The Plymouth Brethren are a conservative Christian evangelical movement that began in Ireland and England in the late 1820s in reaction to the established Church. The movement became known for its anti-denominational, anti-clerical, and anti-credal stance. They do not generally refer to themselves as "Plymouth Brethren," nor do they regard themselves as a denomination.
The Plymouth Brethren movement was founded by Dr. Edward Cronin, Edward Wilson, John Bellett, and Francis Hutchinson, and others who felt that the established Church had become too involved with the secular state and abandoned many of the basic truths of Christianity. The group began by meeting in households in Ireland, and were dubbed "brethren" because of their practice of calling each other "brother" instead of the titles favoured by other denominations. The movement became prominent through the early leadership and ministry of John Nelson Darby, the father of Dispensationalism.
The movement soon spead throughout the UK and by 1831, the group assembled in Plymouth, England had over 1,500 members. These members became known as "The brethren from Plymouth" and soon were simply called the "Plymouth Brethren". The group is also known as the "Assembly movement." The term Darbyites has also been used, although is uncommon and refers mainly to the Exclusive branch.
Open vs. Exclusive
The Brethren are divided into "Open" and "Exclusive" branches. The Exclusive (or Closed) Brethren maintain a very isolationist view, with many of their children home schooled, a strict dress code for church meetings, and members commonly self-employed or working for Christian organizations. The Open Brethren are less prone to these practices and are more open to visitors.
When arriving at one assembly from another, it was a common practice for the leaders to send a "letter of commendation" (Rom. 16:1; 2 Cor. 3:1, 5:12, 12:11) with the newcomer to inform the new assembly that they are in fellowship at another assembly and can be allowed to fully participate in all meetings upon arrival. It was customary to send one of these letters even when only one service will be attended, and individuals often took these letters on holiday when they will be away from their local church and wish to attend another. These letters might include details such as the spiritual gifts of the individual as well as recommendation from the elders of the assembly.
Open Brethren remain affiliated with one another, mostly through common support of missionaries, area conferences, and the ministry of traveling preachers. Over the years, they have come to resemble other Protestant evangelical churches, except that there are no officially recognized clergy and the Lord's Supper is celebrated weekly - both of which are common to Open and Exclusive groups alike.
The Plymouth Brethren are unusual in modern Christianity by not recognizing a denominational name; they do not generally refer to themselves as "Plymouth Brethren," nor do they regard themselves as a denomination. Much like individuals who would not like to label themselves as a Calvinist or an Augustinian, so also the Plymouth Brethren do not think it right to label themselves anything other than Christian. They feel that having a name attached to their gathering would distract from the Head of the Body, that is Christ. Thus there is no denominational headquarters and no governing body to which local assemblies are accountable. Local assemblies are autonomous but are often informally linked with each other.
The Plymouth Brethren refer to their fellowships as assemblies (from the Greek word ekklesia), and members are simply called "brothers," "saints," or "believers." Members are usually aware of the term "Plymouth Brethren" but deny it applies to them since they don't consider themselves a denomination. Formal "membership" in the sense demonstrated by the denominations is generally eschewed as unnecessary since personal salvation is understood to be the only requirement for membership in the body of Christ. Believers "come into fellowship" upon their declaration of their desire to be identified with the assembly testimony at a particular location. Water baptism is usually required for "fellowship" in a local company but is not considered mandatory for salvation. Fellowship is defined as being accepted to "break bread" or participate in the Lord's Supper.
Some Plymouth Brethren meeting places have an outdoor sign indicating a weekly meeting set apart for Communion (1 Cor 10:16, KJV), usually referred to with other biblical descriptions such as "Breaking of Bread" (Acts 2:42), "The Lord's Supper" (1 Cor 11:20), or "The Remembrance Meeting" (1 Cor 11:25).
Many Brethren assemblies meet in a building called a "Gospel Hall," "Gospel Chapel," or "Bible Chapel."
Brethren assemblies are generally dispensational in their theology, and the Open Brethren have much in common with other conservative evangelical Christian groups. Their notable distinctions lie in a combination of the doctrinal and practical matters related to the conduct of the "meeting of the church."
The Brethren believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible and that the same Bible gives clear guidance about how services of worship are to be held. These include:
- the primary importance of the weekly communion service
- the communion is not led or administered by a single individual
- the freedom and the responsibility for men to vocally participate in services
- the silence of women (whose heads must be covered during meetings of the local church) in most Plymouth Brethren assemblies
- the importance of preaching the gospel
- the rejection of a separation of believers into clergy and laity classes, and
- the plurality of leadership (usually as elders and deacons) as opposed to an ordained, professional clergy class.
Baptism and communion are the only two ordinances. All assemblies adhere to the practice of full immersion baptism, and most require it before participation in the Lord's Supper. Sharing the exact beliefs of a local assembly may be a necessary condition for fellowship in some local assemblies, though this condition is much less common in Open assemblies. Some Exclusive Brethren practice household baptism.
- F. Roy Coad, A History of the Brethren Movement: Its Origins, Its Worldwide Development and Its Significance for the Present Day. (Regent College Publishing, 2001) ISBN 1573831832
- H. A. Ironside, Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement. (Loizeaux Brothers, 1985) ISBN 0872133443
- Natan Dylan Smith, Roots, Renewal and the Brethren. (Hope Publishing House, 1996) ISBN 0932727085
- The Plymouth Brethren - A brief history by Miles J. Stanford
- The Brethren by Andrew Miller
- BrethrenPedia The Plymouth Brethren Wiki
- Plymouth Brethren Discussion Forum Discussion Forum operated by Canadian Brethren
- Brethren Online.Org
- Plymouth Brethren.Org
- Plymouth Brethren.Com
- Emmaus Bible College A Brethren Bible College based in the US (Dubuque, IA).
- Assembly Care Ministries Inc.