Benjamin Wills Newton

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Benjamin Wills Newton
Born 12 December 1807
Plymouth, England
Died 26 June 1899
Tunbridge Wells, England
Occupation evangelist, writer

Benjamin Wills Newton, (12 December 1807 – 26 June 1899) was an English evangelist and author of Christian books. He became the most notable leader of the church in Plymouth after which the Plymouth Brethren were named. Although he had been a close friend of John Nelson Darby, they began to clash on matters of church doctrine and practice which led to the 1848 split of the brethren movement into the Open Brethren and Exclusive Brethren and Newton's withdrawal.

Early days

Newton was born in Davenport near Plymouth, Devon in a Quaker family. His father died shortly before Benjamin was born. Newton had no siblings. He studied at Exeter College, Oxford, where he obtained a 1st Class Classics degree in 1828 and became a fellow of the college.

Establishment of a brethren assembly at Plymouth

At Oxford he abandoned Quaker beliefs and joined the Anglican Church. He was friends of Francis William Newman and George Wigram. Through Newman he first met John Nelson Darby. Newton and his friends in Oxford became increasingly critical of the Anglican Church especially in regard to its subjection to the sovereign state and the appointment of ordained clergy. In December 1831 Wigram left the Anglican church and bought a nonconformist place of worship, Providence Chapel in Raleigh Street, Plymouth, Devon. Meetings were open to Christians from all denominations for fellowship, prayer, praise and communion. In January 1832, Newton and Darby, although at the time, both Anglican clerics, shared communion with Wigram at such a meeting.

By March 1832 Newton had left the Anglican Church, committed himself to the new fellowship and married a local girl, Hannah Abbott. The “Providence People” as they were known locally, grew quickly, became known as “The Brethren from Plymouth” and then were referred to as the Plymouth Brethren. Around 1832 Darby also left the Anglican Church of Ireland.

The predominant features of the Plymouth assembly in 1832 included:

  • Rejection of clergy and adoption of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers
  • Plurality of Elders – The elders were unpaid. Newton soon became an elder, and earned his living as a school teacher
  • Weekly communion
  • Separation from evil systems – e.g., not being in the armed forces or a member of any apostate denominational church

The Plymouth assembly was similar to an assembly in Dublin, Ireland which was established in 1827 by Anthony Norris Groves, Darby and other Christians who sought a return of Christendom to New Testament principles. Like the Dublin assembly which originally was anti sectarian in that it was open to all Christian believers, the Plymouth assembly in 1832 began defining qualifications for membership and an insistence that fellowship could only occur after severing any other fellowship with a denominational church. The shifting to a sectarian position was detected by Anthony Norris Groves after visiting the brethren in Plymouth.[1][2]

Relations with John Nelson Darby

John Nelson Darby was the dominant force in the early Brethren movement. Newton saw him as his mentor whilst Darby saw Newton as a prized disciple. It was Newton who had first invited Darby to the Plymouth Assembly in 1831 in order that the Plymouth assembly could be modelled on the assembly in Dublin. Darby, eager to evangelise and teach throughout Europe, appointed Newton as the primary elder in Plymouth. Although they were in agreement over many issues, such as the rejection of the pentecostal teachings of Edward Irving, by 1834, cracks began to develop in their relationship.

In 1834, a dispute arose over their friend, Francis Newman, who had started to hold heretical beliefs in regards to the divinity of Christ. Darby excommunicated Newman, but Newton allowed Newman to keep fellowship with the Plymouth assembly in the hope that Newman would be restored. In 1835, demonstrating his increasing independence of Darby, Newton stepped down as presiding elder, believing that elders should not be elected by the authority of man as had been the case at Plymouth. Although no longer the presiding elder, his influence and leadership of the assembly continued to grow.

A bigger dispute also began to arise in the 1830s over their differing views of future events predicted in the Bible. Although both were premillennialists, Newton believed the church would go through the tribulation, whilst Darby, who previously also believed in a post tribulation rapture,[3] began to shift positions and became increasingly convinced in a pretribulation rapture.[4] Newton also had a different view on dispensationalism and believed the present dispensation consists of three concurrent parts. Firstly the dispensation from Noah to the 2nd coming of the Lord (Genesis 9 v1-6), secondly the Gentile dispensation commencing with Nebuchadnezzar and also terminating with the 2nd coming of the Lord, and thirdly the New Covenant dispensation.[5] Newton was particularly critical of Darby’s belief that future events in chapter 24 of the Gospel of Matthew relate primarily to the Jews after the church had been secretly raptured and said that "the Secret Rapture was bad enough, but this [John Darby's equally novel idea that the book of Matthew is on 'Jewish' ground instead of 'Church' ground] was worse." [6]

Newton interpreted 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and 2 Thessalonians 2 v1-4 [7][8] as proof of a post tribulation, non-secret rapture. He viewed Darby's dispensational and pre-tribulation rapture teaching as "the height of speculative nonsense".[9] Unlike Darby, he also believed that the church is made up of both Jews, including Old Testament saints, and Gentiles who have been made one in Christ and that Darby's scheme, followed logically, implied two distinct and separate ways to salvation. [10]

Between 1835 and 1845, Darby spent much of his time in Continental Europe during which time the assembly in Plymouth had grown to over 1000 people with the condition of the assembly being likened to "heaven on earth".[11] In 1840, a larger chapel in Ebrington Street, Plymouth was built and used for the main worship services, while Providence Chapel was retained for smaller meetings such as evangelistic services.

