The vast majority of Southern Protestants hold to a belief system which began in the 1800’s. This system pervades the entire fabric of Southern life. The Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Free Will Baptists, and most of the independent Baptist churches hold to some form of this theology. It has permeated even some Presbyterian churches. How did this theological system develop? What are the most important beliefs? What has been the consequences of its adoption by the vast majority of the Southern folk? These questions, we will attempt to answer in this series of papers.
Dispensationalism had its beginnings in Great Britain in the 1790’s. Prior to this time, most Protestants there and also in America, held to the theological position known as historic postmillennialism.
Postmillennialism is that view of the last things which holds that the Kingdom of God is now being extended in the world through the preaching of the Gospel and the saving work of the Holy Spirit, that the world eventually will be Christianized, and that the return of Christ will occur at the close of a long period of righteousness and peace commonly called the Millennium.
Dispensationalism started with the work of a Scot named Edward Irving. Born in 1792, he entered the University of Edinburgh at the age of 13 and graduated with a MA at the age of 16. He soon became a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and in 1822, became the minister of the Caledonian Presbyterian Church in London, England. He was considered the best orator in Great Britain. The congregation of fifty quickly grew to 150 in six months.
Soon the church built a larger structure and the attendance grew to 1,800. He had adopted a premillennialist view of the Scriptures and soon he was teaching in special conferences. Premillennialism is the belief that Christ shall return to Earth first to catch up the saints, followed by a literal one thousand year period in which the Jews will be converted to Christianity. After the millennial age ends, the Lord will come back again and set up his reign in Jerusalem. Why would people accept this message? Most scholars believe that the pessimism of the age was the blame. The French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, the loss of Colonies all created an atmosphere of depression and hopelessness. Premillennialism taught that things would continually worsen until the Lord came back to rescue his Church.
The membership of his church was mostly from the upper levels of society. For example members of Parliament, government officials, industrialists and professional men. He preached at many conferences attended by Anglicans. However, he began to be consumed with the study of prophesy. Irving held the view that many of the gifts of the early Church could be obtained today. Soon people began to experience ecstatic utterances, automatic writings, and seeing visions, and prophesying. Well, dignified Presbyterians were not going to have any of that. He was defrocked, and lost his congregation. Eventually, he was excommunicated. He was followed by eight hundred of his congregation which was the core of a new denomination. But his excommunication weighed heavily upon him and died shortly thereafter in 1834. His work, however, far outlived him. It was disseminated throughout Britain.
Across the Irish sea in 1800 was born to wealthy Anglo-Irish parents, John Nelson Darby. Like Irving, Darby was a precocious youth. He entered Trinity College in Dublin at the age of 14. After graduating, he became an Anglican deacon and eventually a priest. He was assigned as a missionary to Irish peasants. His ability to preach was so phenomenal that he had up to four hundred converts a week. The Anglican bishop in Dublin did not approve of this and told Darby that the converts must swear alliance to the British Crown. Infuriated, Darby left his office and turned his back on the organized Church for all times. Shortly after this he has a terrible accident on his horse. After an operation in Dublin, he spent a year in recovery. During that time he read his Bible and meditated on becoming a Christian mystic. After he recovered, he began to attend Bible studies with other men who were disgusted with the Anglican Church. These groups eventually formed the Plymouth Brethren movement. Darby adopted and modified Irving’s ideas. He believed that the Secret Rapture of the Church would occur before the seven year period of the great tribulation. He taught that the Church and the Jewish people were dealt with by God in two different ways. He also believed that the history of mankind was divided into seven distinct dispensations. In each dispensation, God worked with men in different ways. He spread his doctrine through conferences and by means of missionary trips to France, Canada, and the United States. He traveled to North America seven times. He preached here for six years traveling as far west as Chicago and St Louis.
Unfortunately for us, his appeal was across denominational lines. Baptists, Methodists, and even a few Presbyterian fell under his sway. One of the preachers who adopted his theological teachings was Rev. Brooks of St Louis. The great revivalist Dwight L. Moody deeply admired him and adopted some of his beliefs.
