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Book Examines Movement’s Transformation into Christian Cult

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Many very fine histories exist of the Plymouth Brethren and the several offshoots in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The classic is by Roy Coad, but more recently and with considerably more historical documentation, there are the volumes by Neil Dickson (Scotland) and Tim Grass (United Kingdom and beyond).

Donald Harman Akenson’s volume, “Exporting the Rapture: John Nelson Darby and the Victorian Conquest of North American Evangelicalism” (Oxford: 2019) is different.

It is a careful, detailed and unsparing account of the role played by J.N. Darby in the origins and formation of the Brethren movement.

Outside of Brethren circles, Darby is less well known; inside the movement, he was a giant whose shadow loomed over the Brethren movement for 60 years and continues to influence large swathes of Christian fundamentalism.

In particular, this book traces the emergence of the Exclusive Brethren following the split of the Plymouth Brethren in the 1840s and details the decisive role of Darby in the creation and consolidation of the Exclusive Brethren.

Akenson’s main contention is that the Exclusive Brethren meet the criteria for a cult.

A charismatic leader of magnetic personality; backed by authoritarian, tightly organized systems of oversight, discipline and privileges of belonging; over-againstness as a way of relating to surrounding culture; a set of doctrines, beliefs and practices that give adherents identity and group solidarity; and in the case of a Christian cult, a particular and peculiar hermeneutic approach to the Bible.

This book is a gripping read. It is not a biography of Darby. It is a detailed critical narrative of the emergence of the Exclusive Brethren under Darby, and near the end, a brief account of how the movement disintegrated in Darby’s later years and following his death.

Within the constraining boundaries of the Exclusives, Darby operated as an organizational genius, with at times deep pastoral purpose, and at other times ruthless excision of any opposition, real or perceived.

The narrative of events leading to the split of 1847-48 makes harrowing reading. Darby was a master tactician, a skilled manipulator, a master of argumentative rhetoric and damaging insinuation but also a catalyst for those who sought comfort, identity and spiritual security within a tightly controlled community.

The demolition of Benjamin Wills Newton, his character, status and social networks in the 1840s, which led to the split, and the breaking of Edward Cronin in 1880, the oldest surviving member of the originating Assembly, by excluding him from fellowship for life and ruining his economic and social capital as a doctor, read like case studies in post-graduate Machiavellian outmaneuvering.

These narratives about the use and abuse of power, as told by Akenson, are a character study in ecclesial realpolitik underpinned by adamantine spiritual self-confidence.

Darby emerges from these two episodes as one whose ways of treating those he opposed contradicted the more obvious virtues expected of those who believed their way of being embodied as “the (only) church of God.”

Following his death, Darby’s theological legacy would make enormous inroads in North America, so that “premillennial dispensationalism” would develop in the 20th century to become one of the most popular and powerful clusters of theological ideas among millions of evangelicals.

Ideas such as the rapture, the millennial reign, a two-stage second coming of Jesus, the separation of Israel and church into two dispensational realities were peculiar aberrations from all previous expressions of the Christian eschatological tradition.

Decisive in that process, was the influence over 60 years of J.N. Darby, the founder, theological arbiter and unassailable authority within the movement during his lifetime.

This is a big book. It covers the origins of the Brethren, the start of Faith Missions, the developing of a peculiar biblical hermeneutic on prophecy and the end times, the formation of tight-knit, radically committed separatist Assemblies, and the evolution of a cult centered on the teaching, influence and sheer force of personality that was J.N. Darby.

There are kinder, more sympathetic even admiring accounts of Darby’s life, but they too have to find ways of explaining, let alone justifying, the sometimes deplorable methods by which Darby established, maintained and propagated the true and only church of God on earth.

James Gordon

James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.