How Did We Get Here? - A Dispensational Genealogy

Last week we noted how the 19th century was a perfect storm of factors that led to a rising millenarianism in the Church. In this article we will briefly sketch the history of Dispensational Premillennialism (DP) itself and see the major figures who passed it down. In keeping with our aim of tracing how DP became so popular in Evangelicalism, we will note such reasons as its unique theological characteristics, John Nelson Darby’s influence, and its seemingly straightforward orthodox positions.

Edward Irving (1792-1834)

In order to trace the genealogy of DP, we must first begin, however, at an early major figure in the millenarian movement in Britain: Edward Irving. Irving will act as a bridge for us between the popular British Millenarianism of the 19th century of last week’s article and our topic today. The group that eventually formed under this charismatic leader, the Catholic Apostolic Church or the “Irvingites”, quickly gained converts in Britain and North America. Like many millennial groups, they preached that the church was quickly apostatizing and the end of the world would soon take place. Irving and his followers paved the way for Darby and his DP system. Irving was originally a Presbyterian minister in London, England. He soon began developing a sort of premillennialism and propagated his new views in writing and in his sermons. People came from far and wide to hear this popular preacher. In addition, he partnered with prominent laymen, like Henry Drummond and Lewis Way, to develop his system at various prophecy conferences named the Albury conferences.[1] These conferences had a profound impact on the development of the premillennialism of future groups, including DP. The biggest impact was that they allowed these leaders begin to systematize the various strands of the doctrine.[2] The prophecy conference model was also copied by later premillennial groups, including the Brethren. All of the major points of doctrine emphasized by DP were present in Irving and his movement.[3]

Irving also had an impact on premillennialism by translating and publishing an obscure work by a Jesuit, Manuel de Lacunza, who wrote under the Jewish pseudonym, Ben-Ezra. Irving translated and wrote a large introduction to this work, entitled “The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty”. This work set out the premillennial doctrines discussed later at the Albury conferences. The work was published in 1827 and distributed to a wide audience. Though many Dispensationalists make the claim that Lacunza supported a pre-tribulation rapture and other later DP doctrines, this is not the case. Lacunza’s ‘rapture’ is a sort of partial taking of believers immediately before Christ’s advent and after the time of Anti-Christ, and thus does not resemble the DP Pre-Tribulational theory. This work is more important for its argument of a premillennial advent and popularizing futurism (being a historicist, Irving disagreed with this aspect). This futurist shift had a profound impact upon Darby’s DP system. Lacunza’s work did, however, add weight to the general expectation of the imminent return of Christ that we talked about in our previous article.[4]

The Catholic Apostolic Church eventually lost prominence after they began focusing on the restoration of the apostolic sign gifts of healings and tongues. They began to be generally condemned by many of the more orthodox groups. Irving himself was tried for heresy for false Christology and defrocked by his presbytery.[5] Similarly to the effect of the false Millerite date setting had in North America, this turn into the charismatic and other seeming heresy had a negative impact on the rise of millennialism in Britain. Many began associating millennialism with Irving and his other views.[6] As time went on, however, millenarianism again became stronger as other groups began promoting it. We now turn to the founder of the most prominent group and our main topic for this series, John Nelson Darby.

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882)

Darby was an early founder of the schismatic movement, the Plymouth Brethren. Like many other millenarian groups of the time in Britain, the Brethren saw the established denominations quickly falling into apostasy and saw the need to separate in order to have a pure church. As we mentioned in the last article, Darby, like most other millenarians, advocated for a withdrawal from cultural activities. The world, along with the worldly institutional Church, was to be separated from.

Darby is the founder of DP. Though many will say that some of DP teachings can be found earlier in other figures, they are not found in any meaningful or systematic sense until Darby began to put his system together in the 1830’s.

