Reminiscences by F.J. Elwood on the Earliest Years of the Brethren
[Taken from a page on mybrethren - Originally from G.W. Ware - A Review of Certain Conentions for the Faotj]
Mr. Darby was abroad. Mr. Wigram wrote to him that he feared there was mischief working at Plymouth. I am not sure whether I have remembered the words correctly. (Of course these letters were not seen at the time, but a correspondence between Messrs. Darby, Wigram and Bellett was found by Mr. Darby's executors and copies shown to a privileged few, among whom I was.) Mr. Darby replied, 'I am not uneasy about Newton, I fear more for worldliness getting in among us'. Later Mr. Wigram wrote to him, 'Whenever I go before God about Benjamin Newton, two things come before me with grief to my spirit, the Son and the Holy Ghost'. Subsequently, Mr. Darby came over with – as he said – an undefined fear of something wrong. He took lodgings at Plymouth and went in and out among the saints, visiting the poor and ministering at the meetings. He became more and more dissatisfied with the state of things. He used to come up to our house – Mrs. Elwood's – often in the evenings, and pour out his fears and exercises about it to my Mother. He found that Mr. Newton was forming around himself a school of doctrine based on his prophetic views of which he made everything, as the special truth for the last days. These views were woven into a system and in it, the special place of the church was denied, as he identified it with the Old Testament saints, and the Jewish Remnant, and pressed that the church would be in the tribulation and much more that was contrary to Scripture. So that the heavenly calling of the church was lost; and besides this, a ministerial element – clericalism – had come in. Mr. Newton and those brothers who supported him being virtually the ministers. Mr. Darby waited for months, sometimes leaving Plymouth and returning again and going through great anguish of heart. In speaking to my Mother of his rooms – lodgings – he said the Lord only knew how much he had suffered in them. He asked for an Assembly Meeting, but Mr. Newton said it was not scriptural to make the saints a 'deliberate assembly'.
One Sunday morning, after the breaking of bread, Mr. Darby stood up and said, 'I have been here for months – six or nine – seeking to awaken the consciences of the saints to what is going on … God is displaced here, I must leave'. He burst into tears and left the room. He was staying then at Mrs. Eccles. They told us that on his return there he threw himself on the sofa, as he thought, to die; said his work was done! A few left with him, I think about half a dozen. Some brethren came down from the country to see what was happening and left before Sunday, not wishing to commit themselves! Mr. Wigram and Capt. Hall came down and stood aside with Mr. Darby fully supporting him but it was not until some months afterwards that there was breaking of bread. Mr. Wigram had prayer meetings at the Mechanics' Institute, inviting all who were exercised to join in prayer. Those who were most spiritual, especially Mr. Wigram, felt that bad as things were, something worse was underneath and were praying to the Lord to manifest it so plainly that the weakest might see it. Mr. R. Chapman came down from Barnstaple and called a meeting for humiliation, to which we all went. I remember his prayer, and that of Mr. Harris of Plymstock, expressing such depths of contrition, 'We strip ourselves of our ornaments', etc. Then Mr. Newton uttered a beautiful prayer, as to words, but very sad in the circumstances, for instead of humiliation, he gave thanks for 'the wonderful truth God had given' – evidently meaning what he had received himself. My Mother was so grieved at it that she left the room before he had finished. Some months later, Mr. Harris, who had left Plymstock, was paying a visit to Exeter when he saw some MSS. notes lying on the table, which he took up to read. There were sisters at Plymouth who busily took down notes of Mr. Newton's ministry and sent them all over the country as 'very blessed truth'. Mr. Newton said to one of them, 'In every visit you pay, every conversation you enter on, every letter you write, you should present this truth!' Mr. Harris was horrified at what he found in these notes, about the Lord, as to His experience under the governmental wrath of God during His life and before the cross. The doctrine was that though personally holy He was relatively sinful from having, in grace, identified Himself with the nation of Israel, who were under the curse of a broken law, and this from His birth; that He looked forward to John's baptism in which He emerged from this state of curse and he applied to Him all the experiences expressed in the Psalms.
