The Brethren and Social Engagement



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The Brethren and Social Engagement
The Brethren Movement originated around 1825 in Dublin, Ireland. Unlike other movements that emerged amongst the poorer classes, some of the earliest members of the Brethren were wealthy and highly educated. For example, G.V. Wigram funded the enormous work of compiling the Englishman’s Concordance for the Old and New Testaments. S.P. Tregelles, another early member of the movement, edited one of the nineteenth century’s great critical texts of the New Testament.1 Many of these young men were associated with Trinity College in Dublin, center of the Protestant Ascendancy. They tried to find ways to come together for worship and communion as believers without denominational barriers. They had no intention of establishing a new denomination, for that would defeat their purpose in coming together, neither did they intend to establish a movement.2 Despite their grief at the state of the divided church, their central concern was not the reunion of fragmented denominations but careful study of and strict obedience to the Word of God, which they were sure would lead to Christian unity. In a revolutionary era, these radicals became frustrated at the slow pace of change advocated even by other reformers.3 Some of the first members of the Brethren Movement tried to maintain their membership in their original denominations, but eventually they found that they had to cut those ties. The movement spread to England, with the first Brethren assembly established at Plymouth in 1831. Because of this, the popular term “Plymouth Brethren” arose. 4
Though early members were heirs of the spirit of social reformation, most of them maintained a conservative social stance in this period of radical cultural change .5 Yet the Brethren were known for their work among the poor; the philanthropic spirit of several early members has been widely noted. For example, George Mueller, who became a Christian in 1825, was one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren fellowship in Bristol in 1832. He established the Scriptural Knowledge Institution for Home and Abroad, which trained 114,000 children in its Sunday school and day school programs. Through this institution he founded his first orphan home in Bristol in 1836. By 1870 he had completed five large buildings. By living by faith and relying on God’s provision with prayer, he enabled ten thousand orphans to pass through these homes. “By the simple fact of his orphanages, Mueller became the greatest preacher and the greatest apologist of the last century.”6 Charles Dickens, author and social commentator during the Industrial Revolution in England, visited Mueller’s orphanages in Ashley Down, Bristol. At first Dickens had had doubts regarding the reports about those orphanages, but he left the place entirely assured. Lord Shaftesbury also visited the orphanages. Though Mueller’s ministry was confined mainly to Bristol, his influence was felt throughout England.
William Strokes, one of the early pioneers of the movement in Dublin, started an orphan work and founded an orphanage in that city. In England, J.W.C. Fegan was inspired by his visits to Deptford Ragged School. Ragged schools were charitable institution dedicated to provide free education for destitute children in England. Fegan was so moved by his visits that he devoted his life to rescuing poor boys. He opened his first boys’ home in 1872, and it soon grew into a full-scale orphanage and training project. His popularity gained the sympathetic attention of Charles Darwin’s family. Coad says that it was through Darwin’s kindness that Fegan obtained the use for worship services of the reading room in Downe, a village of Kent in which Darwin and his family had settled. They were particularly struck by Fegan’s success in reforming alcoholics. Darwin himself commented on this, and Emma Darwin, his wife, recorded his comments in their family correspondence.7
The most famous of the Brethren ministries focusing on orphans was that of Thomas John Barnardo. He first intended to join James Hudson Taylor in China but was diverted in 1886 when, while still a medical student, he was drawn to the needs of destitute children in the East End of London. The homes he established later became the largest system of orphan care in the world.8
Yet as a movement the early Brethren were not actively engaged for the betterment of their transient society. Though they shared some of the spirit that motivated the reformers of their generation to work for social transformation, their own goal was not transformation but amelioration. This reflected their very different spirituality. Understanding the Brethren’s spirituality is crucial to appreciating their contribution to the evangelical social movement in England. One aspect of spirituality that shaped their attitude toward society was their adherence to dispensational premillennialism. This encouraged the expectation that with the church already “in ruins,” society was necessarily following it into ruin, hence true Christians should separate from this world as they awaited the soon return of Jesus Christ. Despite their tendency to withdraw from political affairs, as we have seen, some Brethren managed to take part in social ministry. The spirit of philanthropy was the driving force behind their social involvement, with their noble acts undertaken as individuals and not through Brethren-affiliated organizations. By way of contrast, most members channeled their energies exclusively into aggressive evangelism. Yet even this narrow focus, according to McDowell, was potentially constructive, since evangelism was the seedbed from which all social ministries sprang during that period, benefitting both individuals and society.9 “So while they sedulously avoided the paraphernalia which voluntary societies had bequeathed to organized philanthropy, they were famous for orphanages, that most ancient and Christ-like form of Christian social service.”10 The Brethren became known for philanthropy that had an enormous impact on society. Individually, Mueller and other mid-nineteenth-century Brethren closely identified themselves with the needs of their communities, showing Christian compassion in their ministry to the underprivileged.11
The concept of separation should be given more clarification in order to understand the Brethren’s attitude toward politics and society. This is essential to place them in the historical narrative of the evangelical movement. The principle of separation was a central feature of the Brethren’s position, shared by other communities like the Quakers and Mennonites. Separation was the first step to living a life of purity within a fallen society. The Brethren believed that recovering the Biblical pattern of separation would result in living in accordance with the will of God. This would serve as a common ground for all Christians who were prepared to abandon society’s corrupt religious systems.12 This concept of separation led them to reject political involvement. Many of their wealthy and socially influential members, including those who had leadership positions in society, withdrew from politics, community life and society in general in anticipation of the return of Christ.13 According to this view, for example, philanthropy, by the likes of Wilberforce, was marked as “morally excellent” due to its genuine sympathy with its object. But this type of work God “had reserved for unclean hands; it was not for heavenly citizens to pass righteous laws for earth.”14 This excluded them from the mainstream of evangelical engagement that resulted from the Revival of 1859.15 It must be noted that the Exclusive Brethren under the leadership of J.N. Darby carried this concept of separation to an extreme later. Darby’s teaching on ecclesiology was one of the reasons why the movement had experienced a painful division in the 1840s, resulting in the formation of the Open Brethren.16
