The previous article began by tracing a little of the recurring phenomenon of renewal throughout the history of the church age. In noting the fresh awakenings that appeared in Britain and in Ireland early in the nineteenth century, four major issues were suggested that challenged young men who compared existing ecclesiastical arrangements with what they were discovering from their study of the New Testament. These were:
The existence of national churches established by law
Formal links between church and state
Sectarian divisions created by dissent from national churches
Distinctions made between clergy and laity.
Brief explanation has been given of the historic reasons why the first two of these issues came about. Similar treatment now needs to be given to the other topics.
Origins of dissent
Early in the post-reformation period major differences of belief and conviction emerged on a range of matters. There were many who had recognised that the work of reformation was far from complete in areas such as church government and ministry. The continued use of vestments and liturgy belonging to a sacerdotal system had deeply offended the Puritans who ensured their abolition during the period of the English Civil War, and Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate. The restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, however, brought in a complete reversal of the puritan reforms. Four acts of the English parliament – together known as the Clarendon Code – resulted in over 2,000 ministers being expelled from the Church of England because of their refusal to take an oath required by the Act of Uniformity of 1662 or to comply with the changes legislated for. This event became known as the "great ejection" and it significantly increased the numbers of Dissenters.
The effects of the Clarendon Code were severe and long lasting, and fostered attitudes of heart and mind, hard for us to conceive over three hundred years later. A very real divide thus existed, particularly between Anglicans and the numerous Dissenters of various persuasions. Many of the Anglican clergy and laity were deeply spiritual, but, convinced of the rightness of their ecclesiastical position, had a horror of the sectarianism of dissent as they viewed it. Others were merely nominal, content with the social, commercial and political benefits of conformity. Dissenters on the other hand tended to be so by conviction, and there can be no doubt many godly Dissenters suffered the consequences of their firmly held beliefs and practices.
Sympathy and friendship may have been enjoyed between many Anglicans and Dissenters in private, but the deep and sharp divisions in Christian testimony continued into the early nineteenth century and became a burden and a reproach to the men and women whose lives we hope to consider.
Distinctions between clergy and laity
National churches, both Anglican and Presbyterian, insisted upon university education leading to ordination. Authority for the episcopal hierarchy was claimed from the writings of the church fathers and various clerical ranks existed. The Presbyterian clerical system had the virtue of being simpler and less hierarchal but its discipline was no less rigorous. Dissenting churches, too, made clerical appointments and established their own colleges to provide the education and training considered necessary for ministers. Clerisy was the norm right across ecclesiastical divides, and one can in some respects understand this in regard to preaching and teaching in an era when literacy was not so widespread as it would later become. It was, however, also the case that national churches and most dissenting churches ruled that only ordained clergy could administer the sacraments, and it was this aspect of ecclesiastical discipline that would put a stumbling block in the path of Anthony Norris Groves as he prepared for missionary work in Bagdad with the Church Missionary Society. It certainly provided a challenge to earnest believers in the 1820s who contemplated meeting together simply as Christians to celebrate the Lord's Supper.
A band of men whose hearts God touched
In the years spanning the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, a number of men and women were born, some of whose names resonate with us today. They were the inheritors of the spiritual legacy of illustrious forebears, but they were to make their own remarkable contribution to the history of spiritual renewal throughout the church age. Anthony Norris Groves and John Gifford Bellett were born in 1795, followed five years later in 1800 by John Nelson Darby and Lady Powerscourt. Edward Cronin was born in 1801, Robert Cleaver Chapman in 1803, and in the course of 1805 Henry Craik, George Muller, George Vecesimus Wigram and John Vesey Parnell all entered into the world. Finally Benjamin Wills Newton was born in 1807. This list is far from exhaustive, but each of the individuals named was significant in the beginnings of what has become widely known as "The Brethren Movement". It should be made clear that the phrase is not used in any sectarian sense. It would be ironic to do so, because the convictions and actions of the "early brethren", as we sometimes call them, were, in important respects, a protest against the rigid sectarianism of the time.
It is helpful and interesting to consider the background and circumstances of those young people especially in earlier life. They all belonged to wealthy families, some with aristocratic connections; indeed John Vesey Parnell later inherited the title Lord Congleton. A number belonged to Anglo-Irish families possessing homes both in England and Ireland. Their privileged backgrounds secured for them good classical educations in public schools and universities. In most cases they belonged to the Anglican communion of the Church of England and the Church of Ireland.
In addition to the matters already noted that challenged them, another subject became a focus of their interest, namely Bible Prophecy. They grew up in turbulent times when Britain was at war with France for over 20 years, with only a brief interlude of peace when both sides paused to draw breath. The French Revolution had initially been broadly welcomed by liberal opinion in Britain, but increasing violence and the spectre of the guillotine in France soon raised fears that the revolution threatened chaos and the overthrow of ordered society, not only in France but throughout Europe. Many believers began to look to Scripture for guidance relating to the character of the end times. The rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and the scale of his ambitions as Emperor of France escalated the conflict with France to a life or death struggle. Influenced perhaps by a climate of national paranoia, some Christians identified Napoleon as the Antichrist, and such speculation stimulated a new and extended interest in Bible prophecy. Annual meetings for prophetic study were held from 1826 to 1830 at Albury Park, Surrey in the home of the banker Henry Drummond, but these became a centre of wild speculation from which developed the Pentecostalism of the Catholic and Apostolic Church founded by Edward Irving. From the later conferences held at Powerscourt House near Dublin, commencing in 1830, clearer views of the subject emerged as serious and sober minds were applied to its study. Subjects other than prophetic were also discussed at Powerscourt House.
But more importantly than family and religious, or national and political factors, we recognise the divine influence of the Holy Spirit in moulding the lives of comparatively young men and equipping them for His service in a great recovery of truth. Their individual histories are fascinating, as is the story of how their paths crossed so that they became linked together in a movement of the Spirit of God far greater than any one of them could ever have imagined at the beginning. As Groves, Bellett, Darby and others studied their Bibles, shared their emerging convictions, and took their first tentative and sometimes hesitant steps away from the Established Church, they did not for a moment realise or imagine that they were in the forefront of a great recovery of truth or that in years to come thousands of Christians all over the world would meet together, just as they were seeking to do, as simply gathered unto the Lord's name. Obviously all did not become immediately clear to them in a blinding flash. Much careful study and thought would have been essential. Some decisions no doubt were difficult and painful, but there must have been comfort and satisfaction derived from acting in obedience to the Word of God. As in subsequent articles we consider the lives and experiences of some of the individuals named above; we will see their examples of devotedness, courage, commitment and sacrifice.
To be continued.