Additional Correspondence of John Nelson Darby

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The collection contains over 300 letters. These mainly consist of correspondence sent to Darby, including letters from, among others, E.L. Bevir, Edward Cronin, George James Deck, and Thomas Neatby. It also contains draft copies of Darby's own letters.

The collection is an invaluable resource for anyone studying Darby's life and thought. It contains much material on early developments in the Brethren movement, and is particularly useful for anyone wishing to understand the divisions among nineteenth century Brethren. Most correspondence from Darby has been published, but not the correspondence to him contained in this collection. It is an important resource for anyone studying the ideas of the Exclusive Brethren, or wanting to understand the roots of modern fundamentalist Christianity.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Nelson Darby was one of the founder members of what later became known as the Plymouth Brethren. When the latter split in 1848, he went on to become the first leader of the Exclusive Brethren. He was a noted biblical scholar whose doctrinal system was adopted well beyond the confines of the Brethren, and is a seminal influence on present day Christian fundamentalism, particularly that in America.

John Nelson Darby was born on 18th November 1800. His father John Darby was a wealthy merchant, who inherited the family home of Leap Castle in King's County, Ireland in 1824.

Darby was educated at Westminster School, and Trinity College Dublin, where he studied classics, and was awarded a coveted gold medal on graduation in 1819. From here he pursued a career at law, being first admitted to the King's Inn, Dublin and later to Lincoln's Inn, London. However, the law did not suit his temperament, and his spiritual leanings inclined him towards the Anglican Church. Despite his father's disapproval, he was ordained as a deacon of the Church of Ireland in 1825 and as a priest in 1826. He became the curate of an isolated rural parish in County Wicklow.

Darby was not to remain long in the Anglican Church; a mixture of pragmatic disillusion and spiritual differences together forced him out. In Ireland the activities of Archbishop Magee in the mid-1820s generated a controversy with the Catholic Church, culminating in his demand that each convert from Catholicism swear an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. This was anathema to Darby: it was contrary to the heavenly focus required of the church, and analogous to the worst features of Roman Catholicism; he published a polemical pamphlet critical of Magee and his supporters. At around the same time, Darby was involved in a riding accident and retired to his sister's homes in Delgary and Dublin to convalesce. During his convalescence he underwent a spiritual experience, which was to alter his attitude to the church and to the ministry, and have important long term consequences. It was here that his High Church phase ended; he arrived at the conclusion that spiritual authority rested ultimately with scripture rather than the church, embraced a literal biblical hermeneutic, and came to a new awareness of his relationship to Christ. He developed a particular interest in the history of the early church, which led him to question the notion of an Established Church, and moved towards recognition of the priesthood of all believers. His study of scripture also led him to reflect anew on Biblical prophecy and to conclude that God's promises to the Christian church were different to those made to the nation of Israel.

Whilst in Dublin, Darby was present at the meetings of a group of individuals, including Francis Hutchinson, Edward Cronin, Anthony Norris Groves, and J.G. Bellett, whose gatherings are generally regarded as marking the beginning of what would later be known to the world as the Plymouth Brethren.

Darby visited Switzerland in the late 1830s, where his fascination with the continental rèveil enabled him to develop his ideas further, in particular his notion of the church in ruins. His influence led to a call for secession, and the establishment of groups of Darbistes in France and Switzerland. He returned to England in 1845 following a revolution in Switzerland. Here he came into conflict with Benjamin Wills Newton, who had come to dominate the Plymouth assembly of Brethren. Differences over eschatology, accusations of Newton's Christological heresy, disagreement over the authority of teachers and the nature of open worship, mixed with a general atmosphere of personal mistrust, led to the historic schism which created the Open and Exclusive branches of the Brethren movement. Darby's insistence on the need to separate and ostracise all who had been in contact with the evil represented by Newton and his followers, cemented the division. Darby was to become the dominant figure among the Exclusive Brethren, who were to continue to subdivide over the years.

Darby travelled and preached widely, and was influential in the development of the Brethren movement in Germany, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. However his influence and importance are much more widespread than the Brethren movement, which was to remain a relatively small offshoot of Protestantism. Darby was a biblical scholar, he was proficient in a variety of languages including ancient Greek and Latin, and translated the Bible into English, French and German. He produced popular synopses of the Bible and voluminous polemical writings on biblical subjects. As well as his distinctive eschatological views in which he popularised the idea of the rapture of true believers at the point of Christ's return, he developed a dispensational interpretation of the Bible. This analysed the relationship between God and mankind in terms of distinct dispensations or epochs, with marked changes and transformations occurring following pivotal events. This interpretation proved to be a useful way of overcoming contradictions and discrepancies within the Bible. It was adopted and developed further in the early twentieth century by C.S. Scofield who produced a highly popular and influential series of reference and study Bibles. Through this medium, Darby became one of the most influential forces shaping the character and form of modern day American fundamentalist Christianity. Most of those describing themselves as premillenial dispensationalists can trace the modern roots of their ideas to Darby.

