Week 7 & 8 Beginnings of Dispensational Premillennialism

Here are the Overheads from week 7




Perhaps my favorite overhead from this whole study on eschatology is the one of the two photos of John Darby. That face is so intense. One of his biographers described him as ” a man with magnetic, electric personal qualities combined with a
tyrant’s will to lead and intolerance of criticism.” I bet it would have been great to hear Darby preach. I have to think he could lay down some serious hellfire and brimstone preaching along the lines of those preachers of The Great Awakening.

Well if you’ve come this far you have not heeded the warnings from last week’s class about how this week could undermine your faith in the Dispensational Premillennial (DP) model. If you are reading this oztrees.gifand were not in class–then this is where the trees with warning signs come in–its your final warning. Its not the purpose of this study course to tell you which model to believe, but just learning about the beginnings of DP model tends to undermine its credibility. However, it is a fascinating story.

When I see the photos of Darby maybe its part the style of shirt collar, coat, and tie he has on that reminds me of the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz, but more likely its the feeling you get when you have been raised all your life to only hear of one model of eschatology and it is the DP model and then you find out there are actually numerous models and the DP model is not one that has been used since the time of the apostles, but only dates back to the 1800s and then you find out how it came into being and you have a sort of feeling of having gotten your first glimpse at the man behind the curtain

It takes a little moment of adjustment for the reality of it all to sink in.

Is Darby just a traveling carnival showman playing to the local rubes or a real life Professor Marvel with a crystal ball which provided him insight that had been hidden from mankind for over 1800 years.

While you make your decision, there is no better music to put you in that Armageddon frame of mind than Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around.” Apocalyptic music to study the Apocalypse by.


Here are the notes from week 7 on how the DP model came into existence.

Origins of Dispensational Premillennialism

“We have even heard it asserted that those who lived before the coming of Christ do not belong to the church of God! We never know what we shall hear next, and perhaps it is a mercy that these absurdities are revealed one at a time, in order that we may be able to endure their stupidity without dying of amazement “ …Charles H. Spurgeon

What has the Prince of Preachers, the leading Baptist preacher of the 19th century (and some would say the greatest preacher since the Apostle Paul) so riled up? He was responding to the stated beliefs and teachings of the father of Dispensationalism, John N. Darby’s beliefs about who constitutes the church.

Darby had stated “‘the church’ is a mystery of which only Paul speaks. She is Christ’s mystic body and will be complete at the ‘rapture.’ The Jews and other Gentiles converted thereafter will never be Christ’s bride. ‘I deny that the saints before Christ’s first coming, or after his second, are part of the Church.” Thus as Ian Murray stated “With breathtaking dogmatism Darby swept away what had previously been axiomatic in Christian theology.”

Darby’s DP introduced two major points, first that there would be a dichotomy between the Jews and the Church and different fates for the two at the last days to which Spurgeon said “Why, every child of God in every place stands on the same footing; the Lord has not some children best beloved, some second-rate offspring, and others whom he hardly cares about.”

The second point that there would be a two stage second coming of Christ where the first was a Secret Rapture of the saints which provoked Spurgeon to counter with “there is a certain troublesome sect abroad nowadays, to whom the one thing needful is a perpetual speculation upon prophecy…They plume themselves upon an expected secret rapture , and I know not what vain imaginings beside”

In short, Spurgeon said Darby’s new teachings were “unscriptural.” And, further stated “If the author would write in plain English, his readers would probably discover that there is nothing very valuable in his remarks.”

Darby has some other interesting beliefs such as the people of Great Britain were the lost 10 tribes of Israel.

The Dispensational Premillennial “DP” model of eschatology is widely taught in America today and is held by many bible teachers and prophecy pundits as THE definitive interpretation of the book of Revelation. Few of these teachers and pundits even mention the model’s 19th century beginnings and to be sure many don’t even know of the model’s beginnings and wouldn’t know John Darby from John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.

In the 20th century Dispensationalism shed its controversial 19th century beginnings crossed the Atlantic to America and in almost the twinkling of an eye became respectful doctrine by being taught in seminaries and bible colleges as the proper interpretation of the book of Revelation and end time events. Today Americans can attend church all their life and never hear another model of eschatology taught.

