Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Darby, John Nelsonlocked

  • Timothy C. F. Stunt

John Nelson Darby (1800–1882)

by Edward Penstone

Darby, John Nelson (1800–1882), member of the so-called (Plymouth) Brethren, was born on 18 November 1800 at 9 Great George Street, Westminster, the youngest of six brothers who survived infancy. His father, John Darby of Markly, Warbleton, Sussex, was born in 1751 and was said to have profited as a merchant from naval contracts in the Napoleonic wars. He inherited Leap Castle, King's county, Ireland, in 1823 and died in 1834. His wife, Anne, the daughter of Samuel Vaughan, died in 1847. John Nelson Darby's second name echoes the festivities during the month of his birth, celebrating the arrival in England of the admiral under whom his uncle Sir Henry D'Esterre Darby served at the battle of the Nile. After attending Westminster School (1812–15) and Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated as a gold medallist in 1819, John Darby was admitted in the same year to Lincoln's Inn, having previously been admitted to King's Inn, Dublin. To his father's displeasure Darby abandoned the law and was ordained in August 1825, going to work among the peasants in Calary, near Enniskerry, co. Wicklow. In late 1827 he was injured in a riding accident and his spiritual experience in the following months, when he was convalescing in the Delgany and Dublin homes of his sister Susan Pennefather, was of crucial importance for his future development. Previously he had been an exact churchman, attaching great importance to sacramental grace, but now he discovered what he later referred to as a 'deliverance from bondage' and the reality of 'union with Christ'.

Darby's growing disillusion, especially with the Erastian tendencies of the Irish establishment, gave rise to his Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church (1828), in which he deplored the worldliness of many churchmen and dissenters alike, and likewise the divisions between believers. He now resigned his curacy to do itinerant mission work, though he had not yet seceded and still wore his clerical robes. It is not clear how far he was involved at this stage with those such as Anthony Groves (1795–1853) and John Bellett who began in 1829 to 'break bread' informally, and with whom Darby was later to be associated in the Brethren movement.

In 1830 Darby's enthusiasm was rebuffed by the doyen of evangelicalism, Charles Simeon, at Cambridge, but at Oxford he was warmly received in May and June by John Hill and Francis Newman, who had tutored his nephews in Ireland, as also by Henry Bulteel and Benjamin W. Newton; the latter encouraged him to investigate the manifestations of glossolalia near Port Glasgow, and then in December to visit Plymouth. Darby's zest for controversy in these years is well illustrated by his anonymous pamphlet in support of Bulteel's Calvinism and against Professor Edward Burton, published at Oxford in 1831, and by his spirited attack in 1832 on Archbishop Whately and his fellow commissioners on the Irish board of education. By September he was advocating a decidedly separatist position in the prophetic conference at Powerscourt, and when the ecclesiastical authorities wound up the Irish home mission in 1833 they were throwing away what was, in Darby's eyes, their last saving grace.

By now Darby was closely identified with the Brethren assembly at Plymouth which, he said, had 'altered the face of Christianity for me' (Letters, 3.230); and his secessionist preaching, especially in Ireland, where one archiepiscopal biographer described him as 'this Goliath of Dissent' (J. D. Sirr, Memoir of … Power Le Poer Trench, 1845, 344), resulted in the establishment of many Brethren meetings similar to the one at Plymouth. Several clergy followed his lead, but by 1837 the work in Ireland was hampered by his notoriety. There are some indications that in the early 1830s Darby and Theodosia Wingfield, the widow of Viscount Powerscourt, considered the possibility of marriage, but his itinerant lifestyle precluded any such union. He had a small private income derived from several family legacies, but he lived simply and was generous in his giving.

Fascinated by the continental réveil, Darby had visited Switzerland in 1835 and in 1837. The dissident assembly in Geneva, which was in some confusion on questions of ecclesiastical order, welcomed Darby in 1839, as his ministry at this stage emphasized unity rather than separation. Similarly in 1840 the Calvinist emphasis of his teaching was appreciated by the dissidents in Lausanne, who were troubled by growing Methodist activity. Darby's lectures, published as L'attente actuelle de l'Eglise (1840), in which can be found the earliest systematic exposition of his very distinctive teaching that the church was in ruins, were also well received by certain members of the state church who were apprehensive about the Erastianism of the ecclesiastical constitution which would come into force in 1841. Such was their enthusiasm that some of them began to break bread with Darby in 1840. When, in the following year, certain of the dissidents questioned his ecclesiology, Darby called for a general separation from all existing churches in favour of 'non-sectarian groups of believers'. To this call for secession many of his followers responded, and by the end of 1842 the Darbistes, as the Exclusive Brethren are still called on the continent, were established as an independent communion—totally separate from the older dissidents. In 1843 Darby briefly visited England and then, with help from the Swiss Darbistes, established several Brethren assemblies in France, before returning to Switzerland, whence he was compelled to withdraw by the revolution of 1845.

