Primitivist piety: The ecclesiology of the early Plymouth Brethren

James Patrick Callahan, Marquette University


Early nineteenth-century Great Britain witnessed the rise of numerous dissenting and nonconformist movements openly opposed to the character of the established church. Among these groups was a radical dissenting group known as the Plymouth Brethren. They were a numerically small but influential band of evangelicals, specifically associated with the rise of prophecy conferences and biblical literalism and characterized by radical separatism, according to historians. This dissertation argues that although the Brethren were enthusiastically interested in the study of prophecy, they were primarily concerned with the relationship of their ecclesial practices and piety. There are clear indications from both the immediate ecclesial context and the numerous writings of its participants that the Brethren were typical of the desire to follow the authoritative norm of the primitive church (primitivism), but generally rejected explicit attempts to restore that primitive church in their own day. This feature of the early Brethren's ecclesial convictions has drawn the attention of historians of primitivist and restorationist movements, but they have not accounted for the Brethren's differentiation between obedience to the apostolic norm and the rejection of attempts to restore the apostolic church. This work demonstrates how the early Brethren's pursuit of primitivist piety led them to reject attempts at restorationism by contemporary ecclesial movements and within their own ranks. The Brethren's dissatisfaction with the history of the church (Christendom) and its present forms characterized the Brethren's jeremiad which advocated humility regarding the church's apostasy from the apostolic norm and obedience of the simplicity of apostolic instructions regarding ecclesial matters. Their commitment to apostolic teaching in ecclesial matters substantiated their study of the manner in which prophecy was both for and about the Christian church. And their development of a philosophy of history known as dispensationalism provided what they believed to be God's interpretation of the church's history--its downfall and the futility of attempts to restore its original glory.

Recommended Citation

Callahan, James Patrick, "Primitivist piety: The ecclesiology of the early Plymouth Brethren" (1994). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9433771.