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Origins of Dispensationalism Part 4: John Nelson Darby

Updated on August 21, 2018
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Barry is the founder and director of Expositors International Ministry and dean of Bible Expositors Seminary, Philippines.

The Albury Conferences

Henry Drummod was a banker and a member of parliament.[1] He was impressed by Irving’s teachings. He hosted a series of conferences from 1827 to 1828 in Albury Park. Participants to the Albury conferences included Lewis Way, William Cuninghame and James H. Frere. In addition to participating in the conferences, Edward Irving also promoted his translated of Lacunza’s book "The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty" [see Part 2 and Part 3]. There were several interesting conclusions drawn at the end of the conferences.

  • This “dispensation’” or age will not end “insensibly” but cataclysmic in the judgment and destruction of the church in the same manner in which the Jewish dispensation ended.
  • The Jews will be restored to Palestine during the time of judgment.
  • The judgment to come will fall mostly upon the apostate Christian Church.
  • After judgment the millennium will begin.
  • Christ will return before the millennium.
  • The 1260 years of Daniel 7 and Revelation 13 ought to be measured from the reign of Justinian to the French Revolution.
  • The vials of wrath (Revelation 16) are now being poured out and so the Second Advent must be soon. [2]


The Albury Conferences taught that those present were living in the last days and they should expect an out-pouring of the miraculous gifts like what occurred in the Book of Acts. They said that just prior to the coming of Christ the Pentecostals gifts would be restored. In March 1830, there was an outbreak tongues in Glasgow which they believed was an answer to their prayers. After the appearance of “tongues” there was a split between those who attended the conferences. The main group rejected the “gifts” but still desired to discuss eschatology. It was in these further discussions that the conference developed the idea of the “Secret Rapture” or two-stage rapture. This component is still a vital part of Dispensational teaching today.

Lady Powerscourt had attended the conferences at Albury Park in 1826. She invited people to her home in Wicklow, Ireland to discuss prophecy on Tuesday evenings. She later extended an invitation to the English men to come to her home for morning and evening sessions. This was a weeklong meeting from October 4 through 7 in 1831. In 1832 the annual conferences were officially moved to Wycliffe, Ireland where they were hosted by Lady Powerscourt and under the direction of Rector Robert Daily. Here the attendees rejected the Pentecostal restoration of gifts and focused their attention “futurism,” as it was called. The meetings came to be known as the Powerscourt Conference. It is here that the next important step in Dispensational development occurs.

John Nelson Darby

John Nelson Darby

John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) was an Anglican Priest in Ireland. He was a former lawyer who left his practice to work in the church. He had become concerned over the dead formality that he saw in organized religion. Because of his critical opinion of the established church he began to meet with people for worship in their homes. He partnered with Edward Cronin, John Bellet and Francis Hutchinson to establish a nondenominational group which they called "The Brethren." [3] The movement spread and soon there were other groups meeting in homes. One such group was established in Plymouth, England famously called the “Plymouth Bretheren.” This name came to be associated with the entire movement despite the fact that Brethrenism had its beginning in Dublin, Ireland. [4]

The Powerscourt Estate

Powerscourt and Darby

It is well known that John Darby attended the Powerscourt Conferences from 1831-1833. Some writers also believe that he was part of the smaller house meetings that occurred in 1826 and 1827. It was at the Powerscourt meetings that Darby encountered Futurism and Millennialism still in their infant forms. Some contemporary dispensationalists try to argue that Darby came up with his ideas all on his own but that is very hard to believe. I have not found any mention of Millennialism or Futurism by Darby prior to 1826. This date is very important given that this was the year Irving’s Morning Watch began publishing. Secondly, we see very similar views being held by Darby that were previously espoused by Edward Irving.

For example, Irving said:

“My idea is, that not the Old-Testament but the New-Testament dispensation hath an end: and then the other resumes its course, under Christ and his bride, which is his Church."[5]

Consider also Irving’s comments regarding the return of God’s attention to the Jews.

