Life & Soul

Heretic of the week: John Nelson Darby

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) was the most prominent co-founder of the Plymouth Brethren, a group which has numbered many famous names among its membership, including the American humorist Garrison Keillor, who left its ranks early, and Dr John Bodkin Adams, the suspected serial killer, who remained an apparently devout member until his death in 1983.

Born to a distinguished Anglo-Irish gentry family, Darby was ordained to the ministry of the Anglican Church of Ireland in 1826, and was sent to a remote parish where he specialised in persuading Catholic peasants to apostasise. This career ended when the Anglican authorities insisted on each of these converts who abandoned the faith swearing allegiance to George IV as rightful King of Ireland. Darby resigned his position, returned to Dublin, and over the next five years developed his own doctrine alongside other co-founders of what became the Plymouth Brethren: Anthony Norris Groves, Edward Cronin, JG Bellett and Francis Hutchinson. He and his friends rejected the whole idea of Church and clergy (Darby left the Church of Ireland in 1831) in favour of small bands of believers breaking bread together and allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through them.

Darby also originated a brand of eschatology call Dispensationalism, which holds that true Christians shall be raptured before the events leading up to the Second Coming and Last Judgment. He preached his Gospel throughout Britain, the United States, Canada, and even Australia and New Zealand.

While Darby’s views on ecclesiology gained few followers in America, his Dispensationalism has been a big hit among Evangelicals ever since, among other things injecting the whole idea of “the Rapture” into American pop culture and spawning the Left Behind series of novels and films. Alas, before he died the movement broke into two sections – one of which he chose and remained in until he died.