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Dispensationalism: Part II – The Genesis and Development of Dispensationalism in Nineteenth-Century England by Mark Sarver

By April 9, 2011April 12th, 2016Dispensationalism

The Millenarian Revival

As the advent of the nineteenth century drew near, there was a great revival of prophetic concern. With the French Revolution came a violent uprooting of European political and social institutions, leading many to the conclusion that the end of the world was near. These events seemed to almost all students of apocalyptic literature to be the fulfillment of the end of the predicted 1260 days (years). With the rise of Napoleon came the destruction of papal power in France, especially when, in 1798 the French troops under Berthier marched on Rome, set up a republic, and banished the pope. Apocalyptic interpreters were quick to see in this event the ‘deadly wound’ received by the papacy explicitly described and dated in Revelation 13. Ernest Sandeen graphically portrays the result:

The identification of the events of the 1790’s with those prophesied in Daniel 7 and Revelation 13 provided biblical commentators with a prophetic Rosetta stone. At last a key had been found with which to crack the code. There could now be general agreement upon one fixed point of correlation between prophecy and history. After 1799, in Egyptology as in prophecy, it seemed as though there were no limits to the possibility of discovery.10

None were so quick to make use of these events in prophetic interpretation as the premillennialists. As one examines the vast array of prophetic studies that were prompted by these events, one cannot escape the conclusion that a new and passionate interest in interpreting the prophetic Scriptures had burst upon the scene. These men were absolutely convinced that the return of Christ would certainly take place during the nineteenth century and that the millennium was about to appear.

This prophetic revival was joined to a renewal of interest in the condition of the Jews. Instrumental in the cause to bring Christianity to the Jews was Lewis Way. His interest in this cause was aroused when, in about 1811 while visiting Devonshire, he was told of a grove of trees concerning which the owner had left a will stipulating that ‘these oaks shall remain standing, and the hand of man shall not be raised against them till Israel returns and is restored to the Land of Promise.’ This stimulated Way to an intense investigation of the ancient prophecies regarding the restoration of the Jews and a search for any agencies devoted to reaching the Jews. He soon discovered the existence of the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews (L.S.P.C.J., founded in 1809).

Financially strapped as they were, Way was soon greatly ingratiated to them when he settled the obligations of the society at a cost of over twelve thousand pounds11. In 1816 Way published his Letters, which stressed the connection between the return of the Jews to Palestine and their national conversion just prior to the return of Christ. Puritan postmillennialists had looked eagerly for the salvation of the Jews according to Romans 11, but here was something very different. This new stress on the Jews was accompanied by a far greater literalism in the interpretation of Old Testament prophecies. The most important element of this literalism was insistence that when the prophets spoke predictively of Israel, they meant Israel and not the church. Thus the footings were poured for what would become one of the great pillars of dispensationalism.

This renewed interest in the conversion of the Jews is listed by Ian Rennie12 as one of the ‘signs’ that premillennialists considered be an indication of the nearness of the second coming. Though conversions were not large in number, the mood of anticipation that was born as a result of the endeavors of the L.S.P.C.J. and of its publications was enough. A second sign was the preaching of the gospel throughout the world, especially with the emergence of the modern missionary movement. Third, there were increasing signs of apostasy in the church, not only in the apostasy of Rome, but also in the rationalism of leading Protestant thinkers in Europe. The Restorationist Movement, with its concern for the rediscovery of New Testament patterns of church life, was a fourth sign of the times. Primarily, this found expression in Plymouth Brethrenism and the charismatic Catholic Apostolic Church. Fifth, the sense of societal upheaval in the post-Napoleonic World, with the Peterloo massacre, the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, the never-ending eruptions in Ireland, and over in Europe the events leading to the Revolution of 1830 were more evidence to many that the ‘Lord was at the door.’13

Edward Irving

No figure in the early part of the nineteenth century illustrates the exuberant excitement and interest in prophecy more than Edward Irving. In his meteoric career both the attractions and weaknesses of the millennial movement are magnified. Irving’s first recommendation to the public came when he was accorded the opportunity to minister as an assistant to the great Thomas Chalmers, the most celebrated preacher in the whole of Scotland. In his fascinating biography of Irving, Arnold Dallimore gives this striking comparison of the two men:

Chalmers was the Christian statesman. Though his heart was ever evangelically warm, his mind was often absorbed with the problems of applying Christianity on a nationwide scale, and he could appear occupied and reserved. Irving, however, was uninhibited and open, and his nature had in it much that was childlike and uncomplicated.

