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.