13 min read

Origins of the Rapture Doctrine

As might be expected, the details surrounding the beginning of belief in a secret rapture are hotly debated by historians from traditions committed to either affirm or deny the doctrine. What is not disputed is that the late 1820’s and 1830’s were an era of great religious excitement in Ulster, southern Scotland and England, with numerous claims of prophetic visions and miraculous messages from God. It was also an era of great apocalyptic fervor, with many people eagerly expecting the imminent return of Christ in that generation.

Edward Irving and the MacDonald Visions

A number of historians point to the influence of a radical (former Presbyterian) clergyman, Edward Irving, on the doctrine of the Rapture. Irving preached passionately and convincingly about the rapidly approaching end of the world and the dramatic resurgence of miraculous apostolic gifts sent by God to prepare for the coming end of the age. These and other themes resulted in his being removed from the ranks of the clergy within the established church. Of course, this did nothing to stop his preaching or to damper the enthusiasm of many of his supporters. One woman, Margaret MacDonald, while experiencing a terrible sickness, reported having divine visions and hearing voices that revealed to her that Christ’s return would be in two stages, rather than the widely assumed single event. In this vision-inspired divine eschatology, the first stage would involve the sudden miraculous removal of the saved from the earth, which was soon to endure the terrible cataclysms known as the Great Tribulation.

MacDonald Relates her Visions: MacDonald is often cited as “patient zero” for the doctrine of the rapture. That is, the doctrine of rapture begins with a very sick woman in England reporting she has divine visions and hears voices giving her this new doctrine. Historians from within Dispensational traditions strongly reject this claim. As with most straightforward assertions, the historical picture is not entirely clear. The evidence is inconsistent and anecdotal. But, it is likely that MacDonald was not the first person to surface the idea of a rapture. Like I already said, it was an era of great religious excitement and Irving seems to have, at the very least, laid out suggestions and hints of a secret rapture either at the same time or shortly before MacDonald’s reported visions. While all of these things are ongoing, and in roughly the same areas in Britain and Ulster (Northern Ireland), we begin to encounter accounts of a zealous and passionate apocalyptic teacher, John Nelson Darby.

John Nelson Darby: Founder of the Plymouth Brethren

J. N. Darby was an Ulster Scot (called Scots-Irish in the United States) who was converted to Christianity while a student in Dublin. As might be expected, he became a part of the (Protestant) Church of Ireland. Darby was a fervent and effective evangelist, winning dozens and then hundreds of Irish Catholic peasants to Protestant Christianity. Tensions between Darby and the protestant Bishop of Dublin would ultimately result in renouncing his membership within the established church. Continuing to teach, Darby gathered followers who joined him in rejecting any system of ordained clergy and promoting a rigorous commitment to recover and restore apostolic Christianity. A part of this involved Darby’s fervently preached understanding that the events of the End Times were beginning. The recently invented telegraph, for example, was proclaimed by Darby to be an “invention of Cain” and the “harbinger of Armageddon.” His growing numbers of followers were persuaded that the fulfillment of all the ancient prophecies of the End Times were now coming true. They were convinced the end was upon them and that it would center on a renewal of the ancient nation of Israel and would begin with the miraculous removal of the church in a secret rapture followed by a seven-year period of Great Tribulation.

Darby was, by any measure, a deeply dedicated believer and a meticulous student of scripture. He possessed a prodigious memory and was gifted with a mind able to pull together vast amounts of detail. His system of understanding Bible history centered on using numerous tightly linked and often multifaceted connections between various prophetic images, individual phrases, and verses. Although astonishingly complicated (as any quick survey of the numerous complex charts he and others have used to explain and promote dispensational timetables makes clear), Darby always insisted this was nothing more than a simple and straightforward use of scripture. He openly boasted that his views required ignoring all the trained clergy, the so-called church fathers, and all of the great theologians. These were a major reason the purity of the ancient church had been obscured until made clear in his preaching.

This was an ecclesiastical parallel to the political movement of the same era in the United States called Jacksonian democracy. The most educated and elite were disdained and the plain, simple, and often uneducated “common man” was endowed as the most reliable source of true wisdom. Ordinary people, not trained scholars, were the key to recovering right doctrine. Unlike all famed theologians and scholars, Darby insisted, he was taking the straightforward meaning of the Bible texts.

