John Nelson Darby

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John Nelson Darby.

John Nelson Darby (18 November 1800 – 29 April 1882) was an Anglo-Irish Bible teacher, one of the influential figures among the original Plymouth Brethren and the founder of the Exclusive Brethren. He is considered to be the father of modern Dispensationalism and Futurism in the English vernacular. He produced a translation of the Bible based on the Hebrew and Greek texts called The Holy Scriptures: A New Translation from the Original Languages by J. N. Darby.


Early years

John Nelson Darby was born in Westminster, London, and christened at St. Margaret's on 3 March 1801. He was the youngest of the six sons of John Darby and Anne Vaughan. The Darbys were an Anglo-Irish landowning family seated at Leap Castle, King's County, Ireland, (now called "Offaly"). He was the nephew of Admiral Henry D'Esterre Darby and his middle name was given in recognition of his godfather and family friend, Lord Nelson.

Darby was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Dublin where he graduated Classical Gold Medallist in 1819. Darby embraced Christianity during his studies, although there is no evidence that he formally studied theology. He joined an inn of court, but felt that being a lawyer was inconsistent with his religious belief. He therefore chose ordination as an Anglican clergyman in Ireland, "lest he should sell his talents to defeat justice." In 1825, Darby was ordained deacon of the established Church of Ireland and the following year as priest.

Middle years

File:Grab von John Nelson Darby.jpg
Gravestone of John Nelson Darby

Darby became a curate in the Church of Ireland parish of Delgany, County Wicklow, and distinguished himself by convincing Roman Catholic peasants in the Calary area to abandon the Catholic Church. The well-known gospel tract "How the Lost Sheep was Saved" [1] gives his personal account of a visit he paid to a dying shepherd boy in this area, painting a vivid picture of what his work among the poor people involved. He later claimed to have won hundreds of converts to the Church of Ireland. However, the conversions ended when William Magee, the Archbishop of Dublin, ruled that converts were obliged to swear allegiance to George IV as rightful king of Ireland.

Darby resigned his curacy in protest. Soon after, in October 1827, he fell from a horse and was seriously injured. He later stated that it was during this time that he began to believe that the "kingdom" described in the Book of Isaiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament was entirely different from the Christian church.

Over the next five years, he developed the principles of his mature theology—most notably his conviction that the very notion of a clergyman was a sin against the Holy Spirit, because it limited the recognition that the Holy Spirit could speak through any member of the Church. During this time he joined an interdenominational meeting of believers (including Anthony Norris Groves, Edward Cronin, J. G. Bellett, and Francis Hutchinson) who met to "break bread" together in Dublin as a symbol of their unity in Christ. By 1832, this group had grown and began to identify themselves as a distinct Christian assembly. As they traveled and began new assemblies in Ireland and England, they formed the movement now known as the Plymouth Brethren.

It is believed that John Nelson Darby left the Church of Ireland around 1831.[2] He participated in the 1831–33 Powerscourt Conference, an annual meeting of Bible students organized by his friend,[3] the wealthy widow Lady Powerscourt (Theodosia Wingfield Powerscourt). At the conference Darby publicly described his ecclesiological and eschatological views, including the pretribulation rapture.[4] For about 40 years William Kelly (1821–1906) was his chief interpreter and continued to be a staunch supporter until his own death. Kelly in his work John Nelson Darby as I knew him stated that "a saint more true to Christ's name and word I never knew or heard of".

Darby saw the invention of the telegraph as a sign that the end of the world was approaching; he called the telegraph an invention of Cain and a harbinger of Armageddon.[5]

Darby defended Calvinist [6] doctrines when they came under attack from within the Church in which he once served. His biographer Goddard [7] states, "Darby indicates his approval of the doctrine of the Anglican Church as expressed in Article XVII of the Thirty-Nine Articles" on the subject of election and predestination. Darby said:

"For my own part, I soberly think Article XVII to be as wise, perhaps I might say the wisest and best condensed human statement of the view it contains that I am acquainted with. I am fully content to take it in its literal and grammatical sense. I believe that predestination to life is the eternal purpose of God, by which, before the foundations of the world were laid, He firmly decreed, by His counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and destruction those whom He had chosen in Christ out of the human race, and to bring them, through Christ, as vessels made to honour, to eternal salvation." [8]

Later years

Darby traveled widely in Europe and Britain in the 1830s and 1840s, and established many Brethren assemblies. He gave 11 significant lectures in Geneva in 1840 on the hope of the church (L'attente actuelle de l'église). These established his reputation as a leading interpreter of biblical prophecy. The beliefs he disseminated then are still being propagated (in various forms) at such places as Dallas Theological Seminary and by authors and preachers such as Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye.

