The first chapter in the book A Case for Historical Premillennialism is titled Dispensational and Historic Premillennialism as Popular Millennialist Movements. This chapter seeks to understand why certain movements within the Premillennial position are more popular than others. Prophecy as a whole commands an enormous impact on our society. In order to understand what is popular, we rely heavily on polls. By way of introduction, it is cited in this chapter that “even though only 36 percent of those polled said they believe that the Bible is the Word of God, 59 percent thought that events predicted in Revelation were being fulfilled.” That, to me, is astonishing given the fact that Revelation is a part of the Word of God. So it’s more popular to believe that Revelation is coming to pass before our eyes than to believe that the Bible is the Word of God. How’s that for popularity?
This chapter traces Millennialist movements prevalent in the USA including post-millennialism, the Mormon movement, William Miller and the great disappointment, and finally, the rise of “new premillennialism” better known as dispensational premillennialism. Prefaced by this, Timothy P. Weber, the author of this particular essay, shows that at the same time there was a division within premillennialism between the focus on Historicism and Futurism. The majority of premillennialists up until that time were Historicists, but a few were Futurists. As a movement developed bringing a Futurist viewpoint to the forefront, Edward Irving appeared on the scene. This led into the Plymouth Brethren movement, which at this point, I’d like to quote the book for the sake of accuracy.
The Plymouth Brethren, who had left apostate Anglicanism in order to meet regularly for Bible study, fellowship, and the Lord’s Supper, likewise championed futurist premillennialism. At first the Plymouth Brethren lacked direction and a clear identity despite the emergence of two powerful leaders and teachers, Benjamin Wills Newton and John Nelson Darby. During a series of study retreats first held at the estate of Lady Theodosia Powerscourt in 1831, the Brethren defined their eschatology: they took a futurist approach to Revelation, rejected the year-day theory, and declared the established churches already apostate. This challenge to the dominant historicist perspective also closely followed Irving’s views.
The Plymouth Brethren received a shock at the third Powerscourt Conference in 1833, when Darby introduced his teachings on the pretribulation rapture of the church and the postponement theory, which argued for a “great parenthesis of prophetic time” between the sixty-ninth and seventieth weeks of Daniel 9. Most Brethren as well as other futurists initially considered both ideas complete novelties. The ensuing argument drove a deep wedge between Darby and other Brethren leaders, especially Newton and Samuel P. Tregelles, another respected Bible teacher, and eventually split the Plymouth Brethren. Futurist premillennialism has never been the same.
I quote this portion because I frequently refer to Newton, Tregelles, and their works. They were writing in the midst of the development of dispensationalism and the pretrib rapture. Their views still have a historicist flavor due to its prevalence until that time, but are primarily futurist. So while some maintain that dispensational premillennialism and futurism must go hand in hand, that is simply not the case. In this chapter, Tim Weber continues to document the growth of Dispensational PreMillennialism along with its main tenets which grew out of Darby’s theology. Israel and the church were distinctly separate as far as God’s plans including His redemptive plan. Christ’s coming would occur in two phases: Christ coming FOR His saints at the beginning of Daniel’s 70th week, then later Christ coming WITH His saints at the end. Then Weber documents how Darby traveled to and preached in the United States. The rise of dispensationalism is noted in the Niagara Conferences, which while standing fast in support of older doctrines welcomed the new premillennialism. This ultimately led to a huge rift within the ranks of premillennialism, at which time Niagara closed its doors for good in 1900 being unable to agree on the timing of the rapture. Now I quote again for accuracy:
By the twentieth century, then, futurist premillennialism had divided into two warring camps. Many of dispensationalism’s strongest critics were veterans of Niagara and the prophetic conferences. Some of them had even been dispensationalists themselves, early devotees who changed their minds later on. Nathaniel West, one of the founders of Niagara, wrote the highly regarded but nondispensational Thousand Years in Both Testaments (1880). A. J. Gordon was an early follower of Darby but repudiated his teachings in Ecce venit (1889). Two men who are listed as contributing editors of the Scofield Reference Bible later repudiated dispensationalism: William J. Erdman and William G. Moorehead. Robert Cameron also disavowed his earlier dispensationalist convictions in Scriptural Truth about the Lord’s Return (1922). These men appealed to a more venerable premillennialist tradition that was rooted in the early church’s eschatology, which contained no reference to a pretribulation rapture.