Chalmers’ natural bent was for the solid, steady, well-proved things of life, whereas Irving had a flair for the spectacular, the sensational, and that which provoked excitement.

The older man was calm and cautious and came to decisions only after careful consideration. But Irving was often moved by impulse and soaring imagination and high idealism that could overrule for him the dictates of logic and reason.

Chalmers was also highly perceptive in his assessments of men. In that regard Irving was markedly different, for in the openness and generosity of his nature he could readily give ear to those who seemed likely to satisfy his penchant for things spectacular and exciting.14

It is not difficult to understand, then, why this relationship did not continue long. Chalmers was frequently concerned that Irving might do or say something erratic, and Irving did not like standing in Chalmers’ shadow. His mind was teeming with ideas, his brilliance as an orator demanded a broader scope for its expression, and his free spirit yearned for an opportunity to give vent to itself. This opportunity came when the Chalcedonian Chapel in London extended him a call to become their minister. After his arrival in London in 1822, his eloquence made him an overnight sensation; and his chapel was crowded every Sunday with the highborn and influential.

One such man of influence was Samuel Coleridge. Through his friendship with Coleridge, Irving became persuaded of a new and erroneous view of the person of Christ (later Irving was tried for heresy for preaching about the ‘sinful flesh’ of Christ). Coleridge also influenced Irving to reverse his eschatalogical expectations. Irving had taken it for granted that the world was moving towards greater gospel triumphs an era of universal blessing. But Coleridge convinced Irving that the world was only growing worse and that it was headed for judgment. Thirdly, Coleridge propounded a strange view of the preacher, that, in performing his work, he was virtually ‘the voice of the Holy Spirit.’ Irving’s preaching immediately changed. His sermons began to be filled with descriptions of the impending and terrible judgment, and yet the possibility of a new, direct, and powerful working of the Holy Spirit.

Caught up in the ferment of prophetic studies, Irving readily became the disciple of another man. James Hatley Frere, in 1825, led Irving into the premillennial fold. While Coleridge’s views of the future were based upon his assessment of world conditions, Frere’s were the product of his interpretation of Daniel and Revelation. In a letter to Frere, Irving related the manner in which he received Frere’s instruction:

I had no rest in my spirit until I waited upon you and offered myself as your pupil, to be instructed in prophecy according to your ideas thereof. . . . I am not willing that any should account of me as if I were worthy to have revealed to me the important truths . . . only the Lord accounted me worthy to receive the faith of these things which He first made known to you.15

Moved by these things now ‘revealed’ to him, Irving’s imaginative oratory, coupled with a readiness to state his views with dogmatic certainty, gave vent to itself in dramatic discourses on the ‘beasts,’ the ‘heads,’ or the ‘horns’ in Daniel and on similar symbolic themes found in the book of Revelation. For the next four years Irving poured his torrential abilities into the premillennial movement. As one historian put it, ‘Prophecy became the heart and soul of his ministry.’16

During this period (in 1826) Irving discovered a book written by a Chilean Jesuit, Manuel Lacunza: The Coming of Christ in Glory and Majesty (ca. 1791). In an amazingly short time, Irving learned Spanish and thereupon translated and published the book, along with a 203-page preface in which he set forth his own prophetic ideas as clearly as ever. As concerns the developments leading up to the emergence of dispensationalism, the primary significance of Lacunza’s work lay in its futurism with reference to the interpretation of the book of Revelation (not only regarding the millennium of chapter 20 but also the tribulation of chapters 6 to 19). Irving’s contribution to the subject was his discussion of the charismatic outpouring he expected to occur just prior to the Lord’s return a ‘latter rain.’

