Tuesday, November 10, 2009


The so-called Brethren ('Plymouth Brethren', but we preferred to be called 'Christian Brethren') have had an influence on Western Christianity out of all proportion to their numbers. The missionary work they have done in places like the Sahel regions of Africa, Russia, and Argentina, has not yet been fully told. They began in England and Ireland in the 1800's as a reaction to the formalism and clericalism of the Established Church. Their household names include people like Darby, Kelly, Muller... However, in reacting against the traditionalism of other churches they have fallen into the trap of developing their own hard, unbending traditions. As a result, Brethren Assemblies are dying everywhere, if they are not changing.

The Assembly in which I grew up met in the Masonic Hall in the Sydney suburb of Oatley. People had to get there early to open windows to let out the smell of beer and cigarettes. It was a semi-open (or semi-closed) Assembly. That is, they believed that non-Brethren Christians might get to heaven (God is gracious) but they couldn't partake of the Lord's Supper. We were not encouraged to read anything by non-Brethren authors or attend non-Brethren churches. But when Billy Graham came to Sydney in 1959 he threw a cat among the pigeons. Just about everyone in our Assemblies believed Billy Graham 'preached the gospel' but about a third of them believed he was in error in consorting with 'the churches', and not denouncing 'error' in those churches. But the Billy Graham Crusades were a catalyst, in my memory, for Brethren meeting with, praying with, and counseling with other Christians. That was the beginning of the end of the exclusivism in most Australian Open Brethren Assemblies.

The 'Morning Meeting' / 'Breaking of Bread' was held every Sunday morning. We sat in a large circle, with those not baptized or received into fellowship, or visitors without a 'letter of commendation' from another Assembly having to sit at the back. (I remember the local visiting evangelical Anglican minister sitting back there with us kids one day). The Spirit led various brothers to announce a hymn, or read from the Bible, or pray, and at 11.45 the Spirit led someone to 'give thanks for the bread' (always a loaf which was broken and passed around on two china plates), then after some silence another brother would 'give thanks for the cup' (always a common cup, and real wine). Then someone would 'bring a word'. Then at about 12.10 my father, who was termed 'the corresponding brother' gave the announcements; a closing hymn was sung and at 12.15 (unless there was a visiting brother who didn't know how the Spirit led us and spoke too long) it would be over.

Because the preachers were all self-taught, we had to endure a lot of cliches, and some very simplistic 'addresses' or 'messages' (never 'sermons'). I heard 'The story is told of...' introducing an illustration at least once every Sunday. The cliches extended into the prayers: those who were absent because of illness were 'lying on beds of weakness' (I used to think a good carpenter could fix that!), or were absent and needed 'traveling mercies'. On a positive note, nine out of ten of the men (never women in our assembly) preached fairly regularly, so they had an incentive to do some Bible Study and some thinking - which is quite absent except for the professional clergy in most mainline churches.

Sunday School was at 3pm 'sharp!' Sunday afternoons. We sang choruses like Wide, Wide as the Ocean, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, I Will Make You Fishers of Men, Deep and Wide, Two Little Eyes to Look to God etc. One I particularly remember was 'Into the tent where the gipsy boy lay / dying alone at the close of the day / "News of salvation we carry", said he: "Nobody ever has told it to me"... With the refrain: "Tell it again, tell it again, news of salvation repeat o'er and o'er"' - and we certainly did. The choruses told us who was in and who was out. For example: ‘One door and only one/ And yet its sides are two; / I’m on the inside, / On which side are you? / One door and only one, / And yet its sides are two; / I’m on the Lord’s side, / On which side are you?’

My Sunday School teacher when I was about 10 or 11 - George Walker - promised to take us kids to the zoo sometime soon. I got excited about that, and saved my pennies until I had two shillings ready for that trip... which never eventuated.