Darby’s theological innovations and emphases are still reverberating today. Darby was the main driving force behind the popularizing of futurism. As we noted last article, most millenarians in the early 19th century accepted the historicist interpretation of prophecy. The fact that futurism (the idea that most prophecy, especially in the book of revelation, is still in the future) is the most popular way of interpreting prophecy in evangelicalism, is largely due to Darby. This view of prophecy was popularized in Great Britain during prophecy conferences called the Powerscourt conferences. The hostess of these prophecy conferences, Lady Powerscourt, actually had visited Henry Drummond at the Albury conferences and had hosted Edward Irving in her home.[7] Like Irving’s ideas at the Albury Conferences, these conferences helped Darby begin to structure his ideas into a new system.

He also held to a complete divide between the nation of Israel and the Church. Israel was a physical and earthly people, whereas the Church was so spiritual and outside of history, that the Old Testament writers were not aware of it. The Church becomes a prophetic parenthesis after Israel rejects their Messiah in the first century. In fact, even though his system is known as Dispensationalism, this view of an Israel/Church divide is his key doctrine. The idea of Dispensations organizing biblical history was held by some before and after Darby; this idea, stemming from Darby’s ecclesiology, was not. Even those who talked about dispensations in that sense usually were still holding to a covenantal view of history. Do not be fooled, then, when some in the DP camp claim that Isaac Watts[8] or Jonathan Edwards held to some “proto-Dispensationalism” just because they used the word “Dispensation” when talking about redemptive history; they were covenantal and Post-Millennial men.

The other major doctrinal innovation that Darby popularized was the Pre-Tribulational Rapture. Much like the Israel/Church divide, the Rapture was novel to 1830’s. Darby held to two distinct comings of Christ; a secret coming before a seven-year tribulation period to rapture His Church, and another at the end of this period to crush his enemies and inaugurate the millennium. This has to happen, of course, because the Church needs to be taken away so that God can once more deal directly with the other people of God, Israel. The origins of this doctrine are unclear and debated. Some have claimed that it originated from Darby, others from Irving, others from the charismatic prophecies of the visionary Margaret Macdonald.[9] DP tend to be very defensive about the origins of this doctrine. It is true that much of the documentation attributing it to Irving or Macdonald comes from later Darby opponents and that this evidence makes it difficult to come to any solid conclusion. The fact is, however, that we simply do not know where this doctrine originated; only that Darby popularized it in the 1830’s and incorporated it into his end-times system. The DP cannot blame those tracing back it to Irving and Macdonald because that is all the evidence we have and they have not offered a case as to whence it came. Indeed, the Rapture doctrine itself seems to have originated in a moment, in a blink of an eye.

Darby travelled extensively in Britain, Europe and North America propagating his Brethren ecclesiology and his DP eschatology. DP spread largely because everywhere Darby went he brought his doctrinal system with him. He established many Brethren communities in Europe in places like Switzerland, France and Germany. Darby travelled to the United States and Canada seven times between 1862 and 1877.[10] It is interesting to note for us in Southern Ontario that he restricted his activities between London and Toronto and held an annual conference in Guelph which he enjoyed personally attending.[11] Southern Ontario was, and still is to an extent, a hot bed for DP. Major U.S. cities like Chicago, Boston, and New York were the major centres for Darby to proselytize. Darby’s tireless efforts, then, spread his eschatological system far and wide during the 19th century.

It is important to note that Darby’s eschatological views were often embraced at the expense of his Brethren, anti-clerical views. This was especially true in North America where Darby lamented that many of his DP disciples were not leaving their denominations and becoming Brethren disciples as well.[12] It is often a surprise to learn that most of his early converts in North America were Presbyterians and Baptists. Darby’s theology was attractive because, though reworked, it seemed to many of the Reformed churches to be orthodox in its soteriology.[13] Darby seemed to be preaching the doctrines of grace to fellow Calvinists. In fact at one point he even criticized D.L. Moody for his denial and denouncement of Limited Atonement![14] Many just simply ignored his more controversial anti-clericalism and anti-denominationalism. His “plain” reading and high view of the scriptures also attracted many from the old Reformed churches during a time of rising Liberalism.

By the time of Darby’s death, then, DP had travelled with him and other Brethren leaders all over the globe. We will now trace some of Darby’s descendants in North America where the Brethren eschatology was further developed into the system we know today as Dispensationalism.

