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The Dispensational Origins of Modern Premillennialism 






 John Nelson Darby


Written By Jack Van Deventer

Dispensationalism, with its unique brand of premillennialism, has been thoroughly pervasive.  This shift away from historic Christianity stemmed from a novel approach to Bible interpretation called dispensationalism which was developed in the 1830s and popularized with the 1909 publication of the Scofield Reference Bible.


The distinguishing features of dispensationlism are a rigidly applied literalism in the interpretation of Scripture, a compartmentalization of Scripture into "dispensations," and a dichotomy between Israel and the Church. Dispensationalists believe "this present world system . . . is now controlled by Satan" (not by God) and will end in failure and apostasy.


Dispensational premillennialists claim that their unique doctrines have been held since the early church, but these claims have been soundly refuted. Far from being the historic position of the church, premillennialism was described in 1813 by David Bogue as an oddity of Church history. Postmillennialism was the dominant eschatology from the Reformation until at least 1859.


The doctrine of a secret rapture was first conceived by John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren in 1827. Darby, known as the father of dispensationalism, invented the doctrine claiming there were not one, but two "second comings." This teaching was immediately challenged as unbiblical by other members of the Brethren.  So tenuous was Darby's rapture theory that he had lingering doubts about it as late as 1843, and possibly 1845.  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 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."


Thus, the doctrine of the separation of Israel and the Church, the foundation of dispensationalism, was born out of Darby's attempt to justify his newly fabricated rapture theory with the Bible. Dispensationalists believed justification for carving up the Scriptures came from 2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV) "rightly dividing the word of truth." Subsequent dispensationalists divided the Scriptures in terms of categories of people: Jew, Gentile, and Christian. Lewis Sperry Chafer taught that the only Scriptures addressed specifically to Christians were the gospel of John, Acts, and the Epistles! Pettengill taught that the Great Commission was for the Jews only.



Scofield taught that the Lord's prayer was a Jewish prayer and ought not be recited by Christians. Along with much of the New Testament, the Old Testament was described as "not for today." Ryrie (NASB) dismissed the validity of the Old Testament commands to non-Jews because "the law was never given to Gentiles and is expressly done away for the Christian." Christians were even mocked as legalists for believing in the Ten Commandments! As other critics have observed, this segmentation of the Bible makes dispensationalism a Christianized version of cultural relativism.


Snowden and others traced the rise of modern premillennialism to a variety of religious splinter groups: the Plymouth Brethren (developed dispensationalism), the Millerites (became the Adventists), Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Pentecostals. Dispensational premillennialism was marketed the same way as the cultic groups.


First, historic Christianity was discredited by the claim that all the prominent commentaries, all the church fathers, and even the Reformers were deluded by "man-made doctrines." Second, new revelation was claimed. Darby claimed to have received "new truth" or at other times "rediscovered truth" that had been lost since the apostles. Third, enthusiasm was whipped up on the pretense that Christ's coming was imminent. Frequent false predictions did not seem to deter this enthusiasm.


Snowden cited increasing prophetic fervor in the early 1900's rising from (1) a "fresh interest and zeal" in interpreting the "signs of the times," (2) the Great War (WWI) which started a wave of prophetic speculation, and (3) "the fall of Jerusalem out of Mohammedan into Christian hands [which] has whipped the millennarian imagination up to its highest pitch of foresight and prognostication." This background explains the widespread popularity of the Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909, which had a dramatic influence in spreading dispensationalism.


Many well-known scholars warned that the teachings of dispensationalism were "unscriptural" (Spurgeon), "heterodox" (Dabney), "bizarre doctrine" and "grievous error" (Warfield), but the warnings went largely unheeded.


Today, dispensationalism is in a theological turmoil, having declined sharply since the 1970's because of mounting criticism. Grenz notes, "Dispensationalism today is in a state of fluidity. No longer are the rigid distinctives of the past held to with unswerving certainty. Many progressive dispensationalists are no longer certain as to exactly what are the defining tenets of the system that commands their allegiance." [Permission Graciously Given by The Foundation for Biblical Studies]

The "Heavenly" Church was the theme of Darby's first paper (1827). PRE-DARBY DATA: Manuel Lacunza (1812) and Edward Irving (1825-1827 sermons and other writings) had the same theme.


The "Unity" of the Church was the theme of Darby's second paper (1828). PRE-DARBY DATA: Lacunza (1812) and Irving (1825-27 sermons, etc.) had the same theme.


