Christian Brethren Collections

The Christian Brethren Archive comprises the world’s largest collection of manuscript materials, printed books and periodicals relating to a group of independent Christian congregations often referred to as the Plymouth Brethren, Christian Brethren, or simply Brethren.

Lantern slide, Christian Brethren evangelists and assemblies in Spain
Brethren Lantern Slide, Gospel in Spain, BLS/84

The Brethren see themselves as returning to a tradition of worship as practised in the New Testament, before the creation of formal churches and denominations. They do not believe in ordination and all male members can contribute to services (women too in more liberal congregations). They give prominence to scripture and to the Lord’s Supper, and their Christianity is evangelical in nature. The Open Brethren have a strong commitment to evangelical outreach and mission work.

The movement originated in the 1820s when groups of like-minded Christians became frustrated with the established churches, and chose to worship in a simpler fashion. Since then, disputes between members relating to doctrine and religious practice have resulted in many different subsets of Brethren within the movement existing today, though they fit broadly into two groups – the Open Brethren, with an estimated 2 million members worldwide, and the Exclusive Brethren, who number approximately 46,000. The Christian Brethren Archive collects material reflecting the full breadth of the movement.

Early Brethren history

The archive holds papers relating to a number of key figures in the early Brethren movement, including papers of prominent early figures: John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), G. V. Wigram (1805-1879), Benjamin Wills Newton (1807-1899), Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813-1875), and Theodorico Pietrocala Rossetti (1825-1883) and Count Piero Guicciardini. The printed collections also feature works by these early figures and 19th-century periodicals.

Scholars of Brethren history are also well represented in the archive – collections created by Brethren historians such as Harold Rowdon (1926-2021) and Neil Dickson (b. 1953) feature alongside those of the research organisation Brethren Archivists and Historians Network (BAHN) and its predecessor body, the Christian Brethren Research Fellowship.

Mission and evangelism

The Open Brethren’s commitment to evangelical outreach and mission work is reflected in the collections. The largest single collection in the archive is that of the mission service organisation Echoes of Service and documents Brethren missionary activity from all over the world and covering the last 150 years. The collection includes extensive correspondence from missionaries in the field and a full set of the Echoes of Service and Missionary Echo periodicals, featuring reports from missionaries describing their lives and activities in the field. There are also significant photographic collections documenting the organisation’s missionary activity, including prints, 35mm slides, and over 1000 magic lantern slides. The archive also holds the records of Interlink, Echoes of Service’s sister organisation which served missionaries from Scotland.

Other collections of personal papers relating to mission and evangelism include papers relating to the missionary activities in India of Handley Bird (1865–1938) and William Thompson (b. 1921); the itinerant preaching in Canada and North America of Leonard Sheldrake (1885–1952); photographs and other materials relating to Geoffrey Taylor Bull's (1921-1999) activities in China and Tibet; and the letters of Edward Petter (1832-1910), travelling salesman and evangelist.

Evangelical activity in the UK is also represented, namely within the papers of the London Village Workers, and of the preachers Kingsley Melling (1903-2004) and Herbert Walter Nunn. There are also many printed books relating to evangelism and mission.

Brethren ecclesiology and religious practice

The printed collections, which number some 17,500 items, provide extensive information on Brethren ecclesiology, doctrine and religious practice and include the ministries of prominent Brethren figures, tracts and pamphlets, prayer cards and hymn books. The archives also feature papers of significant Brethren theologians such as F. F. Bruce (1910-1990) and G. H. Lang (1874–1958).

Brethren organisations

The records of various Brethren organisation feature in the collection, including those of the evangelical Christian support agency Partnership; Brethren publishers and literature distributors Paternoster Press and Gospel Literature Service; and the Scripture Knowledge Institute, a children’s care and religious education organisation.

There are records relating to various conferences including the Devonshire Conferences of 1906 and 1907 (which discussed the terms of fellowship between gatherings of ‘Open’ and ‘Exclusive’ Brethren), the Christian Brethren Research Fellowship for 1962–1981, the Cardiff and South Wales Christian Assemblies Bible Ministry Conferences of the 1960s-1990s and the Swanwick conferences of the 1970s-1990s. Missionary conferences also feature, for example the papers of Kanarese Conference collection from Karnataka, India.

The archive holds records of a number of Brethren assemblies and churches in the UK and Ireland.

Personal accounts

The printed collections and archives include memoirs, diaries and correspondence describing the experiences of members of Brethren movements, particularly those in fellowship with the Exclusive Brethren during the twentieth century such as John B. Potts, Dr Margaret Grace Cutler, Jim and Dorothy Line and Gordon Simmonds.

List of collections