The History And Origins Of Pretribulationism*

Dr. George Eldon Ladd

The Return to Futurism

With the dawn of the nineteenth century, there occurred a movement which brought about a return to the primitive view and which also gave rise to pretribulationism.

Whitby's new postmillennial view exercised great influence in Europe in the eighteenth century and resulted in a minimizing of the importance of the doctrine of the Lord's return. At the turn of the century, a strong reaction arose, which reasserted the importance of the personal comng of. Christ and often emphasized the place of the earthly kingdom after the Lord's return. Outstanding among the leaders of this prophetic revival were William Cuninghame, Joshua W. Brooks, Edward Bickersteth, T. R. Birks, and E. B. Elliott - all of whom proclaimed the personal, premillennial coming of Christ but continued to follow the historical method of applying the prophecies of Antichrist to the Papacy and interpreting the 1260 days as years.

Many periodicals appeared which were devoted to the exposition of prophecy and to heralding the imminent return of Christ. Most of them experienced only a short life but exercised great influence for a few years. One of these periodicals was The Investigator (1831-36), edited by J. W. Brooks, the last volume of which contained a Dictionary of Writers on the Prophecies in which Broods compiled over 2,100 titles of books on prophetic subjects, together with 500 commentaries on books of the Bible. Numerous anonymous tracts appeared bearing such tittles as "The End of All Things is at Hand."

Prophetic conferences began to spring up. A wealthy banker, Henry Drummond, sponsored a series of prophetic conferences at his villa at Albury Park from 1826-1830. Drummond's own interpretation was of the historical, pre-millennial type. To this conference came Edward Irving, an eloquent preacher who expounded prophetic themes to a London congregation of over a thousand drawn from the most brilliant circles of society. Irving later toured Scotland to proclaim the imminence of Christ's coming and there won the Bonar brothers to a millennial view, preaching sometimes to out-door crowds of ten to twelve thousand. It is a tragedy that a young man of such great gifts and promise experienced so sad an end. In 1830, he wrote a tract in which he asserted that Jesus possessed a fallen human nature. Shortly after this, tongues broke out in his congregation. Heresy proceedings were initiated and he was deposed in 1833 and died, broken-hearted, the next year.

Just before Irving attended the Albury meeting, he had come upon a copy of the work on the Coming of the Messiah by the Spanish Jesuit, Lacunza (Ben-Ezra). Lacunza had rediscovered the truth of the second advent of Christ to establish His millennial kingdom which had been lost in Catholicism. Even though he was a Catholic, he applied the prophecy of the second beast in Revelation thirteen to a corrupted Roman priesthood. In 1827, this book and the millennial question became the main objects of study at the Albury conference. Lady Powerscourt attended these meetings and became so interested that she established similar meetings at Powerscourt House. It was in these Powerscourt meetings that some of the characteristic doctrines of "Darbyism" can be discovered for the first time.

Out of this revival of interest in prophetic truth came two new interpretations: futurism and "Darbyism." The futuristic interpretation was essentially a return to the method of prophetic truth found in the early fathers, essential to which is the teaching that the Antichrist will be a satanically inspired world-ruler at the end of the age who would inflict severe persecution upon the Church during the Great Tribulation. At the end of the Tribulation, Christ would return to deliver the Church, punish Antichrist, raise the righteous dead, and establish His millennial kingdom. Darbyism modified this outline of truth by teaching a coming of Christ to rapture the Church before the Tribulation and before His coming in glory to establish the millennial kingdom.

The rediscovery of futurism is associated with the names of S. R. Maitland, James Todd, and William Burgh. Before we turn to these men, we should note that a futurist interpretation of prophecy had earlier been recovered within the Roman Catholic Church. It will probably come as a shock to many modern futurists to be told that the first scholar in relatively modern times who returned to the patristic futuristic interpretation was a SpanishSpanish Jesuit named Ribera. In 1590 Ribera published a commentary on the Revelation as a counter-interpretation to the prevailing view among Protestants which identified the Papacy with the Antichrist. Ribera applied all of Revelation but the earliest chapters to the end time rather than to the history of the Church. Antichrist would be a single evil person who would be received by the Jews and would rebuild Jerusalem, abolish Christianity, deny Christ, persecute the Church and rule the world for three and a half years. On one subject, Ribera was not a futurist: he followed the Augustinian interpretation of the millenmum in making the entire period between the cross and Antichrist. He differed from Augustine in making the "first resurrection" to refer to the heavenly life of the martyrs when they would reign in heaven with Christ throughout the millennium, i.e., the church age. A number of CathoIic scholars espoused this futuristic interpretation of Antichrist, among them Bellarmine, the most notable of the Jesuit controversialists and the greatest adversary of the Protestant churches.

