Benjamin Wills Newton (1807-1899) was born at Plymouth on the 12 December, 1807. His father Benjamin, a draper, died eleven days before his birth. Until he was twelve, he was brought up by his maternal grandfather Roger Treffry of Lostwithiel, Cornwall. He was educated at grammar schools at Lostwithiel and Plymouth, and went to Oxford University in 1824, becoming a fellow of Exeter College in 1826. He obtained a first class honours degree in classics, graduating in 1829. Although his parents had been Quakers, on going up to Oxford his desire was to be ordained in the Church of England. At Oxford, under the influence of Henry Bulteel he underwent evangelical conversion and became critical of the Anglican Church, he also began to study prophecy. In 1831, he abandoned the idea of taking holy orders, and on his marriage to Hannah Abbott in 1832 resigned his fellowship.
Newton returned to Plymouth, earning his living as a tutor in a school he set up with his friend Henry Borlase. He preached widely at independent gatherings of Christians where he and his co-religionists began to build up a large following. It is these meetings which eventually became known to those outside as the Plymouth Brethren, although their influence was to spread well beyond the confines of Plymouth. With the support of John Nelson Darby, with whom he had developed a close relationship, he was appointed elder of Providence Chapel, Raleigh Street, Plymouth, which moved to Ebrington Street in 1840. Newton became the dominant personality at this chapel, presiding over open worship and regularly intervening to stop what he felt were fruitless contributions.
The study of Biblical prophecy was central to his development, but his views diverged from the increasingly influential belief in a ‘secret rapture’ subscribed to by Darby and others. Conflict ensued in 1845 when Darby returned to Plymouth after a lengthy spell abroad. There were arguments over eschatology, and the leadership role Newton had adopted at Ebrington Street. More seriously, there were accusations of Christological heresy relating to the teachings of Newton on the nature of Christ’s suffering. Although Newton was to concede that his views on the latter had been mistaken and withdrew them, the die had been cast, and critics, especially Darby, refused to accept his contrition. It was these differences, and the disagreements following their airing, which led to the historic division of the Brethren into ‘Exclusive’ and ‘Open’ wings.
In spite of his importance to the development of the ‘Open Brethren’, Newton decided to leave Plymouth in the aftermath of this dispute and distanced himself thereafter from the Brethren movement. He moved to London and became a regular preacher at an independent chapel in Queen’s Road, Bayswater. Newton continued to write on religious themes, notably eschatology, and provided financial support to his friend Samuel P. Tregelles. Newton retired to Orpington and later Newport in the Isle of Wight.
Newton’s first wife Hannah died in 1846. He married Maria Hawkins in 1849; their only child Maria Anne Constantia died at the age of five in 1855. Newton died at Tunbridge Wells on 26 June 1899.
Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813-1875) was born at Falmouth on 30 June 1813, the son of Samuel Tregelles, a merchant, and his wife Dorothy. He was educated at Falmouth Classical School, prior to obtaining employment at Neath Abbey Ironworks at Glamorgan where he worked from 1829 to 1835. In his spare time he studied Welsh language and literature and continued to develop his knowledge of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. He returned to Falmouth in 1835 where he supported himself by taking pupils. Having published a book in 1836 he obtained work from publishers in London. On moving to the capital, he superintended the publication of the Englishman’s Greek Concordance to the New Testament (1839), and Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance to the Old Testament (1843). In 1838 he commenced a critical study of the Greek New Testament based on ancient manuscripts. This was to be his major life work, for which he travelled extensively. The publications he produced and the work he did on this project provided the foundation for the Greek edition of the New Testament published by Westcott and Hort in 1881, and the Revised Version of the English Bible of 1881.
During 1846 Tregelles settled in Plymouth and became associated with the Brethren. Tregelles was the cousin of Benjamin Wills Newton’s first wife, and he defended Newton in the controversies of the time. Like Newton he diverged from the Brethren after the 1847 rift. He continued to live in Plymouth.
Tregelles was awarded an LLD degree from St.Andrews in 1852. and was awarded a civil-list pension in 1870. He married his cousin Sarah Anna Prideaux in 1839; they did not have children. Tregelles died in Plymouth in 1875; Sarah Anna died in 1882.
When, in his later years Newton moved to the Isle of Wight, he encouraged a following of sympathetic men and women. Among his congregation was Frederick William Wyatt (c. 1850 - c. late 1920s), a watchmaker by profession who lived for a time at Ryde though he eventually returned to his native Blandford in Dorset. Wyatt, a Greek and Hebrew scholar was a close associate of Newton; he took notes of Newton's lectures and copied down conversations they had into notebooks.
Alfred Charles Fry (1869-1943) also held Newton in high esteem. As a child he attended a Sunday School run by Miss Hawkins, Newton's sister-in-law, who lived with the Newtons at Clatterford House in Carisbrooke. He was converted at the age of seventeen and after working as a printer, was employed by Newton as his colporteur to travel around the island villages by bicycle. He later ran a Sunday School and taught the children of Newton's congregation. Like Wyatt, A.C. Fry was keen to copy notes of Newton's lectures and he compiled indexes.