Origin of Pretrib Rapture

Origin PreTrib

The Origin Of The Pretribulational Rapture Theory

Ed F. Sanders

1. Origins

There have been many articles, essays, and books written about the origin of the pretrib rapture teaching. The most prevalent theories among scholars are:

1. that the doctrine began within the Irviningite sect in England in the early 1800's (see article by George Ladd, article by Art Katterjohn)
2. that it originated in the Plymouth Brethren movement from the teachings of John Nelson Darby in the early 1800's.
3. that it originated with a Mr. Tweedy, who passed it on to Darby and the Plymouth Bretren
4. that it originated with aberrant Catholic theologians (Jesuit priests) Ribera and Emmanuel Lucanza, see article by J.P. Eby)
5. that it originated with a Baptist minister named Morgan Edwards in 1788(1).
6. The doctrine started in the early church with a writer called Pseudo-Ephraim. (The author of this work is unknown (hence, 'pseudo'), its conclusions uncertain, and the date written is in question. Of all the 'theories' this is the least credible(2)).

One thing is clear from the available historical documents: Darby, called the 'father of dispensationalism', was responsible for the widespread dissemination of the new and novel pretrib doctrine beginning around 1830 through his ministry in the Plymouth Brethern movement. The doctrine soon spread to America and was widely popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible.

In my mind the final word on the origin of the pretrib teaching cannot be known with 100% certainty based on the documents available. I think that the best explanation is summarized by Timothy P. Weber (Memphis Theological Seminary) who wrote:

 “The pretribulation rapture......historians are still trying to determine how or where Darby got it. . . . Possibly, we may have to settle for Darby’s own explanation. He claimed that the doctrine virtually jumped out of the pages of Scripture once he accepted and consistently maintained the distinction between Israel and the church”. (Timothy P. Weber, Living In The Shadow Of The Second Coming: American Premillennialism 1875-1982. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983, pp. 21-22).

John Nelson Darby commenting on 2 Thess. 2:1-2 in 1850:

 "It is this passage which, twenty years ago, made me understand the rapture of the saints before -- perhaps a considerable time before -- the day of the Lord, that is, before the judgment of the living."(3)

So, according to Darby he held a different view until 1830 when he came to understand the pretrib rapture doctrine. Until further documentation turns up it seems then most likely that John Nelson Darby originated the pretrib teaching and was responsible for its wide distribution in the years that followed.

2. Quotes from early Plymouth Brethren: (contemporary with Darby)

Under The First Appearances of Secret Rapture Teaching on page 45 of B. W. Newton and Dr. S. P. Tregelles – Teachers of the Faith and the Future – 2nd Edition 1969, The Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony, London – George H. Fromow says, "Dr. S. P. Tregelles has recorded for us the origin of this teaching in his book The Hope of Christ's Coming, How is is Taught in Scripture and Why? (page 35 of the fifth edition).

"Dr. Tregelles further wrote: 'When the theory of a secret coming of Christ was first brought forward (about the year 1832), it was adopted with eagerness; it suited certain preconceived opinions, and it was accepted by some at that which harmonized contraditory thoughts, whether such thoughts, or any of them, rested on the sure warrant of God; written Word".

There follows the quotation given above by Mr. Kelly.

Mr. Fromow goes on to opine, "If the exact terms used by Dr. Tregelles are noted, allowance can be made, that suggestions of a 'secret coming' were put forth a few years earlier, some say at the first Albury conference in 1826; but the precise date does not alter the fact that it was a novel doctrine".

3. More Quotes regarding the origin of the pretrib rapture theory:

Charles C. Ryrie:
a dispensational theologian writes: "The distinction between Israel and the Church leads to the belief that the Church will be taken from the earth before the beginning of the tribulation (which in one major sense concerns Israel)." (Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, pp. 158-160). (That seems to fit with the theory that Darby originated the teaching based on his dispensational hermeneutic. Ed.)

