EDWARD IRVING AND

JOHN NELSON DARBY

by

DAVID MALCOLM BENNETT

 

Edward Irving and John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren each advocated some new, revolutionary, theological ideas, and the ideas of these two men often overlapped and corresponded. This forces us to ask some questions. What was the relationship between these two men? Did they know each other? Did they cooperate in theological enquiry? Did one influence the other? If so who influenced whom? Or did they each present very similar ideas independently of each other?

 

This is a rather controversial subject, because a number of Dispensational teachers tend to drive a wedge between Irving and Darby and argue that Irving had little if any significant influence upon Darby’s eschatology.[1] This seems to be, at least in part, because these teachers realise that Darby was, at least in one sense, the founder of Dispensationalism,[2] and it is important for them to give him a pure pedigree. Therefore they seek to separate him from Irving, who was a man excommunicated for “heresy”.

 

Who then was John Nelson Darby? Darby was not the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, but he was that movement’s foremost teacher and leader in its early years. He promoted ideas now associated with Dispensationalism and the Left Behind movement, such as a pretribulation rapture of the saints and a sharp distinction between Israel and the church, with each of those two entities having its own distinct purpose and destiny. These teachings are very similar to ideas that Irving and his circle were formulating.

 

Darby was born of Irish parents on 18 November 1800 in London, so he was eight years younger than Irving. In 1815 the family returned to Ireland and that year Darby began studies at Trinity College, Dublin. He studied law, receiving a B.A. in 1819, and was called to the Irish bar early in 1821. However, he was converted to Christ at about this time and he then experienced a new calling to the Christian ministry.

 

There seems to be no record that he returned to Trinity to study for the church. Indeed, he appears to have instead engaged in a period of private theological study during the years 1822-25.[3] He entered the Irish section of the Church of England, but early in his ministerial career (perhaps even before) he began to have doubts about that church. One of his major concerns was its erastian status, that is, that it was subordinate to the state. Some argue that, even at this early stage, he had come to believe that the church was not a new Israel (the old Israel having been ideally a theocratic state) but was a totally distinct body. The church was not in any sense a state and was answerable to God, not any state or nation.[4] However, he probably came to those more highly developed views later, as he himself suggests.

 

In 1827 he had a riding accident which gave him some months of enforced rest. He used the time to study the Bible. I have suggested in another place

that this accident may have occurred not later than April 1827, though Timothy Stunt states that it happened towards the end of that year, and that this crucial period was from December 1827 to the following February. F. W. Newman said he had seen him on crutches at about this time, though he did not say precisely when.[5]

 

In 1855 Darby wrote that during that time of recuperation

 

The 32nd chapter of Isaiah taught me clearly, on God’s behalf, that there was still an economy to come, of his ordering; a state of things in no way established as yet. The consciousness of my union with Christ had given me the present heavenly portion of the glory, whereas this chapter clearly

sets forth the corresponding earthly part. I was not able to put these things in their respective places or arrange them in order, as I can now; but the

truths themselves were then revealed of God, through the action of His Spirit, by reading His word.[6]

 

Then in 1878 he recalled,

 

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.[7]

 

It would appear from these two readings that as early as 1827 the Church/Israel distinction was already in his mind in embryo. We can note the contrasts

between the “heavenly portion” and the “earthly part”, and the “David reign” and the removal of the Church, though whether he would have used those

precise terms back in 1827 is unclear. Either way, he did say that he did not work out the details and the full significance of that distinction until later.

 

However, by December 1830 he seems to have worked out some of those details. That month they were presented by Darby in an article in the Irish Christian Herald. Here he said, “earthly things were the Jews proper portion”, but with the Gentiles “earthly things” were not theirs. He added that “the church was a system of grace and heavenly hopes.”[8]

 

When one comes to Irving, he seems to have been travelling in the same direction as Darby and he came to very similar conclusions. In his “Preliminary

Discourse” to Lacunza’s book on Revelation, written in 1826 and published on 19 April 1827,[9] Irving spoke of “the dispensations both Jewish and Gentile”

and related them to “‘the earthly things’ as distinguished from ‘the heavenly things’”.[10] Here he was relating the Jewish dispensation to the “earthly” and the Gentile dispensation (i.e. a largely Gentile church throughout history) to the “heavenly”.

