Review: The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism

Daniel R. Svendsen

Christianity is timeless, dispensationalism is not. Our faith transcends nations, this story could have only happened in America.

Such were thoughts I had reading The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism (Eerdmans, 2023). In this book, Daniel Hummel gives a sweeping view of how nineteenth century America shaped dispensationalism’s rise, and then how dispensationalism shaped the twentieth century church. It is an enthralling narrative for anyone interested in the story of the church in America over the last two hundred years. Hummel outlines all the major players, institutions, and eras in a historical work that keeps the reader engaged.

Hummel’s knowledge of the history is impressive, and his analysis prescient. While I did not agree with every point of analysis, nor completely with his concluding remarks, I heartily recommend this book.

Not Timeless

Dispensationalism is a way of dividing up biblical and redemptive history, a system first articulated in the nineteenth century by Brethren author John Nelson Darby. Darby was a minister in the Church of Ireland who came to believe that Christians should reject established denominations and form more organic associations. A prodigious writer, he left a mark both in his homeland and as he traveled to the new world of the United States.

Darby wrote at a time when the foundations of postmillennialism, a system which saw the end times as being ushered in peacefully as Christianity gained prominence worldwide, were starting to crumble. Darby’s timeline was one of much more cataclysmic events which would precede Christ’s second coming, leading to a millennial reign of Christ’s kingdom that focused on the nation of Israel. The church is God’s spiritual people, Israel the earthly, and this dualism shaped all his thought.

As Darby developed his own premillennial map, several other premillennial movements were hatching up in the new world. William Miller, a Baptist who predicted Christ’s return in 1844, gained a following whom we know today as the Seventh-day Adventist church. The infamous Joseph Smith established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1831. Later in the century, Charles Taze Russell founded the Watch Tower Society, a group we know today as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Hummel’s explorations allow the reader to ponder why the nineteenth century was such fertile ground for the growth of these movements. He reminds the reader that this was the century that produced the thought of Darwin and Marx, among others. Modernism, scientism, rationalism, idealism—all were melding together in various ways to form a world unique in its openness to new ideas. The Industrial Revolution, urbanization, and loss of the traditional community all played a factor as well.

Only in America

The story of dispensationalism is not only about trying to understand the times, but also the place. The reader is presented with plenty of evidence which makes one think, “only in America.” The audience of New Horizons will appreciate seeing how various Presbyterians played a role, none more prominently than James Brookes, an Old School Presbyterian who pastored in St. Louis. It was in his congregation that Cyrus Scofield converted to Christianity and would become one of the key figures in American dispensationalism around the turn of the twentieth century. His study Bible is still the all-time best seller from Oxford University Press (134). 

The attraction to dispensationalism from Brookes and many other Presbyterians may be confusing to us today, but in the following years Reformed and Presbyterian thinkers would play chief roles in showing the errors of dispensationalism. Westminster Seminary, the OPC, and Calvin College and Seminary all figure prominently in this story, especially when considering their size at the time. The story of dispensationalism’s rise is especially eventful around the time of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy, which allows Hummel to explore various connections to J. Gresham Machen.

Cyrus Scofield and Dwight Moody are two main figures who “Americanized” the dispensational system. Scofield’s writing led the way to the high points of dispensational scholarship and the founding of institutions such as Dallas Seminary and Biola, while Moody’s individualized and scattershot appropriation of Darby led to a more populist type of movement outside of those institutions.

Hummel shows that time and again, Americans have shown an appetite for revivalism, end-time predictions, reading prophecy through the lens of the day’s politics, and cultural conspiracy theories. Hummel argues, convincingly, that as scholastic dispensationalism faded quickly, pop dispensationalism became big business from the 1970s on, starting with Hal Lindsey.

Readers should be encouraged to think about how the church can better understand and respond to this fascinating story of dispensationalism. Our country at that exact time was ripe for such a movement, faulty approaches to the Bible notwithstanding. How can we foster a more universal, timeless approach?

It seems to the present author that a confessional approach to Word and Sacrament, anchored in the Lord’s Day, is how we begin to answer that question. For those who grew up witnessing dispensationalism’s fall, historic and confessional Christianity ought to be a breath of fresh air. Such an approach can be rightly anchored in truth without being rationalistic, properly eschatological without dating the Lord’s return, properly heavenly-minded without becoming detached from this world. We need a church that can see itself in the past, understand where it is in the present, and not enslave itself to the spirit of the age, that it may be shaped through the work of the Spirit as it looks in hope to the future.

The author is pastor of First OPC of South Holland in South Holland, Illinois.


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