|The 18th century closed in France with
revolution, political unrest, and the abolishment of the
Christian religion. Great Britain was notably affected by
these events. Mens hearts failed because of fear
fear generated by invasion and rumors of war,
pestilence and famine. As a result, the people of Great
Britain and Ireland began to adjust their lives to a
deeper sense of spirituality, which stimulated the study
of the Holy Scriptures. During these years, the first
official Sunday School was started by Robert Raikes, the
London Missionary Society was founded in 1895, and the
Religious Tract Society was established a few years
later. These movements were clear manifestations of the
working of the Holy Spirit at that time.
Some years later, more evidence of the Spirit's working was revealed in what became known as the Brethren movement."
Just as in the 16th century God used Martin Luther, a converted Roman Catholic monk, to restore to the Church the forgotten truth of justification by faith alone, so God used a converted Roman Catholic doctor to restore to his people forgotten truths concerning his Church and its spiritual fellowship and worship. The name of this young doctor was Edward Cronin born in Cork, Southern Ireland, in 1801, and "born again" by God's Spirit in 1822.
Residing in Dublin, he rejoiced in the fellowship of Christians in different denominations but grieved over the divisions that rent the Protestant Church. His study of the Word of God confirmed him in his beliefs that the Body of Christ was one in spite of manmade barriers. His study of the Scriptures also showed that one-man ministry was biblically unfounded.
Some months later he voiced his contentions and was publicly denounced by local clergy, thus severing his relationship from many whom he dearly "loved in the Lord." However, he was not alone. Edward Wilson, assistant secretary to the Bible Society, identified himself with Dr. Cronin's belief and the two met for "breaking of bread" and prayer in a room rented by Mr. Wilson.
Thus in the year 1825 there was a humble return to Scriptural simplicity and liberty in worship. Very soon the number was augmented by the addition of Dr. Cronin's two cousins, the Misses Drury, and Mr. Timms, a bookseller. Later, John Vesey Parney (later to become Lord Congleton) became associated with the small company of believers.
From a rented room, the believers moved to a house at 9 FitzWilliam Square and then to the first hired hall in Aungier Street, Dublin, with the purpose "to let the Lord's Table in the midst of us become more of a witness," as indicated in 1 Corinthians 11:26, Ye do shew (or proclaim) the Lord's death, till he come.
In 1827 the assembly in Dublin received several notable additions, including John Gifford Bellett, an Irish lawyer, and John Nelson Darby. The latter, born in London in 1800, was the youngest son of John Darby, of Leap Castle, Ireland. He was educated at Westminster School and then at Trinity College, Dublin, from which he graduated in 1819 as a Classical Gold Medalist. He, like Mr. Bellett, was also called to the Bar of Ireland but soon abandoned that to become an ordained minister of a church in Wicklow. Following his controversy with the archbishop regarding the union of church and state, his study of the Scriptures made him increasingly dissatisfied with his position. He and Mr. Bellett would occasionally "break bread" with the company of believers, and it wasn't long before they wholeheartedly cast in their lot with the growing assembly.
Mr. Darby's guiding and energizing spirit was stupendous. He was teaching and seeking to practice these newfound truths of Scripture before he was 30, and when he was 80, he was still working as hard as ever. In 1828 he published a tract titled "The Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ," which aroused much interest and helped to make the simple mode of gathering practiced by these brethren more widely known.
The first 20 years that followed the beginning of the small meeting in Dublin were years of expansion and prosperity. Rejoicing in their deliverance from clerisy, experiencing much of the presence and unction of the Holy Spirit in their gatherings, having fervent love among themselves, and welcoming all who were truly born again need it be wondered that spiritual believers from various denominations were powerfully influenced and attracted?
By 1830 there were five or six assemblies in Ireland. Meanwhile, in England Christians in different places were similarly moved, and meetings along Scriptural lines were begun, notably in London, Plymouth and Bristol.
