top of page

In search of The Brethren

Kia ora, this is Suitauloa Simon Young, and this is One Ancestor at a Time.

I want to start with a promise: I will not try to convert you in this video. You see, this video covers one of the big topics you’re supposed to avoid: religion.

Religion plays a big role in today’s story, because this is the story not only of the Kelly family, but of the religious movement that my family was in for five generations.

I mention this because

it’s impossible to learn about history, without learning about religion. And it’s impossible to learn Western history, without understanding Christianity.

Go to your local cemetery, and you’ll quickly see how many different flavours of Christianity there are. So many different ways of paying homage to this one man, Jesus, and the God he represents. And just like I earlier made a video about how the places we grow up in shape our thinking, so do the institutions we grow up in - including church.

But let’s come back to the tree, so we can locate where we are going. So far, we’ve met all of my grandparents - although I admit, I’ve been pretty male chauvanist in my storytelling. The nicest MAN you’ll ever meet, and the MAN who never gave up. I admit, I’m subjective. I’m a man, and so I naturally pay more attention to the men in my tree. Sadly, so did society for most of history. But today I will try - and probably fail - to redress that balance. Try - because today we go to my mother’s mother’s side of the family: Lois Rockel, born Lois Kelly. But fail, because we’re going to - again - focus mainly on the men, because it’s them whose stories we know.

In fact, there’s a cruel irony when it comes to the Kellys. In many ways, they are the most proximate ancestors. They lived in Auckland when they first settled in New Zealand, which is where I live. They are buried just down the road from me, in Waikumete Cemetery. And of all the ancestors, I have the most things of the Kellys - artefacts, but very little data.

There are the tools of their trade. My great grandfather, Herbert Kelly, and his father James Young Kelly, were both shipbuilders. This plane belonged to one or other of them. So did this chisel, and this drill. This old tool chest is still marked with paint from their labours.

And this old concordance is one of many Christian books with Herbert’s name written in the front. Side note … this concordance helped me understand the concept of the internet, before I had a computer. It’s basically a giant index of every word in the Bible, cross referenced with other mentions of that word. Kind of like … a hyperlink. Anyway, I digress.

I have many artefacts of the Kellys, but few actual data points. However, let’s look at what we do have, and use compassionate and contextual imagination to fill in the blank spaces, as best we can.


We start with the ironmonger, Jim Kelly. Now I always thought that, since Kelly is an Irish name, these folk came from Ireland. Not the case. Thanks to distant relatives who tended the family tree in, I discovered that Jim and his wife Elizabeth came from Greenock, in Renfrewshire, Scotland.

Now admittedly, it’s not far off Ireland. Greenock is a well-known port city and a place through which a lot of goods and people passed each year. Sometime between 1861 and 1868, Jim and Elizabeth, aged in their late 20s to early 30s, made their way to Auckland, New Zealand, with their son, James junior. Or, because his mother’s maiden name was Young, James Young Kelly.

Now lest you get confused, these Youngs are not related to my father’s Youngs. At least, beyond being part of the giant Scottish Young clan.

In Auckland, Jim and Elizabeth have three more children. And beyond that, we don’t know much more. I’m not sure whether the religious part of their journey had already begun, back in Scotland, or whether it is events in Auckland that will bring that about.

A lot of genealogy is just playing with the few jigsaw puzzle pieces we have.

Let’s say the story has begun, and Jim and Elizabeth are part of this movement that I haven’t mentioned by name yet … so let’s do the reveal. Perhaps Jim and Elizabeth are part of … the Brethren.

As soon as you hear Brethren, your hackles may raise. After all, the most famous Brethren, at least in Australia and New Zealand, are the Exclusive Brethren, most famous for their election interference campaign in New Zealand the early 2000s, and recently in Australia too. This is really sad because in seeking to covertly influence politics, they are betraying some of their very founding principles.

However, the Exclusive Brethren are not the ones I suspect Jim and Elizabeth might be part of. Instead, I think they might be part of the Open Brethren.


Let’s rewind just a little bit, and see why there are Exclusive and Open Brethren.