This futurist interpretation with its personal Antichrist and three and a half year period of tribulation did not take root in the Protestant church until the early nineteenth century. The first Protestant to adopt it was S.R. Maitland. He received a legal training but abandoned the profession in 1823 to become a curate. In 1826 he published a pamphlet whose title is self-explanatory: An Enquiry into the Ground on which the Prophetic Period of Daniel and St. John Has Been Supposed to Consist of 1260 Years. This small pamphlet was an attack on the year day theory of the historical interpreters, insisting upon a period of 1260 literal days of tribulation before the return of Christ. The pamphlet resulted in a "paper-war" with the historicists which lasted many years.

James H. Todd, professor of Hebrew at Dublin, met Maitland and became his follower. In 1838 he gave the Donnellan lectures using the subject, Discourses on the Prophecies Relating to Antichrist in the Writings of Daniel and St. Paul, dedicating the published lectures to Maitland. This is a detailed study of over five hundred pages on these prophecies. Todd repeatedly refers to Antichrist as "the head and leader of a formidable persecution of the Christian Church," "the great enemy and persecutor of the Church," and the like. In 1840, he published a second series of studies on Antichrist in the Apocalypse.

William Burgh has given us the first systematic treatment of prophetic events following the new futurist interpretation in Lectures on the Second Advent of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1835). In 1820, Burgh had published a tract in which he followed the historical premillennial view, but he became converted to the new futurist interpretation.

Burgh knows of only one coming of Christ, at the end of the Tribulation when the dead in Christ will be raised and the living believers raptured. He believed that Israel was to be restored at the end of the age when the seventieth week of Daniel 9 would occur. Antichrist will make a covenant with Israel only to break it in the midst of the week and to turn in wrath against Israel. The second coming of Christ will bring destruction to Antichrist and a great outpouring of the Spirit upon Israel who will then become the center of the millennial kingdom to preach the Gospel of grace and to be the agency in the salvation of the Gentile nations. Christianity will then be extended without hindrance throughout the earth and the Gentiles will be brought en masse into the Church. The first resurrection at the beginning of the millennium will not include all the Church, for the greater part of the Church will come to salvation during the millennium. The first resurrection of saints to reign with Christ will be a blessing granted to those who have been willing to share Christ's sufferings and humiliation during this present evil age and especially in the time of Tribulation at the hands of Antichrist.

These early futurists followed a pattern of prophetic events similar to that found in the early fathers, with the necessary exception that Rome was not the final kingdom. In fact they appeal to the fathers against the popular historical interpretation for support of their basic view. A pretribulation rapture is utterly unknown by these men, and while Israel is to be restored, the Gospel which Israel will preach in the millennium is the Gospel of grace, and those who are saved are included in the Church. The Tribuulation concerns both Israel and the Church; in fact, it will be the time of testing an apostate Christianity.

The Rise of Pretribulationism

A second out-growth of the prophetic awakening of the early nineteenth century was Darbyism, or Dispensationalism, which had its birth within the Plymouth Brethren movement. A pretribulation rapture is an essential element of this system. The Brethren movement had its beginnings in Dublin in 1825 when a small group of earnest men, dissatisfied with the spiritual condition of the Protestant church in Ireland, met for prayer and fellowship. Soon others joined the fellowship and other similar groups sprang up. In 1827, J. N. Darby entered the fellowship. Although there was an interest from the start in prophetic truth, the center of emphasis was "The Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ" (the title of Darby's first tract) in reaction to the deadness and formalism of the organized church and the ordained ministry. Outstanding among the new groups which arose in Ireland and England was the fellowship in Plymouth, from which the movement derived its name. Leader of the Plymouth fellowship for many years was B. W. Newton, a man of considerable learning and scholarship. Two other outstanding Brethren were S. P. Tregelles, recognized by the entire world of Biblical scholarship for his contribution to the study of the history of the Greek text of the New Testament, and George Muller, the great man of prayer.

We have already mentioned the Albury Park conference and the Powerscourt meetings. Darby and other leaders of the new movement attended the meetings at Powerscourt, and Darby's leadership in the area of prophetic interpretation here became evident. It was at Powerscourt that the teaching of a pretribulation rapture of the Church took shape. Tregelles, a member of the Brethren in these early days, tells us that the idea of a secret rapture at a secret coming of Christ had its origin in an "utterance" in Edward Irving's church, and that this was taken to be the voice of the Spirit. Tregelles says, "it was from that supposed revelation that the mortem doctrine and the modern phraseology respecting it arose. It came not from Holy Scripture, but from that which falsely pretended to be the Spirit of God." [S.P. Tregelles, The Hope of Christ's Second Coming, first published in 1864...] This doctrine together with other important modifications of the traditional futuristic view were vigorously promoted by Darby, and they have been popularized by the writings of William Kelly.

