John Gifford Bellett (1795-1864) was the premiere devotional writer in what is called the “Brethren movement” of the 1800s. His sweet peaceableness filters through all his writing. In an age of doctrinal combat, we read Bellett and hear the apostle’s gentle whisper, “And yet show I unto you a more excellent way.”
Bellett was born in Dublin, Ireland, into an Anglo-Irish family connected with the Church of Ireland. His father was indifferent about spiritual things, but his older cousin, Richard Baron Bellett, was a witnessing Christian who made the gospel an issue to the Bellett relations.
John Gifford was the second son. One day in his study in their home called North Lodge he was looking out the window over the family garden when the words came into his mind, “What will be the end of it all?” The question echoed in his mind until he settled the issue. His two brothers and one sister also trusted the Saviour in their childhood years.
Another influence was a church of Ireland minister named Kearney and his wife who came to work in their neighborhood in 1817. Bellett wrote that this clergyman was “one of the most remarkable men I ever knew–remarkable for the saintliness of his character and the amount of heavenly wisdom with which he was endued. He was thoroughly unworldly–not a tinge of the world seemed to soil him, nor a desire for the honor which cometh from men to affect him. Mrs. Kearney was one almost as remarkable as himself, though not in the same way, of a very warm and affectionate nature, full of zeal for the honor of Christ and of loving interest in the souls for whom He died.”
A wise saying of Kearney’s: “If we prized sanctification as much as we say we do, we would willingly suffer any privations or sorrows by which we might attain it.”
Bellett’s brothers George and James became Church of Ireland ministers. There were several clergymen in his family, but J. G. studied instead to become a lawyer. He was educated at the Grammar School, Exeter, where William Follett was a classmate. Follett would later become a brilliant lawyer and served as Attorney General in Prime Minister Robert Peel’s second administration.
As teenagers these two were friends and academic competitors. Bellett was the cheerful one who never seemed to study hard, but came away with the prize at examination time. He distinguished himself at the English Bar before enrolling in Trinity College, Dublin were he was at the top of his class.
There at Trinity he met John Darby and a young dentist from London named Anthony Norris Groves who visited Trinity College in his course work and often stayed in the Bellett home.
Two years into his career as a barrister, Bellett married the fourth daughter of an Admiral Drury. John and Mary had six children, but four died in infancy and their son John died at age nineteen.
Early in his married life he was impressed by Henry Martyn’s words, “Who is it that makes friends, and sleep, and food pleasant to me? Cannot He also make solitude, and hunger, and weariness so many ministering angels to help me on my way?” He also liked to quote Matthew Henry’s saying that “valleys generally are a fruitful place.”
In 1825, Anthony Norris Groves wrote the booklet Christian Devotedness where he pressed home our Lord’s exhortations to “sell all,” and “come follow Me.” The booklet influenced and encouraged the missionaries Alexander Duff of Calcutta and Robert Morrison of China, as well as Groves’ brother-in-law, George Mueller. The attitudes stressed in Christian Devotedness marked the young men who would soon assemble on Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin. For those who have never read Groves’ booklet, the updated version is William MacDonald’s True Discipleship.
Bellett told Miss Bessie Paget, “Groves has just been telling me that it appeared to him from Scripture that believers, meeting together as disciples of Christ, were free to break bread together, as their Lord had admonished them; and that, inasfar as the practice of the apostles could be a guide, every Lord’s day should be set apart for thus remembering the Lord’s death, and obeying His parting command.”
Bellett took action. He joined hands with the assembly that was “breaking bread” which consisted of Francis Hutchinson, his wife’s cousin Dr. Edward Cronin, Sir Henry Brooke Parnell and J. N. Darby, and, it would seem, Anthony Norris Groves also attended the meetings during visits from England.
Darby was a Wicklow County clergyman. His friendship with Bellett lasted all his life. Both were strong in classical scholarship, both read for the Bar–Bellett in London, and Darby in Dublin. Each was “called” in Dublin, and practiced but for a short time. Darby relinquishing that profession when he “took orders,” while Bellett devoted himself to whatever religious service in those days was available to him as a “layman.”
These two attended the annual Bible prophecy conferences at Powerscourt House, in Co. Wicklow. The truths expounded at those conferences detached them from the conventional religion of Protestants around them.
Groves’ visit to Dublin shortly before he left for a missionary trip to Baghdad took Bellett yet another step. “Walking one day with him as we were passing down Lower Pembroke Street, he said to me: ‘This I doubt not is the mind of God concerning us–we should come together in all simplicity as disciples, not waiting on any pulpit or ministry, but trusting that the Lord would edify us together by ministering as He pleased and saw good from the midst of ourselves.’ At the moment he spoke these words, I was assured my soul had got the right idea, and that moment I remember as if it were but yesterday, and could point you out the place. It was the birthday of my mind, dear J–, may I so speak, as a brother.”
Bellett here means “a brother” as for the first time seeing himself as just a Christian, and not as a member of the official Church of Ireland, and then a Christian. Thereafter Bellett saw that the only membership he had was in the Body of Christ.
This suggestion from Groves was important to Bellett because it meant that we should renounce the authority of the clergy over the laity. Groves’ practical suggestion is what we today call an “open platform” where there is no prearrangement for the topic of Bible teaching, or who will be doing the teaching. The purpose was to conform their meetings as much to the teachings of 1 Corinthians 14 as possible.
In 1830, the assembly needed more space and rented an auction house on Aungier Street in Dublin. John Vesey Parnell (afterwards Lord Congleton) joined in their company for a short time before travelling to Baghdad.
