My People by Robert Baylis; published Gospel Folio Press; price £16.99. Gathering to his Name by Tim Grass; published Paternoster; price £29.99. Both volumes available from John Ritchie Ltd.
Gathering to his Name and My People are two recently published histories of Christians whom Baylis in his sub-title calls "those Christians sometimes called Plymouth Brethren"1 . In his sub-title Grass calls them "Open brethren". The history Baylis presents begins in Dublin and moves initially to Britain in the east before crossing the Atlantic to North America. Grass concentrates his study in Great Britain and Ireland but does include a chapter dealing with overseas missionary works. The two interesting histories differ in one other important respect - that of perspective. Baylis includes an appendix he entitles "As Others See Us", but the brethren whose origins he traces are, he admits, his own people. Grass is one of those "others" who write from a different perspective. His work is based on scholarly research, but evidently informed by his own experience formerly as a Strict Baptist pastor and as a lecturer in Spurgeons College and other academic activities. The two contrasting perspectives are of interest to the reviewer.
In dealing with the period from the first quarter of the 19th century to the early 20th century both appear to draw from sources familiar to many readers of this Magazine - E H Broadbent, Roy F Coad, Andrew Miller, William B Neatby, Harold H Rowdon and W Trotter. Grass assembles an impressive evidence base from which he probes the nature of the work of God, particularly in the 19th century, and offers perceptive comment on doctrinal, ecclesiastical and relational matters. Baylis in his analysis points unusually to Darby and Groves as "the two great originators" whose lasting contributions have shaped the subsequent histories of the brethren about whom they write. Some of Groves letters may show some prescience about future schismatic tendencies, but his long periods overseas must have limited greatly the degree of leadership he might have exercised.
To a readership outside North America, the account of "the pioneering period", which Baylis sees as 1871-1920, is fascinating. My People presents a vivid record of how the gospel spread and assemblies were established. He writes warmly of the features of those early assemblies; features, he notes, that are still present in what he sees as "traditional" assemblies. He adds that the role of the elder was not recognised among them, although in Britain and Ireland no such reservations were commonplace. In Gathering to his Name, Grass is able to devote 162 pages of his 589-page treatise, whereas Baylis uses 44 pages of his 426-page history, to deal with approximately the same period. Both deal with the same range of issues, but again Grass is able to examine more fully matters related to doctrine, church order, relationships with society in general, and "the wider religious world". Some of his observations on periodicals and hymnbooks will interest the Publishers of this Magazine. More important is his review of the "doctrinal distinctives" of that period. The reviewer is not convinced that annihilationist beliefs and other erroneous teaching were as current as Grass implies. However, careful consideration of this section does offer an insight into how others see "Christians sometimes called Plymouth Brethren".
The least convincing sections in both books are, not surprisingly, those dealing with the period of the reviewers experience. Clearly, for the historians it is more difficult to evaluate the effects of more recent events, although there is access to individuals and acquaintances of those prominent in events being considered. Robert Baylis has chosen to comment on legal action that must have pained a number of individuals. Yet he has not chronicled the progress of those assemblies he sees as "traditional" and the teachers and evangelists who move among them. Equally Grasss account of the final period also remains incomplete. It is certainly underpinned by a detailed consideration of periodicals such as Believers Magazine, Assembly Testimony, Precious Seed and publications of "para-church agencies". However, Grass presents little evidence of interviews geographically widespread enough to establish how accurately those periodicals reflect the reality of assemblies today. Both writers could have reminded readers that "it is a very small thing to be judged of you or of mans judgment he that judgeth me is the Lord" (1 Cor 4.3-4).