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1.17 James Lampen Harris and the Plymouth Brethren

Name:         James Lampen HARRIS

Birth Date:   1793

Death Date: 9 Oct 1877

Spouse:       Frances RICHMOND

Marriage Date:       19 Sep 1845

Marriage Place:      PLYMOUTH

Spouse:       Sophia Robertson

Death Place: Weston Super Mare

Father:        John HARRIS (1756 - 1817) – of Lanrest and Radford branch

Mother:       Catherine BULTEEL (1760 - 1837)



                                               (James Lampen Harris )


The Plymouth Brethren - Among the early principal figures here was James Lampen Harris, the erstwhile perpetual curate of Plymstock who gave up his living in 1832 and became the first great editor of The Christian Witness, the Brethren magazine, which started life in 1834.


Educated at Eton, his family connections enabled him to gain two successive curacies in the Exeter Diocese, first at Ringmore in 1823 and then at Plymstock in 1826. In 1829 Harris vacated his Fellowship on his marriage, but he returned to Oxford to vote for Peel at the famous by-election, met Newton and subsequently became a strong evangelical.


The Plymouth meeting grew rapidly in size, partly by the accession of existing Christians – the evangelical background being strong at Plymouth through the forty-three years’ ministry there until 1827 of one of the few high Calvinist clergymen of the established church, Rev. Robert Hawker – and partly by conversions, for gospel preaching services were held at the Raleigh Street Chapel and open-air work was done in neighbouring villages, especially by Hall.


The meeting obtained a notable accession in September 1832 in the person of J. L. Harris, whose farewell sermon giving his reasons for seceding was preached at Plymstock on Sunday 2nd September and the substance of it afterwards published as “An Address to the parishioners of Plymstock”. Harris’ reasons were “objections to the Baptismal and Funeral services, as applied to all persons indiscriminately, whether children of good or bad parents, or persons of infamous or righteous character.”


Similar motives prompted the secession to the Brethren in 1833 of Henry

Borlase.(1)  Borlase was born at Helston in 1806, attended Trinity College Cambridge from 1823 to 1828, and was appointed Rector of St. Keyne in Cornwall in August 1830 Harris took over from him as Editor when Borlase became ill in summer 1834, and after he died in November 1835 his reasons for seceding were published in a tract of 1836 edited by three friends of his at Plymouth.


After a preaching tour in Somerset in May during which he found further evidence of the prevalence of “Plymouth views”, and another visit to Plymouth, Darby spent the rest of the summer in Jersey. Meanwhile Harris, whose views on the disputed matters were diverging from Newton’s,  remarried and left Plymouth at the end of July.


 On 8th October he wrote informing Newton that he had taken the painful decision not to return to minister among the Brethren there, and characterising this as the most important step in his Christian life since he had left the Church of England in 1832.


 Newton’s reply shows that this was not unexpected: “Your note has caused me sorrow but it has scarcely caused me surprise. I could not but be conscious that ever since March there has been a gradual and increasing distance growing up between us. To this end Satan has, I doubt not, long been directing his efforts, and now has succeeded. The chief instrument in this has been Mr. Darby


However Harris’ conversation with Tregelles in London on 19th October, on the eve of the latter’s departure for Italy to engage in textual studies, shows that his reasons for leaving Plymouth were not that he agreed with Darby against Newton but that he did not wish to take sides with either Darby arrived back in England on 18th October, and at the end of the morning meeting on his first Sunday at Plymouth, 26th October, he detained the assembly and announced that he was leaving because “God is displaced”. This was a clear reference to Newton’s discouraging of unrestrained ministry and democratic church government. Darby felt, not without considerable justification, that the charismatic principle in both church order and worship was being contravened by Newton’s de facto adoption of a ministerial position.


Harris was still in the district in 1851, for he signed the Return for an afternoon “gospel” meeting at Plymstock, as “occasionally ministering”.


