Plymouth Brethren

What do
the missionary Jim Elliot,
the evangelist Luis Palau,
the author Ken Follett,
the poet Luci Shaw,
the entertainer Garrison Keillor,
the Sojourners activist Jim Wallis,
Moody Radio Pastor Don Cole
and I
have in common? 

We were all raised in Plymouth Brethren assemblies. 

My grandpa was Jim Elliot’s Bible Study leader at Wheaton; Jim Wallis’ father was my camp director for all the summers of my youth; Don Cole will always have a warm dwelling in my heart.  His wife Naomi was the first woman to hug me after my mom’s death. My grandpa was an old-time traveling preacher who started dozens of Plymouth Brethren assemblies across America.  My father taught at the assembly Bible College (Emmaus), managed a Bible Camp in the summer, and preached at chapels and conferences.  My brother David is a full time worker at an assembly in Pennsylvania and preaches across the east.  He was even invited to Scotland to preach!  My roots run deep in the Plymouth Brethren.

These are my memories of growing up Plymouth Brethren 30-50 years ago.  Change is a constant; a visit to a PB assembly today will certainly be different.

The Plymouth Brethren are very scholarly.  Their influence on evangelical culture is inescapable. They believe in New Testament principles of the church: a plurality of elders, no clergy/laity (no paid pastor, no membership),  no denominational structure, and women wear head coverings (not every woman does anymore).

The assembly was the center of our family’s culture.  We attended Breaking of Bread and Family Bible Hour on Sunday morning, Gospel Service Sunday night, Prayer Meeting Wednesday night, Awana Thursday night, and Young Peoples on Friday.

The weekly Breaking of Bread service went like this:  Women wore head coverings.  When I was an infant wearing hats was in vogue (think Jackie Kennedy); as I grew older we kept a lace mantilla (black, white, navy or ecru) in the pocket of our Bible holder and bobby pinned that to our hair. Loaners were in the back for visitors.

After we took our place in the pew there was silence.  A man, led by the Spirit, would stand and give out an exhortation, or devotional, or just read some Scripture.  Moments of silence seasoned the time.  When a man called out a hymn, the designated hymn-starter would sing the first phrase and we sang the hymn a capella. Towards the end of the service we would pass a broken loaf of bread (never crackers) and one large silver goblet, a common cup from which we sipped.
Family Bible Hour was similar to a typical evangelical church service.  Hymns (picked out two minutes before the service, scribbled on a torn paper from the bulletin and given to musicians), announcements and a sermon. There was never an offering passed.  With no “pastor” we relied on visiting preachers or preaching from men in our assembly.  What this meant is that each sermon stood alone and wasn’t connected to the sermon before or after. We heard many different styles of delivery, exegesis and application.  

Careful in particulars, Plymouth Brethren strive to maintain their theological distinctives in their speech.  This lends itself to a jargon, with acceptable and forbidden discouraged terminology. 

Movement         instead of              Denomination
Assembly / Chapel                         Church
Elder or Full Time Worker              Pastor
Meeting                                        Service
Fellowship                                     Membership

          Breaking of Bread                          Communion

PBs (we say Peebs as short-hand) stress the different dispensations of history, believer baptism, strong world mission emphasis, serious Bible study, simplicity in worship, and pre-trib rapture.  When my grandfather started tent meetings in a new city he usually began with a Bible study on end times in Revelation.  When it wasn’t Revelation, it was Daniel.

Weak points:
I got the idea that we were the only true Christians.  I was reprimanded at camp for telling a girl who went to a Free Methodist church that Methodists weren’t Christians.  Blech.  Forgive me, girl whose name I can’t remember. I’d say we were ingrown.

Separation from the world was stressed to the point that we often lived within a Christian ghetto (except for  support of government education). It was easy to measure holiness by pharisaical standards: we didn’t drink, smoke, cuss.  With the rapture about to occur any day, we didn’t worry about engaging or improving our culture. 

Knowledge, by itself, is dangerous.  It often bred nitpicky, arrogant attitudes. Being right often trumped other Christian virtues such as love, graciousness, forbearance, sacrifice.  I know that I took pleasure in being smart (or fast at looking up Bible verses) and failed to exhibit wisdom by living out what I knew.

There was an element of patriarchal authority that was disrespectful of women.  There is good patriarchy and bonehead patriarchy; I have seen both exhibited in the Brethren.


I will always be grateful for my upbringing:  for the high view of God, the high view of Scripture, for Jesus Loves Me, for weekly communion, for learning to meditate in silence, for a capella hymns, for regular visits from missionaries, for a heritage of men and women who invested themselves in the care and maintenance of souls.


