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THEOLOGY > Future > End of the Age > The Rapture Question > A Recent Interpretation    



Around 1800 there arose a strong interest in Bible prophecy and the end time; tracts and books were written dealing with the Second Coming, Tribulation, Antichrist, and the Millennium. Prophetic conferences began to spring up in England, first at Albury and later at Powerscourt; there were two results. One, there was a return to the teaching of the early Church Fathers concerning eschatology; and two, there appeared a new interpretation of the Lord’s return.

This innovative and novel view has come to be known as Dispensationalism, a view unknown for the first 1800 years of Church History. Yet many today associate it with true orthodoxy. In some quarters, to question Dispensationalism is to bring into question one’s commitment to the historic faith. To question Dispensationalism is to cause many conservative lay people to question the conservatism of the one who casts doubt upon this late arriving concept that has been interjected into the field of eschatology. Nevertheless, the view is of recent origins. And Dispensationalists should be willing, and even anxious, to consider the roots of their peculiar belief.

Three individuals appear in connection with the entrance of the pretribulation idea of the Rapture into the eschatological discussion. All three appeared around 1830, and they are Margaret Macdonald, Edward Irving, and J. N. Darby.

Margaret Macdonald

Margaret Macdonald’s story is told by Dave MacPherson in his books, The Unbelievable Pre-Trib Origin, The Incredible Cover-Up, and The Rapture Plot. Much of the following historical material is taken from his books. This website does not defend or reject his findings, just reports them. He reports on an obscure book written by Robert Norton, a British medical doctor who became a minister. In his book, The Restoration of Apostles and Prophets; In the Catholic Apostolic Church, Norton claimed a Margaret Macdonald had originated the two-stage idea in early 1830, possibly March. Norton described the event:

Marvelous light was shed upon Scripture, and especially on the doctrine of the second Advent, by the revived spirit of prophecy. In the following by Miss M. M.—, of an evening during which the power of the Holy Ghost rested upon her for several successive hours, in mingled prophecy and vision we have an instance; for here we first see the distinction between that final stage of the Lord’s coming, when every eye shall see Him, and His prior appearing in glory to them that look for Him (15; quote is also in MacPherson, Pre-Trib Origin, 47).

A partial-rapture position as a result characterized the early days of the movement. It was anchored in part in the Old Testament idea of “firstfruits.” When applied to the Church it meant that the more spiritual would be raised before the rest of the Church would be raised or harvested. Both were part of the Church, just raised at different times. This apparently is the core idea from which developed full-blown Dispensationalism over time. Macdonald’s revelation seems to be more along the lines of partial-rapture rather than pretribulation rapture (see: The Rapture Plot). From this perspective some believers would be delivered from the coming Tribulation while others would experience it.

It is believed that Margaret Macdonald received the gift of prophecy during a period of convalescence—she had been sick for 18 months—and her statements during that time eventually became the basis for the belief in a pretribulation rapture.  On some March evening during early 1830 the statements were made. It was also reported that she received the gift of tongues at age fifteen, shortly after the supposed vision that revealed the pretribulation rapture. So, the pretribulation rapture did not come from tongues, but the fact that so soon after, approximately four months, she spoke in tongues reveals her theological state at the time of the original utterance. And it also reveals the atmosphere out of which the earliest suggestions of some sort of pretribulation rapture arose.

During 1830, the influence of Margaret Macdonald in and around Port Glasgow, Scotland, and as far away as London, was significant. With reports of healing and of Spirit visitation, many went to investigate and to partake of the events. Among those who visited were Edward Irving and J. N. Darby. After her initial revelation, and when the crowds began to come, prayer and praise services were common at the Macdonald house. Below is the most important part of her utterance, as reported by Norton in his book:

