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Who are the Brethren?

The Brethren movement has had an influence on Protestant evangelicalism that is out of all proportion to its size. This is because of the zealous spirituality of its members, its conservatism in theology and the participation of many of its members in para-church institutions. They represent an expression of lay piety which has recurred in Christian history, with theirs originating in the early nineteenth century among radical evangelicals (for more on the history click here).

The most common names by which the Brethren movement is known are Plymouth Brethren, Christian Brethren, or just simply, Brethren. The Christians who make up Brethren churches (or 'assemblies' as they are most usually called) have resisted taking an official name and even establishing any official headquarters or denominational institutions. The Brethren have, in fact remained a movement, churches which share the same tendencies and currents of thought. So although they have a distinctive family likeness, all the names by which they are called have an unofficial status only. To further complicate matters, the movement has suffered a number of schisms throughout its history and there are several types of Brethren. For example, there is even one group, the Churches of God, who are the exception to the preceding statements: they have an official name and denominational structure.

The name 'Brethren' was applied to those within the movement because of their habit of referring to each other as 'brother' or 'sister'.  It being the nineteenth century, the archaic plural of the King James Version, 'Brethren', was the name that quickly stuck with them. Most members of the movement have been happy enough to accept it as an unofficial designation as it captures the closeness of their fellowship. Not all will accept the name, however, as some argue it sets them apart as a division within Christianity, and others (often younger members) will not use the name because of what they perceive as its old-fashioned and negative connotations. Those who think like these last two groups are more likely to call themselves simply Christians, or sometimes, if pressed for a label, evangelicals.

One widely-publicised section of the movement is known as the Exclusive Brethren or the Close Brethren, which has itself divided into several mutually excluding groups. They are the Brethren you are most likely to hear about from the news media (it is one of these groups which is also depicted in the 2008 film 'Son of Rambow'). However, the most widespread section of the Brethren movement is the one commonly called the Open Brethren. They were originally given this name because they welcomed all Christians to their communion service. They are present in some 200 countries throughout the world due to a vigorous missionary programme and its members are the people you are most likely to encounter personally. Nowadays in Britain it is most usually the Exclusive Brethren who will call themselves Plymouth Brethren (the older name for all types of Brethren), and the Open Brethren will use the newer term 'Christian Brethren', but the practice in North America is to continue to use the more traditional Plymouth Brethren as a blanket term. Needless to say, these different sections of Brethren are entirely independent of each other, which has led one noted historian of the movement, Dr H. H. Rowdon, to question how useful it to discuss them as a whole.

All forms of Brethren are evangelical Christians and subscribe to the four distinguishing marks of an evangelical as defined by Prof. D.W. Bebbington (in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 1989):

  • conversionism, the call for a change of life
  • activism, an energetic expression of the individual's faith
  • biblicism, a high regard for scripture
  • crucicentricism, belief in the cardinal importance of Christ's atoning death.

In addition, all forms of Brethren are distinguished by the following:
  • they are primitivists in ecclesiology:  that is in their corporate life they try to express the earliest models of the church as represented in the New Testament.
  • they have no clergy: the movement has no concept of ordination although Brethren groups may have full-time evangelists, missionaries or Bible teachers.
  • they give prominence to the Lord's supper: it will be celebrated weekly, usually on a Sunday morning, and the members will participate spontaneously in prayer, Bible reading, devotional homilies, or in suggesting a hymn.
  • they give a high priority to evangelism: they will have one church service in the week devoted to evangelistic outreach or will give prominence to a call to faith in special services (however, this is less true of some Exclusive groups which keep themselves separate from society).

Brethren in India

All denominations in Kerala proudly claim that they are the true descendants of the church established by the Apostle Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ. Most Christians believe that St. Thomas came to Kerala in 52 A. D. An impartial study of Christianity in Kerala would prove that the Christians of Kerala followed the doctrines and practices similar to the present day Plymouth Brethren movement.

In 345 AD seventy-two families belonging to seven Jewish clans emigrated to Kodungalloor in Kerala, India, from Mesopotamia (Iran and Iraq) under the leadership of Thomas of KanaThomas of Kana came to know that the local Christians had no episcopate priesthood or hierarchical structure. So he imported bishops and deacons, and changed the lives and practices of the Kerala Christians. The historians who support organized churches think that the Indian Christians had no leadership, due to their weakness and opposition from others. However, the truth of the matter is that Kerala Christians had been following the New Testament pattern given in the Bible. Kerala churches were independent and led by local elders only. Child baptism was introduced in India only after the sixth century A. D.

The Brethren movement in England sent missionaries all over the world. In 1833, Anthony Norris Groves, a selfless, dedicated, and saintly man came to Andhra Pradesh, India. His disciple, John Arulappan, a native missionary and preacher from Tamil Nadu, came to Kerala and conducted numerous revival meetings. The second wave of great revival started in Kerala by the arrival of Tamil David in 1894. He was an effective preacher, and thousands of people accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. Another great missionary who established assemblies in the northern part of Kerala was Brother Handley Bird. The distinct work of the Holy Spirit is visible in the formation of the Brethren movement in Kerala.

A Baptist missionary and Bible teacher, J. G. Gregson, visited Kerala in 1896. Mr. Gregson conducted numerous Bible studies and meetings organized by Mar Thoma Church. In 1897, he was a speaker of the world renownedMaramon Convention. Under the leading of the Holy Spirit, Mr. Gregson started leaning toward the Brethren doctrines, and he is known as one of the founders of the Brethren movement in Travancore, Central Kerala.  Another German missionary, [V. Nagal], who worked for the Basal mission in India, studied the Scriptures thoroughly and accepted the Brethren doctrines and practices. Another pioneer was a  Mar Thoma Church Vicar, Rev. P. E. Mammen. In March 21, 1899, the first Brethren Assembly meeting in Travancore took place at Kumbanad.  Brother Mammen was the leader of that Assembly. 

Mahakavi (Great Poet) K.V. Simon 

In 1902, Mr. K. V. Simon (1883-1944) received believer’s baptism and came out of the Marthoma Church. K. V. Simon organized a separatist group called “Malankara Viojethan” . Later, this group merged with the Brethren movement. K. V. Simon was a polyglot, who knew the languages of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindustani, English, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Syriac. In his mastery of Sanskrit, he can be compared with any great scholar in India. In his native language, Malayalam, he was a gifted poet who combined classical grandeur and lyrical flavor. He was a prose writer of rare charm, a composer of soul-stirring Christian hymns, an eloquent and scintillating speaker, an outstanding teacher, and an invincible debater. He also had a profound knowledge of the Hindu Darmasastras, and a remarkable mastery of Christian theology. Above all, Simon was a towering spiritual leader who lived a life of great sacrifice, and had steadfast faith in his Master, for whom he walked with great zeal and devotion. 
 ['Brethren in India' courtesy: Dr. John Mathew, USA]

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