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Dispensationalism: Part III – The Development and Spread of Dispensationalism in America by Mark Sarver

By April 9, 2011April 12th, 2016Dispensationalism

The Rise of Millenarianism in Nineteenth-Century America

During the Great Awakening (1725-1760) in America, postmillennalism was given fresh impetus, especially by Jonathan Edwards. This optimistic expectation of future gospel triumphs, given new life due to the present gospel triumphs, fit in well with the American Puritan conviction that the colonists were a chosen people and their commonwealth a ‘city set upon a hill.’34 Optimism concerning America’s destiny was strengthened even more by the American Revolution, and therefore, postmillennialism became the prevalent view among American evangelicals between the Revolution and the Civil War. With the coming of the nineteenth century, whereas the papal and Islamic decline had been a stimulus to premillennialism in England, it served to strengthen the postmillennial cause in America. In the thinking of both of these eschatologies, some prophecies about the time immediately preceding the millennium were already being fulfilled in current events. To each, current events were harbingers of the millennium; their primary disagreement was whether Christ would come before or after the millennium.

Further on into the nineteenth century, significant changes took place in both of these camps. After the Civil War liberalism began to creep in among the evangelical postmillennialists, and gradually the supernatural aspects of the evangelical postmillennial view of history were replaced by a more naturalistic view. Rather than the Kingdom being gospel-oriented, future and otherworldly, it was ‘here and now’ a carrying out of the ideals of Jesus in society.

Premillennialism also took on significant alterations. In part, this took place in reaction to the infamous debacle of the Millerites. The largest early nineteenth-century premillennial group, the followers of William Miller (1792-1849) who predicted Christ’s return in 1843, came to unusual prominence due to their fanaticism. With the failure of Miller’s predictions came the collapse of the movement, but more important, was the reaction of other premillennialists. Ernest Sandeen portrays the reaction: ‘William Miller, like Edward Irving in the British movement, became a theological leper whose ceremonial denunciation was a part of the litany of millenarianism for the next century.’35 As his historicist presuppositions were remarkably similar to those of the historicists in Britain and America, and as he depended so much in his predictions on the 1260 year-day theory, his predictions were not unlike those of others in his day; and all premillennialists (especially historicist premillennialists) suffered a blow from which it took a generation to recover. This prepared the way, however, for the acceptance of the futurist eschatology so essential to dispensationalism.

Premillennialism in America also developed in reaction to the liberal brand of postmillennialism that had begun to be in vogue. Even in the early 40’s two prophetic magazines, The Literalist and The American Millenarian and Prophetic Review drew heavily upon such British writers as Bickersteth, Brooks, and Cuninghame, promoting premillennialism in response to postmillennialism. It was not, however, until post-Civil War liberalism had gained prominence among postmillennialists that the most significant changes took place. Those who had embraced Darby’s brand of premillennialism were in the best position to gain proselytes. Where liberalism appeared vague and abstract, dispensationalism was explicit and concrete. The more the century wore on the more clearly the battle lines were drawn and all the more recruits were added to each side.

The Emergence of Dispensationalism as a Significant Brand of Millenarianism

The events just chronicled were very significant as forerunners of the dispensational movement in America. By 1860, however, the liberal postmillennial/premillennial debates had not really warmed up, and premillennialism was still recovering from the Millerite debacle. Darby visited the United States and Canada seven times between 1862 and 1877. At first he had great difficulty convincing Americans of the whole of his theology, and even less success in persuading them that acceptance of his doctrine of the ruin of Christendom obligated believers to abandon their former denominational affiliations to meet with the Brethren ‘gathered only in the name of the Lord.’ He blamed the worldly state of the American churches for this disappointing response. But his persistence eventually paid off, and by the 70’s significant impact had been made in St. Louis, Chicago, New York, and Boston. In St. Louis, James H. Brookes, pastor of the Walnut Street Presbyterian Church, soon became a leading teacher of dispensationalism.

In Chicago Darby had significant contact with Dwight L. Moody, and, though Moody never became an ardent promoter of dispensationalism, Darby was able to convince him of the place of the grace of God in conversion. In Boston, a notable Adventist, F. G. Brown, was converted to Brethrenism. By the time Darby visited America for the last time in 1877, there were eighty-eight Brethren meetings, none of them large. [It should be noted, however, that though the Plymouth Brethren have never been as significant a force in America as in Britain, by and large, dispensationalism has received a warmer reception in America.]