Darby died in Bournemouth on 29 April 1882.

Arrangement

The original order of the collection has been maintained. The letters are arranged in rough alphabetical order by correspondent. The letters possibly formed the basis of a separate collection to those contained in the Papers of John Nelson Darby and catalogued separately (see Archival History).

The collection is made up of one series consisting of correspondence: 

  • CBA 5540(306) - CBA 5540(534)

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Stichting Archief voor de Kerkgeschiedenis in De Bilt (later Vaassen), Netherlands

Other Finding Aids

There is a card index relating to photocopies of the correspondence collection. The card index has also been rearranged thematically, photocopied and reproduced as a handlist: The Christian Brethren Archive, Papers Relating to John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) (Manchester, 1983). The contents of this handlist have been outlined under Archival History. The present catalogue replaces these earlier finding aids.

Alternative Form Available

Present Truth Publishers, 274 East Veterans Highway, Jackson, NJ 08527, USA, also have photocopy reproductions of the letters. There is a CD containing electronic copies (pdf files) of the letters stored in the first box alongside the photocopies.

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

All of the items in this collection are photocopies, with the exception of CBA 5540(541) - CBA 5540(543)..

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Keeper of Manuscripts and Archives, John Rylands University Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The J.N. Darby collection was formerly in the possession of Henry Sibthorpe of Redruth, Cornwall and for some years in the Stichting Archief voor de Kerkgeschiedenis in De Bilt (later Vaassen), Netherlands, before transfer to the present Archive in June 2002. The original correspondence has been catalogued as a part of the Papers of John Nelson Darby.

Photocopies of Darby's correspondence were held in the Christian Brethren Archive prior to the donation of the originals to the Archive. These were arranged in a card index, and numbered CBA 5540 (1) - CBA 5540 (534). When Darby's papers were catalogued in 2006 it was discovered that the collection only contained items CBA5540(1) - CBA 5540 (305a) along with 14 letters from the rest of the collection. It is not known what happened to the missing items. The present collection consists of the photocopies of the items missing from the Papers of John Nelson Darby which have been catalogued separately.

The cards in the original card index were also sorted thematically, and each group photocopied onto A4 paper. These photocopies were placed into a bound handlist (CBA H2), which was widely used by Brethren scholars. In this finding aid (produced in 1983 by Susan N. Noble) the correspondence was rearranged into the following categories:

  • J.N. Darby's advice on scriptural passages
  • J.N. Darby's views on Brethren doctrine; J.N. Darby's writings
  • Assemblies in Great Britain - news of Brethren meetings and controversies: 
    • London and South East England - mainly relating to the Ramsgate-Ryde division
    • South West England
    • East Anglia
    • Northern England
    • Scotland
    • Ireland
  • Brethren activity abroad: 
    • France and Italy - mainly relating to the work of E.L. Bevir
    • Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands
    • USA and Canada - mainly relating to the work of F.W. Grant and R.T. Grant
    • Australia and New Zealand - mainly relating to the work of J.G. Deck
  • Miscellaneous subjects and items

Related Material

The John Rylands University Library holds the papers of John Nelson Darby (GB 133 JND).

The John Rylands University Library holds the papers of Benjamin Wills Newton in the Fry Collection(GB 133 FRY) , which includes letters (and copies of letters) from Darby, along with notes and letters relating to the dispute between Darby and Newton.

Location of Originals

The whereabouts of the originals of these photocopies is not known. They were not included in the Papers of John Nelson Darby transferred to the John Rylands University Library from the Stichting Archief voor de Kerkgeschiedenis in De Bilt (later Vaassen), Netherlands. As their whereabouts is unknown, it is assumed that these photocopies are the only extant copies of these letters.

Bibliography

James Barr, Fundamentalism (London: SCM Press, 1977)

Jonathan D. Burnham, A story of conflict: the controversial relationship between Benjamin Wills Newton and John Nelson Darby (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2004)

Tim Grass, Gathering to his name: the story of the open brethren in Britain and Ireland (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2006)

Ernest R. Sandeen, The roots of fundamentalism: British and American millenarianism 1800-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970)

Timothy C.F. Stunt, John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Timothy C.F. Stunt, John Nelson Darby: contexts and perceptions, in Crawford Gribben and Andrew R. Holmes (eds.), Protestant millennialism, evangelicalism, and Irish society, 1790-2005 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)

M.S. Weremchuk, John Nelson Darby: a biography (NJ: Neptune, 1992)