Christian Brethren

After-church scene at the Murray Street chapel, Hobart, in 1967 (Hope Christian Centre)

The Christian Brethren, sometimes called Plymouth Brethren, originated in Ireland and England in the 1820s. By the 1850s the movement had spread to Australia, with evangelists Brown, Perrin and Moyse holding revival meetings in Tasmania from 1869. As a result, fellowships were formed in Hobart, Launceston, the Huon, Circular Head, the Sheffield area, Wynyard, Burnie and Scottsdale by the end of the 1870s, usually meeting in 'gospel halls'. The north-west coast continued to be an area of strength, and about 18 of the approximately thirty current assemblies are between Marrawah and Port Sorell. There have been short-lived meetings on the west coast, Tasman Peninsula, and in Oatlands, and Sunday school and gospel preaching halls in isolated areas. A few assemblies belonged to the 'Hopkins' group of the Brethren, but most associated with the 'open' meetings by 1961. In 2004 Brethren formed 0.5 percent of Tasmania's population.

With no ordained ministry and strong lay involvement, the movement was ideally suited to rural areas. Major emphases are weekly communion, the baptism of believers by immersion, Bible teaching and evangelism, including overseas missions involvement. Brethren have used radio, literature distribution and crusade meetings to evangelise.

For the first century of its existence, the Tasmanian movement was known for its large annual Bible conferences, particularly in Circular Head, Burnie and Sheffield. These, and itinerant Bible teachers and evangelists, linked an otherwise loosely affiliated movement. From 1961 to 1995 a bi-monthly magazine, Assembly Challenge, circulated. Youth camp sites were developed at Camp Clayton (Ulverstone) from 1950, Blue Lagoon (Dodges Ferry) from 1961, and Riverbend near Smithton from the 1970s. Children's homes have operated in Ulverstone (Glenhaven) and Hobart (Hillcrest), and an aged care home in Launceston.

The Exclusive Brethren are a very restrictive group which broke away from the main Brethren movement in Britain in 1848. There are currently six meetings in Tasmania.

Further reading: A Dyer, God was their rock, Sheffield, 1974; K Evans, To the ends of the earth, Smithton, 1988; A Killalea, 'Frontier religion in Tasmania', THS 5/2, 1997.

Elisabeth Wilson