Such a list constitutes only some of the leading voices of the nondispensationalist, futurist premillennialism in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America. Others who should be included are Charles Erdman, Philip Mauro, Rowland Bingham, G. Campbell Morgan and Oswald J. Smith (both leading dispensationalists at one time), and Harold John Ockenga, the Boston pastor who called for a “new evangelicalism” after World War II. Their views have often been called historic premillennialism because they claimed to be following the legacy of earlier premillennial perspectives stretching back to postapostolic times. The term “historic,” however, must be qualified, since futurism in its present form is in fact a post-Reformation perspective or at best a late medieval one.
Tim Weber goes on to trace the competition within premillennialism up through our present time. He includes the appearance of George Ladd on the scene. As scholarly as Ladd’s works are, I found it interesting that angry dispensationalists sent condemnations his way. This leads me into a summary of how Weber views both Historic and Dispensational Premillennialism as populist movements. Dispensationalists at every point in the game have had a strategy. Darby preached exclusively to large churches trying to sway the most popular pastors of the time into his new scheme. When the position began to grow, dispensationalists began their own seminaries, publishing houses, and missionary movements. They began to equate orthodoxy with dispensationalism, so if you weren’t dispensationalist, you were on the outside of the circle. The publishing of the Scofield Bible was a huge boon to the dispensational position. Then when certain teachers prove to be wrong, they would just issue a second edition.
All in all, dispensationalism has addressed the masses with hit songs, novels, charts, graphs, movies, and even political lobbying. They have made the position popular without giving the average Christian who believes in the position the ability to clearly exegete the scriptures, especially in comparison to other positions. Remember that at one point it was popular in the USA to be a postmillennialist. It was also popular at one time to believe the return of Christ would occur in 1844. Now it is popular to believe that no Christian will have to endure the Great Tribulation. After all, do you want to go through the tribulation? It’s just plain unpopular.
Weber’s point is subtle yet pointed. Dispensational Premillennialism has addressed the general population. It has grown popular in just this way. What is popular doesn’t necessarily reflect what is scriptural. Historical Premillennialism has primarily addressed the scholar. By this I don’t believe Weber means the seminary student but the average person who studies the Word of God. Dispensational Premillennialism also has its scholars, but has an approach that addresses both the highbrow and lowbrow. Another nod to Progressive Dispensationalism is given at the end of the chapter noting the tweaks they have made to their system.
All in all, this chapter is well written noting many historical facts. Some of these things I knew and some was additional information for me. The down side to this chapter is that there is nothing here that addresses the soundness of the Historical Premillennial position. It serves as an introductory chapter to the historical movements that bring us to the place where we are now.
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman
Note: I recommend the above mentioned non-dispensational authors. I’ll give some pointers as well. By BW Newton I recommend The Prophecy of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 24 and 25, The Antichrist Future also 1260 Days of Antichrist’s Reign Future, Prospects of The Ten Kingdoms of the Roman Empire, and Thoughts on the Apocalypse. The first three of these are available at SGAT, see link to the right. By SP Tregelles I recommend The Hope of Christ’s Second Coming, Remarks on the Prophetic Visions in the Book of Daniel, and The Man of Sin. These also are available at SGAT. I recommend the aforementioned The Thousand Years in both Testaments (now also published under the name The Thousand Year Reign of Christ) by Nathanial West. If you can find it, I also recommend Daniel’s Great Prophecy by the same author.
I also recommend Scriptural Truth about the Lord’s Return by Robert Cameron, Matthew the Publican and his Gospel by Rowland Bingham, and Notes on the Revelation by WJ Erdman. While Charles Erdman’s books are good, they contain some elements of Amillennialism, so I also point to The Return of Christ and The Revelation of John by him with that in mind.
Anything by Ladd is recommended. The Blessed Hope contains his views on the rapture in relation to Christ’s second coming. The Presence of the Future is a scholarly read, but well worth it. For those who want the cliff notes version, The Gospel of the Kingdom is just that. It’s a much easier read with the same points made. The Presence of the Future contains the assertions concerning the Kingdom of God already at work while maintaining a future manifestation of that same kingdom. In short, Christians are currently experiencing the Presence of that Future Kingdom.
I point to Philip Mauro with some hesitancy. He is primarily a Historicist. His works should be read and studied, but note the point of view before you start.
Hopefully that helps for those who want to study Historic Premillennialists of days gone by.