J. N. Darby's Own Account of early principles of the movement of which he partook.
The following letter, written in French, to Prof. Tholuck about 1857-9, is printed, as giving an interesting account of the remarkable work of God which took place in the early part of the last century, and of the spiritual exercises passed through by the one much used of God in bringing to light truths long lost to the Church. When we reflect upon the spirit of devotedness and separation from the world, as well as the definite recognition of the claims of Christ over the Christian—body, soul and spirit—which breathes through this letter, we might well ask ourselves, as we search our own hearts: Do these things mark the saints of God today as they did then?
Dear Brother in Christ,—Since I saw you, I have been continually on the move, so that it has been difficult for me to prepare the account which you desire to receive. It seems to me that the best way will be for me simply to mention the various circumstances as they transpired, in as far as I was personally concerned, at the time when this work of God first commenced. You will easily understand that numbers of others have labored in that field, and many with much more devotedness than I, and with a far more marked result as regards the blessing of souls. But my concern now is with the work of God, and not our labors; so that you may gather from the account what will suit your purpose.
I was a lawyer; but feeling that, if the Son of God gave Himself for me I owed myself entirely to Him, and that the so-called Christian world was characterized by deep ingratitude towards Him, I longed for complete devotedness to the work of the Lord; my chief thought was to get round amongst the poor Catholics of Ireland. I was induced to be
ordained. I did not feel drawn to take up a regular post, but, being young in the faith and not yet knowing deliverance, I was governed by the feeling of duty towards Christ, rather than by the consciousness that He had done all and that I was redeemed and saved; consequently it was easy to follow the advice of those who were more advanced than myself in the Christian life.
As soon as I was ordained, I went amongst the poor Irish mountaineers, in a wild and uncultivated district, where I remained two years and three months, working as best I could. I felt, however, that the style of work 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. These considerations pressed upon me from a Scriptural and practical point of view, while seeking assiduously to fulfill the duties of the ministry confided to me, working day and night amongst the people, who were almost as wild as the mountains they inhabited. Much exercise of soul had the effect of causing the Scriptures to gain complete ascendancy over me. I had always owned them to be the Word of God.
When I came to understand that I was united to Christ in Heaven, and that, consequently, my place before God was represented by His own, I was forced to the conclusion that it was no longer a question with God of this wretched "I" which had wearied me during six or seven years, in presence of the requirements of the law. It then became clear to me that the Church of God, as He considers it, was composed only of those who were so united to Christ, whereas Christendom, as seen externally, was really the world, and could not be considered as "the Church," save as regards the responsibility attaching to the position which it professed to occupy—a very important thing in its place.
At the same time, I saw that the Christian, having his place in Christ in Heaven, has nothing to wait for save the Coming of the Savior, in order to be set, in fact, in the glory which is already his portion "in Christ."
The careful reading of the Acts afforded me a practical picture of the early Church, which made me feel deeply the contrast with its actual present state, though still, as ever, beloved by God. What was to be done? I saw in that Word the Coming of Christ to take
the Church to Himself in glory. I saw there the Cross as the divine basis of salvation, which should impress its own character on the Christian and on the Church in view of the Lord's Coming; and also that meanwhile the Holy Spirit was given to be the source of the unity of the Church, as well as the spring of its activity, and indeed of all Christian energy.
As regards the Gospel, I had no difficulty as to its received dogmas. Three persons in one God, the Deity of Jesus, His work of atonement on the Cross, His resurrection, His session at the right hand of God, were truths which, understood as orthodox doctrines, had long been a living reality to my soul. They were the known and felt conditions, the actualities, of my relationship with God. Not only were they truths, but I knew God personally in that way; I had no other God but Him who had thus revealed Himself, and Him I had. He was the God of my life and of my worship, the God of my peace, the only true God.