During November of this same year, Henry Drummond, moved by Irving’s zeal for prophecy, announced a conference to be held at his magnificent country estate, Albury Park. Repeated in 1827 and 1828, the Albury Conferences brought together almost every British millenarian scholar of note and, more than any other vehicle, gave structure to the British millenarian revival. In addition to Drummond and Irving, some of the most noted participants were Lewis Way, William Cuninghame and James Hatley Frere. In 1829 Drummond summarized the conclusions reached and agreed upon by all participants of the conferences.

  1. This ‘dispensation’ or age will not end ‘insensibly’ but cataclysmically in the judgment and destruction of the church in the same manner in which the Jewish dispensation ended.
  2. The Jews will be restored to Palestine during the time of judgment.
  3. The judgment to come will fall principally upon Christendom.
  4. When the judgment is past, the millennium will begin.
  5. The second advent of Christ will occur before the millennium.
  6. The 1260 years of Daniel 7 and Revelation 13 ought to be measured from the reign of Justinian to the French Revolution. The vials of wrath (Revelation 16) are now being poured out and the second advent is imminent.17

Though it is evident from the last point that historicist interpretation had not yet been finally shed, other portions of this millennial platform were marked by a tendency toward a futuristic interpretation of what later (in full blown dispensationalism) were identified as events of the ‘Great Tribulation.’ Also, Israel was accorded distinct attention in the prophetic timetable, though not (as in Darby’s more developed scheme) after the church is taken out of the way.

Another event during the time of Irving’s fame that was to contribute to the rise of dispensationalism was the outburst of the gifts of tongues, prophecy and healings in Scotland and then in London. In May of 1828 Irving, having long felt a burden to warn the people from his home country of the terrible judgment soon to overtake mankind, set out on a preaching tour of Scotland. On that trip he met A. J. Scott, a man whose views concerning the gifts greatly influenced Irving. Whereas Irving had believed that the miraculous apostolic gifts would be restored in the end times, Scott asserted that they had never been withdrawn and that they were still just as much available as they had been during the New Testament era.

Several incidents before and after this visit seemed to confirm Scott’s teaching. Two or three years earlier, Isabella Campbell, a young woman ill with the tuberculosis that took her life, Isabella Campbell, spontaneously burst forth in ecstatic speech in communion with God. After her death, her sister Mary began to look for the gifts of tongues and prophesy in order to equip her to do missionary work. In March of 1830 she spoke in tongues, and soon was added the gift of ‘automatic writing’ (writing in strange characters with amazing speed while in a trance-like condition). News of these things spread like wildfire. And others also received the gift. A few miles from the Campbell home in Gare Loch, in the town of Port Glasgow lived the Macdonald family. The influence of Scott and Irving, and of another, Mcleod Campbell, had stirred up their expectations for the gifts as well. Margaret Macdonald was reportedly healed upon the command of her brother James. But before this took place, according to her narrative, she had lengthy visions of the end times.

A record of these visions is given in Dave MacPherson’s, The Unbelievable Pre-Trib Origin.18 The meaning of her recorded visions is at many points difficult to decipher because of the meandering style of her descriptions, but she seems to speak of a secret coming of the Lord for the saints that cannot be seen by the natural eye. She then speaks of the appearance of ‘THE WICKED’ (one individual) ‘with all power and signs and lying wonders, so that if it were possible the very elect will be deceived.’ It is difficult to determine whether this one is to appear before or after the Lord comes for His own. Therefore it seems that MacPherson’s thesis that this is the origin of the pre-trib rapture theory is surrounded by questions.

