Skip to main content

John Darby by William E. Cox

By April 9, 2011April 12th, 2016Dispensationalism

It is impossible to understand fully the dispensational view of eschatology apart from some history of its origin and main spokesmen. Biographers of John Darby refer to him as the father of modern dispensationalism.

Around 1825 many dissenting groups were beginning to pull away from the established churches in different parts of Europe. The three paramount centers seem to have been Dublin, Ireland, and Plymouth and Bristol in England. The leaders of this movement recognized the pen as being ‘mightier than the sword,’ and turned out an abundance of literature publicizing their new beliefs. Darby referred to the church as ‘the Brethren.’ The headquarters for the printing of the Brethren was in Plymouth. Thus, it followed naturally for this new denomination to be called Plymouth Brethren, and the name stuck.

Darby was not the founder of the Brethren movement, although he became its dominant leader and shaped its history. Even though there were many great names associated with the movement, they all were dwarfed, and his name continues in the minds of friend and foe alike. By 1830 he was in complete control of the movement and definitely shaped its dispensational doctrines. That his leadership was unshakable is evident from the fact that, although he made many bitter enemies among the founders of the movement, no man was able to unseat him. Many indeed tried, but themselves were forced either to buckle to Darby or leave the group.

The ‘father of modern dispensationalism’ was born John Nelson Darby in Ireland, in the year 1800, and died in 1882. He was an honor student in Westminster and Trinity college, where he studied law. He was a successful lawyer until the age of twenty-seven, at which time he gave up his law practice to become a curate in the Church of England. He followed this profession until the time he joined the Brethren movement about 1827.

Darby’s biographers say he was eccentric, homely, crippled, and had a deformed face, yet that he possessed a magnetic personality and a keen organizing ability. The man was indefatigable, having been known to travel, it is said, for days while living on acorns. He came from a family background of education, culture, and, social standing. He apparently was blessed with a keen mind. William Blair Neatby, who was critical of the movement headed by Darby, described him (A History of the Plymouth Brethren, p. 192) as follows:

No doubt Darby had many perfectly intelligible titles to success. His attainments were great and varied, apart from his classical and theological scholarship. He could write and speak in several modern languages, and translated the whole Bible into French and German.

While convalescing from injuries received when his horse threw him, Darby was convinced of the authority of Scripture and the importance of prophetic teachings. He was especially impressed by the thirty-second chapter of Isaiah, which he referred to as describing ‘a state of things in no way established as yet.’

In spite of his belief in the authority of the Scriptures, Darby retained some of his old Anglican beliefs. For example, Neatby says of him (ibid., p.63): ‘Darby alone among the earlier Brethren remained a pedobaptist.’

Darby wrote into the doctrinal platform of the Brethren one innovation which still marks the dispensational school today. We refer to his disregard of and actual contempt for history. In his book, Prophecy and the Church, p. 26, Allis quotes Darby as having said:

I do not want history to tell me Nineveh or Babylon is ruined or Jerusalem in the hands of the Gentiles. I do not admit history to be, in any sense, necessary to the understanding of prophecy.

The Plymouth Brethren, when first organized, had two main distinctives:

  1. theirs was an ecumenical movement, and
  2. they sought to do away with an ordained clergy and anything which even resembled organization within the local church.

They were opposed to music or any type of ritual in the church service. Darby’s watchword, according to his biographers, was ‘the union of the children of God.’ The Brethren frowned on ordination as constituting a man-made ministry, and the very word ‘Brethren’ was an attempt to get away from denominationalism.

While the subject of the Lord’s second coming soon came to dominate the dispensational school, it scarcely entered into their thinking at the very first. Their two main starting aims – ecumenicity, and looseness of organization – may be seen from the following quotations.

We should come together in all simplicity as disciples, not waiting on any pulpit or ministry, but trusting that the Lord would edify us together, by ministering as He pleased, and saw good from the midst of ourselves (Thomas S. Veitch, The Brethren Movement, p.19).

That ordination of any kind to preach the Gospel is no requirement of Scripture (Neatby, op. cit., p. 26,).

