Plymouth Bretheren

Bernard Doherty




1800 (18 November):  John Nelson Darby was born in Westminster (London, U.K.).

1819:  Darby graduated in Classics from Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland).

1820-1822:  Darby was accepted to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn and later in Ireland.

1825 (7 August):  Darby was ordained a deacon by Bishop William Bissett at Raphoe Cathedral (County Donegal, Ireland).

1826:  Darby began his pastoral ministry in Calary (County Wicklow, Ireland).

1826 (19 February):  Darby was ordained priest by Archbishop William Magee at Christ Church Cathedral (Dublin, Ireland).

1827:  Darby was injured in a riding accident and met Francis W. Newman during convalescence.

1828:  Darby wrote a tract against Archbishop William Magee of Dublin ( Considerations on the nature and Unity of the Church ).

1828:  Darby resigned his curacy at Calary.

1827/1828:  Darby and others “break bread” in Dublin.

1830:  Darby visits Cambridge (U.K.) and is rejected by Charles Simeon; visits Oxford (U.K.) and received a warm welcome; Newman meets Benjamin Wills Newton.

1832:  Darby wrote against Archbishop Whately of Dublin and the Irish board of education.

1835-1845:  Darby engaged in itinerant preaching in Switzerland, Southern France and Germany, establishing early Brethren assemblies.

1837 (September 9):  Frederick Edward Raven was born in Saffron Walden (Essex, U.K.).

1841:  Darby wrote a tract, Separation from evil, God’s Principle of Unity .

1845 (October 26):  Darby breaks fellowship with Benjamin Wills Newton over the latter’s clericalist policy in Plymouth.

1848/1849:  Darby broke fellowship with George Müller and Henry Craik after the congregation at Bethesda Chapel (Bristol) maintained an independent line by judging applicants for fellowship from Newton’s meeting at Plymouth on an individual basis and refused to judge Newton’s alleged clericalism and Christological error.

1848 (August 26):  Darby issued The Bethesda Circular citing his reasons for breaking fellowship with Bethesda. The Brethren split into Open/Independent Brethren and “Exclusive Brethren.”

1865:  Raven first broke bread with the Brethren.

1870 (January 6):  James Taylor Senior was born at Coolaney near Sligo (County Sligo, Ireland).

1880/1881:  Ramsgate split between followers of Darby and William Kelly (1820-1906).

1882 (April 29):  Darby died in Bournemouth (U.K.).

1884:  The “Exclusive Brethren” in North America separated between followers of Adelbert Cecil (1841-1889) and Frederick William Grant (1834-1902).

1885:  The “Exclusive Brethren” separated between followers of James Butler Stoney (1814-1897) and followers of Clarence Esme Stuart (1823-1903).

1889/1890:  “The “Raven Division:” “Exclusive Brethren” split between followers of F.E. Raven/ J.B. Stoney and William Joseph Lowe (1828-1927).

1899 (April 15):  James Taylor Junior was born in New York (U.S.).

1908:  Followers of F.E. Raven and James Taylor Sr. split with the Glanton Brethren. James Taylor Senior became leader.

1913 (August 28):  James Harvey Symington was born in Neche, North Dakota, U.S.

1920:  Followers of J.S. Giles split from the followers of James Taylor Sr.

1922 (January 14):  John Stephen Hales was born.

1953 (March 13):  Bruce D. Hales was born. James Taylor Jr. became leader.

1959/1960:  Followers of Gerald Robert Cowell (1898-1963) split from the followers of James Taylor Jr.

1960s:  A large number of members left the Taylorite fellowship over “table fellowship” and other “restrictive practices.”

1970:  A large number of members left the Taylorite fellowship over the “Aberdeen Incident.”

1970 (October 14):  James Taylor Junior died, James Harvey Symington became leader.

1987 (April 23):  James Harvey Symington died.

1987:  John S. Hales became leader.

2002 (January 12):  John S. Hales died. Bruce D. Hales became leader.

2004-2007:  PBCC members were implicated in the funding of conservative political parties in a number of countries including Australia and New Zealand; PBCC received severe criticism in the media and from progressive political parties.

2012:  PBCC adopts name Plymouth Brethren Christian Church as its official name.


The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (henceforth PBCC) trace their foundations to a series of house meetings which took place in Dublin, Ireland in the late 1820s involving a group of self-described “evangelical malcontents” including John Vesey Parnell (later Lord Congleton) (1805-1883), Edward Cronin (1801-1882), Francis Hutchinson (1802-1833), William Stokes (1807-1881), and later John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). These groups had become concerned with the way in which evangelical Christians were prevented from engaging in fellowship aside from “special membership” in either the Established Church or one of the non-conformist bodies. They perceived this as the latitudinarian tendencies within the denominations, and the Erastian tendencies in the contemporary Church of Ireland. This group sought a return to New Testament practices and gathered in the Lord’s name alone (Matthew 18:20) on a weekly basis. They minstered to one another with no recognized clerics and to partake in the Lord’s Supper, according to what they perceived as the pattern set down in New Testament (especially 1 Corinthians 11).

Among those meeting in these groups, the most important figure for the PBCC was John Nelson Darby, an esteemed classics graduate of Trinity College and a lawyer turned clergyman in the Church of Ireland. Darby had been born into a wealthy family at Westminster on November 9, 1800. He attended Westminster School (1812-1815) and subsequently studied classics at Trinity College (1815-1819). He was admitted to the bar both at King’s Inn in Dublin (1822) and Lincoln’s Inn in London (1821). However, he appears to have never practiced law.