Modern day Dispensationalism has evolved into a different animal than the one Darby fathered in the 1800s. It has long since attained critical mass where it can sustain itself without Darby’s help. Who can say whether Darby would quickly recognize or even approve of his model’s transformations, but he would no doubt be thrilled to see it finally enter mainstream theology and become widely accepted.

In Darby’s mind the main part of the model was dividing the word rightly so that you could determine which verses of scripture applied to the Hebrews and which to the Church. This lead to different destinies for the Jewish people and the church. The secret rapture was later added to the model to get the Church out of the way so the Hebrews could go through the Great Tribulation.

Today the rapture has become a major focus of the model, but it didn’t start out that way. The model started as a way to show how Darby believed the promises God made to the Hebrews were good until the end of time on earth. His focus was on dividing the bible between those parts which pertained to the Hebrews and which parts pertained to the Church. The rapture came later as a way to get the Church out of the way so it wouldn’t suffer during the time when the Great Tribulations came on the Jewish people. Let’s take it from the beginning.

John Nelson Darby was born in 1800 and named after family friend and British naval hero Lord Nelson. He graduated from Trinity College in Dublin in 1819 where he studied law. He became a Christian and soon left law and became ordained as an Anglican clergyman in Ireland

In 1825 became an ordained deacon of the church and the following year a priest (Darby stated: 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).

There is no record of him studying theology. This lack of training in theology no doubt contributed to his approaching the bible from a unique and creative perspective that was radically different from the way people thought who had been schooled in how to approach scripture.

In 1826 he fell from a horse and was seriously injured and while recuperating turned his attention to studying the scriptures (Darby stated: during my solitude, conflicting thoughts increased; but much exercise of soul had the effect of causing the Scriptures to gain complete ascendancy over me.) and he “realized” the promises to the Jews in the OT were different from the Church of the NT.

In 1827 he left the Anglican Church—Darby stressed that he could find no such thing as a National church in Scripture and he was in a state of despair over the state of the organized church and how callous it had become in its spiritual orientation–he was looking for a true gathering of believers.

Over the next 5 years he developed his seven dispensations or periods of time of how God related to man:

1. Dispensation of Innocence. Before the fall of man

2. Dispensation of Conscience. From the fall to Noah

3. Dispensation of Human Government. Noah to Abraham

4. Dispensation of Promise. Abraham to Moses

5. Dispensation of Law. Moses to Jesus

6. Dispensation of Grace. The present church age

7. Dispensation of the Kingdom. 1000 year Millennium or rule of Christ on Earth

Darby believed God has two plans one for the Jewish people and one for the Church. He believed the Old Testament promises and prophecies to the Jewish people were good till the end of earthly time, but were not for the Christian church. He believed that while dealing with the Church God has postponed his purposes for the Jewish people. Further, the church began at Pentecost and will end at the rapture. Thus the DP model sets up a dichotomy between Israel and the Church (Of course in 1830 there was no political state of Israel. The Jewish people were still dispersed around the world so he was making a broad reference to the Jewish people.)

Ernest Sandeen writes of Darby, “Too traditional to admit that biblical authors might have contradicted each other, and too rationalist to admit that the prophetic maze defied penetration, Darby attempted a resolution of his exegetical dilemma (his explanation of the scriptures) by distinguishing between Scripture intended for the Church and Scripture intended for Israel. . . . Darby’s difficulty was solved by assuming that the Gospels were addressed partly to Jews and partly to Christians.”

Darby’s justification for carving up the Scriptures came from 2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV) “rightly dividing the word of truth.”


When Darby speaks of rightly dividing the Word this is what he is speaking of and the phrase “rightly dividing the Word” harkens back to Darby.

In Darby’s quest to leave the Anglican Church and find a suitable fellowship of believers he met with others on a similar spiritual journey and they became known as the Plymouth Brethren, taking their name from the town of Plymouth, England. This was the vehicle by which Darby organized followers and presented his seven dispensations.

The Plymouth Brethren were well spoken of by D. M. Panton who described them as a movement of brothers whose significance was “far greater than the Reformation.” Griffith Thomas said “Among the children of God, it was they who were most able to rightly divide the word of truth.” E. Schuyler English, said, “The Church owes a great debt to the Brethren. Many of its early leaders…were the Spirit’s instruments to search out and open the truths in the unchanging Scriptures in a new way”

Just for the record not all the Plymouth Brethren agreed with Darby’s views and it caused some dissension in the movement among its leadership.