He records a letter written by Francis Sitwell to his sister Mary in which Sitwell says he writes ‘. . . because the time of the world’s doom draweth nigh . . . because the time of the sealing is come . . . because there is no safety where you are, because you cannot be sealed where you are, it is because if you are not sealed you must be left in tribulations, while those who have obeyed His voice shall be caught up to meet Him.’19 MacPherson deduces from this letter that Sitwell wrote under the influence of Margaret Macdonald. But the letter was written in 1834 and by then the Powerscourt Conferences had occurred (1831 and 1833) at which the doctrine of the secret rapture had been given a considerable measure of acceptance. It is true that Irving was present at these conferences and may have passed on impressions received from the Macdonald visions, but it is also true that it was J. N. Darby who introduced this topic into the discussions.

However, this is not the only theory that associates the beginning of the secret rapture theory with the charismatic revival of the early nineteenth century. In September of 1830 a party of Londoners was sent to examine the Gare Lock phenomena for themselves, and upon receiving their positive report, a number of people in Irving’s church began praying for the same. In April of 1831 the answer came, when Mrs. J. B. Cardale ‘spoke in tongues.’ Soon others were the ‘gifted ones.’ S. P. Tregelles, known for his scholarship in the history of the Greek text, and one of the early leaders in the Brethren movement, tells us in The Hope of Christ’s Second Coming (1864) that a secret coming of Christ had its origin in an ‘utterance’ in Irving’s church. He writes:

I am not aware that there was any definite teaching that there should be a Secret Rapture of the Church at a secret meeting coming until this was given forth as an ‘utterance’ in Mr. Irving’s church from what was then received as being the voice of the Spirit. But whether anyone ever asserted such a thing or not it was from that supposed revelation that the modern doctrine and the modern phraseology respecting it arose.20

We have seen that either through Edward Irving or his associates at the Albury Conferences there was:

  1. a move toward futurism
  2. increased prominence given to Israel in the prophetic timetable, and
  3. an expectation of charismatic gifts at the end time.

The first two of these were developments towards dispensationalism. It is also likely that a third feature began to make its appearance (later to emerge in fully systematized dispensationalism): the introduction of the pre-tribulation rapture through one or another ‘utterance’ when the supposed ‘gifts’ were received in Scotland and in London.

Another extraordinary pronouncement made by one of those attending upon Irving’s ministry, Robert Baxter, while ‘under the power,’ further contributed to the futurist movement. ‘Count the days,’ he proclaimed, ‘one thousand three score and two hundred 1260 the days appointed for a testimony, at the end of which the saints of the Lord should go up to meet the Lord in the air.’21 It was January 14, 1832 when this pronouncement was made, and so he was setting the date of Christ’s coming as June 27, 1835. Repeated on other occasions, this prophecy was accepted as being approximate only. Of course, their expectation did not materialize. But it is important for us to note in this prediction the concept of the 1260 days in Revelation standing for 1260 days, not years.

This reversal from the historicist position to the futurist position is also found in another pamphlet of the same period: An Enquiry into the Grounds on which the Prophetic Period of Daniel and St. John Has Been Supposed to Consist of 1260 Years, by S. R. Maitland (1826). This attack on the year-day theory of the historical interpreters launched a ‘paper war’ with the historicists which lasted many years. Yet, with Maitland, as well as with those who continued to defend futurism (e.g., James H. Todd and William Burgh), pre-tribulationism was not part of their system.

John Nelson Darby

Though there were scattered developments towards dispensationalism during the time of Irving’s prominence, it was J. N. Darby who was to synthesize and systematize what came to be known as dispensationalism. Whereas the Catholic Apostolic Church which emerged from Irving’s ministry gradually played less and less of a role among millenarians, the Plymouth Brethren, for a time at least, virtually captured the movement. Though not its founder, Darby soon came to dominate the movement.