Instead Darby decided to seek ordination as a cleric in the Church of Ireland, where he was ordained to the diaconate in 1825 and the priesthood in 1826. During the mid-1820s Darby was appointed curate in the small rural parish of Calary in County Wicklow and quickly acquired a reputation amongst both local Roman Catholics and the small number of Protestants for his devoted ministry and asceticism. In 1827, Darby was seriously injured when his horse crushed him against a doorway while he was preparing to embark on his pastoral duties. He underwent what has been described as a second conversion whilst convalescing at the homes of his brother-in-law, the later chief justice of Ireland, Edward Pennefather (1773-1847), in Dublin and Delgany. This experience led him to a far more radical (at that time) theological position than he had hitherto entertained, and sometime over the course of 1828 he resigned his curacy at Calary and progressively distanced himself from the Established Church (though he continued to wear clerical garb and preach in Establishment chapels into the early 1830s).

In the same year, Darby wrote his pamphlet Considerations on the Nature of the Church in which he criticized the then Archbishop of Dublin William Magee and his supporters for their Erastianism, after Magee in 1826 had written in favour of a tighter relationship between the Church of Ireland and the British state and petitioned parliament on the same grounds in 1827. He characterized the Irish Catholic population as potentially disloyal and subversive and the Church of Ireland as a force for public order as well as religious edification. For Darby, this was a betrayal of the Gospel and the duty of the Christian to follow Christ steadfastly even in the face of potential persecution and suffering, as well as detrimental to the moderately successful itinerant preaching campaigns being undertaken by numerous Evangelical clergy in Ireland, including Darby. This was not the first time Darby was to criticise the hierarchy of the Church of Ireland and just prior to his final break with the Established Church in the early 1830s he wrote a scathing attack on Archbishop Richard Whately (1787-1863) and the Irish education board over a proposal to restrict the teaching of Scripture in Irish schools. He saw the proposal as a concession to Roman Catholicism (‘an unholy marriage between infidelity and popery’) and as accusing the Archbishop of Sabellianism (A Letter on a Serious Question Connected with the Irish Education Measures of 1832 ).

During his period of convalescence at the home of the Pennefathers, Darby became acquainted with the family’s tutor, Francis William Newman (1805-1897) (brother of the more famous John Henry), who upon his return to Oxford in 1829 invited Darby to visit. Here Darby encountered an atmosphere of Calvinist-tinged revival which was emanating largely from the pulpit of the minster of St Ebbe’s, Henry Bulteel (1800-1866). He was also introduced to a number of associated figures who would subsequently secede from the Established Church and become influential in Brethren history, including Benjamin Wills Newton (1807-1899) and George Vicesimus Wigram (1805-1879).

After seceding around 1830, Newton and a number of associates began meeting at a private chapel in his hometown of Plymouth, with Darby becoming a frequent visitor and preacher. It was from this time that the popular designation “Plymouth Brethren” began to be used to describe the group, with Darby famously noting “Plymouth, I assure you, has altered the face of Christianity to me, from finding brethren, and they acting together.” Through various personal contacts this assembly in Plymouth became associated with the earlier meetings from Dublin and eventually a third meeting in Bristol headed up by celebrated Evangelical philanthropist George Müller (1805-1898) and his associate, Henry Craik (1805-1866).

While eschewing any name other than that of Christians, these groups came to be referred to as Brethren, and the members of these early assemblies maintained regular contact through personal letters, as well as meeting annually for a series of prophetic conferences convened at the stately Powerscourt House in County Wicklow, Ireland, by the wealthy widower Lady Theodosia Wingfield Powerscourt (1800-1836). It was during these conferences that many of the distinct eschatological ideas of the Brethren first began to take shape under the imposing influence of Darby, who became a forceful presence at these proceedings.

Darby, who had quietly seceded from the Established Church sometime in the early 1830s, continued in his work as an itinerant preacher and spent extended periods of time ministering among the free church congregations associated with the Swiss “Awakening (Le Réveil), in addition to writing numerous pamphlets and contributing regular articles to the early Brethren periodical The Christian Witness. Over the course of the 1830s, small assemblies of Brethren multiplied across the British Isles; however, tensions began to arise between Darby and Newton over issues of church order and prophetic interpretation that were to subsequently divide the movement.

Over the course of the 1830s, largely as a result of debates with members of the Swiss free churches (l’ancienne dissidence), Darby had refined his position on eschatology and ecclesiology into a coherent system based on dispensations and what Brethren often refer to as the correct “dividing of the Word of Truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). He had also settled on the position he called the “ruin of the Church.” From this position he derived the conviction that any attempt to restore the Church on New Testament grounds was doomed to failure. Instead, Christians should meet on a weekly basis to simply break bread and await the Lord’s imminent return and to minister to one another (regardless of station) according to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. They should, recognize no “one-man ministry” and base their entire communal life on scriptural principles. Newton, however, continued to maintain the importance of having a qualified leadership lest unedifying or theologically suspect positions be expressed through open ministry (a position Darby had earlier tacitly supported). He remained suspicious of Darby’s dispensational exegesis, believing it forced a system upon Scripture. From this point the two engaged in a protracted, but at this stage civil, written dispute through pamphlets and Brethren periodicals.

In 1845, after an extended period in Switzerland, Darby was forced to return to Britain by the revolution in the canton of Vaud. For several months prior to his return Darby had been kept abreast of developments by James Lampden Harris (1793-1877). On returning, Darby accused Newton of clericalism over the way in which the latter exercised control over those who were permitted to minister and his decision to cancel the Friday meeting (at which all male members of the assembly had met to discuss assembly business, oversight, and matters of discipline). After a bitter correspondence between the two, Darby publicly declared that he was withdrawing from fellowship with the Ebrington Street assembly (the major Brethren assembly in Plymouth) over Newton’s behaviour. A number of esteemed Brethren, most notably Wigram, followed Darby and broke bread in a separate meeting on October 26, 1845.

