The End Times Part VII: Dispensationalist Premillenialism’s Recent Origins

When I first started having questions about some of the beliefs I was raised with, I delved into the history of these beliefs. I had thought that Christians had always been Young Earth Creationists, had always believed in Dispensationalist Premillennialism and a Pretribulation rapture, and had always spoken of “inviting Jesus into their hearts” through praying the sinners’ prayer. Imagine my surprise when I learned that all of these beliefs were less than two hundred years old. I was completely shocked.

I’m going to share with you what I learned about Dispensationalist Premillennialism during these years, but be aware that what I’m offering is a relatively simplified version of what happened and how these ideas developed.

Originally, Christians were Amillennialists. They believed that Christ might return any day, and that his return would be followed by the final judgment of all humans. Until Christ returned, they believed that they were to go about their lives living as Christ had commanded. As the year 1000 approached, many Christians were convinced that Christ would return on that date, but he did not. Even after the Protestant Reformation, Protestants held these same Amillennial views.

Postmillennialism actually originated in the early 1700s and then gained popularity during the First Great Awakening of the 1740s (in the United States) through the preaching of Jonathan Edwards. There was a great deal of excitement during the Awakening, which was a time of spiritual revival, and a great deal of optimism, making the atmosphere perfect for the embracing of Postmillennialism, with its belief that Christians could bring about the Millennium and ultimately Christ’s second coming by spreading the gospel and bettering the world.

Over time, three different strands of Postmillennialism developed. Classic Postmillennialism focuses on bringing the Millennium about by spreading the gospel, Liberal Postmillennialism focuses on bringing the Millennium about by bettering the world, and Theonomic Postmillennialism, which is the most recent, focuses on bringing about the Millennium through the imposition of Old Testament Law.

The optimism of the new American nation and the evangelical revivalism of the First Great Awakening (1740s) and Second Great Awakening (1800-1840) made it the perfect place for Postmillennialism to take root. During the Antebellum period American evangelicals sought to convert the world through tract and missions societies and better the world through reform movements.

By the late nineteenth century, though, the theological landscape was beginning to change as the evangelicals who had been so united began to split in two. The more liberal evangelicals embraced new theological ideas such as Biblical criticism coming from Europe and turned to the “social gospel,” placing more emphasis on improving the world than on saving souls. These evangelicals became what we term “mainline Protestants.”

Meanwhile, conservative evangelicals balked, shocked at the direction their brethren were taking. Fundamentalism emerged at this time in response to these new theological trends. The idea these conservative evangelicals had was to get back to the “fundamentals” of the faith, which included the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible first and foremost.

Shortly before this period, John Nelson Darby had traveled across the United States teaching his new Dispensationalist theology. Influenced by his ideas and embracing the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, Fundamentalists set about interpreting both Old Testament prophecy and the book of Revelation in huge “prophecy conferences” held in the late nineteenth century and attended by hundreds or even thousands of fundamentalist pastors and theologians. During this period, the idea of a Pretribulational rapture and the coming Tribulation were invented, the details of the Tribulation were details hashed out, Darby’s concept of Dispensations was embraced, and Premillennialism as we know it was born.

Dispensational Premillennialism, complete with its belief in the Tribulation and a belief in a Pretribulational rapture, were popularized in the early twentieth century through the Scofield Reference Bible and numerous Fundamentalist newsletters, radio shows, and Bible colleges. Dispensational Premillennialism was aided by the fact that mainline Protestants’ Postmillennialist beliefs seemed directly contradicted by WWI and the Great Depression. While Postmillennialist beliefs have made a bit of a come back today, adherence to Premillennialism remains strong.

It should be remembered that there was always at least some division among Fundamentalist Christians. Seventh Day Adventists, along with some others, accepted the idea of a coming Tribulation but rejected the Pretribulation rapture as a heresy. Similarly, some Premillennialists emphasized Dispensationalism more than others. So there is variation in these ideas as well as unity.

