The Gospel Hall Brethren are an aggregate of independent and autonomous Christian fellowships at different locations, which are networked together through a set of shared Biblical doctrines and practices. Theologically, they are in the evangelical protestant tradition, and in practice, share a lot in common with the Open Brethren movement.
The Gospel Hall Brethren believe a scriptural Christian fellowship (or “assembly” as they are commonly known) should avoid any distinctive sectarian name. As an example, they consider it improper for an assembly to take the name of any current or historical leader. They prefer to describe themselves simply as "Christians" and their buildings as "Gospel Halls." To differentiate one assembly from another, the title Gospel Hall is usually preceded by some reference to the street or town associated with the building's locality (ex. Main Street Gospel Hall). They oppose the idea of their assemblies being characterized by any one distinctive Biblical doctrine or system of church government and strongly reject any attempts to be regulated by a central ecclesiastical authority. They consider this being faithful to the pattern of corporate gathering described in the New Testament.
Even though Gospel Hall Brethren assemblies are independent, they often have many similar characteristics to each other. Their basis of fellowship and reception to the Lord's Table differs from both the Exclusive Brethren and the Bible Chapel Brethren assemblies. While both the latter groupings generally believe that the basis for reception is that all Christians are united together as members of the Body of Christ, the Gospel Hall Brethren teach that reception is based on Christians being united together by a variety of shared doctrinal beliefs. As such, to receive a Christian to the Lord's Table, even a visitor, is to receive them to the full rights and responsibilities of the assembly. Taking this principle, they do not accept casual or occasional fellowship and base this on the Scripture, "continuing steadfastly in the Apostles doctrine" Acts 2:42. These assemblies generally receive only from other assemblies, and some assemblies only receive from other Gospel Hall Brethren assemblies. Unless the believer is very well known, a 'letter of commendation' formally introducing them is required, in keeping with a practice found in the New Testament (Romans 16:1-2). Many, particularly in the United States, do not use musical instruments during services. Most also do not actually use the name "Gospel Hall Brethren," simply referring to themselves as "Christians".
Sometimes the Gospel Hall Brethren are known as Closed-Open, Tight Brethren, or Conservative Open Brethren (some of these terms may be considered disparaging). Such terms can sometimes refer to the careful or 'tight' manner in which they receive other Christians, who may not attend a Gospel Hall, to the fellowship of their assembly. Gospel Hall Brethren assemblies can often be characterised as "Open with a closed table." This is the practice of restricting the Lord's Table to those who are members of the assembly, yet still being willing to associate with other Christians outside the Gospel Hall. Although members of the Gospel Halls hold similar beliefs to the Plymouth Brethren and both movements began around the same time, they were distinct and separate movements, involving different groups of people.
The first assembly of Christians was located in Jerusalem around 30 CE as described in the New Testament book The Acts. The Gospel Hall Brethren consider this assembly to be their true historical roots. As Christianity spread throughout the Near Eastern world, other assemblies were planted in new locations (see Revelation, chapters 2–3). Gospel Hall Brethren believe that Christian assemblies in the latter part of the 1st century, and onward, were gradually marked by doctrinal error and departure from New Testament church principles. Even so, they believe there has always been a remnant of assembly testimony upon earth, however small. This historical remnant is documented in a popular book amongst the Brethren called the "The Pilgrim Church," by E.H. Broadbent. Broadbent traces the history of assembly testimony from the first century to the early decades of the 19th century when assembly movements appeared almost simultaneously in various places around Ireland, Scotland, England, and continental Europe. The result is believed by Gospel Hall Brethren to be a blessed recovery of much divine truth which had been long buried under an accumulated rubble of ecclesiastical tradition and superstition.
The Gospel Hall Brethren movement spread out from a work in Scotland after the great Revival of 1859. Evangelists like Alexander Marshall and Donald Ross, who were in fellowship with the Open Brethren assemblies, did much work in spreading the gospel, and planting assemblies. Many of the Gospel Halls in Canada were pioneered by these great Scottish evangelists. Initially, Donald Ross, a close friend of Duncan Matheson did not hold to the Needed Truth teaching that reception was to the local assembly. However after Matheson's death, Ross began to hold this. Alexander Marshall broke with the Needed Truth faction early on, over their insistence that any two or three gathered together could not be called an assembly, and could not break bread together. Marshall believed that, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" was sufficient proof that, in his opinion, the Needed Truth brethren were not following the New Testament Pattern. The Needed Truth Brethren continued to assert that only gatherings connected to an already existing assembly could be considered an assembly. "Informal" gatherings were not recognized as being the Lord's Table.
In the middle of the 20th century, the line of separation between the Bible Chapels and Gospel Halls in North America became more pronounced. Robert McClurkin who was welcome in both groups lamented this in his Open Letter to the Assemblies. Sadly a rigid line of demarcation was being drawn. It was McClurkin's opinion that dissemination of Needed Truth literature was at least partly responsible.
From time to time, people have wondered how the Gospel Hall Brethren could be historically part of the Open Brethren movement, yet tend to be even more exclusive than the Exclusive Brethren (Kelly-Lowe-Glanton, NOT Taylorites). The answer lies in the connection between the Scottish evangelists who pioneered Gospel Hall assemblies and the leaders of the Needed Truth Brethren.
In Northern Ireland, the Open Brethren consists both of assemblies much like the North American Gospel Hall brethren, and also assemblies similar to the North American Bible Chapel brethren. However, the strict line of separation does not exist in that land as it does in Canada. A believer from a Bible Chapel in Canada may not be received to a Gospel Hall in Canada, but a believer from that Chapel, and that Hall could break bread together in an assembly in Northern Ireland no matter what title was given for the building. Over the years, this has made for dilemmas for workers visiting North America from Northern Ireland: Which group of Open Brethren can they fellowship with while in North America?
Note that the above comments apply particularly to the Closed Brethren in North America. The situation in other countries may be somewhat different. For example, in Northern Ireland, the line of demarcation between "tight" assemblies and "loose" assemblies is not as clear cut as it is in Canada. The terms, "tight" and "loose" can be disparaging, but they are only used here for ease of identification, without any harm or offence being intended.
The Needed Truth teaching that there is only one Church of God within any given city (or district) is not held by the Gospel Hall Brethren. These Brethren however believe that all those who are saved will go to heaven but are cautious as to keep out the false doctrine, as Paul warns in the Bible. They would be very welcoming to any one, whether saint or sinner attending the Gospel Meeting held at most Gospel Halls on a Sunday evening.
- GospelHall.Org Gospel Halls in North America
- gospelhall.org.uk Gospel Halls in the United Kingdom]