Of those men who were influential in the very early days of the "brethren movement", and in the recovery of truth relating to church gathering and prophecy, Benjamin Wills Newton was the youngest. He was born on 12th December, 1807 just eleven days after the death of his father, and brought up, the only child of his widowed mother. Following his education at Lostwithiel and Plymouth Grammar Schools he went up to Oxford University when only 17 years old. He was an academically brilliant student and took a first class honours degree in classics in 1829 having already been elected a Fellow of Exeter College.
Contemporaries at Oxford included G V Wigram, W E Gladstone, Sir Lancelot Brenton (who produced an English Translation of the Septuagint version of the Old Testament in two volumes in 1844), and Francis Newman by whom Newton was introduced to John N Darby. Newman had been enthused by meeting Darby when in Dublin, and prevailed upon him to visit Oxford. There Darby met both Newton and Wigram, and the former, impressed by Darby's exposition of a Psalm, sought a private meeting with him. It was the beginning of a relationship that would have fateful consequences for both men.
While at Oxford Newton was converted under the influence and preaching of the Revd Henry Bulteel, curate of St Ebbe's Church. Bulteel, also from Devon, and a Fellow of Exeter College, had become a good friend of Newton. On Sunday, 6th February, 1831 Bulteel preached a sermon in the University Church of St Mary's in which he criticised the University, and denounced the Church of England for her subservience to the State and for what he perceived to be an abandonment of her historic Calvinist doctrine. This sermon caused such a stir that it was printed, and by the end of the year it had run to six editions. In August of the same year the Bishop withdrew Bulteel's curate's licence because he had been preaching in Nonconformist churches. Events concerning Bulteel took a further dramatic turn when he embraced Edward Irving's assertions that there had been a renewal to the Church of supernatural gifts of healings, and of speaking in unknown tongues. All of this had a profound influence upon Newton who had intended to seek ordination but now entirely changed his mind. He left Oxford and resigned his fellowship of Exeter College upon his marriage to Miss Hannah Abbott. He then made his home in Plymouth where he began to teach classics.
G V Wigram was also living in Plymouth at that time, as was Percy Hall a former naval officer. These men, with Newton, began regular meetings in Providence Chapel in Raleigh Street. Significant numbers were attracted by their earnest preaching and soon the Lord's Supper was celebrated and an assembly established. J N Darby came to Plymouth at Newton's invitation and wholeheartedly supported the new work. When the leaders sought to determine the order of proceedings in the assembly it was felt a presiding elder should be appointed to keep order in the meetings and restrain unprofitable participation. Ironically, in light of later events, it was Darby who suggested that Newton, a tall man of patriarchal bearing, should take that responsibility. After Wigram and Hall had moved to London and Hereford respectively, Newton remained at Plymouth where he became highly respected as a godly teacher. Other able teachers were J L Harris, H W Soltau and J E Batten and it is remarkable that within ten years a new chapel had been built in Ebrington Street, and some seven hundred were in fellowship. This was striking testimony to the leadership of Newton and his colleagues during that period.
Newton's ministry had considerable eschatological content, with focus upon prophetic interpretation, and stress upon the need for separation from the apostasy of Christendom. His teaching relating to future events diverged sharply from that of Darby and would surprise the majority of this magazine's readership. He did not believe that Scripture presented successive dispensations or modes of God's dealings with mankind. Instead he held that from Noah to the second coming of the Lord, there were four distinct dispensations, of which three are continuing to exist together, and one (that given at Sinai) had entirely passed away.1 He defended Reformed theology and in so doing rejected the expectation of the secret pre-tribulation rapture of the Church. He also disputed the distinction made so strongly by Darby between the heavenly hopes of the Church and the earthly hopes of Israel. Newton indeed became convinced that Darby's dispensational teaching relating to Israel and the Church were subversive of Christian doctrine, and began to press his views with increasing vigour until in 1843 he published his Thoughts on the Apocalypse of which Darby in turn was strongly critical.
Another matter of disagreement related to how ministry should be ordered. Arrangements in Plymouth seem to have become increasingly rigid, even autocratic. This ran counter to how Darby's views had developed in regard to the exercise of gift, open ministry and the working of the Holy Spirit. Prophetic teaching and the order of ministry were the issues of the disputes of 1845/46, but the crisis that led inexorably to Newton's total estrangement from the "brethren movement" arose during the following year.
The storm that broke in 1847 related to vital matters concerning the Incarnation and the Sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ. A sister, who greatly appreciated Newton's ministry, had taken notes of an address given by him, lent those to a friend, whose husband after reading them wrote a long printed letter of criticism. A chain of events ensued including publication by Newton of a tract, Remarks on the Sufferings of the Lord Jesus. Many brethren who hitherto had retained some sympathy for Newton now became thoroughly alarmed by certain implications of his teaching. George Muller remarked that the teaching implied that Christ Himself needed a Saviour.2 To be fair to Newton he realised the error in his teaching and in November, 1847 he published A Statement and Acknowledgment Respecting Certain Doctrinal Errors in which he retracted aspects of his teaching. The essence of his error in regard to the position that Christ had undertaken in His identification with men, and as an Israelite, may best be explained by quoting from that document. He wrote, I ought never to have connected Him with Adam as a federal Head; - He – being what He essentially was – was free from sin though partaking of all the common properties and infirmities of man's nature, sin only excepted. He requested that his two tracts on The Sufferings of Christ be withdrawn for reconsideration, but many who believed that the tracts still contained heresy, albeit in a guarded and less objectionable form, concluded that the word reconsideration implied a deliberately partial confession. Newton denied any such intention, and much later in life he stated, I have never thought, even in my unconverted days, the heresy charged on me. Indeed, I have laboured all my life against it.3
In December, 1847 Newton left Plymouth and severed links with brethren. These were never restored and leading "open" brethren remained firm in their rejection of Newtonian error though unjustly charged with indifference to it in the major division that followed issue of the Bethesda Circular.4 He moved to London and for many years ministered in an Independent Chapel in Queen's Road, Bayswater. His ecclesiastical course became steadily narrower. It has been said that he contracted the limits of orthodoxy till there can scarcely have been five hundred sound Christians in the world.5 His first wife had died in 1846 and he married Maria Hawkins in 1849. Their only child Maria Ann died when five years old in 1855. He continued writing on prophecy, and published further booklets on the subject of the sufferings of Christ in which his earlier heretical teaching did not appear. In retirement he lived for some years in Orpington, then on the Isle of Wight, and finally in Tunbridge Wells where he died on 26th June, 1899.
Newton was a man of undoubted piety and endowed with gifts of high calibre. It was a tragedy that in contemplating profound truth concerning Christ his thinking crossed the boundary of orthodoxy, and thus became a catalyst for strife and division. There may have been an inevitability about the outcome of the events in Plymouth for the wider "brethren movement". That does not lessen the sorrow that so fair a scene should have been so thoroughly spoiled. It stands for our admonition as an instance of human frailty. Alas, we remain slow to learn!
1 The Christian Witness, 1835.
2 A History of the Brethren Movement by Roy Coad, p.148.
3 Ibid, p.151.
4 Refer to article in Believer's Magazine, January, 2014.
5 History of the Plymouth Brethren by W B Neatby, p.152.