Modern fundamentalists and evangelicals both trace their roots back to the Fundamentalists of the late nineteenth century prophecy conferences and the early twentieth century Fundamentalist radio shows and Bible colleges. This united coalition split during WWII into two factions, those who wanted to remain separate from the world in order to remain pure and those who wanted to engage the world in order to gain converts. For a time, these more engaged fundamentalists, led by Billy Graham, were called “neo-evangelicals,” but the “neo” was eventually dropped. This common lineage is why you’ll find that except for the most progressive evangelicals, who have switched millennial camps, both evangelicals and fundamentalists share the same eschatology (which is a fancy word for beliefs about the end times).

It seems like once a generation or so fundamentalists and evangelicals come out with a new book or series popularizing Dispensational Premillennialism. Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth was actually the top selling book of the 1970s, and no one who lived through the 1990s could miss Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series and the popularity that surrounded them. Combined with notes in reference Bibles and the sermons they hear in church, these books help keep end times speculation alive and well in the minds of both evangelicals and fundamentalists.

When I finished figuring this out as part of my efforts to dig into the history of the beliefs I had been raised with, I was highly disillusioned. My parents and the church I grew up in had taught me all of these ideas as gospel truth, and I had never had even an inkling that they were so new. This not only made me reexamine what I believed about the end times but also helped throw the rest of what I’d been taught was gospel truth into question as well. And, well, that journey landed me here.

Also in this series: 

Part I – The Millennium, Tribulation, and Rapture

Part II – Social Justice, Dominionism, and the Culture Wars

Part III – Dispensationalism

Part IV – The Tribulation in Detail

Part V – Signs, Prophesies, and Current Events

Part VI: Rapture Anxiety

Part VII: Dispensational Premillennialism’s Recent Origins

The Real Travesty of the "Hero Mom" Story
A Letter from Hell, and Self-Reinforcing Beliefs
My Kindergartener Knows What It Means to Be Transgender (and the Sky Hasn't Fallen)
On Orgies, Bisexuality, James Dobson, and Evangelicals
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Ace of Sevens

    If people are aware of this, the standard explanation is that the church started to drift away from God and set theology based on what they wanted to believe rather than God’s word, but one group realized what was wrong and got right. There are all kinds of parallels to Biblical Israel and the protestant view of the reformation in there.

    I grew up in Calvary Chapel and Foursquare and heard Revelation 3:16 lots, especially at summer camp.

    ‘So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.

    This was used to rail against “dead churches.” They never explicitly said these were the mainline protestants, but it was pretty clearly implied. We were instructed to be on fire for the lord, not just attend church weekly and try to meet some minimum standard. The thing that always got me about that verse is it seems to say being cold is also acceptable. Also, being eaten by God is apparently desirable. If this is all true, I think I’m going to be the after-dinner sorbet, so I’ll be safe.

  • geocatherder

    Wow. I was raised Catholic, so I always knew these were “new” ideas — but I had no notion of just how new they were! Thanks.

  • Contrarian

    accept –> except


  • Ray Moscow

    Great summary. Thanks!

  • Kevin

    So, what you’re saying is that there are many, many roads that lead to Crazy Town.

    Nicely done. Very educational. And scary as all get-out.

    I’m sure at heart the majority of these folks are nice, calm, stable, normal members of society. But it only takes one crazy person to cause a lot of harm in the service of speeding up Jesus’ return.

  • mattmcirvin

    What fascinates me is the recent entente between these Protestant premillenialists and extreme-right-wing Catholics like Rick Santorum, who uses the same kind of terminology they do when he inveighs against the mainline Protestant churches. This kind of alliance would have been inconceivable 30 or 40 years ago.

  • Lori

    (Thanks, Libby Anne. Great blog. Discovered this intriguing item on the net.)