While several more irenic figures among the Brethren, notably Parnell, attempted to broker a truce between the warring parties, in 1847 Harris brought a series of Newton’s sermons to the attention of Darby, who believed them to express heretical views regarding the suffering of Christ. Darby wrote against these views and Newton confessed his error and withdrew earlier statements. However, Darby was not satisfied and in 1848, when a series of Brethren from Plymouth sought and were received to communion by the assembly at the Bethesda Chapel in Bristol, Darby withdrew fellowship from this assembly. He believed that this tainted the Bristol assembly with Newton’s heresy and displayed what Brethren refer to as “neutrality to Christ” and a reluctance on the part of the Bristol assembly to judge the perceived evil within its midst. While attempts were made to heal this rift over the ensuing months, from this point onwards the followers of Darby became known as Exclusive or Closed Brethren, whilst those who followed Müller and Craik became known as Open, Independent, or Christian Brethren. What follows concerns the Exclusive Brethren only; though it is important to note that the larger portion of those identifying as Brethren are of the Open or Independent variety and are unconnected with the PBCC.

Darby continued as an active itinerant preacher, correspondent, and voluminous writer throughout the rest of his life, establishing assemblies as far afield as North America, Australia and New Zealand, and writing a series of tracts which eventually filled almost forty volumes. While problems had begun arising toward the end of Darby’s life over tensions among Exclusive Brethren (known as the “New Lumpist” controversy), it was only just prior to Darby’s death (April 29, 1882) that the Exclusive Brethren began to experience what were to become a series of complex splits over matters of assembly governance and theology. These splits occurred in 1880/1881 (the Kelly/Ramsgate Split); in 1884 (the Grant split); in 1885 (the Reading split); in 1890 (the Raven/Lowe-Continental split); in 1908 (the Glanton split); in 1920 (the first Taylor split); in 1959-60 (the second Taylor split) and in 1970 (the Aberdeen controversy). Each of these splits involved intricate divergences over matters of church discipline or Christology, resulting largely from Brethren demand for a uniform judgment on various issues across all assemblies.

Over the period from Darby’s death into the present the largest sector of Exclusive Brethren (known today as the PBCC, though known by various other names including simply Exclusive Brethren, Plymouth Brethren IV, the Taylorites, or more colloquial names like Jimites, Jimmies, Feathery Feet, or Hankie-Heads) have developed an increasing degree of leadership centred on a unified testimony embodied in scriptural teachings by a main spiritual leader sometimes referred to as the “Elect Vessel” (Acts 9:15), the ‘Man of God’ (2 Timothy 3:17) or the “Minister of the Lord in the Recovery.” These teachings have acted to shed new light on the developing Brethren understanding of Scripture and maintain what Brethren refer to as ‘the recovery of Truth’ and the testimony begun under Darby. The leaders through whom the PBCC trace their heritage are Frederick Edward Raven (1837-1903), James Taylor Senior (1870-1953), James Taylor Junior (1899-1970), James Harvey Symington (1913-1987), John Stephen Hales (1922-2002) and the current leader Bruce David Hales (1953-).

While throughout the remainder of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries the de facto boundaries between various groups of Exclusive Brethren, and indeed with Open Brethren, were often porous, regardless of teachings to the contrary by the leaders referred to above, beginning in the 1930s, and becoming more apparent in the1950s, James Taylor Sr. instituted a policy of increased strictness with regard to the Brethren practice and understanding of “separation from the world.” This strictness was evident in particular with regard to matters such as membership in trade unions and professional associations (what is known among Brethren as being ‘unequal yokes” (cf. Deut. 22:9-11; 2 Cor. 6:14-18) and the degree of association with non-members (e.g. through the greater emphasis on endogamy).

These teachings on communal purity became increasingly controversial over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, when American James Taylor Jr. (“Big Jim”) assumed leadership (1953), with the revival of earlier principles. These included “table fellowship,” according to which members did not eat at the same table as non-members or members under communal discipline (including, allegedly, underage family members); avoidance of eating at restaurants or hotels; removal of notice boards giving sermon times from many Brethren meeting houses (sometimes for security reasons); women’s hair worn uncut (though, in fact, this had always been the case) and hanging loose; the wearing of head-scarves rather than hats by women in assemblies (Brethren had hitherto required that women cover their heads during worship according to the traditional understanding of the principles set out in 1 Corinthians 11:4-16); Brethren attendance at University (which was viewed as potentially corrupting in the increasingly permissive environment of the 1960s); and a variety of other issues (e.g. ownership of domestic pets).

These changes resulted in widespread negative media coverage in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, and an estimated 8000-10 000 members left the group over the course of the 1960s into the 1970s (with the majority leaving after the “Aberdeen Controversy” in 1970). They also resulted in the Conservative MP for Twickenham, Roger Gresham Cooke (1907-1970), raising the issue of the consequences of separation for Brethren families in Parliament and the introduction of the abortive Family Preservation Bill in 1965. Further criticism was made by other public figures, including the then Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsay, and some British politicians even sought restrictions on Taylor’s visa conditions to prevent him visiting the United Kingdom for larger meetings.

Also during the 1960s a practice sometimes referred to as “The System” began to emerge that focused on effective business practice and entrepreneurism amongst Brethren. It was particularly associated with two Australian brothers Bruce Hales (not to be confused with Bruce D. Hales) and John S. Hales. These brothers began running business seminars to increase productivity amongst Brethren businesses, though critics saw this as a further attempt to regulate the daily behaviour of individual Brethren. This caused consternation amongst some older Brethren, and both Hales brothers were temporarily put out of fellowship for what at the time was called “promoting a system of things that is at variance with the gospel.” PBCC members, however, maintain that this was a mistake caused by internal jealousies and assemblies acting without the approval of wider ‘circles of fellowship’ in judging disciplinary matters.

