W. Blair Neatby’s classic study of the Brethren first appeared in 1901. Despite the lapse of a century it remains an invaluable guide to the first seventy years of the Brethren movement, and is likely to appeal to general students of church history, as well as to those with a particular interest in the Brethren. As the author states:
The Brethren sought to effect a fresh start without authority, precedent, or guidance beyond the letter of Holy Scripture… Such an experiment in the hands of eminent men could scarcely fail to yield a considerable harvest of interest and instruction…
An early reviewer of Neatby’s History wrote the following commendation:
In this most careful and scholarly work Mr. Neatby has traced the history and tenets of the Brethren — open and exclusive — and it is quite certain that no one could have done the work better. Apart from his vast personal knowledge of his subject, he has had unique opportunities of collecting material from little known or unknown sources. The result is a most valuable history of a sect of which most people are hopelessly ignorant, written in a perfectly easy, readable style…
Iain Murray has described Neatby’s work as a “fascinating volume”; “perhaps the most valuable source work on the Brethren”; and has assessed Neatby’s “critical insights” as “particularly valuable”.
Press Review in Brethren Archivists and Historians Network Review:
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Archbishop Alexander of Armagh characterised the present threat to the Irish establishment: ‘The hill up which our little host must march is steep, and the hail beats in our faces. We hear the steady tramp of the serried ranks of Rome around us; the shout of the marauders of Plymouth rises, as they, ever and anon, cut off a few stragglers. We draw close, and grip our muskets harder.’
This remarkable assessment of the gravest threats to Anglicanism is ably explained in Blair Neatby’s History of the Plymouth Brethren. One century after its first publication, the Brethren movement has progressed far beyond the historical paradigms the work explored. Nevertheless, Neatby’s history remains indispensable for any understanding of the movement’s first seventy years.
Neatby concentrates largely on the history of the Exclusives after the failure to resolve the Bethesda question. He represents Darbyism as a species of anti-ritualistic High Churchmanship which gained early popularity among an aristocratic circle associated with ‘the academic parent of Plymouth Brethrenism’, Trinity College Dublin. He sketches the movement’s missionary impact throughout Europe and far beyond. He notes that Darby’s strength was as a mystic rather than a systematic theologian, and indicates the significance of the fact that the movement, which had begun in a burst of song, produced few great hymns after 1845. His comments on the movement’s theology are insightful – particularly his claim that Darby’s root error was a failure to distinguish between the visible and invisible church – and his characterisations are never dry. Commenting on the magnetic appeal of Darby’ s personality, which seemed to cow all dissent, Neatby recounts one incident in which Darby (a peadobaptist) was questioned as to what Wigram (a Baptist) held regarding baptism. Wigram, Darby replied, held his tongue.
Tentmaker are to be congratulated for the fine appearance of this edition. The text has been re-set and each book has been individually hand-bound. For little more than paperback price, this edition of Neatby’s history represents excellent value for money.