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John Nelson Darby
A short history of dispensationalism
Within Christian fundamentalism, millennialism, or a belief in a prophecied end times, can be divided into three streams:
- a-millennialism: a belief that Christ currently rules on earth, a belief that grew after Emperor Constantine gave his official sanction to the Christian faith;
- historicism: a belief—common until the nineteenth century—that the prophecies of Revelation are being worked out slowly through history since the time of the Ascension; and
- futurism, or pre-millennialism: a belief that the drama of the book of Revelation refers to a brief period of time at the end of this age. Among pre-millennialists there is a further split between pre-tribulationists and post-tribulationists.
All these beliefs are founded on interpretations of Bible passages, with an emphasis on the Revelation of St. John the Divine and the prophecies of Daniel.
The earliest reference to a post-tribulation rapture is found in the General Epistle of Barnabus.1 With subsequent writers, such as Daniel Whitby in 1703, promoting versions of post-millennialism, the rapture teaching was not developed by any except a few Roman Catholic theologians until the 1800s, or if it was, it’s impact or influence is debatable.
Examples are easily found within early Protestant writings of a belief that the Pope was the embodiment and personification of the spirit of antichrist, and that the Roman Church represented the Mother of Harlots of Rev. xvii. To combat this, Roman Catholic theologians developed an interpretation of prophetic interpretation—futurism— counter to that held within Protestantism. Rather than viewing the drama of the book of Revelation spiritually and historically, they would consign it all to a brief period of time at the end of the age. As early as 1580, a Jesuit priest, Francisco de Ribera, in a book that was a mixture of a-millennialism, historicism and futurism, first taught that the events contained in the book of Revelation were to take place during the three and a half year reign of the antichrist at the end of the age. Ribera appears to be responsible for this system of prophetic interpretation of which the secret rapture has now become an integral part.2
Manuel Lacunza Y Díaz (July 19, 1731 - June 17 1801) also wrote about prophecy from a futurist viewpoint in The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty.3 Completed in 1790, it was placed on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books in 1824. While the "pre-tribulation rapture" idea is not found here, Lacunza taught that Jesus returns not once, but twice, and at the "first stage" of His return He "raptures" His Church so they can escape the reign of the "future antichrist."
Edward Irving (1792-1834), a leading figure of the Catholic Apostolic Church of England, and Minister of the Caledonian Church, Regent Square, translated Lacunza’s book into English, publishing it in London in 1827. Although Irving disagreed with Lacunza’s views, the futurist interpretation of prophecy—that much of the endtimes scenario was yet to come—appears to have been gaining popularity within Christian communities at this time.
John Nelson Darby (November 18, 1800 - April 29, 1882) developed and organized futurism into a system of prophetic teaching called dispensationalism and is claimed to have originated the secret rapture theory wherein Christ will remove his true believers from this world without warning. While Darby, an influential figure, if not founder, of the original Plymouth Brethren,4 was an early proponent of a pre-tribulation rapture doctrine, the influence on his views by Margaret Macdonald (b. 1815, Port-Glasgow, Scotland) is controversial.5 An objective reading of Miss Macdonald’s vision does not appear to reveal any reference to a pre-tribulation rapture.
It is known that Darby knew Miss Macdonald, and her family,6 and had visited them. He had stayed with them for three days at or around the time of Margaret’s revelation.7
Congregationalist preacher Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921), influenced by Darby and the Plymouth Brethren, wrote The Scofield Reference Bible, a widely distributed and influential text that promoted the teaching of the Secret Rapture, gaining it wide acceptance.8
Who first taught the pre-tribulation rapture is not a question easily answered. Southern Baptist evangelist, John L. Bray, recently wrote: "Now I have the Photostat copies of a book published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1788 but written in 1742-1744 in England, which taught the pretribulation rapture before Lacunza."9 A number of authors, notably Grant Jeffrey,10 have published citations of several pre-Macdonald sources describing a raptured Church and teaching the pre-tribulation rapture—some written as early as the second century.
