Dispensationalism Before Darby: Seventeenth-Century and Eighteenth-Century English Apocalypticism (affiliate link) by William C. Watson – a review. The book is published by Lampion Press (373 pages).
Critics of dispensationalism and pretribulationism inevitably point to John Darby. Cyrus Scofield and a number of popular pretribulational proponents are included in the list. There are obligatory mentions of Hal Lindsay and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind books. Darby’s character and personal integrity are often maligned. The take-home message is that pretribulationism and dispensationalism are new and either invented by Darby, the Jesuits or Ribera. Take your pick!
Keep in mind that Covenant Theology is relatively new (16th-17th centuries). The Pre-Wrath Rapture didn’t see light of day until late 20th century. I often joke that these critics copy and paste material from the same source – Dave MacPherson’s polemics.
In any case, enter William C. Watson’s book, Dispensationalism Before Darby: Seventeenth-Century and Eighteenth-Century English Apocalypticism.
Watson is Professor of History at Colorado Christian University who specializes in 17th century and 18th century English history. He has a B.A. degree in history from California Polytechnic State University, a M.Div. from Talbot School of Theology, a M.A. in European history and a Ph.D. in 17th and 18th Century English history from the University of California, Riverside. He was also a 2004 Fulbright Scholar in Moldova.
One may get a sense of Watson’s dedication and rigorous methodology from the opening lines of his article Pretribulational Rapture in 17th & 18th Century England. You can also view an online summary of his findings.
In some cases Watson traveled long distances at personal expense to research his material. Watson also accessed databases such as “Early English Books Online (EEBO), a collection of over 100,000 titles published in English from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries.” According to Watson:
I have used more than 350 primary sources, most of which have not been read (much less cited) for centuries. This is largely due to the fact that the writings are either unfamiliar or previously inaccessible to many researchers.
What emerges from Watson’s fascinating research is a thorough refutation that dispensational and pre-conflagration rapture concepts were non existent prior to John Darby. These ideas are found among many Puritan writings across more than one continent. In most cases these early thoughts didn’t exactly reflect the final conclusion which Darby and others arrived at in the 19th century. However, one can certainly see the progression towards Darby’s thinking. Many of these men (and women) departed from Covenant Theology’s tendency to allegorize prophecy. These scholars began to derive their ideas from a more literal biblical hermeneutic.
For example: On page 45 Watson provides a list of names of scholars who loved the Jews. They often recognized God’s eternal covenant with the Jewish nation, expected their restoration, and even saw that restoration as a precursor to the apocalypse. Notably, Watson later writes:
An expectation that the saints would be taken out of tribulation and protected from the wrath of the Antichrist was common in the seventeenth century. ~ (p 144)
This is a must read book for any objective reader who doesn’t have negative presuppositions about the origins of dispensationalism and pretribulationism. My hope is that this book gains a broader readership. Sadly, I suspect cynics will simply ignore this inconvenient book and continue the usual narrative against John Darby and futurism.
In any case, we should thank Professor Watson for this valuable contribution. While this is an information-packed read, it will reward those genuinely interested in prophecy and who haven’t got axes to grind. I eagerly look forward to future contributions.
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The following will give some idea of the scope of the book:
1) Concepts of Dispensations and a Millennium Prior to the Reformation
2) Reformed and Puritan Attitudes toward the Jews (1517-1689)
3) Historic Premillennialism in Early Seventeenth-Century Stuart England
4) The continental Influence: Refugees from the Thirty Years’ War, the Huguenot Wars, and the Spanish Inquisition
5) Expectation of a Fifth Monarchy in Seventeenth-Century England
6) The Concept of Dispensations in the Seventeenth Century
7) Concepts of a Pretribulational Rapture and Great Tribulation in Seventeenth-Century England
8) American Colonial Premillennialism
9) Historic and Futuristic Premillennialism in Late Seventeenth-and Early Eighteenth-Century England
10) The Pretribulation-Rapture and Tribulation in Eighteenth-Century England (1689-1772)
11) Premillennial Philo-Semitism and Preterist Anti-Semitism in the Eighteenth Century
12) Historic Premillennialism and the Growth of Preterism in the British Enlightenment (1700-1740)
13) From an Historical Papal Antichrist to a Future Personal Antichrist
14) Apocalypticism in the Great Awakening of the Eighteenth Century (1740-1770)
15) Apocalypticism in the American and French Revolutionary Period (1770-1800)
Appendix: Date Setting
About the Author