During this period, millenarian periodicals continued to proliferate, a number of them being futurist in their stance, and a few of them heading in the dispensationalist direction. The Prophetic Times, published between 1863 and 1881 under various editorships with wide denominational representation, and Waymarks in the Wilderness, published 1854-1857 and 1864-1872 under the editorship of James Inglis, are examples of periodicals lending support to the emerging dispensational cause. It is interesting to note in the writing of Inglis something characteristic of American dispensationalists: a distancing of himself from Darby’s sectarian tendencies as well as from the whole Brethren movement, while taking from his theological bag dispensational doctrines such as the secret rapture.36

The Prophecy and Bible Conference Movement

During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, premillennialism began to organize and proselyte through a number of prophetic and Bible conferences. The Niagara Bible Conference, known at first as the Believers’ Meeting for Bible Study, was the mother of them all. It began in New York City in 1868 with men who had served as editors of Waymarks in the Wilderness, James Inglis, David Inglis, and Charles Campbell. From 1883 to 1897 the conference met at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario and thus acquired its name. Over 120 leaders and speakers virtually everyone of any significance in the premillennial movement attended the conference. Beginning in 1875, James H. Brookes, a dispensationalist, was sought out as the keynote speaker and for many years he served as its president. In 1875, Brookes also began to publish the Truth, a periodical, which served, along with another journal, as the official organ of the premillennial movement until his death in 1897. Adoniram J. Gordon, a historicist premillennialist, edited the other premillennial journal of that period, the Watchword, and also participated in the conference. Some of the other leaders were dispensationalists (as Arthur T. Pierson, George C. Needham, and L. W. Mundhall) and others were not (as Nathaniel West, H. W. Frost, and W. G. Moorehead). Others (as W. J. Erdman and Robert Cameron) who at first embraced the Darbyite doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture, later reversed themselves on this issue. Dispensationalism was prominent at the conferences, but, for the time being, premillennialists of various stripes worked together as a premillennial coalition.

It is helpful for us to remember that the Niagara conferences were started shortly after Henry Ward Beecher’s message had captured the hearts of so many. Beecher’s romanticism about such things as the ideals found in nature, the coming of the Kingdom of God through scientific and moral progress, and the blending of the supernatural with the natural (i.e., the supernatural only manifests itself in the natural as in evolution) softened the implications of traditional doctrines without overtly denying them altogether. Against this backdrop the leaders of the Niagara conference were concerned to defend the faith on all fronts. The 1878 Niagara Creed, therefore clearly stated the verbal and plenary inspiration of the Bible, the total depravity of man, the necessity of the new birth, substitutionary atonement, and the premillennial return of Christ among its fourteen points. In response to the various sects who were also premillennial (as the Adventists and Mormons), a clear stand was also taken against annihilationism and soul sleep. Perfectionism was also strenuously opposed. So, though dispensationalism was widely embraced among the leaders of the Niagara conference, the conference leaders taught their millenarian views as a part of a coherent theology rather than as a single-issue movement. Thus, it has a significant part in laying the foundations of fundamentalism.

Because these conferences came to be seen as bastions of orthodoxy over and against liberalism, and because dispensationalists had such a prominent place in the leadership and on the platform, dispensationalism was accorded more and more respect. Less and less was it associated with the sectarian tendencies of Darby, and more and more it was associated with those who had a high view of Scripture. We should be careful to observe, however, that dispensationalism did not make gains merely by virtue of its associations with others valiant for the truth, but also because its approach to the Scriptures was so antithetical to that of the liberals and postmillennialists of the day. Beecher’s romanticism was a subtle rejection of the literal and factual truth of many basic Christian doctrines; to many evangelicals dispensationalism’s literal approach to Biblical interpretation seemed to be the ideal antithesis. The same contrast is seen as we compare the eschatologies of liberal postmillennialism and dispensationalism. George Marsden elaborates:

