BW Dispensational Distinctives

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The question often arises as to whether or not the Brethren movement originated the dispensational scheme of Biblical interpretation. This I have covered rather thoroughly in my series of articles in Bibliotheca Sacra (1943-1945), previously mentioned. The more specific question as to the origin of the pretribulation, imminent, secret, rapture of the church was not dealt with there, however, I am not able to give the last word on that question, unfortunately. Half a dozen sources have been put forth for the origin of this doctrine, including Darby, Edward Irving, and even the Devil himself!

The New Schaff-Herzog article on William Kelly says that his book on the second advent contends that Darby did originate this idea. LeRoy Edwin Froom in his Prophetic Faith of our Fathers discusses this question (v. 4, p. 1222 ff.). He speaks of the Powerscourt Conferences, so-called because they were held in the home of a prominent and gifted Lady Powerscourt, and to which many prominent clergy were invited, and which were attended by a number of early Brethren leaders.

These meetings began in 1830 and ran for several years. Futurism had already been propagated by the Chilean Jesuit, Manuel de la Lacunza (writing under the pen-name of Ben-Ezra) and by S.R. Maitland. Irving translated Lacunza's work into English, and he was at the Powerscourt Conferences. Futurism was also being popularized in London at what is believed to have been the first prophetic conference, running from 1827-1832. The essence of the first three years of this conference was published in three volumes entitled Dialogues on Prophecy, edited by Henry Drummond (London, Nisbet, 1828-29). So far as I know, the Biola Library has the only copy of this in America, holding both the microfilm and a xerox reproduction.

The larger aspect of the rapture was doubtless popularized at these conferences and influenced others present beside Brethren. S.P. Tregelles, who was present at some of these meetings, and who later became a dissenter from the pre-tribulation rapture position, says that the Brethren got this from the Irvingites (The Hope of Christ's Second Coming, p. 35). Noel says, however, that William Kelly spoke of having received a letter from B.W. Newton in 1845 in which Newton told him that Darby had written him a letter in which he said that "a suggestion was made to him by Mr. T. Tweedy (a spiritual man, and most devoted ex-clergyman among the Irish Brethren), which, to his mind, quite cleared up the difficulty previously felt on this very question" (The History of the Brethren, I, 74).

Froom says that William Cunninghame in 1832 opposed Irving's futurism, but did accept the rapture (however, not its secret aspect) before the tribulation. This he claims to have gotten from Joseph Mede (Cunninghame, A Dissertation on the Seals and Trumpets, London, 1813, p. 461n, 480-82, 496n). I spent half an afternoon on Mede's passage (Works, bk. 4, Epistle 22) but am not sure one would be justified in holding that Mede believed in a pre-tribulation rapture, at least not in the presently held sense. His statements are nonetheless intriguing. He says he got the idea from the Jews and cites the Gemara, Abodah Zarah, c. 1, which may also be the source for a similar idea in the first nine verses of the third chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon.

With this we shall have to leave the question, and trust that the literature of the Brethren in its various divisions may be better understood, and that as a result of this study and the lists attached to it, may find a larger place in theological libraries and thus find more consideration as source material in theological studies. The Biola Library, La Mirada, California, will maintain the checklist of Brethren literature, and is happy to respond to inquiries concerning it.

Next is Chapter II: Brethren Authors, Editors, and Translators