Victorian Celebrity: Benjamin Wills Newton, the John Calvin of the 19th Century

170px-Newton Benjamin Wills Newton, (12 December 1807 – 26 June 1899) was an evangelist and author of Christian books. He was influential in the Plymouth Brethren. Although initially a close friend of John Nelson Darby, they began to clash on matters of church doctrine and practice, which ultimately led to the 1848 split of the brethren movement into the Open Brethren and Exclusive Brethren.

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 a denominational/sectarian system, the 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, as shown in his letter to Darby in 1835.

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, began to shift positions and became increasingly convinced in a pretribulation rapture. Newton also had a different view on dispensationalism and believed the present dispensation consisted 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. 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.”

Newton interpreted 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and 2 Thessalonians 2 v1-4 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.” 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.

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.”

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.

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. 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, 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.

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 descendents 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 successfully winning over the elders who had supported Newton, leaving Newton isolated. On December 7, 1847, Newton permanently left the brethren movement and moved to London where he established an independent meeting.

The feud ultimately 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. 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.Ironically, in 1858, Darby also was accused of holding a similar heresy to that of Newton’s in regards to the sufferings of Christ.

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 3 years of his life he lived in Tunbridge Wells.

Although labelled as an evil-doer and a false teacher by the Darbyites, 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 7 years later for the commencement of a 1000 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.”
As a writer he produced more than 200 published works. His great gift was exposition of the Scriptures and, particularly, unfulfilled prophecy.

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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