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The Peace Testimony of the Early Plymouth Brethren

  • Peter Brock (a1)


Among the many fruits of the evangelical piety within British Protestantism was the movement of renewal which crystallized around the end of the 1820s into the sect usually known as the Plymouth Brethren (or Christian Brethren as they now prefer). Brethren have “remained fairly small numerically… but [with] a theological influence much larger than [their] membership would indicate.” It is hard to say exactly when the group first appeared; its period of gestation lasted several years. At the outset “the founders … had no programme, manifesto or creed.” The sect originated among a group of earnest seekers centered first in Dublin and later in Plymouth, where at the beginning of the 1830s they began to take on the form of an organized movement. It soon had followers throughout the British Isles, and a few adherents were gathered in France, Germany, and Switzerland. Though eventually the Brethren became a predominantly lower middle-class body, the leaders of the first stage of the movement were drawn almost exclusively from the upper ranks of society: Anglican clergymen, Oxford dons, lawyers, doctors, sons of country families or wealthy merchants, and even a future peer of the realm. They were then all young men in their twenties or early thirties, nearly all of them well educated and several of them excellent classical or biblical scholars.



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I would like to thank the Office of Research Administration, University of Toronto, for financial assistance in my research on pacifist history.

1. Durnbaugh, Donald F., The Believers' Church: The History and Character of Radical Protestantism (New York, 1968), p. 147.

2. Embley, Peter L., “The Early Development of the Plymouth Brethren,” in Wilson, Bryan R., ed., Patterns of Sectarianism: Organization and Ideology in Social and Religious Movements (London, 1967), p. 213. Embley's doctoral thesis, “The Origins and Development of the Plymouth Brethren” (University of Cambridge, 1967), provides a useful outline of Brethren history from its beginnings to the schism of 1848. Their pacifism, however, is dealt with very briefly (see pp. 96–98).

3. The genesis and early development of the Brethren's peace testimony have received little attention. For brief accounts, see Rowdon, Harold H., The Origins of the Brethren, 1825–1850 (London, 1967), pp. 304, 305, 307; and Brock, Peter, Pacifism in Europe to 1914 (Princeton, N.J., 1972), pp. 401403, 535. Of a number of histories of the Brethren consulted, I found Rowdon's book the most useful for background.

4. Groves, Anthony Norris, Memoir of the late Anthony Norris Groves, containing Extracts from His Letters and Journals. Compiled by His Widow, 2d ed., (London, 1857), p.41. This passage is also quoted in Coad, F. Roy, A History of the Brethren Movement: Its Origins, Its Worldwide Development, and Its Significance for the Present Day (Exeter, 1968), p. 22. In his autobiographical account from which these words are taken Groves remarks, “I was unable, subsequently, to enter the church at all, from not being able to subscribe the Articles, or rather that one relative to war” (Memoir, p. 42).

5. The most comprehensive study of the early British peace movement is Sager, Eric William, “Pacifism and the Victorians: A Social History of the English Peace Movement, 1816–1878” (Ph.D. thesis, University of British Columbia, 1975). See also idem, “The Social Origins of Victorian Pacifism,” Victorian Studies 23 (1980): 211–236. Understandably, the Plymouth Brethren are not included in either the thesis or the article.

6. Groves, , Memoir, p. 74 (30 November 1829).

7. Ibid., pp. 173, 174 (11 June 1831, 12June 1831, 12 July 1831).

8. Of course we do not know how Groves would have reacted to the Indian Mutiny. He believed God had sanctioned war in the Old Testament as well as the use of capital punishment by governments, ancient and modern. See Lang, G. H., Anthony Norris Groves: Saint and Pioneer, 2d ed. (London, 1949), p. 130. In all likelihood he would have conditionally approved the employment of force to suppress the revolt; but this is supposition.

9. Groves, Henry, “Not of the World”: Memoir of Lord Congleton (London, 1884), pp. 4856. Parnell's reluctance, after completing his studies at the University of Edinburgh, to accept the army commission purchased for him by his father did not stem from pacifist scruples. He had not yet met the Brethren, and his hesitation derived from his belief even at that early date that his vocation lay in spreading the gospel.

10. Müller, George, A Narrative of Some of the Lord's Dealings with George Müller, written by himself, 7th ed., 2 vols. in 4 pts. (London, 18691873), 1: 65, 66. The work was first published in 1837. Before he left Prussia, Müller had been called up to do his army service but was exempted on medical grounds. He did not want to serve as he was intending to emigrate to England; his reluctance, however, was not due to conscientious scruples.

11. Darby, J. N., The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, ed. William, Kelly, 34 vols. (London, [18671900]). It is regrettable that the individual items are not usually dated.

12. Darby, , “Grace and Government. 2 Peter I,” in Collected Writings, 28: 297.

13. “The sermon on the mount characterizes the Lord's teaching.” In it “He … gives positive directions for the government of [his followers'] conduct.” Darby, “Notes on Scripture: The Sermon on the Mount,” in ibid., 13: 57.

