Eschatology and the American Lawn: A Parallel History, Part III


Part I Part II Part III Part IV (Coming Soon)


For our purposes the Gilded Age ( a phrase which originates from the acerbic pen of Mark Twain) refers to the time period after the Civil War and before World War I, and is geographically confined to the United States.  It was a time of huge industrial advances which directly resulted in gross economic and social disparities between the rich and the poor.  It was the time of the “robber barons,” men whose vast and unprecedented fortunes (unprecedented for Americans, that is) were built from the sweat and blood of the working class, especially the immigrant working class, and “freed” slaves.  Racism, sexism, and classism were arguably at their peak during the Gilded Age.   

Emerging from this backdrop of decadence and oppression were two inter-related theological responses.  The two arose at roughly the same time, and are so intertwined in their reactions to and rejections of each other and of the social condition of the day that it is hard to say which really came first.  The first we will mention, however, is the Social Gospel movement, sparked by theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch with his extremely influential work, Christianity and the Social Crisis.  The Social Gospel movement called for a revolutionary shift from, on the one hand the indifference toward and collusion with oppression that was typical of the mainline denominations, and the equally indifferent, escapist, personal salvation theology of the emerging fundamentalist movement. 

Fundamentalism, the other movement to emerge from the Gilded age, was an alleged return to the “fundamentals” of Christianity.  These fundamentals included a strict belief in biblical inerrancy, the doctrine of personal salvation through a conversion experience, and premillennial dispensationalism.  As the Social Gospel movement took off in the beginning of the 20th century, fundamentalism also gained momentum in opposition to it.  The struggle between these two movements was a long cold war that is the topic of another post.  For now, let us briefly explore the beginnings of the “fundamental” of dispensationalism and its attending eschatological doctrines.  


John "Spooky Eyes" Darby (1800-1882); The Guy who Made Up the Rapture

 John Nelson Darby, a man of Anglo-Irish descent, became a priest in the Church of Ireland (Anglican) in 1826.[1]   He quickly became disillusioned with the politics and hubris involved the Established religion of the British Isles.  The final straw was when the ecclesial authorities made it a requirement for members of the Church of Ireland to recognize King George IV of England as rightful ruler of Ireland.  This sort of political interference bothered Darby on a nationalistic and a theological level, leading him to rethink his ecclesiology as well as his eschatology.  Darby began to deviate from the common view of his day (and in some form or another every day of the Church’s existence), that the Church constituted the Kingdom of God.  He began to believe that the Kingdom of God spoken of by Jesus and Paul, as well as the OT prophets had nothing at all to do with what those who called themselves Christians were doing in the world.  This led to his formulation of the doctrine of the rapture, which he was teaching by 1833.  His doctrine interpreted Scripture to say that Jesus would someday return to remove the true believers which were not the Church, but an invisible spiritual fellowship (made up of people who believed as Darby did), and with this group the Kingdom of God would be established in heaven, while  on earth the Great Tribulation spoken of in Revelation would be unleashed as punishment for evil doing.  After this time (the 70 weeks of Daniel), Christ would return again to set up his millennial reign of 1,000 literal years.  This was the ground work for the great theological project that occupied much of the rest of his life: the development of dispensationalism.  This meant a new interpretation of biblical prophesy and apocolyptic literature.  Let’s be clear.  Darby didn’t invent the idea that God has worked differently at different times with different people, that idea’s been around since at least the 2nd century.  Darby’s unique innovation lies in the fact that in his version of dispensationalism, he divorced the Kingdom of God (and therefore all of eschatology) from the Church, and from the present.  He shifted the question from “What should we be doing to work towards the Kingdom of God right now?” to “What prophesies does the Bible hold that will tell us when the Kingdom of God is going to be established in the future?”   In effect, this placed primacy on prophetic and apocolyptic literature over and above the Gospels, and produced the evangelical fixation with “prophecy” that lasts to this day.  By locating all prophetic literature in the future, Darby conveniently removed from notice the over-arching and pervading theme of justice toward the poor that is present in most if not all of OT prophetic literature.

Here are some other hallmarks of the eschatology that emerged from Darby and his associates; a belief that the Gospel would not save the world, but that the world was on a path of irreversible corruption which would only lead to imminent judgement; that all or most of the OT prophesies told of future events and that with the proper study one could unlock their secrets; and that the Jews would be restored to Palestine before the return of Christ and the commencement of the millennial age (but not necessarily before Darby’s rapture of the true believers).  These beliefs became quite popular in Britian during the middle of the 19th century, and were adopted and expounded by many theologians and pastors there.  It was only a matter of time before they spread to America. 

