May 04, 2022

John Nelson Darby

Stephen Nichols
John Nelson Darby

John Nelson Darby sacrificed a promising law career to pursue Christian ministry, but it wasn’t until a horse-riding injury that his theological ideas took full shape. On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. Stephen Nichols introduces the founder of dispensationalism.


Welcome back to another episode of 5 Minutes in Church History. A significant influence on the church that you might never have heard of is John Nelson Darby. His life spanned almost the entire nineteenth century. He was born in 1800, and he died in 1882. Let's consider those eighty-two years.

He was born in the city of London into a large family. There were nine children in this family. His uncle was a British Navy Admiral who served under the famous Lord Nelson, hence John Nelson Darby's middle name. His father was a merchant. The Darby family was originally from Ireland and of Irish descent. When John Nelson Darby's uncle died, the family inherited Leap Castle in Kings County, Ireland. John Nelson Darby had his early schooling at Westminster School in London. Yes, this was part of Westminster Abbey and located just behind the Abbey. When it came time for college, Darby went to his ancestral Ireland to Trinity College, Dublin, home—arguably—to the most iconic academic library. If you haven't seen pictures of it or haven't visited it in person, you really should. It's the Long Room of the Old Library at Trinity College, Dublin. It is a work of art. It is a true wonder. Well, as an undergraduate there, he excelled in languages and classic studies. In fact, he won the coveted Classics gold medal at his graduation in 1819. He then began to pursue law studies.

In that same year, 1820, he had a conversion experience, and he also felt called to the ministry. He straddled studying law and serving in the church for the next five or so years before he gave up law altogether and aimed his sights on the ministry and the study of divinity. In the 1830s and 40s, Darby was the leader of what would eventually emerge as the Plymouth Brethren movement. In a nutshell, this would be a low-church reaction, or response, to high-church Anglicanism, or the high-church of the church of Ireland.

He also wrote extensively and produced a very literal, but a new translation of the Bible into English, and he also produced German and French translations of the Bible. But his main contribution to church history comes in his being the founder of dispensationalism. Back in 1827, Darby had a serious horse-riding accident, caused him to be laid up for many, many months, and during that time he embarked on an intense study of the Bible. He reached a few significant conclusions during that time, and we can summarize these in two main points.

The first is that the church and Israel are two distinct groups, two distinct identities, and two distinct futures. Acts 2 is a stop in God's dealing with Israel, according to Darby, and it begins a new dispensation, the church, and that is instituted from Acts 2 to the event that he understood as the rapture; and that's the church age.

The second conclusion that Darby reached is that the church is in ruins and awaits that forementioned event of the rapture as the church's only hope. Put these two together now, and you can see Darby's influence. Again, he's the founder of dispensationalism. So, here we go. Covenant theology stresses the unity of the people of God and the unity of the Bible. The one covenant, the covenant of grace, is the overarching structure. Dispensationalism stresses the two distinct peoples of God, Israel and the church, and the discontinuity of the Bible, the dispensations, distinct and different. That is the overarching structure of the Bible for dispensationalism.

Also, the hallmark of dispensationalism is eschatology. Remember his conclusion that the church is in ruins? So, we have the church age, this current age, and things get worse and worse; and then Christ comes back to rapture his church; then comes seven years of tribulation—Revelation 16-19, and all that; and then Christ comes back as the second coming; and then comes the thousand-year reign, the millennium; and in this dispensational scheme, that's followed by the great white throne judgment, and then the eternal state. And that is what is called dispensational premillennialism, hugely popular in the twentieth century church, and its founder was John Nelson Darby. I'm Steve Nichols. Thanks for listening to 5 Minutes in Church History.