Faith of
Our Fathers

Background on
J.N. Darby

2 July 2024

“He was a man who
might have lived a life of ease,
but devoted himself to
the service of Christ”

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), the leader of the Plymouth Brethren and often called “the father of dispensationalism,” was one of the most remarkable servants of the Lord in the entire history of the church. He was greatly loved by so many he served, but, as is often the case with such ones, he is also a man that some love to hate.

He came from a wealthy and well-connected Anglo-Irish family, the seventh of eight children (or, per Wikipedia, the youngest of six). His middle name was given due to the connection his uncle, an admiral in the British navy, had with Admiral Lord Nelson, having commanded one of Nelson’s ships during his great victory against French naval forces at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. Darby’s sister would marry the future Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, Edward Pennefather.

He graduated from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, in 1819, and studied for the bar. With his great abilities and family connections he surely had a bright future ahead of him, but while still a young man he was gained by the Lord and left that career to serve Him. Around 1825 he was ordained in the Anglican Ministry, and not long after he moved to a country parish in Ireland, where he served among the poor while living in a peasant’s cottage on a bog.

Around 1828 he joined a small meeting in Dublin that eventually became the first meeting of the Brethren movement, and before too long he left the Anglican church and committed himself fully to building up that gathering.

As one commentator states,

He was a man who might have lived a life of ease, but devoted himself to the service of Christ, and diligently and faithfully sought the welfare of the Church which is His Body. He was the main instrument used by the Spirit of God to further the movement which became generally known as “the Brethren,”…and certainly he, as much as any, realized it’s true character….
When traveling in Italy on one occasion, being then an old man, he reached a very uncomfortable inn where he was to stay for the night. Weary and worn, he leaned his head on his hands, and was heard to murmur
[the lines of a hymn]:

“Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee.”

….He was undoubtedly one of the greatest gifts Christ ever gave the Church.
— R.E., as quoted in
The History of the Brethren, by N. Noel, volume 1, pages 51-52

In our next Note, we will include what is perhaps the most insightful portrait we have of J.N. Darby. What makes it all the more remarkable is that it is given to us, not by a friend or colleague, but by an early acquaintance of Darby’s who later left the faith and became one of the leading skeptics in England of the 19th century.

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—  2 July 2024 —