John Nelson Darby

Posted By Thomas Perez. May 19, 2011 at 11:09pm. Copyright 2011.

Background

The Plymouth Brethren or Darbyites is the name of a religious body which originated almost simultaneously at Plymouth, England, and Dublin, Ireland, about the year 1830. They are most generally called after the name of the place where they first started in England, but sometimes they are called after their principal founder, John Darby, at the time a clergyman of the Episcopal Church of Ireland. He himself gave to his adherents the name of Separatists, because they left the Establishment and determined to maintain a separate existence as a Church.

Early History

John Darby was born in England of a wealthy family, studied jurisprudence and became a lawyer, but, brought into the Church, he was strongly impressed with a call to the ministry, and, though opposed by his father, he took holy orders. Disinherited by the parent for disobedience, Darby found a friend and patron in his uncle, from whom he obtained at his decease quite an ample fortune. After ordination, Darby became gradually impressed with the idea that there was no ground for the doctrine of Apostolic succession, and that any person feeling called to preach should exercise that liberty. He therefore denounced the claim of the Establishment as unwarranted, and finally broke with the Episcopalians. He, however, still held that there was a true Church, and that all who thought as he did should band themselves together and wait until Christ made his personal appearance, which they anticipated would be speedily. There were a few who united themselves together on the strength of these views, in Plymouth, England, and at Dublin, Ireland. At the former place they seemed to meet with most success. There their numbers increased to seven hundred and up to fifteen hundred; and so marked was their success that they came to be called “Plymouth Brethren.” (They have never taken this name themselves, but they do not seem to object to it.) The work increased, and bands were formed in London, Exeter, and several other places. Among those who united with them were many persons of wealth, who contributed considerable sums of money to spread their views. They established a newspaper, known as the Christian Witness, Mr. Darby being its chief contributor. It was not long before they were violently opposed by the English clergy. This opposition was so well directed and so ably conducted that the spread of the new faith was not only seriously checked, but their numbers were greatly reduced. In 1838, or near that time, Mr. Darby left England. He first visited Paris, where he remained for a time, and then went to Switzerland, where he found a more inviting field. The Wesleyan Methodists had commenced successful operations in Lausanne.

Quite a number had withdrawn from the State Church and united with them. This excited the general attention of the people. Among the new proselytes to Methodism were many who still held the doctrine of predestination, and refused to accept the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection. Those who held the doctrine of predestination were charged by those who had fully discarded it as having received but half the truth. At Vevay similar excitement prevailed. In this state of things, for the purpose of overthrowing the new faith, an influential member of the State Church at Lausanne invited Mr. Darby to come there and fight the Methodists. He went, and by his preaching, and the publication of a book entitled The Doctrine of the Wesleyans regarding Perfection, and their Use of the Holy Scriptures, he succeeded in so far bewildering them that not long after the greater part of them abandoned their faith, and either returned to the State Church or united with the Dissenters. Mr. Darby, besides, gave a series of lectures on the prophecies, entitled “Views Regarding The Actual Expectation Of The Church, And The Prophecies Which Establish It.” They were largely attended by others than Dissenters, and produced a deep impression upon the public mind. They were published in book form, first in French, and subsequently translated into German and English, and may be found in Mr. Darby’s published works. In the estimation at least of the author they lifted the veil which had long, if not from the beginning, covered the prophecies. Such was Mr. Darby’s influence among the people that the regular ministry was almost entirely ignored, and he became the accepted prophet. In fact, his publications had the effect directly to turn the people from the minister as a whole. It was his custom to administer the sacrament every Sabbath indiscriminately to Churchmen and Dissenters, which practice earned for him the reputation of being a large-hearted Christian, and anxious to make the Church one. But really his object was to alienate the people until he could get them under his personal control for organization, he himself being the center of the organization, as is but too clearly apparent from the fly-sheets or tracts which he published. One of these, entitled Apostasy of the Actual Economy, lays the axe at the root of the tree of the Christian Church, leaving it a shapeless wreck. Another, On the Foundation Of The Church, attacks all Dissenters, and denies their right to form any new Church. And still another, Liberty To Preach Jesus Possessed By Every Christian, denies the existence of any priestly office in the Church, except the universal priesthood of believers. A tract entitled The Promise Of The Lord, based on Matthew 18:20, gave the shibboleth for the Darbyite gatherings. Another tract, entitled Schism, was issued, in which all who hesitated to take part in these gatherings were denominated “schismatics.” Thus the work of demolition went on. A small seminary was established in which to prepare men for the evangelistic work-that is, to spread their views and make disciples to them, and the result has been a widespread sect, with little or no organic unity.