In 1843, Darby briefly visited Plymouth, and tensions with Newton grew. Darby was dismayed by the state of the assembly which, in his absence, he perceived as having shifted away from the priesthood of all believers towards the establishment of official clergy. The doctrinal dispute over future events also was intensified by the publication of Newton’s book Thoughts on the Apocalypse in 1842 which, in the following year, received a hostile 490-page review by Darby.[12]

In March 1845, Darby fled Switzerland, due to a threat of revolution in Geneva, and travelled directly to Plymouth to “battle for the soul of Brethrenism”. A war of words, escalating into a pamphlet war ensued. The battle was over eschatology, the priesthood of all believers together with the role of assembly leaders, Darby had by this time developed strong views against the formal recognition of elders. Also at dispute was whether, as Newton believed, each assembly was independent and autonomous or, as Darby believed, were connected and integral parts of a universal body. Both Darby and Newton had strong, intransigent personalities which exacerbated the situation. The dispute became personal with Darby exiting from fellowship with the Plymouth assembly and publicly accusing Newton of deception and dishonesty.[13] The charges against Newton were investigated by the elders at Ebrington Street and were dismissed.

Although most of the Plymouth assembly, at this stage, supported Newton, Darby did have some support in the dispute, particularly from Wigram, by then living in London, who had earlier financed the purchase of both the Raleigh Street and Ebrington Street premises. In December 1845, Wigram wrote to the Plymouth elders formally withdrawing his fellowship from Ebrington Street and revoking his loan of the Raleigh Street chapel. The use of Raleigh Street was given to Darby and his supporters, resulting in two local brethren assemblies at odds with each other. Both parties continued with the dispute and were eager to explain their position to other brethren assemblies which were springing up throughout the country. In 1846 whilst Newton was travelling around London holding private meetings to partly answer charges levelled against him by Darby, a brethren assembly in Rawthorne Street, London, where Wigram was leader, requested Newton to attend a meeting so that the charges against him could again be looked into. Newton, backed by the Ebrington Street meeting, declined their persistent requests to attend, and was subsequently excommunicated by Rawthorne Street.

In 1847 the Darby party discovered that Newton, firstly in an article printed in 1835,[14] had taught heretical doctrine in regards to the Person of Christ. The article was produced as a rebuttal to Edward Irving's heretical teachings regarding the Person of Christ which had gained popularity.[15] Newton believed that Christ, although perfect, experienced sufferings before the day of Crucifixion, not for the sake of others, but due to his association, through his mother, with Adam and his descendants and more specifically with the apostate nation of Israel. Therefore, according to Newton, Christ suffered hunger and pain and had a mortal body. Darby and his supporters seized the opportunity to condemn Newton as a heretic. Although Newton apologised and retracted his “Adamic error”, and withdrew for consideration his views on the sufferings of Christ, some of the elders at Ebrington Street began to lose confidence in him. Darby was not satisfied at this, allegedly due to the lack of repentance shown by Newton or as Henry Groves, the son of Anthony Norris Groves, another eminent Brethren leader said, Darby was "bent on ruling" and wanted rid of his rival. Darby's persistence in the matter and Newton's refusal to retaliate but rather to "turn the other cheek" resulted in Darby winning over the elders who had supported Newton, leaving Newton isolated. On December 1847 Newton permanently left the brethren movement and moved to London where he established an independent meeting.

The feud led to the division of the Plymouth Brethren in 1848 when George Muller, the co-leader of Bethesda chapel, a brethren assembly in Bristol, allowed visitors from Ebrington Street into fellowship in Bristol and was slow to comply to Darby's ultimatum for all assemblies to condemn Newton's heresy.[16] Darby, in response, excommunicated all those in fellowship at Bethesda. The assemblies which supported Darby’s action became known as the Exclusive Brethren and those which rallied behind George Muller and Bethesda chapel, and subsequently also excommunicated, were named Open Brethren.

In 1858, Darby also was accused of holding a similar heresy to that of Newton’s in regards to the sufferings of Christ.[15][17]

Post Brethren years

Newton married Maria Hawkins in 1849, his first wife having died in 1846. His only child died at the age of 5 in 1855.

Throughout the next 50 years, he remained active as a Christian teacher and writer. After leaving the Plymouth Brethren, he set up an independent chapel in Bayswater, London. He later lived in Orpingon, Kent, followed by Newport, Isle of Wight. For the last three years of his life he lived in Tunbridge Wells.