In Dublin, Ireland, in the 1820s, a group of Christians are becoming dissatisfied with the experience they’re having at church. And they start to do something extremely radical in its simplicity: they just start having a Bible study together, at home. After a while, they realise that they can also do "the Lord’s supper" - what gets called Eucharist in Anglican and Catholic churches - at home. No professional priest, pastor or minister required.

It is a movement for its time. England in the early 1800s is in the midst of the rise of evangelicalism, which emphasises an individual’s relationship with God, instead of membership of a religious organisation. This is the era of hymns like Amazing Grace, this is also the time of William Wilberforce, who started to positively bring their faith to work and challenged long-established systems such as slavery.

Over time, more and more people are attracted to this movement with its freedom and simplicity. It becomes known - reluctantly - as the Plymouth Brethren movement, because as time went on, the biggest gathering was in the town of Plymouth. But it was the kind of movement that didn’t like labels, leaders, hierarchy or structure.

However that began to change, as one of the original, highly influential leaders, John Nelson Darby, split the movement in two in the late 1840s, into what would become known as the Exclusive and Open Brethren movements. Exclusive Brethren began to become more centralised, and - as the name suggests - would exclude from fellowship people they deemed to hold heretical views.

The Open Brethren, on the other hand, remained decentralised in their leadership, and retained a focus on the outside world, although that focus was mostly about preaching and converting souls. Both exclusive and open brethren tended to shy away from position and power. In these early days, many new converts relinquished highly paid roles in the clergy or military, such was their conviction.


So in Auckland, where Jim and Elizabeth have settled with their now four children, there’s a Brethren assembly from 1867 onwards. Why Assembly? The Brethren didn’t like the word church, because it had become too associated with a building. In the original greek language of the Bible, the word church meant a gathering of people, not a building, or in other words, an assembly.

The Auckland in which the Kellys live is no longer the capital of New Zealand, as that was moved to Wellington in 1865. But Auckland is still - as it is today - the centre of trade and commerce, and undergoing growth during the 1860s and 70s as masses of British immigrants pour into the new country.

Like many Irish - and despite not being Irish, but Scottish - the Kellys lived in Freeman’s Bay, now a very upmarket suburb, but in those days a poor and disreputable suburb of Auckland, and populated with many sawmills, processing timber harvested from West Auckland - including the beautiful kauri trees I eulogised in another video. Kauri timber made stunning ships! Straight, tall, strong timber, superb for ships’ spars.


By this time James Young Kelly, Jim and Elizabeth’s oldest son, was probably also building ships. He got married really young, 23 years old, to Isabelle Robinson, who was even younger, just 20. That was in February 1882. In December that year, their first daughter, Violet, was born.

Some time between December 1882 and 1884, the young Kellys move to Totara North, in the North of New Zealand, to work for the shipbuilding firm Lane & Brown.

Now, even if I had my doubts that Jim and Elizabeth were in the Brethren, I have no doubt that James and Isabella were part of the movement, because listen to this description of Lane & Brown’s working environment from Peter Lineham’s book There we found Brethren:

Such was the Christian influence in their yard that it was called "the Holy City". The men sang hymns as they worked. and people often kept to the other side of the road to avoid going near this religious place. The partners built an independent chapel on the shipyard, to which they invited visiting ministers and preachers. In this chapel a baptistry was built of kauri timber. When the first baptism was to take place, larrikins crawled underneath and bored holes, which resulted in some consternation.

I can actually see both sides of the story - the neighbours keeping a distance from these religious weirdos, and … being caught up in the fellowship and the sharing and the spirituality, and just singing your heart out. Because … I’ve been on both sides of this story.

The shipyard was large for its time, nearly 1400 square metres, with two covered sheds capable of handling 350-ton ships. Just like the superyacht builders of today, Lane & Brown selected and seasoned the material for their ships with great care.

They built more than 50 ships here, craft such as the 320-ton topsail schooner Rainbow (1890) and the government’s Pacific Island trader Countess of Ranfurly (1901).

Anyway… in 1884, James and Isabella have their first son, whose name is Herbert Kelly. Yes, my great-grandfather.