Darby presented his work at the Powerscourt Conferences a powerscourt.jpgseries of annual meetings of Bible students on prophetic topics organized by his friend the wealthy, widow Lady Powerscourt which were held at her mansion in Dublin, Ireland during the 1830s.

Having created this dichotomy of two separate paths for the Church and the Jewish people Darby was faced with the problem of how to separate the Church from the Jewish people during the time the Jewish people were to go through the Great Tribulation and the events foretold in Revelation. Remember that at the time the state of Israel doesn’t exist. You can’t send the events of the Great Tribulation against the Jewish people who are dispersed all around the world without inflicting collateral damage on everyone else.

The solution to this problem came to Darby in the form of Margaret McDonald who introduced him to the concept of the secret rapture. She must have seemed like a God send for the way to extract the Church from the tribulations about to fall on the Jewish people.

Here I would hypothesize that it is possible that if the state of Israel had existed in the 1830s, Darby would have been content to let the Great Tribulation fall on Israel since the Jewish people are concentrated there and would not have needed to further separate the Church from them. However since no concentration of Jewish people existed to inflict tribulations on it was first necessary to remove the Church from the scene.

Now let’s see how the development of the secret rapture converged with Darby’s work to enable him to form the DP model.

To set the stage for Margaret McDonald you need to go back to 1789 and the beginning of the French Revolution. The revolution saw the overthrow of the monarch, mass executions (anywhere from 20 to 40 thousand), on going war with several European nations and created a fearful tone which brought about a wave of interest in the book of Revelation and Apocalyptic events which seemed to be unfolding in Europe.

In 1803 the Napoleonic Wars started and fanned the flames further that Napoleon might be the Antichrist. Of course Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, but the new found wave of interest in prophecy only subsided somewhat with Napoleon’s demise and continued moving forward in pockets of interest here and there across England and Europe.

In to this movement stepped a Scottish Clergyman from the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) who took over a dying church in London of 50 members and in a few months his sensational, dynamic preaching style that was once described as “full of bravuras and flourishes” and “like Italian music, irving.jpgappreciated only by connoisseurs” grew it to over a thousand members and he was built a new church at Regent Square. Irving was fascinated by prophecies of the end times and taught that the gifts of the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues and healing must again manifest themselves shortly before the events of the end times took place.

Irving was influenced by Chilean born Jesuit priest (who is associated with the beginnings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church) exiled in Italy named Manuel Lacunza who under the pen-name Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra published in Spanish The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty (1812). Lacunza was writing under a pen name to cover his Catholic roots and make his work more acceptable to the Protestant community (this worked well enough to fake the Catholic Church into banning his book from approved Catholic reading lists). In the book he theorized that the church would be taken up to heaven 45 days before the real return of Jesus to the Earth. During the 45 days God would judge the wicked still on earth. “Irving published Lacunza’s book in English in 1827 as The Coming of the Messiah.

Mean while Irving’s thrilling orations on the return of the spiritual gifts inspired some of his listener’s to claim they were receiving the gifts such as speaking in tongues and prophecy. He is seen today as one of the forefathers of Pentecostalism.

Irving gained renown as a speaker and spoke at prophecy conferences similar to those held at Powerscourt such as those held at Albury.

One of the people aware of the teachings of Irving was a 15 year old self-proclaimed mystic and prophetess named Margaret McDonald from Port Glasgow, Scotland. There are reports of her activities in séances, trances, levitating and occult activities that we won’t bother to go into. By some accounts she was a member of Irvington’s congregation and by others she visited a number of churches, but was not a member of any of them. When her famous vision came that inspired the rapture she had been a Christian for a year and was suffering from a prolonged illness that required 18 months of bed rest.

Margaret’s vision from the Lord as she termed it came after her illness and she wrote it down and sent it to numerous Christian leaders, Irving being one of them in 1830.