John Walvoord: thinks the pretrib rapture theory originated from Darby's understanding of ecclesiology: "any careful student of Darby soon discovers that he did not get his eschatological views from men, but rather from his doctrine of the church as the body of Christ, a concept no one claims was revealed supernaturally to Irving or Macdonald.  Darby's views undoubtedly were gradually formed, but they were theologically and biblically based rather than derived from Irving's pre-Pentecostal group". (Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation, p. 47.)

F. F. Bruce:
well known Plymouth Brethren historian and theologian says: "Where did he [Darby] get it? The reviewer’s answer would be that it was in the air in the 1820s and 1830s among eager students of unfulfilled prophecy". (Book Review of The Unbelievable Pre-Trib Origin in The Evangelical Quarterly, (Vol. XLVII, No. 1).

Alexander Reese: "About 1830 a new school arose within the fold of Premillennialism that sought to overthrow what, since the Apostolic Age, have been considered by all premillennialist as established results, and to institute in their place a series of doctrines that had never been heard of before. The school I refer to is that of ‘The Brethren’ or ‘Plymouth Brethren,’ founded by J. N. Darby.” (Alexander Reese, The Approaching Advent of Christ, page 18)

Harry Ironside(4): In 1908 Ironside claimed Darby had rediscovered the apostolic teaching lost to the church: "Until brought to the fore through the writings and the preaching and teaching of the distinguished ex-clergyman, Mr. J. N. Darby, in the early part of the last century, [the pretribulational rapture] is scarcely to be found in a single book or sermon throughout a period of sixteen hundred years! If any doubt this statement, let them search, as the writer has in measure done, the remarks of the so-called Fathers, both pre- and post-Nicene, the theological treatises of the scholastic divines, Roman Catholic writers of all shades of thought; the literature of the reformation; the sermons and expositions of the Puritans; and the general theological works of the day. He will find “the mystery” conspicuous by its absence". (Harry A. Ironside, The Mysteries of God, New York: Loizeaux Brothers, 1908, pp 50–51).

Robert Cameron: “Now, be it remembered, that prior to that date, no hint of any approach to such belief can be found in any Christian literature from Polycarp down.... Surely, a doctrine that finds no exponent or advocate in the whole history and literature of Christendom, for eighteen hundred years after the founding of the Church - a doctrine that was never taught by a Father or Doctor of the Church in the past - that has no standard Commentator or Professor of the Greek language in any Theological School until the middle of the Nineteenth century, to give it approval, and that is without a friend, even to mention its name amongst the orthodox teachers or the heretical sects of Christendom - such a fatherless and motherless doctrine, when it rises to the front, demanding universal acceptance, ought to undergo careful scrutiny before it is admitted and tabulated as part of ‘the faith once for all delivered unto the saints.” (Robert Cameron, Scriptural Truth About The Lord’s Return, page 72-73).

E. R. Sandeen: "Darby introduced into discussion at Powerscourt (1833) the ideas of a secret rapture of the church and of a parenthesis in prophetic fulfillment between the sixty-ninth and seventieth weeks of Daniel. These two concepts constituted the basic tenets of the system of theology since referred to as dispensationalism" (E.R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism 1800-1930, University of Chicago Press, 1970)

A. W. Tozer: “Here is a doctrine that was not known or taught until the beginning of this century and it is already causing splits in churches.”

Philip Mauro: "The entire system of ‘dispensational teaching’ is modernistic in the strictest sense; for it first came into existence within the memory of persons now living; and was altogether unknown even in their younger days; It is more recent than Darwinism.”“A system of doctrine that contradicts what has been held and taught by every Christian expositor and every minister of Christ from the very beginning of the Christian era—suddenly made its appearance in the later part of the nineteenth century".”