But most Open and Exclusive Brethren agreed that involvement in politics and direct engagement with society was not for them. Ian Randall observes, “For Brethren, to enter the political arena, even to vote, was seen as alien, since believers were only sojourners in this world. For in Brethren thinking evangelism and social action were hardly ever seen as partners.”17 An anonymous Open Brethren author, writing in 1914, stated that there was no evidence that Jesus and his apostles had used their political energies to appeal to rulers, raise protests of indignation or take sides politically. They were fearless, however, and outspoken in their indictment of all forms of moral evil. Christ and the apostles did not desire to work through political parties but through the blessing of individual regeneration. The example of Wilberforce was an exception, since he was already a politician even before his conversion. Though Lord Congelton, one of the original leaders of the Brethren, still took his seat in the House of Lords, this “was not of his own choosing, but came by the disposition of God.18
The Brethren were not separatists for the sake of isolation from the general society but dissenters. In this they were moved by their dispensational premillennialism. Elisabeth Wilson says that the issue of separation and/or subjection was a difficult dichotomy not fully recognized by the first generation of their leaders. This dichotomy created a tension between submission to the powers of society, including the established church hierarchy, and further separation from the world. Though Wilson admits that no one viewpoint can encompass all early Brethren thinking on this matter, she concludes that the concept of separation was understood more in the sense of separation from “the world” and only rarely extended to explicit teachings on the state or politics.19 She explains that this issue of separation and/or subjection prohibited the Brethren, as conscientious objectors, from participating in the two World Wars.20 The underlying premise was pivotal in determining the Movement’s attitude to society.
However, there were exceptions, especially on the mission field. Though it has become commonplace for Brethren members to emphasize that their missionaries should distance themselves from politics to ensure effective witnessing in their mission fields, some missionaries have disagreed: “It is fair to say that it has been more of a reflection of attitudes at home than of the situation ‘on the field’.”21 An example of this was the early-twentieth-century anti-slavery campaign in the Sao Tomé cocoa plantations of Angola led by Charles Swan, a Brethren missionary. The controversy was provoked by the brutal recruitment of laborers in Angola’s villages. They were pressed to sign a dubious contract that amounted to modern slavery. Swan’s several visits to Angola allowed him to gather reports on the laborers’ plight. He preferred not to work with other global anti-slavery organizations; instead, he corresponded with local agencies dealing with the issue, reporting directly to the British Foreign Office and Western newspapers. In his published report, he urged that Christians should rise up and abolish slavery at all costs.22 Yet this position was not typical of Brethren missionaries. Some expressed their horror about the slave trade, but it seems that only Swan became active in campaigning against it.23 Still, his main concern was the impact of the trade upon the spread of the gospel. In a sense, he stood in the tradition of evangelical missionaries who were compelled to intervene in political affairs to ensure that any obstacle to the spread of the Gospel be removed.24
Dr. Walter Fisher’s mission at Kalene Hill, Zambia, founded in 1906, was an example of philanthropy that went beyond the primary goal of evangelism. Fisher’s work reflected his genuine desire to reach the people for the sake of the gospel without disregarding their social condition. He established a mission in Zambia at a time when missionaries were frequently depicted as forerunners of Western imperialism. Although evangelization was his primary goal, he initiated and promoted numerous activities related to the basic needs of the community. The orphanages, schools, agricultural projects, literacy program, and medical missions he established resulted in a closer relationship with the natives. His initiatives were not part of a program intended exclusively to pave the way for evangelization; instead, they were a direct response to the socioeconomic and political situation he encountered. Yet these social activities did eventually serve to further the work of evangelization in the community. In this sense secular and religious activities became mutually reinforcing.25 The impact of Dr. Fisher’s ministry is still being felt in Zambia today.
Robert Stanes established a secondary school for the Anglo-Indian people of Coimbatore, India, as early as 1862.26 Stanes was heavily influenced by his admiration of George Mueller, who had solemnized his marriage in 1869. The school in Coimbatore started as a day school and Sunday school. By 1875 it had become the Stanes Higher Secondary School, with 900 pupils in 1991 and 2,000 today. Stanes himself provided much of the money for the development of the school. When the family business had been sold, he wrote, “May I wish that the company continues on its principles laid down by its founder. Love thy neighbor as thyself.” His service to the people of India did not go unnoticed. At his death in 1932, Indian newspapers depicted him not as an imperialist figure but as a “missionary businessman,” a “Christian Knight,” “a great gentlemen,” “the children’s friend,” and “the grand old man of South India.”27
I have argued that the Brethren’s concept of separation was central to their attempt to go back to the principles of the New Testament church. This was a result of their strong reaction to the prevailing religious formalism in Anglicanism during the Victorian period. Separation as principle took another turn when some of their early leaders turned to dispensational premillennialism. This led them to view society as apostate and destined to ruin. The church viewed itself as sojourners, with evangelism and missions as its main task. Meddling in politics was viewed as an obstacle to that task.
Yet the Brethren’s hearts of compassion championed the spirit of philanthropy. As a movement, their concept of social involvement was characterized by the altruism of individuals rather than organizations. Members engaged in Christian benevolence while striving to be apolitical. Coming from the upper class, their early leaders’ philanthropic spirit was widely recognized and served as a model for other Christians and their organizations. Because of this, the Brethren’s participation and influence in the context of evangelical social engagement have been disproportionate to the number of churches in the movement worldwide.