Herbert grows up, follows in his father’s footsteps both in terms of faith and work, also becoming a shipbuilder. In 1909, back in Auckland, Herbert marries Mildred Smith. Two years later, they are in Petone, Lower Hutt, Wellington, for the birth of their eldest son Keith. In 1914, their daughter Lois - my grandmother - is born.

In 1916, Jim Kelly passes away, at the age of 82. He’s buried in one of the oldest sections of Waikumete Cemetery, interestingly it’s the Anglican section. One of the characteristics of the Brethren - and something that makes it hard for historians - is the reluctance to be categorised and registered and otherwise entangled with worldly things. So on the one hand, Jim might have been Anglican, and all my guesswork is wrong. Or, he was Open Brethren, but the cemetery didn’t have a section for that, so he went in the Anglican section. At any rate, the plot where he is buried is no longer marked by any visible headstone or marker. Which somehow rings very true.

I have no idea what Herbert did during the years of World War I. Obviously he had a very young family. Perhaps his work was considered essential, so he was exempted from military service. Perhaps he conscientiously objected, as several of the Brethren did. I have no information about any of this. The next piece of information is the birth of Herbert and Mildred’s youngest daughter Eunice, in 1919.

In 1927, Elizabeth, Herbert’s grandmother, passes away. She, too, is buried at Waikumete Cemetery, this time in the Presbyterian Division … and again, no headstone or marker remains. Once again, perhaps not surprising.

Herbert and Mildred - or Bert and Millie, and their children, live in a delightful bungalow on a street in Lower Hutt called White’s Line East, an address my mum remembered her mum talking about often. The kids grow up, and eldest son Keith is the first to marry, in December 1936.

Tragically, less than a year later, Keith dies. In the face of tragedy, the Kellys find consolation in their faith community. It’s touching that these artefacts were kept so carefully, and I still have them, years later.

Some time that same year, 1937, Lois marries my grandfather, the nicest man you could hope to meet, Brian Rockel. What a tumultuous year for the whole family. The joy of new beginnings, and the tragedy of loss. Perhaps more tragic still, Keith’s daughter will never know her father.

As I mentioned in my video about Brian, Lois and her family’s faith influences Brian to give up his beloved sport of shooting, and embrace the same faith with an enthusiasm that lasted till his dying day.

Not long after Brian and Lois moved to Auckland, Bert and Millie also moved to Auckland to support Lois and their young family. Mum remembered walking from Mount Eden to Balmoral on a summer’s day to spend time with her grandparents.


Bert passed away at the age of 71, in 1955, and Millie - Mum’s grandma, comes to live with the Rockels. She eventually passes away in 1970, at the age of 86. They’re buried together - again, at Waikumete Cemetery - but, like James and Isabella, and Jim and Elizabeth, no stone or marker shows their grave, just a patch of grass among many.

In some ways it’s a very unsurprising thing, given the Open Brethren’s emphasis on the temporary nature of this world, and the huge importance of the next. I think perhaps all of them would be happy that the most substantial things they’ve left behind are books used for Bible study.

As Brian and Lois raised their three girls in Auckland, they joined the newly formed Roskill Chapel in Dominion Road, Mount Eden, which is where, in 1962, my mum and dad were married. The following year, mum and dad joined another brand new Brethren church, which was the church I grew up in, Terry Street Chapel in Blockhouse Bay.


The Terry Street Chapel that I remember encouraged humility, servant leadership and intellectual curiosity. Traditionally, Brethren churches didn’t have a pastor, they were led by a group of elders. The elders we had were not pulpit-thumping “leaders” who wanted to stamp their mark, they were radio technicians and architects, sure of their faith but always open to learn more.

A worship service when I grew up was an hour of silence, punctuated by any man in the congregation sharing whatever was on their heart, or giving out a hymn to sing. There was no qualification needed, except to be male - and in many assemblies this has changed, too. One assembly now has a pastor who is a woman, which is so great to see.

It was only as I started to learn more about the world that I realised this was a fairly unusual environment to grow up in. Particularly, the opportunity to share whatever was on my heart in the worship service, by the sheer luck of being male.

Of course, I’m applying those rose coloured spectacles. The Brethren aren’t perfect - even the Open Brethren.