Although labelled as an evil-doer and a false teacher by the Darbyites,[18] other people view Newton as the John Calvin of the 19th century and believe the Brethren movement may have done better if it had followed his teaching rather than Darby's dispensationalism, and Darby's belief in the any moment pre-tribulation secret return of the Lord for the secret rapture of the saints to heaven, and for the Lord to return publicly with the church seven years later for the commencement of a thousand-year reign.

His friends and supporters during years of relentless vilification by the Darbyites included Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, George Muller and Charles Spurgeon.

Historian Roy Coad notes, "He lived until 1899, retreating into a little circle of two or three churches of his own, and leaving a devoted following, mainly among Strict Baptists."[19]

As a writer he produced more than 200 published works. His great gift was exposition of the Scriptures and, particularly, unfulfilled prophecy.

George Muller

George Muller of Bristol wrote "I consider Mr. Newton's writings to be most sound and scriptural, and my wife and I are in the habit of reading them, not only with the deepest interest, but great profit to our souls. His books are certainly most valuable, for they exalt the person and work of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ to the very utmost. If anyone honestly wishes to know what Mr. Newton's views really are, let him carefully and attentively read some of his principle writings through, such as Salvation by Substitution; Atonement and its Result; Gospel Truths, from which he will clearly see, not only that Mr. Newton is sound in the faith, but also that his teaching is of a most valuable character.... I regard Mr. Newton as the most accurate writer on religious themes of the nineteenth century." [20]


Notes and references

  1. Anthony Norris Groves's prophetic letter to John Nelson Darby
  2. Groves, A. N. (1869). Memoirs of Anthony Norris Groves (3rd ed.). p. 356. Retrieved May 11, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Both Newton and Darby earlier held a historicist view, and hence a post tribulational position, believing that they were living in the final years of Daniel's 70th week, with the Pope being Antichrist. This view became increasingly under question as the supposed relevance attached to Napoleon and the socio-political turmoil of the French Revolution did not lead directly to an anticipated end of the world. This encouraged the search for other interpretations, some being more new and novel than others, to Biblical passages such as Daniel 9.
  4. John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) The Father of Premillennial Dispensationalism at the Wayback Machine (archived October 9, 2007)
  5. The Dispensations in the Christian Witness periodical (Vol 5, 1838) pages 285 to 308 Archived October 4, 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  6. F. Roy Coad's Prophetic Developments, p. 29.
  7. The Approaching Advent Of Christ by Alexander Reese (A critical, post-tribulational examination of the teachings of J.N. Darby) at the Wayback Machine (archived October 1, 2011)
  8. AntiChrist Comes First at the Wayback Machine (archived February 16, 2005)
  9. page 41 of "The Blessed Hope" by George Eldon Ladd
  10. John Nelson Darby--The Father of Premillennial Dispensationalism at the Wayback Machine (archived February 7, 2012)
  11. Start of small informal gatherings
  12. An Examination of the statements made in the "Thoughts on the Apocalypse"
  13. A Nineteenth Century Nestorius
  14. Doctrines of the Church in Newman Street Considered – Article written by Newton refuting Irvings teachings on Christ
  15. 15.0 15.1 The Humanity of Jesus Christ by F.F. Bruce
  16. Excommunication took place on August 26, 1848, when Darby issued an edict from Leeds, Yorkshire after he discovered that some assemblies in Yorkshire were sympathising with Muller and not condemning the teachings of Newton. On October 31st 1848, Muller responded by condemning the heresy previously taught by Newton, which Newton had already retracted, with Muller stating that anyone holding the heresy would not be received into fellowship. (The alleged followers of Newton from Plymouth which were in fellowship at the Bristol assembly had already been cleared of holding the heresy). "As you have now judged Newton's tracts the reason why we should not be united no longer exists" Darby is alleged to have said after he had unexpectedly turned up at Muller's orphanage for an unarranged meeting in June 1849. Muller replied with "I have only 10 minutes now free having an engagement at 1 O'clock, and therefore cannot now enter upon this subject;for you have acted so wickedly in this whole affair, that many things have to be looked into before we could be really united again". That was George Muller's account of the private meeting, Darby denied its accuracy but decided to leave no record of his version of the meeting. Darby and Muller never met again.
  17. Mr. Grant on the Darby Brethren
  18. Mr Newton and the Brethren
  19. F. Roy Coad, A History of the Brethren Movement (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1968), page 151.
  20. page 23 of "Teachers of the Faith and the Future : B.W.Newton and Dr. S.P. Tregelles", 2nd Edition 1969 by George Fromow.

Further reading

  • Jonathan D. Burnham: "A Story of Conflict. The Controversial Relationship between Benjamin Wills Newton and John Nelson Darby." Foreword by Grayson Carter. Studies in Evangelical History and Thought. Milton Keynes: Paternoster 2004
  • "Benjamin Wills Newton – Maligned But Magnificent : A Centenary Tribute" by Ian Paisley. Publisher Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony, 1999

External links