Every Sunday night there was a Gospel Meeting with messages for the 'unsaved'. I can't ever remember any unsaved ever being there (except some of us kids), but as 'My Word shall not return unto me void' we believed that such preaching absolved us from any other evangelistic activity (except for a few fervent soul-winners who did it with friends/neighbours or visiting sailors). The songs at this meeting were salvation/invitational, like 'Oh the love that sought me/ Oh the blood that bought me / Oh the grace that brought me to himself... Wondrous grace that brought me to himself.' (That stanza jumped into my mind recently after 55 years: what does that say about early memories and approaching dementia?). Another hymn we used to sing on Sunday nights was 'Bringing in the sheaves' - 'We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves'. I hadn't visited a farm when I was a kid, and had no idea what that song meant (and later realized that it was sung more in hope than in realization!).

Some of the most thrilling experiences each boyhood year were the Brethren Assemblies' Harbour Cruise. We would land at Parsley Bay in Sydney Harbour and for the only time I can remember would do something (play soccer) with the men. Then there were the Christian Youth Camps held each year at Towradji or Corrimal on the South Coast of NSW, later at Mt. Victoria in the Blue Mountains. I also enjoyed our annual Sunday School picnics at Carrs' Park in Sydney, with races and games and a man wearing lots of cherries whom we chased.

In our Assembly we never did 'churchy' things like saying the Lord's Prayer or singing 'The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended' or reading from written/formal prayers.

But my most enduring memories are of one or two of our elders (they were never called that back then, because of the objections of a Darbyite brother who believed elders were no longer necessary in post-apostolic times) weeping as they talked about Jesus' love and dying. And of Uncle John Clark who always had an open Bible in his home. Mr Harold Messer - who had an important job with the Bush Fires bureaucracy - used to walk two miles morning and night to and from his home in South Hurstville. Mr Alf Clines 
had a study lined with 1000 books, and was an avid 'Bible student' (and speaker at Brethren bible conferences)...

There were hot discussions about the evils of radio. (One brother said that as Satan was the 'Prince of the power of the air' he controlled radio waves. Later his wife had some sort of nervous breakdown, and the doctor suggested he buy her a radio, so his theology changed at that point. I remember that brother saying to me once as we were talking on the footpath, and a car's brakes screeched nearby: 'If there's an accident, always go straight inside your home!' I wonder if he ever preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan? ). And about whether the 'warning passages' in Hebrews meant some who were once Christians may be in hell. And about the program for the second coming and 'future events' (though most of them were Darby-Scofield Dispensationalists. P.S. Don't worry if you don't know what that means: as Tony Campolo says, it's better to be on the welcoming committee than the program committee for the Second Coming! And as a wise person suggested to me once, ‘Stick to the material between Scofield’s notes’!). There was also the visiting speaker with his model of the tabernacle: it was amazing what 'truths' he discerned from such things as the colours of this and that, and even badgers' skins!

However, my memories of Brethren meetings are not all negative, by any means. David Clines and I used to take copious notes of the 'addresses' of G.C.D. Howley, E. R. Rogers and other visiting speakers at Saturday Bible conferences, then type them up. Alfred P. Gibbs was the only Brethren preacher I can remember who had a sense of humour (but, then, he was the only American speaker I'd ever heard!). R. H. Clayton was something of a legend among 'The Assemblies', especially in Victoria: he'd tell us how many squares or whatever were in the mural above the platform. Roly Slade was an imperious-looking man who compered youth rallies: he told us he knew the racing form guide off by heart before he was converted in his 20s or 30s. Dr. Bruce Stephen, a psychiatrist from Scotland, got the Festival of Male Voice Praise going: he was a brilliant pianist. Then there were the Saxby's and the Buckley Bros (from whom we later bought a hi-fi music system for $400), And we were very proud that one of the world's leading evangelical scholars - Professor F F Bruce - belonged to our movement. (But how he coped with a lot of the theological nonsense he had to listen to is a bit mystifying).

When I went to Bathurst Teachers' College in 1957 I had the sort of 'aha' experience that happens to anyone in a sect who meets committed Christians in 'the denominations'. They were godly, prayerful, humble, lovers of Jesus and the Bible - more so I judged than we were in our Assembly. How could they be like this if they were 'in error'? During one holiday-period from Teachers' College our Assembly had a question-session with a renowned Brethren Bible teacher, Mr. Tom Carson. I wrote down several questions for him. One of them was: 'If the Brethren are the only Christian group that has the truth why are there some very powerful evangelical Christians in other churches? What did Hudson Taylor lack that we have?’ To which the answer, as I recall, was: 'If only he had been one of us, how much more effective he would have been!'

