- Within the Protestant movement, several distinct groups have at different times assumed the name Brethren; the name implied the closeness and intimacy they saw as a feature of their fellowship and also allowed them to distinguish themselves without assuming a sectarian name. All these groups opposed the state church system, advocating a return to the beliefs, organization, and practices of the church as they saw it portrayed in the Bible.in Zurich, Switzerland, in the 1520s, Conrad Grebel (1498-1526), Feliz Manz, and others initiated the movement that became known as the Swiss Brethren by performing the first adult baptisms in 1525. Persecuted in Switzerland, believers scattered to Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. All but destroyed in the German-speaking countries, the Brethren found relative safety in the Netherlands. A new leader emerged there, Menno Simons, who transformed the remnants of the Brethren into the Mennonites. The heritage of the Swiss Brethren is periodically recalled when new Mennonite groups add the word Brethren to their name, more significant ones being the Mennonite Brethren Church and the Brethren in Christ.At the beginning of the 18th century, a similar Free Church impulse grew up in the Palatinate (western Germany) when a group decided to separate from the dominant Lutheran Church and found a group centered on personal piety. in 1708, Alexander Mack became the leader of the small company of eight individuals covenanted together in a "church of Christian believers." They rebap-tized one another. However, Germany was no more accepting than zurich had been two centuries before. Fortunately, there was one land that not only accepted them, but also recruited them as settlers - the Pennsylvania colony in British North America. Many migrated and eventually organized as the Church of the Brethren. The German BaptistBrethren, as they were commonly known, eventually splintered into a number of different groups, most of which retained the word Brethren in their name - Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, Old Brethren Church, and so forth. Like the Quakers, the Brethren and Mennonites have remained relatively small, but they have had an impact as spearheads of the modern peace movement.A new group emerged in the British Isles in the mid-19th century that wished to separate from the state church (the several Anglican bodies) and to return to what it saw as the simple life of the biblical church. The group refused to adopt any "denominational" label, and they were commonly referred to as "the brethren." There was no headquarters. Periodicals were published by individuals and survived on subscriptions. Leadership was charismatic and arose out of the local assemblies. Those who distinguished themselves by writing or preaching soon became informally known as the "chief men among the brethren." An early congregation at Plymouth, England, became known to outsiders as the "Plymouth Brethren," and the name stuck.Standing out in the first generation was John Nelson Darby (1800-82). A former priest in the Church of Ireland (Anglican), he left the church in 1827, and with a small group in Dublin formed the first Brethren fellowship. Darby evangelized widely through Europe and North America. He developed a new way of understanding the Bible called DIS-pensationalism. Dispensationalists divided biblical and world history into a series of periods, in each of which God acted differently toward humanity and made different demands. Early dispensations were seen as hinting at and leading to Christ, whose death and resurrection initiated a new dispensation, that of grace. The dispensation of the kingdom was yet to come, but was imminent.In the middle of the century, Darby and one of the leaders in Plymouth, B. W. Newton, pursued a controversy over several issues, the most important being the relationship of the Brethren to other Christians. Those who would relate only to true believers in separated Brethren congregations were called the Exclusive Brethren, as opposed to the open Brethren, who related to true believers in non-Brethren fellowships.over the next century, the open Brethren supported a vigorous missionary program and continued to grow internationally. In the late 20th century, they became known as the Christian Brethren. Controversies split the Exclusive Brethren into as many as a dozen mutually exclusive factions, the largest falling under the leadership successively of F. E. Raven, James Taylor Sr., and James Taylor Jr. The Raven-Taylor Brethren became increasingly separatist by the late 20th century.The Brethren movement launched by John Nelson Darby has had a significant impact on contemporary Evangelicalism. In North America, beginning with evangelist Dwight L. Moody, many conservative Protestants adopted dispensationalism and its belief in the imminent return of Christ. Dis-pensationalism became prominent, if not dominant, among Fundamentalists in the 1920s and continues as an important theological force in contemporary Evangelicalism, being identified with such leading institutions as the Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Biblical Institute.See also Radical Reformation.Further reading:■ Roy Coad, A History of the Brethren Movement (Exeter, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 1968)■ Donald F Durnbaugh, The Brethren Encyclopedia (Philadelphia: Brethren Encyclopedia, 1983)■ Hy Pickering, Chief Men among the Brethren (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1918)■ Bryan R. Wilson, The Brethren: A Current Sociological Appraisal (oxford: All Souls College, 1981).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.