Daniel G. Hummel. The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle over the End Times Shaped a Nation. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2023. 400 pp. Cloth $29.99. ISBN: 9780802879226.
During the twentieth century, dispensationalism was one of the largest predominantly American ideological networks of which most well-informed people were probably only dimly aware. Though its influence has receded somewhat in the twenty-first century, its biblical interpretations have been standard fare among most fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and other conservative evangelical Christians. Its most central teaching is that any day a series of prophesized cataclysmic events will commence presaging the personal return of Jesus Christ to defeat his enemies and to set up his kingdom in Jerusalem for a literal one-thousand years.
Daniel G. Hummel offers a fascinating and thorough former-insider’s account of the many phases, variations, controversies, and influences in the evolution of this network of related teachings. What became known as “dispensationalism” originated in early nineteenth century Ireland in a strictly separatist evangelical sect that emphasized literal interpretations of the Bible. In America it began to catch on after the Civil War among evangelists who were becoming alarmed at the direction modern civilization was heading. Dispensationalism was a version of “premillennialism,” or the teaching that Jesus’s return will precede the thousand-year kingdom on earth. “Postmillennialism,” which was popular in the nineteenth century, taught that Christ would return after a last golden millennial age of human history. In contrast to such optimism, dispensationalists taught that both the culture and most of its churches were becoming worse and worse.
Dispensational interpretations were built on trust that the Bible was absolutely reliable and that even its seemingly obscure prophetic teachings and numerologies referred to literal and identifiable historical developments. The key to the theological system is that history is divided into seven “dispensations,” beginning with the Garden of Eden, continuing with the dispensation ending with Noah’s Flood, followed by the era that ended with the Tower of Babel, then the era of biblical Israel, now the present church age, and the coming millennial reign of Christ on earth. In each of the first six eras God tests humans in varying ways, but in each they fail. So each epoch ends with divine judgment. Now in the church age most humans have disobeyed God’s will, so modern civilization is rapidly heading toward its catastrophic end. Dispensationalist preachers typically interpreted various major current of their day as “signs of the times,” fulfilling specific Bible prophecies, and showing that the end was near. One feature that has given the system particular plausibility is that its proponents had long emphasized the biblical prophecies that the Jews would return the Holy Land to restore the nation of Israel.
By the 1920s, in an era marked by post-World War I anxiety, cultural crisis, and the rise of Christian fundamentalism, dispensationalism surged in popularity. Fundamentalists were militant evangelical Protestants in a wide variety of churches and organizations who shared a sense of alarm about changing cultural mores and liberal theologies. Institutional diversity among fundamentalists meant that there was no headquarters to standardize doctrines. Still by the 1930s and 1940s most fundamentalists held to basic dispensational teachings. That was due in part to the wide use of The Scofield Reference Bible (1917), that had extensive dispensational notes. During this era, dispensationalist thought was also being refined and systematized in Bible Institutes. Especially important was Dallas Theological Seminary which became the most authoritative center for a classic form of the doctrine.
Dispensationalism, as Hummel emphasizes, was never one thing. There were always competing schools of thought. Some conservative evangelical scholars challenged the whole system, while others modified some major interpretations. By the latter decades of the twentieth century dispensational scholarship had divided into many competing interpretations.
At the same time though, the later twentieth century saw a truly remarkable burgeoning of dispensationalism as a sort of pop-cultural outlook. The first striking success was Hal Lindsey’s (b. 1929) spectacularly popular The Late Great Planet Earth. Published in 1970, it eventually sold more than twenty-five million copies. Written in the wake of the Israeli victory in the “Six-Day War” of 1967, Lindsey cited all sorts of geopolitical events and possibilities as lining up with biblical prophecies and showing that the catastrophic events of the last times were very near. During the next anxious decades Lindsey had many counterparts among TV evangelists, Jesus People, mega-church preachers, and other writers of prophetic volumes who were reading the alarming signs of the times.
The Late Great Planet Earth offered no direct political message. The most significant political implication of dispensationalism up to that time was that it ensured that a significant segment of the conservative evangelical or fundamentalist population were thoroughly committed to then State of Israel and the Middle East policies that entailed. Yet, in general, since the end was near, partisan politics was, said Lindsey, like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The later 1970s, however, brought a far-reaching change as fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and other conservative evangelicals began to mobilize in support of the Republican Party in national politics. Most of the leaders of mobilization, such a Jerry Falwell (1933-2007) or Pat Robertson (1933-2023), subscribed to some sort of dispensational teachings and support for Israel. Paradoxically, however, they put aside the question of why one should make long-term investments in domestic politics if Christ would be returning any day.
The most fascinating figure connecting these two seemingly contrary impulses was the evangelist Tim LaHaye (1926-2016). A veteran of the John Birch Society, but also a dispensationalist who had written on the end times, he came into his own as one of the most prolific writers in the emerging culture conflicts of the 1970s. With his wife Beverly (b. 1929), he co-authored one of the early conservative Christian sex manuals in 1975. He was a collaborator with Jerry Falwell in founding the Moral Majority, and in 1980 he published The Battle for the Mind highlighting the warfare Christians must fight against “secular humanism” and an approaching “humanist tribulation” that would precede the end-time events.
By the 1990s, when political concerns had become one of the most conspicuous features of much of American evangelicalism, Tim LaHaye found a wonderfully successful way to combine dispensationalism with political embattlement. Beginning in 1995 with co-author Jerry Jenkins (b. 1949), he brought out what became a twelve-volume series of Left Behind novels. One of the most distinctive dispensational teachings was that just before seven years of apocalyptic conflicts that would herald Jesus’s return, all the true believers would be suddenly brought up to heaven in a “secret rapture.” LaHaye’s premise was that some of those left behind could still convert to Christianity and then fight on the side of righteousness in these terrible, but dramatic, world-wide cultural-political conflicts. Though built around the seemingly esoteric fundamentalist teachings, these works of Christian science fiction eventually sold more than eighty-million volumes.
Paradoxically, though, as Hummel explains, by the early twentieth-first century the pop-successes of dispensational teaching were accompanied by the virtual collapse of the outlook as a coherent school of thought. The Left Behind series took some liberties with classic dispensational teachings and in general the many speculative variants undermined the authority of any one of them.
Hummel tells this story of the rise and fall of dispensationalism in engaging and insightful ways. One question, though, that readers might keep in mind is whether the subtitle: “How the Evangelical Battle over the End Times Shaped a Nation” might be a bit of an overreach. There is no doubt that dispensationalism had the very significant effect of helping to strengthen American Middle East policies in support of Israel. However, beyond that, in my view, a stronger case might be made for how the politicization of fundamentalism and evangelicalism reshaped and overshadowed classic dispensational teaching. Dispensationalism has always been compatible with a warfare mentality, emphasizing the decline of modern civilization. Still, when fundamentalistic evangelical Christians began to actually mobilize politically on a large scale after the late 1970s, it was not dispensationalism that most dictated their outlooks and goals. Rather it was an older heritage more deeply embedded in the predominantly white American communities in which dispensationalism flourished. That was the belief that America had been founded as a Christian nation and that Christians now had to fight to restore that heritage. The resulting mobilization for long-term political action in recent decades has come to reshape much of American evangelicalism not so much because of its dispensational heritage as in spite of it.
George M. Marsden is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. He has also taught at Calvin College and Duke University. He is author of Fundamentalism and American Culture, Jonathan Edwards, A Life and other works in American religious history.