Next on the scene was the scandalous C. I. Scofield. Scofield was born in Michigan in 1843. He moved to Lebanon, Tennessee to live with his sister’s family when he was sixteen. His brother-in-law was a prosperous dentist. He was preparing to enter Cumberland University, when the War Between the States began. He and many of his friends volunteered and were assigned to Company H, 7th Tennessee. He was only sixteen at the time. After a period of training, the 7th Tennessee was sent to Virginia, where he served until April of 1862. He was in the hospital in Richmond due to sickness. While there he wrote to officials requesting a discharge from the army. He told them that he was a citizen of Michigan and had been visiting his sister in Tennessee when he entered the army. In September of 1862, he received his discharge and returned home to Tennessee. He had been back home in Tennessee only three weeks when he was conscripted and ordered to report to duty. Rather than obeying the law, he deserted and made his way to St Louis, Missouri where another sister and brother-in-law lived. He told Union officials there that he had always been loyal to the Union and was granted a parole.
In St Louis, he studied law under his brother-in-law and later moved to Kansas where he practiced law. In spite of the fact that he was never admitted to the bar in either Missouri nor Kansas. He soon became politically active and in 1872, he was appointed US Attorney General for Kansas by President Grant. He swore an oath that he had never bore arms against the Union as he took his office. By this time, he was married and had two children (girls). Shortly after taking his office, he was forced to resign in utter disgrace. He was accused of buying votes, mishandling money and bribery. He forged one of his friend’s signatures to get enough money to return to St Louis.
From the time he fled from Kansas in 1873 till his conversion in 1879, he lived as an absolute rogue. He abandoned his wife and children. He lived as an embezzler, liar, cheat, and a scandalous scoundrel.
Scofield eventually attended the D. L. Moody’s revival meetings in St Louis in 1879 and claims to have had a conversion experience there. He was befriended by Rev. James Brooks of that city and under his discipleship learned the principles of pretribulational rapture dispensationalism. Let’s look at some definitions here. Rapture refers to the secret return of Christ to Earth to take away the Christians. Pretribulation means this rapture will occur before the tribulation. Tribulation or great tribulation is the period of seven years in which the Jews will suffer greatly (2/3 will be killed) and will finally be converted to Christianity. It is the period in which the Antichrist will come to power. Dispensationalism is the belief that human history can be divided into periods in which God works with men to bring them to salvation (using different methods).
Scofield attended several churches in St Louis and began preaching there. By 1883, he had moved to Dallas, Texas and had become the minister of the Congregational Church. After he had moved to Dallas, his wife filed for divorce on grounds of nonsupport. Before the divorce had gone through, he was courting another lady. He remarried in 1884. For the next twelve years, he continued as pastor and taught at various Bible conferences. He had to re-invent his life’s history in order to fit into the pro-Southern Dallas society. He lied about his Confederate service, claiming that he had followed Gen. Lee to the very end of the War, surrendering only a few short miles from Appomattox. He became very prevalent in the affairs of the United Confederate Veterans, and various memorial associations. The UDC awarded him a service cross, which he later claimed was awarded by the Confederacy, due to his heroic actions at the Battle of Antietam. The absolute mendacity of this man boggles the mind! He also began to add the letters D.D. (Doctor of Divinity) to his name. In fact he had never had any formal religious training and there are no records of any institution ever having rewarded him an honorary degree! For more, I recommend reading The Incredible Scofield and His Book, by Joseph Cranford.
During the last half of his life Mr. Scofield spent much of his time teaching and preaching his doctrines at numerous Bible conferences. He eventually moved to New England in order to be nearer to the location of the most important of these conferences, the Niagara Bible Conference. While living there, he became a member of an elite social club in New York City, the Lotus Club. This club had in its membership several highly influential Jews who were also Zionists. During this time, Scofield began working on a study Bible to propagate his doctrines. What was the influence of these Zionist on this work? We can only guess by association. They have very carefully covered up any direct provable links. It seems highly unlikely that Scofield could have taken several trips to Europe while researching and writing his work without very substantial financial backing. And how in the world did a little known and totally uneducated preacher get his work published by the prestigious Oxford University Press?
After its publication, the Scofield Reference Bible became a best seller.