    How can the “rapture” be “imminent”? Acts 3:21 says that Jesus “must” stay in heaven (He’s now there with the Father) “until the times of restitution of all things” which includes, says Scofield, “the restoration of the theocracy under David’s Son” which obviously can’t begin before or during Antichrist’s reign. (“The Rapture Question,” by the long time No. 1 pretrib authority John Walvoord, didn’t dare to even list, in its scripture index, the too-hot-to-handle Acts 3:21!) Since Jesus can’t even leave heaven before the tribulation ends (Acts 2:34,35 echo this), the rapture therefore can’t take place before the end of the trib! (The same Acts verses were also too hot for John Darby – the so-called “father of dispensationalism” – to list in the scripture index in his “Letters”!)
    Paul explains the “times and the seasons” (I Thess. 5:1) of the catching up (I Thess. 4:17) as the “day of the Lord” (5:2) which FOLLOWS the posttrib sun/moon darkening (Matt. 24:29; Acts 2:20) WHEN “sudden destruction” (5:3) of the wicked occurs! The “rest” for “all them that believe” is tied to such destruction in II Thess. 1:6-10! (If the wicked are destroyed before or during the trib, who’d be left alive to serve the Antichrist?) Paul also ties the change-into-immortality “rapture” (I Cor. 15:52) to the posttrib end of “death” (15:54). (Will death be ended before or during the trib? Of course not! And vs. 54 is also tied to Isa. 25:8 which is Israel’s posttrib resurrection!)
    Many are unaware that before 1830 all Christians had always viewed I Thess. 4’s “catching up” as an integral part of the final second coming to earth. In 1830 this “rapture” was stretched forward and turned into a separate coming of Christ. To further strengthen their novel view, which the mass of evangelical scholars rejected throughout the 1800s, pretrib teachers in the early 1900s began to stretch forward the “day of the Lord” (what Darby and Scofield never dared to do) and hook it up with their already-stretched-forward “rapture.” Many leading evangelical scholars still weren’t convinced of pretrib, so pretrib teachers then began teaching that the “falling away” of II Thess. 2:3 is really a pretrib rapture (the same as saying that the “rapture” in 2:3 must happen before the “rapture” ["gathering"] in 2:1 can happen – the height of desperation!).
    Other Google articles on the 182-year-old pretrib rapture view include “Pretrib Rapture Politics,” “Pretrib Rapture Scholar Wannabes,” “Famous Rapture Watchers,” “Pretrib Rapture Diehards,” “X-Raying Margaret,” “Edward Irving is Unnerving,” “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” “Walvoord Melts Ice,” “Wily Jeffrey,” “The Rapture Index (Mad Theology),” “America’s Pretrib Rapture Traffickers,” “Roots of (Warlike) Christian Zionism,” “Scholars Weigh My Research,” “Pretrib Hypocrisy,” “Appendix F: Thou Shalt Not Steal,” “Pretrib Rapture Secrecy,” “Deceiving and Being Deceived,” and “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty” – all by the author of the bestselling book “The Rapture Plot” (see Armageddon Books).

  • Kenneth

    [Here's a hot little article I discovered on the never boring web. ]

