Dispensationalism's sensational influence
Clearly, one does not have to be a dispensationalist to be influenced by one. In his recent study of prophecy belief in modern American culture, historian Paul Boyer found that in addition to the relatively small number of committed "experts" who study Bible prophecy and seem to have everything figured out, there are millions of others who are not so well informed but still believe the Bible contains valuable clues about the future. Such people are susceptible to popularizers who "confidently weave Bible passages into highly imaginative end-time scenarios, or who promulgate particular schemes of prophetic interpretation."
Even secular people who normally ignore the Bible may, during times of crisis, pay attention to someone who uses the Bible to explain what is going on when the world seems to be falling apart. Boyer concludes that dispensational views about Israel and the course of history have influenced popular opinion far beyond the boundaries of the dispensational movement.
What dispensational beliefs have influenced a significant number of evangelicals and the broader American culture? For a hundred and fifty years, dispensationalists have been predicting something like the following:
*After the "times of the Gentiles" are finished and the Jews are regathered in the Holy Land, human civilization will begin to unravel. Morals will decline, families will break apart, crime and anarchy will increase. Wars, political and economic unrest, natural disasters, unstoppable epidemics, shifts in weather patterns, and other calamities will increase suffering and despair. Organized Christianity will experience apostasy; religious leaders will abandon historic beliefs and behavioral standards and openly embrace heresy and immorality. Despite massive efforts to stop civilization's demise, nothing can stop its downward slide.
*After the rapture of the church, a charismatic leader will gain a following by promising peace and security. This Antichrist heads up a ten-nation confederacy in western Europe. Unaware of Antichrist's true identity, Israel will sign a treaty with him to guarantee its security, then rebuild its temple in Jerusalem. After three and a half years, Antichrist will break the treaty, declare himself to be God, and persecute all who refuse to worship him and receive his mark on their foreheads. Antichrist will be helped by a False Prophet, a seductive religious leader, who will use miraculous powers and repressive measures to force compliance. For three and a half years, a remnant of God's people who were converted after the Rapture (Rev. 7:4) will suffer horrible persecution in the Great Tribulation.
*Despite Antichrist's power, other nations will rise in opposition. Some time after Antichrist betrays Israel, a northern confederation of nations under Russian control will join with a southern confederacy to launch a devastating double attack against Israel. This move will prompt the intervention of Antichrist's armies from the west and a 200-million-man army under the "kings of the east." As armies from east and west converge on Israel, the Russian confederates will try to destroy Israel; but God will intervene to destroy them. With the northern confederacy annihilated, the forces of Antichrist and the "kings of the east" will do battle at Armageddon, a valley northwest of Jerusalem. While the battle rages, Jesus will return, wipe out the surviving armies, subdue Antichrist, and set up his millennial kingdom. Finally, the surviving Jews will accept Jesus as their Messiah. For a thousand years, King Jesus will rule the world from Jerusalem, while Jewish priests perform sacrifices in the restored temple. In the end, God will fulfill all the promises to Israel. The redemptive plan will be complete.
Obviously, the key to this entire prophetic plan is the refounding of Israel as a nation state in Palestine. Without Israel, the whole plan falls apart.
Reading the signs of the times
In the nineteenth century, most British and American evangelicals did not believe in the restoration of the Jews. They believed that God is essentially finished with the Jews as a people. According to this "replacement theology," because Jews had rejected Jesus, God had rejected them and had transferred divine favor to the church. The church has become the New Israel and has received all the Old Israel's promises and prophecies.
Dispensationalists (and a few nondispensationalists besides) insisted that God is not yet finished with the Jews, and while there was little movement in that direction, they looked for evidence that Jews were heading back to Palestine. A few Jewish agricultural colonies were established in Palestine in the 1880s and '90s, but the number of colonists was small. The Zionist movement was organized in the 1890s, yet at first few Jews paid it much mind. Dispensationalists at that time seemed more eager for Jews to move back to Palestine than did Jews themselves.
Most dispensationalists were content to let God handle the details. It was their job to teach the truth and monitor the signs of the times. But not all dispensationalists were bystanders. A small minority wanted to help move things along.
