The Plymouth Brethren

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Massimo Introvigne
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     2018.
     160 pages.
     $24.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190842420.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This is a beautifully produced little book on an important subject. Massimo Introvigne is a lawyer who has become concerned with the rights of religious minorities, and who in this book has turned his interests to explaining the background to one of the most controversial of the so-called “new religious movements,” the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC). The PBCC is a difficult choice of subject, as the author recognizes, and it has over many years attracted its share of negative headlines. The Plymouth Brethren attempts to recognize these problems, and to defend the group on its own terms. In four chapters, Introvigne sets out to consider something of the historical background of this movement, which leads up to an extended discussion of the PBCC, together with the legal challenges it has recently faced down. It is important to note that this book, despite its title, is not about the brethren movement at large, with a total estimated population of around 5 million adherents around the world. Instead, it is about a tiny sub-section of that movement, with a total membership of less than twenty thousand.

The PBCC is certainly an important subject for study, and this book is a valuable insight into its world. The PBCC is the most separatist of any of the communities of brethren that trace their origin to the life and ministry of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), the seceder from the ministry of the Church of Ireland who did the most to establish the religious movement he led around a distinctive set of ideas about the nature of the church and the return of Jesus Christ. Darby’s ideas proved controversial among the first generation of brethren, which split in the mid 1840s during a painful and protracted christological controversy. Those who remained under Darby’s leadership became known as “exclusive brethren,” and with their preference for tight organization and mutual accountability they suffered through a series of further controversies, in which their community declined in number and, in some cases, pursued decreasing contact with the outside world. At present, of all the remaining “exclusive” brethren communities, the PBCC advances the most highly developed arguments for separatism. This means that the group remains almost entirely closed to academic study. This book is an account of that community from an academic who has gained privileged access to its world.

It is important to note that this book reflects the perspective of its subjects—and this, arguably, is what makes it so valuable. The Plymouth Brethren is a mixture of insider-outsider history, and an account of the origin of the PBCC that validates and privileges, and occasionally misconstrues, this group’s distinctive historical claims. This means that some of the most structurally important episodes in this narrative cannot be taken at face value as historical analysis, however well they may reflect opinion within the PBCC. Most seriously, in a purely historical work, it would be misleading to suggest that Darby’s principal rival for leadership of the early brethren, B. W. Newton, appeared to question the divinity of Christ (57): the divinity of Christ was not at issue in this debate, however it may suit the purposes of some of Darby’s more recent admirers to believe that it was. But understood sociologically, rather than historically, this statement provides an insight into an occluded mentality, and allows outsiders to understand what adherents of the PBCC might believe was at stake in the controversy that defined their community. In making these kinds of arguments, therefore, this survey provides the PBCC with a useable history—but which outsiders might better understand in sociological terms.

The Plymouth Brethren is most valuable in its final chapter, when it provides some sociological commentary on the PBCC. At times, this chapter reads as a defense for the movement. It exonerates a controversial leader from the 1960s, Jim Taylor Jr, of the very well-publicized allegations that led to large numbers of defections in the early 1970s and debate within the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, on the basis of a recent Dutch court case (88-89). It describes the protracted legal discussions around the issue of whether the PBCC qualified as a charity operating in the public good after changes in the law of the United Kingdom in 2009 (90-91). It exonerates the PBCC from the allegation that they are a “cult,” and reports the results of a court case that focused on work produced by an Australian journalist (93). And then, without irony, it describes the PBCC as a group “normally very reluctant to engage in litigations” (93).

But this chapter moves from defense to apologetic when it claims that the PBCC has “as good grounds as anybody for claiming that they are the most direct continuation of the original Darbyites” (81)—an especially odd claim, when the author recognizes that the PBCC maintain a lifestyle that Darby himself never advocated (82)—and a claim that would be inappropriate in a strictly historiographical context. When read as reflecting PBCC opinion, nevertheless, this chapter provides an extremely helpful account of how its subject sees itself, while recognizing that the community has a record of facing down alternative views. The Plymouth Brethren is a valuable publication, therefore, in giving voice to a distinctive Christian community that sometimes struggles to make its voice heard.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Crawford Gribben is Professor of Early Modern British HIstory at Queen's University Belfast.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Massimo Introvigne, one of the leading international scholars of new religious movements, is the managing director of CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions) in Torino, Italy. He is the author of some sixty books on religious minorities, including Satanism: A Social History (2016).

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