THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHURCH LIFE
With the coming of the Reformation the Bible was released. This, coupled with the free thinking that developed once Catholicism’s hold on the mind was broken, led Christians to the discovery of many new truths in the Bible. It seemed that everyone who discovered a new truth became the founder of a new denomination. There were a number of Brethren churches which began during this period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Grace Brethren and the Mennonites were two of them. All these newly formed denominations were persecuted by both the Catholic Church and the state churches. This was true of the state churches even in northern Europe. These freethinking Christians were thus in peril for their lives.
The Moravian Brethren
At this very time God raised up Count Zinzendorf, a wealthy German who owned a large estate in Saxony. He invited the persecuted Christians to come and stay there. From many places they came, but mostly from Moravia. With their varied denominational backgrounds, they were soon quarreling about the presbytery, baptism, and other doctrines. Finally, Zinzendorf called the leaders together. He reminded them how they had come together as brothers to escape persecution. They must stop their dissenting ways, he said, and sign a contract to cease arguing and simply be one in Christ. This they agreed to do. After that they had the Lord’s table. There was a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Eventually, hundreds of the so-called Moravian Brethren went out to other lands, especially to the newly found land of America. Even today there are a number of Moravian Churches in the United States.
On one of these ships bound for America was John Wesley. A great storm arose, causing the passengers to fear for their lives. Wesley, a revivalist but not sure of his salvation, noticed a group of passengers praying together. As a result of his contact with these Moravian Brethren, Wesley eventually came into assurance of salvation. After a time in America, he returned to England and then went on to Saxony to spend time with the Moravians. Had he not been burdened for England, he would have liked to remain with them. This was the time of the French Revolution. Those revolutionary ideas were gaining ground in England, and there was fear that the government itself might be overthrown. It was through the preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield, those powerful open-air evangelists, that the gospel prevailed over the revolutionary tendencies and England was spared. British society was changed as a result of their work.
The practice of the church life by those with Count Zinzendorf marked a beginning. It was good, but it was not adequate. Their light was limited, but we consider that theirs was the first practice of the church life in the Lord’s recovery after the Reformation.
About a century later, in the 1820s, God raised up the Brethren in England, under the leadership of John Nelson Darby. Oh, the light that flooded in! Luther had unlocked the Bible from prison, but it remained for Darby and his contemporaries to open it. Even today the best theological seminaries follow the Brethren teaching. Yet, they would not take the Brethren way in the matter of the church life.
The Brethren movement, according to an article by D. M. Panton, was stronger and more prevailing than the Reformation under Luther. To the world, however, it was unknown. This was because the early Brethren would have nothing to do with the worldly ways the Reformation had followed. Martin Luther gained the support of princes and other worldly rulers to advance the cause of the Reformation. Newspapers were printed for the first time in the 1500s; these were used to spread propaganda for the Reformation. The Brethren had no publicity; everything about them was kept covered. It is hard to find a photograph, for example, of J. N. Darby. They did not have biographies nor autobiographies. A number among them who were lords and ladies renounced their titles.
When Jamaica in the British West Indies suffered a ruinous storm during the last century, the British Brethren assemblies sent aid to the believers there. The amount they sent greatly surpassed what the British government provided.
(The World Situation and God's Move, Chapter 1, by Witness Lee)