Here I was made to stop and cry out, O it is not known what the sign of the Son of man is; the people of God think they are waiting, but they know not what it is. I felt this needed to be revealed, and that there was great darkness and error about it; but suddenly what it was burst upon me with a glorious light. I saw it was just the Lord himself descending from Heaven with a shout, just the glorified man, even Jesus; but that all must, as Stephen was, be filled with the Holy Ghost, that they might look, and see the brightness of the Father’s glory. I saw the error to be, that men think that it will be something seen by the natural eye; but ‘tis spiritual discernment that is needed, the eye of God in his people. Many passages were revealed, in a light in which I had not before seen them. . . . I saw that we must be in the Spirit, that we might see spiritual things. John was in the Spirit, when he saw a throne set in Heaven. . . . I felt that the revelation of Jesus Christ had yet to be opened up—it is not knowledge about God that it contains, but it is an entering into God—I saw that there was a glorious breaking in of God to be. I felt as Elijah, surrounded with chariots of fire. I saw as it were, the spiritual temple reared, and the Head Stone brought forth with shoutings of grace, grace, unto it. It was a glorious light above the brightness of the sun, that shone round about me. I felt that those who were filled with Spirit could see spiritual things, and feel walking in the midst of them, while thos who not the Spirit could see nothing—so that two shall be in one bed, the one taken and the other left, because the one has the light of God within while the other cannot see the Kingdom of Heaven. I saw the people of God in an awfully dangerous situation, surrounded by nets and entanglements, about to be tried, and many about to be deceived and fall. Now will THE WICKED be revealed, with all power and signs and lying wonders, so that if it were possible the very elect will be deceived.—This is the fiery trial which is to try us.—It will be for the purging and purifying of the real members of the body of Jesus; but Oh it will be a fiery trial (Memoirs, 171-76; quote also in MacPherson, Pre-Trib Origin, 105-8)

Her statement implies that only a select group of believers would be caught up to meet the Lord while the rest would remain on earth to suffer “the fiery trial” under “THE WICKED.” In her statement, she states that one will be taken and the other left and that then the Antichrist will be revealed.

Dave MacPherson has a footnote in the Appendix of his book, The Unbelievable Pre-Trib Origin, which reads as follows: “Margaret was actually a Partial Rapturist; she saw a select group caught up before the man of sin of 2 Thessalonians 2 is revealed, with the rest of the believers passing through and being purified in the Great Tribulation” (118).

Edward Irving

Edward Irving was born in 1792 in Scotland. He earned a master’s degree from Edinburgh University at age sixteen and was licensed as a Presbyterian minister by 1815, becoming pastor of a Presbyterian church, Regent Square, in London in 1822. The church was frequented by important religious and political leaders in the city. An eloquent speaker, Irving became interested in Bible prophecy, attending and speaking at conferences at Albury Park from 1826-30; these conferences were made possible by the generosity of a wealthy banker, Henry Drummond. Initially he embraced the revived Premillennialism that was popular around 1800.

In late 1830 he wrote an article in The Morning Watch, his prophetic journal, discussing the first and second stage of Christ’s return, distinguishing between the epiphany (first stage) and the parousia (second stage). Note that this is exactly the opposite of later Dispensationalists who used parousia to refer to the Rapture at the beginning of the Great Tribulation. MacPherson stated that this is the earliest record in print of a pretribulational rapture idea (The Rapture Plot, 6), but no mention is made of Margaret Macdonald by The Morning Watch article. Irving’s views were based on symbolism rather than clear direct statements of Scripture. Important to him were the two witnesses of Revelation 11, the year-day principle in relationship to the 1260 days of Revelation, the Jewish concept of “firstfruits” in relationship to the “wise virgins,” and the 144,000 in Revelation.

In addition to his writings on prophecy, he wrote a tract in 1830 claiming that Jesus had a fallen nature. Christ’s nature, he claimed, was like man’s nature; that is, He could have sinned but, in the case of Christ, He did not sin. He also believed that all the spiritual gifts would be restored to the Church. Tongues broke out in his church in 1831. As a result of these events, he faced heresy proceedings and in 1832 was dismissed from the presbytery. He then began to meet with a group that came to be known as the Catholic Apostolic Church. In 1834, he died at age forty-two.

The precise source of his views is unknown, but it has been suggested that he was influenced by the writings of Emmanuel Lacunza, a Spanish Jesuit who wrote a book entitled, The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty. In this book Lacunza interpreted the Book of Revelation, with the exception of the first three chapters, as a description of apocalyptic events that would soon occur. Irving published Lacunza’s work in English in 1828. But the two-stage idea does seem to have originated with Lacunza.

