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The Brethren Church - Part 2

The early beginnings in Jamaica

Published:Sunday | April 16, 2023 | 12:32 AMPaul H. Williams - Gleaner Writer

The Brethren Church/Assembly germinated in 1708 in Schwarzenau, Germany from where it roots extended to other parts of Europe, including England. One Alexander Mack is credited as the founder. The members were regarded as dissenters from the established Christian denominations, but were allowed to carry on.

Yet, the persecution that dissenters faced was growing and times were economically hard, and, in 1719, under the leadership of one Peter Becker, Brethren started to migrate to the USA. The first congregation there was established in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1723. Naturally, congregations were eventually established all over the United States.

However, in the 1880s, doctrinal conflicts and leadership power struggles created huge schisms, splintering the Brethren into various branches, the largest of which was the German Baptist Brethren, which changed its name to the Church of the Brethren in 1908. It has branches all over the world but a check with Jamaican religion scholar/historian Lloyd A. Cooke, a Brethren himself since 1962, revealed that there is no congregation of the Church of the Brethren in Jamaica. Yet, there are other established Brethren assemblies.

The Brethren who first came to Jamaica had their roots in Plymouth and Bristol in England, and Dublin in Ireland, thus the name Plymouth Brethren. And, while the fracturing took place in the 1880s in the USA, the split had already taken place in the late 1840s and the early 1850s in Britain. John Nelson Darby, one of the leading dissenters, a former priest of the Irish Church, and grandson of England’s naval hero Lord Nelson, was foremost in spreading the movement in Europe.

In 1850, Darby paid a short visit to Jamaica but established an assembly in Clarendon and one along Hanover Street in downtown Kingston.THREE BRANCHES

“By about 1854, the Brethren movement had reached to Jamaica, but the branch of the Brethren that came first to Jamaica was the more ‘exclusive’ or ‘closed’ strain, which arose after the famous split in England of 1848 led by Darby. Not until about 1920 did the first ‘Open’ assembly of Brethren develop from among the ‘Exclusives’ in Jamaica,” Cooke writes in his book, The Story of the Jamaica Missions.

A yet-to-be published source also says, “ But in truth, Darby’s influence has been more profound upon the kind of Brethren that have been more ‘Closed’, even those more ‘Exclusive’ than he has been upon those more ‘Open’. To keep things in context, it is this more ‘Closed’ or ‘Exclusive’ kind of Brethren that Darby introduced in Jamaica that was to prevail virtually undisturbed for the next 70 years, until 1920.

But, there is a debate over who was the first Brethren to come to Jamaica and when. One school reports that the Brethren movement began in Jamaica with the visit of John Nelson Darby and his friend and fellow traveller, George V. Wigram, in the 1950s. Another reports that Darby first arrived from March to May of 1869 with James Wedderburn, and not in the 1950s. Yet, another is saying English merchant Benjamin T. Slim laboured in Jamaica in Kingston and Savanna-la-Mar as early as 1843.

Now, according to Cooke, the three branches of Plymouth Brethren active in Jamaica are the original Plymouth Brethren, who have since dwindled to only about two active assemblies/churches. These are: one outside Mandeville, another in Stony Hill, St Andrew; the ‘Closed Brethren’, who have about 25 assemblies mostly in St Elizabeth, Manchester and St James, and one in St Andrew on Beechwood Avenue. The ‘Christian/Open Brethren’ headquarters is located in Hagley Park Plaza, in St Andrew.