John Nelson Darby
A Biographical Sketch
On Thanksgiving Day, 1928, the late Harold St. John addressed the Chicago Brethren’s Conference. While evaluating J. N. Darby’s New Translation of the Bible, he added this to his remarks, “J. N. Darby was perhaps the greatest constructrive theologian who has arisen since the Apostle Paul.” This speaks a volume for a servant of Christ. However, Mr. Howley, late editor of the “Witness” informed me that St. John, when late in life, modified his opinion of Darby. Another notable described Darby: “He was one of the most unworldly men who ever lived.” Few who have acquainted themselves with his biography and read some of the weighty products of his untiring pen have failed to appreciate outstanding greatness in piety and scholarship. Certainly it was he who synthesized the spiritual emphasis that characterized assemblies in general. A chosen vessel indeed; one of Christ’s special gifts to the Church. Hy. Pickering called him, “the Tertullian of these last days.”
John Nelson Darby was born in London in 1800 but raised in Ireland. He was often referred to as the “Irish Clergyman.” This was fitting for he was ordained an Anglican priest and was appointed to a poor Wicklow parish. The middle name “Nelson” was in respect of Lord Nelson the famed British Admiral. His uncle was in command of the “Bellerophon” at Nelson’s first major victory over the French fleet that had landed Napoleon in Egypt. Indeed Darby belonged to the upper echelons of the society of his day. He himself had graduated with the highest honours of Dublin University and was destined for a career in law. A sensitive conscience prevented him from entering its practice, much to the chagrin of his amibitious father. Instead, Darby settled for a poor church among the Irish peasants.
The interference of the state in the affairs of the Anglican Church, coupled with the ever present agitation of Irish politics and his sensitive conscience, now enlightened by Scripture, led him to write a pamphlet of protest. Here we see the early formation of his separatist convictions already formed sufficiently in the direction of his subsequent spiritual pilgrimage.
The so-called “Plymouth Brethren” had their earliest origins in Catholic Dublin in 1828. Darby here crossed his spiritual Rubicon when he “broke bread” with four or so brethren who were all developing similar views concerning the established church, either Anglican or dissenters. All of them had been well schooled in the universities.
Next we find Darby moving with ease among the clergy and ordinands of Oxford. Here the atmosphere was charged with high churchism (introducing all of the rites of the Catholic Church apart from acknowledging the supremacy of the Pope.) At the same time there was a strong evangelical witness going on at the university. On some of this group Darby’s views bore fruit. A contemporary wrote, “His insight into character, and tenderness pervading his austerity, so opened men’s hearts, that day after day there was no end of secret closetings with him. I began to see the prospect of so considerable a movement of mind as might lead many in the same direction as myself.”
Darby, spiritually speaking, possessed the nose of a hunting dog for heresy. It appeared to be almost an obsession with him. To say the least, he was a formidable apologist. He was the protagonist in the “Brethren’s” first and most destructive division. Some of us feel with hindsight that he overreacted. The result was the formation of exclusive assemblies and congregational assemblies (each assembly a sovereign unit). Certainly those who have followed his leadership into exclusivism have inherited problems that are inherent with those principles.
Darby was a born leader. His personality, ministry and the obvious mastery he exerted over himself had an impact upon his hearers. Being an accomplished linguist he was instrumental in planting assemblies in France, Switzerland and Germany. Lewis Sperry Chafer credits Darby with recovering the principles of the primitive New Testament church just as Luther had reached back to the beginning for the doctrine of Justification. William Kelly credits Darby as the first to teach the “secret rapture.” Certainly what had been disorganized in the way of dispensationalism, he synthesized. The writings of Darby covered all of the salient doctrines of Christianity. His astute criticism of the Roman mass is biting and convincing to any open mind. We could hardly call him a moderate when he expressed his views on the sovereignty of God. Certainly his sympathies were far from the different schools of Arminianism. He expounded every book of the Bible, as well as translating the Bible into French, German and English. These works are still being reprinted, which speaks for itself. Some of his expositions are delightfully simple but for the most part extremely condensed and require considerable self-discipline to read.
Darby was a shining example of what our Lord must have meant when He said, “and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” (Matt. 19:22).
This spiritual giant, “unknown, and yet well known,” passed on to his reward in 1882 in Bournemouth, England. Some years ago we went to the cemetery where Darby’s body awaits the first resurrection and inquired for his grave. We were immediately directed without consultation to any records. Remarking to the attendant about this he replied, “We have more visitors to this grave than any other in the whole cemetery.”