The practical difference in my preaching, when once I began to preach again, was as follows: As a parson, I had preached that sin had created a great gulf between us and God, and that Christ alone was able to bridge it over; now, I preached that He had already finished His work. The necessity of regeneration, which was always a part of my teaching, became connected more with Christ, the last Adam, and I understood better that it was a real life, entirely new, communicated by the power of the Holy Spirit; but, as I have said, more in connection with the person of Christ and the power of His resurrection, combining the power of a life victorious over death, with a new position for man before God. This is what I understand by "deliverance." The Blood of Jesus has removed every spot from the believer; every trace of sin, according to God's own purity. In virtue of His blood-shedding, the only possible propitiation, we may now invite all men to come to God, a God of love, who, for this object, has given His own Son. The presence of the Holy Ghost, sent from Heaven to abide in the believer as the "unction," the "seal," and the "earnest of our inheritance," as well as being in the Church, the power which unites it in one Body and distributes gifts to the members according to His will; these truths developed largely and assumed great importance in my eyes. With this last truth was connected the question of ministry. From whence came this ministry?
According to the Bible, it clearly came from God by the free and powerful action of the Holy Ghost.
At the time I was occupied with these things, the person with whom I was in Christian relation locally, as a minister, was an excellent Christian, worthy of all respect, and one for whom I have always had great affection. It was, however, the principles, and not the persons, which acted on my conscience; for I had already given up, out of love to the Savior, all that the world could offer. I said to myself: "If the Apostle Paul were to come here now, he would not, according to the established system, be even allowed to preach, not being legally ordained; but if a worker of Satan, who, by his doctrine, denied the Savior, came here, he could freely preach, and my Christian friend would be obliged to consider him as a fellow-laborer; whereas he would be unable to recognize the most powerful instrument of the Spirit of God, however much blessed in his work of leading multitudes of souls to the Lord, if he had not been ordained according to the system." All this, said I to myself, is false. This is not mere abuse, such as may be found everywhere; it is the principle of the system that is at fault. Ministry is of the Spirit. There are some amongst the clergy who are ministers by the Spirit, but the system is founded on an opposite principle; consequently it seemed impossible to remain in it any longer.
I saw in Scripture that there were certain gifts which formed true ministry, in contrast to a clergy established upon another principle. Salvation, the Church, and ministry, all were bound together; and all were connected with Christ, the Head of the Church in Heaven, with Christ who had accomplished a perfect salvation, as well as with the presence of the Spirit on earth, uniting the members to the Head, and to each other, so as to form "one body," and He acting in them according to His will.
In effect, the Cross of Christ and His return should characterize the Church and each one of the members. What was to be done? Where was this unity, this "Body?" Where was the power of the Spirit recognized? Where was the Lord really waited for? Nationalism was associated with the world; in its bosom some believers were merged in the very world from which the Lord Jesus had separated them; they were, besides, separated from one another, whilst the Lord Jesus had united them. The Lord's Supper, symbol of the unity of the Body, had become a symbol of the union of this latter with the world; that is to say, exactly the contrary of what Christ had established. Dissent had, no doubt, had the effect of making the true children of God more manifest, but here they were united on principles quite different from the unity of the Body of Christ. If I joined myself to these, I separated myself from others everywhere. The disunion of the Body of Christ was everywhere apparent rather than its unity. What was I to do? Such was the question which presented itself to me, without any other idea than that of satisfying my conscience, according to the light of the Word of God. A word in Matthew 18:20 furnished the solution of my trouble: "Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them." This was just what I wanted: the presence of the Lord was assured at such worship; it is there He has recorded His name, as He had done of old in the temple at Jerusalem for those who were called to resort there.
Four persons who were pretty much in the same state of soul as myself came together to my lodging; we spoke together about these things, and I proposed to them to break bread the following Sunday, which we did. Others then joined us. I left Dublin soon after, but the work immediately began at Limerick, a town in Ireland, and then in other places.
