John Nelson Darby was born on November 18, 1800, at his Irish parent’s London home.
From fifteen to nineteen years of age he studied at Trinity College, Dublin, where he gained many honours including the gold medal in the classics. He studied law at Trinity and was admitted to the Irish Chancery Bar, but he left shortly to pursue spiritual matters. His conscience stopped him from practicing law, for fear that he would end up “selling his talents to defeat justice” (We wish this concern afflicted the entire legal profession).
In 1825, soon after conversion, and much to his father’s annoyance, young Darby applied for Deacon’s Orders in the Church of Ireland. He was a High Churchman, so devoted to church tradition that he even disowned the name Protestant. He “thought much of Rome, and its professed sanctity, and catholicity, and antiquity….I held apostolic succession fully, and the channels of grace to be there only.”
From this closed position, thinking of true church authority coming only by successive transfer from Christ’s apostles, Darby swung to building a movement which is counter to that stance, yet displays its own exclusivism, as seen in the Exclusive Brethren.
Beginnings of the swing were evident when he started meeting with the others for the Lord’s table beginning in the winter of 1827. He resigned his curacy in 1828, yet still kept one foot in the state church, while meeting informally with the brothers around the Lord’s table. Though Darby was still a Churchman, the Lord was gradually opening insights to him concerning the Church. In 1928 he wrote a document called “Considerations of the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ” which the Brethren regard as their first published pamphlet.
A forceful personality, Darby was not shy to express his opinions. He wrote a treatise titled “The Archbishop of Dublin is a Sabellian!” – and Darby would have no fellowship with heretics. (A Sabellian believed that Father, Son and Spirit were but modes of God, not distinct personalities making up the one, triune God.)
As Darby met to break bread with a small fellowship of earnest believers in Dublin his teaching gift quickly became evident. He also met with a similar group in Plymouth, England, led by Benjamin Wills Newton, but by 1845 a split took place over some prophetic issues and how ‘closed’ the fellowship should be.
At the age of 30 his contemporary, Francis W Newman, tells of their first meeting: “His bodily presence was indeed ‘weak’. A fallen cheek, a bloodshot eye, crippled limbs resting on crutches, a seldom-shaved beard, a shabby suit of clothes, and a generally neglected person, drew at first pity, with wonder, to see such a figure…”
This unimposing figure, yet distinguished scholar, was to influence the evangelical world with his Christ-exalting ministry, his emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, and his dispensational prophetic teachings.
Thus we have the early days of the Christian Brethren Movement, and Darby was certainly their most gifted teacher in those early days.
“He was an itinerant man of few domestic pleasures, a man with magnetic electric personal qualities combined with a tyrant’s will to lead…” is Ernest Sandeen’s appraisal of him (The Roots of Fundamentalism, page 31).
His hymns are still sung in Brethren meetings, and his translation of the New Testament is still used by some of the old-timers in Brethren circles. One of his hymns is:
Jesus, we wait for Thee, With Thee to have our part,
What can full joy and blessing be But being where Thou art.
About 40 volumes also came from his able pen, his Synopsis of the Bible probably being his best-known work.
Darby’s dogged commitment is evident in such exchanges as one recounted by Francis Newman, who expressed that he wanted his children to be rich enough to get a good eduction. Darby replied: “If I had children, I would as soon see them break stones on the road, as do anything else, if only I could secure to them the Gospel and the grace of God.”
Neatby gives this grand summary of Darby’s life: “the maker of Brethrenism as a system, its guiding and energising spirit throughout, was John Nelson Darby. In the grandeur of his conceptions, in the irresistible vehemence of his will, in his consummate strategical instinct, in his genius for administration, and most of all in his immense personal ascendency, he stands unrivalled amongst the Brethren. His energy was stupendous. He was working for Brethrenism before he was thirty, and when he was eighty he was working as hard as ever; nor had he been known to relax his efforts—efforts put forth up to the full measure of his great strength, and often beyond it—during the whole of the intervening time.”
About the time of his death at the age of 82 there were some 1,500 assemblies across the world which esteemed him as their founder or guide.
This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.