Like Irving, Darby was a man full of contrasts and even contradictions. Clarence Bass’ estimate of his character clearly draws this out:

The single motivation of Darby’s entire life was his love for Christ. . . . At the same time, this love for Christ caused him to strike relentlessly against any, even close friends, whom he thought to be subverting the truth of Christ’s gospel. . . . Simple in taste, benevolent in disposition, kind in temperament, considerate in his awareness of others, humble in spirit, sympathetic in nature, he was at the same time ruthless in controversy, belligerent to those who opposed him, jealous of his position of authority, and exacting in his demands.22

Though Darby was interested in prophecy from the start, his first tract upon entering the Brethren movement was ‘The Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ’ (1829), a powerful attack upon the deadness and formalism of the existing organized church and ordained ministry. Our concern, however, is to trace out the prophetic views propounded by Darby that soon came to take dispensationalist form. Of crucial significance were the Powerscourt Conferences, which first met in Dublin in 1831. Though Edward Irving seems to have visited and Robert Daly was chairman, the real creative force behind the conference was Darby. In this first conference there was a general acceptance of the literal-day theory (implying the rejection of historicism and reception of futurism) as well as the secret rapture theory. Whether or not this last named theory was merely passed on from the Irvingites (as seems probable from the statement of Tregelles cited on p. ), or now propounded for the first time is difficult to ascertain with absolute certainty. Whatever the case, the doctrine was now nailed down.

At the 1833 Powerscourt Conference, Darby continued his attack upon the apostasy of the churches and stressed the need for true believers to gather in the name of the Lord alone. More significantly, he then presented his view of the church as a parenthesis in the prophetic fulfillment between the sixty-ninth and seventieth weeks of Daniel. It was over this issue and over the issue of the rapture of the church prior to the Tribulation that conflict began to develop between Darby and another leader in the Brethren movement, Benjamin W. Newton. Newton refused to attend the 1834 conference and instead organized a competing conference at Plymouth, an act Darby regarded as schismatic.

It was not, however, until Darby began to make periodic visits to Switzerland for seven years beginning in 1838 that he began to synthesize his views more completely. During 1840 he delivered a series of eleven lectures at Lausanne, giving systematic exposition of his theology for the first time.

When Darby returned to England in 1845, he went to Plymouth where Newton had continued to minister since the inception of that particular group. The inevitable and bitter strife that ensued replaced the harmony that had once characterized the Plymouth group. Darby accused Newton of attempting to dominate the meeting, refusing to co-operate with other leaders, refusing to allow other leaders to challenge his teaching, and other such ecclesiastic transgressions. Later he added the charge of heresy in respect to the doctrine of Christ, and Newton retracted those things which were in error in his former statements. This did not satisfy Darby, however, and after Newton left, Darby began to excommunicate not only individuals but whole churches that maintained any fellowship with Newton and even those who fellowshipped with them.

It is important to note, however, that the initial rupture between Darby and Newton came over the issue concerning the status of the church during the Great Tribulation. Darby taught that the church was to be raptured and that the witness during the Tribulation would be carried on by a semi-Christian group that was not a part of the church. None of the events after the first few chapters in the book of Revelation had yet occurred nor could they be expected to occur until the rapture took place. Newton, on the other hand, believed that the persecuted ‘faithful’ were simply members of the church which would go through the Tribulation.

It must be emphasized that the crux of the debates that took place over the rapture was a more fundamental issue: the relationship between Old and New Testament saints. Darby made a radical separation between the two groups of saints, positing that the church (Pentecost to rapture) has a special glory and that the Old Testament saints had an inferior relationship to God. In his system, the difference between these groups was vertical (distinguishing heavenly and earthly peoples), not horizontal (portraying the historical and typological relationship between promise and fulfillment). Newton maintained that the Old Testament saints were an integral part of the church and shared in the same glory of post-Pentecostal saints.

It would not be accurate, however, to say that Darby’s views concerning a dichotomy between Old and New Testament saints were merely the result of his heated controversy with Newton. In Darby’s own thinking it seems that his view of this matter crystallized in the midst of a dual quest for personal and ecclesiastical purity. According to his own testimony, radical transition or ‘deliverance’ occurred during a time when he was laid up due to a leg injury:

When I came to understand that I was united to Christ in heaven [Eph. 2:6], and that, consequently, my place before God was represented by His own, I was forced to the conclusion that it was no longer a question with God of this wretched ‘I’ which had wearied me during six or seven years, in presence of the requirements of the law.23

