Primitivist Piety: The Ecclesiology of the Early Plymouth Brethren

By Foster, Douglas A. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Primitivist Piety: The Ecclesiology of the Early Plymouth Brethren


Foster, Douglas A., The Catholic Historical Review


Primitivist Piety: Tbe Ecclesiology of the Early Plymouth Brethren. By James Patrick Callahan. [Studies in Evangelicalism. Volume 12.] (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1997. Pp. xix, 287. $48.00.)

In this study based on his doctoral work at Marquette University, James Callahan presents an intricate yet fascinating picture of the essence of Plymouth Brethren self-identity in the early 1800's. Scholars have often characterized the group as restorationist or primitivist, using the terms interchangeably. The author insists that such an analysis fails to discern an important conflict in Brethren thought between primitivism and restorationism.

Callahan follows an introductory historiographical essay with four heavily documented chapters in which he briefly chronicles the early formation of the group, its place both among and against other British dissenters, and its role in British millenarianism and prophecy conferences. Ernest Sandeen characterized the Plymouth Brethren, particularly as seen in the theology of John Nelson Darby, as a dispensational premillennial sect. One of Callahan's contributions in the book is to demonstrate that the group's primitivist ecclesiology, founded on a literalist reading of the New Testament, was responsible for Brethren eschatology rather than vice versa.

The major argument of the book, however, is found in chapters six and seven. Here the author carefully delineates Brethren ideas of primitivism and restorationism. The difference is epitomized by, though by no means confined to, the stances of early leaders Anthony Groves and J. …

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