John Price Durbin was born on October 10, 1800 in Bourbon County, Kentucky, the eldest of five sons. Shortly after his father died, he was apprenticed to a cabinet maker at the age of 13; he worked for several years until his religious conversion at age 18. Through tutors and self-education, he began to study English grammar, and later Latin and Greek. Durbin soon became a licensed preacher and in 1819 traveled to Ohio to enter the ministry. In 1821 he began to minister in Hamilton, Ohio, and at the same time took up studies at nearby Miami University. The following year he moved again and was forced to continue his studies independently. Durbin resumed formal studies at Cincinnati College and received both a bachelor's and a master's of arts degree in 1825. Immediately following his graduation, he became a professor of languages at Augusta College in Kentucky. He married Frances B. Cook of Philadelphia on September 6, 1827, and in 1831 was elected Chaplain of the United States Senate. This appointment was followed in 1832 with a position as editor of the Christian Advocate
In 1833, Dickinson College came under the management of the Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church; a new faculty was gathered, consisting of Methodist professors, with Durbin as president. Efforts were immediately made by the new Board to raise an endowment to support the institution, and the additional aid of state money was sought and gained to assist the rebirth of the College. On January 7, 1835, the College purchased the old German Reformed Church, located across from the campus on High Street. Unfortunately, the original structure, deemed South College, was completely destroyed by a fire in December of that year, and its reconstruction would not be completed until 1838. In the meantime, construction was completed in November 1836 on a new building, East College, which provided space for recitation rooms as well as student living quarters.
In 1842, Durbin began a tour of Europe and the Middle East; he would later write two books on these travels. After his return, Durbin served another two years before he tendered his resignation to the Board of Trustees, explaining that he wished to return to the ministry. Around this same time, Durbin married Mary Cook, the sister of his deceased first wife.
After retirement from the college, Durbin began preaching in Philadelphia and in 1849 was elected presiding elder of the North Philadelphia area. In 1850 he was elected as the secretary of the Missionary Society, a position he would hold until 1872, when he was forced to retire for health reasons. On October 18, 1876, John Price Durbin died in New York and was buried in Philadelphia.