John Nelson Darby, 1800 - 1882

J.N. Darby was a man of many outstanding attainments. He was a prodigious worker for the Lord; a preacher of the glad tidings of God; a pastor of God's flock; a penman of exceptional skill; a prophet who told forth and foretold the Word of God; and he was a psalmist of sweet songs. It is this last feature that concerns us in this article. For those who would like an interesting account of Mr. Darby's life, Mr. W.G. Turner's Life of J.N. Darby is recommended; also Mr. Darby's poems, 'Spiritual Songs' is well worth reading — not to be confounded with the 'Spiritual Songs' hymn book.

E.E. Cornwall, in his book 'Songs of Pilgrimage' has given some interesting facts concerning Mr. Darby's hymns. A few extracts from his account will be very helpful for this article. Any remarks in brackets will be from the writer of this article.

"The hymns of John Nelson Darby were written at intervals during a period of 50 years. Some of them appeared first in periodicals such as "The Prospect", "The Present Testimony" and "A Voice to the Faithful". They were published after Mr. Darby's decease as 'Spiritual Songs', which gives us the date when written, and sometimes the place and circumstances as well. The first hymn written by Mr. Darby about 1832, "What powerful, mighty Voice so near" is of peculiar interest, the M.S. having been found after his decease, unknown, and laid aside for half a century, and then found to be the expression of his own heart's response to the Divine call".

[A stanza from this poem 'The Call' is inscribed upon the memorial stone on Mr. Darby's grave in a Bournemouth Cemetery:

"Lord, let me wait for this alone;
My life be only this —
To serve Thee here on earth, unknown,
Then share Thy heavenly bliss".

Seven stanzas from this poem beginning with the line "Blest Lord, Thou spakest" are in the 'Spiritual Songs' hymn book, number 348.]

"Six hymns by Mr Darby were written before 1850 and were written during a period of strenuous labour and activity. They are as follows:-

[number in 'Spiritual Songs' in brackets]

1832 Blest Lord, Thou spakest. [348]

1835 Hark, ten thousand voices [14]

1837 Rise, my soul, Thy God [76]

1845 Rest of the saints above [79]

1845 O Lord, Thy love's unbounded [343]

1849 This world is a wilderness [139]

"'Hark, ten thousand voices crying' was dictated by Mr. Darby to a friend when he (Mr. Darby) was suffering from a severe attack of gout in an eye. 'O Lord, Thy love's unbounded' was written on the top of a coach while Mr. Darby was trying to recall the hymn by Mr. J.G. Deck beginning with the same words.

From 1850 to 1872, Mr. Darby wrote six more hymns. They were written during 'labours more abundant' on the Continent, Canada and the U.S.A. as well as his numerous writings and translation of the Holy Scriptures. The six hymns are as follows:

1856 Lord Jesus, precious Saviour [450]

1856 Sing without ceasing, sing [12]

1867 Oh bright and blessed scenes! [64]

1867 Lord Jesus, homeless Stranger [452 & 400]

1870 Where the saints in glory thronging [387]

1872 And is it so! We shall be like Thy Son [247].

[The rendering of the first lines in the 'Spiritual Songs' hymn book is given in this list. The poem 'The Man of Sorrows' from which the two hymns 400 and 452 in the 'Spiritual Songs' hymn book were taken was a poem of 46 verses]. The poem was written in Canada when Mr. Darby had such a severe illness that he thought he was dying. He got up, although weak; wrote the poem, and then was obliged to go to bed again.