In 1970, James Taylor Jr. visited Aberdeen for a large fellowship meeting and was allegedly found in a compromised position with the wife of another Brethren member (PBCC members, including both the husband and wife involved, strongly deny these accusations). Coupled with allegations regarding Taylor’s alcoholism (similarly disputed by PBCC members), this led to a further rupture in the movement, especially in Scotland, and widespread sensational media coverage, particularly in the tabloids. Taylor died soon after and was replaced by James H. Symington, a pig-farmer from Nebraska. Despite the controversies that marred the final year of Taylor’s life, he is remembered with great fondness by PBCC members.

Under Symington, the practice of separation continued, with Symington introducing safeguards regarding the use of technology (such as fax machines and later computers), owing to its potential to bring moral corruption into the Brethren community. Around 1971, Symington also introduced a practice referred to among Brethren as the “interchange.” Members of neighbouring assemblies were encouraged to travel sometimes fairly long distances weekly in order to fellowship with one another in a spirit of mutuality and neighbourliness. This new practice, which became more widespread as the 1970s progressed, also served to tighten bonds between often small and geographically isolated assemblies and to engage in wider socialisation of members, as well as allowing young Brethren to meet potential future spouses.

After a long battle with complications resulting from diabetes, including blindness, kidney dialysis, and amputation, Symington died on April 23, 1987. Australian John S. Hales was recognized as the new leader. Symington is remembered among Brethren for his approachable and affable nature, his steadfast performance of his ministry despite suffering with ill-health or other impediments (e.g. in 1977 he drove through extreme weather and snow blizzards to attend a meeting in Toronto), and a deep commitment to the Brethren belief in the recovery of the Truth. Under John S. Hales (1922-2002), leader from 1987-2002, the Brethren made a number of advances in business according to similar principles that had been in place earlier under “The System” during the 1960s. Following the death of his father while he was only age nine, Hales worked hard as a student as well as working part-time and studying accountancy and economics part time at the University of Sydney. Hales served as a non-combatant medic during the World War II (Brethren have traditionally been conscientious objectors during times of war), serving in Papua New Guinea. He held reading meetings amongst other Brethren stationed there, before being discharged from the army in 1846 at age twenty four. He was subsequently employed by CIG (Commonwealth Industrial Gases) (now BOC – British Oxygen Company) where he became chief accountant and personal assistant to the managing director. He apparently rejected a directorship in 1955 on conscientious grounds. Hales became a leading preacher among the Brethren, and though he was withdrawn from three times (in 1965, 1976, and 1979), according to PBCC members all three periods resulted from unjust actions on the behalf of certain local assemblies.

During Hales’ tenure as leader many small assemblies that had fallen on hard-times were replenished by encouraging and supporting members from larger assemblies to move to replenish these assemblies in what became known among Brethren as “spreading the testimony.” This led to, among other things, large Brethren populations in many rural areas of Australia, and the successful integration of Brethren businesses into rural economies. Concerned about the declining moral standards in public schooling in Australia and abroad, Hales encouraged students to engage increasingly in distance education programs and home-schooling. In 1994, the PBCC established its own network of private schools, beginning with the Meadowbank School (MET) in North-West Sydney (a current Brethren stronghold). In the mid-1990s Hales was diagnosed with cancer, which he battled for his remaining years. However, he continued to perform his ministry until his death on January 12, 2002. John S. Hales was succeeded by his youngest son Bruce David Hales (1953-).

Almost immediately on assuming leadership Bruce D. Hales became heavily involved in attempts to review individual assembly judgements, possible administrative failures, and miscarriages of justice that had occurred in some assemblies in previous years (and which had directly affected his parents and uncle). While many ex-members (some of whom have become inveterate critics of the PBCC) remained suspicious of the motives of this initiative, others have since returned to fellowship with the PBCC. Hales continued his father’s commitment to improving Brethren business practice whilst maintaining strong ethical commitments and not compromising the group’s strict principles of separation. Beginning in 2002, Hales ministered on the matter of computers, which have since been adopted on a strictly business and protected-education basis by Brethren members. In addition to this, Hales has introduced greater degree of international cooperation through an increasing number of regular meetings that Brethren will take turns at attending in an effort to maintain a single standard of testimony universally across assemblies. These included the “universal meeting,” which draws attendance from all assemblies worldwide. Hales has also continued his father’s efforts in expanding the size of Brethren schooling, and now almost all Brethren children attend private Brethren schools associated with MET or its international equivalents.

More controversially, during Hales’ time as leader a number of leading brothers became involved in forms of political lobbying in Australia and internationally on moral issues of concern to the Brethren; this took place despite the fact that Brethren abstain from voting on conscientious grounds. While there is no direct evidence that Hales was involve in these matters, several of his close associates, including his older brother, have been, leading to a swath of negative press about allegedly underhanded dealings by Brethren lobbyists especially, though not exclusively, in Australia and New Zealand.

Between 2004 and 2007 Brethren members funded a series of pamphlets supporting conservative politicians like Don Brash (New Zealand) and John Howard (Australia) and criticising both the New Zealand and Australian Greens political parties predominantly for their permissive policies on matters of sexual morality. These pamphlets, and the way in which they were funded through third-party donations, drew severe criticism from political opponents in both countries at a time when the conservative parties were suffering from extremely low public approval. Subsequent investigations into possible funding irregularities by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the New Zealand Police, took place in both countries. In 2006 (NZ) and 2008 (Australia) investigations concluded that there were insufficient grounds to proceed with charges of electoral misconduct against the individuals involved, though some Brethren in Tasmania did apologise to LGBT activist for any personal offence caused by their pamphlet material.

In recent years, the controversy of Brethren political lobbying has receded, and in the 2007 Australian Federal Election Brethren members engaging in third-party political pamphleteering clearly noted their allegiance. However, the damage done to the Brethren’s reputation among the general public, particularly in Australia and the United Kingdom, continued to cause difficulties and suspicions of the group. In the process of spreading the testimony in recent years, this negative publicity has alerted many in the public to the Brethren’s existence. In Australia this has led to community concerns regarding the building of meeting halls in a number of localities, and at least one arson attack on a Brethren place of worship at Diamond Creek in Melbourne in 2011.