Tregelles, the Greek scholar, stated:

I am not aware that there was any definite teaching that there would be a secret rapture of the Church at a secret coming until this was given forth as a “utterance” in Mr. Irving’s church, from what was there received as being the voice of the Spirit. But whether any one ever asserted such a thing or not, it was from that supposed revelation that the modern doctrine and the modern phraseology respecting it arose. It came not from the Holy Scripture, but from that which falsely pretended to be the Spirit of God . . . After the opinion of a secret advent had been adopted, many expression in older writers were regarded as supporting it; in which, however, the word “secret: does not mean unperceived or unknown, but simply secret in point of time (The Hope of Christ's Second Coming, 35).

And in The Puritan Hope, Iain Murray commented:

All the salient features of Darby’s scheme are to be found in Irving . . . At Albury and in Irving’s London congregation a curious belief, practically unknown in earlier church history, had arisen, namely, that Christ’s appearing before the millennium is to be in two stages, the first, a secret “rapture” removing the church before a “Great Tribulation” (200).

Gaebelein made the following observation:

Toward the end of the Niagara meetings several of the teachers, influenced by one man, who was considered an outstanding biblical and ecclesiastical scholar (as he undoubtedly was), began to abandon this distinction and branded it as mere invention. One of them went so far as to say that the teaching that the Lord would remove His true Church before the predicted Great Tribulation judgment, and that so far as His coming for His saints is concerned that it might occur at any moment, originated in the days of Edward Irving and his spurious gift of tongues revival. And so the blessed hope of the imminent coming of the Lord was more or less charged to the influence of subtle demons (History, 41).

Gundry in his book, The Church and the Tribulation, claimed that Irving “was likely the first to suggest the pretribulational rapture, or at least the seminal thought behind it” (185). He also cited a B. W. Newton, an early leader of the Plymouth Brethren, who said that Irving’s attendance at the Albury Conferences “ruined” them because of his suggestion of a “Secret Coming” (185).

J. N. Darby

J. N. Darby, who was born in 1800 and died in 1882, began to meet in 1827 in Dublin, Ireland, with the group that was to become the Plymouth Brethren. For the rest of his life he was a member of this group and played a major role in shaping the movement. He lived a simple and frugal life, often exhibiting a benevolent spirit. His writings were many, numbering over forty volumes of six hundred pages each, covering the full spectrum of topics related to the Christian faith. His lasting influence, however, was to be in the field of eschatology.

Before 1830 he believed Christ would return after the Tribulation; in fact, his first paper on prophecy emphasized Revelation 19 and the coming of Christ for His people after the Tribulation. During 1830 he slowly began to change to the pretribulational position, eventually embracing an Israel-Church distinction with the rapture before the Great Tribulation, though the change of position for him took a number of years. This new perspective eventually led to strife and division within the Brethren movement. His concept of the Church formed the center of his evolving eschatological views. According to Darby, the Church began at Pentecost and is to be distinguished from Israel. Bass stated that “Dispensationalism is rooted in Darby’s concept of the church” (Backgrounds to Dispensationalism, 127).

It is interesting to note that in the early 1830’s Darby visited Margaret Macdonald in Scotland. According to MacPherson: “Darby borrowed from her, modified her views, and then popularized them under his own name without giving her credit” (Pre-Trib Origin, 94). In the early 1830’s he began to promote and popularize the pretribulation view. He attended the Powerscourt conferences around 1833, exerting great influence, and surely had contact with Irving who also attended. The new “secret” rapture concept was gaining attention and attracting adherents. It was Darby who developed and expanded the concepts that are essential to and a vibrant part of present day Dispensationalism.

Of Darby, Walvoord stated:

The assertion that pretribulationism in its modern form can be traced to some extent to Darby is supported by Darby’s own writings. In his search for premillennial truth, Darby arrived at the position that the Church is a special work of God distinguished from His program for Israel. This, in turn, led to the position that the Rapture is a special event for the Church itself (The Rapture Question, 150-51).

Ladd would concur with this general time period:

Pretribulationism was an unknown teaching until the rise of the Plymouth Brethren among whom the doctrine originated (Ladd, Blessed Hope, 162).