14 thoughts on “Plymouth Brethren

  1. When I look back on all the different places I’ve been denominationally, I am thankful for them all.  Yes, there was also good and bad, but I learned so much for each one.I am also very thankful that I didn’t have some of the negative experiences that others have had and that leaves a long, deep scar in their life. 

  2. Very interesting, Carol. Your heritage sounds rich.
    Years ago we hosted a supper club and it always made for good stories to ask our guests *How did you get to Chalcedon?*
    My background is Anglican/Episcopal until college; then Reformed Presbyterian.  Of course, there’s lots of Baptist, Primitive Baptist, and Methodist in the older family tree.  Cant find any preachers tho’

  3. Interesting and informative post, Carol.  Thank you.  We bought our house from a Christian family who attended a family church in the neighborhood.  Their family live all around us and I’ve always been curious about their church.  (Everyone outside the family calls it the _______(family name) Church.  I’ve thought for awhile they are some kind of Brethren assembly. Are the Plymouth Brethren pacifists?I’ll have to email you more questions about this later.Blessings,Sandy

  4. There are some things about a church family like you experienced that seem appealing – the sense of community, the idea that everyone has something of value to share (not just the pastor). I can see how it could become isolating, though – and that the sense of self-righteousness can be dangerous. I have felt such a longing lately for a church with that kind of belonging… I’m sure that longing is there to point us toward heaven.
    Interesting post – and obviously I was mistaken in believing that the PB had anything to do with the Mayflower. 🙂

  5. Hi Carol,It was interesting indeed  to read your article. I was researching on the web on the plymouth brethren when I happened to chance upon your blog. I have grown up in the plymouth brethren assemblies and I understand perfectly about what you have written. I would like to hear more from you..I live in atlanta ga.

  6. I hear ya loud and clear as I am from an assembly in WI. Maybe its just the chapels i have been to over my 30 years but I find it very rare to find the pompus attitudes. Maybe its because I grew up very poor and humble but I also grew up with missionary grandparents on both sides and they taught humility. one thing that u didnt mention at all was how much the PB’s used to fellowship. Summer camps every summer like pine valley in San Diego, Living Waters Bible camp in a tiny town called Westby, WI, al the way to Hickory Cove in West Virginia. Conferences in the spring and fall, the winter youth retreat in Ohio. the PB’s did everything to keep the fellowship throughout the whole body chuch so we could be one fellowship. These days al they seem to do is split. everyone is too busy for conference, the winter youth retreat met for the last time last year. Conferences are getting smaller and smaller as business moves in. I wear a headcovering only because i am told to in Timothy but most of the ladies at chapel dont anymore. the chapel i go to now just hired a “full time worker” and i have to say i am pretty much scared that the men are going to lose their accountability because they dont have the role of teaching at most but once a year. I wish we could find the humility that the deciples had and get back to the importance of family atmosephere, accountability and felowship. too much change is NOT a good thing.

  7. @dandy – Thank you for your comments.  You are correct: fellowship was/is vital to Plymouth Brethren. We spent every summer at Bair Lake Bible Camp in Michigan.  I’m not familiar with PIne Valley Camp in San Diego, but I did attend Verdugo Pines, also in California.   Blessings, Carol

  8. Hi, I too grew up Plymouth Brethren–and how thankful I am for their solid background in the Word. Note, Brian McLaren and Larry Crabb (both Emergents, Contemplative) were also PBs.
    McLaren and Wallis are friends. I knew of Crabb from Greenwood Hills Bible Conference in Pa.

  9. My wife spent a few summers working at Greenwood Hills. We met at an assembly in NC and were married there. I will always be thankful for the commitment to the individual believer and the emphasis on individual Bible study and Bible interpretation (my daughter’s middle name is Darby).

    I think, in my experience, that the PB have drifted some from their roots. Many have adopted some doctrines held by more traditional Evangelical groups like the Baptists. Also, the emphasis on things like formal dress and hymns have dulled doctrinal emphasis in some places. Modesty, yes… formality, not necessary.

    All in all, many positive things to say… Tom Taylor, John Phillips, Steve Hulshizer, Lehman Strauss, Bill MacDonald, Bill King, J.B. Nicholson, Art Farstad, etc. Some of the best conference and retreat teachers. I’m what some label “ultra-dispensational” now, but very much value these men.

    • Wow, Michael, if you gave your daughter Darby’s name, I’d never question your credentials! Among your final paragraph I personally knew John Phillips (his daughter is one of my dearest friends) and Bill MacDonald; I was acquainted with J. Boyd Nicholson.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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