Ironically, the dispensationalists were responding to some of the very same problems in Biblical interpretation that were troubling theological liberals in the nineteenth century. If Biblical statements were taken at face value and subjected to scientific analysis, major anomalies seemed to appear. Among these were that many Old Testament prophecies did not seem to refer precisely to the church, that Jesus and his disciples seemed to expect his return and the establishment of the kingdom very shortly, and that much of the teaching of Jesus seemed to conflict with the theology of Paul. Liberals resolved such problems by greatly broadening the standards for interpreting Biblical language. Dispensationalists did the opposite. They held more strictly than ever to a literal interpretation but introduced a new historical scheme whose key was the interpretation of the church age as a parenthesis. Once the key step was accepted, the rest of Scripture could be fit into the scheme, and aspects that others viewed as inconsistencies could be explained as simply referring to different dispensations.37

Furthermore, literalistic hermeneutics, more than an antidote to vague liberalism, increasingly became one of the hallmarks of dispensationalism. Prophecies must mean exactly what they say: Israel must mean the Jews; prophetic numbers refer to exact periods of time; and even symbols must refer to scientifically and historically identifiable persons and events. Interpretation is an exact science with precise conclusions. Even prophetic books can be interpreted with precision tribulation and millennial events may be mapped out with great chronological detail and certainty.

This approach to Scripture interpretation even made an impact on the style of public addresses at the Niagara Conference (and at other conferences): the ‘Bible reading.’ In preaching, rather than enter into a flowery oration (as in the pulpit exercises of Henry Ward Beecher, T. D. Talmadge, or Phillips Brooks), these dispensationalists preferred a plain exposition. George Needham, commenting on his own preaching, said, ‘By no means advertize me as being sensational, or magnetic, or eloquent, or scholarly, or smart, or any such thing, but only a plain man, telling a plain story, in a plain manner.’38 Though this approach displayed their reverence for the Word, yet it had its weaknesses. Francis L. Patton of Princeton Seminary warned his students ‘against supposing that you have given an adequate substitute for a sermon when, with the help of Cruden’s Concordance, you have chased a word through the Bible, making a comment or two on the passages as you go along.’39

These Bible readings and the literalism with which they were associated had great appeal with popular audiences. These preachers regarded their literalism as being the mode of ‘common sense’ that which would be understood and would appeal to the ‘common man.’ ‘Appeal to the common sense of any stranger,’ said Stephen H. Tyng, Jr., host of the first International Prophetic Conference in 1878. Common sense, he said, proved that ‘a literal rendering is always to be given in the reading of Scripture, unless the context makes it absurd.’40 We should expect no ‘mystical’ language with ‘secret or hidden meaning’ said Jerry Lummis in an address at the 1886 conference. Rather, he said, the prophetic teachings of Christ ‘are just as easily apprehended by the common sense of the common people as are His teachings in respect to duty.’41 In order that we might appreciate the significance of this approach, it is most helpful that we note that the philosophy known as Scottish Common Sense Realism had been influential in America by this time for a century, and from about 1820 on had been the dominant philosophy taught in American colleges. It was the American philosophy. This philosophic approach held that God’s truth is a single unified order and that all that is necessary to apprehend that truth is common sense. To a great extent, then, the readiness of Americans to welcome dispensationalist literalism can be traced back to their philosophical heritage. To them the words of Reuben A. Torrey would ring true: ‘In ninety-nine out of a hundred cases the meaning that the plain man gets out of the Bible is the correct one.’42 Dispensationalist literalistic hermeneutics was ‘common sense’ par excellence!

As a paradigm for the manner in which dispensationalism benefitted, directly or indirectly, from the prophecy and Bible conference movement, we have used the Niagara conference. Before we move on, then, it is not necessary that we do more than mention the other prominent prophetic and Bible conferences of the late nineteenth century. In 1878 a group of eight premillennialists, predominantly made up of leaders at the Niagara conference, issued a call with the endorsement of 114 ‘Bishops, Professors, Ministers and Brethren’ for a conference to convene at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal; rector, Stephen H. Tyng, Jr.). Called the First American Bible and Prophetic Conference, its stated intention was the delivering of a series of papers on the premillennial advent of Christ, and its underlying rationale was the putting up of a united and public premillenial witness. The Second American Bible and Prophetic Conference was held in Chicago, November 16-20, 1886. At this conference many more speakers evidenced well-developed dispensational affinities. Subsequent conferences were held in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1895; in Boston in 1901; in Chicago again in 1914; and in Philadelphia and New York in 1918.

