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John Nelson Darby (1800–1882)

John Nelson Darby (1800–1882)

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), aka JND, was a hugely influential figure in the history of Protestant Christianity. In 1832, he co-founded the Plymouth Brethren, an evangelical group of travelling preachers who believed strongly in the power of the Holy Spirit.

JND was the son of John Darby of Markly in Sussex and Leap Castle in County Offaly (then the “King’s County”). His uncle Henry Darby commanded HMS Bellerophon (nicknamed the ‘Billy Ruffian’) under family friend Admiral Lord Nelson at the battle of the Nile some years earlier.

Born at Westminster and christened an Anglican, he was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College Dublin, where he graduated in 1819 as Classical Medallist. He was called to the Irish Chancery Bar but soon felt that being a lawyer was inconsistent with his religious belief. He instead chose ordination as an Anglican clergyman in Ireland and, in 1825, he was ordained deacon of the established Church of Ireland.

The following year he became a curate and distinguished himself for his successful ministry among the Roman Catholics of his parish in Calary, near Enniskerry, County Wicklow. He later maintained that hundreds of converts had been won over to the Church of Ireland during this time.

In October 1827, he was thrown from a horse and badly injured. He duly convalesced with his sister’s family, the Pennefathers, sometimes in Dublin and sometimes in their home at Temple Carig by Greystones / Delgany.

In 1806, Susan Darby, JND’s older sister, married Edward Pennefather who later lived Rathsallagh, County Wicklow. He served as Lord Chief Justice of Ireland (1841–1846). See Pennefather of Rathsallagh. Justice Edward Pennefather by Dan Drawsure, 1843.

The accident compelled him to give up his curacy at Calary but he later stated that it was during this time that he recognized that the “kingdom” described in the Book of Isaiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament was entirely different from the Christian church.

During the early 1830s he attended several Powerscourt Conferences,” an annual meeting of Bible students organized by his friend, the wealthy widow Lady Powerscourt (Theodosia Wingfield Powerscourt).

From the 1830s, and continuing on through the coming decades, he also embarked on several missions to the continent, visiting Germany, Switzerland, Holland and Italy. In later life he made similar trips to Canada, the United States, the West Indies, New Zealand and Hawaii, bringing thousands of people into the Brethren’s fold.

Darby informally stepped away from the Church of Ireland in 1834, although he could have resumed his position again had he wanted to.

The Plymouth Brethren began services in January 1832. He was not involved at that stage but he would become one of its most prominent members.

Among Darby’s protégés were two men who would themselves serve as tutor to the Pennefather boys – first Joseph Charles Philpot and later Francis William Newman (brother of John Henry Newman).

Leap Castle was burned in the Troubles of 1919-23.

 

Max Weremchuk, John Nelson Darby: A Biography (Southern California Seminary Press, 2021)

Further Reading

 

Weremchuk, Max, ‘Becoming JND – The Early Years of John Nelson Darby – 1800-1828’ (Southern California Seminary Press, 2024)

Weremchuk, Max, John Nelson Darby: A Biography (Southern California Seminary Press, 2021)

An outline of J. N. Darby’s biographical development can be found in two essays:

  • “Influences in the early development of John Nelson Darby” in Crawford Gribben, Timothy C.F. Stunt [eds], Prisoners of Hope?: Aspects of Evangelical Millennialism in Britain and Ireland, 1800-1880 (Carlisle [Paternoster Press] 2004)
  • “John Nelson Darby: Contexts and Perceptions” in Crawford Gribben, Andrew Holmes, [eds], Protestant Millennialism, Evangelicalism and Irish society, 1790-2000 (Basingstoke; New York [Palgrave Macmillan] 2006).