Darby, John Nelson (DNB00)

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DARBY, JOHN NELSON (1800–1882), a Plymouth brother and the founder of the Darbyites, was youngest son of John Darby of Markley, Sussex, and Leap Castle, King's County, Ireland, who died about December 1834, by Anne, daughter of Samuel Vaughan. He was born in London on 18 Nov. 1800, educated at Westminster School and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated B.A. in 1819 as gold medallist. He was called to the Irish bar about 1825, but soon gave up his connection with the law. He was then ordained and served a curacy in Wicklow, until in 1827 doubts as to the scriptural nature of church establishments caused him to resign his charge. At this time a Mr. A. N. Groves was founding a sect called ‘The Brethren,’ whose tenets were based on the rejection of all ecclesiastical forms and denominational distinctions. Darby, with others, joined Groves in this movement, and in 1828 issued his first pamphlet, ‘The Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ.’ The perusal of this book disturbed many minds in the protestant churches, and so swelled the ranks of the ‘brethren’ that in 1830 a public ‘assembly’ was opened in Aungier Street, Dublin. To promulgate these new views Darby in 1830 visited Paris, and afterwards Cambridge and Oxford. At Oxford he met Benjamin Wills Newton, at whose request he went to Plymouth. The first meeting-place of the sect in that town was Providence Chapel, from which circumstance the ‘brethren’ were often spoken of as ‘Providence people,’ but in country places were known as ‘Brethren from Plymouth,’ and hence the name, which afterwards became general, ‘Plymouth Brethren.’ In 1834 they commenced a magazine called ‘The Christian Witness,’ to which Darby contributed. As early as 1836 differences of opinion took place, and Groves addressed a letter to Darby pointing out to him that he was departing from the first principles of the ‘brethren.’ The subject in dispute was whether each meeting was to be independent and separate, or whether one central meeting was to control all the assemblies. Between 1838 and 1840 Darby worked in Switzerland, going in March 1840 to Lausanne to oppose methodism. Here his lectures on prophecy made a great impression, and many congregations were founded in cantons Vaud, Geneva, and Berne. When the jesuit intrigues caused a revolution to break out in canton Vaud in February 1845, the Darbyites suffered persecution, and the leader's life was in great jeopardy. He thenceforth took a more active lead among the English brethren, but his heart seems ever to have turned towards Switzerland and France. Returning to Plymouth in the same year he quarrelled with B. W. Newton, the minister in that town, and on 28 Dec. started a separate assembly; this division spread to Bristol, London, and other places, and Darbyism as a sect became established in England. In 1847 he resided in Bristol, where a local disruption occurred, and the ‘brethren’ became divided into two classes, the Darbyites or exclusives and the Bethesda open or loose brethren. In 1853 he paid a first visit to Elberfeld, where several assemblies of ‘brethren’ had already been established. Here in 1854 he translated the New Testament into German, and exercised his ministry far and wide. In 1858 he wrote ‘The Sufferings of Christ,’ and in the following year ‘The Righteousness of God.’ These books plunged him into much controversy and many difficulties, and caused many of his staunchest supporters in England to desert him in 1860. Notwithstanding, the sect continued to spread. Darby visited Canada in 1859, 1864, 1868, and 1870. In 1869 he was in Germany, where he took part in a translation of the Old Testament into German. He went to the United States of America in 1870, 1872, 1873, and 1874, to New Zealand in 1875, and at a subsequent period to the West Indies. Between 1878 and 1880 he was occupied with his translation of the Old Testament into French, and resided for a long time at Pau. About this period the Darbyites again divided, and two portions, leaving the main body, respectively followed a Mr. W. Kelly and a Mr. Cluff. The society, which had been founded on the lines of primitive christianity, had now developed into the sternest ecclesiasticism. Though Darby's works are largely doctrinal and controversial, his delight was in writing devotional and practical treatises. He was also a hymn writer, and the hymnal in general use among the ‘brethren’ was last edited by him. He died at Bournemouth on 29 April 1882.

He was a most voluminous writer under his own name, under his initials J. N. D., and also anonymously. Mr. Kelly has brought out a collected edition of a portion of these works in thirty-two volumes and promises a further instalment.

[Herzog's Religious Encyclopædia (ed. by P. Schaff, 1884), iii. 1856–9, 2592–3; Estéoule's Le Plymouthisme d'autrefois et le Darbyisme d'aujourd'hui, Paris (1858); Croskery's Plymouth Brethrenism (1879); Grove's Darbyism, its Rise and Development (1866); The close of Twenty-eight Years' Association with J. N. D., by W. H. D. (1866); Guinness's Who are the Plymouth Brethren? Philadelphia (1861); Times, 3 May 1882, p. 10; Law Times, 13 May 1882, p. 34; Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, ed. by W. Kelly, 1867–83; Trotter's The whole Case of Plymouth and Bethesda; Contemporary Review, October 1885, pp. 537–52.]

G. C. B.