Alexander Reese in his book, The Approaching Advent of Christ, stated:

Yet the undeniable fact is that this “any-moment” view of Christ’s Return only originated about 1830, when Darby gave forth at the same time the mistaken theory of the Secret Coming and Rapture; but all down the centuries there had existed Christians who longed for the Revelation of Christ, whilst expecting that antichrist would come first (227).

Later, on page 240 of the same book, he added:

All down the centuries the Church expected Christ’s Coming after the arrival of Antichrist, according to the teaching of Christ and His Apostles. Only in 1830 did a school arise that treats with intolerance, and often with contempt, the attitude of those who had looked for Him in the manner just named Not the slightest respect was paid to a view that held the field for 1,800 years.

Finally, Clarence Bass, in the “Introduction” to his book stated that his book “argues that as a system of thought dispensationalism can be traced to the theology and practice of John Nelson Darby, which was formulated in an atmosphere of theological controversy” (Backgrounds, 7).

Darby visited the United States six times between 1859 and 1874, teaching his innovativel view at the prophetic conferences being held in the states. During the next twenty-five years conferences were held in Chicago, Niagara, and Seacliff, Long Island. C. I. Scofield attended the conference at Seacliff in 1901, and the idea of a reference Bible came to him. He eventually published the Scofield Reference Bible which presented the Dispensationall view as the proper interpretation of the consummation. The Scofield Reference Bible spread the view widely. Because its notes were considered to be conservative and accurate, many accepted the notes without careful study. As the years went by those who used the Bible equated Dispensationalism with the conservative position; and, in the minds of many, Premillennialism came to be equated with Dispensationalism.

The precise origin of Pretribulationism is not clear, but it definitely appeared around 1830. Before that date it was simply unknown and untaught. It apparently arose from the interrelationships and teachings of the above individuals. Darby and Irving never claimed to have originated the view, but both taught it. Without question, Pretribulationism is a recent view. It evidently came from subjective visions and revelations, or at least out of an environment that accepted and encouraged extra Biblical revelations. Scripture was then used to support the view rather than the view itself coming from Scripture. It stands in direct opposition to the Posttribulationism of the early Church.

Two quotes support this view of the early history of Dispensationalism, the first quote is from a Premillennialist and the second from a Dispensational Pretribulationist.

The idea was more likely conceived in its elemental form in the milieu of 1830, amid the interchange of prophetic views at the Albury and Powers-court conferences which Irving regularly attended, and matured later in Darby’s teachings. . . . Indeed, the idea seems to have grown with the times, coming of age in Darby’s system after a shaky adolescence in Irvingism. Its begetter, in the final analysis, may be the spirit of man that begs for something new (Katterjohn, The Tribulation People, 113, 114).

It may be conceded that the advanced and detailed theology of pretribulationism of today is not found in the early church fathers, and there are some grounds for tracing this to Darby, who seems to have been the first to mark this sharp distinction (Walvoord, The Rapture Question, 50).

Dave MacPherson asks a pointed question at the conclusion of his book, The Rapture Plot: “Again I ask the same question: if pretrib dispensationalism can continue to cover up or distort the bizarre beginnings of its 165-year existence, why should anyone trust its interpretations of the Bible?” (273). Dispensationalism is a recent view and is suspicious as to it s origin.

Dispensationalism is of recent origin
and can boast a history of but little more than a hundred years.
John Wick Bowman

We can find no trace of pretribulationism in the early church;
and no modern pretribulationist has successfully proved
that this particular doctrine was held by any of the church fathers
or students of the Word
before the nineteenth century.
George Ladd

Yet the undeniable fact is
that this “any-moment” view of Christ’s return only originated about 1830,
when Darby gave forth at the same time
the mistaken theory of the Secret Coming and Rapture;
but all down the centuries there had existed Christians
who longed for the Revelation of Christ
whilst expecting that Antichrist would come first.
Alexander Reese

In other words, there is no extant concrete evidence that dis.
or anything significantly resembling it
was ever taught in the Church any time until the nineteenth century.
Grover Gunn

Every Ante-Nicene writer
who touches in any detail upon the tribulation, resurrection, rapture, or second coming
displays a posttribulational persuasion.
Robert H. Gundry

Dispensationalism, as a system of theological interpretation
dates from the nineteenth century and . . . was not known
before in the history of Christian thought.
Clarence Bass

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