1. Irving and the Revival of 19th Century Premillennialism
The development of premillennialism in the nineteenth century, and the revolution in prophetic and apocalyptic speculation concerning the 'rapture' and the return of Christ can be largely attributed to the Scottish, Edward Irving1, also the forerunner of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements.2
Having accepted a call in 1822 to pastor the Church of Scotland congregation at the Caledonian Chapel, Iriving soon became a popular if controversial speaker. So much so that the Chapel proved too small for the large numbers who wanted to hear him, and a larger church was built in Regent Square in 1827.3
Given his growing popularity Irving was invited to preach at the annual service of the London Missionary Society in 1824, and a year later in 1825 to the Continental Society, in which Henry Drummond was already influential. Irving's address on that occasion was provocatively entitled, 'Babylon and Infidelity Foredoomed',
...in it Irving advanced the assertion that the Church, far from being on the threshold of a new era of blessing, was about to enter a 'series of thick-coming judgments and fearful perplexities' preparatory to Christ's advent and reign.4
Irving published the address acknowledging in the foreword, his indebtedness to Hatley Frere, an influential layman who held premillennialist views.5
In 1828 Irving confidently wrote to Thomas Chalmers, who had just been appointed Professor of Divinity at Edinburgh, to ask whether he might be examined for a doctorate in divinity, as well as have further opportunity to preach in Edinburgh on the theme of the Kingdom. In that letter he gave some indication of his theological emphasis at that time,
The second coming of the Lord is the 'point de vue', the vantage ground, as one of my friends is won't to word it, from which, and from which alone, the whole purpose of God can be contemplated and understood.6
2. Irving Views on the Gentile Church and the Jewish People
In 1826 Irving was introduced to the views of Manuel Lacunza a Spanish Jesuit who wrote a book under the pseudonym of Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra, allegedly a converted Jew, entitled, 'The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty'. Lacunza interpreted all but the first three chapters of the Book of Revelation as describing apocalyptic events about to happen.
Irving was so excited by Lacunza's speculations, he mastered Spanish in order to translate and publish the work in English.7 Irving added a 203 page preface to the translation in which he presented with great conviction his own unique prophetic speculations about the end of the world, predicting the apostasy of Christendom, the subsequent restoration of the Jews and finally the imminent return of Christ.
When the Lord shall have finished the taking of witness against the Gentiles... he will begin to prepare another ark of testimony... and to that end will turn his Holy Spirit unto his ancient people, the Jews, and bring them unto those days of refreshing... This outpouring of the Spirit is known in Scripture by 'the latter rain'.8
These three points of doctrine concerning the Gentile church, the future Jewish and universal church, and the personal advent of the Lord to destroy the one and to build up the other, I opened and defended out of the scriptures from Sabbath to Sabbath, with all boldness, yet with fear and trembling... at that time I did not know of one brother in the ministry who held with me in these matters, and of those to whom I broke the subject, I could not get the ear, even for preliminaries. So novel and strange a doctrone... such uncivil and implacable language, concerning overwhelming judgments upon the very eve of the millennial blessedness... such low and derogatory of the risen and exalted Saviour, as that he should ever again come to visit earth, and be visibly present in it for any length of time, could not fail, and certainly did not fail, to call down upon my head all possibly forms and degrees of angry and intemperate abuse... But the more I examined, the more I was convinced, and resolved, though alone and single-handed, to maintain these three great heads of doctrine from the holy scriptures, against all who should undertake to uphold the commonly-received notion, that the present Gentile dispensation was about to burst forth with the millennial blessedness, after which, to wind up and consume all, the Lord would come in the latter end.9
In 1828 Irving wrote, a work of over 500 pages entitled, The Last Days: A Discourse on the Evil Character of These Our Times, Proving Them to be The 'Perilous Times' and the 'Last Days.' The first chapter is entitled, 'Introductory, to prove that the Last Times and Last Days of Holy Scripture are the Conclusion of the Jewish Captivity and the Gentile Dispersion.' Irving was clearly convinced that the Lord would return in his generation,
I conclude, therefore, that the last days... will begin to run from the time of God's appearing for his ancient people, and gathering them together to the work of destroying all Antichristian nations, of evangelising the world, and of governing it during the Millennium...
