John Nelson Darby, (1800 - 1882) was an Anglo-Irish evangelist, an influential figure of the original Plymouth Brethren movement, and considered the father of Dispensationalism.
John Nelson Darby was born in Westminster, London of an Anglo-Irish landowning family and christened at St Margaret's on 3 March 1801. He was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated Classical Gold Medallist in 1819.
Darby embraced Christianity during his studies. He joined an "inn of court" but felt that being a lawyer was inconsistent with his religious belief, and so chose ordination as an Anglican clergyman in Ireland. (There is no evidence that he studied theology). Darby travelled extensively ministering to communities of the poor and uneducated of Ireland.
In October of 1827 Darby fell from a horse and was seriously injured. During his recuperation, he spent his time grappling with the issues of man's relationship with God. Darby saw from Scripture that the church comprised every true believer in Christ. He also came to believe that the very notion of a clergyman was an affront to the Holy Spirit working in individuals and the Church. Within a year Darby had joined with others of similar belief (Dr. Cronin, Mr Bellett and Mr. Hutchinson) to "break bread" together in Dublin.
Darby travelled widely in Europe and many "brethren" gatherings resulted. He also preached in the U.S., Canada and Australia. He used his classical skills to translate the Bible from the original texts. In English he wrote a Synopsis of the Bible and many other scholarly religious articles. He wrote hundreds of hymns and poems, the most famous being, "Man of Sorrows". He was also a prolific Bible Commentator. He died as the most respected elder (a moniker that he personally would not have accepted) of the brethren movement. Darby never married, although he had an association with the wealthy widow Lady Powerscourt. He is buried in Bournemouth, Dorset, England.
From this simple beginning the Brethren movement arose. Over the next 175 years, there were many divisions resulting in "Plymouth Brethren", "Open Brethren", "Exclusive Brethren", "Kelly Brethren" etc. Each faction claims to hold "the truth" more exactly than the others, whereas in reality the factions are usually the result of human power struggles. Being well educated and a forceful debater, Darby was able to dominate most of the brethren discussions in his time. This led to his being considered the leader and, indeed, originator, of the Brethren movement.
The Brethren claimed to be teaching "rediscovered truths." Darby is noted in the theological world as the father of "dispensationalism." He is said to have originated the "secret rapture" theory wherein Christ will snatch away his true believers from this world without warning. Some authors (e.g. Evangelicals and Israel: Theological Roots of a Political Alliance) claim that dispensationalism theory influenced the British government to issue the Balfour Declaration 1917. If this is true, Darby influenced current world events.
- "Oh, the joy of having nothing and being nothing, seeing nothing but a Living Christ in glory, and being careful for nothing but His interests down here." - J.N.D.