One of the American Presbyterians that Darby converted was James H. Brookes (1830-1897). He was pastor at the 16th and Walnut Street Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. Many consider Brooks to be the “father of American Dispensationalism”.[15] Brooks was heavily influenced by Darby and his theology and was the leader of the movement in America during the last half of the 19th century. John Gerstner makes the point that Brookes was influential for three main reasons including his leadership, along with Baptist A.J. Gordon, at the Niagara Prophecy Conferences; his bible studies and influence on later DP figures; and the vast amount of literature he produced, including his pamphlet “The Truth”.[16] In fact, Brooks’ leadership was so essential to the movement that when he died the conferences soon ended and the movement fractured.

One of the biggest contributions that Brookes made was his influence on C.I. Scofield (1843-1921). Scofield’s main contribution to DP, of course, is the literature he produced. Nothing matched the influence of his “Scofield Study Bible”. The notes in his bible clearly reflected years of reading and influence from Darby and Brooks. It was published in 1909 and revised in 1917. Iain Murray notes that

within fifty years approximately three million copies of the Scofield Reference Bible were printed in America, a proportionate number were issued by the Oxford University Press in Britain, and the volume had vast influence in making Darby’s prophetical beliefs the norm for evangelicals in the English-speaking world.[17]

The majority of evangelical pastors in North America soon owned a Scofield Reference Bible. What eschatology do you think they preached?

Another major figure in this historical chain from Darby is Scofield’s disciple, Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952). As Gerstner points out, Chafer has two claims to lasting influence: he established the most influential school of DP, Dallas Seminary in 1924, and wrote the first (and last?) systematic theology from a classical DP perspective.[18] This systematic is a large 8 volume work which posits the standard Darbyite and Scofieldian views of early and “classical” Dispensationalism. This work is still very popular among DP and DP schools to this day.

We can then quickly trace more recent figures through the influence of Dallas Theological seminary. John Walvoord became president of Dallas Seminary in 1952. His protégé Charles Ryrie was a long time professor at Dallas and published his own influential DP works (though he slightly revised the system towards Covenantalism; what some call “Modern Revised Dispensationalism”)[19] including his own very popular study bible. Men like Hal Lindsay, a popular DP writer, attended Dallas Seminary. Dallas Seminary is continuing to pump out DP pastors and laymen. Though many now hold to newer forms of the system like “Progressive Dispensationalism”, which further drifts towards a Covenantal understanding, the old Scofield system lives on; especially in the popular writings of men like Tim Lahaye.

The chain, then, from Darby, his views born in a time of vast millenarianism, to the modern system of DP is direct. This has been a brief sketch but it is important to remember that Darby’s system was novel to the early 19th century. For Darby and those after him, DP became a project of systemization which culminated with Chafer’s systematic theology. One could argue that since Chafer’s systematic, DP has been a project in revision. That is a topic for another time however. For the next few articles we will look back on some of the specific things, skimmed past in this article, which contributed to DP becoming as widespread as it did.

[1] Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millennialism, 1800-1930 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 18-19.

[2] Ibid, 21-22. Sandeen notes how they came away with six points of doctrine which reflected millenarian revival. All but the sixth point about historicism would be taken up by Darby and the Brethren.

[3] Sandeen, 22.

[4] Iain H. Murray, The Puritan Hope: Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), 199-200.

[5] Sandeen, 29.

[6] Ibid, 28-28.

[7] Ibid, 38.

[8] Such as Tommy Ice: The problem with these assertions is that after discussing the various ‘dispensations’, Watts concludes that they are all different editions of the Covenant of Grace. Woops. See John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (Apologetics Group Media, 2009), 9-11.

[9] Gerstner, 19.

[10] Sandeen, 71.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 79.

[13]William Westfall, Two Worlds: The Protestant Culture of Nineteenth Century Ontario (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), 168.

[14] Ibid, 75.

[15] Gerstner, 32.

[16] Ibid, 33.

[17] Murray, 208.

[18] Gerstner, 40.

[19] Gerstner, viii.

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