The Open Brethren

A Christian Sect in the Modern World

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Peter Herriot
  • New York, NY: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , December
     194 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This is a slightly unusual book in that the author, Peter Herriot, writes as someone who was raised in the Open Brethren, left it to become a liberal Methodist, then became an academic and consultant psychologist, before, on retirement, turning to the study of religious fundamentalism. He has now combined these strands of his life to write The Open Brethren: A Christian Sect in the Modern World.

There have been, and still are, many divisions and subdivisions of the Brethren movement which emerged in Dublin in the late 1820s, the main distinction being between the so-called Exclusive Brethren (which was led by John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and is now known as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church), and the Open Brethren, which Herriot divides into what he calls the Tight Brethren and the Loose Brethren. The latter do not differ all that much from other, relatively relaxed Nonconformist congregations; the Tight Brethren, as their name might suggest, are more like the Exclusive Brethren, holding to a strong belief in the absolute authority and inerrancy of the Bible, and, as far as possible, keeping themselves separate from the rest of the world—including, perhaps especially, other Brethren. They do, however, differ from the Exclusive Brethren, which has a strong hierarchical structure with their leader (currently residing in Australia) having a firm control over the entire community. The Tight Brethren, on the other hand, confine themselves and their authority (in accordance with God’s word as revealed in the Bible) to their discrete and autonomous Assemblies.

The volume consists of nineteen short chapters, examining the Brethren from different perspectives and different approaches to Brethren existence. There are, for example, the Tight Brother’s Tale, the Loose Brother’s Tale, the Historian’s Tale, and the Psychologist’s Tale. Further chapters cover aspects of Brethren authority, separation, and fundamentalism, as well as its patriarchal structure with an unambiguous certainty of the necessity of male headship. “Lurking in the shadows,” Herriot suggests, “are the premodern archetype of woman as Eve the temptress, and the fear of sexuality it expresses” (100). Not altogether surprisingly, he states, “there is no such thing as a gay Christian” (98).

Like most sects, the Brethren have their own special use of language which at times seems quaint, but which helps to set them apart. A glossary highlights this means of separation, which could be confusing for the outsider, but which also provides illuminating glimpses of the Brethren Weltanschauung. To take a few examples at random: the Adversary = Satan; Called home = died; At home with the Lord = dead; Home call = death; Consistent = regularly attends at assembly meetings; Giving a word = preaching; Helpmeet = wife; Morality = sexual relations; Putting out the fleece = waiting for a sign from God; Unequally yoked together = doing things with non-Brethren.

The fundamentalism that is adopted by the Open Brethren is not one that threatens society with violence. It is not even one that threatens the social order with disobedience or protest. Indeed, Brethren tend to be model citizens in a number of ways. Their danger lies, Herriot argues, in their isolationism—in their insistence that they alone have the absolute truth in their rejection not only of other theological positions but also of “others.”

The book ends with a discussion of modern, globalizing society, arguing that the different functional structures (such as business, politics, and science) tend to look after their own interests, with little regard for the interests of alternative structures, the result being that pressing questions such as climate change and poverty are given scant regard. It is here that religion, Herriot believes, could play a crucial role: its concern with transcendence can predispose the believer towards humility. Religion (Christianity) has a commitment to help the poor and oppressed, and it believes in the universal dignity of all human beings. The Brethren, however, with their fundamentalist stance and through their withdrawal from the world are incapable of making such a contribution to the integration of the contemporary fragmentation. In this—unlike “modern religion,” which is beginning to operate in global society by engaging in dialogue across society’s various sectors—a fundamentalist stance such as that of the Brethren is, Herriot concludes, distinctly unhelpful.

The author’s Brethren and academic backgrounds meld together remarkably comfortably; the result is not a personal account, nor is it a scholarly treatise. It examines a 19th-century movement in contemporary society with both a somewhat detached empathy and a mildly critical analysis. It is written in a pleasantly readable style, and the reader is left with a clear-cut picture of a fundamentalist sect that is frequently hidden from view in our contemporary, global society.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eileen Barker is Professor Emeritus at the London School of Economics.

Date of Review: 
March 2, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Herriot, who was brought up in a Brethren family, was Professor of Psychology at the City University and at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has since written on fundamentalism from a social psychological perspective.



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