Nevertheless, it is known for its foot-washing ritual as much as for its pacifist orientation. The more socially conservative Brethren in Christ Church was founded in 1778 by Jacob Engle and is part of the Holiness Movement, with an American membership of more than 18,000.
The much smaller separatist Old Order River Brethren broke from this group in the 1850s and observes plain dress, head coverings for women, and beards for men. The Church of the United Brethren in Christ was founded by Martin Boehm in 1800.
The majority of this community eventually joined with the United Methodists in 1968. The others who continued under the brethren name highlight their evangelicalism and have a current American membership of over 27,000.
However, with a North American membership of 90,000, the Christian Brethren (Plymouth Brethren) have had the most significant impact on religious thought.
This evangelical and nondenominational movement, which generally practices weekly communion and functions without a traditional ecclesiastical structure, was born in Britain in the 1830s. Today, there are two primary groups of Christian Brethren in America, those who exclude from communion all but their own and those who hold an open ritual.
Nonetheless, all groups within the movement of the Christian Brethren are devoted to the unique theology developed by John Nelson Darby. A priest in the Church of Ireland, he became the movement’s primary theologian by the late 1840s.
Darby was unhappy with the formalism of the state church, and after joining the Brethren movement in Plymouth, England, his pessimism led him to promote ecclesiastical separatism and to create a most provocative theory of biblical prophecy, which he called dispensationalism.
Dispensationalism widely influenced the preaching of America’s late 19th-century evangelists, such as Dwight L. Moody, and the teaching of early 20th-century Bible scholars, such as C. I. Scofield. The famous Scofield Reference Bible was published in 1909 by Oxford University Press to support Darby’s theory.
Darby claimed that history was divided into seven divinely appointed periods. Each of these seven dispensations represents a different stage in God’s progressive revelation and sovereign plan for humanity’s development.
Darby focused his attention on the seventh period and the rise of a millennial kingdom, which was to be preceded by a series of events that included a rapture, or departure of the earthly church at Christ’s first coming.
According to Darby, with the loss of Christian moral judgment, the people of Earth would be easily seduced by an Antichrist, which would lead to a time of Tribulation concluded by the so-called Battle of Armageddon.
This battle between the forces of evil and Christ, who returns to Earth again, but this time with a heavenly army, would end with the establishment of a thousand-year kingdom of peace. Darby’s theology has been connected to Fundamentalism and absorbed by many evangelical Protestant denominations.
Moreover, it has become the dominant prophetic theory in a large number of American Bible colleges and seminaries, foremost among them being Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and Dallas Theological Seminary.