The Brethren have also been singled-out with other groups in concerns over the charitable status of their churches. In Australia, there has been concern over the funding of their private schools, particularly those seen as threatening the public good, though nothing has come of these accusations. Such concerns over public benefit have been sporadically raised in the Australian federal and some state parliaments and also in the United Kingdom. However, as of January, 2014, the PBCC came to terms with the Charity Commission of England and Wales on the matter of charitable status after a protracted appeal after their Preston Down’s Meeting Hall was initially refused exemption in 2012. During the course of this appeal the public benefits provided by the PBCC through street preaching, assembly open days, distribution of Bibles and tracts, Rapid Relief Teams during natural disasters, and sizable donations to charity, were acknowledge by many in the U.K., including a number of predominantly Conservative parliamentarians who spoke favourably of the group.


The PBCC hold to a theological position that could be broadly classified as mild Calvinism (almost all early Brethren were of this persuasion). There is a primary emphasis on Scriptural writ and the development of their understanding of this through the ministry of various leading Brethren, especially though not exclusively, the various “Ministers of the Lord in the Recovery.” As such, their theology contains an element of what sociologists have called progressive revelation, seen by members as an ongoing process of shedding further light on the word of Scripture through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In terms of standard Protestant orthodoxy, they emphasize the importance of Christ’s atonement on the cross and the assurance of Salvation amongst members and, like other Evangelical Protestants, emphasize the four key aspects of conversionism, activism, crucicentrism and Biblicism.

In terms of eschatology the Brethren are pre-millennialist and pre-tribulationist and expect the near-return of Christ, though historically they have shunned any form of date setting (though critics will often allege otherwise). Brethren recognize the priesthood of all-believers as a foundational principle and hold to a position of open-ministry whereby all male members of the community may engage in extempore prayer and preaching during meetings if they feel called by the Holy Spirit to do so. However, Brethren have historically been highly suspicious of more sensational charismatic gifts such as speaking-in-tongues.

In terms of Scripture, Brethren tend to hold a principle of verbal inspiration and a literalist hermeneutic. However, this is balanced by the insights into particular matters of “light” (insight into the understanding of Scripture) and “life” (the practical applications of these insights in daily life) as recovered by their leaders through a process of progressive revelation. This emphasis on the verbal inspiration and sole-authority-of-Scripture has at times led to some divergence from mainstream Protestantism in terms of Christology, with Darby, Raven and James Taylor Sr. being accused at various times of theological errors pertaining to the person of Christ. However, contemporary Brethren ministry is less concerned with formulating precise doctrine but rather with encouraging members to persevere in the testimony. Such ministry tends to take a didactic, practically-oriented and discursive approach to Scriptural exposition and seeks to apply the Brethren’s understanding of the progressive recovery of truth of more precise Scriptural principles to the living of everyday life.

Brethren maintain a stringent principle that limits participation in their chief communal ritual, the Lord’s Supper, to those in good standing within fellow PBCC assemblies considered to be in recognized doctrinal agreement. This is known among Brethren as “circles of fellowship.” Related to this, the Brethren also maintain a strong principle called the “separation from evil” based on Scriptural passages like 1 Timothy 2:19-22 and Darby’s writings. This results in their minimal engagement with the wider world outside the spheres of business dealings, immediate neighbours, and school organization. This principle has manifested itself in the gradual development of various communal positions on practical issues ranging from technology to pet ownership.

In terms of ecclesiology the Brethren emphasize a concept of a “gathered” assembly of believers (in this sense encompassing all worldwide assemblies united through their “circles of fellowship”) with Christ as their head and with participation in the Lord’s Supper as the visible unifying element. Brethren do not engage in ecumenism, but while they do not permit non-members to participate in the Lord’s Supper, in principle they recognize the presence of “true Christians” outside of their own community and scattered in other churches. However, in general the Brethren view these institutions as lacking complete biblical truth.


Brethren generally conduct their assemblies in meeting rooms (often converted suburban houses where local zoning laws permit)
or larger assembly complexes, the latter often conspicuous for their security fences and cameras, which are maintained for the purposes of privacy and community safety. Since the 1960s, these have taken on increasingly uniform design, though some older historical meeting rooms still resemble nineteenth century non-conformist chapels. From the 1960s, these meeting rooms ceased to advertise services on public billboards. However, in recent years publicly displayed boards giving contact details and times for “reading meetings” and “gospel preachings” have become more common, particularly in the United Kingdom and parts of Australia.

The interior of the larger halls usually contain tiered-seating with amplification equipment placed on the back of seating rows to allow for open ministry. Generally women will sit together in one section several rows from the front in family groups (mothers, daughters, and grandmothers) whilst men will sit in family groups (fathers, grandfathers, and sons) in another. Leading brothers and those brothers who feel called to minister at a particular meeting will tend to congregate in the seating rows closest to the centre.

The PBCC recognize two ordinances from Scripture with regard to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, with the latter being recognized as the central communal rite practiced by the group. Unlike other Brethren, who predominantly practice believer’s baptism, members of the PBCC practice household baptism (based on their reading of Acts 16:30-34), which is usually performed by a male member of the local community (not the father or grandfather of the candidate). This typically takes place within eight days of the birth of the child and is considered an informal affair. Baptism is by full immersion, and an infant will not attend the assembly until they have been baptised.

The chief ritual of Brethren life is the Lord’s Supper (or Supper meeting) which is held at 6 AM on Lord’s Day (Sunday) at the closestgeographical local meeting room to a Brethren member’s place of residence. Non-members are not usually permitted to attend the Lord’s Supper, and, if under special circumstances they are allowed to attend to observe, they do not partake of the emblems (the bread and wine). This restriction, however, does not apply to other Brethren meetings discussed below.