Edmund Shackleton: All who held the premillennial Coming of Christ were, till about sixty years ago, of one mind on the subject. About that time a new view was promulgated that the Coming of Christ was not one event, but that it was divided into stages, in fact, that Christ comes twice from heaven to earth, but the first time only as far as the air. This first descent, it is said, will be for the purpose of removing the Church from the world, and will occur before the Great Tribulation under Antichrist. This they call "The coming for His saints" or "Secret Rapture." The second part of the Coming is said to take place when Christ appears in glory and destroys the Antichrist. This they call "The coming with His saints."

Apart from the test of the Word, which is the only final one, there are certain reasons why this doctrine should be viewed with suspicion. It appears to be little more than sixty years old; and it seems highly improbable that if scriptural it could have escaped the scrutiny of the many devoted Bible students whose writings have been preserved to us from the past. More especially in the writings of the early Christian fathers would we expect to find some notice of this doctrine, if it had been taught by the Apostles; but those who have their works declare that they betray no knowledge of a theory that the Church would escape the Tribulation under Antichrist, or that there would be any "coming" except that spoken of in Matthew 24, as occurring in manifest glory "after the Tribulation." This is all the more significant, because these writers bestowed much attention upon the subject of the Antichrist and the Great Tribulation. Augustine, referring to Daniel 7, wrote: "But he who reads this passage even half asleep cannot fail to see that the kingdom of Antichrist shall fiercely, though for a short time, assail the Church."
(Edmund Shackleton, Will the Church Escape the Great Tribulation?  pp. 31, 32, cited by Alexander Reese, The Approaching Advent of Christ, p. 231.)

4. Implications!

Sometimes overlooked are the implications of the pretrib rapture recent origins. In my book Outline Studies On The Rapture Question (1973) I wrote "Search the pages of Church history and literature, and you will not find one mention of the Lord coming before the Tribulation until after 1800. No one has ever cited any literature, writings, or quotes to the contrary! The implications of this truth are serious. If the Pre-Tribulation doctrine were true, it would mean that it was hidden from the church for 19 centuries. Not one of the brilliant theologians or Bible teachers before the 1800's were able to find a Pretrib rapture and coming of the Lord on the pages of Holy Scripture---an incredulous improbability to say the least!".(5)

(1). Some scholars like John L. Bray promote the theory that the pretrib teaching originated with a Baptist minister named Morgan Edwards in 1788. A close analysis of his writing Millennium, Last-Novelities clearly does not outline end-time events as found in the teachings of Darby, Scofield, Walvoord, etc. See the analysis by Tim Warner in his article on Morgan Edwards.

(2) For more information on the pre-Darby pretrib theories see my friend Dave MacPherson's article Deceiving And Being Deceived.

(3) Cited by Wm Kelly in The Rapture of the Saints: Who Suggested It, Or Rather On What Scripture? The Bible Treasury, New Series, vol. 4, p. 314-318.

(4) Harry Ironside (1876-1951) was an ardent pretrib dispensationalist, prolific writer, and former pastor of Moody Memorial Church.

(5) This was written in 1973 before the various claims of a pre-Darby pretrib rapture were widely known. But even if Morgan Edwards or one of the Jesuit priests taught the pretrib rapture theory before the 1800's it would mean that the doctrine was hidden from the Church for more than 1600+ years!

Updated 7-24-2011




Rapture Theology 

Rapture Theology

Historical Origins

Rapture Origins

The Rapture Theory - Its Surprising Origin

Almost all Christians are interested in prophecy. This is especially true if the prophecies show what will happen to Christians themselves. There is nothing wrong in desiring such personal knowledge. Even our Lord gave a considerable amount of teaching about the circumstances to befall His people at the end of the age (Matthew 24:22–25). We all share a common concern in wanting to know about the participants, the chronology, and the geography of those prophecies. To comprehend the full knowledge of them it is obvious that all relevant statements of our Lord and His apostles must be properly interpreted and placed in a coherent order.