Without any rules, desiring to act only as the Lord should be pleased to give light through His Word.

Following his break with the Church of England and his joining the Brethren movement, Darby, along with the rest of the Brethren, claimed to have been given many ‘rediscovered truths.’ These alleged truths supposedly had been taught by the apostles, then lost sight of. Even the great Reformers had not known of these doctrines. These ‘rediscovered truths’ were, in fact, the direct opposite of all historic Christian teachings proclaimed by the Reformers and extant commentaries. Notice was given to the world at large that everyone should look on all previous postapostolic teachings as false, and that only the ‘rediscovered truths’ of the Brethren should be embraced.

The main teachings of dispensationalism, which will be dealt with in subsequent chapters, contrasted with the historic Christian beliefs. Perhaps a summary of their beliefs would be in order at this point. The following quotation (Arnold Black Rhodes, editor, The Church Faces the Isms, p.95) is pertinent.

In brief, the teachings of dispensationalism are as follows:

  1. The Jews are to be saved by repentance; they are to be left here on earth as God’s earthly people
  2. The Gentiles are to be saved by faith; they will be taken to heaven after the Rapture.
  3. The church is a parenthesis in God’s plan and will end in apostasy.
  4. The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are sharply differentiated, the first being the Davidic kingdom and the latter being God’s universal world-wide kingdom.
  5. God deals with men according to seven dispensations.

Only one of these five major doctrines of dispensationalism (number 2 above) in any way agrees with historic Christian teachings. Even that one would have to be explained, since historic Christians teach that, after the Rapture, Christians are to be taken to heaven permanently, whereas dispensationalists say it is only temporary at that time. Dispensationalists go on to teach that, after seven years, the church will be returned to earth, where it will take part in an earthly millennium. During the millennium, according to dispensationalists, the church will have a position inferior to that of Israel. They teach that, after the millennium, the church will be returned to heaven the second time, there to spend eternity while Israel remains forever ore the earth. None of this, of course, is in agreement with historic Christian beliefs. And, whereas the dispensationalists include only the Gentile Christians in the Rapture, historic Christians would include all believers from every age and nationality.

The Brethren divided into two distinct groups after Darby came into their midst. These groups came to be known as ‘exclusive assemblies’ and ‘open assemblies.’ Darby was the originator of the exclusive assemblies. In 1845 he returned to Plymouth from an extended stay in Switzerland. He and a Mr. Newton, who had been the pastor at Plymouth during Darby’s long absence, had doctrinal differences. This resulted in a war – in both verbal and pamphlet forms. Newton’s strong following in that particular church prevailed, and Darby ‘quit the assembly’ with fifty or sixty members. This, according to Veitch, was the beginning of ‘exclusivism.’ Neatby said, concerning Darby’s visit to Plymouth: ‘From the moment he decided to come, Brethrenism was doomed.’

When Darby withdrew from the Plymouth assembly, he formed another assembly in the same town. This marked the beginning of the so-called exclusive assemblies. Exclusives claimed that their meeting in any place was the sole ‘expression of the church of God’ there. It was divinely recognized, nothing else was! Darby wrote to a Mr. Spurr of Sheffield in 1854 regarding the case of a Mr. Goodall: ‘He is rejected in London … I take part in this act, and hold him to be outside the church of God on earth ..’

The exclusives formed a federation of assemblies with a Central Meeting. This was, of course, contrary to the very founding principles of Brethrenism. Darby excused this by saying they had discovered that the New Testament favored an area church. This meant that although an area such as London might have many churches, they all composed one municipal Church. The Central Meeting was set up in London. This Central Meeting decided, for all the churches, all such questions as receiving members, cutting off assemblies, and so forth. Veitch says:

These decisions were binding upon the area, and from the prestige which the London Meeting held, far beyond it. In the strong hands of Mr. Darby, the Central Meeting proved an instrument by which he controlled and dominated the assemblies (op. cit., pp.60,61).

