John Nelson Darby (18 November 1800 – 29 April 1882) was an Anglo-Irish evangelist, and an influential figure among the original Plymouth 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.
John Nelson Darby was born in Westminster, London, and christened at St. Margaret’s on 3 March 1801. He came from an Anglo-Irish landowning family seated at Leap Castle, King’s County, Ireland. 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.
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” 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. He participated in the 1831–33 Powerscourt Conference, an annual meeting of Bible students organized by his friend, the wealthy widow Lady Powerscourt (Theodosia Wingfield Powerscourt).
At the conference Darby publicly described his ecclesiological and eschatological views, including the pretribulation rapture. 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.
Darby defended Calvinist doctrines when they came under attack from within the Church in which he once served. His biographer Goddard 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.”
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. 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.” He was also a Bible Commentator. He declined however to contribute to the compilation of the Revised Version of the King James Bible. He died 1882 in Sundridge House, Bournemouth and is buried in Bournemouth, Dorset, England.
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.”
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, although not his hyperdispensational approach, 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. Darby is sometimes credited with originating the “secret rapture” theory wherein Christ will suddenly remove His bride, the Church, from this world before the judgments of the tribulation. Some claim that this book 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. 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.”
**The Holy Bible a new translation by J.N. Darby, a parallel edition, Bible Truth Publishers: Addison, Illinois.
**The Writings of J. N. Darby courtesy of Stem Publishing
**The Holy Scriptures (A New Translation from the Original Languages by J. N. Darby) courtesy of Stem Publishing
**A Letter on Free Will by J.N. Darby, Elberfeld, 23 October 1861
**The Collected Writings Of J. N. Darby, Ecclesiastical No. 1, Volume 1: The Character Of Office In The Present Dispensation