The Church/Israel "Distinction."

In his 1965 book, Darby defender, Charles Ryrie viewed this distinction as the most important basis for dispensationalism, adding in his 1981 rapture book that it led Darby to his church/Israel "dichotomy," i.e., a pretrib rapture separating the two groups during a future tribulation.


As support for this distinction, dispensationalists see several supposedly original (twisted) thoughts in Darby's 1829 paper:


Darby spoke of "the Jewish and Gentile dispensations." PRE-DARBY DATA: Irving (1825 etc.) referred to "the dispensations both Jewish and Gentile."

Darby said "the hope of the church is His coming." PRE-DARBY DATA:

Irving (1825 etc.) stated that "the coming of the Lord" is the church's "hope and desire."

Darby wrote "looking daily for the Lord's coming." PRE-DARBY DATA: Irving (1826 - Lacunza preface) wrote "look daily for the coming of the Lord."


Darby said "the church...was a suffering church" before "the church became triumphant." PRE-DARBY DATA: Irving (1825 etc.) referred to "the suffering church" before it became "the triumphant church."

Darby mentioned "the restoration of the Jews to their own land." PRE-DARBY DATA: Irving (1825 etc.) mentioned the "restoration" of "the their own land."


The Gentile "Parenthesis."

In an 1830 article Darby introduced his Gentile "Parenthesis." by talking about "the Jewish church or nation (exclusive of the Gentile parenthesis...)." PRE-DARBY DATA: In an 1811 book (which was reprinted in England in 1818, had several editions, and was widely read), American pastor William Davis referred to "the Jewish nation, exclusively of the Gentiles."    


The Pretribulation "Rapture." - Like many dispensationalists today, Darby saw Rev. 3's "Philadelphia" raptured and "Laodicea" left behind. In an 1833 letter he wrote that this view "commends itself morally to one's mind." PRE-DARBY DATA: As early as Sep., 1830 Irving's journal stated that the "Philadelphia" church (that is, church members then living) would be raptured BEFORE "the great tribulation" while "Laodicea" would be left behind. (Three months later, while still defending the posttrib view in a published article, Darby said he expected to be raptured eventually at Christ's "judging of the nations" - which Scofield puts in a posttrib setting!)


Anyone can go through Darby's writings in the early 1830's and observe

that he had NO clear pretrib teaching or any church/Israel distinction (or anything else) that could have led to pretrib doctrine:


In 1832 he couldn't have been pretrib because he was still rejecting the idea of a "future" Antichrist and continuing to emphasize "the present antichristian principles"!


In his 1834 works we find him waiting for the "second coming" (and not a prior rapture) and waiting (with "the Jews"!) for the day when Christ "will not tarry" (Heb. 10:37); what Scofield terms the "second advent"!


As late as 1837, while being anything but "dichotomous," he saw the church "going in with Him to the marriage, to wit, with Jerusalem and the Jews"!


In 1839 he finally had some clear pretrib teaching. His rapture, however, was based on the symbol of the catching up of Rev. 12's "man child," and his tribulation was then only 3.5 years long - a "chart" he embraced for several more decades!


PRE-DARBY DATA: Irving had taught the same thing as early as the June, 1831 issue of his journal when he stated that Rev. 12:5's "child" portrays a rapture before "the travailing woman is cast out into the wilderness" for 3.5 years!



John Nelson Darby Biography

John Nelson Darby (18 November 1800 – 29 April 1882) was an Anglo-Irish evangelist, and an influential figure among the original Plymouth Brethren. Born Westminster, London from an Anglo-Irish landowning family seated at Leap Castle, King's County, Ireland; educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Dublin; embraced Christianity during his studies, although there is no evidence that he formally studied theology; chose ordination as an Anglican clergyman in Ireland, "lest he should sell his talents to defeat justice." In 1825, Darby was ordained deacon of the established Church of Ireland and the following year as priest.  He claimed to have won hundreds of converts to the Church of Ireland. However, the conversions ended when William Magee, the Archbishop of Dublin, ruled that converts were obliged to swear allegiance to George IV as rightful king of Ireland.  Darby resigned his curacy in protest. October 1827, he fell from a horse and was seriously injured. He later stated that it was during this time that he began to believe that the "kingdom" described in the Book of Isaiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament was entirely different from the Christian church.  So over the next five years, he developed the principles of his mature theology—most notably his conviction that the very notion of a clergyman was a sin against the Holy Spirit, because it limited the recognition that the Holy Spirit could speak through any member of the Church. During this time he joined an interdenominational meeting of believers.which later became known as the Plymouth Brethren.


