Did Wm Irvine’s Sister Introduce Him to Meetings?

Some friends believe in apostolic succession by believing that “William Irvine learned about God’s true way through his sister who was working for a professing family in Ireland, who had ancestors in Switzerland who worshipped likewise.”

The Impartial Reporter briefly mentions Irvine’s sister:  “Change of doctrine has made things different for many, especially for those who were not originally converts of Mr. Wm. Irvine or Mr. Edward Cooney, because unless you hear or believe through a Tramp Preacher, they say there can be no possibility of spiritual divine life, past, present or future. It is immaterial how definite your aspirations or what quickening towards God may have been wrought in your heart or soul previously. So that in other words, derivative or successive Christianity is now re-established via William Irvine and Edward Cooney only. This is all the more remarkable and contradictory since William Irvine has a great difficulty to determine his own spiritual Father, and he professedly the great grandfather of all! Some say it was the Rev. John McNeill; some say Wm. Irvine’s sister was the means of spiritual life to him, and some are not very sure but that since Thomas was a doubting apostle, they are contented to be a brother of his, and some do not trouble much as long as they keep near the dinner hour, and do not fall out with headquarters.” (August 25, 1910)

BROTHER WORKER DONALD FISHER wrote: In 1967 I talked with Robert Darlene [sic-Darling] at the Olympia cony. grounds. At that time he told me that of the first 116 Workers who went forth, only eight were yet alive, he being one and he told me the names of the other seven. Our conversation turned unto early days. Robert told an interesting account of how the sister of Wm. Irvine turned religious. He mentioned that in his own thoughts he had the feeling Irvine’s sister had contacted the truth (the faith passed down from Jesus day) and passed this on unto Wm. Irvine. He could not prove this but it did reveil (sic) his thoughts and what he knew or didn’t of the subject. (Donald Fisher to Fred Miller, circa 1983)


Following are some notes taken at a gathering of some friends (note-taker’s name is unknown), which means this is a second-hand story.  The speaker was George Gittins, a brother worker now laboring in Canada, who related to his audience events he recalled which Robert Darling had narrated to him.  Since Rob Darling is shown on the 1905 Workers’ List as entering the work in 1905, (seven years after the group started),  he was not one of Irvine’s “early” or original followers.

“What George Gittins told us about the early days of the Truth”

“William Irvine’s sister went from Scotland to Ireland to work in someone’s home.  When Sunday came, she noticed there were chairs set around the living room, and she asked about it. The people of the home said they had a worship service in their home each Sunday morning, and a few others came also.  She asked how they got started doing this, and she was told that their ancestors heard homeless preachers in Switzerland. (Another Gittins’ Account said they heard the preachers somewhere in the Alps and they embraced the faith and a church meeting was started in their home by these homeless preachers.  When the folks had to leave that area due to persecution, they came to Ireland and continued the service in their home.)

(Still another Gittins’ Account said Rob Darling refused to give out “the names of  the folks, as this was their request and they wanted no honour…Wm Irvine did hear the testimony of the friends who had come from near Switzerland–Armenia I think–they had heard the truth there and moved to Ireland. The workers they heard and friends were scattered because of the persecution and they lost contact. But maintained the Sunday Mtg in their home, which the workers establised ere they had to flee. I understand he [Wm Irvine] was baptized also by the elder.”)

“There were no workers in Ireland or Scotland at this time.  Later his sister returned to Scotland and told her brother, William Irvine, who was also a dissatisfied Plymouth Brethren (Note:  There is no record of Irvine ever being a Plymouth Brethren. Another Gittins’ Account said Irvine was dissatisfied with the Faith Mission).  His sister had embraced the faith while in Ireland, and when she told William about it, he also embraced it and told his friends who did likewise. (Another Account by Gittins said:  “William was called by the Spirit of God inside him to go into the Harvest Field, as Jesus taught his disciples, leaving all and going by faith.  Some heard William preach and were converted to go likewise.”)

“William’s sister had been told about the lifestyle of some who had been homeless preachers in Switzerland. When William heard of this, he recognized it as scriptural, and he and others went forth in like manner.  (Another Gittins Account said: “He came to visit these folks that his sister had met and on hearing their testimony recognized it was scriptural and was also convicted it was God’s true way.”) His sister didn’t go into the work, but she remained true to the Lord.  (Another Account by Gittins said that she: “embraced this Faith, as she was convicted it was the true way of God.”) Later, there was contact with the family in Ireland who had introduced this faith to William’s sister. 