Many Christians have attempted to do this. As a consequence, the doctrine of the Rapture has arisen. So important has it become to many that the teaching is now sanctioned in some circles as the prime revelation from God to show what will happen to members of His ekklesiajust before and during the Second Coming of Christ. Some of the greatest friends of the Holy Scriptures have accepted this teaching (and they teach this false doctrine even by mistranslating the phrase “first resurrection” as “the former resurrection” in Revelation 20:5). If one translates the word correctly as “first,” then it means the resurrection of Christians occurs after the Tribulation, and the Pre-Tribulation Rapture Theory is shown to be false. 1

The Pre-Tribulation Rapture Theory, however, is a menacing doctrine that perverts the plain language of the text of the New Testament. Some preachers today look on the doctrine as the heart and core of present Christian expectations in regard to prophetic truth for the near future! Many believe this false teaching is the principle hope of the Body of Christ for their redemption and safety during the Great Tribulation. We need to look at this teaching carefully.

The Doctrine of the Rapture

First understand that the word “Rapture” is not found in the King James translation. There is also no single word used by biblical authors to describe the prophetic factors that comprise the doctrine. Its formulation came about by means of inductive reasoning. Certain biblical passages concerning the Second Coming, and the role Christians will play in that event, were blended together inductively to establish the teaching.

The modern expression “Rapture” has been invented to explain the overall teaching and the term suits the subject well. The basic tenets of the doctrine are simple. It purports that Christ will come back to this earth in two phases. He will first return secretly to rapture His church away from this world so that they might escape the Great Tribulation to occur at the end of the age. Christ then returns in a visible advent to dispense His wrath on the world’s nations. This is the general teaching.

Many details concerning these prime factors are hotly debated. There is especially much argument over the chronological features associated with it. Some think the time lapse between the two phases will be 3 ½ years, others say 7 years. Some feel that the Rapture of the ekklesia occurs before the Tribulation, others about mid-way through. Many suggest that the saints of God will be taken to heaven for protection, while others suggest a geographical area on this earth (as I have shown in various articles). 2 Some feel that only part of the ekklesia will escape, while others say all will be rescued.

These variations and others have multiplied the interpretations among those holding the belief. But all are unanimous on one point: the central theme of the “Rapture Theory” (as it is normally called in the theological world) shows that Christ will return to earth in two phases. They think Christ will come at first secretly for His saints and then He will come visibly with His saints returning with Him from heaven at the actual Second Advent. In this book, when I use the term “Rapture” standing alone, I always mean the “Rapture Theory” of the pre-tribulation theorists.

The Newness of the Doctrine

It may come as a surprise but the doctrine of the Rapture is not mentioned in any Christian writings, of which we have knowledge, until after the year 1830 C.E. Whether the early writers were Greek or Latin, Armenian or Coptic, Syrian or Ethiopian, English or German, orthodox or heretic, no one mentioned it before 1830 (though a sentence in Pseudo-Dionysius in about 500 C.E. could be so interpreted). Of course, those who feel the origin of the teaching is in the Bible would say that it ceased being taught for some unknown reason at the close of the apostolic age only to reappear in 1830. But if the doctrine were so clearly stated in Scripture, it seems incredible that no one should have referred to it before the 19th century.

The lateness of the doctrine does not necessarily mean the teaching is wrong (only the plain statements of the Bible can reveal that). It does show that thousands of eminent scholars over seventeen centuries (including the most astute “Christian Fathers” and those of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods) must be considered prophetic dunces for not having understood so fundamental a teaching. This lapse of seventeen centuries when no one elaborated on the doctrine must be viewed as an obstacle to accepting its reliability.

The Beginnings of the Doctrine

The result of a careful investigation into the origin of the Rapture was published in 1976. This was in an excellent research book that deserves to be read by all people interested in the subject. Its title: The Unbelievable Pre-Trib Origin by Dave MacPherson. 3 He catalogs a great deal of historical material that answers the doctrine’s mysterious derivation. I wish to review the results of his research.

