Republished from Voice, Jan/Feb 2020.
While all fundamentalists have not been premillennial, the overwhelming majority have been. Premillennialism has been a historic staple of fundamentalism. It is often the case that when one abandons the fundamentals of the faith, they also abandon the premillennial hope. Why has that been the case in the past and why should it continue into the future, especially within the IFCA?
Post-Civil War Rise of Fundamentalism
Postmillennialism in America arose as the dominant eschatology in the 1720s as a result of the influence of theologians like Jonathan Edwards and dominated evangelicalism until a decade or two after the Civil War. Higher critical liberal scholarship began to cross the Atlantic and make progress in America by the 1880s, which lead to the rise of fundamentalism as a response by conservative evangelicals. “Dispensationalism, or dispensational premillennialism, was the fruit of renewed interest in the detail of biblical prophecy which developed after the Civil War,” observes George Marsden. “Rejecting the prevailing postmillennialism… dispensational premillennialists said that the churches and culture were declining and that Christians would see Christ’s kingdom only after he personally returned to rule in Jerusalem.”1
It appears that fundamentalism is simply the continuation of historic orthodox Christianity as expressed within the context of a changing American Christianity that had its beginnings in the second half of the nineteenth century in response to the rise of liberalism within American Protestantism. Fundamentalism has been “a self-conscious interdenominational movement from 1857 to the present.”2 It was the Bible Conference movement that began to coalesce true conservatives into a movement. The movement began in 1875 with the first meeting in Niagara in New York. “Meeting for two weeks each summer, the Niagara Conferences provided a gathering place for conservative evangelicals to hear the older evangelical doctrines confirmed and preached,” notes Timothy Weber. “The new premillennialists were at the Niagara Conferences from the beginning and eventually became the dominant force in their leadership.”3 Such gatherings became a source for the furtherance of the fundamentalist premillennial faith up until the beginning of the twentieth century.
John Nelson Darby and other Brethren brought dispensationalism to America through their many trips and writings that came across the Atlantic. It was primarily within the orbit of Reformed denominations that produced the fundamentalist premillennialism that would dominate conservative Protestants for the next century. “In fact, the millenarian (or dispensational premillennial) movement,” declares Marsden, “had strong Calvinistic ties in its American origins.”4 The Reformed historian continues his explanation of how dispensational-ism came to America:
This enthusiasm came largely from clergymen with strong Calvinistic views, principally Presbyterians and Baptists in the northern United States. The evident basis for this affinity was that in most respects Darby was himself an unrelenting Calvinist. His interpretation of the Bible and of history rested firmly on the massive pillar of divine sovereignty, placing as little value as possible on human ability.5
There were fundamentalists in virtually every denomination in the United States since ‘the focus was on maintaining the historic Christian faith. “In 1910 the Presbyterian General Assembly … adopted a five-point declaration of ‘essential’ doctrines,” notes Marsden. “Summarized, these points were: (1) the inerrancy of Scripture, (2) the Virgin Birth of Christ, (3) his substitutionary atonement, (4) his bodily resurrection, and (5) the authority of the miracles.”6 In most instances, premillennialism was also considered a fundamental of the faith as noted by Marsden: “they became the basis of what (with premillennialism substituted for the authenticity of the miracles) were long known as the ‘five points of fundamentalism?”7
Why did premillennialism become such an important doctrine for the early fundamentalists? The importance of premillennialism spoke to the clearness of Scripture and the issue of the miraculous, which is why it eventually displaced miracles as the fifth point of the fundamentals of the faith. Early dispensationalists believed strongly in the essential clarity of Scripture. God, who created human language, could and did reveal Himself clearly in Scripture. In an intellectual climate of ever-increasing Darwinian influence in the first half of the twentieth century fundamentalists “were militantly committed to an essentially supernatural, biblically based, traditional faith.”8
This would mean that premillennialism was front-and-center in such a struggle. Belief in premillennialism meant that one took the Bible literally when it referred to God’s foreordained plan for history. “The strong link that developed between premillennialism and conservative-evangelical Protestantism in America helped spread the belief in the Second Coming.”9 It was the fundamentalist who brought premillennialism to the forefront as an essential of the faith in the early 1900s because of the attack on the Bible by liberals who mocked a literal interpretation of God’s Word. If one interprets the Bible literally, the way it was intended when written, then premillennialism had to be the obvious outcome.
