Book Reviews

Unknown and Well Known

A Biography of John Nelson Darby

W. G. Turner London 2013-02-11

Though this work is old, and to a degree laudatory, this reprint with added source materials, is welcomed. The title of the brief volume captures the reason this work is important. Darby is “well known” for (a) his contribution to dispensational premillennialism, as well as its corollary, pretribulationalism; (b) his prominence in the Brethren movement; and (c) his promotion of the distinctive ecclesiology of the Brethren movement. However, he is also “unknown,” in part because of (a) his own illusiveness; (b) his inflexibility that promoted factionalism and theological snobbery; and (c) the distortions by his opponents who attributed his “bad” views to inadequate personal development.

Darby pursued legal training at Dublin University, but was called into the ministry within the Anglican communion in Ireland. Though he was a sacrificial and successful missionary among the Roman Catholic poor, his work was stopped as a result of political insistence. This profoundly shaped his understanding of the church, as well as eschatology. Turner portrays Darby as a brilliant intellect who gave himself to itinerant teaching and evangelism in Britain, Europe, and North America. Darby was a voluminous writer whose style was difficult, as well as an accomplished linguist who translated the Bible from its original languages into French, German, and Italian. He loved children, though he remained unmarried, and he was particularly kind and gentle with the poor and the inquiring.

What is missing in the book is mention of the strident side of the great man that led to divisions in the Brethren movement. The story of Darby would have been more balanced had the separation between him and Benjamin Newton and Samuel Tregelles been explored in greater detail, as well as his drift into exclusivism.

With its shortcomings, including its brevity, this work makes the point that Darby’s influence has been worldwide and profound. It is hoped that the “real” John Nelson Darby will not remain “unknown.”

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John D. Hannah
Dr. John D. Hannah is a frequent and popular speaker at home and abroad. His teaching interests include the general history of the Christian church, with particular interest in the works of  Jonathan Edwards and John Owen. Among his published works are a history of DTS and a general history of the Christian church.
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