It is believed that John Nelson Darby left the Church of Ireland around 1831. [2] He participated in the 1831–33 Powerscourt Conference, an annual meeting of Bible students.  Darby publicly described his ecclesiological and eschatological views, including the pretribulation rapture.  Darby defended Calvinist doctrines, approved the doctrine of the Anglican Church.  Darby said:



"For my own part, I soberly think Article XVII to be as wise, perhaps I might say the wisest and best condensed human statement of the view it contains that I am acquainted with. I am fully content to take it in its literal and grammatical sense. I believe that predestination to life is the eternal purpose of God, by which, before the foundations of the world were laid, He firmly decreed, by His counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and destruction those whom He had chosen in Christ out of the human race, and to bring them, through Christ, as vessels made to honour, to eternal salvation." [Doctrine of the Church of England at the Time of the Reformation]


In the 1830s and 1840s, Darby established many Brethren assemblies. He gave 11 significant lectures in Geneva in 1840 on the hope of the church which established his reputation as a leading interpreter of biblical prophecy. The beliefs he disseminated then are still being propagated (in various forms) at such places as Dallas Theological Seminary and Bob Jones University and by authors and preachers such as Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye.


In 1848, Darby became involved in a complex dispute over the proper method for maintaining shared standards of discipline in different assembles that resulted in a split between Open Brethren and Exclusive Brethren. the Open Brethren excelled in preaching the gospel. The Exclusives, while they had gospel preachers among them, strongly emphasized the solid ministry of the Word. After that time, Darby was recognized as the dominant figure among the Exclusives, who also came to be known as "Darbyite" Brethren.  He died 1882 in Sundridge House, Bournemouth and is buried in Bournemouth, Dorset, England.


He is considered to be the father of modern Dispensationalism. He produced a translation of the Bible based on the Hebrew and Greek texts called The Holy Scriptures: A New Translation from the Original Languages by J. N. Darby.     In English he wrote a Synopsis of the Bible and many other scholarly religious articles. He wrote hymns and poems, the most famous being, "Man of Sorrows"[8]. He was also a Bible Commentator. He declined however to contribute to the compilation of the Revised Version of the King James Bible.  Darby is noted in the theological world as the father of "dispensationalism," later made popular in the United States by Cyrus Scofield's Scofield Reference Bible, and later by the New American Standard Bible (NASB or RYRIE Bibles).


Charles Henry Mackintosh, 1820-1896, with his popular style spread Darby's teachings.  As there was no Christian teaching of a “rapture” before Darby began preaching about it in the 1830s, he is sometimes credited with originating, the "secret rapture" theory wherein Christ will suddenly remove His bride, the Church, from this world before the judgments of the tribulation.


Dispensationalist beliefs about the fate of the Jews and the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel put dispensationalists at the forefront of Christian Zionism, because "God is able to graft them in again," and they believe that in His grace God will do so according to their understanding of Old Testament prophecy. They believe that, while the ways of God may change, His purposes to bless Israel will never be forgotten, just as He has shown unmerited favour to the Church, He will do so to a remnant of Israel to fulfill all the promises made to the genetic seed of Abraham. 

[Source: Wikipedia –]


Unfortunately, in 1845 major difficulties arose and the precious oneness of the believers was eventually lost.  At this time, J. N. Darby was most prominent among the brothers in Ireland.  Neatby wrote that “the maker of Brethrenism as a system, its guiding and energising spirit throughout, was John Nelson Darby.” [William Blair Neatby, A History of the Plymouth Brethren (2nd ed.; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902), p. 44]<!--[if !supportNestedAnchors]--><!--[endif]-->


Darby's and Newton's differences began to create turmoil and division which limited the extent of the Lord's work among the Brethren.  Darby and many others held that the church of God would escape the days of the end [i.e., the days of the great tribulation]; Newton, Tregelles, George Müller, and others believed the church will go through that period; R. C. Chapman, Groves, and Lady Powerscourt thought that not all believers will share in the first resurrection and the millennial kingdom [Source: G. H. Lang, Anthony Norris Groves (2nd ed.; London: The Paternoster Press, 1949), p. 290.] 


