Infographics of doom
Doomsday Christianity in America (Part 1)
While the world reels in horror at the latest atrocities committed by Islamic fundamentalists, we should not forget that in the United States brews an ideology that is in many ways far more disturbing. “Dispensational Premillennialism” — a form of evangelicalism thought to be practiced by between five and forty million Americans — teaches that an impending apocalyptic war will bring about the end of the world. After which, Christ will rule the world for a thousand years from his throne in Jerusalem.
A 1984 a Yankelovich poll revealed that 39 percent of Americans believe the Bible’s end of days prophecies are predictions of nuclear apocalypse, and in 1998 a poll by Time magazine showed this number had risen to 51 percent. Religious ethnographer Brenda Brasher found that the average age of evangelical Protestants is much lower than other denominations, concluding that “In another generation, these people will be American Christianity.”
Christianity is in its inception an apocalyptic faith and such end-times thinking has always been part of it. However this aspect of it rose to the theological forefront during the titanic cultural and technological changes of the 19th century.
The Secret Rapture
In the early 19th century, everyday life in America largely revolved around small religious farming communities that had remained largely unchanged for centuries. But in a few generations, this way of life was to be swept away by the coming of the industrial revolution and the catastrophe of the Civil War. These tight knit, family based units began were replaced by an alien world based around money and machines. On top of this, the primarily Christian culture of these communities was slowly being diluted with constant streams of immigrants harbouring new faiths and ideas. It was during this tumultuous time that Plymouth born minister John Nelson Derby sought to revitalise Protestantism.
While claiming to be nothing more than literal interpretation of the Scriptures, Darby’s new ideas were radical and theologically labyrinthine. He first began with the concept of the “secret rapture”, the idea that true believers will be snatched without warning to heaven before the events of the tribulation; the time of immense suffering outlined in the books of Revelation and Daniel. His source for this belief was a series of dense passages in Thessalonians which wrote “the Lord shall descend from heaven with a shout”, [and believers] “shall be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air”.
Dividing the word of truth
Traditionally the ascent of Christians to heaven would occur after the tribulation, at the time of the Second Coming. The idea that true believers would be spared Armageddon was contrary to centuries of popular teaching. The theological kluge Darby used to argue to get around this was that the Bible was divided into scriptures directed at Christians and passages intended for the Israelites. The passage he used to justify this idea was from II Timothy 2:15 “rightly dividing the word of truth.”
Derby expanded this new doctrine by arguing the Bible had different messages for different eras of history, what he called “dispensations”. Expanding on this idea, he and his followers identified seven separate epochs spanning from the dawn of time to the present day, each representing a day of creation.
- ‘Innocence’ in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:3–3:60)
- ‘Conscience’ (Genesis 3:7–8:14)
- ‘Civil Government’ (Genesis 8:15–11:9)
- ‘Patriarchal Rule’ (Genesis 11:10-Exodus 18:27).
- ‘Mosaic Law’, which focussed on the Israelites and ended with the Jews’ rejection of Jesus.
- ‘Grace’, the purpose of which was to follow the teachings of Christ.
- The seventh and final dispensation could begin only when Israel was reborn.
Consequently the reestablishment of Israel and the return of the Jews to their homeland was a central issue to the Dispensationalist doctrine, but it was not an act of altruism. Only when Israel was reborn and their Temple rebuilt would Jesus return to Earth to establish his Kingdom, this way Jews would “make up” for their earlier rejection of Christ. They were therefore delighted to witness the rise of the Zionist movement in the nineteenth century which seemingly confirmed their apocalyptic prophesy.
The Dispensationalists believed that when Israel was reborn and the Third Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem, on the ruins of the Dome on the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Islam. After this, Jesus would return to Earth and lead the armies of heaven in an apocalyptic war with the Antichrist. Then, after seven years of tribulation (in which all but 144,000 Jews would die) the final dispensation would begin, and Christ’s thousand-year Reich would begin, as described in the book of Revelation;
“Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: over these the second death hath no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.”
The premillennialist cult dismissed traditional Protestant teachings as “man-made doctrines”, reasoning that they had (re)discovered the “true meaning” of the Bible, much in the same way that Protestantism dismissed elements of Catholic teaching during the Reformation to embrace the “true faith”. Their faith strengthened as they watched the epochal changes unfold around them, not just industrialisation and war, but the growth of the abominable idea of evolution.
