SEEDLINGS: THE GILDED AGE
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 Nelson Darby, a man of Anglo-Irish descent, became a priest in the Church of Ireland (Anglican) in 1826. 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.
SEEDLINGS: THE RISE OF SUBURBIA
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.
CONCLUSION SO FAR: WHERE I GOING WITH ALL THIS
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.