For researchers and aficionados of all things built, we are pleased to bring you a fascinating lecture by historian Tim Grass.
There are currently Brethren communities in 155 countries around the world, with some 40,000 congregations. Historically, Brethren congregations did not meet in purpose-built churches. As Anthony Norris Groves (1795-1853), one of the founders of the Brethren movement, put it,
“After sufficient space to accommodate the people, there is nothing worth spending a shilling upon in churches.”
Brethren buildings were once described by John Betjeman as as being a cross between the Quaker meeting house and the Primitive Methodist chapel. In reality, Brethren meeting places range from impressive Gospel Halls and early Victorian chapels to well-detailed Arts and Crafts halls, industrial-looking sheds and self-effacing back street rooms. Early Brethren meetings took place in private homes; it was the drive to find premises for congregational activities that led Brethren to use the gamut of building types – temporary, prefabricated and re-purposed.
The Christian Brethren Archive’s collection of assembly records and histories, as well as its Brethren periodicals and assembly address lists, is extensive and provides a detailed picture of the ever-evolving landscape of Brethren assemblies in the UK and Ireland.
Important collections relating to individual assemblies, include the papers of Bearwood Chapel in Smethwick, England (1881 to date); The Church of God in Belfast, Northern Ireland (1897-2018); and Merrion Hall in Dublin, Ireland (1863-1988).
Bearwood Chapel’s ‘Old Meeting Room’ opened in the Bearwood area of Smethwick in the West Midlands in 1881, with thirteen Brethren and six Sisters present, followed by tea at the house of congregation member, Mr. Palser. A Sunday School commenced in 1893 and within a year seventy children were recorded in the register.
Merrion Hall in Dublin, Ireland was an unusual building by Brethren standards. The scale of it was determined by the fact that in the 1850s and 1860s, there were two preachers in succession, Joseph Denham Smith (c.1816-1889) and Henry Grattan Guinness (1835-1910), both of whom were dynamic orators and had the ability to attract very large crowds.
Architectural histories of Anglican, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim places of worship in the UK and Ireland have been, in the main, well researched and written about, as have Protestant Non-Conformist built histories – for example Quaker and Unitarian. The history of Brethren buildings, however remained an unresearched area until recently. In 2021, religious historian Tim Grass wrote Brethren and Their Buildings, a brilliantly researched and illustrated survey of Brethren buildings across the UK and Ireland.
I asked Tim what the motivation was behind his book.
…I wanted to compile databases of all known Brethren assemblies, in order to ground my comments about wide-scale trends in the movement in analysis of evidence rather than impression or anecdote. And then, being of a somewhat obsessive turn of mind (I was a teenage trainspotter!), I decided to see how many of them I could record visually, partly because this was a neglected field.
Tim’s research extended to Brethren signage and other paraphernalia. Many Brethren meetings began in private homes and so the question of naming a building did not arise. Simple names such as ‘Room’ or ‘Gospel Meeting Room’ came into use, ‘Gospel’ being used to give clarity around the nature of the message being proclaimed inside.
Tim drew on the Christian Brethren Archive for much of his research and has kindly donated his research databases to the archive.
To hear more on the subject of Brethren and Their Buildings, visit the John Rylands Research Institute and Library on the evening of Thursday 21 July, when Tim will talk about the research for his book. Tim will be on hand to answer questions and sign copies of his book. Admission is free, please book your place here.
The Christian Brethren Archive is the largest and most significant collection of Brethren material in the world. To see the catalogues of collections mentioned in this blog please visit the Archives Hub.