D. L. Moody and a Revivalist Alliance

Before we leave our survey of those factors that influenced and helped promote dispensationalism in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, we must give notice to the ministry of Dwight L. Moody and to the manner in which his evangelistic empire aided the cause of dispensationalism. During this period Moody was regarded as the most influential preacher in America. His message was the love of God. His theology, though basically orthodox, was eclectic and ambiguous Moody hated controversy. He had no formal denominational connections, choosing, rather, to build his evangelistic empire through extra-ecclesiastical organizations.

In 1873 Moody was invited to conduct some evangelistic services in the British isles. He took Ira Sankey along as song leader, and they succeeded beyond all expectations. The ‘revival’ that took place, especially in Scotland, gave them international renown, and after a similar tour in 1874 they returned to America as national heroes. The result was as may be expected: religious leaders across the country clamored for their services. Following his first round of campaigns in America, Moody turned to building structures that would perpetuate his evangelistic endeavors, such as Emma Dryer’s Bible training school in Chicago, designed to train laymen to meet the needs of urban evangelism. Beginning in 1880 and continuing until his death in 1899 he made his home in Northfield, Massachusetts. Summer conferences there attracted men of all persuasions. Growing out of these conferences was the immensely influential Student Volunteer Movement, instrumental over the course of a few years in stimulating thousands of students to dedicate themselves to serve as foreign missionaries, thus initiating the greatest display of missionary interest ever known in the United States.

Moody’s impact on dispensationalism was at least threefold: 1) he offered dispensationalists a prominent platform; 2) he, either directly or indirectly, founded institutions that would perpetuate dispensational teaching; 3) he was instrumental in introducing from England the new Keswick holiness teaching.

Though Moody himself was never a preacher of dispensationalism, he often included premillennialism in his preaching, and at Northfield gave premillennialists what was probably an unparalleled opportunity to make an impact upon evangelical Christianity. Moody never entirely tied himself to Darby’s theology, but was greatly influenced by Darby’s popularizer, C. H. Mackintoch, once writing of his books that he would rather part with his entire library excepting his Bible than these writings, and that ‘they have been to me a very key to the Scriptures.’43 We conclude, then, that Moody was sympathetic to the teaching of dispensationalism, and when we discover many dispensationalists (as George Needham, J. H. Brookes, A. T. Pierson, W. E. Blackstone, and James M. Gray) on the platform along with other leading premillennialists, we are not surprised. Furthermore, when we consider that the man who came closest to being Moody’s successor, Reuben A. Torrey, was a champion of dispensationalism, we are impressed with the fact that, intentionally or not, through his evangelical alliance Moody was one of the greatest aids to the dispensationalist cause that ever was.

Moody’s second contribution to dispensationalism was the founding of Bible institutes. During the late nineteenth century various evangelical leaders were persuaded that zealous laymen could effectively be trained for home and foreign missions with a minimum of Biblical and practical training. W. J. Erdman and W. G. Moorehead cooperated with Miss Emma Dryer (a dispensationalist) in initiating pilot sessions of the Bible Training Institute, and Moody lent his support in 1886. In October of 1889 the school opened full-time with R. A. Torrey serving as its first superintendent, and after Moody’s death came to be known as Moody Bible Institute. Northwestern Bible Training School was begun just after the turn of the century under the leadership of A. J. Frost and William Bell Riley. Soon to follow were the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, the Toronto Bible Training School, and Philadelphia Bible Institute. With few exceptions the Bible schools became bases for the dissemination of dispensationalism.