In the middle 1820’s a religious environment began to be established among a few Christians in London, England which proved to be the catalyst from which the doctrine of the Rapture emerged. Expectations of the soon coming of our Lord were being voiced. This was no new thing, but what was unusual was the teaching by a Presbyterian minister named Edward Irving that there had to be a restoration of the spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians chapters 12–14 just before Christ’s Second Advent. To Irving, the time had come for those spiritual manifestations to occur. Among the expected gifts was the renewal of speaking in tongues and of prophetic utterances motivated by the spirit.

Irving began to propagate his beliefs. His oratorical skills and enthusiasm caused his congregation in London to grow. Then a number of people began to experience the “gifts.” Once this happened, opposition from the organized churches set in. It resulted in Irving’s dismissal from the Presbyterian Church in 1832. His group established themselves as the Catholic Apostolic Church and continued the teachings of Irving. These events were the beginnings of what some call present day Pentecostalism. Some church historians referred to Irving as “the father of modern Pentecostalism.”

What does this have to do with the origin of the Rapture doctrine? Look at what happened in the year 1830 — two years before Irving’s dismissal from the Presbyterian Church. In that year a revival of the “gifts” began to be manifested among some people living in the lowlands of Scotland. They experienced what they called the outpouring of the Spirit. It was accompanied with speak­ing in “tongues” and other charismatic phenomena. Irving preached that these things must occur and now they were.

On one particular evening, the power of the Holy Spirit was said to have rested on a Miss Margaret Macdonald while she was ill at home. She was dangerously sick and thought she was dying. In spite of this (or perhaps because she is supposed to have come under the “power” of the spirit) for several successive hours she experienced manifestations of“mingled prophecy and vision.” She found her mind in an altered state and began to experience considerable visionary activity.

The message she received during this prophetic vision convinced her that Christ was going to appear in two stages at His Second Advent, and not a single occasion as most all people formerly believed. The spirit emanation revealed that Christ would first come in glory to those who look for Him and again later in a final stage when every eye would see Him. This visionary experience of Miss Macdonald represented the prime source of the modern Rapture doctrine as the historical evidence compiled by Mr. MacPherson reveals.

The Influence of John Darby

Many people have thought that John Darby, the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, was the originator of the Rapture doctrine. This is not the case. Darby was a brilliant theologian with outstanding scholarly abilities. Even those who disagreed with his teachings admit that he, and many associated with him, helped cause a revival in biblical learning throughout the evangelical world which has perpetuated down to the present day. All who love biblical research ought to be thankful for what Darby and especially his associates accomplished for biblical scholarship. These early men helped pave the way particularly for the renewal of modern lexical studies in the biblical languages.

This renewal of language studies was not the only thing they produced. The doctrine of “dispensationalism” was also a teaching they brought to the attention of the Protestant world. And then, there was this new doctrine termed the “Rapture.” While many Christians long thought the Rapture doctrine originated with John Darby, it is now known that this was not true. Darby did popularize it. Scofield and others took it over. But Darby provided the intellectual mantle that helped make it respectable. Many of those in the evangelical sphere of Christianity today are so certain of its veracity that it is accepted as the absolute truth of God. The fact is, however, John Darby received the knowledge of the doctrine from someone else. His source was Margaret Macdonald.

The studies of Mr. MacPherson show that her sickness during which she received her visions and revelations occurred sometime between February 1 and April 14, 1830. By late spring and early summer of 1830, her belief in the two phases of Christ’s coming was mentioned in praise and prayer meetings in several towns of western Scotland. In these meetings some people were speaking in “tongues” and other charismatic occurrences were in evidence. Modern “Pentecostalism” had its birth.