Darby’s ideas were spread through an influential series of tracts and newsletters across Europe, and through the newsletter of a man named John Inglis, his ideas were accepted by an influential group of American fundamentalists starting with James H. Brookes, and C.I. Scofield, but soon expanded to include D.L. Moody, and R.A. Torrey.  These men and many others developed and polished Darby’s dispensationalism.  Through the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible, which was to become the most influential Bible on the North American continent for a century, and the establishment of Bible Colleges like Moody Bible Institute, and BIOLA, this eschatology spread like wildfire among the American Church, especially among fundamentalists who used it to combat the Social Gospel movement to great effect.                


Another social movement had its beginning in the Gilded Age: de-urbanization, and the rise of the American suburb.  It was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the rich vacated the cities and began building exclusive communities on the outskirts, getting special zoning laws passed, and creating covenants which prevented the poor or people of color from living nearby.  Frederick Law Olmstead, an American landscape architect, was responsible for landscaping one these pioneering suburb housing developments, Riverside, near Chicago.  His revolutionary idea was to connect the front of each of the homes in the development with huge swaths of grass.  The scale of his grass planting was only made possible by the recent invention of the lawn mower.  This allowed the relatively new rich elite of America to enjoy a perceived luxury which had hitherto been reserved for the Dukes and Barons of England and France, bolstering, in their own minds at least, their new position of prominence.



In my previous posts I wanted to show that theology and in this case eschatology cannot be understood outside the historical circumstances that have given rise to it.  It is clear that Darby’s eschatology was a direct result of his personal experience within the established church of the British Isles.  The established church’s eschatology was correct to a degree: the Kingdom of God is in the here and the now, and we as Christians must work (with the power of the Holy Spirit) toward building it.  Unfortunately, the established church was very, very wrong in assuming that the British Empire was the way of bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth, just like the 4th century Church was very wrong in assuming that the Roman Empire under Constantine would bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.  In both cases Empire co-opted the eschatology of the Church.  Darby’s eschatology was a reaction against that co-optation.  But, in throwing out the idea of a now and present Kingdom of God, he threw out the most important eschatological concept of all.  Ironically, (as we will hopefully see in my next post) it was this rejection of the now and present Kingdom of God, coupled with a removal of the theme of justice for the poor from prophecy, that allowed fundamentalist and evangelical eschatology to be co-opted by Empire in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, completing the cycle of the imperial re-appropriation of Christianity once again.

The Social Gospel movement and the Fundamentalist movement were both results of their age. All eschatology, I believe, must function at some level as answer to the problem of evil.  That is exactly what these two movements attempted to do in the face of gross human indignity and suffering.  The Social Gospel movement as it went along, developed serious and fatal eschatological and Christological flaws, but its answer to the problem of evil was still closer to the original vision of Christ than fundamentalism’s.  Fundamentalism’s answer–enabled by the flawed eschatology of dispensationalism–was and is mere escapism, a cop-out.  “Sure there’s evil in the world, and its gonna get worse, and we can’t do anything about it, so let’s just “save souls” and think about heaven.”   Admittedly, there is comfort in the idea.   It’s easy.  It means no real engagement with social problems.  It is also the furthest thing from Christ’s intention for the Church and for the world.


1. My main source for the life of Darby, and the development of dispensationalism is The Roots of Fundamentalism by Ernest R. Sandeen (Ph.D. Univ. of Chicago).  A lot of this stuff can be found on the internet as well.



  1. Another enjoyable and informative post James.

    I wonder though if you are being too easy on the trajectory that the Social Gospel took and missing out on at the early fruits of Pentecostalism before it was hijacked by Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. (I happen to think that the worst thing that ever happened to Pentecostalism is it’s succumbing to Evangelicalism and the NAE in order to maintain some warped “street cred” amongst the fundies)

    First, a few critiques of the Social Gospel.

    1) Bonded with an American sense of Manifest Destiny (you could also call it Empire or whatever) it gave birth to the “pragmatism” of Neibhur who ended up endorsing violence and war as means to proper ends.

    2) As it progressed along, coupled with a belief in the “assured results of modern scholarship” and its consequent skepticism, it ended up fatally downplaying orthodox Christian doctrine in favor of a universalist do-good’ery. Traditional Christian doctrine is necessary for the liberative power of the Gospel, which is the Gospel of Christ dead and risen not of the liberative ability of humanity to free itself from sin, death, decay and injustice; even if by acts of compassion to the poor – which is, of course, a core aspect of the Gospel.