 

Irving and his associates produced a journal called The Morning Watch (TMW). Irving wrote an article in the December 1830 edition, which said,

 

When I look at the last chapters of the Prophet Ezekiel, and observe also a Levitical and sacrificial worship introduced; and when I hear the Old

Testament conclude with a solemn charge to the people in that day to “remember the law of Moses my servant”, and with a solemn promise “to

send Elijah the prophet to turn the hearts of the children to the fathers,” and “reconstitute all things;” I cannot bring myself to acquiesce in the conclusions, which are so readily received by most, that the former state of things is at an end for ever … My conviction, then, is, that our dispensation, since Christ, is altogether an interjected and intercalated period; during which the members of the church that is to be glorified are in succession forming until the body shall be completed: and, this done, this period proper to the sons of God is ended, and the ways of God in governing men in flesh, which for this object were suspended, resume their wonted course. When the Spirit hath united all Christ’s members to the Head; when the number of the elect rulers is completed, and the spouse made out of his spiritual substance; then the sons of God are manifested in and under the Head, to take the rule over the world in flesh, which is now governed as it was at the first, and brings out the perfection of holiness.

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.[11]

 

This is clearly very similar to Darby’s fully developed Church/Israel distinction that we find in dispensational literature. And Irving calls this “my idea” and “my conviction”, though this does not necessarily mean that he is claiming that it originated with him.

 

It is noteworthy that the two sets of dates mentioned here correspond. Irving’s “Preliminary Discourse” with its distinctive comments was published in April

1827 and Darby also arrived at his similar half-formed conclusions that year, but whether early or late in that year is uncertain. In December 1830 an

article by Irving appeared in The Morning Watch. That same month an article by Darby appeared in The Christian Herald. The two articles had very similar ideas.[12] This raises the following questions: Had either of them read the other’s material? Had they met? Had they corresponded?

 

Though Irving had probably not read any of Darby’s writings by 1830, for the latter was little known at that stage, it is known that Darby had read some of

Irving’s works by then and at least some editions of TMW. Darby had, in fact, read the “Preliminary Discourse”, with its Jewish/Gentile distinction (see above), by 1829. However, when Darby read it he was not impressed. In one article he said that he saw “great carelessness” in the “Discourse” and criticised it at a number of points.[13] But that does not mean that he was not influenced by it.

 

Max Weremchuk suggests that Darby “in the main was influenced by views that opposed the view he is so well known for. He reacted to what he considered wrong views and thus formed his ‘own’.”[14] This may well be true, but one suspects that when Darby saw Irving advocating similar ideas to those he held, it must have strengthened him in them and perhaps helped him develop them further, though he does not mention such influence in The Christian Herald article.

 

Darby was clearly very familiar with Irving’s writings. Years later he said that he “knew a great deal” about Irving,[15] and this knowledge he began to acquire long before Irving died. He had read issues of TMW, and he was well aware of the “Irvingite” stand on a number of matters. In fact, one of Darby’s early articles, “On ‘Days’ signifying ‘Years’”, was partly a response to an article in the June 1830 TMW.[16] Then in 1829 he called an Irving sermon in Irving’s book Last Days “deeply interesting … profitable and timely”. Though he refers to this as “a sermon”, he made it clear that it was one he had read not heard.[17] On a later occasion he also spoke of Irving’s writings as containing “much most blessed and precious truth”. However, Darby also spoke of Irving’s “errors as to the person of Christ” and “the deadly wickedness of Irvingism”. Most of his comments about Irving and Irvingism were criticisms of the Scot’s Christology, while there were also some largely negative references to charismatic gifts. However, many of these references were after 1830 and some were even after Irving’s death.[18]

 

Did Irving have direct contact with Darby? It is almost certain that Irving and Darby met on at least one occasion, probably two. In 1844 Darby wrote that

