5 Misconceptions about the Early Brethren

Every group of brethren looks back to the “early brethren,” that period of our history from approximately 1826 to 1848, to find their beginnings. In one sense, it was a “golden age”, and in another sense, it was a time of big developments. 

The purpose of this short list is not to promote or justify a specific ideology (or group) or debunk another. Looking to history just to find something that proves we’re right is bad history. Yet, it’s easy for us to assume that we are essentially the same as our spiritual (and sometimes actual) ancestors in the assemblies in the way we believe, practice, and understand things. 

The following are just a handful of random misconceptions I’ve heard in both open and exclusive circles:

1. They didn’t believe in having a one man ministry or full-time pastor

Henry Craik and George Müller in Bristol, Robert Chapman in Barnstaple, and Benjamin Newton in Plymouth, among others, were more like full-time workers or pastors than not. They weren’t itinerant preachers as later teachers and leaders were. No, these men stayed in one assembly and did the majority of the preaching. What did set them apart from their contemporaries in various church denominations was that they refused to take on an official title and they refused to be given a salary.

2. They rejected all forms of infant baptism

Some of them, especially those from an Irish Catholic background, practiced household baptism, which is a form of infant baptism. Some didn’t. In short, household baptism is dedicating a baby or child to the Lord by immersion baptism, with the view that he or she will be raised in such a way that they will accept Christ as saviour. The practice has been still been continued by some in the exclusive groups.

3. They were anti-intellectual and did not believe in the formal study of God’s word

The early brethren didn’t reject the deep study of the original Biblical languages or formal Biblical study. In fact, all of the men listed in misconception number one had formal training, and many other early brethren were well known Biblical scholars and commentators. Often in those days, men would quote and expound right from the Greek and Hebrew text in the meetings.

4. They were all dispensationalists

Realizing that the systematization of what is today known as dispensationalism was pioneered by Mr. Darby, it makes sense that many in the early days held views that are different from it. Robert Chapman, for example, held to a post-tribulational rapture view. The early brethren were, however, consistently interested in Biblical prophecy, and it was out of this intense period of study that dispensational theology as we know it developed.

5. They were all older people

It seems like every photo we see of the early brethren leaders is of old men. That’s because they were old(er) men when those photos were taken! That doesn’t mean, however, that they were old men when they began ministering. Photography was just developing at the same time as the assemblies, and didn’t become prevalent until about the 1850s and ‘60s. When the movement began, the early brethren leaders were almost all in their twenties. It was a movement of young people.


It seems apparent that all of us, in every circle of fellowship, have changed in one way or another from the way things were at first. Whether for better or for worse, I’ll let you decide.

Gordie Hanna


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    #3!? That’s a first hearing that–wow–you couldn’t get further from the truth. The people who would say that, probably say it because it’s them (or us) that tend to be anti-intellectual and not believing in formal Bible study, so by bringing the “early brethren” down to our level, somehow makes them feel justified and able to keep a clear conscience? Interesting. And sad. The fact that #3 would even be brought up as an argument is showing of the real spiritual condition of that person(s) or church.

    You know what, it’s OK to admit that today maybe some of our churches aren’t that intellectual when it comes to teaching and thinking about the Bible, or maybe we don’t know how to conduct formal Bible studies. Done. Now, let’s move forward! And, in reality, the idea of a church pursuing intellect and formal Bible studies kinda scares me and has an unpleasant aroma of the legalistic pharisees. I wonder if the real contemplative thought should be, are we pressing on for the Lord TODAY? It’s never too late. So what if you or your assembly has been in a rut for the past 20 years, it’s not too late, the Holy Spirit is new every day like the wind, He can come in and renew in ways we never thought possible–pray for that! Are we pursuing the Bible as much as we pursue our secular education and careers? There is SO much to learn of God and His Word in our short lives–pursue it with all the passion you can muster up! And in that pursuing of the Lord, are we sacrificing more time and money to get there, than what we do for all our “passion projects?” Do we search the Word day and night to know the mind of God, to know what we can do to please Him and obey Him? If we’re putting the Lord first in our lives, like, making Him first to the point that it’s making our previous ideal lives a wreck, I think we’ll find ourselves (without even consciously trying) being more intellectual and contemplative about the Word, and our Bible studies more meaningful, hefty, and full of life.

    It just breaks my heart to think that someone would use #3 as an excuse (and weight) to keep themselves (or their church) down–never growing, never refining, never pursuing greater things (that’s the fruit of pride). To lovingly quote Rev. 3:16–YUCK! Admit it, repent if repentance is needed, and PRESS ON brothers and sisters!!!

    “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you.” -Philippians 3:13-15


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      I agree with you about growing in the Lord and reading the Word. May always press on to deeper understanding and deeper love for our Lord.

      I’ve heard this third argument among what some call exclusives. They might state it differently, but the idea is the same.

      Regardless of whether one has acquired a deep knowledge of theology thru formal or personal study, I feel there’s a real danger on both sides to let pride sneak in. May we all humbly grow in the Lord and help one another in the process!


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    Do you personally make a distinction between the Darby “exclusive brethren” and the ‘tight-open brethren’ such as Donald Ross and Donald Munroe that met with some of the Darby group and left them saying “they added nothing to us”? Norman Crawford taught brethren history and clearly made that distinction.

    POINT 1 – So these were bible teachers that took upon themselves most of the teaching. I see God gifting men to be teachers in the local assembly but how do you see them appointed or given opportunity according to the scriptures? I don’t think it is in the scriptures.

    POINT 2 – I have come across household baptism among the ‘exclusives.’ Would not immersion be rare for babies especially among the Protestants who would probably sprinkle or pour. I have not come across any that immersed. Can you cite a specific group with a readable history that has specifics on immersion of a baby among the exclusive brethren where there are directives as to how, where and when and why (besides the hope that the child will later accept Christ because of this action and Christian upbringing I can’t see how they would justify this) and the origin of the practice among them?

    Very interesting article. I will stop at these two points

    Thanks, and all the best in Christ



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      I do naturally make a very strong distinction between the “tight” open brethren and the Darby groups, as you say, because of my “exclusive” upbringing. That distinction must be made, but I think it’s good to see the similarities as well. Also, while I find it easy to swiftly draw lines between the various circles of fellowship in both the “exclusives” and “open” brethren, I have felt compelled to love each one.

      Regarding your two points, I’d say that the purpose of my article, as I mentioned in it, was not to approve or disprove any pattern in any assembly, but rather to point out that things have changed since the movement was born. I hope I didn’t come across as saying that these points were how things ought to be done.

      That being said, in quick response to your first point, I imagine one could see a principle and pattern for a full-time ministry, such as we saw in Mr. Muller and others, in the example of Barnabas and Saul in Antioch (Acts 11 and 12). I personally enjoy a plurality in teaching ministry, and I see that in scripture. The epistles were written to individual churches and the wording seems to suggest that the gifts of the Holy Spirit would be given to more than just one person in each gathering, including the gift of teaching. This could likely turn into another article in itself.

      About household baptism, I’ve only known of immersion baptism of infants and adults. Since the exclusive group I came from believes in immersion, they would always immerse babies as well, as I was. As for whether or not I know a group with a readable history and literature with specific instructions on household baptism, I don’t. I’m curious to know what one could find, so I might check into that (and get back to you). As for justifying the why of household baptism, it is based on their understanding of Scripture. If you’d like me to elaborate on that, I’d be happy to do so.

      What are your other points? It sounds like you have more. At any rate, I hope this article, and my response here, has encouraged you.

      in Him,

      Gordie Hanna


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