In the 21st century the United States has become a place where more believe in the Devil that Darwinism and 44% of adults believe the Earth is under 6000 years old. William Martin, Professor of Sociology at Rice University estimates that evangelism is practiced by one quarter of all American Adults and fundamentalists Christians number somewhere in the region of 50 million. If this trend continues, Christian fundamentalism will be the dominant religion in America within a generation. Frightening when you consider that many, quite literally, pray for Armageddon.
The dominant “Dispensational” branch of evangelical Christianity teaches that we are the last generation, that in the immediate future an apocalyptic war will bring about the end of the world which an essential precursor to a thousand year reign of Christ from his throne in Jerusalem. They believe that only by destroying the world, can it be saved.
This outlook of impending Armageddon also spills out into the mainstream of American society. A 1984 Yankelovich poll revealed that 39 percent of Americans believe the Bible’s end of days prophesies are predictions of nuclear apocalypse, and in 1998 a poll by Time magazine increased the number of Armageddon believers to 51 percent. Recent research by Brenda Brasher, a leading analyst of fundamentalist beliefs, has also concluded that the average age of evangelical Protestants today is much lower than other denominations.
In other words in another generation, fundamentalists will constitute the vast proportion of US Christians.
The roots of doomsday christianity are almost two hundred year old, and have long been incubating beneath the surface of American society waiting for the right cultural environmental in which to thrive. In the 19th century, everyday life in America largely revolved around small, religious farming communities.
But after the calamity of the Civil War, the industrial revolution slowly spread across the continent and this way of life war replaced a new world, one driven by money and machines. In addition, the primarily Christian culture was slowly being diluted with constant streams of immigrants harbouring new faiths and ideas competing, causing competition in the religious marketplace. 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”.
Traditionally the ascent of Christians to heaven would occur after the tribulation, at the time of the Second Coming, so the idea that believers would be spared Armageddon was contrary to centuries of popular teaching – not to mention passages in the Bible itself. The theological kluge Darby used to argued 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 he called “dispensations”. Following this idea, Darby 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 this 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 believed that when Israel was reborn and the Third Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem, Jesus would return to Earth and lead the armies of heaven in an apocalyptic war with the Antichrist. After the seven years of tribulation (in which all but 144,000 Jews would die) the final dispensation would begin, marking the start of a thousand year reign of Christ from his throne in the Temple. The thousand year reign was inferred from Revelations;
“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.”
During the mid nineteenth century Premillennialism was in effect a cult which dismissed traditional Protestant teachings as “man-made doctrines”, while 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”. Naturally given the state of the world, the Second Coming was imminent and would be watched by true believers from comfortable sidelines of paradise. It is worth noting that Dispensational Premillennialism was not the only apocalyptic branch of Christianity at the time, William Miller had also calculated a date for the second coming during the unlikely year of 1843. When the year passed without incident Miller himself abandoned his teachings, but others in his sect claimed Judgement day had started with the dead in Heaven. Today this group is known as Seventh-Day Adventist.
In 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.M Moody and William Blackstone. Brookes headed up the famous Niagara Conferences that were in themselves influential forces in fundamentalism, Dwight.M Moody founded the evangelical Moody Church, and Blackstone had written books and organised numerous conferences on the restoration of Israel. But it was another – Cyrus Scofield – that was to become the real driving force of premillennialism.
The Talented Mr Scofield
Cyrus Scofield is a decisively shady character, 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 supposedly underwent a religious conversion thanks to Presbyterian James Brookes, however contradictory statements regarding the event cast doubt on even this.
When released 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 of – 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 became the central text to the dispensational movement.
The Great War was to throw many disciples towards the doomsday worldview of Dispensationalism. The first day of the battle of the Somme was, and still is, the bloodiest day in history, and was perceived by many at the time as the sign of the beginning of the end. Many in Europe 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.
A dispensationalist who shot to fame during the post-war period was Clarence Larkin, author of Dispensational Truth or God’s Plan and Purpose in the Ages, which gained fame for its elaborate series of illustrations – theological flowcharts almost – based on Gods dispensations. Larkin’s book was to become a hit, so much so that he released a revised version and wrote a number of follow up book such as Rightly Dividing the Word, Daniel, Spirit World and Second Coming of Christ.
As the movement grew so did debate within it, although it was often limited to the sphere of the biblical text; ideas which contradicted the good book were branded as the work of Satan. Nothing typifies this more than the theory of evolution, which enraged the many fundamentalists by daring to conclude than men were not divine creations. This conflict of ideologies culminated in the Scopes Trial, which pitted notorious fundamentalist preacher (and three time Presidential candidate) William Jennings Bryan, against celebrity lawyer Clarence Darrow. The trial was a test of the recently passed Butler Act in Tennessee, which stated:
That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.
This act was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union who offered defence for anyone teaching evolution, an act they perceived as a constitutionally protected right. Taking up the offer John T. Scopes, a 24 year old science teacher from Dayton, Tennessee decided the test the law and offered himself up for arrest. At the trial Darrow brought in an array of experts to testify on the legitimacy of evolution but they were not allowed to give evidence, which annoyed the famous orator who claimed he wanted to “prevent bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the educational system of the United States.” Although it is easy to see the Scopes trial as the forces of scientific progress versus the forces of fundamentalism, it was more complex that this. One of Bryan’s main bugbears with evolution was its application in the eugenics movement, which were gaining increasing influence in both the US and abroad. (The year before, the State of Virginia had began to sterilise the “feeble minded”)
Ultimately Scopes was found guilty and was given a small fine (which somebody else paid), but later gave up teaching for a scholarship with the University of Chicago, from where he embarked on a fruitful career in the oil industry. And although he lost the case the Supreme Court ordered local Tennessee authorities not to incriminate anyone with the law in the future. The trial’s inconclusive outcome left religion and science with a tetchy relationship which has never truly been resolved. It also led Christian groups to utilise even more complex arguments to justify their beliefs. Evolution for example was argued by fundamentalists not to be simply contradicting the word of God but defying the second law of thermodynamics which states a closed system moves from order towards entropy (increasing disorder), flying in the face of evolution which states that life emerged from chaos and gradually became more organised and complex. Despite being thoroughly debunked these arguments are still being wheeled out by the Christian right over 75 years later, in much the same way the archaic concept of Ether in space is still used by fringe groups to argue the existence of the flat Earth.
While fundamentalists aggressively rejected the doctrine of evolution, liberal Christians regarded the Bible’s account of history as allegory and accepted Darwin’s revolutionary theory. They also rejected the dispensationalist belief that the world was spiralling towards catastrophe and mankind only be saved though the tribulation, alternatively they believed in something later known as “Social Gospel”, that a Christian utopia could be created via the democratic institutions of the United States. Fundamentalists did not believe this Earthly paradise was possible because of the idea of “original sin” and vehemently rejected evolution, but did share some common ground with the Liberals. 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.
During the 30s and 40s Dispensational Premillennialism was beginning to lose momentum, and started to fragment into smaller fringe ministries. A schism was now developing between liberalism and the more radical elements, resulting in breakaway churches from the mainstream Baptist and Presbyterian movements. The rift was caused in part by the social impact of the Scopes trial and Prohibition, which had caricatured Christians as backward and ridiculous. On a theological level it was partially due the failure of prophesies such as the rebirth of Israel and the end of the world, predictions which had at this point been made almost a century earlier.
American Christianity was changing and the apocalyptic elements of dispensationalism were becoming less and less fashionable. 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 if this was to change after in the age of the Atomic Bomb.