Seating at the Lord’s Supper is organised in two circles around a central table, with men sitting in the front row and women in the rear. Numbers present are pre-determined so that no empty chairs remain, and a Supper meeting will usually be between twenty or fifty members (additional chairs may be placed against a wall for visitors). After the brother responsible for setting up the correct number of chairs for those attending, preparing amplification for those hard-of-hearing, and delivering the weekly notices, has closed the doors, the weekly notices and schedule of meetings are given before a sister rises and brings over the home-made bread and the fermented wine from a table at the side of the chapel to the central table. A sister then “gives out” a hymn that the congregation will sing acapella (the PBCC use no musical instruments in worship).

From this point a brother will pray to the Lord Jesus over the bread before breaking it and passing it to a sister who will break off a piece of the bread and hand it to an adjacent sister who will repeat this process. After the bread has passed through all the sisters it is then passed to a brother in the front-row of seats, and this process is repeated among the brothers. Following this, a brother will offer extempore prayer to the Lord Jesus over the wine, which is then distributed in the same fashion as the bread. The weekly collection is then taken, and members will “cast” their donations into a basket. After this, each sister (regardless of age) in the congregation will “give out” a hymn number (and sometimes verse number) from the Hymns and Spiritual Songs for the Little Flock (the standard PBCC hymnal) interspersed with extempore prayer from each of the brothers (regardless of age) in the congregation. This follows a Trinitarian sequence of hymns and thanksgivings: honouring the Lord, the Son of God, and the assembly’s Bridal response to Christ, and then the Holy Spirit, and extensively to the Father and finally to God Himself, the Trinity.

In addition to the weekly Lord’s Supper Brethren will also hold a monthly “care meeting,” again for members only, at which assembly finances and charitable works are organized, communal arrangements for mutual hospitality on Lord’s Day arranged, and any other matters of communal concern discussed.

Brethren also hold weekly “reading meetings,” “Gospel preachings” and “prayer meetings.” Reading meetings, usually held on weeknights and weekends, involve members of the community reading and discussing various Scriptural verses. At these meetings all male brothers are encouraged to contribute should they feel called by the Holy Spirit to do so according to the Brethren principle of open worship. Gospel Preachings, usually held on two or three occasions each Sunday, will include three brothers from an assembly preaching interspersed with the singing of hymns (sisters within the community are expected to call out a hymn number following a brother’s preaching).

Prayer meetings involve prayer for specific issues affecting the local community or the wider world, such as prayer for righteous government or for sick members. All three of these meetings are open to genuinely disposed members of the general public, providing that they adhere to the appropriate dress-standards and respect for the community’s beliefs (though historically some journalists have been refused entry). All Brethren preaching and prayer is performed extempore without the use of notes or pre-written sermons and encourages all male members of the community to contribute. In addition to communal activities, the Brethren also engage in an active program of “Street Preaching” and tract distribution in their local areas, with a view to the proclamation of the Gospel rather than the seeking of proselytes.

In order to maintain high communal standards, Brethren hold to strict principles of pastoral discipline within their assemblies in order to maintain the principle of “separation from evil.” Should a member transgress the high moral standards expected in the community, they may be placed under concern and visited by leading brothers from an assembly who will gently admonish a member (through pointing to Scriptural precedent) and encourage repentance and rectitude for the sins concerned (through practical means). In principle, such meetings are to be kept a strictly private matter between the leading brothers and the person under review, and breaching this understanding is considered a serious sin in itself.

Should the sin be considered particularly serious (e.g. adultery or other matters of sexual immorality) or a member encourages others within the community to sin (known among Brethren as “spreading the sin”) a member may be “shut up” (cf. Leviticus 13), a process whereby a member is excluded from all communal fellowship. This continues until such a time as they show sufficient repentance and are deemed ready to be restored to fellowship (while the time-period is undefined, evidence suggests that nowadays it usually consists of a period of several weeks at most). On the rare occasion that a member shows no repentance or acknowledgement of their actions, this may result in them being “put out” of fellowship (excommunicated) and the subsequent process of “shrinking/shunning” whereby members in good standing will engage in only very limited contact with an expelled member. The ultimate goal of all communal discipline is the restoration of the member to fellowship within the community as expressed by their partaking in the Lord’s Supper.

In terms of everyday life, Brethren live and work among the wider community in nuclear family units, often in comfortable middle-class neighbourhoods. Their homes and gardens tend to be well kept and will often feature limited decoration and little ostentation. However, group portraits of the various leaders and bookshelves containing the collected writings of important leaders (e.g. Darby) are not uncommon. In order to avoid ostentation or internal jealousies, Brethren discourage the ownership of fancy cars, and due to their large family sizes, will often drive large people-movers, or, in the case of Brethren tradesmen, utility vehicles.

Many Brethren own small manufacturing or warehousing businesses in which they employ both Brethren and non-Brethren staff. However, as aforementioned, Brethren do not join trade unions and professional associations, and they encourage non-Brethrenemployees to follow suit. Brethren hold traditional Victorian mores with regard to the role of women within the community; women fulfil primarily domestic roles, such as caring for children and maintaining the family home. However, younger unmarried sisters or sisters whose children have reached a mature age will often work in the offices of Brethren businesses, performing clerical duties. Brethren tend to marry at a younger age than the wider population. Divorce is frowned upon, and evidence suggests a relatively uncommon occurrence. As with many evangelical Christian groups the Brethren strongly disapprove of homosexuality or any other form of sexual behaviour that the traditional interpretation of scripture deems immoral.