14. Darby, “Progress of Democratic Power, and Its Effect on the Moral State of England,” in ibid., 32: 506; Darby, “The Olive, the Vine, and the Fig-Tree,” in ibid., 32: 400, 401 (the thesis Darby states in the latter work appears to be essentially the same as Aldous Huxley, for instance, was to elaborate in more secular terms in Ends and Means [London, 1937]); Darby, “A Glance at Various Ecclesiastical Principles …,” in ibid., 4: 61. Without the magistracy, writes Darby, “this world would be a kind of pandemonium.” “The Christian is to be subject to such authority—the Queen of England or a Turk, wherever it is.” But for Darby as for his fellow Brethren, “My business is to walk as a Christian, and to shew the character of Christ, not to set the world right; when Christ comes He will do that, for He will take it into His hand.” Darby, “The Life of Christ in the Believer. Colossians III. 18-IV,” in ibid., 34: 745.

15. Darby, J. N., Letters of J.N.D., 3 vols (Kingston-on-Thames, n.d.), 2: 110, 111. The letter is published in a translation from the French. This edition of Darby's letters was published by the Stow Hill Bible and Tract Depot.

16. The Christian Witness: Chiefly on Subjects connected with the Present State of the Church. I have used the 8 volumes-in-7 edition in Knox College Library, Toronto. Volumes 3 and 4 of this set were published in London, the rest in Plymouth; volume 2 (1835) is a “second edition” published in 1838. The numbering of the issues is erratic. Although articles are unsigned, the list of contents in this set contains initials beside many of the articles, thereby making identification of the author easy. The set used by Rowdon seems to have included further identifications.

17. See Brock, , Pacifism in Europe to 1914, pp. 531, 532; and Rowdon, p. 172.

18. Harris, J. L., “The Secret of God,” Christian Witness 1 (10 1834): 456459;idem “Heavenly-mindedness,” ibid. 2 (October 1835): 321, 323; idem, “Caesar and God.—Matt. XXII. 16–22,” ibid. 7 (July 1840): 233. B. W. Newton, “Is the Exercise of Worldly Authority Consistent with Discipleship?” ibid. 4 (July 1837): 251–265; idem, “Letter to a Friend on the Study of Prophecy,” Ibid. 2 (October 1835): 347–350. Most Brethren did not vote. However, when Lord Congleton succeeded to his title, he decided to take his seat in the House of Lords while remaining independent of party. See H. Groves, p. 90.

19. Molesworth, J., “A Solemn Word to the Saints of God,” Christian Witness 4 (01 1837): 5362.

20. The Fry MS. book, pp. 308, 309. This book contains copies made by Alfred C. Fry of materials relating to Newton and formerly belonging to the latter's friend and assistant, Frederick W. Wyatt. I must thank its present owner, Mr. C. E. Fry, Newport, Isle of Wight, for granting me access to manuscripts in his possession. The passage quoted belongs, it is true, to the later part of Newton's life, when he was no longer a member of the Brethren movement, but there is no reason to think he did not hold the viewpoint expressed here while still attached to the Brethren.

21. Letters of the Late Robert Cleaver Chapman (London, [1903]), pp. 117, 150, 152. Compare the similar stance of the American evangelist Moody, Dwight L. during the Civil War, discussed in my Pacifism in the United States: From the Colonial Era to the First World War (Princeton, N. J., 1968), pp. 822, 823.

22. Lang, p. 130. Pickering, Henry, Chief Men among the Brethren, 2d ed. (London, 1931), cites a number of examples, including that of Captain the Honorable William Henry George Wellesley, nephew of the Iron Duke, who resigned his commission at the beginning of the 1840s; see pp. 19–21, 40, 41, 55, 56, 74, 198, 199, 208. Towards the end of the century, however, the custom of new officer-converts resigning ceased to be followed in many instances.

23. Neatby, William Blair, A History of the Plymouth Brethren (London, 1901), p. 52; Fry MS. book, pp. 256, 255.

24. Hall, Percy Francis, Discipleship! or Reasons for Resigning His Naval Rank and Pay (Plymouth, 1833). A second edition appeared in 1835, likewise in Plymouth; and a third edition in 1848, published (according to the British Library catalogue) in London. I have consulted the first and third editions, but all references are to the first edition. Rowdon, p. 75. Hall has been described as “a man of peculiarly independent inclinations accounted by some as eccentricities” (Beattie, David J., Brethren: The Story of a Great Recovery [Kilmarnock, 1940], p. 22).

25. Hall, pp. 41, 50, 74, 75; see also pp. 31ff., 52–56.

26. Fry MS. book, p. 255.

27. Hall, p. 3.

28. SirCharles, L.Bart, L. Brenton., ed., Memoir of Vice Admiral Sir Jahleel Brenton, Baronet, K.C.B., 2d ed. (London and Ryde, 1855), preface, pp. x, xlviii–lx, lxviii, cxxiii. In a letter dated 18 November 1846 (and printed on p. xvi) Brenton refers to his “conscientious objection to war under any circumstances.” Is this perhaps the first use in such a context of the words I have italicized?

