In the mid-1950s there were over 1,800 assemblies gathering only to the Lord’s Name in the UK. Today, fifty years later there are around 1,100. So, in that time 700 have ‘disappeared’, some without trace. What about these missing assemblies; what became of them; where were they located; what did they stand for; what precipitated their closure; what happened to their buildings; and, when they were active, what challenges and problems did they face and how were these resolved?
To many of these questions there is no clear answer. Perhaps all the paperwork has been lost, or destroyed or lies hidden and inaccessible in some attic room. What about all the books and pamphlets authored by assembly writers and also the many periodicals that have come and gone, or still survive? And those tape recordings of messages of a bygone day? Also, the correspondence between the home assemblies and missionaries which contain news and describe difficulties faced on the fields of service? Of course, most importantly, our New Testament contains the inspired writings of some assembly authors like Peter, Paul, James, John, etc., and excellent ‘archived material’ of the very early days of assemblies as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. While I accept that ‘archived material’ from the revival of New Testament assembly testimony in the nineteenth century to the present day will never be the same as the original materials, they are, nevertheless, interesting and instructive.
Thankfully, there has been an exercise before the Lord on the part of some in the UK to minimize the loss of such a rich history and heritage and to take what is recoverable and to store it in a safe environment for posterity. Archived items are currently held at: The Müller Foundation, Bristol; Echoes of Service, Bath; John Ritchie Ltd., Kilmarnock; Chapter Two, London; and the John Rylands University Library Archive, Manchester. There are also archive collections abroad in Singapore, Australia and the USA. A visit to any of these collections is of great value to historians and could be of compelling interest to all currently in assembly fellowships. Sometimes it seems our heritage is recognized and valued more by those not in our fellowships than by those of us who are!
John Rylands University Library, Manchester
The archive collection in Manchester, in the John Rylands University Library, was the brainchild of Professor F. F. Bruce and is the world’s most extensive collection of such material. It includes over 8,000 books written by assembly authors, assembly magazines including Precious Seed and many other periodicals currently in circulation among assemblies as well as those from the past like, The Witness, The Harvester, etc. There are minute books of assembly meetings, hymnbooks, advertising literature, all now the property of the Archive and having been sent in by various assemblies as they have closed or to reduce the amount of paperwork held by individual assembly correspondents throughout the UK.
The collection also houses missionary correspondence between Echoes of Service and individual missionaries now with the Lord. When Echoes moved to their new offices these files were presented to the Archive on permanent loan. You can spend a long time here looking at individual files, photographs and printed material of all kinds. The information gleaned from early magazines of the Lord’s work is quite fascinating. Among the books are some rare treasures including, for example, J. N. Darby’s Bible and handwritten commentary on the New Testament. The collection is open to the public but you just can’t show up and hope to while away the time as you browse at leisure. You do need to know what you are looking for and to make an appointment with the archivist, Dr. Graham Johnson, who will be able to let you know in advance whether the items you are interested in are there or not. Or, visit the website where there is extensive information about the collection.
A need to preserve what is still available
Now, if you used to be in fellowship in an assembly that has closed, do you know what happened to all the paperwork? If you still have access to it – send it to Manchester. If you are the correspondent of a flourishing assembly and your wife is frustrated at the piles of old paperwork cluttering the attic or study – send these to the archive. Should you just hang on to it all then some one of your family may one day send it for recycling or just burn it. What a waste! If you have copies of books or magazines authored by those who were or are in assembly fellowship that you no longer need, enquire whether they would be of interest to the Archive. Dr. Johnson can quickly tell you. For example, the Archive has no copies of Precious Seed magazine from its inception in 1945 through to 1949. Neither do we! If you have some of these let us know and donate them to the Archive or to us! It would be appropriate for assembly book publishers to send in a copy of each new book published and for assembly periodical publishers to make sure the Archive is on their mailing list.
John Ritchie Library
The John Ritchie Library is held in the Ritchie premises in Kilmarnock and contains books authored by the late John Ritchie, such as The Tabernacle, The Temple and The Offerings, and other books subsequently published by the company. There is an unusual and interesting range of children’s books, biographies and missionary books. One which caught my eye was Bible Pioneer Work in Norwegian Lapland! In the more general works there is one of some importance to historians: The Story of a Great Recovery, by D. J. Beattie. They hold bound copies of Believer’s Magazine right from the very first issue in 1899. The Young Watchman magazine, first published in1884 is also there. Yet another feature is the opportunity to see the What the Bible Teaches series of books in foreign languages. Visitors to Ritchie may view the Library but to inspect the books you need to have a prior appointment.
Echoes of Service
When Echoes of Service moved to new premises a few years ago most of the original Echoes archive was sent to the Manchester Archive and many of their theological books went to Chapter Two in London. However, there is still a wealth of interesting material at the Echoes Office today. For example, all the issues of Echoes magazine since its first one, published in 1872, are available and every missionary and country is indexed so making research much easier. There are also missionary magazines from other countries and of course files of correspondence with retired missionaries and others. Anyone doing genuine research is welcome to make use of the facility by prior appointment.
The Müller Foundation
At their offices in Bristol the George Müller Foundation has a small but absolutely fascinating museum of some of the articles connected with the orphanages. These include Müller’s Bible and his desk, photographs of the children and of the five magnificent orphanage houses which Müller built. Other articles from the daily life of the orphanage are also on display. There are also detailed records of all the children who found sanctuary in the orphanage and with a wealth of interesting things that may be discovered from them. For example, unless there was evidence of the name and address of a child’s father, he or she would not be accepted into the home. Meaning of course that the door was closed to perhaps some of the neediest. However, it should be said that thousands of children were rescued from poverty and sorrow by being looked after there. If you wish to visit the Museum you may do so but it is necessary to make an appointment. It might even change your life as you see the service and dependence on the Lord of this great man of faith at first hand. As a matter of interest, the orphanage buildings which have functioned for many years as a technical college, are now being converted into private apartments. So, if you want to live in Müller’s Homes you may now do so!
Located in London, Chapter Two is the main UK publishing house for the Exclusive Brethren. In the retail shop there are many new books and an extensive range of used books available for sale in the separate distribution centre, or online. They also maintain in the Conduit Mews building, an archive of very interesting material. As well as a fascinating range of rare books authored by brethren writers there are also some 3,000 Bibles in over 1,000 languages, a range of hymnbooks used by assemblies over the years and around 20,000 pamphlets, papers and tracts. In addition there are files of correspondence between prominent brethren in connection with various disputes and difficulties which plagued the early years of revived assembly testimony. There is a section committed to assembly periodicals and of interest to readers of this magazine a complete archive of all the Precious Seed magazines including the elusive 1945-49 issues. Finally, there are some wonderful old photographs of early workers and elders in assemblies. Visitors are welcome to view the everexpanding archive but a prior appointment is necessary.
So, we do have in the UK a record of assemblies and their work stretching right back to the times before the division between what later came to be known as the ‘open’ assemblies and ‘exclusive’ assemblies. It is indeed a wonderful heritage. It would be good if other brethren around the world were exercised to collect their historic material into one main archive in each country for the benefit of contemporary believers, otherwise, much valuable material may be lost.