These extraordinary and strange events so attracted John Darby that he made a trip to the area to witness what was going on. Though he did not approve of the ecstatic episodes that he witnessed, it is nonetheless significant that Darby, after returning from Scotland, began to teach that Christ’s Advent would occur in two phases. MacPherson shows good evidence that Darby even visited Miss Macdonald in her home. There can hardly be any doubt that the visions and spiritual experiences of Miss Macdonald are the source of the modern doctrine. But belief in such paranormal experiences is dangerous, especially when they are contrary to scriptural teachings.

Visions and Dreams

While it is possible that visionary revelations can come from God, it is always prudent to be cautious in such matters. Near the same time Miss Macdonald was receiving her visions, Joseph Smith in America was experiencing his apparitions that brought Mormon doctrines to the world. John Wilson also had his dreams that were the spark that started the false teaching of British-Israelism. Not long afterwards, Ellen G. White received her visions that resulted in many Seventh Day Adventist teachings. And remarkably, all these individuals received revelations of doctrines supposedly from God that were much at variance with one another and contrary to biblical teachings. Such incidents bring to mind the warning that God gave to Moses.

“If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you a sign or wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spoke unto you, saying, ‘let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them’; you shall not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the Lord proves [tests] you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

  • Deuteronomy 13:1–3

In regard to the teachings of visionaries, recall what the apostle John commanded Christians.

“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” 4

  • 1 John 4:1

And though some refer to the prophecy of Daniel that “knowledge shall be increased”(Daniel 12:4) as proof that the revival of doctrinal truths will occur at the end of the age, this is not what Daniel meant. If you read the prophet carefully you will find Daniel was speaking that “the knowledge” of his prophecies will be increased, not the revival of general doctrines. In the original text of Daniel, the definite article occurs before the word“knowledge.” Daniel said THE knowledge will be increased,” and the text shows he meant “the knowledge of his prophecies.” Daniel was in no way speaking about a renewing of doctrines at the Time of the End.

A further admonition is necessary concerning the origins of visionary teachings that might emerge near our own time. It is by the apostle Paul and we should pay close attention to it.

“Now the Spirit speaks expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils.”

  • 1 Timothy 4:1

These warnings from God’s word are a reminder that we should exercise caution in accepting the truthfulness of visionary revelations, particularly those near the end of the age, and which are contradictory to one another and to the Bible. The Pre-Tribulation Rapture Theory is such a doctrine; a teaching with no scriptural warrant. After all, the Holy Scriptures makes it plain that the first resurrection (when Christians from the past have their resurrections and we are caught up to heaven with Christ) occurs after the Tribulation is over (Revelation 20:5). And though a number of people within the Body of Christ have taken up with this false doctrine, it is time to jettison it from Christian belief.

The truth is, we will be protected from the evils of the Antichrist system (and the judgments of the Great Tribulation) by a mantle of safety from God that will protect us on earth. There is only one Second Advent of Christ and that is the moment (for all of us then living) we will be changed into immortality and the resurrection of the dead takes place. That is when all of us will meet Christ in the clouds (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18). We can believe this teaching with full assurance and faith. Remember, God cares for you and all the Body of Christ.

1 To prevent people from understanding this natural meaning of the word, even theConcordant Version incorrectly translated the word as “former.” This is sad! This departure from the principles of true translation is against the very principles of proper translation that Concordant Version correctly endorse. The Concordant Version is in most places, however, an excellent translation of the New Testament. The lapse in this Version shows how strong doctrinal beliefs can be and how they influence translators to mistranslate texts of the Scriptures to support their false theories. All of us must reject this type of approach.  ELM

2 See Dr. Martin’s articles “The Place of Safety” athttp://www.askelm.com/prophecy/p971116.htm and “Personal Safety During End-Time Prophecy” at http://www.askelm.com/prophecy/p991123.htm.  DWS

3 An updated edition of this work by David MacPherson is retitled, The Rapture Plot(Simpsonville, SC: Millennium III Pub, 1995).  ELM

4 This verse is also saying that false prophets have a relationship (in various and sundry ways) with spirits.  DWS

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