John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) was a founder of the Plymouth Brethren Church, an author, and an influential proponent of a dispensational view of Scripture.
Darby was born in 1800 to a prominent family in London. He received his education from London’s Westminster School and Dublin’s Trinity College. He initially became a lawyer, but that career only lasted four years before he became a priest in the Church of Ireland in the diocese of Dublin, Ireland. Darby attributed the career change to his desire to devote himself entirely to the work of God. Following his decision, Darby became concerned over the prevailing condition of the church, which he saw as deadened by formality, and he left the Church of Ireland in 1827, just over two years after being installed as a priest. “The style of work,” he wrote, “was not in agreement with what I read in the Bible concerning the church and Christianity; nor did it correspond with the effects of the action of the Spirit of God” (Letters of J. N. Darby, Oak Park, IL: Bible Truth Publishers, 1971, III, 297–298).
Darby joined Edward Cronin, John Bellett, and Francis Hutchinson to form a non-denominational group they called the Brethren. The first meeting was held in Dublin, and other meetings followed. Soon there were assemblies gathering in several locations. The most well-known group was in Plymouth, England, and the name “Plymouth Brethren” has since become a default name. One of Darby’s goals was to restore simple church practices in which every member was serving as a minister.
In 1828, John Darby published a pamphlet, The Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ, that laid out the beliefs of the Brethren Church. He produced a Bible translation for private study and published a French-language synopsis of every book of the New Testament. Darby is best known today for teaching premillennialism and dispensationalism. Darby’s dispensationalism aimed to explain the distinguishable economies in God’s redemptive purpose. He saw a distinction between Israel and the Church and taught seven dispensations: Paradise, Noah, Abraham, Israel, Gentiles, the Spirit, and the Millennium.
Darby’s division of history wasn’t a radical theological change. What made his theological perspective significant in church history is the strict literalism in which he interpreted Scripture, the separation of Israel and the church, and seeing the rapture and second coming as two distinct future events.
John Darby’s views on church membership and eschatology, combined with Darby’s inflexible position on such matters, eventually split the Brethren Church. Those who sided with Darby became known as the Exclusive Brethren or Darbyites; the others called themselves the Open Brethren.
Darby embarked on seven speaking tours through the United States and Canada from 1859 to 1874, resulting in the widespread popularity of his theological perspectives. His dispensational teachings were further popularized by C. I. Scofield in his notes for the highly influential Scofield Reference Bible. Today, premillennialism and a modified form of Darby’s dispensationalism are held by the majority of evangelicals.