Only Darby’s strong personality held the exclusive assemblies together. Neatby says: ‘When Darby’s fiat ceased to be law the party was broken. When Darby died it was scattered like dust.’

Darby, throughout his career as a religious leader, was an extremely controversial individualist. Once while debating with Dwight L. Moody, Darby angrily closed his Bible and refused to continue the public debate. He castigated Newton, even though Newton issued a pamphlet apologizing for doctrinal error. When Darby, on the other hand, was told that many or his teachings were looked on as heresy and were causing grief to many, he threatened to leave the fellowship rather than retract the teachings.

He excommunicated George Muller because Muller received members whom Darby did not approve. This in spite of the fact that these members had first been questioned by many pastors and other members. This is known as the ‘Bethesda Incident’ to Darby’s biographers. Darby wrote a circular from Leeds on August 26, 1848, cutting off from fellowship, not only all Bethesda members, but all assemblies who received any who had ever been members at Bethesda! Neatby called this circular: ‘A decree that was to spread strife, misery, and shame like a conflagration to the remotest bounds of Christiandom.’

Darby finally approached Muller to heal the breach over the Bethesda incident. Muller said at that time: ‘I have this moment only ten minutes time, having an important engagement before me, and as you have acted so wickedly in this matter I cannot now enter into it as I have no time.’ These two former friends never saw each other again, and Darby continued to castigate Muller until his death.

Even some of Darby’s best friends hesitated at some of his doctrines. He was accused of heresy a number of times. One particular case was his teaching that Jesus was sometimes caused to suffer at the hand of God simply for the sake of being punished. These teachings were recorded by Darby in 1858, when he wrote on ‘The Suffering of Christ,’ in which he stated the Lord suffered in a three-fold way. The third point was that Jesus endured sufferings at the hand of God which were non-atoning! When confronted with this teaching, Darby said it was not found in the New Testament, but in the Psalms. Darbyites today still claim to find things implied in the Old Testament which are not so much as mentioned in the New Testament.

Three things might be said in summary concerning this man with whom we differ so much:

  1. He was able to do what he did only because there was a great need. One historian said of Darby: ‘His strength lay, now as ever, in the reality of the abuses he attacked.’ The church was corrupt, the clergy unconcerned. Liberalism had all but taken over. Prophetic teachings and sermons about the second coming of Christ were almost unheard of. Multitudes of people were spiritually starved and longed for biblical preaching and a message of hope. Darby was a man of the hour, and so the people heard him gladly.
  2. John Darby, and the Plymouth Brethren in general, did much good for the church of Jesus Christ. They stimulated a much needed interest in Bible study. They exposed abuses in the church of their day. And, as time went on, they emphasized the second coming of our Lord.
  3. The same thing could well be said about the Brethren and Darby that Paul said about the Judaizers of his day. They had a zeal for God, ‘but not according to knowledge’ (Rom 10:2), Many present day evangelicals would agree with many of Darby’s emphases, and certainly all of us would welcome his zeal for the cause of Christ. His zealousness, however, was not always based on a knowledge of the Scriptures, and, like the Sadducees of Jesus’ day, he erred, not knowing the Scriptures. Yet Darby’s zeal plus his systematic legally-trained mind enabled him to carry the common people along with all he proposed. This was mostly because of the conditions, that is, the lack of Bible training among the laymen, their hunger for change, the lethargic ‘professionalism’ among the established clergy of that day, and the like.

In looking at John Nelson Darby, the ‘father of modern dispensationalism,’ we have tried to paint the whole man – bringing out his many good points as well as what we sincerely consider to have been his unscriptural teachings. The following caution (W. G. Turner, John Nelson Darby, p. 62) would seem to be an appropriate conclusion for this chapter. According to Turner:

Darby … commands the reverence and admiration of those who recognized in him a spiritual guide. But there is always need for caution lest this admiration of a Christian leader’s intellct and spiritual qualities should be allowed to pass (unconsciously at first perhaps) into an unwarranted and dangerous deference to his authority, or even into peaceful acquiescence in all his teachings as though it were impossible for such a man to err in any point of faith or practice.