29. See especially Stunt, Timothy C. F., Early Brethren and the Society of Friends (Pinner [Middlesex], 1970). This was published as Christian Brethren Research Fellowship Paper no. 3. However, some of these dissident Friends joined the Baptists or the Church of England.

30. Rowdon, p. 172; Coad, pp. 76–78.

31. The best account is by Frick, Stephen, “Joseph Sturge, Henry Richard, and the Herald of Peace: Pacifist Response to the Crimean War” (Ph.D. thesis, Cornell University, 1971). Among the staunchest pacifists of this period were a handful of clergymen of the Church of England, the church from which most of the early Brethren leaders derived. Alfred Bowen Evans, the curate of St. Andrew's, Enfield, for instance, published “by request” his “discourse, delivered in the church of St. Andrew, Marylebone, on the fifth Wednesday in Lent, 1855: the day appointed for a national fast and humiliation,” under the title War: Its Theology; Its Anomalies; Its Incidents and Its Humiliations (London, 1855). From the Christian point of view, he argued, “war is utterly indefensible” (p. 12). Like Groves and Brenton, Evans also had trouble with Article 37 (see p. 5). Unlike Groves or Congleton, as a Christian pacifist he publicly condemned British rule in India. In the Mutiny year we find him stating boldly, “The truth is, we have no business in India…. The very expression British India, is a solecism and a snare.” Evans, Alfred Bowen, India. Two Discourses delivered in the Church of St. Andrew, Wells Street (London and Enfield, [1857]), pp. 10, 14.

32. Brenton, , Memoir, p. x.

33. Brenton, , Alas, My Brother: A Letter to the Friends of Harry George Chester, Late Lieut.-Col. of the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, who fell at the Battle of the Alma, Sept. 20, 1854 (London and Ryde, [1854]), pp. 43, 44.

34. Brenton, , Memoir, pp. xlviii, xlix, ii, lxi–lxiii. Compare the contemporary pamphlet by “A Clergyman of the Church of England” entitled The Soldier and the Christian. Addressed to all willing to hear Both Sides; but especially to Parents about to choose a Profession for Their Sons (London, 1855), which puts forward arguments somewhat similar to Brenton's in the course of an imaginary dialogue between a “soldier … going to the Crimea … in the steamer Mars” (p. 5) and a convinced Christian pacifist, who eventually persuades the soldier to abandon his profession on grounds of conscience.

35. Chadwick, Owen, The Victorian Church, 2 vols. (London, 19661970), 1:446.

36. An example of the millennial attitude can be found in Bennet, W. H., Robert Cleaver Chapman of Barnstable (Glasgow and London, [1902]), pp. 66, 67. “Any thought of universal peace throughout the world will not bear the test of scripture,” wrote Chapman. “That the nations will learn war no more will be true only of those who learn … to love God.”

37. Gosse, Edmund, The Life of Philip Henry Gosse F.R.S. (London, 1890), pp. 213, 214. Brenton adopted much the same stance with respect to personal nonresistance; see Rowdon, p. 305.

38. [Gosse, Edmund], Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments (London, 1907), pp. 34, 35. This first edition was published anonymously. Of course the younger Gosse was not an impartial witness, but there is, I think, no reason to doubt the essential accuracy of his account.

39. Gosse, , Life, p. 260. See also idem, Father and Son, pp. 33, 34.

40. MrsGosse, P. H. [Emily], The Christian Soldier, in Narrative Tracts by Mr. and Mrs. P. H. Gosse, no. 5, (London, [186?]), especially pp. 1, 4. The publisher of the copy I used in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, was Morgan and Chase. The series was commonly known as “Gosse's Gospel Tracts.” Since Mrs. Gosse died in 1857, the tract must have been written immediately after the war.

41. For Brethren conscientious objectors in World War I, see John, Rae, Conscience and Politics: The British Government and the Conscientious Objector to Military Service, 1916–1919 (London, 1970), pp. 7477. In both world wars, however, some Brethren bore arms. I know of no early Brethren conscientious objectors to the old militia draft before its final abolition in 1860. Though there were Quaker draft objectors during the period the Brethren were in existence, conscription for the militia was by this time only sporadically enforced. A case or two may have passed unchronicled where Brethren eligible for militia service paid commutation money (which Quakers on principle refused to do) and thus escaped the draft; but this is mere supposition. We may contrast this situation with the harsh treatment meted out by the military in Hungary and Serbia to the Nazarenes, a pacifist sect which originated around 1840. See Brock, Peter, “The Nonresistance of the Hungarian Nazarenes to 1914,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 54 (1980): 5363, and idem, “Some Materials on Nazarene Conscientious Objectors in Nineteenth-Century Hungary,” Ibid. 57 (1983): 64–72.

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