Not all of the Brethren accepted the teaching of a pretribulation rapture. In 1842, B. W. Newton of Plymouth published a book entitled Thoughts on the Apocalypse in which he taught the traditional view that the Church would go through the Tribulation. There arose a sharp contention over the issue of pretribulationism between the two men. Newton "considered Mr. Darby's dispensational teaching as the height of speculative nonsense" (H. A. Ironside). He was supported in his posttribulation views by Tregelles. A rift followed which was never healed. This was the first of a series of many contentions which marred the history of the Brethren movement.

Within early Brethrenism, we find two types of prophetic interpretation: the traditional futurism, and Darbyism or Dispensationalism. The influence which has extended to prophetic study in America has been the latter. Doubtless Newton's views on the Church and the Tribulation were discredited because he was accused of holding unsound views on the person of Christ.

Pretribulationism in America

In the early nineteenth century, postmellennialism was the prevailing interpretation of prophecy in America. Jonathan Edwards had accepted Whitbyan postmillennialism, and the publication of several popular commentaries widely disseminated the doctrine. Matthew Henry's famous commentary was published in America in 1828-29, and we are told that more than two hundred thousand volumes circulated by 1840. Henry applied the prophecies on Antichrist to the Papacy, and interpreted the first resurrection and the millennium to mean political restoration of those who had suffered at the hands of papal Rome. He understood the second resurrection to be the revival of political power of wicked men.

Thomas Scott's commentary, the most popular and widely quoted of the early nineteenth century works of its sort, spread the Whitbyan theory. Adam Clarke's commentary was first published in America in 1811-25. Clarke saw in Daniel's vision of the stone crushing the image a prophecy of the victory of the Church over the Roman empire, a victory which would extend until the Church filled the earth. Two of the most effective agencies in accomplishing this end were the British and Foreign Bible Society and the contemporary missionary enterprise. Clarke interpreted the second coming of Christ in Matthew 24 of the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome, and he understood the "end of the age" in Matthew 24:3, 14 to refer to the end of the Jewish age accomplished at that time.

A reaction to postmillennialism arose in America as it had in England. This may be illustrated by two prophetic magazines. The Literalist was published in Philadelphia between 1840-1842 advocating, as its name indicates, a literal view of prophetic interpretation in opposition to the spiritualizing method of the predominant Whitbyism. The American Millenarian and Prophetic Review appeared in New York in the years 1842-44 with a similar objective. Both journals drew heavily upon writers of the English prophetic awakening such as Bickersteth, Brooks, and Cuninghame. In fact, the Literalist consisted largely of English reprints. Both journals followed the path marked out by their English exemplars of the historical "Protestant" interpretation with its 1260 years and papal Antichrist. Thus although thoroughly millenarian, they were not futurist in their understanding of the Tribulation and the Antichrist.

Against this background of prevailing postminennialism and a groping search for a more satisfying interpretation of prophecy, it is easy to see how Darbyan futurism possessed such attraction and impelling power. It came with a freshness and vitality which quite captured American Christians. Darby visited America six times between 1859 and 1874 and was warmly welcomed. His system of prophetic interpretation was eagerly adopted, not because of the attractiveness of the details of his system, but because its basic futurism seemed to be a recovery of a sound Biblical prophetic interpretation - which in fact it was - and to give to the doctrine of the Lord's return the importance it deserved. In other words, Darbyism to many Christians meant the rediscovery of the precious Biblical truth of Christ's glorious second coming, even though the basic truth was accompanied by some important details which were not essential to the premillennial return of Christ and which many later came to feel were not in the Word of God. Once more, as in the early church, the return of Christ became a living and vital expectation in the lives of Christian people and in the pulpit ministry of many a preacher. Little wonder that the view has been cherished and defended with such deep emotional overtones. Darbyism in fact restored something precious which had long been lost.

This new prophetic emphasis at once found expression in the prophetic and Bible conference movement. A. C. Gaebelein, telling the story of the Scofield Reference Bible, finds its background within this movement. Interest in premillennialism grew to a point where a great prophetic conference was suggested by Nathaniel West. A call was issued by a committee of eight men, among whom were James H. Brookes and A. J. Gordon, with the indorsement of one hundred and fourteen "Bishops, Professors, Ministers and Brethren." The conference was called to meet in the church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in 1878. A second prophetic conference was held in Chicago in 1886. Prominent in these conferences were such men as Stephen Tyng, W. R. Nicholson, Nathaniel West, S. H. Kellogg, A. J. Gordon, James H. Brookes, W. J. Erdman, W. G. Moorehead and A. T. Pierson.

