- Gathering to His Name: The Story of the Open Brethren in Britain and Ireland
This book charts the history of the Open Brethren, an evangelical movement of spiritual renewal that had its roots in the south west of England and in Dublin in the 1820s. The Brethren are a fascinating lot of detached and privileged evangelicals. They did not regard themselves as a denomination, were strongly opposed to distinctive labels, had no official headquarters and were reluctant to identify any official movement leaders. Tim Grass organises this book of twenty-four chapters into four sections.
Part one, ‘1825–1849: A United Testimony’ details the movement’s emergence, early leadership and the ideological differences and personality clashes that led to the movement splitting into the Open and Exclusive streams. The Brethren tended to be social elites, whose conservatism, wealth and social standing enabled them to cultivate a unique insularity. Grass explains that a defining feature was that they saw themselves as ‘other-worldly’–they believed that prayer, rather than action was what was required and so did not vote and many did not work. Part two, ‘1850–1914: A Maturing Movement’ maps Brethren development after the split and here Grass notes some of the national differences that existed between the Brethren communities in Britain and Ireland. Their presence in Scotland stemmed from the late 1850s evangelical revival and whilst the Open Brethren tradition tended to be stronger in Ayrshire, Aberdeenshire and Lanarkshire as well as in Ulster, Exclusive Brethren assemblies predominated in England, Midlothian, Perthshire and Shetland. Presbyterian hegemony ensured that those Brethren communities in Scotland remained small and somewhat alienated. They were also viciously condemned in parts of Scotland as being more dangerous than Catholics. The third part, ‘1914–1945: Holding the Torch for Evangelicalism’ looks at membership and how the movement changed as events such as the two world wars challenged traditional perspectives. Care for the elderly emerged as a particular concern as did mission work and Grass suggests that it was at this point that migration, emigration, secularisation and agnosticism began to chip away at Brethren membership. People faced emotional turmoil as their worlds were turned upside down. Grass shows how the Brethren found it difficult to remain detached from the world around them as business and political concerns increased and as people became more interested in modern forms of entertainment.
Part four, ‘1945 Onwards: Change – and Decay?’ really seems to consider tradition versus modern and emphasises the difficulty Brethren faced in coping with societal change. This was most marked in the perception of women within the Brethren movement, but Grass does not address this theme to any useful degree. He does note that a declining membership has forced a reappraisal of women’s roles and inadvertently stumbles upon some intriguing national [End Page 361] differences. Female Brethren in Scotland, for example, were more likely to be involved with ministering, hymn-writing, Bible readings and missionary work than their English or Irish counterparts. Grass also notes that powerful conservatives within the movement remain convinced that female silence and head coverings during assembly gatherings are necessary. Such opinions are costing the movement female members as they find it impossible to continue to accept these beliefs. It is disappointing that a deeper investigation into the position and role of female Brethren is not identified by Grass as a priority for further research because it should be. On the other hand, he does call for more work to be done on the issue of class and the impact it had upon Brethren formation and fragmentation.
Grass admits that he himself is an evangelical Christian and throughout the book he walks a fine line between historian and believer. He presents an accessible analysis of Brethren theology and it is really only in the conclusion that one gets a strong sense of his own convictions. In a way this seemed fitting and reflected the book’s aim of tracing the movement from its beginnings in the 1820s right...