Later History

A division took place among the “Brethren,” under the leadership of B. W. Newton. It commenced in England and extended to the Continent. Mr. Newton, it is claimed, held with Irving that Christ was not sinless. This notion was repelled by most of the Darbyites, and Newton was subsequently expelled by Mr. Darby. (It might be interesting to inquire how Mr. Darby could consistently expel a man from his society when he ignores all organizations? If there be no organization, what is there to be expelled from?) ‘The Newton heresy extended to Vevay, where there was much trouble, the ‘Brethren” splitting into two factions, which was followed soon after by many other societies. Another division took place among them, in which the famous George Muller, of Bristol, England, was the most prominent. Other divisions have occurred, but they are of very little importance. The ‘‘Brethren” are more or less numerous in Paris. Lausanne, Holland, Italy, and Belgium, on the Continent; in Plymouth, Exeter, and London, in England; a very few are in the United States, but more in Canada. They are an earnest, self-sacrificing people.

Doctrines, Etc

The “Brethren” profess to have no creed but the Bible, and condemn all who avow a creed, as putting human opinions in the place of the Word of God; and yet we seriously doubt if there is a Church in the land which has a more clearly defined creed than they have. They denounce all commentaries on the Bible as misleading, and yet Mr. Darby himself has written commentaries quite extensively on the Bible, to say nothing of McIntosh. In faith they seem to be strongly Antinomian. If once justified, it is their belief that the soul not only can never fall from grace finally, but can never fall into condemnation. ‘The soul’s standing remains as pure as Christ himself. In other respects they hold substantially the great and leading doctrines of the Gospel; but as they have no written creed or confession, it is exceedingly difficult to find out exactly what they do hold. Each one is in every respect allowed to hold what he pleases, consistently with continued practical evidence that he is a real Christian, which includes a belief in the leading doctrines of evangelical Christians. No one pretends in anything to judge for another, or make his convictions obligatory any further than he can, by more perfectly instructing the other, induce him to accept them. Their views of what are called worship are also peculiar. This consists, they say, not in preaching or praying— petitioning-though these exercises may lead to worship, but simply in adoration, praise, and thanksgiving to God for what he is in himself, and what he is for those who render it. Hence worship can only be rendered by true Christians, in the breaking of bread and in the praise and thanksgiving which they render. Their services, therefore, for believers and for unconverted people are entirely distinct. They hold the obligation of the Church to come together the first day of the week to break bread; hence they observe the Lord’s Supper every Sabbath morning, and believers alone are expected to come together then. They never preach in the morning, but usually simply exhort, two, or at the most three of them, speaking during the service. In the afternoon or evening of the Sabbath they preach to sinners. The Plymouth Brethren are the opposite extreme to Irvingism and Mormonism, and yet resemble these in several respects. They, too, are a protest against the present state of the Church, Protestant as well as Catholic, which they denounce as Babel, and expect the speedy coming of the Lord. But while the Irvingites and Mormons lay claim to an apostolical hierarchy, the “Brethren,” like the Quakers, reject the specific ministry, and all written creeds and outward Church organization. They derive the disunion of the Church from the neglect to recognize the Holy Spirit as Christ’s vicar on earth, and the all-sufficient interpreter of the Holy Scriptures. All human creeds, they say, involve a vital denial of this sufficiency of the Spirit, and practically restrict his operations. All believers are true spiritual priests, capacitated for worship (Hebrews 10:19, 25), and all those who possess the qualifications from the Lord are not only authorized but obliged to evangelize the world and build up the Church, without ally ordination of men. This they consider to be the true apostolic mode of worship, according to 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. But, unlike the Quakers, they retain the ordinance of baptism, and administer the Lord’s Supper every week.

As a body, they hold to adult believers’ baptism only; but if one comes to them who was baptized in infancy, while they receive him, they generally manage to convince him very soon of the importance of being rebaptized. As to the remainder of their creed, they seem to agree most with the Calvinistic system, and are said to be zealous in good works.

See Guinness, Who are the Plymouth Brethren? (Phila. 1861); Dennett, Plymouth Brethren, their Rise, etc.; Biit. Qu. Oct. 1873, art. 3; Presbyt. Qu. Jan. 1872, p. 48; Marsden, Dict. of Churches, p. 91; Jahrb. deutscher Theologie, 1870, vol. 4; Dr. Steele, in the Advocate of Christian Holiness, 1876; Brit. and For. Ev. Rev. July1865, art. 2; Lond. Qu. Rev. No. 53, 1869, art. 3. (J. H. W.)

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