable publicity was given in the press to the withdrawal of a number of people called Brethren from various business and professional associations, and from universities. These people belonged to one section only of Exclusive Brethren, and their policy in such matters was not shared by other Exclusive Brethren, and still less by Open Brethren. This distinction has not always been clearly observed, and the result has been considerable confusion in the public mind.

The Open Brethren have no central organization. They belong to a large number of local churches or assemblies, spread throughout the British Commonwealth, the United States, the European continent and many other regions. Each of their local churches is independent so far as administration goes; there is no federation or union linking them together. Yet there is a recognizable family likeness between them, and their sense of a spiritual bond is strong.


The Brethren movement originated around the year 1825, although the Brethren commonly insist that their roots are really in the apostolic age, for they aim as far as possible at maintaining the simple and flexible church order of New Testament times. In the earlier part of the nineteenth century the barriers separating the various Christian denominations were less easily surmounted or penetrated than they are today. The founders of the Brethren movement were a group of young men (many of them associated with Trinity College, Dublin) who tried to find a way in which they could come together for worship and communion simply as fellow Christians, disregarding denominational barriers. They had no idea that they were starting a movement; still less had they any thought of founding a new denomination, for that would have defeated the very purpose for which they came together. For a time some of them continued to be members of their original churches, in which indeed a few of them were ordained ministers, but in general this situation did not remain practicable for long.

One of their early leaders was a Church of Ireland clergyman named John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), a man of unusual strength of intellect and personality, who envisaged the establishment of a corporate worldwide witness to the unity of the Church of Christ in an age of ecclesiastical fragmentation. His views were perpetuated by the Exclusive Brethren rather than by the Open group. When the cleavage between the two took place in 1848 it was to those who sided with Darby that the name Exclusive Brethren was given.

From Dublin the movement spread to England. In England the first Brethren assembly was established at Plymouth in 1831; hence arose the popular term “Plymouth Brethren.” Two leaders of the Brethren’s meeting at Plymouth, Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813-1875) and, in a lesser degree, his relative, Benjamin Wills Newton (1807-1899), were responsible for one of the best critical editions of the Greek New Testament to be produced in England in the nineteenth century.

Another important meeting of Brethren was Bethesda Chapel, Bristol, which had as its joint-pastors the Scottish Hebraist Henry Craik (1805-1866) and the German-born George Müller (1805-1898), best known for the orphanage which he established in that city in 1836 and which survives to the present day. (Dr T. J. Barnardo was also a member of the Brethren when he founded his equally famous orphanage in London in 1870.)

Overseas Missions

George Müuller’s brother-in-law, Anthony Norris Groves (1795-1853), has claims to be regarded as the first of the Open Brethren. He gave up a dental practice in Exeter to become a pioneer missionary, first in Baghdad and then in India. He was a man of large-hearted sympathies, who never forgot that the things which unite Christians are immeasurably more important than the things which divide them. “I would infinitely rather bear with all their evil,” he said of some people with whom he seriously disagreed, “than separate from their good.” Whether those features which he thought to be evil were so in fact or not, his words express the attitude which Open Brethren acknowledge as their ideal.

The Brethren missionary movement launched by Groves continues to the present time in every continent, and over a thousand missionaries are engaged in it. Some Brethren missionaries have been pioneers in more senses than one. Among these were two Scots, Frederick Stanley Arnot (1858-1914) and Dan Crawford (1870-1926), who explored uncharted areas of Central Africa, and it was Arnot who first opened up Katanga to the knowledge of the outside world in the 1880s. Brethren missionaries are located principally in Central Africa, India and Latin America; they co-operate with other missionary bodies in the practice of mission comity. Their work is registered under the designation ‘Christian Missions in Many Lands’.


So far as their doctrines are concerned, Open Brethren have no peculiarities. They hold the historic Christian faith because they find it plainly taught in the Bible, which is to them, as to all children of the Reformation, “the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” They are wholeheartedly evangelical in their understanding and presentation of Christianity, proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as the all-sufficient Savior of those who put their trust in him and as the only hope for mankind. For this reason many of them find it especially easy to co-operate in Christian witness with others who share this evangelical emphasis, and in many interdenominational evangelical causes their influence is greater than their numbers might lead one to expect.