By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the ageing Darby had become a prominent member of the New Bible and Conference movement, where he had a great deal of influence on evangelicals such as James Brookes, Dwight L. Moody and William Blackstone and others who would in turn help reinvigorate Christianity. Brookes headed up the famous Niagara Conferences that were in themselves influential forces in fundamentalism, while Dwight L. Moody founded the evangelical Moody Church, and Blackstone wrote books and organised numerous conferences on the restoration of Israel. But it was another man— Cyrus Scofield — that was to become the real driving force of Premillennialism.
Cyrus Scofield was a conman. A Confederate Civil War Veteran with a history of alcoholism, Scofield practiced Law in Kansas until he fled the state and his family because of “questionable financial transactions”. In 1879 he was jailed for forgery but while inside allegedly underwent a religious conversion thanks to the aforementioned Presbyterian James Brookes.
On release from prison he began work on a bible commentary, but this didn’t stop him getting up to his usual mischief. In 1892, he began calling himself “Doctor” Scofield and began spinning yarns about converting the entire city of Belfast with a single sermon in the wake of the Titanic disaster. A year after he was released, he also stole his mother-in laws’ savings of over a thousand dollars, which he claimed were to be used for a “big investment”.
In 1909, he finally published the “Scofield Reference Bible“, an annotated study bible that provides detailed parallel commentaries of the scriptures. Scofield’s dispensational observations “cleared up” some of the more obscure passages, in other words adding his very own apocalyptic interpretations of the scriptures and passing them off — quite literally — as gospel. Amongst his observations were noting that the Lord’s Prayer was actually a Jewish prayer and should not be recited by Christians, and that Russia would play a part in the Battle of Armageddon. It was to become one of the best-selling study Bibles of all time, and a central text of the Dispensational movement.
The horrors of the Great War drew many towards the towards the apocalyptic worldview of Dispensationalism. The first day of the battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest day in history; over a million people died in a matter of hours. The scale of the bloodshed defied comprehension, and led many to believe that this was surely the end-of-days battle that had been prophesied.
Many soldiers returned home shell-shocked shadows of men, or with monstrous injuries that left them social outcasts. But importantly, the triumph of the allies also put the Holy Land back in Christian hands after over a thousand years of Muslim rule, which heightened anticipation of the end of the Jewish Diaspora and their return to Israel.
Clarence Larkin — a retired mechanical engineer —would also play a leading role in popularising the movement in the post-war period, thanks to a book illustrating each of the dispensations in what can only be called theological infographics. Larkins’ first book Dispensational Truth or God’s Plan and Purpose in the Ages was such a hit that he released a revised version and wrote a number of follow up books such as Rightly Dividing the Word, Daniel, Spirit World and Second Coming of Christ.
What is interesting about Larkin’s work is his sheer force of will to find a coherent signal in the noise of the various Biblical texts. He himself seems to acknowledge the apparently muddled nature of the books, but was sure that they all made sense, insisting the Bible.
“…is not a “heterogeneous jumble” of ancient history, myths, legends, religious speculations and apocalyptic literature. There is a progress of revelation and doctrine in it. The judges knew more than the Patriarchs, the Prophets than the judges, the Apostles than the Prophets. The Old and New Testaments cannot be separated. You cannot understand Leviticus without Hebrews, or Daniel without Revelation.”
His infographics are testament to the human ability to see pattern where there is none.
The rest of the charts are available for download here.
The wave breaks
Dispensationalists were not the only game in town when it came to fundamentalism, there was also a softer version — later called followers of the “Social Gospel” — who believed paradise would be achieved not via armageddon and rapture, but through the democratic institutions of the United States.
Despite differing theologies, the two did agree on some things. Both viewed the US as something of a new Israel with the Christians of the United States as the new “chosen people” (an idea taken to extremes by the Mormons). For this reason both left and right wing Christians supported the implementation of the Prohibition of alcohol, a disastrous social experiment which lost fundamentalist Christians a considerable amount of support and sympathy.
But it wasn’t just Prohibition. The nationwide media frenzy surrounding the Scopes trial to teach evolution in schools, also added to public perception of Christians as out of touch and backward. As a consequence, during the 30s and 40s, Dispensational Premillennialism was beginning to lose momentum and fracture into smaller fringe ministries.
On a theological level it was also due the failure of prophecies such as the rebirth of Israel and the stubborn refusal of the world to end, predictions which had at this point been made almost a century earlier. American Christianity was changing and the apocalyptic elements of the religion were becoming less and less fashionable. Indeed, Christianity as a whole was to become a far less influential force in US politics, and the revival hoped for by John Nelson Derby gradually petered out.
All this was to change in the Atomic age.
Continued in Part 2: To light our darkest hour