The times and fulness of the times, so often mentioned in the New Testament, I consider as referring to the great period numbered by times... Now if this reasoning be correct, as there can be little doubt that the one thousand two hundred and sixty days concluded in the year 1792, and the thirty additional days in the year 1823, we are already entered upon the last days, and the ordinary life of a man will carry many of us to the end of them. If this be so, it gives to the subject with which we have introduced this year's ministry a very great importance indeed.10
Unlike Hal Lindsey and later dispensationalists, Irving believed the reference to 'Gog' in Ezekiel 38 to be,
... a confederacy of all the nations of the East, which are left from the destruction of the Roman apostasy, which procedeth this great congregation of nations against Jerusalem spoken of in all the prophets.11
Irving's premillennial and prophetic views concerning Israel came to have a profound influence over many Christian leaders and politicians not least John Nelson Darby, the founder of the Brethren and Henry Drummond (1786-1860), a city banker and politician, who later founded the Catholic Apostolic Church.
On the first day of Advent in 1826, the same year Irving was translating Lacunza's work, Drummond opened his home at Albury Park to a select group of some twenty invited guests to discuss matters of prophecy. These included the Revd. Lewis Way who had helped found the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity Among the Jews, or London Jews Society, as it was more commonly named, along with Joseph Frey. Also present was Hugh McNeile, another Anglican who, in 1830, published a book entitled 'The Prophecies Relative to the Jewish Nation,' from Albury Rectory. In this book McNeile made frequent references to 'dispensations' and the future national pre-eminance of Israel.12 Some twenty men attended the first conference and in the region of forty attended one or more of those held at Albury. The majority were like Lewis Way and
Hugh McNeile, were Anglicans, although others were Moravian, Church of Scotland and Nonconformist ministers.13 Irving was to write of the first such conference,
...the six days we spent under the holy and hospitable roof of Albury House, within the chime of the church bell, and surrounded by the most picturesque and beautiful forms of nature... of which I can say is this, that no council, from that first which we convened at Jerusalem until this time, seemed more governed, and conducted, and inspired by a spirit of holy communion.14
Similar premillennial prophetic conferences were held at Albury each year until 1830, before proliferating, apparently under the increasing influence of J. N. Darby to other venues including the Powerscourt Conferences in Dublin held in the 1830's, to New York in 1868, London in 1873, Chicago in 1875, and culminating in the Bible Conference Movement and the Niagara Conferences of 1883 to 1897. Regular topics covered included speculations on the Second Coming.
Both the method of 'Bible readings' and the topics of the conferences strongly suggest that the gatherings were a result of J.N. Darby's travels in the United States and the influence of the Plymouth Brethren.15
Though already dead for fifty years, Irving is also attributed to have been the cause of the split that occurred at the 1884 Niagara Conference over what became known as the 'Rapture-Rupture'.16
4. The Origin of the 'Secret Pretribulational Rapture' Doctrine
Darby began publishing his prophetic speculations in 1831. Coincidentally both he and Edward Irving began to postulate two stages to Christ's imminent return about the same time. First, there would be an invisible 'appearing' when Christians would meet Christ in the air and be removed from the earth, a process which came to be known as 'the rapture of the saints'. With the restraining presence of the Holy Spirit removed from the world, the Antichrist would arise and the seven year tribulation would begin. His rule would finally be crushed only by the public 'appearing' of Jesus Christ.
There is some speculation that this novel doctrine emerged as a result of the Powerscourt prophetic conference held near Dublin in 1831. 'Darby's prominence at the Powerscourt meetings has led to the supposition that he was responsible for it...'17 While dispensationalists have been most anxious to perpetuate this belief to ensure a measure of orthodoxy, there is much evidence to the contrary.18 Several have attributed the notion of a secret, pretribulational Rapture to Edward Irving.19 Dave MacPherson argues convincingly that the doctrine arose through a prophetic revelation given to Margaret MacDonald, one of Irvings's disciples.20
Corroborating evidence can be found in the division the doctrine caused among dispensationalists between pre-tribulationists and post-tribulationists at the Niagara Prophecy Conferences from about 1884.
