The various churches of the Plymouth Brethren movement are independent, conservative, and evangelical. While it is difficult to come up with solid numbers, it is estimated that there are about one million people who identify themselves as Brethren. Some prefer to just be known as Christians, to avoid any connotation of denominationalism.
The Brethren movement was the result of concern over the prevailing condition of the existing church. In the winter of 1827—28, four men—John Nelson Darby, Edward Cronin, John Bellett, and Francis Hutchinson—gathered to pray and read Scripture. The first meeting was held in Dublin, Ireland, and other meetings followed. Soon there were assemblies gathering in several locations. The most well-known group was in Plymouth, and the name “Plymouth Brethren” has since become a default name.
Brethren churches vary somewhat in their practices and beliefs due to their independent nature, but there are a number of things that would characterize most of them. The recognition of all believers as part of the body of Christ and the priesthood of all believers are key starting points. Other important distinctives are the plurality of overseers and the absence of clergy/laity distinctions in the body. Though Brethren churches do not hire salaried pastors, they do recognize that certain men have been gifted for leadership ministry within the church. Brethren churches typically partake of the Lord’s Supper weekly. Most Brethren churches are also pre-tribulational and dispensational.
There have been a number of Brethren who have attained distinction in their Christian service. Among these are F. F. Bruce, Jim Elliot, H. A. Ironside, George Muller, W. E. Vine, and William MacDonald. Publishers associated with the Brethren movement include Loizeaux Brothers and Bible Truth Publishers. Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa, and Kawartha Lakes Bible College in Ontario are two examples of Brethren schools.