Claims that Ribera’s writings influenced Lacunza, Lacunza influenced Irving, Irving influenced Darby, Darby influenced Scofield, Scofield and Darby influenced D. L. Moody, and Moody influenced the Pentecostal Movement have also been the topic of much discussion. Because the writings of these men did not always agree on specifics, and because individual commentators have had their own beliefs, the actual history of dispensationalism and its many streams continues to be a controversial subject. 11

1. Barnabas 13:3-6, 9: "(3) And in the beginning of the creation he makes mention of the sabbath. And God made in six days the works of his hands; and he finished them on the seventh day, and rested the seventh day, and sanctified it. (4) Consider, my children, what that signifies, he finished them in six days. The meaning of it is this; that in six thousand years the Lord God will bring all things to an end. (5) For with him one day is as a thousand years; as himself testifieth, saying, Behold this day shall be as a thousand years. Therefore children, in six days, that is, in six thousand years, that all things shall be accomplished. (6) And what is that he saith, And he rested the seventh day: he meaneth this; that when his Son shall come, and abolish the season of the Wicked One, and judge the ungodly; and shall change the sun and the moon and the stars; and he shall gloriously rest in that seventh day. -snip- (9) Lastly he saith unto them; Your new moons and your sabbaths I cannot bear them. Consider what he means by it; the sabbaths, says he, which ye now keep are not acceptable unto me, but those which I have made; when resting from all things I shall begin the eighth day, that is, the beginning of the other world." Lost Books of the Bible. World Bible Publishing, 1926. Alpha House. pp. 160-61
2. Francisco de Ribera (1537-1591), Francisci Riberae presbyteri Societatis Iesv, et sacrae theologiae doctoris, In librum duodecim Prophetarum commentarij : sensum eorundem prophetarum historicum, & moralem, persaepe etiam allegoricum complectentes ; cum qvatvor copiosis indicibvs. Romae. : Ex typographia Iacobi Tornerij., M.D.XC. 2v ; 40 ; Francisci Riberae ... in librum duodecim Prophetarum commentarij, etc. Salmanticae : Excudebat G. Foquel, 1587. 2 vol. ; fol. ; Francisci Riberae Villacastinensis presbyteri Societatis Iesu, doctorisq[ue] theologi in sacram b. Ioannis Apostoli, & Euangelistae Apocalypsin commentarij : Cum quinq[ue] indicibus ... His adiuncti sunt quinq[ue] libri de Templo, & de ijs quae ad Templum pertine[n]t, ad multorum locorum, tam Apocalypsis, quam reliquorum librorum intelligentiam cum primis vtiles. Salmanticae : Excudebat Petrus Lassus., M.D. XCI. 2v in one, [8], 333, [41], 222, [34] p ; fol.
3. Manuel Lacunza Y Díaz, The Coming of Messiah in glory and majesty. By Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra. Translated from the Spanish, with a preliminary discourse by E. Irving. (A critique of the work composed by Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra, entitled "the Coming of Messiah in glory and majesty," by M. R. P. Fr. Paul, of the Conception, of the Order of the Barefooted Carmelites.). London : Thames Ditton [printed] : L. B. Seeley & Son, 1827. 2 vol. ; 8o.
4. The Brethren movement had its beginning in Dublin in 1825.
5. See Dave MacPherson, The incredible cover-up : the true story on the pre-trib rapture. Rev. and combined ed. Plainfield, N.J. : Logos International, c1975. xiii, 162 p., [2] leaves of plates : ill. ; 21 cm.
6. See the Fry manuscript. The "Fry Collection" of letters and tracts exists among Christian Brethren on the Isle of Wight, and is composed of material from the personal effects of Benjamin Wills Newton, a young Oxford don who was involved in the foundation of the Plymouth meeting in 1832 and who was its leading figure in the period leading up to the schism of 1845 in which he and Darby were the main protagonists. Mr. A. C. Fry was a member of the Open Brethren. Cited in "The Origins and Early Development of the Plymouth Brethren." Peter L. Embley Cheltenham : St. Paul’s College, August 1966. bruederbewegung.de/pdf/embley.pdf.
