Dispensationalism

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Dispensationalism is an interpretation of the Bible first developed by British theologian John Nelson Darby (1800–82). Its interpretations have been spread through the "Scofield Bible", an edition of the King James text with commentaries that first appeared in 1909. Dispensationalism by the 1920s was a core belief of Fundamentalism.

Dispensationalist interpretation of End Times


Dispensationalism came to dominate Premillennialism by 1900, that is the belief that the Bible teaches that Christ will return before setting up his millennial kingdom. Dispensationalism divides up human history into a series of dispensations, or periods of time of distinct revelation in which the revelations become more progressively complex as human history continues. The Dispensations are consecutive and sometimes certain previous revelations are discarded out of God's plan. Darby identified two distinct divine plans, one for an "earthly" people (Israel) and the other for a "heavenly" people (the Christian church). One key to this entire prophecy is the refounding of Israel as a nation state in Palestine.

Sandeen (1967) finds the roots of Fundamentalism in an alliance of two 19th-century theologies, Dispensationalism derived from the Plymouth Brethren movement and the ministry of John Nelson Darby. Believers in Dispensationalism held a view of the church as a small group separate from major ecclesiastical institutions and primarily a spiritual fellowship. Their emphasis on Biblical literalism and their view of history as divided into seven dispensations had considerable influence in American Calvinistic denominations in the latter part of the century. The Princeton Theology was a unique system constructed at Princeton Seminary by Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge. It emphasized a pre-Kantian rationalistic methodology and Biblical inerrancy.

The two movements with certain similarities and a common foe in Modernism were drawn together in informal cooperation in a series of International Prophetic Conferences beginning in 1878.

Premillennialism and Biblical inspiration provided the themes for the alliance. The Fundamentals, a series of 12 pamphlets published from 1910 to 1915, was supported by Lyman Stewart, a Presbyterian layman and a follower of Dispensationalism.

Fundamentalism at the turn of the century was a religious movement of great vitality with definable antecedents in theological innovations of the 19th century and centered in the urban North. In the religious conflict of the 1920s Fundamentalists split into a larger dispensational group and a smaller Princeton group that comprised some Calvinists grouped around John Gresham Machen.

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Further reading

  • Coker, Joe L. "Exploring the Roots of the Dispensationalist /Princetonian 'Alliance': Charles Hodge And John Nelson Darby on Eschatology and Interpretation of Scripture." Fides et Historia 1998 30(1): 41-56. 0884-5379
  • Sandeen, Ernest R. "Toward a Historical Interpretation of the Origins of Fundamentalism." Church History 1967 36(1): 66-83. in JSTOR
  • Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930 (1970), the standard scholarly history
  • Walls, Jerry, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Weber, Timothy P. Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism, 1875-1982 (2nd ed. 1987)


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