Early Twentieth Century Premillennialism
With the turn of the century and events leading to World War I, premillennialism began to make significant gains within American evangelicalism. It was becoming clear from the events of history that Christendom was not leading to the Christianization of America, let alone the world. “The resurgence of millenarian interest during the world war,…distressed many liberals,”10 notes Ernest Sandeen. Liberals were beginning to take note of the impact of premillennial fundamentalism. Shirley Jackson Case, a liberal professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School wrote a response to premillennialism entitled The Millennial Hope, (1918), which sounds like it could be a case for premillennialism, but it was a presentation advocating for postmillennialism and extremely critical of premillennialism. Even though postmillennialism had enjoyed dominance within evangelical Christianity in America since the days of Jonathan Edwards, it was in the process of almost dying out as a result of the Civil War and two subsequent World Wars. As a result, liberals became amillenninal and conservatives premillennial.
“The year 1925 was a grim one for American Fundamentalism.”11 The famous Scopes trial dealing with evolution was proclaimed by the national media as an embarrassment for fundamentalist Christianity. However, in 1909 (revised, 1917) The Scofield Reference Bible was published. “Oxford University Press released that Bible on January 12, 1909, and, within two years, two million copies had been published.”12 C. I. Scofield produced notes in his Bible that taught dispensational premillennialism and the pretribulational rapture. As indicated by the amazing sales throughout the next sixty years, Scofield’s Bible spread far-and-wide as did belief in dispensational, premillennialism, and pretribulationism.
The IFCA came into existence in 1929 and as a fellowship of fundamentalist churches has always held to premillennialism as a required tenet for membership. Some of the most outstanding advocates of premillennialism have been members of the IFCA over the years. The list includes such stalwarts as J. Oliver Buswell, M. R. DeHaan, Louis Talbot, Charles Feinberg, John Walvoord, J. Vernon McGee, Merrill Unger, Charles Ryrie, and John MacArthur. While some other organizations and schools have abandoned premillennialism in recent times, the IFCA remains totally committed to premillennialism as a fundamental of the faith.
Premillennialism probably reached its peak of popularity in America during the 1960’s and 70’s because of the amazing growth of evangelical churches and influence. The early 70’s saw explosive growth within evangelicalism, largely due to the revival during the Jesus movement.” Dispensational Bible prophecy was front and center during the Jesus movement fueled by books like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and the movie series A Thief in the Night. Tim LaHaye’s multiple novels in the Left Behind series that sold over 80 million copies in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s reignited both premillennialism and pretribulationism within American Christianity. In spite of the novel’s success premillennialism appears in decline following the pattern of overall decline of evangelical Christianity in the United States since the beginning of the new millennium.
There has been in every generation of America, since the Pilgrims and Puritans first arrived in the early 1600’s, some kind of revival or spiritual awakening, whether national or localized. It has been about forty-five years since America’s last revival—the Jesus Movement (about 1968-75). Both fundamentalism and premillennialism historically prosper during times of revival since these times produce an interest in Bible study and biblical teaching. Because the overall evangelical church in America has lost its biblical focus the emphasis has shifted to preoccupation with issues that the world thinks are important. Premillennialism
and the fact that Christ could come at any-moment via the rapture of the Church helped keep a believer’s focus on the future. When believers are future oriented it does not lead to inactivity, as many insist, instead when properly applied it motivates believers to get their priorities straight, which is evangelism, discipleship, and worldwide missions. A focus on premillennialism as a fundamental of our faith in the IFCA has been and still remains a powerful truth and motive to live sacrificially in the present because of the future. Maranatha!
1 George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 39.
2 David 0. Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850 (Greenville, SC: Unusual Publications, 1986), 5.
3 Timothy P. Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism 18751982 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 26.
4 George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism: 1870-1925 (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1980), 46.
5 Ibid., 46.
6 Ibid., 117.
8 Ibid., 138.
9 Yaakov Ariel, On Behalf of Israel: American Fundamentalist Attitudes Toward Jews, Judaism, and Zionism, 1865-1945 (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1991), 43.
10 Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), 235.
11 Ibid., 37.
12 See Larry Eskridge, God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) for an overview of that revival.
Thomas Ice is Executive Director of The Pre-Trib Research Center and Professor of Bible and Theology at Calvary University in Kansas City, Missouri. The PTRC was founded in 1994 by Ice with Dr. Tim LaHaye to research, teach, and defend the pretribulational rapture and related Bible prophecy doctrines. Ice has authored and co-authored about 35 books, written hundreds of articles, and is a frequent speaker at churches and conferences. He has served as a pastor for 17 years. Dr. Ice has a BA from Howard Payne University, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, a Ph.D. from Tyndale Theological Seminary and done doctoral studies at the University Wales in Lampeter. He lives with his wife Janice in Lee’s Summit, Missouri and they have three grown sons and seven grandchildren.