Dispensationalist theology was first devised by an English Plymouth Brethren preacher called John Nelson Derby in the 1830s but it was made popular in the United States by a Baptist Bible scholar called C.I.Schofield, evangelist Dwight L Moody and others. Dispensationalism spread through institutions that trained preachers and missionaries like Moody Bible Institute, Biola College and Philadelphia College of the Bible. Before long it became part of mainstream American evangelicalism. This theological system is now pretty much universal amongst conservative Baptists, independent Bible churches and fundamentalist churches. It is also part of the theological system for most independent community churches and “mega” churches.
The development of dispensationalism needs to be seen in its historical context. It came along and filled a void. The extreme revisionists who made up the fringe of Protestantism not only rejected Catholicism with it’s systematic Thomistic theology and sacramental system, but they also rejected the formal theologies of the Lutherans, the Calvinists and Anglicans. Nobody likes not having a systematic intepretative system, so dispensationalism helped these Christians make sense of the Bible and sacred history. It was, if you like, their own systematic theological system, and is sold like hot cakes.
It was especially popular in nineteenth century America because the growing country was spellbound with new religions, sects and cults which helped ordinary, ignorant Christian folk make sense of the world. It suited Americans who already had a foundational mindset that was utopian and apocalyptic at the same time. When you put Dispensationalism into the time period of its development you see that America was awash with other other similar utopian, apocalyptic. This mid nineteenth century Restorationist movement also saw the rise of Seventh Day Adventism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Millerites, Disciples of Christ, Cambellites, Christdelphians–and the list goes on. Restorationist movements spring from “Primitivism”–the idea that the primitive form of a belief or religion or ideology is the purest and that any authentic form of the religion or ideology must get back to basics. (This article–The Problem with Primitivism goes into more detail)
What I find most curious is that these restorationists were all about getting back to the Bible and primitive Christianity, yet they all devised a different understanding of what that might be. They split into numerous sects–all of them bound by a hatred of Catholicism with it’s “new, man made, invented” doctrines, yet they themselves following religions cooked up by the long list of their founders with a pot pourri of bizarre beliefs thought up by unschooled Americans with nothing but their Bibles and their imaginations. They say the papacy is a late, man made invention, but they put their own nineteenth century teachers up as the foundational teachers of a new kind of Christianity–one never thought of before. (This article looks at the question of the early popes–and whether the papacy was a late invention.)
Therefore, what many people consider to be “mainstream” American Christianity is actually a hodge potch of heretical, sectarian beliefs–a weird mixture of conspiracy theories, arcane revelations to their founders, visions of angels, predictions of doomsday and all gathered up with bizarre and unique theories and theologies and moral teachings. You’ll find rejection of modern technology, acceptance of polygamy, weird theories about the Holy Trinity or the Incarnation tumbled together with prophecies about the end times, American exceptionalism and paranoid ideas about foreigners, other religions and all outsiders.
What is most troubling about this motley crew is that they are actually the face of American Christianity. They do seem to be the “mainstream”. Within world Christianity they are a crazy minorioty. In terms of the numbers of Christians in the world today–not to mention the billions who have lived and followed Christ for the last two thousand years–they are a wild eyed bunch of heretical nut cases. Yet they (and not the Catholics or the liberal mainstream Protestants) represent “American Christianity.”
No wonder the intellectual elite, the Hollywood media types, the East Coast liberals and the sarcastic “new atheists” find so much to mock and ridicule in them–and therefore in Christianity itself. People like Bill Maher and other shallow media pundits see this form of Christianity and think that’s it–and of course it’s easy to mock it and knock it.
The only answer is for Catholics to stand up and speak up–not only through apologetics and teaching, but also through lives that are radiant with the reality of the gospel. Catholicism is the only Christian voice which has the content, the depth and the power to deliver the full gospel to a needy world. The liberal mainstream Protestants have abandoned ship long ago and only have on offer a watered down faith–social work with a few hymns. The Evangelical conservatives have, in their fundamentalist wing, only weird fundamentalism and in their more socially acceptable wing–a watered down self help religion which is only a short hop from the liberal Protestants they so dislike.
Dispensationalism has therefore done more harm to the cause of true Christianity than good. Like all heresies it is a partial truth that ends up being the enemy of the full truth. We ought to spot it for what it is and speak the truth about it before it’s too late.