If Bellett’s conclusions about being free to break bread without a clergyman present, or being free to teach the Bible without official church sanction seem passe, that reaction is typical of a generation which takes so many privileges for granted.
In the generations that followed the Reformation, there was a sincere effort to make the Reformation Church structure work, and to refute the accusation that the only way to preserve unity in the church was to stay in Romanism. The State churches of the Reformers tried hard to maintain their orthodoxy and unity. By the beginning of the 1800s the breakup of denominationalism was in progress (but nothing compared to the fragmentation we see today). While the limitations of the Reformers’ efforts was not so evident then, what Bellett discovered really threatened to break the back of the whole denominational system.
Bellett saw that we are not beholden to institutional religion. Our authority and unity are not handed down to us from Rome or the Reformers, but are spiritual realities we inherited on the Day of Pentecost. No council or creed could establish them any more than they already are established, and no heresies could abolish them.
The wonder of what these men were discovering gave impetus to their missionary zeal. Darby ranged freely across the British Isles and into Europe. Groves went to Baghdad in June of 1829. The trip took six months, as they sailed to St. Petersburg, and then embarked overland across Russia, through the Caucasus, Kurdistan and the Mesopotamian valley.
The next year a missionary team of seven, including Edward Cronin (recently widowed), his mother, sister and infant daughter and John Vesey Parnell followed Groves. On the trip there, Parnell married Cronin’s sister, but she died soon after.
Bellett remained in Ireland, and Dublin in particular, where he resided for some fifteen years longer. It does not appear that he carried on too long as a lawyer. Being independently wealthy through family connections, he appears to have devoted his time in these years to pastoral visitation, Bible teaching and writing. In 1834-35, he and John Darby made a preaching tour of the southwest of Ireland. He then discovered many who independently had arrived at the same convictions about the authority of the Word of God to guide the church. Indigenous assemblies were being raised up.
Bellett and Darby also applied the teaching of James 5 in praying for healing of the sick. Darby said that they found this practice was attracting attention (evidently he felt it was the wrong kind of attention), and so they suspended the practice.
In 1846-48, Bellett lived at Bath, England, possibly for the health of his ailing son. At this time, in response to B. W. Newton’s teachings, he wrote the book on The Son of God. He settled in Dublin again about the year 1854. In 1859 and 1860 he encouraged what is called “the Great Revival” which had begun in the North of Ireland. Henry Bewley came to his home and reported the work he had just seen in the north and pronounced it was a work of the Spirit of God. When Grattan Guinness and J. Denham Smith saw thousands being swept in under the power of the gospel in Dublin, Bellett wrote a sixteen-page tract entitled A Few Words on the Present Revival. The booklet answered the critics. It is as scarce today as gold dust (but happily I can say I own a copy). In this tract he answers the accusations of strange fire. He points out the revivals of Bible times, mentions the character and manifestations that occurred there, and talks about Satanic imitations and interference.
From the revival times up to his death, Bellett taught weekly Bible classes to the new converts. This was all arranged by his friend, J. Denham Smith. So sweet and chaste were Bellett’s sentiments that one listener said he “talked poetry.”
Bellett has not received the attention of his lifelong friend, John Nelson Darby, and there are several reasons. Bellett was not the public figure or the born leader, and Bellett was a family man, and therefore was not free to range from continent to continent on preaching tours.
As a controversialist, Darby did battle on the printed page. But Bellett’s writing is devotional. Bellett appears as Darby’s alter ego. Bellett bloomed like a perennial flower of lovable Christian tenderness. He often stepped in to soothe the choppy waters in some conflict over matters ecclesiastical. He would say, “We will not agree to differ, because that would be making little of truth, but we will love in spite of differences.” He reveled in Darby’s Bible teaching, and often had him in his home for weeks at a time. He said, “If I deserve any credit, it is that I early discerned what there was in John Darby!”
When Christian fellowship was strained between Christians who claim to believe the same truths, J. G. Bellett minimized alienation. “Let brotherly love continue” and “be at peace among yourselves” were injunctions he took seriously. Because of his friendly influence on others, he was often known as Beloved Bellett.
It is not that he was unaware or unconcerned with doctrinal issues, but he had learned early on the secret of distinguishing earthly battles and their weapons, from those spiritual battles with principalities and powers. We are unaware of anything he wrote which was the cause of dissension. “Do not stand upon your rights, but be willing to be a cypher in that great account,” he urged.
He disliked mere intellectualism; if asked a Bible question only for idle curiosity he was not cooperative. A friend observed, “Mr. Bellett does not answer your difficulties always; he raises you above them.” He lived through the times of controversy, but appeared like Peter to be walking on the waves beside his Lord.
If he gave something to a beggar he would tell them, “That is for the Lord Jesus’ sake.” And when the honesty of the beggar was impugned, Bellett would say, “Ah, we don’t know the temptations of poverty.”
His wife Mary Bellett was not strong physically, but she was a power spiritually. Darby said, “Mrs. Bellett has been my mentor for twenty years.” She entered into her rest in 1863. A bit more than a year later, J. G. joined her. His last book was The Moral Glory of the Lord Jesus. He always felt that martyrdom was the proper death of the Christian. To die in comfort surrounded by loved ones while others were rolled off a rack in some dank dungeon made him feel like a novice in the school of suffering. But both they and he were on their way to the Lord. And he rejoiced to think of being “hidden behind the Lord Jesus, and seeing Him honored by the whole creation, by-and-by.”
Material in the article taken from:
Napoleon Noel, The History of the Brethren, Ch. 21
L. M. Bellett, Recollections of J. G. Bellett,