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.