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"A Goodly Heritage" (13): Fresh Awakenings - John Nelson Darby (2)

J Brown, Peterhead

After the division resulting from the events of 1848, "exclusive" brethren remained for some years the larger part of the movement, and included many of the well-known intellectuals and writers among the early brethren. Regrettably, the cohesion and stability of that sector did not survive Darby's lifetime, and the history of subsequent divisions served to demonstrate the difficulty of applying in practice, some elements of Darby's teaching relating to discipline and fellowship. This observation is not intended to be condescending, but is made with a real consciousness of weakness and failure.

Labours abundant

A large number of assemblies in the British Isles and in Europe provided an extensive field of labour to absorb J N Darby's energies. The expansion of the work in the middle years of the century was due in large measure to his zeal and whole-hearted commitment. He devoted much time to labour in the south of France and in Switzerland, often trudging from place to place on foot and finding lodging wherever he could. Between 1862 and 1868 he made three extended visits to the United States and Canada, followed by a visit to the West Indies. Three further visits were made to North America between 1870 and 1875, and from there he sailed to labour in New Zealand. Although means of travel had greatly improved both by land and sea since the Whitefield and Wesley era, such journeys must have required considerable stamina. Even while engaged in a demanding programme of travel and preaching, he continued a voluminous correspondence with brethren and assemblies in many countries as well as writing and publishing. William Kelly recalled that he was habitually a hard worker, from early morn devoted to his own reading of the Word and prayer; but even when most busily engaged, he as a rule reserved the afternoons for visiting the poor and the sick, his evenings for public prayer, fellowship, or ministry. Indeed whole days were frequently devoted to Scripture readings wherever he moved, at home or abroad.

Kelly's reference to the poor is interesting as it touches upon that well-attested sympathy that Darby had demonstrated in his Calary parish and that continued throughout his life. He wrote, I love the poor, and have no distrust of them, living by far the most of my time amongst them, and gladly. When first I began such a life, I as to nature felt a certain satisfaction in the intercourse of educated persons: it was natural. If I find a person spiritually minded and full of Christ, from habit as well as principle I had rather have him than the most elevated or the most educated. Again he wrote, I enjoyed hiding myself and presenting the Saviour to the poor. He often sought out poorer brethren and happily lodged in their homes, rather than with wealthy brethren who would gladly have provided every comfort.

His oral ministry appealed to learned and uneducated alike. One hearer recorded his impression: Combined with his great learning and deep knowledge of the Scriptures was his lowliness and simplicity, so that all could understand him, especially when he sought in an unequalled way to place the consciousness of others in the presence of God and to cause souls to enjoy the glory and work of Christ. Simple and unaffected, earnest and heartfelt, interwoven with the true spirit of the Gospel, his addresses were the means of conversion and deliverance for thousands.

Another wrote, He proves, explains and answers questions the whole day, and in the evening he can lecture unprepared for an hour without showing signs of tiring. Although he speaks French with ease it is without any adornment; it is a naked, simple confidential speech with great authority. His expression is that of a man who is fully convinced, enthusiastic for the truth and in whose soul the heavenly glories are reflected.

Few ever heard allusion to Hebrew or to Greek in his addresses. He believed that The Spirit of God will guide more surely a plain man, if he be humble, in fundamental truths, than a little Greek will those who trust in it.

In Bible Readings he exercised extraordinary patience in explaining matters to unlearned brethren, but could be brusque to any he thought should know better. On occasion, differences of understanding were not well handled, such as when he was invited by D L Moody to conduct Readings in Chicago. Large numbers attended until the meetings came to an abrupt end when Darby and Moody clashed while discussing the freedom of man's will. Darby suddenly closed his Bible and refused to continue.

Last days

After a final visit to France in 1881 Darby remained in England. By the beginning of the next year his strength was clearly declining and in March he left his London home to travel to Bournemouth, where, in the home of H A Hammond, he spent his last days on earth. He entered his rest on 29th April, 1882 and was buried on 2nd May. Around a thousand were present when the graveside service began by the singing of a hymn written by R C Chapman:

O happy morn! The Lord will come
And take His waiting people home
Beyond the reach of care;
Where guilt and sin are all unknown:
The Lord will come and claim His own,
And place them with Him on His throne
The glory bright to share.

It is pleasant to know that just as the last note died away, a lark rose from the lawns close by and poured forth its joyous notes.


His warm sympathies, devotedness to Christ, and the captivating winsomeness of his personality ensured that he was revered by many. Conversely, others remembered him as a stern opponent, whose judgments were sometimes flawed either by prejudice, or the influence of some whom he had been too ready to believe. Whatever may have been his flaws, the legacy of his ministry and writing has proved to be of enduring value. William Kelly edited his collected writings comprising 34 volumes covering a variety of subjects e.g. expository, doctrinal, ecclesiastical and prophetic. His style of writing is difficult to read, but close attention can be most rewarding. His sentences are often long and complex, sometimes with clauses within clauses, to achieve exactitude. He once remarked to Kelly, You write to be read and understood, I only think on paper. Kelly believed the five volume Synopsis of the Books of the Bible to be Darby's greatest single work, and time has confirmed that judgment. Three volumes of his letters provide a wealth of interesting material in a wide range of matters, besides revealing detail of his travels as the place of writing is often given.

His translation work alone was a great achievement. He was the principal scholar behind translations of the Bible into German in 1853, and French in 1859. His English translation of the New Testament, completed in 1868, was highly regarded by the translators of the 1881 Revised Version of the Bible. He was not able to finish the Old Testament, but it was completed after his death with the help of his German and French Translations. It should be noted that Darby did not intend his New Translation for public use, but to give the student of scripture, who cannot read the original, as close a translation as possible.¹

His poems and hymns stand in marked contrast to the dense style of his prose. It is as if his spirit had been set free to give simple and full expression to his deepest thoughts and highest aspirations. Darby's harshest critics have acknowledged that his hymns are of exceptional value. Few have succeeded, as he has done, in writing of heaven in lyrics devoid of sentimentality. Consider the closing verse of Rest of the saints above:

God and the lamb shall there,
The light and temple be
And radiant hosts forever share
The unveiled mystery.

His poem Man of Sorrows of 46 stanzas has been described as "exquisite". A tone of delightful tenderness marks every line. A number of hymns written in the last three years of his life, during a period of great pressure and sorrow, were not composed, but spontaneous.

Perhaps his highest note was reached in the lovely verse:

The heart is satisfied, can ask no more,
All thought of self is now forever o'er;
Christ its unmingled object fills the heart,
In blest adoring love, its endless part.

But when we exult in the singing of such lines, let us not imagine that we are of Darby. Let us rather realise that Darby is ours!²

This quotation from JND provides a suitable postscript:

Use a sharp knife with yourself, say little, serve all, and pass on.

This is true greatness. To serve unnoticed and work unseen.

To be continued.

¹ Preface to the Second Edition of The New Testament, 1871.

² See 1 Corinthians 3.21-23.


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