The 'Rapture-Rupture' essentially had Robert Cameron, Nathaniel West, and later W. R. Erdman, holding for a 'Rapture' at the very end of the age. They were to be supported by W. G. Moorehead of Xenia Theological Seminary. An apparent majority of the Niagarans, including Brookes, Scofield, Gaebelein, Parson, Gordon and George Needham, were holding for what has become the traditional pretribulation view.21
Gaebelein, writing some fifty years later about the Scofield Reference Bible, looked back at the Niagara Conferences and linked the controversy to Irving.
Toward the end of the Niagara meetings several of the teachers, influenced by one man, who was considered an outstanding biblical and ecclesiastical scholar (as he undoubtedly was), began to abandon this distinction and branded it as mere invention. One of them went so far as to say that the teaching that the Lord would remove His true Church before the predicted Great Tribulation judgment, and that so far as His coming for His saints is concerned that it might occur at any moment, originated in the days of Edward Irving and his spurious gift of tongues revival. And so the blessed hope of the imminent coming of the Lord was more or less charged to the influence of subtle demons.22
Gaebelein may have merely been repeating the position known to be held by Darby via Scofield concerning Irving's later eccentricities. Despite the obvious influence Darby and Irving had upon one another in the early days of the Prophecy Conferences at Albury and Powerscourt, Darby eventually disassociated himself from the fanciful prophecies of the Irvingites and the Catholic Apostolic Church. Scofield himself denied that Irving was the source of this doctrine. Responding to criticisms from a former colleague at the Niagara Conference, and following its demise over infighting over the 'rapture' he wrote an anonymous editorial in Our Hope in 1902,
We cannot, however, in the interests of truth, allow the statement to stand that 'until the days of Edward Irving, who was excluded from the Presbyterian Church for heresy, no one ever heard of this 'coming for' and 'coming with his saints.'' As a matter of fact, Irving was excluded, not for heresy in doctrine, but for his view on church order... If the editor of the Watchword and Truth will turn to Zechariah 14:4,5, he will learn of a statement concerning the coming with which considerably antedates Edward Irving... And if, further, he will turn to 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18, he will find a revelation concerning the 'coming for His saints' later indeed than Zechariah by six hundred years, but still about eighteen hundred years before Edward Irving.23
As late as 1976 Walvoord was still anxious to distance the origin of the doctrine of the Rapture from
The often-repeated charge that Darby secured his pretribulationism from Edward Irving has never been actually documented. One can hardly account for the wide acceptance of pretribulationism by Plymouth Brethren, who are devoted students of the bible, to the offering of this view by a person who had no reputation for orthodoxy.24
Canfield notes that Walvoord's position contradicts several British historians who were closer to the issue.
Neatby, writing in 1901, Howard Rowden in 1967, F. Roy Coad in 1968 and Iain Murray in 1971, all find direct and reasonable links between the ideas of irving and the role of J. N. Darby. The link is so evident that a denial, using semantics on Walvoord's part, does not 'wash'.25
5. Irving's Legacy: the Legitimisation of Christian Zionism within the British Evangelical Establishment
John Nelson Darby had resigned his curacy in the Church of Ireland in 1827 to form a new church, the Brethren. Edward Irving was to do the same, leaving the Church of Scotland to form the Catholic Apostolic Church in 1832. The circumstances of his departure, like Darby's, had as much to do with his eschatology and confidence in direct personal divine guidance as it did with the opposition to their views from others.