The irony that such a so-called simple and straightforward reading of the Bible required pulling phrases from widely separated parts of the Bible and weaving them together to created an incredibly complex progression of seven dispensations never seems to have dawned on him. And, of course, the complete absence any single place in the Bible where such a progression or timetable is presented is either ignored or denied. Even pointing out that no one throughout earlier church history outlines such a timetable or openly talks about a “secret rapture” years before the Second Coming, did not lessen his unbridled enthusiasm and confidence that this was not just a plausible idea, but was nothing less than THE key to understanding scripture.

Deeply committed to the authority of Bible, Darby simply refused to reconcile perplexing and seemingly contradictory passages in biblical prophecy by allowing that any of them were wrong. But, committed as he was to what is sometimes called Scottish Common Sense rationalism, he was equally averse to the traditional response of church leaders that the complexities of prophecy are within those areas of the mysteries of God’s will that defy complete systematic human analysis. As one historian noted, “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.” (Sandeen 1970) However complex this weaving of prophetic teachings became, Darby remained utterly confident it was all there and all would be clear to anyone open to reading and believing the Bible.

The fact that the doctrine would wait to be recovered by English-speaking dissenters in the 1830’s, simply confirmed to Darby that his was the last generation before the end and God was using him to restore the pure apostolic church to pave the way for Christ’s return.

Now because Darby’s own teachings on the End Times happen within the same time period and in the same geographic areas as the work of Edward Irving, a number of historians have concluded that the source of some of Darby’s ideas, particularly regarding the rapture, were rooted in the prophecy teachings of Irving and the visions of Margaret MacDonald. Other historians, generally from within traditions committed to Dispensational eschatology, have challenged any such connections and insisted Darby’s teachings were rooted solely in his study of scripture. In my opinion, the evidence that Darby was surely aware of the teaching of Edward Irving, as well as the content of the MacDonald visions is convincing. But, as with most history, a convincing case does not mean it is certain. Those who continue to insist no connection exists between Darby’s eschatology and the so-called divine visions of Margaret MacDonald can also cite some evidence and cannot be proven wrong.

In either case, one thing that is not disputed is that the doctrine of the secret rapture prior Second Coming cannot be found as a clearly articulated doctrine before the 1830’s. Were I to offer no other evidence, from the viewpoint of church history, that fact alone ought to put the veracity of them into serious question. But, there is another important question we now come to: How did this notion of a secret rapture go from a view found among a relatively small group of unaffiliated dissenters in Britain and Ireland to become a widely held belief among large numbers of American evangelicals by the mid-twentieth century? Exploring its origin is one thing. Explaining its widespread popularity is something else.

For this, we need to return to John Nelson Darby. By the late 1830’s, no longer a part of any official church, Darby continues to draw crowds and converts to his grand vision of the End Times. The religious world, he insists, has been distorted not only by Popes and church Councils, but even the Protestant world shares in this distortion by the continued use of ordained bishops and clergy. Before the Second Coming, Christ will bring about a restoration of the pure apostolic church. This purified church will be free not only from the Vatican, but from Canterbury, Westminster, and from all man-made things like clergy, synods, and presbyteries.

The growing numbers of believers persuaded by his preaching will be one of the ways God accomplishes this. And so, Darby and those aligned with his teaching will form a new religious group in England known as a Plymouth Brethren. Although not a household name to many evangelicals today, Darby and the Plymouth Brethren are important in church history. What is really surprising, however, is that the greatest impact both Darby and the Plymouth Brethren will have will not be in Ireland or Great Britain, but among revivalistic Protestants in the United States.

Cyrus Scofield

Apocalyptic fervor swept across America, particularly in the mid-nineteenth century. The “Millerites,” thousands of whom sold all their goods and gathered in caves and other places in 1842 to await the end of the world, are just one example. The Dispensationalism of the Plymouth Brethren and John Nelson Darby found fertile soil in the sawdust trail of American revivalism. Dwight Lyman Moody was just the best known of many self-taught and often self-appointed revivalists who adopted and incorporated Dispensationalism into their fiery sermons. But, the real spread of Dispensationalism will occur most powerful not from the pulpit, but from the printing press, with the appearing of the Scofield Reference Bible.

