PLYMOUTH BRETHREN, a community of Christians who received the name in 1830 when the Rev. J. N. Darby induced many of the inhabitants of Plymouth, England, to associate themselves with him for the promulgation of his opinions. Although small Christian communities existed in Ireland and elsewhere calling themselves Brethren, and holding similar views, the accession to the ranks of Darby so increased their numbers and influence that he is usually reckoned the founder of Plymouthism. Darby (born in Nov. 1800 in London; graduated at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1819; died April 29, 1882, at Bournemouth) was a curate in Wicklow 1825–1827, when he felt himself constrained to leave the Anglican communion; going to Dublin, he became associated with several devout people who met statedly for public worship, and called themselves “Brethren.” Among these were A. N. Groves and J. G. Bellett, who deserve to rank among the founders of the movement. In 1830 Darby at Plymouth won over many people to his way of thinking, among them James L. Harris, a Plymouth clergyman, and the well-known Biblical scholar Samuel Prideaux Tregelles. The Brethren started a periodical, The Christian Witness, continued from 1849 as The Present Testimony, with Harris as editor and Darby as the most important contributor. During the next eight years the progress of the sect was rapid, and communities were founded in many of the principal towns in England.
In 1838 Darby went to reside in French Switzerland, and made many disciples. Congregations were formed in Geneva, at Lausanne, where most of the Methodist and other dissenters joined the Brethren, at Vevey and elsewhere in Vaud. His opinions also found their way into France, Germany, German Switzerland, and Italy; but French Switzerland has always remained the stronghold of Plymouthism on the Continent, and for his followers there Darby wrote two of his most important tracts, Le Ministère considéré dans sa nature and De la Présence et de l'Faction du S. Esprit dans l'église. The revolution in the canton Vaud, brought about by Jesuit intrigue in 1845, brought persecution to the Brethren in the canton and in other parts of French Switzerland, and Darby's life was in great jeopardy.
He returned to England, and his reappearance was followed by divisions among the Brethren at home. These divisions began at Plymouth. Benjamin Wills Newton, head of the community there, who had been a fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, was accused of departing from the testimony of the Brethren by reintroducing the spirit of clericalism. Unable to detach the congregation from the teacher, Darby began a rival assembly. The majority of the Brethren out of Plymouth supported Darby, but a minority remained with Newton. The separation became wider in 1847 on the discovery of supposed heretical teaching by Newton. In 1848 another division took place. The Bethesda congregation at Bristol, where George Muller was the most influential member, received into communion several of Newton's followers and justified their action. Out of this came the separation into Neutral Brethren, led by Müller, and Exclusive Brethren or Darbyites, who refused to hold communion with the followers of Newton or Müller. The Exclusives, who were the more numerous, suffered further divisions. An Irish clergyman named Samuel O'Malley Cluff had adopted views similar to those of Pearsall Smith, who preached a doctrine of sanctification called “Death to Nature” as an antidote to the supposed prevalent Laodiceanism, and when these were repudiated seceded with his followers. The most important division among the Exclusives came to a crisis in 1881, when William Kelly and Darby became the recognized leaders of two sections who separated on a point of discipline. This was followed (1885) by the disruption of the strict Darbyite section, two communions being formed out of it upon points of doctrine.
There were thus six sections of Plymouthists: (1) the followers of B. W. Newton, who promulgated the prophetic views peculiar to their leader; (2) the Neutrals—open brethren, leaning to Baptist views and to the Congregationalist idea that each assembly should judge for itself in matters of discipline, headed by George Müller; (3) the Exclusives, the Darbyites, holding what may be described as a Pauline view of the Church, who claim to be the original Brethren, represented by J. B. Stoney and C. H. Mackintosh; (4) the Exclusives associated in Great Britain with C. E. Stuart, in America with F. W. Grant; (5) the Exclusives who followed W. Kelly, giving a general adhesion to Darby but with a tendency to place conscience above church action, holding the Pauline view of the Church modified by Johannine elements; and (6) the Exclusives who followed Cluff. The fundamental principle of the Exclus1ves, “Separation from evil God's principle of unity,” has led to many unimportant excommunications and separations besides those mentioned.
The theological views of the Brethren differ considerably from those held by evangelical Protestants (for a list of divergences, see Teulon, History and Doctrines of the Plymouth Brethren). They make the baptism of infants an open question and celebrate the Lord's Supper weekly. Their distinctive doctrines are ecclesiastical. They hold that all official ministry, whether on Episcopalian, Presbyterian or Congregationalist theories, is a denial of the spiritual priesthood of all believers, and sets aside the Holy Spirit's guidance. The gradual growth of this opinion, and perhaps the reasons for holding it, may be traced in Darby's earlier writings. While a curate in Ireland he was indignant with Archbishop Magee, who had stopped the progress of mission work among Roman Catholics by imposing on all who joined the church the oath of supremacy. This led Darby to the idea that established churches are as foreign to the spirit of Christianity as the papacy is ("Considerations addressed to the Archbishop of Dublin," &c., Coll. Works, i. 1). The parochial system, when enforced to the extent of prohibiting the preaching of the gospel within a parish where the incumbent was opposed to it, led him to consider the whole system a hindrance to the proper work of the church and therefore anti-Christian ("Thoughts on the present position of the Home Mission," Coll. Works, i. 78). And the waste of power implied in the refusal to sanction lay preaching seemed to him to lead to the conclusion that an official ministry was a refusal of the gifts of the Spirit to the church ("On Lay Preaching," Coll. Works, p. 200). The movement, if it has had small results in the formation of a sect, has at least set churches to consider how they might make their machinery more elastic. Perhaps one of the reasons of the comparatively small number of Brethren may be found in their idea that their mission is not to the heathen but to the “awakened in the churches.”
The movement has a distinct interest for students of church history: (1) as illustrating again the desire of certain Christians to pass over the garnered experience of the centuries, and by going straight to the Bible to make a fresh start without any other authority, precedent or guidance; (2) in its development alongside the Evangelical, Tractarian and Broad Church movements of the 19th century and its affinities with them all A certain haphazardism that has always marked the Brethren is responsible for the present lack of qualified leaders. The early enthusiasm has waned, and no provision was made for proper theological study.
Authorities.-Darby, Collected Works (32 vols., edited by Kelly, with supplementary volume, 1867-1883); A. Miller, The Brethren, their Rise, Progress and Testimony (1879); Rogers, Church Systems of the Nineteenth Century; Teulon, History and Doctrines of the Plymouth Brethren (1883); article "John Nelson Darby," in Contemp. Rev. (Oct. 1885); W. B. Neatby, A History of the Plymouth Brethren (London, 1902,2nd ed.). (T. M. L.; A. J. G.)