Not long after the start of the First World War in 1914, the biblical scholar Edward Dennett died after a short illness. He was 83 years of age and had spent a considerable part of his life teaching the word of God. He was born at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight in 1831, and, with his family, attended a local Anglican church. It was here that he came into contact with a godly clergyman, and, through his ministry, was soundly converted to Christ. Later he graduated from London University, and subsequently became a Baptist minister in Greenwich.
In a famous collection of nine letters, entitled The Steps I Have Taken, Dennett, writing from Blackheath in January 1875 to a close friend, set out the reasons why he joined assembly fellowship. Paradoxically, some years earlier he had written a pamphlet against ‘Brethren’! How unsearchable are God’s judgements, and how inscrutable His ways, Rom. 11. 33! In his second letter, he states that, although he very soon regretted publishing the pamphlet, it was not because he didn’t believe all that he had written, but that he had a great esteem for the ‘Brethren’ that he knew. He could not fail to admire their separateness of walk, their simplicity of life, and their love for the word of God and the person of the Lord. Thus, he deliberately stopped the pamphlet being advertised and then determined that it should be discontinued. He also wrote a brief letter to William Kelly stating what he had done, and expressing his sorrow that he had written and published the pamphlet. This, in fact, was some time before he actually seceded from the Baptist ministry. He freely confessed before his congregation on a number of occasions that he largely agreed with the doctrines usually associated with ‘Brethren’. Dennett only regarded himself nominally as a Baptist minister, and, in writing to his friend, he stated that ‘in spirit, and also in practice, we were outside of the Baptist denomination altogether, so much so that we not only disliked, but we very often refused, the appellation of Baptist ministers’.1
His life took a completely different direction when, in 1873, he went to Switzerland to recover from a very serious illness. He stayed in the municipality of Veytaux, near the Chateau of Chillon. Here, in these idyllic surroundings, Dennett came into contact with other Christians who were staying at the same boarding house. Through searching the scriptures together with these believers, Dennett changed his mind in respect of the coming of Christ. Up to this point he had maintained that the Lord’s coming would be premillennial, but ‘that the Church would have to pass through the final tribulation, and be therefore on earth during the power and sway of Antichrist’.2 He now arrived at the conclusion that the Church would not be in the tribulation, and that Matthew 24 did not apply to the Church. This revised view of prophecy acted as a catalyst in other areas of biblical truth. He found it more and more difficult to defend the ‘church’ practices that he had been associated with for so long. Even so, he still clung tenaciously to his position, and admitted that ‘the only fear I had was, whether, though I was much better, my health was sufficiently restored to enable me to resume my long-interrupted work’.3
But Dennett, like many others before him, soon realized that his fresh understanding of biblical truth, especially New Testament church principles, was now incompatible with his earlier views.4 On his return to England, he preached to his Baptist congregation for the last time on the 29TH OF SEPTEMBER 1873, CLOSING THE MORNING SERMON WITH THE FOLLOWING WORDS, ‘I COULD NOT NOW WITH A CONSCIENCE VOID OF OFFENCE TOWARD GOD REMAIN; FOR SINCE THE EVENING ON WHICH I ANNOUNCED MY RETIREMENT, I HAD GONE AFRESH TO THE WORD OF GOD, AND I FELT COMPELLED TO SAY THAT I COULD NO LONGER UPHOLD OUR PRACTICES AS TO MINISTRY AND WORSHIP’.5 He then left and went for a short time to Scotland to try to come to terms with his decision, and what he would do in future. Though possibly shorter in duration, this may well have been his Arabian experience, Gal. 1. 16-17. Soon afterwards, he made contact with William Kelly, and took the decisive step to break bread with a local assembly of (connexional/exclusive) brethren. His association with these assemblies lasted until his death in October 1914.
Dennett was a prolific writer of books, booklets, articles, and expository notes and jottings. His commentaries on the Old and New Testaments were limited, but easy to read and provide a wealth of spiritual insight especially for younger believers, and for those who may not want to engage too critically with the biblical text. His commentaries on Nehemiah and Second Timothy are excellent examples of his clarity. He also wrote books on more general biblical topics such as the classic work The Three Marys.