On first meeting John Nelson Darby, one might not guess he was a brilliant scholar. Once he kept an appointment but went to the back door by mistake. Seeing his threadbare suit, the servants assumed he was a beggar and fed him as one. When Darby realized the impression he had created, he finished his meal and left without revealing who he was rather than embarrass his host.
Darby trained for the bar at Trinity College, Dublin, but soon abandoned law to become a curate in the Church of Ireland. This led his father to disinherit him, although the pair later reconciled. Assigned to Calary in Wicklow Country, Ireland, Darby lived as humbly as his parishioners. And he preached in Gaelic, which brought many Irish to faith. At his own expense, he built schools and practiced charity while wearing his threadbare clothes. After he left Calary, several parishioners wrote him a letter of gratitude for all he had done.
Darby left the Church of Ireland because he became convinced state churches are unbiblical. He protested a clergy letter that claimed Catholic emancipation would lead to persecution. If Christ suffered, why did his followers expect to be exempt? He objected when his archbishop required all clergy to swear an oath acknowledging the English king as head of the church. Christ, not king, was supreme in the church, said Darby. Decades later he wrote a book arguing that rites of ordination and some other practices of the Episcopal Church were man-made.
A fall from a horse laid him up for several weeks in 1827. During his convalescence, he pored over the Bible and became convinced all state churches are a hindrance to church unity. He defined the church as all true believers united by the Holy Spirit. A church body exists wherever two or three gather together in Christ’s name. All believers should accept any true believer.
While recovering, Darby also considered the Bible’s promises to the Jews of a permanent and blissful nation. Specific prophecies that spoke about the land of Israel remained unfulfilled. The details showed they could not apply to the church. Careful study over the next five years led him to develop the Dispensationalism for which he is famous. Along the way he acquired his belief in the pre-tribulation rapture of the church. His writings inspired a renewed interest in Israel’s place in prophecy. People respected his opinions because he was a master of biblical languages.
Darby was a founder of a Brethren movement. Beginning in 1827 he and a few others gathered for simple services. Later they became known as the Plymouth Brethren because in Plymouth they first became prominent. Although they set out to break barriers, the Brethren soon argued over Bible interpretation and split into many factions.
Meanwhile, Darby used his linguistic gifts to translate the Bible from its original languages into German, French, and English. He planted Brethren churches throughout Europe, Canada, the United States, and New Zealand. A fall in old age weakened him, but he wrote until a few days before his death at eighty-one years of age, on this day, 29 April 1882.