“at least fourteen years” before he had “insisted on these very things with Mr. Irving”, which indicates either that they met or, at least, exchanged letters,

presumably in 1830 or perhaps earlier.[19] Irving was in Ireland in September and possibly early October 1830[20] and there is evidence that Darby was

there in the second half of that year, possibly August and September and maybe even later.[21] During his stay in Dublin that year, Irving delivered a

series of lectures on eschatology,[22] and it is possible that Darby heard some of them. It is also possible that Darby met Irving on one of the former’s trips to London, perhaps when Darby was there in May 1830.[23] They also may both have been present at the first of the Powerscourt Conferences in October 1831, so this reference might refer to that meeting, though Darby does say “at least fourteen years” before 1844. It is highly likely, therefore, that Irving

and Darby met sometime between May and September 1830, which presumably would have given them time to exchange ideas, which may have influenced the two articles published that December.

 

With regard to the Powerscourt Conferences, if both Irving and Darby attended them, then that would have given plenty of opportunity for each of them to

compare his ideas with the other’s and the thoughts of other delegates. It is known that Darby attended these conferences from 1831-33, but there is

some uncertainty as to whether Irving attended any of them. Though a number of writers over the years claim that Irving attended the first, no contemporary record has been found that clearly says he did and TMW is noticeably silent about the event. The matter is further clouded by the fact that Viscountess Powerscourt’s Letters and Papers contains no letters for the second half of that year. Irving’s attendance is implied by Mrs Hamilton Madden

in her Memoir of Robert Daly (1875), which she might have heard from Daly who chaired the first two of these conferences. In addition, Miss A. M. Stoney of the Brethren also seems to state that Irving was present in 1831, but she was not even born until 1839.[24]

 

However, it has been claimed that these conferences began in 1827.[25] If that is so, these earlier meetings were probably smaller, local affairs. Yet, this may be the reason there is some debate about whether Irving attended the "first" Powerscourt Conference in 1831. The claims that Irving attended one of those conferences may refer to his tapping into a smaller "conference" in 1830, rather the the fullscale conference a year later.

 

There is one other major point on which Irving and the Catholic Apostolic Church (CAC), which emerged out of Irving’s ministry, may have influenced Darby’s eschatology. It is with regard to the adoption of a two-stage return of Christ, the first being associated with a pretribulation rapture of the saints. Irving taught something similar to it in March 1830, and at least some in the CAC seem to have adopted a pretribulation rapture by September that year. Darby and other members of the Brethren do not seem to have accepted it until later. Darby, himself, probably did not adopt this teaching until after December 1831,[26] so later than the CAC and, thus, presumably later than Irving.

 

When all this evidence is considered it is possible, even likely, that Irving influenced Darby’s eschatology, in that Irving’s eschatology was fairly well formed

before Darby emerged on the scene and Irving already had a number of books and articles teaching his ideas, some of which Darby had read.

 

Yet it is also possible that Darby influenced Irving in a limited way, though this is less likely. Darby clearly had read Irving, but there is no evidence that Irving had read Darby, though they seem to have met. However, when Irving’s story is examined, the Scot was influenced by many people and it was not beyond him to imbibe the ideas of one younger and less experienced than himself. In addition, when they met, Darby said that he “insisted” when he put his views on spiritual gifting to “Mr. Irving”, and Darby was very good at insisting and persuading people to adopt his view on any subject. However, with regard to the pretribulation rapture, if there was a transfer of ideas between them, the influence almost certainly must have been Irving and the CAC on Darby, not the other way round.

 

In addition, it needs to be understood that in the fifty years after the French Revolution apocalyptic speculation in Europe was in ferment. It was not just

two men interpreting the Bible’s prophecies, but many,[27] and some of them, as at Albury and Powerscourt, worked together. It is therefore difficult to pin down specifically who influenced whom and in what ways. There were, in fact, a host of influences, though two of the strongest, perhaps the two strongest, were Edward Irving and John Nelson Darby.

