J. N. Darby

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) remains an enigma, known yet unknown, warmly loved by some, bitterly denounced by others. To this day his gravesite receives a regular pilgrimage of his devotees, while others are still rummaging through his closets, searching for skeletons. He is both credited and accused for his teaching on the church and prophecy. His life and teaching indelibly directed the course of fundamentalism. Lewis Sperry Chafer thought Darby was the greatest theologian since the Apostle Paul! Yet there has not been one full-length biography about him.

John Nelson Darby was born in London, November 18, 1800. He was the youngest son of John Darby of Leap Castle, Kings County, Ireland. His mother (formerly Anne Vaughan) is said to have been a devoted Christian who trained her children in strict mental disciplines, including Bible memorization. It is said that Darby as a young man could quote from any passage of the New Testament. At eighteen he graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, as the Classical Gold Medalist. In 1819 he was admitted to the bar and became a lawyer. It was between 1820 and 1825 that Darby underwent a profound spiritual struggle. In 1826, to his father’s chagrin, Darby was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church and appointed to the parish of Wicklow, Ireland, where he labored among the Irish poor, himself “dwelling in a peasant’s cottage on the bog” where the people were “as wild as were the hills.”

At this time, while riding he was badly injured when his horse fell. He was incapacitated for three months. Ever after, he walked with a noticeable limp. Francis William Newman, brother to Cardinal Newman, knew Darby at this time. Of Darby he said, “This was . . . a most remarkable man, who rapidly gained an immense sway over me. I shall henceforth call him the ‘Irish Clergyman.’ His ‘bodily presence’ was indeed ‘weak.’ A fallen cheek, a bloodshot eye, crippled limbs resting on crutches, a seldom-shaven beard, a shabby suit of clothes, and a generally-neglected person, drew at first pity, with wonder to see such a figure in a drawing room. It has been reported that a person in Limerick offered him a halfpenny, mistaking him for a beggar; and if not true, the story was yet well invented. This young man had taken high honors at Dublin University, and had studied for the bar, where, under the auspices of his eminent kinsman, he had excellent prospects; but his conscience would not allow him to take a brief, lest he should be selling his talents to defeat justice. With keen logical powers, he had warm sympathy, solid judgment of character, thoughtful tenderness and total self-abandonment. He before long took holy orders, and became an indefatigable curate in the mountains of Wicklow (Ireland). Every evening he sallied forth to teach in the cabins, and roving far and wide over mountains, and amid bogs, was seldom home before midnight. By such exertions his strength was undermined, and he so suffered in his limbs that not lameness only, but yet more serious results were feared. He did not fast on purpose, but his long walks through wild country and amongst indigent people, inflicted on him much severe deprivations; moreover, as he ate whatever food offered itself (food unpalatable and often indigestible to him), his whole frame might have vied in emaciation with a monk of La Trappe.

“I remember once saying to him: ‘To desire to be rich is absurd; but if I were a father of children, I should wish to be rich enough to secure them a good education.’ He 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.’ I was unable to say Amen; but I admired his unflinching consistency, for now, as always, all he said was based on texts aptly quoted and logically enforced. He made me more and more ashamed of political economy, and moral philosophy, and all science, all of which ought to be ‘counted dross for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord.’ For the first time in my life, I saw a man earnestly turning into reality the principles which others professed with their lips only.

“Never before had I seen a man so resolved that no word of the New Testament should be a dead letter to him. I once said: ‘But do you really think that no part of the New Testament may have been temporary in its object? For instance — What should we have lost if St. Paul had never written, ‘The cloak that I left at Troas . . . bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments’? He answered with the greatest promptitude, ‘I should have lost something, for it was exactly that verse which alone saved me from selling my little library. No! every word, depend upon it, is from the Spirit, and is for eternal service.'”

E. E. Whitfield said of Darby: “Although a born leader, he was nobly simple in habits and manner, and equally transparent and trustful. He had nothing petty about him . . . His ministry was ever in close touch with his pastoral visitations in which he engaged every afternoon . . . He lived in the Bible and recommended thinking in Scripture.”

