Monday, December 24, 2012

Book Review: John Nelson Darby, by Marion Field

This year a friend gave me a book for my birthday: John Nelson Darby by Marion Field. I read it excitedly, and I thought it might be helpful to write a short review.

Marion Field published this book in 2008, it's 236 pages, including four appendices and a timeline. I found the book well-written and interesting.

A quick search for "John Nelson Darby biography" on Amazon yields an interesting diversity of results. While the market might not actually be saturated, it's not exactly virgin territory either. Probably the best-known is Max Weremchuk's John Nelson Darby, but I've heard excellent things about Unknown and Well-Known: A Biography of John Nelson Darby by Turner and Cross. I've not personally read Turner & Cross' book, but I've read Weremchuk's a couple times. So I'm not exactly approaching Fields' book with an unformed opinion.

I found Field's book to be a good complement to Weremchuk's. Weremchuk is certainly more analytical than Field: he spends a good deal of time and effort explaining what Darby taught, why he taught it, and what the outcomes are. Field, by contrast, writes more about Darby as a man: she spends more time discussing his family, explains his travels in greater detail, and chronicles several events which are less monumental in the development of Darby's thoughts and teachings. I greatly value Weremchuk's book for its big-picture perspective; but I found Field's book gave me a much clearer picture of who Darby was. She goes so far as to reproduce his will, commenting on the people mentioned in it. I can't remember running across that information anywhere else, although (to be fair) I haven't read Weremchuk's book in more than a decade.

I've read about Darby's time in Ireland in several places, but Field managed to bring out a number of details I'd never heard before. It was in this book I learned Darby habitually preached in Gaelic when he was in Calary (p. 32). Apparently this was one of the attractions the Roman Catholic Irish felt to him: the Roman Catholic Church made it a practice to suppress Gaelic, but Darby was speaking to them in their native tongue. And of course this appealed to the poorer most.

Field also spends a good deal of time on Darby's adventures in Switzerland. I've read Darby, and I've noticed how frequently he alludes to Switzerland, and how he frequently addresses various articles to the people there. Field filled in a lot of gaps in my understanding of what was happening in Switzerland: she talks about "brethren" suffering physical violence and persecution there (pp. 123--125).

She also describes his journeys to North America in some detail: I found his comments on Americans interesting (p. 155 ff.), as well as the details of his trips to Canada, and to San Francisco by rail.

I would definitely recommend Field's book: it's well worth a read. Compared to Weremchuk's book, I found Field's a little light on doctrine. But Weremchuk doesn't give nearly as much personal detail as Field does. I would highly recommend them both: perhaps Field's book first, followed by Weremchuk's.

I greatly appreciate my friend giving me this book. It was very enjoyable and will be read several times.

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