In 1848, Darby became involved in a complex dispute over the proper method for maintaining shared standards of discipline in different assembles that resulted in a split between Open Brethren, which maintained a congregational form of government and Exclusive Brethren. After that time, he was recognized as the dominant figure among the Exclusives, who also came to be known as "Darbyite" Brethren. He made at least 5 missionary journeys to North America between 1862 and 1877. He worked mostly in New England, Ontario, and the Great Lakes region, but took one extended journey from Toronto to Sydney by way of San Francisco, Hawaii, and New Zealand. A Geographical Index of his letters is currently available and lists where he traveled.[9] He used his classical skills to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek texts into several languages. In English he wrote a Synopsis of the Bible and many other scholarly religious articles. He wrote hymns and poems, the most famous being, "Man of Sorrows".[10] He was also a Bible commentator. He declined however to contribute to the compilation of the Revised Version of the King James Bible.[11]

He died 1882 in Sundridge House, Bournemouth and is buried in Bournemouth, Dorset, England.[12]

Later influence

If one accepted Darby's view of the secret rapture... Benjamin Wills Newton pointed out, then many Gospel passages must be "renounced as not properly ours."...this is precisely what Darby was prepared to do.

Too traditional to admit that biblical authors might have contradicted each other, and too rationalist to admit that the prophetic maze defied penetration, Darby attempted a resolution of his exegetical dilemma by distinguishing between Scripture intended for the Church and Scripture intended for Israel...

The task of the expositor of the Bible was, in a phrase that became the hallmark of dispensationalism, "rightly dividing the word of truth".

From "The Roots of Fundamentalism:
British and American Millenarianism 1800-1930" (1970)
by Ernest R. Sandeen, University of Chicago Press
ISBN 978-0-226-73467-5, p. 65-67

Darby is noted in the theological world as the father of "dispensationalism", later made popular in the United States by Cyrus Scofield's Scofield Reference Bible.

Charles Henry Mackintosh, 1820–1896, with his popular style spread Darby's teachings to humbler elements in society and may be regarded as the journalist of the Brethren Movement. Mackintosh popularised Darby[13] more than any other Brethren author. In the early twentieth century, the Brethren's teachings, through Margaret E. Barber, influenced the Little Flock of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee.[14]

Darby has been credited with originating the pre-tribulational rapture theory wherein Christ will suddenly remove His bride, the Church, from this world before the judgments of the tribulation. Some claim that this "the Rapture of the Saints" [date?] was the origin of the idea of the "rapture." Dispensationalist beliefs about the fate of the Jews and the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel put dispensationalists at the forefront of Christian Zionism, because "God is able to graft them in again," and they believe that in His grace he will do so according to their understanding of Old Testament prophecy. They believe that, while the ways of God may change, His purposes to bless Israel will never be forgotten, just as He has shown unmerited favour to the Church, He will do so to a remnant of Israel to fulfill all the promises made to the genetic seed of Abraham.


Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle and contemporary of Darby, published criticism of Darby and Brethrenism.[15] His main criticism was that Darby and the Plymouth Brethren rejected the vicarious purpose of Christ's obedience as well as imputed righteousness. He viewed these of such importance and so central to the gospel that it led him to this statement about the rest of their belief.