In fact, there’s a kind of in joke between the denominations. Someone’s just died, and gone to heaven, and St. Peter is showing him around heaven. He goes past a building with no windows and with the doors closed, but he can hear singing coming from inside the building. He asks St Peter, what’s going on in there? And St Peter whispers, “oh, that’s the Brethren; don’t disturb them, they think they’re the only ones here!”

It’s really interesting that the end times teaching that is commonly taught now in many evangelical and pentecostal churches around the world, came from the same guy who split the Brethren into Exclusivism. John Nelson Darby was big into end times teaching, and he wrote many many books and pamphlets about how he thought the end of the world will play out. To be fair, many others have followed in his wake. So much so that, if you’re in the evangelical subculture, you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s the only orthodox way to view the Bible’s books of prophecy.

In fact, a well-known end-times evangelist, the late Barry Smith, was also raised in the Brethren. Not only that… he was my grandmother’s first cousin.


I used to be very enthusiastic about the end of the world. There is a Biblical precedent for that. The early Christians were so consumed with the hope of the second coming of Christ, that they looked forward to that day more than anything.

But over the years, I also looked at the result of this fatalistic end-times teaching, and saw the fruit - the result. Christians were always at the tail end of innovation. Easily prone to fall for conspiracy theories. Avoiding using their gifts to help humanity’s needs, or the environment, because - all this is temporary, and Jesus is coming.

I eventually decided, that doesn’t match the faith I have, or the God I know. And I’ve since found, many theologians throughout the ages felt the same way. In fact, the evangelical view of the end times is a very recent development. John Nelson Darby was writing his thoughts in the 1800s. That’s not very long ago, compared to thousands of years of other Christian thinkers.

So, am I going to be like the Brethren in the joke, excluding my evangelical brothers and sisters as non-Christian because we have a difference in belief? Of course not. That would be missing the point entirely. I would like to think, the most important thing … is loving one another.

Anyway, I ramble…


These days, the Brethren church has rebranded, at least in New Zealand and Australia, to Christian Community Churches. This is a much better reflection of the focus of the assemblies. No longer shying away from the world, but getting involved. Still keeping that autonomy of individual assemblies, but also drawing collective strength from the network. As someone who is fascinated by organisational psychology, there is something so wholesome about that. A flat hierarchy of autonomous units whose purpose is to serve one another. At least, that is the way it should be.

As for me, I am dabbling in other denominations these days. I believe if God is who he says he is, he is big enough and smart enough to communicate to us through … any way he wants.


Before I learned how to drive, a friend dropped me off to my home in West Auckland from the central city. They lived in East Auckland, and as they dropped me off, they said, “wow, you live so far away”. It was the first I had heard of it. I was a normal distance away from the central city. About 1 kilometre away from me was far away, but not my house.

This is how it is with the things we normalise growing up. Our family, education and religious upbringing all have a normalising effect on our assumptions for years to come.

When I look at my upbringing - and my five-generation heritage in the Open Brethren - I see some strong assumptions.

That faith is an individual and personal thing, that everyone needs to come to their own personal decision.

That outward ceremony has little value, compared with what is going on in the heart.

That leadership is collective and deliberative.

That formal learning is unnecessary.

That creativity and originality is required for authenticity - being led by the Spirit.

That all people are equal before God.

That every culture has something to say.

Experience has proven some of these beliefs to be true. Others are true in some circumstances, like my attitudes towards formal education. Others still, are just matters of belief, unproveable either way.

What I love is that we can examine our beliefs, and choose which ones we want to keep. I would much rather be accused of navel gazing, than of operating unconsciously driven by the assumptions drummed into me by my upbringing.

The examined life, is very much worth living, to paraphrase Aristotle.

I would love to hear how faith, church, religion, has shaped your life journey, and that of your family history. Leave a comment below, if you have anything to share.

If you liked this video, please "like" and share it, and subscribe on YouTube so you get updated with the next one.

In many ways, I can consider the Open Brethren movement to be one of my ancestors … and I’m so glad you could join me to explore it.

This is Suitauloa Simon Young, and I look forward to the next time we learn history, One Ancestor at a Time.

11 views0 comments

Related Posts

See All


bottom of page