Margaret stated that Christ would first come in glory to only the part of the Christian church described by some as the “Philadelphia church” of Revelation and rapture them leaving the Laodicea church to go through the tribulation. She said only spiritual people would see Christ while the unspirtual would not—whatever she meant by spiritual. Christ would come again in a final stage when every eye would see Him. Thus the coming of Christ would be a two stage event comprised of a secret rapture that only applied to some Christians and a later general Second Coming.

You can read Margaret’s letter she wrote about her vision if you want to torture your self. I read it and it was a grueling mental exercise to try to wade through the plodding, unstructured, meandering description of her vision. She kind of mentions some things that could be construed as rapture like, but it is not the rapture type event we are familiar with today. She was 15, uneducated and English composition was not her long suit.

Irving and Darby knew each other, probably at least from prophetic conferences, if not otherwise and Irving introduced Darby to McDonald after which Darby began integrating a two step coming of Christ into his DP model.

This first coming was the solution to Darby’s problem of how to remove the Christians from earth so they wouldn’t have to go through the Great Tribulation with the Jews. Darby’s integration of the Rapture event into his DP model stretched out over a decade or so and he molded it to suit the needs of the model. He expanded it to include all of what he considered the Church. Darby himself is said to have had doubts about the rapture aspect of his model as late as the mid 1840s before he began a real vigorous defense of it.

Thus the rapture made its way into the DP model not as the star of the model it would become, but as a supporting cast member to enable separation of the Church from the Jews and allowing the earthly fulfillment of end time prophecies to take place against the Jewish people without punishing the Church.

In its early days the rapture was referred to as the “secret rapture.” The secret rapture theory was not accepted without opposition within the Brethren, but it carried the day and the Brethren officially proclaimed dispensationalism with its dichotomy between the Church and the Jews and the secret rapture as a new way to interpret the truth of the scriptures. Outside the Brethren movement the mainline Protestant denominations in England viewed it as “unscriptural” as Spurgeon called it and even weird.

Darby travelled to the United States seven times in fifteen years (from 1862-1877). His most famous trips were to speak at the Niagara Conferences held annually from 1876 to 1897. The major point of the conferences was to promote back to the bible fundamentalism in America, but they also promoted dispensational theology through its many speakers of that persuasion.

The conferences reached the leaders of the fundamentalist movement in the U.S., but not the rank and file. That was done by the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible, of which it is said it contributed more than any other single work to the spread of dispensationalism in the United States. The bible promoted a literal approach to interpreting the Bible, made a distinction between Israel and the church, divided the history of the world into seven distinct dispensations, and advocated a pretribulational rapture.

The Scofield reference bible was famous for its notes which appeared along beside the biblical scripture which was unusual for the time and came to be viewed by readers as just as authoritative as the scripture verses themselves.

Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921) is a lightening rod of a figure in his own right. To his defenders he is an example of how Christ can turn around a life and bring a sinner into the light and a righteous life. To his distracters he is a self-promoting swindler who continued on his self-centered, scofield.jpgunchristian ways long after his supposed conversion. There are tales of his alcoholism, divorce, abandonment of his wife and two daughters, unpaid support after becoming a Christian, and various other unseemly actions such as swindling of money from family members which are beyond the scope of our study. The point is just that there are two sides to the story of Scofield.

Scofield also believed the Lord’s prayer was a Jewish prayer and ought not be recited by Christians.

Either way his bible brought dispensationalism and the rapture to the masses more so than any other one influence. Scofield attended the bible conferences, knew Darby personally, and is considered to have been strongly influenced by Darby.

Perhaps next behind the Scofield bible as an influence that brought dispensationalism to the masses was the establishment of small bible colleges across the U.S. which promoted it. These small bible colleges turned out the preachers who taught local congregations and promoted dispensationalism from the local pulpits.

On a higher level the Dallas Theological Seminary was founded 1924 by Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer to promote and train preachers in dispensational theology. Chafer is considered to have been strongly influenced by Scofield.

Dwight L. Moody was significantly influenced by dispensational theology and his Moody Bible Institute founded in 1886 reflects that in its teachings.

Also, during the first half of the 20th century as radio stations were built across the United States and dispensational preachers and bible teachers got radio programs teaching the bible from a dispensational view point this helped spread the rapture story to the masses.

In 1970 a DTS graduate by the name of Hal Lindsey published the Late Great Planet Earth about the end time events as described from the DP model. It was the most widely read book of the 1970s and introduced dispensational thinking to another generation.