James Grant wrote: "With the deadly heresies entertained and taught by the Plymouth Brethren, in relation to some of the most momentous of all the doctrines of the gospel, and to which I have adverted at some length, I feel assured that my readers will not be surprised at any other views, however unscriptual and pernicious they may be, which the Darbyites have embraced and zealously seek to propagate"[16]


See also


  1. J. N. Darby. "How the Lost Sheep was Saved".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. The year in which Darby left the Church of Ireland, a branch of the Anglican Church, is not certain but a consensus of opinion is that it was possibly around 1831. Searches for formal documentation of his resignation have been made in the Church of Ireland archives, but nothing has been found.
  3. It is widely believed that Darby and Lady Powerscourt were romantically attached but friends persuaded him that any marriage may prove a distraction.
  4. Dictionary of Premillennial Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications. 1996. ISBN 0-8254-2351-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> p. 82
  5. "Apocalypse Now(ish): Irvin Baxter's End Times Empire".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Marsden, George M (2006). Fundamentalism and American Culture (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 351. ISBN 0-19-530047-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> p. 46
  7. Goddard, "The Contribution of Darby," p. 86
  8. J. N. Darby, "The Doctrine of the Church of England at the Time of the Reformation"
  9. "Thy Precepts (magazine), Jan/Feb 1996, Vol. 11, # 1" (PDF). The Correspondents of John Nelson Darby, with Geographical Index and Chart of Travels. For the three volumes of Letters of J. N. Darby, it gives the page #, the language it was written in, recipient, place written, and date written; also contains a geographical index and a chart of his travels.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. The Man of Sorrows
  11. John Nelson Darby Biography
  12. Winston Terrance Sutherland, B.S., Th.M (May 2007). "John Nelson Darby: His Contributions to Contemporary Theological Higher Education (Dissertation Prepared for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy)" (PDF). University of North Texas. pp. 20–21. John Nelson Darby died in Bournemouth, on 29 April 1882 of protracted illness (Pickering, 1986; Turner, 1986). In John Nelson Darby: A Memorial, is outlined the funeral service of the revered theologian. Therein is documented that he “was brought to Bournemouth some weeks before his death, to the house of Mr. Hammond, an exClergyman of the Church of England.” A large following attended the burial, “from eight to ten hundred” participating in prayers, singing hymns (some written by Darby), and reading, with comment, the Scriptures. “There has been a large plain stone to mark the resting place of the richly-gifted servant of the Lord” displaying the caption: JOHN NELSON DARBY “AS UNKNOWN AND WELL KNOWN.” DEPARTED TO BE WITH CHRIST, 29TH APRIL 1882. AGED 81 2 COR. V. 21. Lord let me wait for thee alone, My life be only this, To serve Thee here on earth unknown, Then share Thy heavenly bliss. J. N. D line feed character in |quote= at position 247 (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Charles Henry Mackintosh. "The Assembly of God; or, The All-sufficiency of the Name of Jesus". The termini of the church's earthly history are Pentecost (Acts 2), and the rapture. (1 Thess, 4: 16, 17)]<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Elmer L. Towns (1 January 2000). "The Ten Greatest Revivals Ever: from Pentecost to the Present". Liberty University. Retrieved 13 March 2011. Years later, Nee To-sheng, better known outside of China as Watchman Nee, was influenced by a single British missionary, Margaret E. Barber. In 1909, Barber had submitted to believer’s baptism and left her Anglican mission to become an independent faith worker. She conducted “breaking of bread” meetings similar to those of the Christian Brethren. Nee To-sheng organized the Little Flock, a Brethren-style indigenous Chinese denomination. The True Jesus Church and Little Flock soon had more adherents than all other mission-sponsored churches combined. line feed character in |quote= at position 248 (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Charles Spurgeon (June 1869). "Mr. Grant on "The Darby Brethren"". Sword and Trowel. Retrieved 17 March 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Grant, James (1875). The Plymouth Brethren: Their History and Heresies. London: William Macintosh. p. 60.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • John Nelson Darby – as I knew him, William Kelly, Words of Truth: Belfast, Northern Ireland
  • Neatby, William B. (1901). A history of the Plymouth Brethren. pp. 13–18, 182–198 etc.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Stokes, George T. (October 1885). "John Nelson Darby". The Contemporary Review: 537–552.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Stunt, Timothy (2004). "John Nelson Darby". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 18 December 2013. Unknown parameter |subscription= ignored (help)CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Weremchuk, Max S. (1993). John Nelson Darby. Loizeaux Brothers. ISBN 978-0872139237.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links