Associated with the founding of the first assembly in London was George Wigram, son of Sir George Wigram, the famous merchant and ship owner. He was a graduate of Queen's College, Oxford, where he met Benjamin Wills Newton and James Harris, who were also destined to become leaders in the movement. Mr. Harris, who had been a Church of England curate, was a prolific writer and thus contributed significantly to the assembly in Plymouth, which he joined in 1832. He was the founder and first editor of The Christian Witness, which was the precursor of todays The Witness.
The assembly in Plymouth began in 1830. In 1840 the number in fellowship rose to 800 and by 1845 had increased to 1,200. From this center the neighboring towns and villages were evangelized. As the preachers would visit the surrounding areas, people would ask, Who are they? The answer given was usually, "Oh, Plymouth brethren," which at that time simply meant Christians from Plymouth. This reply explains the origin of the nickname that, although invariably rejected by brethren, who seek to meet alone in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, is still attached to them the world over.
The names connected with the beginning of the assembly in Bristol are those of George Müller and Henry Craik. Mr. Müller was born in Prussia in 1805 and converted to God in 1825. He became a missionary to the Jews in 1829, arriving in England the same year and meeting Miss Groves (the sister of A. N. Groves), whom he married the following year. As he studied the Word of God, he clearly saw that "only believers should be baptized, that believers should gather every Lord's Day to remember the Lord in the Breaking of Bread and that there should be liberty of the Holy Spirit to work in ministry."
Mr. Craik had similarly arrived at the same convictions, and both were drawn together in 1832. Thus, on August 13, 1832, at Gideon Chapel, Mr. Müller, Mr. Craik, one other brother and four sisters only seven in all sat down together to carry out the principles of I Corinthians 11:26.
Mr. Müller's association with the assembly continued for 66 years until his death in 1898. During his life, Mr. Müller, "by prayer and faith alone," erected five large orphan homes in Bristol; sheltered 10,000 orphans; received more than $5 million (worth triple today); distributed billions of Bibles and books; gave away $300,000 out of sums received for personal use; and left a fragrant memory and a convincing proof that God not only hears but answers prayer and responds to faith in him.
While assemblies were springing up in various parts of Ireland, England, Scotland and America, the Spirit of God was working in foreign lands. Actually, no one can definitely say whether the first meeting of the movement was in Dublin, Plymouth, Georgetown, British Guiana, Bagdad, Italy or elsewhere. One fact is certain: The spontaneity of the Holy Spirit's movements is the most apparent factor.
Some pioneers of assembly teaching in other countries were Leonard Strong (British Guiana), A. N. Groves (Bagdad), Albert R. Fenn (Spain), Frederick Stanley Arnot (Africa), and Count Guicciardini (Italy), without forgetting other leaders in the home lands like William Kelly, F. W. Grant, C. E. Stuart, F. E. Raven, and Robert Cleaver Chapman.
Mr. Chapman was instrumental in the starting of the assembly at Barnstaple, England, and was a devoted brother characterized by godliness, gracious humility and love to all the brethren. He wrote many hymns including "No Condemnation, 0 My Soul" and "No Bone of Thee Was Broken."
Today, more than 135 years since the origin of this Scriptural movement, thanksgiving and praise must emanate from our hearts as we look back and observe the courage and convictions of these leaders. May we, like them, "Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage."
Their convictions, like ours today, found their meaning and source in the inspired Word of God, in which the true, original gatherings of the Lord's people are accurately described.
Whether it be 2,000 years ago, 150 years ago or today, Jesus Christ is still the same. By invitation from our risen Savior, we feel compelled, as brethren, to meet each Lord's day and remember him in his own appointed way.
With Jesus in our midst, we gather round the board,
Tho' many, we are one in Christ, one body in the Lord.
Along with this "remembrance feast," we also enjoy the continuity of fellowship and testimony as described in Acts 2:42, "And they continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship and in breaking of bread, and in prayers."