Two years later (1830) I went to Cambridge and Oxford. In this latter place some shared my convictions, and felt that the relation of the Church to Christ ought to be that of a faithful spouse. By invitation I went to Plymouth to preach. My habit was to preach wherever people wished, whether in buildings or in private houses. More than once, even with ministers of the national Church, we have broken bread on Monday evening after meetings for Christian edification, where each was free to read, to speak, to pray, or to give out a hymn. Some months afterwards we began to do so on Sunday morning, making use of the same liberty, only adding the Lord's Supper, which we had, and still have, the practice of taking every Sunday. About that time also some began to do the same in London.
The unity of the Church, as the Body of Christ, the Coming of the Lord, the presence of the Holy Ghost here below, in the individual and in the Church; an assiduous proclamation of the truth, as well as the preaching of the Gospel on the ground of pure grace and that of an accomplished work, giving in consequence the assurance of salvation
when received into the heart by the Spirit; practical separation from the world; devotedness to Christ, as to Him who has redeemed the Church; a walk having Him only as the motive and rule; and other subjects in connection with these—all these truths have been largely spread abroad.
A good many ministers of the National Church left nationalism in order to walk according to these principles, and England became gradually covered with meetings, more or less numerous. Plymouth being the place where most of the publications originated, the name "Plymouth Brethren" became the usual appellation given to such meetings.
On the Continent
In 1837 I visited Switzerland, and these truths began to be known there. I returned there more than once. At the same time, quite independently of what was going on in Switzerland, a brother who was laboring in France had awakened an interest in a considerable district where the people were, in general, plunged in infidelity and darkness. Almost about the same time, in the eastern part of France, a like work had begun, independently of this one. It has also been visited, so that at the present time the work extends from Bale to the Pyrenees, with a fairly large gap in the districts of which Toulouse forms the center. The country is more or less covered with meetings, and the work, by God's grace, is still going on.
I ought to say that I have never meddled in any way with the calling nor with the work of the brethren who studied the Bible with me. I only helped them in the study of the Bible, in communication to them the light which God had given me, but leaving entirely to themselves the responsibility of their calling for the work of evangelization or teaching.
We had the custom of gathering together occasionally for some time, when God opened the way for it, to study Scriptural subjects together, or books of the Bible, and to communicate to one another what God had given to each. During several years, in Ireland and England, this took place annually in conferences which lasted a week.
Two years later, helped, I believe, by the knowledge of these truths, but entirely independent of this work, a movement of the Spirit of God began at Elberfeld. There was in that town a "Brotherhood" which employed twelve laborers whom the clergy sought to forbid from preaching or teaching. Enlightened as to the ministry of the Spirit, and moved by love for souls, they would not submit to this interdict. Seven of these laborers, I believe, and a few members of the "Brotherhood" detached themselves from it, and certain of them, with others whom God raised up, continued their Gospel work, which spread from Holland to Hesse. Conversions have been very numerous, and many hundreds assemble at the present time to break bread.
Gospel preaching in Switzerland and England has led to the formation of some meetings amongst emigrants to the United States and Canada; the evangelization of Negroes led to others in Jamaica and Demerara, as also amongst the natives of Brazil. The English colonies of Australia have also meetings.
The brethren do not recognize any other body but the Body of Christ, that is to say, the whole Church of the first-born. Also they recognize every Christian who walks in truth and holiness, as a proved member of Christ. Their hope of final salvation is founded on the Savior's expiatory work, for whose return they look, according to His Word. They believe the saints to be united to Him already, as the Body of which He is the Head, and they await the accomplishment of His promise, expecting His Coming to take them to Himself in the Father's House, so that where He is, there they may be also. Meanwhile, they have to bear His cross and to suffer with Him, separated from the world which has rejected Him. His person is the object of their faith, His life the example which they have to follow in the conduct. His Word—namely, the Scriptures inspired of God; that is to say, the Bible —is the authority which forms their faith; it is also its foundation, and they recognize it as that which should govern their conduct. The Holy Ghost alone can make it effectual both for life and practice.
John Nelson Darby. public domain