A century ago, dispensationalism was the most dynamic force in American Christianity. Generations before Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind novels took America by storm, millions fervently believed the rapture could happen at any moment. The signs of the times seemed to say as much, since according to the dispensationalist reading of Revelation, plagues, wars, and a one-world government headed by the Antichrist would come as soon as Jesus spirited his people away to heaven.
The institutional empire of nonprofits, colleges, and parachurch organizations built by Dwight Moody and his protégés grew in part out of this expectancy. So did the ministries of innumerable premillennialist evangelists, including the aging Billy Sunday. It is what drove sales of that landmark piece of dispensationalist scholasticism, the Scofield Reference Bible. Most important of all, belief in Christ’s imminent coming drew many thousands to burgeoning Bible colleges, serious-minded prophecy conferences, and missions agencies. These institutions inculcated the movement’s theology in a vast army of pastors and interested laymen, who disseminated it to their readers, followers, and congregants. While dispensational thought involved far more than eschatology, all this cultural momentum came from apocalyptic speculation and the scientific aura about its inductive, literalist approach to the Scriptures. A betting man might have put his money on dispensationalism swallowing the nascent Fundamentalist movement whole.
A betting man would have backed the wrong horse. To be sure, other cultural and theological forces like covenant theology also had significant numbers of adherents in the interwar period. But as Daniel G. Hummel shows in his invaluable new book The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism, neither liberalism nor covenant theology proved to be the movement’s undoing. It was instead dispensationalism’s own vast cultural appeal. By the turn of the twenty-first century, one could hardly find an evangelical theologian who took traditional dispensationalist ideas seriously. What remained, Hummel writes, was “a movement with no vested national leaders, a scholastic tradition with no young scholars, [and] a commercial behemoth with no internal cohesion.” Dispensationalism was dying.
Which is why the story Hummel relates badly needs telling. Magisterial studies like Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse, Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals, and George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture left unexamined the depth of dispensationalism’s impact on the broader evangelical movement, and the roots of dispensationalist theology lay outside the purview of these studies. Hummel, by contrast, takes the reader back to Plymouth, a midsize port city on England’s southern coast that birthed the nonconformist sect known as the Plymouth Brethren. And he takes the reader to Ireland, where we encounter a radical Irish Anglican curate named John Nelson Darby, a critic of the established church who would become the Brethren’s best-known leader. As fate—or perhaps providence—would have it, Darby’s premillennial eschatology and the stark intensity of his heaven-earth dualism caught on not just in Southern England, but in America. Reshaped in the hands of other ministers, theologians, and popularizers, his ideas and those of his Plymouth Brethren colleagues would in due time change the trajectory of American evangelicalism and the nation’s culture. The ideas presidents kicked around in the Oval Office can be traced back to his work.
Darby himself lacked facility with the pen. He needed popularizers, and fortunately for him he got them, particularly during the years he spent in various North American cities. Hummel tells us that one early follower explained Darby’s theology by drawing a chart on a garden door with a piece of chalk. When he got to America, still more elaborate models and prophecy charts were created, and by the Reconstruction period the pastors of some of the biggest Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in America were preaching a premillennialism influenced by Brethren thought.
Anticlericalism and anti-imperialist ideas were common among the first three generations of Brethren and Darbyites, but by the time C. I. Scofield released his famous notated Bible in 1909 through Oxford University Press, the boundary markers of this now distinctly American trans-denominational movement were more or less fixed. Nationalism, anti-Darwinism, and anti-communism became non-negotiables. Beyond this, “an interlocking system of biblical interpretation and doctrines” formed that allowed academics like Lewis Sperry Chafer to write hefty systematic theologies and Dallas Theological Seminary’s journal Bibliotheca Sacra to become a site of theological and ecclesial controversy.
Because Hummel situates dispensationalism within the wider evangelical movement, the reader gains an understanding of controversies involving liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick, alliances with neo-evangelicals like Carl F. H. Henry, and points of dispute with covenant theologians like George Eldon Ladd. But the greatest merit of The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism is how lucidly it narrates the story of the movement’s collapse. At the height of dispensationalism’s cultural influence—at the same moment Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth was on its way to becoming the bestselling nonfiction book of the 1970s, youth groups were humming along to Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” and tens of millions were taking in the rapture-themed film A Thief in the Night—institutions like Fuller Theological Seminary, Wheaton College, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Christianity Today were abandoning dispensationalism altogether. “The rapid popularization of dispensationalism also ironically sowed the seeds for its theological decline,” Hummel writes. “In the consumer-oriented culture that dominates pop dispensationalism and, increasingly, evangelicalism, values like internal coherence and scholarly discourse—important cultural markers in fundamentalism—also declined.”
When our grandkids find themselves alone in the house on a summer afternoon, few will find themselves gripped by a sudden fear that everyone except them has been taken in the rapture. By itself, that is a good thing. The eclipse of an unbiblical and thoroughly annoying doctrine is hardly something to mourn. Yet Hummel is perceptive enough not to allow the reader such a hasty judgment. The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism obliquely but powerfully gestures toward a hole often found in the gospel that post-dispensationalist evangelicals believe today. “In the wake of dispensationalism’s collapse,” he writes in the epilogue, “the eschatological sight of the American church has blurred.” That means that our hope is less fervent, thinner, colder.
Many Protestant pastors understandably are trepidatious about even alluding to eschatological matters for fear of getting sucked into controversies about numerology, new candidates for the Antichrist, and dating the second coming. Nevertheless, Hummel reminds us, “Christianity is inescapably eschatological.” That is so because faith cannot exist without hope.
And hope is always, at least in some sense, future-oriented.
Joel Looper is an adjunct professor in Baylor University's Baylor Interdisciplinary Core.
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