"God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform." The opening line of Cowper's hymn has found its way into the language, and is sometimes rather carelessly quoted by folk with little or no idea of the deeply spiritual sentiment of the hymn.
It may not, however, be inappropriate to feel that the ways of God were mysterious in that Dublin of all cities in the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland became the place where significant spiritual events occurred in the latter 1820s the effects of which would spread far and wide. The city was at that time the seat of British power in Ireland exercised by the authority of the Viceroy of Ireland resident in Dublin Castle, Trinity College was the University of the Protestant Ascendency, yet the majority of the population remained staunchly Roman Catholic, and the religious power of Rome seemed a constant and subversive threat. The Anglo-Irish minority was mainly Anglican and exercised political and economic power, but within that community was a number of young men whose hearts were focussed upon the spiritual rather than the temporal, a priority shared by some of their "Dissenting" brethren. Thus in the midst of the barren ground of Protestant formalism, surrounded by Catholic hostility was fertile soil in which the seeds of a mighty work of the Spirit of God were planted.
In 1825 a young man from Cork named Edward Cronin arrived in Dublin where he studied medicine at the Meath Hospital. Cronin was a convert from Roman Catholicism and initially he was welcomed as a visitor at various dissenting chapels. Later he was informed that having become resident in the city he could no longer receive communion without definite membership of a particular church. This requirement offended Cronin's developing convictions concerning the unity of all Christians. He did not wish by joining one sect to cut himself off from the fellowship of other Christians, and he must have expressed his views, for it led to a public denunciation of Cronin from the pulpit of one of the dissenting chapels. This action caused the withdrawal from that congregation of Mr Edward Wilson, assistant secretary of the Dublin branch of the Bible Society, and soon Cronin and a few others began to meet for prayer and to celebrate the Lord's Supper in a room in Wilson's house. After Wilson's return to England, four believers, continued to meet in Cronin's house. These meetings may have been the earliest of brethren in Dublin.
Another visitor to Dublin in that period was Anthony Norris Groves who travelled from his home in Exeter for periods of study at Trinity College. Groves intended to take a divinity degree before ordination in the Church of England in preparation for missionary service in Baghdad. In his spiritual pilgrimage he had already passed through deep exercises of soul, and the friendship he and his wife enjoyed with two pious Non-conformist ladies in Exeter (Bessie and Charlotte Paget) had formed a sense of unease in his mind concerning the divisions then existing between Christians. His regular Dublin visits exposed Groves to the circumstances of the Protestant minority that were very different from those he was accustomed to in Exeter. He was introduced to the fellowship of a number of Christians who met for discussion and Bible study in private houses. To his surprise, evangelical members of the Church of Ireland welcomed non-conformists or Dissenters to these meetings. Other than the Pagets he had no intimate knowledge of Dissenters, and he had never entered a dissenting place of worship, but as he saw the same devotedness to Christ in his new acquaintances as in the Paget sisters, his sense of the tragedy of sectarian divisions deepened. Groves developed a particularly close friendship with John Gifford Bellett, a man of similar temperament, and an Irish barrister of his own age, who had spent part of his boyhood in Exeter. He stayed in Bellett's home in Dublin and during one of the visits Bellett remarked to another person, "Groves has just been telling me, that it appeared to him from Scripture, that believers, meeting together as disciples of Christ, were free to break bread together, as their Lord had admonished them; and that, in as far as the practice of the apostles could be a guide, every Lord's day should be set apart for thus remembering the Lord's death, and obeying His parting command". There is no doubt that the insights of Groves strongly influenced the cautious mind of Bellett.
Bellett had another friend who, in 1827, was convalescing in the home of his brother-in-law Serjeant Pennefather from the effects of injuries suffered when his horse shied and he was thrown against a door post. John Nelson Darby had followed the same course as Bellett in reading Classics at Trinity College and studying law before being called to the Bar. He had taken holy orders in 1825, and for over two years had ministered as the curate of Calary in County Wicklow. During his time of recuperation Darby had reflected deeply upon the position of the Established Church and his own clerical position. He had been profoundly disturbed by a pastoral charge given by Archbishop Magee of Dublin to his clergy, requiring all Roman Catholic converts to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy. Many of the clergy then published a petition to Parliament claiming state protection against the Roman Catholic Church. These events had a radical and permanent impact upon Darby's view of the Established Church and, though his formal links were not immediately severed, in spirit he had broken from the Church of Ireland. Writing in 1855 he recalled his dilemma: "What was I to do? A word in Matthew ch.18 furnished the solution of my trouble: 'Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them'. This was just what I wanted: the presence of Jesus was assured at such worship". Upon his recovery Darby spent a brief time in Calary but returned to Dublin late in 1827. By that time another of Bellett's friends Francis Hutchinson, "was quite prepared for communion in the name of the Lord with all, whomsoever they might be, who loved Him in sincerity", and he offered the use of a room in his house at 9 Fitzwilliam Square where five persons, including Cronin who had become known to Bellett and Darby, met to discuss their position. On the following Lord's Day four of them, Bellett, Cronin, Darby and Hutchinson, met to break bread in remembrance of the Lord.
Yet another small group in the city had been moving in the same direction for some time, and when they learned of the fellowship established in Francis Hutchinson's home they happily joined it. This latter group included John Vesey Parnell a wealthy young Anglo-Irish aristocrat who had studied at Edinburgh University. After a time Parnell became concerned about the privacy of their meetings, because he felt that the celebration of the Lord's Supper should be more of testimony to the world. In May, 1830 he proposed that they should move the place of meeting to a more public room. Bellett was at first reluctant. He wrote: "The publicity of it was too much for me. I instinctively shrank". Hutchinson, too, was initially hesitant to move from Fitzwilliam Square; however a move was agreed and the use of an auction room in Aungier Street was secured. Miss A M Stoney much later recorded that another reason for the move to Aungier Street was that poorer folk might attend with less embarrassment than they would have felt about entering the home of a wealthy man. In their new situation the brethren would come together on Saturday evenings to move the auction furniture out of the way and to set the table with bread and wine for the following morning. Very many precious memories were left in the hearts of those involved. They felt the Lord's presence and approval in all that they did. The auction room was later purchased, and they continued there for some years until they moved to premises in Brunswick Street to accommodate growing numbers.
The events described in Dublin marked the commencement of a divine work, the effect of which soon became manifest in the south-west of England, most famously in Plymouth. The work then spread to other parts of Britain, and farther to Switzerland and the south of France. This latter expansion was due in no small measure to the zeal of the redoubtable J N Darby of whom more anon.
To be continued.