Darby believed that the entire church would be raptured before the days of the great tribulation. Despite these doctrinal differences, for a long while all of these saints walked in the same basic way and met according to the same principles. 


There were also differences of opinion regarding the nature, calling, and order of the church. In expressing his views, Newton felt that the church includes all the faithful from Abraham to the present, that it is not something unique to New Testament times. He was not interested in the extreme dispensational views of Darby and stated that they were the “height of speculative nonsense.” Newton was opposed to the idea of the church being “a special company of whose calling and destiny the Old Testament knows nothing.…” [Ironside, An Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1942), p. 32]<!--[if !supportNestedAnchors]Darby's view is known as the “parenthesis view” of the church.


Another important difference involved their views on how the churches handled disciplinary matters and the inter-relationship of the churches in such cases. Darby taught that the disciplinary acts of one church should be ratified by all churches, if scriptural authority could be shown for that action. Groves felt that each assembly was directly dependent upon God and should not interfere with other assemblies. Newton's position was that each assembly should appoint elders and deacons and recognize pastors. These were to constitute an official board to handle the affairs of the local church.  Some of the brothers sensed that Darby had left his original position. They felt he had forsaken what he had seen on the inclusiveness of all believers at the Lord's Table regardless of their views, their denominational position, their understanding or lack of understanding.


Anthony Groves noted: “Worldliness had crept in, with its accompaniments of pride … Many Brethren became occupied with themselves, and commonly wrote and spoke of their companies as “the latter day remnant,” “the godly residue,” “the Philadelphia church,” and similar self-laudatory expressions.... For the most part the problem was not with the brothers and sisters but with the leading ones. [G. H. Lang, Anthony Norris Groves (2nd ed.; London: The Paternoster Press, 1949)]


Darby agreed with the principle of liberty of ministry with restraint. Those with ability from God should have freedom to minister, but any speaking “which was not to profit—which did not commend itself to the consciences of others—ought to be repressed.” [Ironside]


The events following Darby's return to Plymouth unfortunately began a sad phase of the Brethren's history. Lang records the situation as follows:


This devastating work began soon after Mr. J. N. Darby's return from the continent in 1845. I was told that, when he left Plymouth for his mission there, he commended Mr. B. W. N. to the assembly as one qualified to lead on the saints in truth...and to watch over, and guide them in all spiritual matters. But, when he returned he found him in a position of great influence, attracting to his teaching believers from various parts of England, many of whom took up their residence in Plymouth, to benefit by his teaching and that of others. What were the feelings this popularity stirred? It would not perhaps be difficult to suppose; but a personal attack was soon made, and the disastrous strife of the two great teachers, who then became rivals, broke up the peace of the assembly and almost stopped the progress of the work. The particulars of this sore contention have been partly set forth in Mr. Neatby's History of the Plymouth Brethren so that they need not be repeated. But no account, gathered merely from pamphlets, could describe the distress of mind, the poignant sorrow and heart-grief produced by Mr. D. as he ruthlessly pursued his course against his former friend. There was no question of evil doctrine in this antagonism, but only of ecclesiastical practice. I deeply regret to have to record that strifes, jealousies, wraths, factions, parties, works of the flesh, took the place, in great measure, of the fruit of the Spirit and loving fellowship of the saints.  [G. H. Lang]


Ironside likened the situation in Plymouth to that in Corinth at the time Paul wrote I Corinthians:


Mr. Darby comes to Plymouth, and finds Mr. Newton's influence paramount. What an opportunity for grace to shine in! for Christ to triumph in the saint over self! But, alas! self triumphed over Christ on both sides of the conflict, though in different ways; and the schismatic spirit of “I am of Newton,” and “I am of Darby,” came in and carried all before it, but those who had been really walking before God. These could but sigh and weep for the sin and wickedness carried on in the holy name of Jesus, and keep aloof from that which so dishonored the Lord. In Corinth, Paul would take no part in the unholy strife that was going on, amongst those who contended to belonging to Paul, to Peter, or to Apollos. He was content to remain the servant, and not to become the master; for he belonged to all, and sought to raise them out of their sectarianism, by telling them that Paul, and Cephas, and Apollos, were alike theirs—theirs to serve in the bonds of the gospel; and in the same spirit the eloquent teacher, Apollos, could not be persuaded by Paul to come among them, as if to keep himself out of sight, that the crucified Lord might eclipse himself as well as Paul.