 

Two other factors that might point to a closer relationship between the Plymouth Brethren and Irving's people than is generally recognised come from the life of Anthony Norris Groves, a much-revered member of the Brethren. According to Timothy Stunt, the second and third editions of "Christian Devotedness" by Groves was published by James Nisbet, a member of Irving's church. Stunt also says that Groves's "Journals" were edited by Alexander Scott, who was assistant minister to Irving for a while. [28] 

 

Irving/Darby Timetable

1826

Irving’s “Preliminary Discourse” written.

1827

April. 19: Irving’s “Preliminary Discourse” published.

April or December to January, '28: Darby’s accident and enforced rest.

1828

January to May: Irving’s “Last Days” sermons preached.

Mid-year: Last Days published.

1830

December: Irving’s article in The Morning Watch.

December: Darby’s article in The Christian Herald.

 

© David Malcolm Bennett (2014) Alterations (twice 2015)

 

 

 

[1] See, for example, John Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 48, and Thomas Ice, “Alleged Irvingite

Influence on Darby and the Rapture”, a/c 21 June 2012, <www.pre-trib.org/articles/view/alleged-ivingite-influence-on-darby-and-rapture>

 

[2] Who was the founder of Dispensationalism is discussed in my The Origins of Left Behind Eschatology (Florida: Xulon, 2010), 276-80, 333-41.

 

[3] Max S. Weremchuk, J. N. Darby: Research Papers, Part 1, Ch. 3, “Legal Training”, a/c various dates, 2007 & 2012, 2014, <www.mybrethren.org/bios/framjndw.htm>; A Catalogue of Graduates who have proceeded to degrees in the University of Dublin, from the Earliest Recorded commencements to July 1866, with supplement to Dec. 1868 (Dublin: Hodges, Smith & Foster, 1869), 143, lists the B.A. as Darby’s only degree. Timothy

Stunt argues that in the years 1822-25 he read the Church Fathers and other theological works, see “Influences in the Early Development of J. N. Darby”, in Crawford Gribben and Timothy C. F. Stunt, Prisoners of Hope (SEHT, Milton Keynes, Paternoster, 2004), 52, 56.

 

[4] Floyd Elmore, “J. N. Darby’s Early Years”, 8, a/c Oct. 2005, <www.pre-trib.org/pdf/Elmore-JNDarbysEarlyYears.pdf> 2-3; Robert Henry Krapohl, A Search

for Purity: The Controversial Life of J. N. Darby (Ph.D. Baylor University, 1998), 1-2; Stunt, Prisoners, 48-49, n. 16.

 

[5] Bennett, Origins, 304, n. 125; Timothy C. F. Stunt, From Awakening to Secession (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000), 171, n. 86, & 206; Francis William

Newman, Phases of Faith (London: Chapman, 1850), 17. See also letters Darby to ?, received 25 Feb. 1851 and Darby to Prof. Tholuck, 1855, Writings of

J. N. Darby (2 disks, Jackson: Present Truth), Disk 2, 1:185; 3:297-98. In the first letter Darby speaks of his “deliverance from bondage in 1827-8,” which

seems to refer to a clearer understanding of Scripture rather than conversion.

 

[6] Letter to Prof. Tholuck, 1855, WJND, Disk 2, 3.298-99; Krapohl, Search, 78-79.

 

[7] Bible Treasury, 12:353, quoted in Stunt, Prisoners, 59.

 

[8] J. N. Darby, “On ‘Days’ Signifying ‘Years’ in Prophetic Language”, The Christian Herald (Dec. 1830), 211. Emphasis added.

 

[9] Tim Grass, The Lord’s Watchman (SEHT, Milton Keynes, Paternoster, 2011), 172-73.

 

[10] Irving’s “Preliminary Discourse” in Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra, (Immanuel Lacunza), The Coming of Messiah in Majesty and Glory (2 vols. trans. Edward

Irving, London: Seeley, 1827), 1:x. Max S. Weremchuk also seems to suggest Irving’s influence on Darby on this point, see “Wie ist es dazu gekommen?