Darby’s travels took him to Paris in 1830. He never married and thus was quite free to move. Between 1837 and 1840 he was in Switzerland. There many congregations of believers formed. As a revolution broke out in Switzerland in 1845, many believers suffered persecution, and Darby’s life was threatened. He slipped out of the country and returned to England where he would stay for many months. His most extensive travels occurred between 1853 and the time of his death in 1882. He made three trips to Germany, spent considerable time in France and visited Italy. There, cupping his head in his hands, as he sat in a scant hotel room in Italy, the lonely traveler sang:

Jesus, I my cross have taken, All to leave and follow Thee.

It is evident that many of his so-called followers knew little of the secret of his strength. Many claim adherence to Darby’s doctrines, but live worlds apart. Beside Italy, he saw New Zealand and the West Indies. He made at least six trips to North America and in all, spent seven years in Canada and the United States. In 1862 he got as far west as Chicago, where he preached in D. L. Moody’s home church and the two discussed doctrine until they came to an impasse over the meaning of John 1:12,13. Moody could not swallow what Darby was putting forth. But in years following, Moody enthusiastically promoted C. H. Mackintosh’s writings. C. H. M. is virtually Darby interpreted. In St. Louis, Darby was warmly received by a Presbyterian minister named James H. Brookes (1830-1897). Brookes become the father of the fundamentalist movement and the spiritual mentor of one of fundamentalism’s pillars, C. I. Scofield. Brookes and Scofield freely acknowledged their indebtedness to Darby’s expositions.

The weeds of higher criticism and modernism that necessitated the fundamentalist movement in the United States had first sprung up in Europe. Darby had faced these heresies in England and Europe a generation before they crossed the Atlantic. His biting critiques of rationalism, higher criticism and modernism were indeed fierce. He viewed these foes as “infidelity” and “apostasy.” When his old pupil, Francis William Newman, forsook Christianity and wrote a book about it, Darby countered with a book entitled The Irrationality in Unbelief. Darby was an elder statesman toward men like Brookes and Scofield because he had anticipated the combat they would face.

Darby’s writing style is difficult. To read him is like chasing a man through a thick forest. He knows where he is running but you don’t, so stay close or he will lose you. C. H. Spurgeon (not one of Darby’s admirers) said that if people could only understand what Darby was saying they would discover he didn’t have so much to say after all.

What did Darby have to say? All his writings are in print. He composed some twenty-seven hymns, edited the Little Flock Hymn Book, his Collected Writings fill thirty-four volumes, his Synopsis of the Bible (considered his best work) is in five volumes, his Letters fill three volumes, then add to this his Notes and Jottings and his Comments on Scripture. More impressive still is Darby’s translation work.

We doubt if it could be said of another man that his name is attached to the whole Bible in three languages and the New Testament in three more, and that they are all in print! Darby was a diligent student of the original Greek. In May of 1870 he wrote from London, “Most of the day I am poring over Greek editions and mss.” The story is told that on one occasion the committee of the English Revised Version was puzzling over the meaning of a passage and in frustration one of the men admitted, “There is only one man in England who knows the meaning of this verse … William Kelly.” Darby had been asked to sit on the committee but refused because of the doctrinal stance of some of the members.

In 1853 Darby first visited Elberfeld, Germany. There he worked with others on a German New Testament. This appeared in 1855 and the whole Bible appeared in 1871. For the French speaking Swiss, he translated the New Testament into French in 1859 and the whole Bible was published in 1885. Darby’s Dutch New Testament appeared in 1877 after a year of labor. It was mainly done by Darby’s co-laborers and was patterned after his French and English versions. Strangely, his English translation appeared after his first French and German versions. In 1868 he wrote, “I have completed my work in the New Translation.” The whole of the Old Testament was finally published in 1888. A Swedish New Testament bearing Darby’s name has been published, evidently the work of Darby’s helpers and not Darby himself. And finally an Italian New Testament published in 1891 is attributed to Darby’s work.

Yet for all this he remains virtually unknown. As a young man of thirty-two Darby wrote,

Lord, let me wait for Thee alone;
My life be only this —
To serve Thee here on earth, unknown;
Then share Thy heavenly bliss.

His prayer has evidently been answered. He practiced the maxim: Say little, Serve all, Pass on. In death as in life he remains an invisible man.

Further Reading:

Brief Sketch of the Life and Labours of John Nelson Darby, by W. G. Turner
Who Wrote our Hymns, by Christopher Knapp
Chief Men Among the Brethren, Loizeaux Brothers
Visits of J. N. Darby to North America, Moody Monthly, June 1956
John Nelson Darby As I Knew Him, by William Kelly.