The Plymouth Brethren

Handbook of Denominations
in the United States
Frank S. Mead
Abingdon Press, 1995

Plymouth Brethren is a widely used, but generally unofficial, designation for a loose grouping of churches with early nineteenth-century roots in the British Isles. Within these churches, the common terminology is simply Brethren or assemblies or Brethren assemblies. The name "Plymouth" will be heard in frequently in casual conversation, but never appears in advertising, on signs, or in church bulletins. Outsiders combined the two words when the 1,000 member congregation in Plymouth, England, attracted notice with its active evangelism. In Great Britain and the Commonwealth countries, the word "Christian" has gradually replaced "Plymouth" for governmental purposes, but this change is less advanced in the U.S.

The matter of names is a sensitive issue among Brethren, reflecting an historical emphasis on the unity of all believers. The movement arose in a highly sectarian age when closed Communion was practiced in most denominations. The early Brethren envisioned a basis for Christian unity - not in the ecumenical merging of denominations, but in forsaking denominational structures and names in order to meet simply as Christians, welcoming all who belong to Christ. The designation Plymouth Brethren in inconsisstent with this concept because it does not encompass all born-again Christians; the term Brethren by itself is not resented. The autonomy of the local congregation is another feature of the movement, coupled with the doctrinal understanding that a church is not a building, but the gathering of people who meet there.

The weekly hour-long "remembrance meeting" is probably the surest way to identify a Brethren assembly. The centrality of the Communion service is characteristic: In accord with the meaning of "priesthood of all believers," the service is unstructured, with all men, and now often women, of the assembly free to speak. A preacher may serve full-time with a congregation, but will not be identified as clergy or given control of the service.

Under the influence of Anthony Norris Groves, who later became the first missionary, an initial group of believers, meeting in Ireland, realized they could break bread spiritually either with or without the presence of clergy. Thereafter, Brethren have consistenly refused to restrict the administration of baptism of the Lord's Supper to ordained ministers, thus effectively eliminating a clergy-laity distinction and the traditional concept of ordination.

They moved quickly to the understanding that the Word of God could be ministered by any brother with spiritual gifts. The sharing of preaching responsibilities among men of the congregation has been both a strength and a weakness of the movement.

The Brethren are committed to all the fundamental of orthodox Christianity, including the verbal inspiration of Scripture. They strongly emphasize gospel preaching and the necessity for personal conversion. Except for the weekly breaking of bread and the absence of collections at other meetings, their services are much like those of evangelical Baptist or free and Bible churches.

The Berean Christian Bible Study Resources

Edition: Jul 29,2015