“These three points of doctrine concerning the Gentile church, the future Jewish and universal church, and the personal advent of the Lord to destroy the one and to build up the other, I opened and defended out of the Scriptures from Sabbath to Sabbath..."[6]

This looks very much like the Israel/Church and Old Testament/New Testament distinctions that we later see coming from Darby. It takes a few years for Darby to develop and publish his views on Futurism. We do not see any prophecy writings from Darby until 1829. In these early articles we do see Futurism but very little else that looks like Dispensationalism as we know it today. We can only conclude and it is completely reasonable to do so, that Darby was developing his thinking over time. It is not until 1831[7] that we see the use of the word "millennium" which will become another key concept in the writings of Darby.

The Book of Daniel by Darby

Darby’s Dispensationalism

We saw earlier that the idea of the “Secret Rapture” was already being discussed by Irving’s group. So to say that Darby invented the rapture is incorrect. We do see the progress of Darby’s own views as early as 1830. In that year he published an article in the December issue of The Christian Herald entitled "On 'Days' Signifying 'Years' in Prophetic Language."[8] Darby departs from the Irvinites by saying that the 1260 days of tribulation refers to number of years that the Roman Church existed. At this stage in his writings he still seems to hold a classical historical view of the Rapture and Second Coming. At the very least we can say that this article does not reflect the fully developed Dispensational views which he will later espouse.

What Darby did that no one up until this time had done was to develop the concepts of different time periods in which God acted in different ways to His national people Israel. He called this time periods “dispensations.” Consider the following comment from Darby.

"Isaiah xxxii. it was that taught me about the new dispensation. I saw there
would be a David reign, and did not know whether the church might not be
removed before forty years’ time. At that time I was ill with my knee. It gave
me peace to see what the church was. I saw that I, poor, wretched, and sinful
J. N. D., knowing too much yet not enough about myself, was left behind, and
let go, but I was united to Christ in heaven. Then what was I waiting for? J.
G. B. came up and said they were teaching some new thing in England. 'I
have it!' I said." [9]

It is Darby who lays the foundation for contemporary Dispensationalism with his view of the different time periods (”dispensations”) in which God interacts with man. Darby basically sees 5 “dispensations”: [10]

1) Noah (Government)
2) Moses (Law)
3) Aaron (Priesthood)
4) Mannasseh (Kingly)
5. The Spirit (Gentiles).

Others will later expand and even change the periods of time but it is Darby who lays out the concept and form of “dispensations.” While Darby does not make radical departures from those who were before him, he does lay the foundation for what we know as Dispensationalism today with his clear Israel/Church distinction and his view of ages in which God was working through different covenants. In this way he truly is the father of Dispensationalism.

Go on to Part 5

Part 1

Footnotes

[1] Newpor, Kenneth G. C., Expecting the End: Millennialism in Social and Historical Context, Baylor University Press, 2006, p. 175

[2] Ibid.

[3] To understand the impetus for Darby establishing this nondenominational group see his tract entitled “Considerations on the Nature & Unity of the Church of Christ”

[4] Later there was a spit between Darby and the famous orphanage founder George Muller with Darby’s group known as the "Closed Brethern” and Muller’s as the “Open Brethren."

[5] Irving, Edward, “Old Testament Prophecies quoted in the New”, The Morning Watch, 1830, 2:788.

[6] Irivng, Discourse, pp. vi,vii. See also p. xii.

[7] <https://www.brethrenarchive.org/features/powerscourt/the-powerscourt-meetings-enc/> July 16, 2018

[8] Darby, J. N., The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Prophetic No. 1, p. 40.

[9] Darby, J.N., “Thoughts on Revelation XIV., XV., XVI,” The Bible Treasury (vol. 12, no. 281; October 1879), 352. From John Nelson Darby and the rapture, by Thomas Ice
<http://www.rapturenotes.com/origins-of-rapture-theory.pdf> July 19, 2018

[10] Darby, "The Apostasy of The Successive Dispensations," The Collected Writings Of J. N. Darby, Ecclesiastical No. 1, Volume 1

Read "John Nelson Dardy: a Biography"


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