1 Harold H. Rowdon, Who Are the Brethren and Does It Matter? (Exeter, England: Paternoster Press, 1986), 32.

2 F. F. Bruce, In Retrospective: Remembrance of Things Past (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), 314.

3 Rowdon, 32-33.

4 Bruce, 314.

5 F. Roy Coad, A History of the Brethren Movement: Its Origin, Its Worldwide Development, and Its Significance for the Present Day (Exeter, England: Paternoster Press, 1968), 103; Ian S. Rennie, “Aspects of Christian Brethren Spirituality,” in Alive to God: Studies in Spirituality; Presented to James Houston, eds. J. I. Packer and Loren Wilkinson (Vancouver, Canada: Regent College Publishing, 1992), 190.

6 William Blair Neatby, “A History of the Plymouth Brethren,” http://www.schneid9.de/glaube/bruederbewegung/neatby.pdf (accessed June 23, 2013), 79.

7 Coad, 179.

8 Ian McDowell, “The Influence of the Plymouth Brethren on Victorian Society and Religion,” Evangelical Quarterly 55, no.4 (1983):216-217.

9 Ibid., 221.

10 Rennie, 200.

11 Coad, 178.

12 Bryan A. Wilson, “The Brethren: A Current Sociological Appraisal,” http://www.caic.org.au/biblebase/brethren/soc%20appraisal.htm (accessed January 16, 2013).

13 Rennie, 200.

14 Neatby, 130.

15 McDowell, 213.

16 Ian Randall, “'Outside the Camp': Brethren Spirituality and Wider Evangelicalism in the 1920s," Brethren Archivists and Historians Network, http://brethrenhistory.org/qwicsitePro/php/docsview.php?docid=408 (accessed December 20, 2012), 17.

17 Randall, 30.

18 A Younger Brother [pseud.], The Principles of Christians Called “Open Brethren” (Glasgow, Scotland: Pickering and Inglis, 1913), 123-124.

19 Elisabeth Wilson, “Your Citizenship is in Heaven: Brethren Attitude to Authority and Government,” Brethren Archivists and Historians Network, http://brethrenhistory.org/qwicsitePro/php/docsview.php? docid=414 (accessed February 16, 2013), 75.

20 Elisabeth Wilson, “The Eyes of the Lord Are Upon Us: The Brethren and World War I,” Brethren Archivists and Historians Network, http://brethrenhistory.org/qwicsitePro/php/docsview.php?docid=410 (accessed December 12, 2012), 6.

21 Tim Grass, “Brethren and the Sao Tomé Cocoa Slavery Controversy: The Role of Charles A. Swan (1861-1934),” Brethren Archivists and Historians Network, http://brethrenhistory.org/qwicsitePro/php/docsview.php?docid=577 (accessed January 30, 2013), 1.

22 Ibid., 11.

23 Ibid., 14.

24 Ibid., 13.

25 Iva Peša, “Serving in the ‘The Beloved Strip’: A Century of Missionary Activity in Mwinilunga District, Zambia,” Brethren Archivists and Historians Network, http://brethrenhistory.org/qwicsitePro/php/docsview.php? docid=1566 ( accessed February 15, 2013), 2.

26 Peter Cousins, “Robert Stanes (1841-1932): A Merchant ‘Son’ of George Mueller,” Brethren Archivists and Historians Network, http://brethrenhistory.org/qwicsitePro/php/docsview.php?docid=413(accessed March 30, 2013), 52.

27 Cousins, 56.

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