During his time on the continent Darby's ecclesiology had become more radical, his eschatological ideas were formulated more precisely, and he had become accustomed to a position where he enjoyed almost unquestioning respect and compliance from his followers. On his return to England in early 1845 he soon clashed with his former co-worker Benjamin W. Newton, who had acquired a similarly dominant influence in the Plymouth assembly and whose eschatology was very different from Darby's. After an acerbic exchange of letters filled with mutual recriminations and charges of sectarianism, Darby withdrew from the Plymouth assembly in October and began to break bread with another group of Brethren. In 1847 some Christologically heterodox teaching by Newton led Darby to insist that all of Newton's associates and any Brethren assemblies which, like the Bethesda assembly in Bristol, received them should be excluded from communion. The subsequent schism between the Open and Exclusive Brethren left Darby as the undisputed, though unofficial, leader of the latter. In due course the exclusive principle on which Darby had insisted bore its inevitable fruit and the movement suffered further divisions. In 1866 William H. Dorman and Percy F. Hall, who had been associated with Brethren from the earliest days, accused Darby of Christological heresy and separated from him, and in 1881 a further ecclesiastical disagreement led to a rift between him and two other long-standing friends, Edward Cronin and William Kelly.

To the end of his life Darby was almost continuously engaged in an itinerant ministry among his followers. In 1853, at the invitation of Julius van Poseck and Rudolph Brockhaus, he visited Elberfeld in Germany, where several Brethren assemblies had been established, and in the following year he began his translation of the New Testament into German. In 1871 he was in Italy and in 1875 he travelled to New Zealand, where his aim was to strengthen the ‘exclusive’ principles of some Brethren, such as the emigrant James G. Deck whose ecclesiastical position had become far too liberal for Darby's approval. He made several visits between 1862 and 1877 to Canada, where he regularly taught at the Brethren's summer conference in Guelph, and to the United States, where at first he worked only among his followers but later found an appreciative audience among non-Brethren. Particularly influential was his dispensational interpretation of scripture, in which he maintained that the mode of God's dealings with mankind is not uniform and varies from one era to another. His teaching on this subject was widely adopted among evangelicals, though only a few seceded from their denominations to become Brethren. His expository works, of which the Synopsis of the Books of the Bible (5 vols., 1857–67) is the best-known, enjoyed a similarly wide readership on both sides of the Atlantic. His translations of the Bible into English, French, and German were respected for their literal accuracy, but their use was confined to Brethren circles except for his German translation, which was used more widely. On the other hand, although much of his polemical writing was concerned with issues of interest principally to Brethren, he also wrote a number of apologetic and doctrinal critiques of such books as Francis Newman's Phases of Faith and Essays and Reviews, Colenso's Examination of the Pentateuch, and John Henry Newman's Apologia pro vita sua, as well as less memorable works.

Darby's character was full of contradictions. Generous and compassionate to a degree, he could be a dynamic and ruthless opponent. The rugged features of his portrait suggest the dedication of a single-minded and tireless worker. As late as 1880 he was still travelling on the continent, but a fall sustained in Dundee early in 1881 seriously weakened his heart and lungs. He died at Sundridge House, Bournemouth, the home of a friend, Henry A. Hammond, on 29 April 1882 and was buried in Bournemouth cemetery.


  • Letters of J. N. D., 3 vols. (1886–9)
  • H. H. Rowden, The origins of the Brethren, 1825–1850 (1967)
  • F. R. Coad, A history of the Brethren movement (1968)
  • G. Ischebeck, John Nelson Darby, son temps et son œuvre (1937)
  • T. C. F. Stunt, ‘Darby, John (Nelson)’, The Blackwell dictionary of evangelical biography, 1730–1860, ed. D. M. Lewis (1995)
  • M. S. Weremchuk, John Nelson Darby, a biography (1990)
  • d. cert.
  • T. C. F. Stunt, From awakening to secession: radical evangelicals in Switzerland and Britain, 1815–35 (2000)


  • JRL, corresp. and papers
  • priv. coll.
  • JRL, corresp. with B. W. Newton


  • photograph, 1840, repro. in F. C. [F. Cuendet], Souvenez-vous de vos conducteurs (1966)
  • E. Penstone, watercolour drawing, NPG [see illus.]
  • sketches, paintings, and photographs, JRL, Christian Brethren archive

Wealth at Death

£3553 19s. 2½d.: probate, 14 Dec 1882, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

City of Westminster Archives Centre, London