Thus Darby came to lay hold of that righteousness which is apart from the law and is only to be found in Christ (Phil. 3:9). This dramatic discovery concerning personal holiness was accompanied by a new view of the church and of corporate purity:

It then became clear to me that the church of God, as His considers it, was composed only of those who were so united to Christ [Eph. 2:6], whereas Christendom, as seen externally, was really the world, and could not be considered as the ‘church.’24

The true church, according to Darby’s thinking, because it is united to Christ, is heavenly. It has nothing to do with the corrupt ecclesiastical system called the ‘church.’ Likewise, because of its union with Christ, its present and future heavenly glory has nothing to do with the earthly lot of Israel. Darby writes: ‘The consciousness of my union with Christ had given me the present heavenly portion of my glory, whereas this chapter [Isa. 32] clearly sets forth the corresponding earthly part.’25

It was Darby’s doctrine of the church that became the catalyst for the rest of his system. Looking about upon the ecclesiastical scene of his day, Darby declared that the church is in ruins, so much so that it is diametrically opposed to the purpose for which it was instituted. Why? It is because the church, as a dispensation has failed and must suffer the judgment of God, just as has happened in every other dispensation. His hope for the church was that, like Israel, a remnant might be saved. Any attempt to repair the church was doomed to failure, since it is in ruins and it is not God’s will that it be restored. Rather, believers are to forsake the existing church and assemble in the name of Christ. It is the Brethren who now have the Holy Spirit as one body and who are now the true representatives of Christ’s body on earth.

The church, according to Darby, did not come into existence until Pentecost. Even from the beginning it was never composed of ‘natural branches’ (as were the Jews). Moreover, the church was not even revealed in the Old Testament. Israel had been an earthly kingdom with material promises and blessings. Christ came to fulfill the promises and ideals of that earthly kingdom but was rejected by His people. When that happened, God stopped the prophetic clock and instituted the church. Not until the rapture of the church will this clock start again, at which time God again will resume His purposes for His earthly people, Israel. Because the church, as the body of Christ, is heavenly, it must be raptured out of the earth in order that God’s earthly program with Israel might be resumed. The fulfillment of God’s promises to His earthly people must be in literal terms their calling and nature are earthly, their promises are earthly, and therefore the fulfillment must be with the literalism that accords with the earthly nature of the people and promises.

Therefore, the establishment of the millennial Kingdom is the hope of Israel. All of God’s actions with Israel have been directed towards that Kingdom. The nation will then occupy the land, the temple will be rebuilt (Ezek. 40-42), the sacrifices will be reinstituted (Ezek. 43, 44, 46), Christ will sit on David’s throne, the nations shall acknowledge Israel to be the favored people of God, and Israel shall recognize Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Once again the gospel of the Kingdom (first proclaimed in the Gospels) will be preached; only this time Israel shall believe it. All of this will happen in fulfillment of the covenants God has made with His people, especially His unconditional covenant made with Abraham.26

This bifurcation between Israel and the church in Darby’s theology goes hand in hand with his dichotomous approach to hermeneutics. Many dispensationalists go to great lengths to emphasize that literal interpretation lies at the foundation of their system. But one does not have to read far to discover that dispensationalists employ literal hermeneutics inconsistently. It is their Israel/church dichotomy that lies at the root of their literalistic hermeneutics and not vice versa. The following quotations from Darby’s Writings illustrate the point:

First, in prophecy, when the Jewish church or nation (exclusive of the Gentile parenthesis in their history) is concerned, i.e., when the address is directed to the Jews, there we may look for a plain and direct testimony, because earthly things were the Jews’ proper portion. And, on the contrary, where the address is to the Gentiles, i.e., when the Gentiles are concerned in it, there we may look for symbol, because earthly things were not their portion, and the system of revelation must to them be symbolical. When therefore facts are addressed to the Jewish church as a subsisting body, as to what concerns themselves, I look for a plain, common sense, literal statement, as to a people with whom God had direct dealing upon earth.27

