J. N. Darby
Dear Sir and 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 desired 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 laboured 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 labours; 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 characterised 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 world.
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 fulfil 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. An accident happened which laid me aside for a time; my horse was frightened and had thrown me against a door-post. During my solitude, conflicting thoughts increased; but 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, ... 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 Saviour, 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. At that time I had to use crutches when moving about, so that I had no longer any opportunity for making known convictions in public; moreover, as the state, of my health did not allow me to attend worship, I was compelled to remain away. It seemed to me that the good hand of God had thus come to my help, hiding my spiritual weakness under physical incapacity. In the meanwhile, there grew up in my heart the conviction that what Christianity had accomplished in the world in no way answered to the needs of a soul burdened with the sense of what God's holy governmental dealing was intended to effect. In my retreat, 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.
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, 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 divinity 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: When 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 a great affection. I do not know if he is still living, but since the time I speak of, he was appointed to be an Archdeacon. 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 Saviour, 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 Saviour, came here, he could freely preach, and my Christian friend would be obliged to consider him as a fellow-labourer; whereas he would be unable to recognise 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 characterise 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 recognised? 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 Jesus had separated them1; they were, besides, separated from one another, whilst 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 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 Jesus 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 persons who are still engaged in the work, 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 evenings 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. Occasionally it has been partaken of more often. 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 world1; 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 this has been treated of in separate publications as well as by means of periodicals; and 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.
In 1837 I visited Switzerland, and these truths began to be known there. I returned there more than once. The second time, I remained a considerable time at Lausanne, where God worked in conversions, and gathered a number of the children of God out of the world. There were already, in Switzerland, Dissenters who had suffered faithfully for the Lord during twenty years previously. But their activity had declined considerably, and it even seemed that the movement was about to disappear. The work of the brethren has, to a certain extent, by the goodness of God, filled the country, conversions having been numerous. In German Switzerland, the work spread to a much less degree. On two occasions of my spending a protracted time in Lausanne, some young brothers who desired to devote themselves to gospel work spent nearly a year with me in order to read the Bible. We also partook of the Lord's Supper together every day.
At the same time quite independently of what was going on in Switzerland, a brother who was labouring in France had awakened an interest in a considerable district where the people were, in general, plunged in infidelity and darkness. Some also of the young brothers of whom I have spoken, and two or three others whose acquaintance I made, but who never stayed with me, went to work in France. Other labourers, belonging to societies, believing that they would be happier working under the Lord's immediate direction, and not as subject to committees, gave up their salaries, considering such arrangements to be unknown, both in fact and in principle, to the Scriptures; since their very existence attributed to the possession of money the right to direct the work of the Lord: these began to work in simple dependence upon the Lord, trusting to his faithful care. God raised up others also, though it still remains true that "the harvest is great and the labourers are few". God has blessed these labourers by conversions, numerous, thank God, especially in the South of France. From the beginning I have visited these countries and shared with joy the troubles and fatigues of these brothers; but it is they who have actually laboured at the work. In some places, I had the first troubles; in others I have only visited, taken part and helped, when the work was, thank God, already begun. He gave us to be of one heart and one soul, mutually to be helpers of one another, seeking the good of all, whilst recognising our individual weakness.
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 centre. 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 l have never meddled in any way with the calling nor with the work of the brethren who studied the Bible with me. As regards some, I have the conviction that they had not been called to it, and they have, in fact, gone back into the ordinary routine of life. As to others, I only helped them in the study of the Bible, in communicating to them the light which God had given me, but leaving entirely to themselves, the responsibility of their calling for the work of evangelisation 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 large Conferences which lasted for a week. On the Continent, and latterly in England, they have been less attended; and consequently, with fewer numbers, it has been possible to spend a fortnight or three weeks studying some books of the Bible.
My elder brother, who is a Christian, spent two years at Dusseldorf. He is engaged in the work of the Lord, wherever he may happen to be at the moment. He has been blessed to several Souls in the neighbourhood of Dusseldorf. These, in their turn, have spread the light of the gospel and the truth, and a certain number of persons have been gathered in the Rhenish provinces. Tracts and various publications of the Brethren have been translated and largely distributed; and light as to the soul's deliverance, the true character of the Church, the presence of the Holy Ghost here below, and the Lord's return, has been disseminated.
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 Elberfield. There was in that town a "Brotherhood" which employed twelve labourers, if I am not mistaken, 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 labourers, 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. More recently the work has begun to get established in Holland, as also in the south of Germany. By means of other instruments, two meetings in Wurtemberg already existed.
Gospel preaching in Switzerland and England has led to the formation of some meetings amongst emigrants to the United States and Canada; the evangelisation of negroes led to others in Jamaica and Demerara, as also amongst the natives of Brazil, through a brother who went there and has since died. I am not aware of any other who knows the language sufficiently to continue this work, which has been blessed. The English colonies of Australia have also meetings; but this sketch will suffice for you.
Brethren do not recognise any other body but the body of Christ, that is to say, the whole Church of the firstborn. Also they recognise every Christian who walks in truth and holiness, as a proved member of Christ. Their hope of final salvation is founded on the Saviour'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 world1 which has rejected Him. His person is the object of their faith, His life the example which they have to follow in their 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 recognise it as that which should govern their conduct. The Holy Ghost alone can make it effectual both for life and practice.
From Letters of J. N. Darby, volume 3, pages 297 - 305.
Note to the French Edition. This letter, found amongst the papers of J. N. Darby, had not been sent to his correspondent. There is reason to suppose that the author, reluctant as to having the appearance of speaking of himself and his work, had given up the thought of forwarding it.
[1 The concept of separation from the world, as found in this letter, is often misunderstood. The following verses provide some insight into how Christians are to relate to the world:
Personal Testimony of J. N. Darby