The best selling Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins published between 1995-2007 which is a fictional account of the rapture and end time events from the dispensational view point gave a booster shot to the rapture theory and kept it fresh in the public’s mind.

Over time as Darby faded from view and the dispensational model became more mainstream through being legitimized in seminaries and bible colleges and being espoused from more pulpits it evolved into something different from it’s early controversial beginnings. The word secret is seldom used in front of rapture any more. Israel became a political state again in 1948 which played to the dispensational view that God was keeping his promise of restoring the land around ancient Jerusalem to the Jewish people.

Recently however there has been a renewed awareness of how the DP model came into existence and its controversies surrounding Darby et al. As the beginnings of the model and those old controversies have again begun to undermine the credibility of the DP model its defenders have been shying away from an out and out defense of Darby as the originator of the rapture model and pointing to other names as examples of where the rapture has been spoken of in Christian history.

The earliest example I’ve seen anyone point to as an early interpretation of belief in the rapture comes from Ephraim the Syrian.

In 373 AD in his book (On the Last Times, the Antichrist, and the End of the World) he wrote “For all the saints and the Elect of God are gathered, prior to the tribulation that is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins.”

Obviously this takes a little imagination to get a rapture reference out of this since there is no direct reference to a rapture or two staged coming of Christ.

And, critics of this claim have numerous other bones to pick with it. First, it is not really known whether Ephraim the Syrian (St. Ephraim) famous for his Christian hymns and poems is the real author that this is more of a pseudo Ephraim writing that is attributed possibly to him for lack of a better source since it is similar to some of his writings.

Critics further state that this is cherry picking one obscure sentence from early church writers and trying to make it fit the rapture doctrine. That if there was real support for a rapture in early writings there would be more than one obscure statement which  required some imagination to see a rapture reference in it. They claim this indicates the level of desperation on the part of the pro rapture supporters to find any rapture support prior to the 1800’s.

The pro rapture view point contends that “taken to the Lord” refers to the rapture. Others state that Ephraim refers to the Catholic doctrine of “beatitude” which according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia beatitude refers to “the highest acts of virtue that can be performed in this life.” So in other words the writer whether St. Ephraim or not is simply saying that Christians will become more virtuous in their actions and not continue to slide into the sinful behavior becoming more prevalent in the world.

These attempts to show where others preceding Darby spoke of a rapture like event are isolated events in history that have no descending path between them and modern era dispensationalism. The only dispensational path from the past to the present runs through Darby. Trying to create other purveyors of the rapture also ignores the claims of the Plymouth Brethren who took great pride in claiming to have a revealed a hidden truth they discovered in the bible. It also ignores the critics of the Plymouth Brethren who criticized them for creating new and erroneous ways of reading the bible.


Edward Irving: In 1830 the Scottish church declared Irving’s views of Christ–he started teaching of a sinful nature in Christ– to be heresy and kicked him out of the church. Some of the members remained loyal to Irving and they formed the Catholic Apostolic or Irvingite Church. Irving died at age 42 on December 7, 1834. By the 1970s, the last priest of the church died and the church ceased existence and the congregations dispersed.

Margaret McDonald: Margaret lived a life in a near invalid state often becoming ill and requiring periods of prolonged bed rest. After her rapture vision she prophesized that Robert Owen a noted 19th century socialist was the Antichrist. She is reported to have died at age 25 in 1840.

John Darby: The recognized father of dispensationalism lived to be 81 years old and died in 1882. By 1848 he was embroiled in a bitter dispute over how to maintain discipline among the different Brethren assemblies and eventually left to form a new assembly known as the Darbyites. During his career he moved from the Anglican Church to the Plymouth Brethren to the Darbyites with each move narrowing his association to a smaller more devoted group of followers more willing to follow his direction, thus becoming a more cult like leader in each step.

To some Darby was a near Saint who was a great example of Christian writing, thought and leadership. To others he was a tyrant like and misguided leader with a short temper.

Dispensationalism became and still is the dominant theology in American evangelical and fundamentalist circles, Calvary Chapel churches, many Baptist churches, and Pentecostal churches, as well as many nondenominational churches. It is also dominant in foreign countries where American missionaries have spread Christianity to foreign lands.


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