    Pretrib Rapture Pride

    by Bruce Rockwell

    Pretrib rapture promoters like Thomas Ice give the impression that they know more than the early Church Fathers, the Reformers, the greatest Greek New Testament scholars including those who produced the KJV Bible, the founders of their favorite Bible schools, and even their own mentors!
    Ice knows that his own mentor, Dallas Sem. president John Walvoord, was unable to find anyone holding to pretrib before early 19th century British teacher John Darby – and Walvoord called Darby and his Brethren followers “the early pretribulationists” (RQ, pp. 160-62). By claiming to find “imminence” in the 1st and 2nd century Fathers, Ice knows that his followers can change “imminence” in their mind to “pretrib” – but Ice is reluctant to admit that whenever any of those Fathers seemed to hold to “imminence, it was because they thought they were then in the tribulation and were near the end of it!
    Google “Famous Rapture Watchers” to see the rapture view that Walvoord said “has long been a common doctrine held by the majority of the church” (RQ, p. 127). Note how those unsurpassed lexicon and Greek grammar experts interpreted Rev. 3:10 which pretrib promoters often claim is the greatest Biblical proof for an any-moment pretrib rapture.
    Journalist/historian Dave MacPherson has focused since 1968 on the pretrib rapture’s long-covered-up, 183-year-old history. His habit has been to examine Darby’s earliest writings and then painstakingly search for the earliest occurrences of certain words and phrases like “coming for,” “coming with,” “rapture,” “imminence,” “any moment,” etc. Since several of Darby’s contemporaries have at times been nominated for the title of “Pretrib Rapture Originator,” MacPherson has done the same laborious word-and-phrase search in the earliest writings of Macdonald, Norton, Irving, etc.
    Since many pretrib promoters favor the King James Version of the Bible, it’s interesting that the other writings of the KJV translators that are in the British Library in London (where MacPherson has researched) don’t have even a hint of a pretrib rapture! Is it possible that Ice and other pretrib merchandisers have found proof of pretrib in the KJV that even the KJV translators couldn’t find?
    Pretrib didn’t flourish in America much before the 1909 Scofield Bible which has pretribby “explanatory notes” in its margins. Not seen in the margins was jailed forger Scofield’s criminal record throughout his life that David Lutzweiler has documented in his recent book “The Praise of Folly” which is available online.
    Even some well-known evangelical schools have played fast and loose with pretrib. MacPherson’s “The Rapture Plot” – the most documented and accurate work on pretrib dispensationalism’s history (Google “Scholars Weigh My Research”) – includes on p. 222 Biola’s original doctrinal statement which stated that the “Lord Jesus is coming again to his earth, personally, bodily, and visibly.” Later on, those who evidently felt superior to the founders added this Scofield-like “explanatory note” which says that “the return of the Lord for His Church will be premillennial” and “before the Tribulation.” (Also Google “Pretrib Hypocrisy.”)
    Although Ice’s mentor John Walvoord couldn’t find any pretrib teacher before 1830, Ice has been “honoring” Walvoord by promoting some pseudo-scholars who claim they’ve found pre-1830 existence of pretrib! (Google MacPherson’s “Deceiving and Being Deceived” for the details.)
    Ice, BTW, has a “Ph.D” issued by a tiny Texas school that wasn’t authorized to issue degrees! Ice now says that he’s working on another “Ph.D” via the University of Wales in Britain. For light on the degrees of Ice’s scholarliness, Google “Bogus degree scandal prompts calls to wind up University of Wales,” “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” and “be careful in polemics – Peripatetic Learning.”
    Another pretrib trafficker, Hal Lindsey, asserts on p. 124 in “The Late Great Planet Earth” that the famous Egyptian Sphinx has the head of a woman even though encyclopedias say it’s the head of a man!
    In a Google article “Pretrib Expert John Walvoord Melts Ice,” Ice’s mentor demolishes Ice’s desperate assertion that the “falling away” in II Thess. 2 is a pretrib rapture! (Ice should have said that the TEACHING of such a rapture is a falling away!)
    Other Google pieces helping to make a shocking mosaic of pretrib include “Pretrib Rapture Diehards,” “X-raying Margaret,” “Edward Irving is Unnerving,” “Wily Jeffrey,” “Thieves’ Marketing,” “Appendix F: Thou Shalt Not Steal,” “The Unoriginal John Darby,” “Catholics Did NOT Invent the Rapture,” “The Real Manuel Lacunza,” “The Rapture Index (Mad Theology),” “Open Letter to Todd Strandberg,” “Pretrib Rapture: A Staged Event,” “Pretrib Rapture Secrecy,” “Roots of Warlike Christian Zionism,” “Chuck Missler – Copyist,” “Pretrib Rapture Secrets,” and an earthquake titled “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty.”
    Can anyone guess who the last proud pretrib rapture holdout will be?