Of all the names of brethren connected with the commencement of assemblies of Christians as we know them, that of John Nelson Darby probably remains the most widely known more than 200 years after his birth. Three reasons may be adduced for that being so.
1. The power of his personality and his leadership qualities ensured a devoted following to a remarkable degree. Sadly the result of that did not always turn out to be positive, but that is more a reflection upon later generations than upon Darby.
2. The reach of his ministry, accomplished by extensive journeys through Britain, Ireland and the Continent, as well as to North America, the West Indies and New Zealand.
3. His learning, combined with powers of logic and keen spiritual insight, enabled him to produce a substantial body of literature, influential well beyond his own circle.
J N Darby was born in London on 18th November, 1800 the youngest son of John Darby a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowner and merchant. It is well known that his middle name was bestowed in honour of Lord Nelson. The connection with Britain's greatest naval hero was through John Darby's older brother Admiral Sir Henry D'Esterre Darby KCB, who, as captain of the 74 gun ship Bellerophon1, had distinguished himself at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. It is unlikely that Lord Nelson was present at Darby's baptism at St. Margaret's Westminster on 3rd March, 1801, but he may have been represented by a sponsor. In 1881 Darby wrote in a letter to J G Deck: I was never satisfied with the manner of my baptism, though I felt it could not be repeated: I had been received into the ostensible body with bona fide intention of doing so and could not be let in again. This quote reveals something of Darby's view on baptism – a minority, but not divisive, interpretation among early brethren – but one later followed by many "exclusive" brethren in their practice of household baptism.
Darby began his education at Westminster School, and then from 1815 went to Trinity College in Dublin, where after four years he won a Classical Gold Medal. He went on to study for the Bar, though he never practised as a barrister. From the age of eighteen he had a deep and prolonged spiritual exercise during which the opening words of Psalm 88, "O Lord God of my salvation", were almost his only gleam of comfort, until at last he found assurance of salvation and of peace with God. To his father's anger, and the disappointment of other relatives, he turned away from a legal career with its prospects of worldly advancement, and sought instead to serve God. To this end he became curate of the large rural parish of Calary in County Wicklow, where his diligent ministry and sympathies gained the confidence of the poor. To this period belongs the incident recorded in the famous tract describing the salvation of a poor shepherd boy in Kerry. The touching story reveals Darby's ability to make the gospel known in simple terms.
Darby was assiduously reading his Bible and began to question seriously his clerical position. Archbishop Magee's charge relating to Roman Catholic converts, and the petition by the clergy to Parliament for further state protection2, convinced Darby that the concept of a legally Established Church was wholly unscriptural, and in reality a denial of the heavenly character of the Church. He wrote to the Archbishop setting out his beliefs, a courageous act for a recently ordained priest only 27 years old. Soon after, Darby returned to Dublin and began with three others to meet in the home of Mr Francis Hutchinson to break bread. Thereafter ecclesiastical bonds were rapidly loosened! His first published pamphlet Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ, and his later Separation from Evil God's Principle of Unity, evidenced his developing convictions relating to ecclesiastical matters.
During Darby's stay in the Dublin home of his brother-in-law, he had met a brilliant young Oxford graduate who had been employed as a private tutor to the family, Francis Newman, a younger brother of the John Henry Newman who later became a Roman Catholic Cardinal. Newman was captivated by Darby's devotedness and personality, and after returning to Oxford he persuaded him to pay a visit in the spring of 1830. At the University, Darby met a number of young men, friends of Newman's, including George V Wigram, and Benjamin W Newton upon whom Darby initially made a profound impression. As their acquaintance deepened Newton invited Darby to visit his home in Plymouth, where before long a flourishing work commenced. A chapel was acquired for preaching, and addresses were attended by good numbers both of clergy and laity. Soon the Lord's Supper was being celebrated and the assembly then formed grew rapidly. In the next few years it was strengthened by the addition of able teachers such as J L Harris, Henry Borlase, S P Tregelles, and H W Soltau.
Darby was a keen participant in the conferences at Powerscourt House near Dublin, chaired by the Reverend Robert Daly, which focused upon prophetic subjects. Numbers from various parts of the UK attended, including, in 1833, Darby and Bellett, Newton and Captain Hall from Plymouth, Craik and Muller from Bristol, and other well-known brethren. Initially Darby and Newton found substantial measure of agreement in their interpretation of prophetic Scriptures, but their views diverged sharply as Darby matured his understanding from Scripture of consecutive dispensations each ending in apostasy and ruin, the distinction between Israel's earthly blessings and the Church's heavenly hope, and the pre-tribulation rapture of the Church.
By 1840 the number in fellowship at Plymouth had grown to around 700, requiring the building of a new chapel in Ebrington Street. Darby was busily engaged in preaching and teaching in Switzerland, but kept in touch with Plymouth (a work in which he maintained a keen interest) by regular correspondence and visits. He became concerned about teachings being advanced by Newton, not only on prophecy but, more vitally, relating to Christ and His sufferings. Newton's teachings had alarmed others, and after a visit by Darby to Plymouth in March, 1845 a theological dispute arose that was to have far reaching consequences. The participants were men of deep learning, high intellect and strong personality, and it may be that differing temperaments coloured the dispute and its outcome. Many leading brethren agreed that aspects of Newton's teachings were seriously erroneous; indeed Newton acknowledged error and withdrew certain publications for further consideration. None the less, differences could not be resolved, and in December, 1845 Darby with around sixty others formed a separate congregation in Raleigh Street.
That was not the end of the sad story as in 1848 (by which date Newton had left Plymouth) further problems arose relating to fellowship with the meeting at Ebrington Street. Two brothers from Plymouth presented themselves for fellowship at the Bethesda assembly in Bristol. The reception of one of them, after examination, led to the withdrawal from Bethesda of some who believed the brother to have been influenced by Newton's teaching and to hold error. The difficulty escalated with Bethesda being accused of "neutrality to Christ" because of receiving one suspected of heresy. In April, 1848 Darby stated that he could no longer have fellowship with Bethesda, and this was followed by his issue in August of that year of the "Bethesda circular", calling upon brethren everywhere to withdraw from fellowship with Bethesda. The result was a permanent division between those retaining sympathy with Bethesda who became known as "open" brethren, and "exclusive" brethren who supported Darby's insistence that all must judge the "Bethesda question". Many have questioned Darby's motives and actions through that unhappy period, and he has been severely criticised. While there may have been instances of a lack of charity towards certain brethren, it should be allowed that Darby's devotion to Christ was such that he could not tolerate what he perceived to be wrong teaching relating to His Person.
The "Bethesda circular" was based upon Darby's belief that failure to recognise an act of discipline by saints faithful to Christ and gathered in His name, was a denial the unity of the body. Independency was rejected as being contrary to that truth. Possibly the severe action against Bethesda was taken without enough care being exercised to assess fairly the decisions taken by the elders at Bethesda. In retrospect it all seems so sad, and indeed it was a tragedy that a work that had begun with such real concern for unity should so soon have been rent by division.
To be continued.