Darby, John Nelson (1800–82), religious leader and writer, was born 18 November 1800 in Great George's St., London, sixth and youngest son of John Darby and Anne Darby (née Vaughan); there were also three daughters, one of whom married (1806) Edward Pennefather (qv). John Darby, a younger son of an Irish gentry family from Leap Castle, King's Co. (Offaly), became a merchant in London, made a fortune by supplying provisions to the Royal Navy, bought estates in Sussex, England, and in later life owned the family seat in Ireland; Adm. Sir Henry d'Esterre Darby, his elder brother, distinguished himself at the battle of the Nile (1798). Horatio Nelson agreed to be godfather to his friend's nephew, hence the child's middle name.
Despite the family's Irish origins, John Nelson Darby was educated at Westminster School, London, and did not visit Ireland until he entered TCD (3 July 1815). He had a very successful college career, graduating (BA 1819) as a gold medallist in classics. He entered Lincoln's Inn (1819), but kept his terms at King's Inns, Dublin, and was called to the Irish bar 21 January 1822. He probably never practised; on 7 August 1825 he was ordained deacon, and on 19 February 1826 priest in the Church of Ireland and was appointed to a curacy in the district of Calary, Co. Wicklow (which became a parish in 1832). Neighbouring Church of Ireland clergymen such as Robert Daly (qv), rector of Powerscourt, and Archbishop William Magee (qv) were involved with members of the aristocracy and gentry such as John Synge (1788–1845) of Glanmore and Theodosia Wingfield (qv), Viscountess Powerscourt, in efforts to suffuse their own church with gospel fervour, and in equally enthusiastic attempts to evangelise among Roman Catholics. Darby walked miles nightly to preach and teach in the homes of poor catholics in the mountains of Wicklow; his asceticism and resulting emaciation greatly impressed his parishioners. In 1827 it seemed to evangelicals that the hoped-for ‘Irish reformation’ was being challenged and compromised by secular and political considerations, and Darby, though a very junior curate, wrote to protest to Archbishop Magee about the imposition of oaths of allegiance on Roman Catholic converts. In 1827 he suffered a serious injury when he fell from his horse. While convalescing in Edward Pennefather's house in Dublin, Darby underwent a crisis in his religious beliefs. Finally deciding that an established church and its appurtenances were unscriptural, he resigned his curacy later the same year.
Serious-minded and evangelical people such as Anthony Norris Groves, Edward Cronin (qv), and John Gifford Bellett (qv) had in the 1820s embarked separately on journeys of faith that paralleled Darby's; when they met in Dublin in society and at small informal religious gatherings after 1826, their mutual recognition and encouragement produced such dissatisfaction with existing protestant denominations that in the course of time they formed a new sect which was to become known as ‘the Brethren’. In 1828 a pamphlet published by Darby attracted many new believers to join the group, and an assembly was set up in Aungier St. in 1830. Darby greatly influenced Francis Newman, brother of John Henry Newman (qv), who was a tutor to the Pennefathers' children in Dublin, and who later joined Edward Cronin on a mission to Baghdad. Through contacts such as Newman, Darby's influence on evangelicals in Oxford and in English towns (especially in Plymouth) came to be considerable, and the sect became known as ‘Plymouth Brethren’. In 1831, Darby returned to Ireland, where as part of the Irish Home Mission he travelled around preaching, still nominally a Church of Ireland clergyman, but increasingly dissatisfied with his position and with that church in general.
In 1837 Darby travelled to Switzerland, where he worked along with local pastors in a religious revival that had begun years before in French-speaking areas; in 1840 he moved to Lausanne. Several congregations were formed in Vaud and Geneva, and the appearance of the new sect and the radical evangelism of Darby and his followers contributed to a destabilising of the existing religious balance in the country, so that in 1846 an insurrection took place in Geneva against the Jesuits' role in education. The upheavals, which briefly threatened to tear Switzerland apart, developed into what was known as the Sonderbund war of the autumn of 1847. Darby had returned to Plymouth in 1845, and immediately disagreed with the leader of the congregation there; as a result, two factions developed. This was the first of many splits within the movement; Darby's followers formed a group known as the Exclusive Brethren, which eschewed social and religious contact with anyone who was not a member of their own sect. Darby, however, remained vitally important in the development of the theology of the whole body, and (particularly in America) is still regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern fundamentalist belief. His ideas formed the basis of dispensational theology, and he was deeply committed to exploring what he envisaged as the inevitable consequences for a sinful world of a millenarian second coming of Christ; hence the emphasis within the Exclusive Brethren on remaining separate from that which they thought would be destroyed.
Darby was for many years associated with the journal The Christian Witness and published a great deal; his collected works of controversy, doctrine and exegesis filled thirty-four volumes, even without his multi-volume synopsis of the Bible and translations of Scripture. He produced singlehandedly and in collaboration translations of the Bible into English, French, and German; the English version was published after his death by collaborators. He travelled widely: he visited Germany, France, Canada, the United States, the West Indies, and New Zealand, preaching and evangelising. Darby died 29 April 1882 at Bournemouth, Hampshire, England. He never married; it is claimed that he and Theodosia Wingfield were engaged, but that they separated so as not to distract each other from religious work.