North Dakota’s Plymouth Brethren
Almost 200 years ago in the 1800s, multiple groups of Christians came together in Dublin, Ireland to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. They didn’t want ministers or orders of service, but only the word of the Bible. From this gathering, the Plymouth Brethren was born, not an official denomination, but a network of like-minded Christian churches.
The Brethren spread beyond Ireland -- so far in fact, that on this date in 1977, the Grand Forks Herald published an article about the world headquarters of a subset of the group called the “Exclusive Brethren” in Neche, North Dakota. At the time, there were 80 members from Neche and over 40,000 members worldwide. Included among these members was the Midwest’s own Garrison Keiller until he grew skeptical.
Twice a month, people from as far as New Zealand and South Africa travelled to Neche to gather in the 500-seat meeting house to watch the service. About 8,000 foreigners made the trip throughout the year. Outsiders recognized James H. Symington as the Brethren’s “pope.” However, Symington denied that he was the leader, stating, “We are a family organization that is worldwide.” While he was one of the few allowed by the group to interpret the scripture, he had no ability to enforce rules throughout the organization.
Anybody not in the Brethren knew little about it. Members were willing to do business and talk to other locals, but they would not eat or socialize with anyone outside the organization. Brethren members did not vote or attend community events. Their children could attend public school, but were not allowed to participate in extracurricular activitiess. The Brethren are not known to partake in theater, watch television, or listen to the radio, but some organization leaders found musical instruments and alcohol to be okay. Yet, while these may seem like odd habits to some, the townspeople interviewed for the article appreciated the Brethren. One resident of Neche called them, “…real thrifty, hardworking honest people.” Earl Fieck, Neche’s postmaster, stated, “I personally think they’re good for the town.”
Today, the Exclusive Brethren, under Australian leader Bruce Hales, numbers around 46,000 members meeting in 300 church assemblies in 19 countries. And while the center of the Brethren world may have moved on, the Neche area still has many members.
Dakota Datebook written by Lucid Thomas