7. He left a record of his opinion of them in The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Darby, John Nelson. Edited by William Kelly. London : G. Morrish, [1867-1900?] 34 vol. ; 8o. vol. 6: 448-450.
8. C. I. Scofield, The Scofield Reference Bible : the Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments : Authorized Version, with a new system of connected topical references to all the greater themes of Scripture, with annotations, revised marginal renderings, summaries, definitions, and index : to which are added helps at hard places, explanations of seeming discrepancies, and a new system of paragraphs / edited by C.I. Scofield. New York : Oxford University Press, American Branch ; London : Henry Frowde, 1909. 1362, [12] leaves of plates : 15 col. maps, col. plan ; 21cm. Includes indexes.
9. John L. Bray, Matthew 24 fulfilled. Lakeland, Fla. : J. L. Bray, 1996. 304 p : ill., maps ; 22 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 286-293) Matthew twenty-four fulfilled. Pages 294-304 blank for notes. Also see: The Pre-Tribulation Rapture Teaching and The Origin of the Pre-Trib Rapture. Cited on raptureready.com/rr-margaret-mcdonald.html, 2004/03/19.
10. Grant R. Jeffrey, The signature of God : astonishing Biblical discoveries London : Marshall Pickering, 1998, xi, 275 p ; 22 cm ; Final warning Eugene, Or. : Harvest House, c1996. 508 p. : ill. ; 18 cm.
11. For citations that Margaret Macdonald was the originator of the concept, see Dave MacPherson (b. c. 1933), Scholars Weigh My Research, in which he claims to have debunked the Darby origins of pre-tribulationism. Also by Dave MacPherson: The Unbelievable Pre-Trib Origin. Heart of America Bible Society, 1973 ; The Late Great Pre-Trib Rapture. Heart of America Bible Society, 1974 ; The incredible cover-up : the true story on the pre-trib rapture. Rev. and combined ed. Plainfield, N.J. : Logos International, c1975. xiii, 162 p., [2] plates : ill. ; 21 cm. ; The great rapture hoax. Fletcher, N.C. : New Puritan Library, c1983. 210 p. ; 21 cm. ; Rapture? New Puritan Library, 1987 ; The Rapture Plot. Millennium III Publishers, 1994 ; The Three R's: Rapture, Revisionism, Robbery. P.O.S.T., 1998.
Francis Nigel Lee: "Dave MacPherson, in his various books, has made a major contribution toward vindicating Historic Christian Eschatology. The 1830 innovations of the disturbed Margaret Macdonald documented by MacPherson—in part or in whole—immediately spread to Edward Irving and his followers, then to J. N. Darby and Plymouth Brethrenism, and were later popularized by the dispensationalistic Scofield Reference Bible, by Classic Pentecostalism, and by latter-day pretribulationists like J. F. Walvoord and Hal Lindsey." J. Gordon Melton (editor): "According to the best scholarship available, the pretribulation, premillennial eschatology originated among members of the Catholic Apostolic Church as a result of a vision and revelation to Margaret MacDonald. See Dave MacPherson, The Unbelievable Pre-Trib Origin." (Encyclopedia Of American Religions, 1978).
Cf.: Roy A. Huebner, Precious Truths Revived and Defended Through J. N. Darby, Vol. 1. Present Truth Publishers, 1991: claims that Darby first began to believe in the pre-tribulation rapture and develop his dispensational thinking while convalescing from a riding accident during December 1826 and January 1827, providing evidence that Darby was not influenced by Margaret Macdonald, Lacunza, Edward Irving, or any of the Irvingites.
Max S. Weremchuk, John Nelson Darby: A Biography .Loizeaux Brothers, 1992: "Having read MacPherson's book I find it impossible to make a just comparison between what Miss MacDonald 'prophesied' and what Darby taught. It appears that the wish was the father of the idea." (p. 242).


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