Thirdly, Moody influenced many dispensationalists (and, more broadly, fundamentalists) by introducing them to the Keswick holiness teaching. When Moody brought Fredrick B. Meyer to Northfield (probably in 1891), a strenuous protest was raised. Many of the Niagara conference men, who were speakers at Northfield, had taken great pains to oppose the Oberlin perfectionism of Charles Finney and Asa Mahan, and Meyer had to distinguish his teaching from it. The Keswick movement, begun through meetings in Keswick, England in 1873, under the domination of H. W. Webb Peploe, clearly departed from Methodist perfectionism. While rejecting the Wesleyan doctrine of the eradication of the sinful nature, the Keswick teachers also rejected the traditional view that one’s sinful nature was merely suppressed by Christ’s righteousness. This, they felt, led to constant conflict with sin and even tolerance of it as normal. In its place, the Keswick teachers posited a two-stage concept of the Christian life: the ‘carnal Christian’ and the ‘spiritual Christian.’ Moving from one to the other required an act of faith, or ‘consecration.’ It was described as ‘absolute surrender’ or as ‘yielding’ and was always conceived of as a distinct crisis experience which brought in ‘the victorious life.’ Moody claimed to have undergone an intense second experience in 1871 and urged Torrey to ‘preach on the baptism with the Holy Ghost,’ and it appears Torrey took his advice. Other dispensationalists continued to promote the Keswick doctrines. In 1913 Charles Trumbull began an ‘American Keswick’ conference; in his biography of C. I. Scofield, Trumbull and the famous dispensationalist are pictured together as ‘Paul and Timothy,’ indicating the close relationship between the two movements. More importantly, Scofield more or less canonized these Keswick doctrines in his Reference Bible.44 To dispensationalists, who believe that the Church Age was the unique age of the Spirit, this teaching has a special attraction. Moreover, while premillennialism abandons an optimistic estimate of the conquering power of the Holy Spirit throughout society, this Keswick doctrine promises personal ‘victory’ in the Holy Spirit.

Dispensationalism and the Fragmentation of Millenarianism

Though the leading lights in the prophecy and Bible conference movement were dispensationalists, they were not overly strident with their dispensationalism because they were primarily concerned to combat liberalism. They did seek to commend their views, but carefully sought to avoid rocking the boat. Likewise, Moody had exercised great care to prevent controversy within the ranks of the fundamentalist and premillennial movement. But with the death of Moody in 1899 came the beginnings of a serious fragmentation within the movement. The ‘common sense’ literalism was expected to lead to unity of understanding among millenarians, but by this time such unity was even further from realization than when the Bible conference movement began. The most serious conflict came over the dispensationalist doctrine of a pre-tribulation rapture.

This crisis began in public when one of the Niagara leaders, Nathaniel West, began in 1893 to attack the theory of the pre-tribulation rapture in a series of pamphlets and articles. Siding with West was Robert Cameron and soon others (at least W. J. Erdman, James M. Stifler, William G. Moorehead, and H. W. Frost) became convinced that they had been mistaken and that for twenty years the Niagara conference had been teaching error. Yet, as long as dispensationalist J. W. Brookes lived (till 1897), reverence for the great leader had a dampening effect upon the controversy. After his death, divisions within the leadership became more apparent and the former ferver no longer characterized the meetings, and so after 1900 the Niagara conference no longer convened.

This controversy was continued through the vehicle of periodicals: Arno C. Gaebelein representing the pre-tribulationist position through Our Hope, and Robert Cameron in Watchword and Truth giving out why he had left the dispensational view and then attempting to pin the origin of the pre-tribulation view to fanatical utterances in Irving’s church. This heated exchange left the two sides irreversibly polarized. Cameron sought to heal these wounds and construct a united front for both post- and pretribulationists, but Gaebelein cut off his former allies and launched out upon a vigorous pre-tribulationist campaign. In 1901 he organized conferences in Boston, New York City, and at Sea Cliff, Long Island. In 1902 he expanded this conference ministry even further. As a result of these and other efforts, the dispensationalist party, more willing to continue the fight, emerged the stronger of the two. As the post-tribulationists died off, there were few new recruits to fill the gaps.