From 1872 to 1879, Mr. Darby wrote no hymns, but from 1879 to 1881 he wrote as many as in his whole life time; this, too, when quite an old man, and many of the hymns were among his best. These later hymns were not composed, but came spontaneously. As he said when handing them to one for publication, "There is one thing in all these; they are real. They are not composed; perhaps one". Of these last hymns, there are twelve, eight written in 1879-80, and four written in 1881. They are as follows:-

1879 We praise Thee, Lord, in strains [431]

1879 There is rest for the weary soul, [169]

1879 Oh: Bright and blessed hope! [160]

1879 I'm waiting for the glory [not in 'Spiritual Songs']

1879 Father, Thy Name our souls would bless [25]

1879 Blest Father! Infinite in grace [406]

1879 A Holy Father's constant care [356]

1880 Father, Thy sovereign love [331]

1881 And shall we see Thy Face [270]

1881 O Lord Thy glory we behold [81]

1881 We'll praise Thee, glorious Lord [235]

1881 I'm waiting for Thee, Lord [440]

[Again the first lines are given as in the 'Spiritual Songs' hymn book].

The hymns to the Father written in 1879-80 were written with a revision of the existing hymn book [1856. Mr. G.V. Wigram] in mind. Mr Darby reckoned that there was a great lack of worship in song to the Father. The hymns written in 1881 were written during a time of great pressure and sorrow, a time, too, of unhappy conflict that probably hastened his death. [End of extracts from E.E. Cornwall].

Without doubt Mr. Darby's hymns are exceptional. They are spiritually uplifting and breathe reverence towards the Lord Jesus and the Father. They contain many truths precious to the hearts of those who love the truth as it is in Jesus. They lead the spirits of the singers to 'brighter scenes above' and quicken the hopes of all who trust in God. The proof of their worth is in the numerous occasions when they are sung when believers gather together to the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Perhaps the 'Spiritual Songs' hymn book can lay claim to having the largest number of Mr. Darby's hymns included in it. They give dignity, depth and devotion to the hymn book.

Here are a few remarks by others on Mr. Darby's hymns.

Napoleon Noel in his "History of the Brethren," Vol. 1 Page 52, quotes from a letter by R.E. on Mr. Darby's hymns:

"His hymns alone, if he had written nothing else, have laid the Church under the deepest obligation. It is safe to say that no hymns ever written have proved a greater aid to worship or touched a loftier note; especially those addressed to the Father. They are more calculated than any other compositions we know to inspire the highest communion with the Father and the Son. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest gifts that Christ ever gave to the Church".

"A History of the Brethren Movement" was written by Roy Coad. He is a severe critic of Mr Darby as a few expressions in this extract from his history reveals: "Unexpectedly, Darby himself was one of the choicest of Brethren hymn writers, although most of his output is probably accurately classified as devotional poetry. His tortured style of English disappears in his poetry and we feel ourselves closer to the real aspirations of the man of so much good and so much else that was wrong. They are aspirations which show all the strength and weaknesses of his thinking; a deep personal and self-abandoning devotion to God, combined with other-worldliness that largely emasculates the present life and leaves the spirit wringing its hands by Babylonian rivers. There is a deep wistfulness in longing for rest constantly expressed in this man of turbulent spirit. In 1837, it is said on a first visit to Switzerland, he wrote one of his most celebrated poems; a poem which it is interesting to compare with Newman's [Cardinal] famous poem of four years before 'Lead kindly light'. The comparison is by no means to Darby's disadvantage". Coad describes Mr.Darby's poem 'Man of Sorrows' as an exquisite poem. "Darby's eyes were turned, perhaps too constantly, away from this life to the heavenly places. Yet from his vision of heaven there was absent the maudlin insipidity that disfigures so many common hymns on the subject".

Another severe critic of Mr Darby, Mr. W. Blair Neatby, wrote in: A History of the Brethren Movement by W.Blair Neatby, pages 333-334.

"Yet Darby was truly great; Darby's mind is perhaps most deeply and efficiently studied through his hymns; and the hymns require study: cursory perusal avails little. I am reluctant to give extracts, for Darby's hymns must be studied as a whole. [At this juncture, Neatby quotes the verse of a hymn which he attributes to Mr Darby. He was wrong in this. The verse he quoted was from a hymn by Mr. William Kelly].

How many hymns have reached the height of the concluding stanza of his 'Rest of the saints above'.

'God and the Lamb shall there
The Light and Temple be,
And radiant hosts for ever share
The unveiled mystery'".

Hymns by John Nelson Darby