Should We Study Brethren History?

It has been almost 200 years since the “brethren movement” began with a handful of Christians in the British Isles. Since then, It has spread across the world to every continent and thousands of people gather in unnumbered assemblies.

While there have been many sad divisions among us, brethren history is far from petty, negative, dry or boring. I find it fascinating, and I believe learning about the past is vital, especially as we consider the future.

Why should we study brethren history?

Firstly, it helps us understand ourselves. This is our story. Learning about our history can ground and stabilize us as individuals, and as groups, as we revisit what the Lord has done through people and places of the past.

I find it shows us that, while there are differences between various gatherings within brethren assemblies, we have a common heritage and we are not that different from one another.

I grew up thinking my circle of fellowship was unlike the rest. It wasn’t until I started learning, in depth, about the various groups we had separated from that I realized we were not all that different from them.

Next, there is more to the “Plymouth Brethren” than just a return to New Testament principles and divisions. For example, our spiritual forefathers had an immense impact on global missions.

Also, I suggest learning a bit about the historical contexts. For example, understanding the decadence and extravagance of British society in the 1820s and 1830s can shine a light on the radicalism of the early brethren. Knowing the society they lived in will give a clearer picture of the assemblies.

All this gives us an opportunity to praise the Lord for the many, many good things He has done among us. When we see the godly examples of those who have gone before, and the scope of quiet influence the “Plymouth brethren” have had on the Church universal, we should praise the Lord that He would choose to work through us in such a way!

So, how should we study brethren history?

Start local. Learn about the history of your own assembly or the assemblies in your town first. Then look at the brethren history of your region (state, province, country).

This approach is especially helpful if you come from a group that has sadly splintered many times because it can be easier to trace back than to follow forward sometimes.

So much has been written on the first 100 years of the movement in England and Ireland, often at the price of other local assembly histories that is just as interesting and important (and most encouraging!).

Stay positive

Don’t focus solely on the divisions. One tragically common mistake is to just learn who separated from whom and why. Sometimes the divisions (and the negative things about Mr. Darby) are all people concentrate on.

This is especially true since so many brethren history books are written from an “open” viewpoint. There is so much more history to discover, learn from, and appreciate!

Learn about other groups

Learn about other brands of brethren assemblies. Sure, you may have never been to that different assembly across town, you may have even thought they were wrong or bad because they were from a different circle, but their history is tied to yours, and vice versa. You may meet some new godly men and women whose faith you want to follow.

Brethren history is not something to shy away from, it’s something we ought to embrace. As we learn to do so, we will gain a greater appreciation and vision for what the Lord has done, what He is doing, and what He is going to do, right here in our midst.

Gordie Hanna


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    Quite interesting. I came to the Brethren from the Local Church Movement. We met like the Brethren. When the founder of the LCM, Watchman Nee, visited the ‘Taylor’ Brethren, he was appalled by their shortnesss of inner life combined with a mountainous knowledge of scripture. He became convinced that the Plymouth Brethren had to be an example of “Laodicea”, Rev.3. They expelled him because they discovered he had visited and broken bread with T. Austin-Sparks’ group without informing them. Taylor called it a “lack of uprightness”! Our history became marked by that brother’s reaction to the Brethren. We emphasized so much the inner work of the Spirit, without the grounding of Christ’s finished work that we became examples of Stoney’s observation from Proverbs: “the legs of the lame are unequal”. And in a fashion similar to the Brethren, we idolized Nee and his successor, Witness Lee – which brought God’s judgment upon us. I guess Mark Twain’s famous quip applies here: “We learn from history – that we don’t learn from history”!


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    I am interested to understand more about my heritage. I believe I see both positive and negative from what I have seen and experienced! I value the sincerity and singleminded devotion to Christ but am saddened by the “rebellious” strain (unwillingness to follow leadership) that seems to colour much of the Canadian church life I have seen in both the “closed-open” (Gospel Halls) and more open assemblies (Gospel or Bible Chapels).


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