    3) The co-opting of Existentialism ended up individualizing and immanentizing salvation so that in the end it is just as escapist as fundamentalism!

    Early, and I do mean early Pentecostalism was just as concerned with overcoming racial and gender barriers in the name of Christ as the Social Gospel advocates, especially in the Azuza form. Indeed, it was in large part due to their error ridden eschatology that they were pacifists!

    But of course I agree on your diagnosis of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism as well as their new and freakish eschatology.


  2. Tony,

    I actually agree with your critique of the social gospel movement. As I said, it suffered fatal Christological and eschatological flaws. It stopped looking to Jesus as the Christ, and ultimately consumator of the Kingdom, and put its faith in progress, and science, etc., etc.

    From my perspective, another similar incarnation of the Christian concern for peace and justice appeared in the ’60s, which suffered fatal ecclesial flaws and ended up being assimilated into mega-churchdom. Yet another similar movement has emerged in the past 5 or 6 years. What are our flaws and how can we fix them before Empire gets us, too?

    I like what you have to say about early pentecostalism. I think it befell this same pattern of co-optation that we see again and again. Constantine co-opted the 4th century church, German princes co-opted Luther, the racist and pro-war zeitgiest of WWI-era America co-opted pentecostalism, the republican party co-opted evangelicals to gain control of American politics, and it goes on.

    Anyway, thanks.


  3. Yeah, what’s with that? Our site kicks so much other site ass we outta have more traffic. Not least as a Featured Blog of the CCBlog Network!

    We’re just not liberal enough nor conservative enough I guess. We need to just keep writing the stuff we like talking about. If we talk enough, they will come.


  4. Thanks for kind words Reed. I don’t think my any of my writing outshines yours or Tony’s or Shawn’s. I agree with Tony, let’s just keep on talking and eventually people will listen. Besides, there are poeple listening. I’m not used to having more 3 people read what I write anyway, so 150 or 200 visitors to the site a day feels like a lot to me.

    The senior project on Rauschenbusch sounds really interesting. Way cooler than mine: Kidz Quest [holds his head in shame]. What were your conclusions concerning the reconciliation of Rauschenbusch to conversion experience theology?


  5. There are also 57 people who follow us in Google Reader and I’m sure more subscribe in other ways. We make our whole posts available in alternative readers so they don’t have to come to the site in order to read our posts. It would also explain why hardly anyone comments.


  6. Good start, but I think your thesis would be improved considerably if you would lean more on MacPherson’s 40 years of research into pretrib dispensationalism’s bizarre history than on Sandeen. MacPherson has tons of proof that Edward Irving and his followers taught all of the crucial aspects of dispensationalism before Darby did, aspects including the church/Israel dichotomy, the literal method, the Jewishness of Matthew’s Gospel, the ruin of the church, the Gentile parenthesis and even the pretribulation rapture! The Irvingites publicly taught pretrib as early as Sep. 1830 in their journal “The Morning Watch,” while Darby didn’t teach it publicly before 1839 in his “Notes on the Revelation.” The late J. Barton Payne, eminent evangelical theologian, stated in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Winter, 1974): “MacPherson has once and for all overthrown Ernest Sandeen’s assertions that the Irvingites never ‘advocated any doctrine resembling the secret rapture’ and that to connect J. N. Darby and early dispensationalism with Irving’s church is ‘a groundless and pernicious charge’….For serious students of the history of dispensationalism the study of MacPherson’s discoveries has become a must.” This was part of Payne’s review of one of MacPherson’s earlier books which had established that the Irvingites had indeed preceded Darby in regard to pretrib rapture teaching. Although Sandeen and MacPherson were friends on the Wheaton College campus when both studied there, later on Sandeen became very liberal and eventually denied the historicity of Christ’s resurrection! If you haven’t seen MacPherson’s bestselling book “The Rapture Plot” you can obtain it at Armageddon Books online. Or it can be borrowed at any library thru inter-library loan. Mac’s Google articles include “Pretrib Rapture Diehards,” “X-Raying Margaret,” and (his recent bombshell) “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty.” Sandra


  7. Thanks Sandra! I really do need to check out MacPherson. I was recently accused of being one of his “ilk” on another blog, and had to plead ignorance concerning what it meant to be in his ilk. Anyway, thanks for commenting.

    Peace of Christ,



  8. For those interested in prophecy, there is an article titled “Edward Irving is Unnerving” on Google which John Darby lovers will want to see. It offers some quotes from Irving and his followers which show that they taught an imminent pretribulation rapture before Darby did. Peter


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