I got an email from an ex-Brethren evangelical leader in the U.S. to the effect that many people's testimonies he'd heard ran like this: 'The best decision I ever made was to follow Christ; the second best was to join the Assemblies; the third best was to leave the Assemblies!'

More on the Brethren...


Secret Rapture said... My inaugural address at the Great White Throne Judgment of the Dead, after I have raptured out billions! The Secret Rapture soon, by my hand! May 11, 2007 6:41 AM Rowland Croucher said... Put me down as someone who used to know more than the apostles about the subject of the second coming :-)


robert said...

A most interesting look inside the Brethren moment. Thanks! I haven't had a lot of contact with them, though I have friends who are Brethren, and have occasionally visited open assemblies. But I greatly appreciate their teaching, and their desire to please God, and have been blessed many times by the writings of men such as J. N. Darby and F. W. Grant--whose books are in my library.

Unlike Mr. Campolo--whose theology is rather vague--I make no apology for being a premillennial dispensationalist. But I have found, over the years, that it is possible to take a stand with a gracious spirit, and have warm fellowship with all who know Christ. God bless.

Irv said...

I would love to get a reaction or two from fellow brethren as to a fairly new article on Google etc. with the title of "Edward Irving is Unnerving." How is it that such information has escaped the attention of so many persons so long?

Munya said...

Really enjoyed reading on your experience of the Brethren-Australian style.I went to a Brethren School in Zambia and attended an assembly in Harare for 2 years and a now extinct assembly for 12 months in Jhb.
Curious to find out the reason for the total lack or inability to change I began to read on their history.Ironically they have betrayed much of their original practise.Plurality of eldership was replaced amongst the exclusives by Darby's total ruin of the church -hence no need to appoint elders thus setting himself up to be head honcho.
There initially were many who believed in a post tribulation second coming such as the philantrophist George Mueller,BJNewton -Darby's nemesis,Tergalles(Greek scholar),Robert Chapman and even Darby's henchman GV Wigram.
This led to the legalism of Brethrenism which dictates the head covering for woman and the KJV without any thought to the condition of the heart.
They all succumbed: Open and Closed Brethren to the brethrenism of Darby's/Irving any moment secret coming.Intolerence became the glue of all their precious doctrine and a departure from their nondenominationalism.
It is interesting to note that many of the founding members eg Dr Cronin had an expectation of all the early church charismata including tongues being restored to the church.
I believe that the control mechanism of legalism,their one man leadership hid behind a veneer of plural elder leadership,their over emphasized eschatology and their stubborness in accepting their way as being the only right way can only lead the Brethren to extinction or cultism.The Exclusive Brethren are a warning.

Heather in the field said...

Thoroughly enjoyed reading your account in the Brethren church. It parallels such of my own experience - although I guess I'm half a generation later than you - and in Melbourne (I can remember your visit to our ISCF group at Norwood Hight school in 1971/72). Also we as a family had come out of a "liberal" Presbyterian church so were not part of the inner family grouping. I remember R. H. Clayton as tall, skinny and very boring and i'm sure he never smiled. And I loved the visit from F.F. Bruce. I wonder Rowland if your "dislike/concern" for clericalism originates with the Brethren - as I've had the same concern all my life as well?!
I'm glad that the Brethren Assembly that I was part of in my growing up years has changed - progressed and now does not even go by the name of Assembly, Chapel or Brethren - so it has not died out but then does not look much different from a Baptist church.
i am glad that wearing a hat/head covering growing up means that now if it would be best for me to wear one in my current context (a bit more fuller covering), that is no major difficulty for me. In fact, I think that in some ways my Brethren background prepared me for the very male dominated society in which I now live.
You don't mention Wednesday night Prayer Meetings - didn't you attend?
I still value the emphasis on the Bible given to me in my youth - and a love for it and Jesus which was obvious in a few of those who would regularly say a word most meetings and even though many spoke in cliches - they sure were beautiful cliches.