Brethren live alongside non-Brethren and are encouraged to be good neighbours; in order to avoid potential legal disputes they are discouraged from living in dual-occupancy or tenement residences. Similarly, they are encouraged to be law-abiding in all matters, especially the promptness of paying taxes, obedience to government, and the conducting business in a righteous manner (e.g. by paying bills before a due date and engaging in exemplary customer service). Brethren children usually attend private Brethren schools unless geographical location makes this impossible. Due to restrictions on university attendance, Brethren schools employ non-Brethren teachers who are expected to respect the values and ethos of the Brethren community.

Young-adult Brethren do not attend university, however, in recent years the Brethren have begun conducting their own Government-accredited tertiary courses in certain areas. They have also allowed some younger members an opportunity to engage in distance education courses in instrumental professions, such as accounting and business management, as well as professions like nursing that may prove beneficial to the future well-being of the Brethren community. In terms of professions not open to Brethren members, they will engage non-Brethren professionals such as lawyers, doctors (though a limited number of elderly Brethren doctors remain), engineers and, more recently, naturopaths.

Brethren do not watch television, listen to radio, or use the Internet for the purposes of leisure, believing that these may bring evil into their homes through permissive or unsavoury content (e.g. Internet pornography). However, they do permit the use of telephones within the home and the limited use of the Internet (e.g. Wordex machines) and fax machines for conducting business and for educational purposes at their schools. In these latter cases, the technology is usually supplied, wherever possible, by Brethren companies which provide logistical support to Brethren businesses whilst seeking to maintain communal standards. Brethren, however, are discouraged from using email for merely socialising or frivolous activities.

Brethren are often conspicuous for their conservative dress standards, both inside and outside the assembly. Women will invariably wear modest skirts and shirts as well as either a head-scarf or large flower. Brethren women are prohibited from cutting their hair (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:15). Brethren men will tend to dress conservatively, and in assemblies all male members will wear pressed white shirts and dark pants on Lord’s Day. Beards and facial hair are discouraged.


Most PBCC organization is undertaken on a purely local basis through the pastoral work of leading brothers within a particular assembly and through that assembly’s communal care meeting. Leading brothers, while not an appointed office, tend to be middle-aged or elderly Brethren who have been active in ministry and communal activities over many years and have demonstrated sufficient spiritual character and sound judgment in dealing with communal matters.

Brethren are discouraged from the formation of cliques or what are called either “special friendships” or a “party spirit” within a given assembly, and thus a weekly rotation system is arranged in which different Brethren families will entertain one-another for lunchtime meals following the first Gospel Preaching on Lord’s Day. This is done not only to discourage cliques but also with the more positive goal that Brethren may enjoy a wide social circle and celebrate the this-worldly benefits and joys of eternal life (a point rarely noted by critics of the movement). Similarly, all matters of pastoral discipline are undertaken at a local level, though it is not unknown for leading brothers in neighbouring assemblies to query a judgment if a matter is considered to have lacked justice or been unduly harsh on a person under discipline.

Leadership, particularly in terms of theology, has been historically exercised through the ministry of successive world leaders; the current leader is Bruce D. Hales, an accountant from Sydney, Australia. This ministry is distributed amongst Brethren in the form of bound volumes (sometimes referred to as the “white book”), and members of all ages are encouraged to regularly study this ministry along with Scripture to deepen their understanding of the “recovery of the Truth.” Since the time of James Taylor Jr., these volumes have not been readily available to the general public, and occasionally snippets of ministry have been leaked to the media and cited out of their communal context. This has led to increased misunderstanding about the nature of Brethren beliefs and practice.

On an international basis, leadership is exercised through the annual “universal meeting” (in the past sometimes referred to as the Levitical Meeting) at which a group of leading brothers from each local assembly in a given location will be required to attend on a partly rotational basis (i.e. all the same brothers will not attend each meeting). These usually take the form of extended Scriptural exposition and reflections by the current leader and other leading brothers, and an open-forum question and answer in which brothers might ask the leader to expand on a particular point of ministry or Scriptural exegesis. The objective is to deepen their understanding and practice of the testimony (e.g. how one might benefit for the use of the Internet for conducting business without allowing it to be corrupting).

In addition to this, regular national and international Bible meetings and business seminars are often held by leaders. These are intended to keep members abreast of the latest insights of the leader with regard to practical aspects of Brethren living, in particular on matters such as technology, and to maintain the bonds of community across large geographical divides.


The PBCC has received quite significant criticism since the 1960s for the stringency of its separation from the world (particularly in the United Kingdom and Australia) and for what is often viewed by outsiders as its harsh communal discipline and treatment of former members, particularly as this has related to child custody disputes. This has led to a series of periods of heightened media interest over the past fifty years and criticism from persons in government, as well as fostering a negative perception of the group among the general public. This negative attitude, however, is usually not shared by small rural communities, where individual Brethren members are known personally. Similarly, many disaffected former members have also been highly vocal in their criticism of Brethren practices, particularly on the Internet. A number of anti-Brethren sites frequently publicize the alleged misdeeds of the movement and publish allegedly incriminating private documents circulating amongst current members (e.g. business memoranda).

The group has also been criticised for its involvement in political lobbying on behalf of conservative political causes in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Sweden, and the United States. The criticism stems in part from the fact that Brethren do not generally vote in elections and they hold that government is ordained by God. However, Brethren do believe they have an obligation to insure that government does not slip into what they would view as flagrant immorality. When these controversies have occurred, they are often better understood as involving matters of political ideology rather than legal matters. Subsequent investigations have largely exonerated Brethren of any illegal behaviour and wrong-doing (though not among their critics).

More recently, Brethren have faced community opposition to the building of meeting halls, particularly in Australia, controversythat has been exacerbated by tabloid media coverage. However, most of these issues have been resolved at a local council level, with the Brethren often making considerable amendments to their plans and additional financial outlays (e.g. by paying for the widening of public roads) or withdrawing controversial development applications in order not to inconvenience local communities and neighbours. Indeed some more practically oriented Brethren ministry has explicitly addressed issues, such as by quietly closing car doors so as not to wake neighbours whilst attending the early morning Lord’s Supper. Similarly, in Australia in particular, some progressive politicians have criticized the amount of public funding received by Brethren private schools, particularly given their separationist stance. However, the actual meaning of these issues needs to be properly contextualized within wider historical and on-going debates regarding State Aid to religious schools within Australia and similar ideological clashes over private schooling.

