Faith of
Our Fathers

A Remarkable
Portrait of a
Remarkable Man

6 July 2024

J.N. Darby in 1840

The description of
J.N. Darby by a skeptic of
the Christian faith may be
the best insight we have into
the character of this
unique servant of the Lord

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) was the leader of the Plymouth Brethren and is often called “the father of dispensationalism.” In our previous Note we gave some brief background concerning him; if you missed that, I would encourage you to read it before going on to read the rest of this note, as it will help you better appreciate the comments below. See “Some Background on J.N. Darby.”)

In the late 1820’s, Mr. Darby met Francis William Newman, a student at Oxford. Mr. Newman was the brother of John Henry Newman; the latter would eventually become famous as a leader of the “Oxford Movement” in England, which was seeking to bring the practices of the Anglican church more closely into line with those of the Roman Church. He would in the end leave the Anglican priesthood, be received into the Roman church, and go on to become a cardinal; the “Newman Centers” on college campuses today are named after him.

Francis, however, would take a very different path. As a young man he was for a time a Christian, and during that period of his life was very much influenced by Darby; for a time he even served as a missionary. Nonetheless, he later gave up the orthodox Christian faith and became a prominent secularist, one who has even been described as “one of the first of the modernists.”

However, that only makes his description of Darby, provided below, all the more compelling. While it is given somewhat later in his life, after he had left the faith, and thus is not written by one who was promoting Darby or his work, it nonetheless presents him in a very compelling light, giving us a remarkable insight into Darby’s character as a servant of the Lord.

A Portrait of
J.N. Darby by
Francis William Newman

This [John Nelson Darby] was a…most remarkable man, who rapidly gained an immense sway over me. I shall henceforth call him the “Irish Clergyman.” His “bodily presence” was indeed “weak.” A fallen cheek, a bloodshot eye, crippled limbs resting on crutches, a seldom-shaven beard, a shabby suit of clothes, and a generally-neglected person, drew at first pity, with wonder to see such a figure in a drawing-room. It has been reported that a person in Limerick offered him a halfpenny, mistaking him for a beggar; and if not true, the story was yet well invented.

This young man had taken high honors at Dublin University, and had studied for the bar, where, under the auspices of his eminent kinsman, he had excellent prospects; but his conscience would not allow him to take a brief, lest he should be selling his talents to defeat justice. With keen logical powers, he had warm sympathy, solid judgment of character, thoughtful tenderness and total self-abandonment.

He before long took holy orders, and became an indefatigable curate in the mountains of Wicklow (Ireland). Every evening he sallied forth to teach in the cabins, and roving far and wide over mountains, and amid bogs, was seldom home before midnight. By such exertions his strength was undermined, and he so suffered in his limbs that not lameness only, but yet more serious results were feared. He did not fast on purpose, but his long walks through wild country and amongst indigent people, inflicted on him much severe deprivations; moreover, as he ate whatever food offered itself (food unpalatable and often indigestible to him), his whole frame might have vied in emaciation with a monk of La Trappe . . .

I was at first offended by his apparent affectation of a careless exterior, but I soon understood that in no other way could he gain equal access to the lowest orders, and that he was moved, not by asceticism, nor by ostentation, but by a self-abandonment fruitful of consequences.
He had practically given up all reading but the Bible; and no small part of his movement soon took the form of dissuasion from all other voluntary study. In fact, I had myself more and more concentrated my religious reading on this one book; still I could not help feeling the value of a cultivated mind. Against this my new eccentric friend (having himself enjoyed no mean advantages of cultivation) directed his keenest attacks. I remember once saying to him: “To desire to be rich is absurd; but if I were a father of children, I should wish to be rich enough to secure them a good education.” He replied: “If I had children, I would as soon see them break stones on the road as do anything else, if only I could secure to them the gospel and the grace of God.” I was unable to say Amen; but I admired his unflinching consistency, for now, as always, all he said was based on texts aptly quoted and logically enforced.

He made me more and more ashamed of political economy, and moral philosophy, and all science, all of which ought to be “counted dross for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord.”

For the first time in my life, I saw a man earnestly turning into reality the principles which others professed with their lips only . . .

Never before had I seen a man so resolved that no word of the New Testament should be a dead letter to him. I once said: “But do you really think that no part of the New Testament may have been temporary in its object? For instance— What should we have lost if St. Paul had never written, ‘The cloke that I left at Troas bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments?’ He answered with the greatest promptitude, I should have lost something, for it was exactly that verse which alone saved me from selling my little library. No! every word, depend upon it, is from the Spirit, and is for eternal service.”

In spite of the strong revulsion which I felt against some of the peculiarities of this remarkable man, I for the first time in my life found myself under the dominion of a superior. When I remember how even those bowed down before him who had been in the place of parents — accomplished and experienced minds — I cease to wonder in retrospect that he riveted me in such a bondage.

— Quoted from Phases of Faith, 1850

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—  6 July 2024 —