As John Walvoord, a former president of America’s leading Dispensational seminary, Dallas Theological Seminary, observed in 1959: “This edition of the Bible, which has had unprecedented circulation, has popularized premillennial teachings and provided ready helps of interpretation. It has probably done more to extend premillennialism in the last half century than any other volume. This accounts for the many attempts to discredit this work…The reputation of the Scofield Bible is curious because each succeeding writer apparently believes that his predecessors have not succeeded in disposing of this work once and for all. This belief apparently is well-founded, for the Scofield Bible continues to be issued year after year in greater numbers than any of its refuters.” (Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom).

Scofield is a controversial figure.

His divorce and romantic relationship with his second wife before the divorce was finalized (and marriage only a few months later), along with charges of failure to provide child support and charges of financial forgeries that landed him in jail in St. Louis, are just part of the picture. He was an effective preacher, as his years growing the First Congregational Church of Dallas from 14 to more than 500 members demonstrates. He was passionately committed to defending the Bible against the theological liberalism sweeping across Protestant schools and seminaries. He was also heavily involved in promoting world missions and became a friend and advisor to D. L. Moody, serving for a time at Moody Trinitarian Congregational Church of East Northfield, Massachusetts. He became increasingly focused on bringing together the teachings of the Bible, particularly those related to the End Times, in a helpful system of linked Bible references and notes so that any layperson could be led to, as Scofield put it, “rightly divide the word of truth.” That phrase, “rightly divide,” is understood to mean recognizing the seven Great Dispensations which, quite literally, divide all of salvation history.

Title Page from the 1909 Scofield Reference Bible

In 1909 these efforts culminating in the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible. Although it was marketed and sold as the “King James Version,” the reality was that in a number of key places, Scofield’s notes guide the reader to wording changes introduced in the Revised Version produced in England based on the works of Wescott and Hort. The points where this is most obvious are places where the wording of the Revised Version is more generally supportive of a Dispensational reading of a text. Published by Oxford Press, the new reference Bible became widely popular among American Protestants, particularly among theological conservatives. By the 1930’s, supported by national revivalists like Billy Sunday and the Scofield Reference Bible, the label “Fundamentalist” and “Dispensationalist” will be synonymous to many Americans. George Marsden in his landmark work, Fundamentalism in American Culture, lists Dispensational Eschatology, along with Calvinistic Soteriology (doctrines related to salvation), as the defining hallmarks of Fundamentalism in much of the twentieth century.

Scofield Reference Bible Sample (Daniel 6)

New names and celebrities, like C. C. Ryrie, Hal Lindsey, or Jack Van Impe, will appear later in the twentieth century. Each promotes subtle, but often strongly defended, variations in the complex scheme Dispensationalism gives for the End Times. At the same time, ongoing serious scholarship within Dispensational traditions such as Dallas Theological Seminary have acknowledged many of the excesses and theological contradictions in the system. Also, a minority within the American Reformed tradition have steadfastly remained outside the Dispensationalist camp, providing a steady stream of strongly anti-Dispensationalist books and commentaries over the past five or six decades. At the same time, theological conservatives from outside Reformed Protestant traditions, such as those of the Stone-Campbell Movement or evangelical Methodists associated with schools like Asbury Theological Seminary, have joined with Reformed scholars like Hendriksen and Hoekema in challenging Dispensationalism in general and rejecting the idea of a Secret Rapture in particular.

Finally, this is a doctrinal squabble almost entirely limited to English-speaking (and largely American) Protestants or those directly influenced by them. Among broader streams of Christianity, both in North America and worldwide, such notions as a Secret Rapture or the centrality of a re-constituted Israel as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant are rare to nonexistent. This is one reason why many Christians in other parts of the world are baffled and frustrated by what they see as many American Christians lack concern for the sufferings of Palestinians or the undeniable instances of brutality carried out by Israeli police or units of the military. From their side, it looks like a calloused lack of compassion for the suffering. From the side of many American believers, of course, any serious criticism of Israel or expressions of support for Palestinian concerns is tantamount to rejecting the plan and purpose of God in re-gathering the “Chosen People” to the “Holy Land” in preparation for coming Millennial reign of Christ.