Ursprünge im Brüdertum”, unpublished paper, 2007, trans. by Katie Regine Curro (2008), 38-39.

 

[11] Edward Irving, “Old Testament Prophecies quoted in the New”, The Morning Watch (1830), 2:788. Emphasis added. I was unaware of this passage when

I wrote The Origins of Left Behind Eschatology, but it was drawn to my attention by Tim Grass, Watchman, 172.

 

[12] Compare Irving’s “Old Testament Prophecies …” in TMW (Dec. 1830), note, for example, page 788, and Darby’s “On ‘Days’ Signifying ‘Years’…”, in The Christian Herald (Dublin, Dec. 1830), note, for example, page 211.

 

[13] Darby, Reflections upon the Prophetic Inquiry, WJND, Disk 1, 2:7; see the whole section 6-9.

 

[14] Weremchuk, Research, Pt 1, Ch 3.

 

[15] Darby, Union in Incarnation, WJND, Disk 1, 29:187.

 

[16] It was “Mr Maitland on the 1260 Days”, TMW, (June 1830), 2:448-62.

 

[17] Darby, Reflections, WJND, Disk 1, 2:19. The Last Days addresses were preached in the first half of 1828, see Grass, Watchman, 306.

 

[18] Darby, Observations on a Tract, WJND, Disk 1, 15:34; The Sufferings of Christ, W JND, Disk 1, 7:217, 222. These are just some of the many references

to Irving or the “Irvingites” in Darby’s writings, most of which are unfavourable. See also his letters dated 19 Aug. 1833 & from NY, 1866, WJND, Disk 2,1:23,

469-70.

 

[19] Darby, On the Presence and Action of the Holy Ghost in the Church, WJND, Disk 1, 3:264; “these very things” were gifts for ministry. For the date see

Stunt, Prisoners, 67.

 

[20] Mrs Oliphant, Irving (2 vols. London: Hurst & Blackett, 1862), 2:149-53. He was definitely back in London by 13 Oct., for he wrote a letter with “London”

as his address on that date, Oliphant, Irving, 2:151.

 

[21] A “J. N. Darby Chronology, 1830-31”, drawn up by Timothy Stunt indicates that Darby appears to have been in Oxford early in December 1830 and in

Plymouth at the end of that month. Stunt suggests that if Darby was in Ireland in the second half of 1830 that it was either August and the first few weeks of September, or late October and November, e-mail to David Bennett, 18 May, 2007. Max Weremchuk estimates that Irving was in Ireland “roughly from

September 1830 to January 1831”, Research. Pt 1, Ch. 7, “Dates, etc.”, a/c 21 June 2012. It is clear that he was in London on 13 Oct., having by then

returned from Ireland, see fn. 19. However, Darby may have gone back to Ireland soon after.

 

[22] Krapohl, Search, 120-21, quoting the Christian Herald, (Oct. 1830) 1:176.

 

[23] Stunt, “Chronology”.

 

[24] Mrs Hamilton Madden, Memoir of the late Right Rev. Robert Daly (London: Nisbet, 1875), 151-52. For Miss A. M. Stoney see “An account of the Early

Days”, a/c 22 June 2012 <www.mybrethren.org/history/framearl.htm> Viscountess Powerscourt, Letters and Papers of the Late Theodosia A. Viscountess Powerscourt (5th ed. Robert Daly, London: Seeley, 1845). See also Bennett, Origins, 271.

  

[25]  Madden, Daly, 149-50.

 

[26] The earliest statement I have found by Irving clearly supporting a pretribulation rapture is January 1832. However, he presented a similar concept as

early as March 1830, and there are several articles by other CAC members written prior to 1832 that teach it, see Bennett, Origins, 222-28, 232-35, 262,

269-70, 285-86.

 

[27] For a brief outline of this see Bennett, Origins, 201-35. 

I

[28] Timothy C. F. Stunt, The Elusive Quest (Eugene, OR, Wipf & Stock, 2015), .e-book, location 3140..

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