The Aggressive Expansion of Dispensationalism

Having asserted their independence as a movement, dispensationalists aggressively continued to propagate their views during the first thirty years of the twentieth century. Several publications had an unusually great impact on evangelicalism. Of these it is hard to conceive of any that was more influential than the Scofield Reference Bible. The plan to write an annotated version of the Bible was first discussed by Scofield and Gaebelein at the Sea Cliff conference in 1901, and by 1909 the first edition had been released. Had Scofield decided to publish his notes in a separate volume rather than inserting them on the pages of the Bible itself, in all probability they would have soon been relatively forgotten. Instead, they have been devoured by hundreds of thousands many of whom are unaware of the distinction between the Biblical text and Scofield’s interpretation. While the notes include a defense of major Biblical doctrines over and against the higher critics and liberals of his day, and so have done much good, they have also proven dangerous to the novice. Novices have often begun to consider themselves experts in theology, merely because they have assimilated some of these notes. The Scofield Reference Bible was revised in 1917 and again in 1967 when an editorial committee of eight men (Frank E. Gaebelein, William Culbertson, Charles Feinberg, Allan MacRae, Clarence Mason, Jr., Alva J. McClain, Wilbur Smith, and John Walvoord) chaired by E. Schuyler English produced a much more extensive revision.

Two other publications were especially prominent in promoting dispensationalism during this period. W. E. Blackstone’s Jesus is Coming was actually first published in 1878, but it was not used very extensively until 1908 when a special ‘presentation edition’ was published and several hundred thousand copies were distributed free of charge to Christian workers throughout the world. In 1918 Clarence Larkin published his Dispensational Truth, a book full of elaborate charts depicting various ‘dispensations,’ judgments, eschatalogical events, apocalyptic books as Daniel and Revelation, etc. The book has gone through at least forty printings.

During this period, prophecy conferences continued as a major vehicle for promoting dispensationalism. On the eve of the first world war (February, 1914) a Bible and prophecy conference was held at Moody Bible Institute. James Gray, W. B. Riley, Scofield, and Gaebelein were the leaders. At no previous conference had the details of dispensationalism been laid out so explicitly and dogmatically.

World War I greatly stimulated interest in the study of prophecy, and, during the closing months of the war, the crowds swelled at such conferences in an unprecedented fashion. One such conference held at the Philadelphia Academy of Music May 28-30, 1918 was largely stimulated by the news of the British capture of Jerusalem by General Allenby, and to a great extent was a celebration of what was viewed as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.

Throughout the fundamentalist/modernist battles of the 1920’s and 1930’s, dispensationalists continued as a major fundamentalist contingency, all the while maintaining their own specific identity as dispensationalists.

Even during the period of the fundamentalist/modernist debates, when many dispensationalists felt compelled to join with other evangelicals against a common foe, it became more and more evident that dispensationalism had become a homogeneous movement. Not only did it have its own Bible schools, but it began to have its own representative seminaries. Of these, none is so well known as Dallas Theological Seminary, founded in 1924. Its founder and first president was Lewis Sperry Chafer. In 1947 Chafer’s multi-volume Systematic Theology was published. In connection with this seminary a journal began to be published. Bibliotheca Sacra, featuring the best of dispensationalist scholars, continues to this day.

Before we leave our survey of the history of dispensationalism in this era, we should notice one of the distinctives of dispensationalism that is displayed in a prominent fashion in two of the works cited above (Scofield Reference Bible and Larkin’s Dispensational Truth). We here refer to the tendency of dispensationalism to divide and classify the details of the Bible. The classifications are almost endless: the Jew, the Gentile, and the church; the wife of Jehovah and the bride of the Lamb (earthly wife and heavenly bride); the various judgments (seven in all, according to Scofield see note on Rev. 20:12); the eight covenants; the ‘Day of Christ,’ the ‘Day of the Lord,’ and the ‘Day of Judgment;’ the ‘Kingdom of God’ and the ‘Kingdom of heaven;’ the differences of in, with, and upon as used in connection with the Holy Spirit. The charts in Larkin’s work are an amazing correlation of detailed prophecies, all co-ordinated according to the dispensational scheme. The Scriptures are treated as though they are an encyclopedic puzzle: each piece of history or prophecy meant to be sorted out and arranged. R. A. Torrey’s What the Bible Teaches is in the same mold: 500 pages of thousands of Biblical ‘propositions’ supported by proof texts. This dictionary-like work is defended as a serious attempt at inductive Bible study. Dispensationalism views the interpreter’s job to be much like that of the scientist: gather up the data, classify it and then come up with a conclusion. Each piece of data is considered in the same ‘common sense’ mode. Little attention is given to various types of literature, the progressive unity found in revelation, the precedence of the clear over the unclear (as it is all clear to be interpreted literally), or the precedence of New Testament methods of interpreting Old Testament prophecies.