The beginnings of the Brethren movement were attended by a keen interest in the fulfilment of Biblical prophecy, and many of them are still characterized by this eschatological awareness. Their hymnody gives quite a prominent place to the Second Advent of Christ. But no single line of prophetic interpretation is held or imposed by them. Indeed, one of the features which many people find attractive about their fellowship is the spiritual and intellectual liberty which is enjoyed there in an atmosphere of brotherly love.


It is practice rather than doctrine that marks them out. Among Open Brethren baptism is administered only to people who make a personal confession of faith in Christ, whether they are adults or children, and the mode of baptism is immersion. They observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday morning (and occasionally at other times), and hold that the Lord’s Table is for all the Lord’s people. This, in fact, is their most distinctive gathering. When they meet for communion, together with any Christians who care to join them for this occasion, their devotions are conducted by no presiding minister and follow no prearranged sequence, but are marked nevertheless by a reverent spontaneity and orderliness. Various members contribute to the worship by suggesting hymns to be sung, by leading the congregation in prayer and thanksgiving, or by reading and expounding a passage from the Bible.

The Brethren have no ordained ministry, set apart for functions which others cannot discharge. A considerable number do give their whole time to evangelism and Bible teaching, but are not regarded as being in clerical orders. The various local churches are administered by responsible brethren called elders or overseers, but these have no jurisdiction outside their own local churches, and inside them they try to guide by example rather than rule by decree.


The Brethren have always manifested a supreme lack of interest in their numerical strength. Their numbers are difficult to assess, partly because no precise statistics are available and partly because there is no hard-and-fast line of demarcation between Brethren assemblies and other independent evangelical churches. A common estimate of their strength in Great Britain and Ireland is 100,000, but this is at best approximate. They are to be found in all grades of society and in all walks of life.

Why I Have Stayed with the Brethren

By F.F. Bruce

Although this is a question I am asked from time to time, I find a difficulty in answering it because I have doubts about its implications. Ecclesiastically speaking, I belong (1) to the Church Universal and (2) to the local church which meets in Crescent Road, Stockport; and ecclesiastically speaking I belong to nothing else. The only alternative to staying in the Church Universal would be to renounce the faith once delivered; and if I am asked why I stay in the church at Crescent Road, Stockport, my reply must be: “If you only knew that church, you would have no need to ask why I stay in it!”

I have been a member of the Crescent Road church for between five and six years, but for many years now I have belonged to churches of the same general pattern, and when people ask me, “Why do you stay with the Brethren?” what they mean is, “Why do you stay in the churches of that particular pattern?” And I have to think around for an answer, for it has never occurred to me to seek membership in a church of any other pattern. No doubt inertia has something to do with it; people tend to remain in the church fellowship in which they began unless they have some compelling reason for changing, and I have never been conscious of any such reason.

But, as I think the matter over, I discover some positive reasons for staying, and I can mention two which have considerable importance in my eyes.

One is that in these churches I am encouraged to recognize my membership in the Church Universal. It is never suggested to me that “our denomination” or “our circle of assemblies” has a special claim upon my loyalty, beyond the claim in which my fellow Christians everywhere have a share. Here is a setting in which true Christian unity can be sincerely and unreservedly practiced. To a church of this pattern all believers in our Lord may come and be sure of a welcome for His sake; and I should find it intolerable to belong to a church which would not receive all whom Christ has received. From a church of this pattern I can go and have fellowship with all believers in our Lord, without any compromise of “denominational principles,” because in such a church there are no denominational principles to compromise. It is, indeed, against the background of wide experience of occasional fellowship in churches of many different orders that I rest in the conviction that, for me, a church of this pattern is the right one.

The other positive reason is that in these churches I have found an atmosphere of spiritual and intellectual freedom so congenial and indeed exhilarating that I doubt if it could be matched elsewhere. I know, too, that this experience is not peculiar to myself, or to the churches of which I have had the good fortune to be a member over the years. In a letter which he sent as Chairman of the Committee to members of the Young Men’s Bible Teaching Conference in 1961, Dr. W. M. Capper said, “One of the things that attracts many of us to the Christian Brethren is its breadth, not its narrowness.” With proper reservations about this usage of the phrase “the Christian Brethren,” I say Amen to these words.