Another series of meetings of even greater importance was that which met at Niagara on Lake Ontario from 1883-1897. This conference was the outgrowth of a small Bible study fellowship initiated in 1875 by a handful of men among whom were Nathaniel West, J. H. Brookes and W. J. Erdman. They were joined the next year by A. J. Gordon. This group met from place to place until the conference at Ontario was undertaken. Among the leading teachers of the Ontario conferences, according to A. C. Gaebelein, were James H. Brookes, A. J. Gordon, W. J. Erdman, Albert Erdman, George C. Needham, A. C. Dickson, L. W. Mundhall, H. M. Parsons, Canon Howitt, E. P. Marvin, Hudson Taylor,J. M. Stifler, Robert Cameron, W. G. Moorehead and A. T. Pierson. After this pioneer of American Bible conferences was discontinued, a new conference at Seacliff, Long Island, was opened in 1901, and it was here that the plan for the Reference Bible embodying the dispensational system of interpretation occurred to Dr. C. I. Scofield.

In view of the modern notion that pretribulationism has been one of the foundational tenets of a, sound presentation of prophetic truth, it is important to note tnat many of the leaders of this early prophetic, Bible conference movement either were or became posttribulatiomsts. Many of the teachers at the Niagara Conference accepted J. N. Darby's pretribulation rapture along with the doctrine of Christ's return. Of the men named above, James H. Brookes, A. T. Pierson, and C. I. Scofield have been among the most influential supporters of this view. However, other teachers did not accept it, and still others accepted it at first only to give it up after more mature study of the Word of God. Since it is often thought that all good and godly premillennialists must be pretribulationists, we shall note the views of several of these leadersjwho did not adhere to the pretribulation teaching.

Nathaniel West suggested and arranged the first prophetic conference in 1878 and was one of the leading teachers. His book, The Thousand Years in Both Testaments (1880), has been called the most important defense of premillennialism which has been written. However, West had no patience with pretribulationism. He taught that the 144,000 who are sealed in Revelation 7 are the fulfillment of the promise in Romans 11 - the salvation of literal Israel. Their salvation will occur at the beginning of the seventieth week as a result of the ministry of the two witnesses (Rev. 11), and they are sealed that they might take the place of the Church which is seen in the great multitude in Revelation 7 - a multitude which is to suffer near extinction at the hands of Antichrist in the Great Tribulation. "They (these two groups) assure us also that the Christian Church will not be removed from the earth, or become extinct under persecution, but, reduced and suffering, will also live to see the Advent" (p. 245). "They (the 144,000) are ... the Israelitish Church of the Future .... It is not that Gentile believers have utterly perished in the apostasy, for Paul teaches the contrary. I Thess. iv:16,17; nor that no Jewish believers become martyrs, for John teaches otherwise, Rev. vii:9 . . . . But it is that, in the height of the apostasy, when the true Church is almost gone, God will restore Israel, and preserve of Israel an election, undestroyed by the tribulation, who shall live to see the Advent" (p. 249). West believed not that the Church would be removed by rapture and its place taken by a Jewish remnant, but that the Church would be removed by persecution and martyrdom.

These views were published in 1880 when emphasis upon pretribulationism had not yet become strong. In a later book (Daniel's Great Prophecy, 1898) when the issue had become more important and pretribulationism had won many supporters, West expressed himself in far more vigorous terms. Speaking of the 70th week, he said, "All the devices of interpretation which torture the Word of God to support a vain theory of exemption of the church from the tribulation are forever shattered" (p. 128). "It is needless to say that the apostles followed their Master's teaching and it took his Olivet discourse as the textbook of their eschatology. It ruled the whole faith of the early church. It settled every heresy as to the time of the advent. It corrected the Thessalonian error as to the 'any moment view.' Paul appeals to it to decide the question" (p. 130). "When the Antichrist and the Jews are in covenant, at the beginning of the 70th week, and clearer still, when the breach occurs between them at the middle of the week, then the determination of the year, perhaps the month, but never the day or hour will be certain, i.e., to all believers" (p. 131). Is pretribulationism a device which tortures the Word of God? a vain theory? a heresy? an error? So West believed.

* Quoted from the first two chapters of the book The Blessed Hope by George E. Ladd, Pages 19-60. ( Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1956).