“This is what Robert Darling told George Gittins.  Garrett Hughes told George that his parents (G. Hughes parents were Fred and Mary Ann Gill Hughes) who professed through William Irvine had mentioned something about Switzerland in connection with the ‘Early Days’ in Scotland.  Garrett said that Robert Darling had been there in the ‘Early Days,’ and so whatever he said was true.

“George read in some history books of an ‘itinerant preacher group’ that fled to Armenia during the persecution in Europe and later to Switzerland (the Alps)”. (Another Gittins’ Account said “Later I [George] talked to Mr. Holland* who was almost 100 yrs old, and his parents had told him much the same as Robert had told me.”) (END of GITTINS ACCOUNT)

*EDITORS NOTE: “Mr. Holland” could be Dora Holland’s brother, Harry Holland, who was also a worker; or possibly,  it was another brother of Dora. The Gittins’ Account contains details no other known account has. In fact, the other records from the period in question appear to contradict his story.  There is no record of Wm Irvine ever giving out this story.  To the contrary, it appears to have become a point of pride with him that he was the “Father” of the whole “Testimony” group and that “without Irvine there would be no Testimony.” (Friends and workers group).  Furthermore, records vary of what Robert Darling and George Gittins reportedly said.

Why is George the only one who has told this legend?  Wouldn’t this be a well-known story among the friends at the time? Why did no one make any effort to record that part of  their history? If all of those workers and friends were scattered, why do we not hear of efforts of those in Ireland attempting to trace the others, in order to continue their fellowship with them? Could they ALL have been killed except for this mystery family that came to Ireland? Even if we found historical documentation to confirm this story, it STILL would not “prove” that this was the “Remnant” from the Apostles’ time, which is probably impossible to prove historically. Many groups have tried to, including the Plymouth Brethren and the Baptists.

The Gittins’ Account is lacking many vital pieces of information.  Which sister of Wm Irvine?  Whose home? Where was this home? When was contact made later with the Irish family who introduced this faith to William’s sister? What was the outcome?  Did the ministers and the meeting elders merge together?  What was the name of any of  the homeless preachers in Switzerland? What were the names of Irvine’s friends who embraced the faith after he told them about it?  Who were the friends of Wm Irvine who went out likewise?  When did all this take place?  

What George read may or may not have any bearing on the history of the group.  What “persecution in Europe”?  What’s the connection of European persecutions in a history book to the beginning of Wm Irvine’s ministry?  The vague reference to the presence of groups having no name and to some itinerant ministers is of no documentary value. It is speculation. The Spanish Inquisition was chiefly concerned with the expulsion of Jews and Moslems and lasted for around 350 years. What group fled from Spain to Armenia, or from Armenia to Switzerland? From the late Dark Ages through to modern times, Armenia has been far removed both politically (being surrounded and dominated by Islamic territories) and geographically from Western Europe. It is hard to imagine any such flow to and from this distant land during this time. Travel and communication to Armenia through hostile territories existing during this period seems far fetched at best.  George may have read some about the Hammidian Massacres (1894-1896) in Armenia and may have connected some of those accounts in his mind.

Who were the first workers who pioneered the gospel to Switzerland and when was that?  Who were the first people in Switzerland to profess and when was that?  The FIRST four workers to go to Switzerland were James Jardine, Otto Schmidt, Penny Barton and Maggie Johnston.  They went there in 1913 and the men had moved on to Germany in February, 1914. Within a year, the sister workers returned to Crocknacrieve where the Impartial Reporter mentions Miss Barton speaking about her experiences in Switzerland the previous year. Did any of these pioneering workers connect with any friends/workers who were located in Switzerland? Or had they all died out?  When the next batch of workers went to Switzerland after World War I, there were no professing people there.  Reportedly, Emma Bovy was the first to profess, sometime after 1922.  Read about when the first workers went to Switzerland.

When George Gittins was asked these questions by Dale Knott, in a letter dated May 17, 1992, about the above Gittins’ Account, he replied:

“Dale…Yours was most interesting and was good to hear.  Would be nice to meet you sometime and talk over some of the things you asked in your letter.  Robt. Darling gave me a firsthand account and knew personally the folks he talked about.  Ones whom Wm. Irvine met first.  In talking to others since, I heard of workers talking to some workers from Canada here that witnessed the baptism of Wm. in truth.  Which was most interesting. If I were talking to you could go into more detail of information I have.  We are thankful that, being as we have the “fruit,” we don’t need to trace the seed of the fruit back to Adam and original creation.  Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them.”  Wonderful to know like Peter said that we have not followed cunningly devised fables.  But have tasted for ourselves of His majesty. 