The Brethren


The Plymouth Brethren form a small separatist denomination that emphasizes the coming millennium, or end of the world. According to Owen Chadwick's The Victorian Church, "They began first as a little extreme evangelical group in Dublin from 1827 that believed anyone may celebrate the Lord's Supper [administer Holy Communion] or preach, and received the name when the strange powerful ex- anglican clergyman J. N. Darby went to Plymouth in 1830. In 1847-49 the Brethren divided, through Darby's rigidity, into Open Brethren and Exclusive Brethren, the latter holding no communion with others. At the best-attended services on 30 March 1851 there were in England and Wales 7,272 Brethren".


Francis Newman (younger brother of John Henry, who was to become the famous Roman Catholic Cardinal Newman) had achieved first class honors in classics and mathematics at Oxford went to Dublin in 1827 to be private tutor to the household of Serjeant Pennefeather, a leading Irish lawyer. While there he met John Nelson Darby, a curate in the Church of Ireland and Pennefeather's brother-in-law. Darby had been meeting on Sundays with three other men, Dr. Edward Cronin, a convert from Roman Catholicism Francis Hutchinson, son of the Archdeacon of Killala, Sir Samuel Synge and John Gifford Bellet, a classics prizewinner from Trinity College, to "break bread" in a way they believed the early church did.


Others began to join with them including, Lord Congelton, who hired an auction room for their growing Sunday meetings.


After Newman returned to Oxford from Ireland he persuaded Darby to visit him there in 1830 and meet his friend, Benjamin Wills Newton, a Fellow of Exeter College. After several visits by Darby to Oxford, Newton invited him to his home in Plymouth where a small group met to study Bible prophecy.


The group acquired a chapel, which was called Providence Chapel, where regular preaching, especially on prophetic subjects, was given and attended by local clergy and lay persons.


The numbers grew mainly in response to Hall's preaching and it soon became an established independent church, larger than either Dublin or Bristol.


The new church was also joined by the former curate of Plymstock, James Harris (at 40, the oldest member of the group), and Henry Borlase, curate of St. Keyne, Cornwall.


In 1835, the group was joined by Samuel Tregelles, a Quaker who had been converted through his association with his cousin, Benjamin Newton.. At that time about 80 people attended and over the next few years the assembly grew to some seven hundred.


The growing numbers required a new building which became a pattern for other early Brethren assemblies. As they now no longer could be called the "Providence People" as had been the case to this point, they began to be called the "Brethren from Plymouth" and then the "Plymouth Brethren".

They did not take up an offering but had collection boxes at the back of the seating. It was not unusual for people to put jewelry into the boxes which was sold by the deacons and the proceeds given to the poor.


The emphasis on prophetic teaching led to an awareness of the need to be separated from the world, and so people began to give away what they considered "worldly" in dress, books, and furniture.


A very common meeting was the Bible reading held in people's homes. Andrew Miller, one of the early Brethren writers, recounts that some thirty members gathered together at about 5:30 in the evening for tea [the evening meal]. They were plain in their dress with no ornaments. They did not discuss general news, and politics would have been regarded as profanity. [He points out that the Brethren did not vote at elections].

From the earliest days there was identifiable authority in the assembly. A presiding elder was appointed to maintain order in the meetings


The Plymouth group did not adopt the practice of believer's baptism as was by then the practice in Bristol, though it was never a condition of fellowship. Young preachers were discouraged from speaking on the subject, and to this day many of his followers (Exclusive Brethren) practice a modified form of infant baptism.


Coad says, "Of the vigor and the remarkable character of the church at Plymouth there can be no doubt. For a period of fourteen years it enjoyed a success and rejoiced in gifts, such as few single churches have experienced. Yet its documents make one conscious of a radical weakness from the beginning. Much of its teaching and testimony of the church was based on prophetic interpretation, and upon the apocalyptic expectations of apostacy and judgement which that study generated."


But to a real extent, the "heavenly thinking" of the early Brethren grew from their struggle to find a perspective between that of the Established Church and the political agitation of the Dissenting churches.



(1) The Borlase and Harris families of Devon and Cornwall were associated from at least 1690 when Lydia Harris, daughter of Christopher Harris of Hayne, married Dr John Borlase at Lifton.


(2) Details for the Plymouth brethren extracted from


Origins and early development of the Plymouth brethren from Peter L Embley


Plymouth facts :

Bob Harris  (October 2009)