No American dispensationalist beat the drum for a Jewish state more than William E. Blackstone (1841-1935). Born in New York and reared in an evangelical Methodist home, after the Civil War Blackstone settled in Oak Park, Illinois, and established himself as a successful businessman and lay evangelist to the Chicago business community. He became a dispensationalist and a close friend of D. L. Moody. In 1878 he published Jesus Is Coming, which went through three editions, was translated into 42 languages, and was dispensationalism's first bestseller in America.
In the late 1880s, Blackstone visited new Jewish settlements in the Holy Land and returned to Chicago committed to helping the restoration of the Jews. In 1890 he organized the first conference of Christians and Jews in Chicago and used the occasion to push for a new Jewish state. Most participants, including the Jews, were not interested.
Undeterred, in 1891 Blackstone drew up a petition (or "memorial") advocating the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. In short order, he collected 413 signatures from leading Americans, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the speaker of the House, the mayors of Chicago, New York, and Boston, and business leaders such as Cyrus McCormick, John D. Rockefeller, and J. Pierpont Morgan. Blackstone forwarded the memorial to President Benjamin Harrison, who ignored it, and later he sent others to Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
In spite of his ongoing efforts to convert Jews to Christ, he became good friends with Zionist leaders and regularly sent them the results of his prophetic study. In 1918, at a Zionist conference in Philadelphia, organizers hailed Blackstone as a "Father of Zionism"; and in 1956, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of his memorial to President Harrison, the citizens of Israel dedicated a forest in his honor.
A few of Blackstone's Chicago friends took another approach. In 1881, Horatio and Anna Spafford and 16 others established the American Colony in the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem to watch at close hand the restoration of the Jews and the second coming of Jesus. The Spaffordites held all property in common and, at least for a while, made celibacy the house rule.
The Spaffordites went there primarily for prophetic reasons. As one settler put it, "We wanted to see the prophecies fulfilled." One of the children of the community recounted years later how for a while the group "went every day to the Mount of Olives with tea and cakes, hoping to be the first to offer the Messiah refreshment." When hundreds of penniless Jews from Yemen arrived in Jerusalem in 1882, the colony considered them part of the Ten Lost Tribes and a clear sign of prophetic fulfillment, so they provided them with food, shelter, and other support. The colony became a popular stopover for visitors to the Holy Land. Blackstone came; so did Moody. The colony prospered economically when over 100 Swedes from Chicago and the old country joined up in 1896.
For over 50 years the colony survived as a religious community, but subsequent generations lost their prophetic zeal and turned the colony into a business concern. By the 1930s, their perspective on life in Palestine had changed. The colony identified more with the needs of the indigenous Arabs and considered Zionism a threat to their legitimate rights.
Blackstone and the American Colony in Jerusalem were exceptions, not the rule. Most dispensationalists were content to study the Bible and scan the horizon for prophetic fulfillments. During the twentieth century, signs of the times multiplied. World War I gave a major boost to their hopes for the future. Dispensationalists used their Bibles to predict with uncanny accuracy the results of the war, including the redrawing of the map of Europe, which was necessary to get ready for their end-times scenario. But nothing brought them more pleasure than the disposition of Palestine.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Palestine was firmly in the grasp of the Ottoman Empire. By 1916, there was widespread speculation, even in the secular press, about the restoration of a Jewish homeland if the Turks could be vanquished. By late 1917, events were rapidly moving along those lines. As British forces fought their way into Palestine from the south, Lord Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, wrote to Lord James Rothschild, a leader in international Zionism: "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best efforts to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
Five weeks after the Balfour Declaration, the Turks surrendered Jerusalem to British forces, virtually without a fight. This sent shock waves through dispensationalist ranks. Here was the most concrete proof ever that the "times of the Gentiles" were coming to an end. It made little difference to dispensationalists that Jerusalem had passed from one Gentile power to another. The important thing was that the British had declared their intention to establish a Jewish state. If the "times of the Gentiles" were coming to an end, could the restoration of Israel be far behind?
Dispensationalists could barely contain themselves. Arno C. Gaebelein, editor of Our Hope, called the coming restoration of Israel "the sign of all signs." In 1918, dispensationalists organized two well-attended prophetic conferences in New York and Philadelphia, where the real possibility of establishing a Jewish state got much attention.
[END PART 2]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Timothy Weber is professor of church history and dean at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Lombard, Illinois.
October 5, 1998 Vol. 42, No. 11, Page 38