Prophecy applies itself properly to the earth; its object is not heaven. It was about things that were to happen on the earth; and not seeing this has misled the church. We have thought that we ourselves had within us the accomplishment of these earthly blessings, whereas we are called to enjoy heavenly blessings. The privilege of the church is to have its portion in the heavenly places; and later blessings will be shed forth upon the earthly people. The church is something altogether apart a kind of heavenly economy, during the rejection of the earthy people, who are put aside on account of their sins, and driven out among the nations, out of the midst of which nations God chooses a people for the enjoyment of heavenly glory with Jesus Himself. The Lord, having been rejected by the Jewish people, is become wholly a heavenly person. This is the doctrine which we peculiarly find in the writings of the apostle Paul. It is no longer the Messiah of the Jews, but a Christ exalted, glorified; and it is for want of taking hold of this exhilarating truth, that the church has become so weak.28

In Darby’s dispensationalism intricately interwoven together are the following: 1) a sharp distinction between Israel and the church, between ‘earthly’ and ‘heavenly’ peoples of God; 2) literal interpretation of prophecy whenever connected with the ‘earthly’ people, and the spiritual interpretation whenever the church is in view; 3) the parenthetic nature of the church; 4) the doctrine of the secret rapture of the church (the ‘catching away’ of the heavenly people that God might resume His prophetic timetable with His earthly people, the Jews); 5) the expectation of an earthly Jewish millennium; 6) a rigid dichotomy between law and grace; and 7) a negative separatistic evaluation of the existing institutional church. Later, some dispensationalists would modify the sixth of these distinctives, the dichotomy between law and grace. For example, whereas the notes of the original Scofield Reference Bible on ‘Grace’ contrast the dispensation of grace with that of law by declaring, ‘The point of testing is no longer legal obedience as the condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ,’ in the same place the New Scofield Reference Bible states: ‘Prior to the cross man’s salvation was through faith, being grounded on Christ’s atoning sacrifice, viewed anticipatively by God; now it is clearly revealed that salvation and righteousness are received by faith in the crucified and resurrected Savior.’29

Surely any that carefully compare these doctrines propagated by Darby with historic Christianity will be struck with the novelty of them. Even one of the proponents of dispensationalism, Harry A. Ironside, in speaking of the dispensational teaching that the church was not prophesied in the Old Testament plainly asserts that it was a non-existent teaching until introduced by Darby:

In fact, until brought to the fore, through the writings and preaching of a distinguished ex-clergyman, Mr. J. N. Darby, in the early part of the last century, it is scarcely to be found in a single book or sermon throughout a period of 1600 years! If any doubt this statement, let them search, as the writer has in a measure done, the remarks of the so-called Fathers, both pre and post-Nicene, the theological treatises of the scholastic divines, Roman Catholic writers of all shades of thought; the literature of the Reformation; the sermons and expositions of the Puritans; and the general theological works of the day. He will find the ‘mystery’ conspicuous by its absence.30

The Spread of Darby’s Teaching in England

The overwhelming devotion of Darby and the zeal of many of his followers were instrumental in gaining many converts to dispensationalism. But two external factors added to the impetus of the new movement in England in the years following 1843. One such factor was the collapse of historicist premillennialism. When news reached England that William Miller’s prediction that the second coming was to occur in 1843 had proven false, premillennialists suffered a setback. When Hatley Frere was bold enough to insist that the Jews would be back in Palestine with a rebuilt temple in 1865 and that Roman Catholicism would be destroyed by 1864, and that Napoleon was the Antichrist, he became a laughingstock and the ranks of the Darbyites swelled.

The other event that benefitted the early dispensational movement in England was the revival of 1859. Because it was led predominantly by laymen and because nowhere were laymen trained and accustomed to minister more than in the Brethren movement, the Brethren evangelists were at the heart of the revival. As a result, proportionately, no group in Britain benefitted more from this revival than did the Plymouth Brethren. Subsequently, as the interdenominational movement grew out of this revival, and even more so with D. L. Moody’s powerful ministry in Britain, dispensationalism found a haven in a movement uninhibited by denominational creeds and structures.31