Finally, changes made to charity legislation and how this applies to religious groups in the United Kingdom (and also Australia and New Zealand) has recently brought Brethren groups under greater public scrutiny, particularly with regard to questions of public benefit and potential harm. The Brethren assembly at Preston Down (the Preston Down Trust, henceforth PDT) in the U.K. was refused registration by the Charity Commission for England and Wales on June 7, 2012 on the grounds that PBCC worship was not sufficiently open to the general public and that certain practices of the PBCC prevented them providing a wider public benefit. The PBCC appealed the ruling. There were extensive negotiations with the Charity Commission over the course of 2012-2013 and detailed examination by the commission of evidence provided by the Brethren, outside experts, and their detractors. On January 3, 2014, PBCC was granted registration provided certain changes were made to the original PDT deed.

For its part, the PBCC has sought in recent years to better engage and educate the wider public about their beliefs, reinstituting signs on many of their places of public worship, holding open days at their meeting halls, and engaging in disaster relief projects through their Rapid Relief Teams. They have also sought to correct misperceptions through their Internet website where their beliefs are explained in some depth. The Brethren have also had a long-running positive engagement with scholars of religion and governments, adhering to the principle set out by former leader James Symington that “we have nothing to hide and nothing to parade.” This said, critics remain adamant that such efforts are little more than a PR stunt, and tabloid media in particular continues to heavily scrutinise the PBCC.


Bachelard, Michael. 2008. Behind the Exclusive Brethren. Melbourne: Scribe.

Bachelard, Michael. 2010. “Politics and the Exclusive Brethren.” Pp. 285-98 in Warren Bonnett, The Australian Book of Atheism . Melbourne: Scribe.

Bass, Clarence B. 1960. Backgrounds to Dispensationalism: Its Historical Genesis and Ecclesiastical Implications. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Burnham, J. D. 2004. A Story of Conflict: The Controversial Relationship between Benjamin Wills Newton and John Nelson Darby . Carlisle: Paternoster Press.

Campbell, Shaun and Raelene Wilson. 2011. “An Unscripted Attack: Brethren Church Hit in ‘Spontaneous Act’.” Diamond Valley Leader, October 19.

Coad, F. R. 1968. A History of the Brethren Movement: Its Origins, its Worldwide Development and its Significance for the Present Day . Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Doherty, Bernard. 2013. “The ‘Brethren Cult Controversy’: Dissecting a Contemporary Australian ‘Social Problem’.” Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review 4:25–48.

Doherty, Bernard. 2012. “Quirky Neighbors or the Cult Next-Door? An Analysis of Public Perceptions of the Exclusive Brethren in Australia.” International Journal for the Study of New Religions 3:163–211.

Embley, Peter. 1966. “The Origins and Early Development of the Plymouth Brethren.” PhD. Dissertation, St Paul’s College, Cheltenham, UK.

Grass, Tim. 2006. Gathering to his Name: The Story of the Open Brethren in Britain and Ireland. Milton Keynes: Paternoster.

Hager, Nicky. 2006. The Hollow Men: A Study in the Politics of Deception. Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing.

Hardy, Anne. 2011. “Destiny: The Exclusive Brethren and Mediated Politics in New Zealand.” Pp. 189-201 in Mediating Faiths: Religion and Socio-Cultural Change in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Michael Bailey and Guy Redden. London: Ashgate.

Introvigne, Massimo and Domenico Maselli. 2008. The Brethren: From Plymouth to the Present A Protestant Critique of Modernity . Turin: CESNUR.

Rowdon, Harold R. 1967. The Origins of the Brethren 1825-1850. London: Pickering & Inglis Ltd.

Sandeen, Ernest R. 1970. The Roots of Fundamentalism: British & American Millenarianism, 1800-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Scotland, Nigel. 2000. “The Exclusive Brethren.” Pp. 91-116 in Sectarian Religion in Contemporary Britain, edited by Nigel Scotland. Carlisle: Paternoster Press.

Scotland, Nigel. 1997. “Encountering the Exclusive Brethren: A Late Twentieth Century Cult. European Journal of Theology 6:157-67.

Shuff, Roger. 2005. Searching for the True Church: Brethren and Evangelicals in Mid-Twentieth-Century England. Milton Keynes: Paternoster.

Shuff, Roger. 1997. “Open to Closed: The Growth of Exclusivism Among Brethren in Britain 148-1953.” Brethren Archivists and Historians Network Review 1:10-23.

Tchappat, David. 2009. Breakout – How I Escaped from the Exclusive Brethren Auckland: New Holland.

Thomas, Ngaire. 2005. Behind Closed Doors: A Startling Story of Exclusive Brethren Life. Auckland: Random House.

Thornthwaite, Louise. 2011. “Separatist Religious Sects, the Family Law Act and Shared Parenting: An Examination of Cases Involving the Exclusive Brethren. Australian Journal of Family Law 25 :1-15.

Tonts, Matthew. 2001. “The Exclusive Brethren and an Australian Rural Community. Journal of Rural Studies 17 :309-22.

Wilson, Bryan R. 1967. “The Exclusive Brethren: A Case Study in the Evolution of a Sectarian Ideology.” Pp. 287-342 in Patterns of Sectarianism: Organisation and Ideology in Social and Religious Movements, edited by Bryan Wilson. London: Heinemann.

Post Date:

26 July 2014


Updated: — 3:22 pm

Copyright © 2016 World Religions and Spirituality Project

All Rights Reserved

Web Design by Luke Alexander