When Darby arrived in Plymouth, he realized that the majority was with Newton. But he encouraged a small group of dissenters and publicly protested against what he considered to be secularism and clericalism among Newton and those with him.  Attempts from both sides to arrange a conference to resolve their differences failed when neither group accepted the other's suggested format for meeting. Ironside describes the events which followed:


“...Mr. Darby meets what he considers the sectarianism of another by a sectarianism of his own which he consummates by making a division among the saints with whom he had been in fellowship from the commencement; and that, notwithstanding the remonstrance of most of the brethren who came from a distance to investigate the state of things in Ebrington Street, where till now all had met in fellowship. Having affected the division, he spread a table elsewhere on the last Sunday of that sorrowful and eventful year, which was in future to be exclusively “the table of the Lord,” around which himself and his followers were to rally. From this meeting in December, 1845, we must date the rise of Darbyism, and its development into a distinct and self-excommunicated body…. Darby published ‘A Narration of Facts’ in 1846 containing charges against Newton.”


A meeting in the Rawstorne Street assembly in London in February, 1847 was attended by many brothers from various parts of England, who gave their solemn testimony “as to the evil system which had grown up at Plymouth”.  Newton, suspected of heretical teachings, after examining his teachings and what he had already printed, did acknowledge that they were in error. In 1847, therefore, he published “A Statement and


Acknowledgement Respecting Certain Doctrinal Errors.” Although Newton had been inaccurate in his teaching, the response of those at Rawstorne Street was excessive and unforgiving.  Some did not agree with the position taken by Darby.  Robert Chapman, said in a conversation with Darby, “You should have waited before acting as you did.” To this Darby replied, “I waited six months and there was no repentance.” Chapman replied that at Barnstaple they would have waited six years before taking a step that would have so divided the Brethren.


The assembly in Bethesda, which met in a rented chapel for over thirty years, was led by George Müller and Henry Craik. To them came the problem of what to do about Newton's followers who had come from Plymouth. The majority of the brothers felt to receive them into fellowship, as they indicated in a privately circulated letter called “The Letter of the Ten.” The believers who came from Plymouth were to be received unless there was clear evidence of heretical beliefs. They strongly maintained that fellowship with believers is not based on common views. They could fellowship with all Christians, regardless of whether or not they saw eye-to-eye on any particular doctrinal matter.


Darby reacted strongly to “The Letter of the Ten.” He was in Plymouth when he received word of it. He suggested that a kind of quarantine be put into effect on anyone coming from Bethesda until it could be shown that they do not hold Newton's teaching.  Even though the brothers in Bethesda withdrew “The Letter of the Ten,” Darby pressed them further, demanding that they publish their second letter.  this did not satisfy Darby. During a subsequent visit to Plymouth he insisted that the believers there should have no fellowship with Bethesda. He required public refutation of the teachings of Newton as a basis of fellowship and was heard to say, “that, if Mr. Müller did not deal with the Newton matter as he desired, he (Darby) would divide every meeting in the world over it.”  Because of the dogmatic insistence of Darby and his followers that others heed their instructions, which they felt to be the Spirit's leading, the divisions they reaped came in abundance.  This became the first big division among the Brethren, between those that followed Darby, later called the “Closed” or “Exclusive” Brethren and those who stood with Müller and A. N. Groves, including those in Bethesda. These came to be called the “Neutral” or “Open” Brethren.  This became the first big division among the Brethren, between those that followed Darby, later called the “Closed” or “Exclusive” Brethren and those who stood with Müller and A. N. Groves, including those in Bethesda. These came to be called the “Neutral” or “Open” Brethren.  Ironside gets at the heart of the matter:


“Division might possibly have been averted. I say, might possibly, for I cannot but think the pride and self-will of many was what forced division at last and if this state had not first been judged, no amount of teaching as to principles, however Scriptural, would have preserved the unity.”


Many years later, Darby was accused of holding some of the same errors as Newton. Several brothers called upon Darby to renounce these teachings. Upon his refusal they withdrew from fellowship with him.

The following poem, written by Darby and found after his death, indicates his realization that there remained something within him which needed to

 be dealt with:


Behind my back I fling,
Like an unwanted thing,
  My former self and ways,


And reaching forward far,
I seek the things that are
  Beyond time's lagging days.

Oh! may I follow still,
Faith's pilgrimage fulfil,

  With steps both sure and fleet;


The longed-for good I see,
Jesus waits there for me,
  Haste! haste! my weary feet.”