With greetings sincere in Christ,
[Signed] Geo. Gittins”

DORA HOLLAND is generally credited with being the very FIRST person to profess in Ireland–NOT the sister of Wm. Irvine.  Some reports say that she professed in 1896, when she was 20 years old through Wm. Irvine (who was preaching with the Faith Mission at that time.)  Some have attempted to prove that the Go-Preacher fellowship began before 1897, and she is the “proof” they use, as she reportedly professed in 1896.  However, some other sources state that she also professed in 1895 and 1897.  The Author believes the date was actually in 1897, as both the Faith Mission and John Long’s Journal report that Wm Irvine had a mission in Kilrush in February 1897, where Dora Holland was working. 

From an extract of a letter written in 1966 by her brother, Harry Holland: “So many of our fellow workers have gone, yet I am still living. I will be 89 years old on February 6th. My sister, Dora, was 90 on January 1st.  She was the FIRST PERSON TO PROFESS in Ireland, but that was before the Gills and the Carrolls decided and before George Walker decided. That was some years before I left Ireland, and I left in 1899.”  [Harry Holland, 1966] Harry Holland may be from the same Holland family that George Gittins refers to above.

In about 1967 or 1968, Robert Darling spoke at the Convention held at Silverdale, British Columbia, Canada.. His text was Daniel 2: 34-35, and 45, particularly about “the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands,” which “filled the whole earth.” He then announced that the stone was William Irvine’s sister who became very ill and died. According to Robert, she supposedly had a dream which she related to William, which deeply stirred him and in some manner supposedly influenced him religiously from that time on.  Robert Darling’s main point  was that we should be crediting Wm’s sister who was taken in death by God before William Irvine even began preaching–rather than credit William Irvine with starting this fellowship; and thus, avoid any accusation that this fellowship is man-made.  William’s sister was, therefore, “the stone made without hands.” A few weeks later in a private conversation, Robert Darling affirmed to Paul Abenroth that William Irvine was the first worker, and he did not claim or believe that the friends and workers existed before Wm Irvine, whom he termed “the firstfruits of our faith” in our day.

However, Wm Irvine didn’t see it this way at all, for he wrote the following about this same verse:  “The Stone cut out of the mountain without hands” is to unite the great image of R.P.&E. [Religious, Political and Educational] as in Dan. 2 and grow and become a mountain and fill the whole Earth.  David was the least in his father’s family but became the greatest, and by whom so many precious promises are given to David and his seed today.  Inasmuch as ye did or did it not unto one who is least in the Kingdom, he did or did it not unto Him.” (Wm irvine’s letter to Lyda & Wm. Baker, June 19, 1937) Irvine took for himself the title of “The Least” from this verse.  He was referring to himself when he wrote about “the Stone cut out of the mountain,” and “The Least.”

Professor Oliver Wm. Rolfe who was well acquainted with Robert Darling wrote: “I have previously heard the account…attributed to Robert Darling about the beginnings of the church. I have no idea whether or not it is true, but I do know what Robert told me personally. I met Robert in 1958 at the Albuquerque convention; I then travelled with him to the three Mexican conventions. That is, he asked me to drive him in my car. I saw him every day for a period of weeks; he rode with me back to the Midwest where I was living at the time. We became good friends and corresponded regularly until his death in 1970. In 1967, he came to California, where I was then living, and I met him at the Gilroy conventions. He stayed with me between the two conventions, and we had great fun sight-seeing in the Bay Area. On this latter occasion I asked him about the beginnings of the church; he told me that it was started in Ireland by one man (whom he did not name, but I assumed to be William Irvine) after his sister had frozen to death because their parents had shut her out of the house. There was no mention at all of Switzerland. In fact, in all my discussions with him, there was never the slightest implication that the church dated historically from an earlier time. He seemed to be somewhat distressed that so many people seemed to believe this. (Rolfe, Stanford University, 1967, Professor Emeritus, Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana]

NOTE: Wm Irvine’s sister Margaret Irvine probably died of a chronic lung infection, most likely tuberculosis.  The Cause of Death given for Margaret Irvine in the public records was:  “Phthisis, 3 months, cert. by John Lind Surgeon, Kilsyth.”  Another sister of Wm Irvine, Elizabeth Irvine, died June 15, 1887, and her Cause of Death was listed as Periostitis, which is an inflammation of the lining of the bone.