Mr. Harris exposed this and then Mr. Darby took it up in power, showing how if what he said of Christ was true, He could not have been a sacrifice for sin. Mr. Newton defended himself in print, but only disclosed how deep-rooted in his prophetic system the poison was. The greatest number of those who were with him now took alarm and left his meeting. His two special supporters, Mr. Soltau and Mr. Batten, wrote confessions, but Satan, so far foiled, put forth another device to nullify the testimony against this evil doctrine. Those meeting in the Bethesda Room in Bristol – Mr. Muller and Mr. Craik being leaders – avowed that though they did not hold Mr. Newton's doctrine as to the Lord's Person, yet they would still receive from those in fellowship with him. When this was remonstrated against, ten of the brethren there wrote a letter setting forth their principles as to fellowship and reception. This celebrated 'Letter of the Ten' was the origin of Open Brethrenism. Mr. Darby then wrote a circular warning the saints against the principle of neutrality. This they called 'The Pope's Bull', and oh! what venom burst forth against him on all sides, and even from those who before would have 'plucked out their eyes for him'. They said he was making a new ground of fellowship. We went through the conflict in Dublin and there it was terrible. It was brought on by Lord Congleton, who was passing through Dublin and was allowed by the brethren at Brunswick Street – where we all met – to break bread there. The sorrow of it nearly killed Mr. Bellett, who was deeply attached to the Dublin brethren and they to him, and could not bear to part with them. We were greatly distressed about him and before it was over he left Dublin for England, broken down in body and spirit. But after a while he got clear and decided. He wrote to my Mother 'the Lord has restored me', and returned to Dublin to support and build up those who had separated for the truth's sake; his ministry being marked by increased power, especially as to 'the unity of the Spirit', and the holiness of its associations. I remember how delightful his readings were and he said himself to us with what freshness and clearness these truths had come to him. This gave joy to Mr. Darby who had feared for him. I should think that the greatest number all over the country drifted off in this conflict. Mr. Darby called it a 'break up' and Mr. Wigram said at the time that we must be prepared to have sifting after sifting, and that at every sifting the sieve would be finer. What he, Mr. Wigram, had foreseen in secret with God, before there was any suspicion of the evil at work, had thus been verified in this first and deadly attack by the enemy on the testimony committed to the Brethren – the Son and the Holy Ghost – and the Lord in His grace delivered us from it and preserved to us the truth of the 'unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God' – not only as to the gross form in which the evil came out at Plymouth, but in the covert way in which the seed of it was continued in Bethesda. Though the evil doctrine as to the Lord's Person was subsequently repudiated, the whole thing gave birth to an open ground of fellowship and unholy associations which have continued ever since.
Years after this – about 29 – when Mr. Darby wrote his beautiful paper on the Sufferings of Christ, the ground taken by those who opposed him and even by some who loved him and had stood with him in the conflicts with Mr. Newton and Bethesda, as poor Capt. Hall – Mr. Darby felt deeply the separation from him – was that he was putting forth Mr. Newton's doctrine in what he brought out as 'the third class of sufferings' – not atoning – which the Lord went through at the close of His life here, before the cross. But the difference was immense and fundamental. Mr. Newton identified Him in His position and experience with the ungodly nation of Israel, suffering governmental wrath under the curse of a broken law. Mr. Darby showed that in this class of sufferings He was in holy sympathy with the repentant remnant of the latter days; furnishing holy experience and utterances for those who, in integrity of heart, will feel the sin of Israel in the light of the holiness and government of God.
Very few separated on this question, but I am sure that the mass did not enter into what Mr. Darby taught on the subject. I remember that he said that the saints were not ready for it, but that rather than give it up or cause any division on the question of the Lord's sufferings, he would stand aside. He wrote this to JBS. On this, seven prominent brethren – I forget who they all were, but GVW and JBS were two – wrote to him jointly, to say that they entirely repudiated the opposition to the truth in question, which was stated in a bad tract of Mr. Ord's, and fully went with the truth in Mr. Darby's papers and they earnestly besought him not to stand aside. To this he bowed. The Lord thus rebuked the storm and there was a 'great calm' which allowed us – or any who were ready for it – to feed on the precious truth of His personal sufferings, which He had confided to His beloved servant, and enabled him to bring out as counter to the lie of the enemy at Plymouth.