By the end of 1829 all the factors were present which were to cast such shadows over the closing years of Irving's ministry. His fascination for the curious and the speculative had led him to accept conjectures on Christ's humanity... To Irving, confident of the guidance of the Spirit and no longer bound by 'received traditions', the opposition he provoked was proof of the decadence he had complained of in the churches since 1825. A further proof of the unspirituality of the religious world was now added. By 1829 he was convinced that the supernatural powers present in the first century should be possessed by the Church 'as surely and richly now as in the days of the Apostles' . The absence of miraculous gifts was the fruit of the Church's long unbelief.26
It is an indication of Irving's influence over Henry Drummond and the Continental Society that in 1830, the year Irving separated from the Church of Scotland because of accusations of heresy, the Society nevertheless passed a resolution written by Henry Drummond to the effect,
That this Meeting, impressed with the thought that the day of labour is far spent, and must soon close... do recognise the great duty and privilege of raising the cry throughout apostate Christendom, "Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues."27
Edward Irving's premature death in 1834 while on a preaching tour of Scotland left the reins of the Catholic Apostolic Church in Henry Drummond's hands, the hope of the restoration of Israel to men like Lewis Way and Hugh McNeile and the cause of premillennialism to be shaped and forged by John Nelson Darby's nascent dispensationalism alone.
Horatius Bonar was happy to write a 31 page preface to a second edition of Irving's The Last Days, published in 1850, 16 years after his death. In it Bonar made this assessment of Irvings life and ministry,
My sympathies are strongly with the author, and, in the main, with his sentiments and expositions; at least those bearing upon prophecy, and relating to the characteristics of the last days... It is a work of power, but not of effort, giving evidence of a gifted mind, and an observant eye... Thus, 'he being dead yet speaketh.' He speaks to the Church. He speaks to the kingdom. He speaks as a minister of the gospel. He speaks as an ambassador of Christ, and as a witness for his speedy coming. He speaks as a watchman, set by his commander on the tower of some beleaguered fortress, and he speaks as a soldier, cheering on his comrades in the day of sore and weary battle. He speaks as a patriot, in the fulness of his yearning heart, - a patriot of the ancient type and time, uncorrupted, undegenerated, single-eyed, and fearless, - a patriot of the truest stock, and noblest blood, that Scotland ever bore, or England reared.28
John Ellerton, an Anglican evangelical and young contemporary of Irving, wrote this assessment of his influence over many clergy and laity of the Established Church after his death,
I thought of him chiefly as an open-air preacher... But the favourite, the inexaustible subject of talk among serious people was unfulfilled prophecy. The Irvingite movement, (as people would call it) had popularized Millenarian speculations among many who resisted steadily all belief in the new 'Miracles' and 'Tongues'. Names now utterly forgotten of writers on prophecy formed the staple reading, I am afraid, for a good many of the religious folk among whom I lived; and their speculations turned chiefly on the chronology of the future - in what year the Jews were to be restored, Popery to be destroyed, and the Millennium to begin.29
The influence of the premillennial Zionist views of men like Lewis Way and Hugh McNeile upon other Anglican ministers can be seen in the observation made by E. B. Elliott, who wrote his own four volume 2,500 page treaties on the Apocalypse, which was to go through five editions in 18 years,30
In the year 1844, the date of the first publication of my own work on the Apocalypse, so rapid has been the progress of these views in England, that instead of its appearing a thing strange and half-heretical to hold them, as when Irving published his translation of Ben Ezra, the leaven had evidently now deeply penetrated the religious mind; and from the ineffectiveness of the opposition hitherto formally made to them, they seemed gradually advancing toward to triumph.31
Charles Simeon (1759-1836), who was to outlive Irving by just two years was probably the most influential Anglican leader to embrace the cause of Christian Zionism in the early 19th Century. In his latter years Simeon was consumed with a passion for the conversion of Jews, and the establishment of the London Jews Society, looking for 'a full and imminent restoration of God's chosen people.'32
Whilst Way and others evangelized on the Continent, Simeon at home acted as a kind of one-man general staff, preaching for the Society, recruiting workers, spreading propaganda, collecting funds, advising on overall strategy. He did so with even more than his usual sense of urgency. He lived to see the work prosper remarkably. An annual income of £7,000 in 1815 was doubled by 1836. Episcopal patronage was bestowed on the Society... In that progress Charles Simeon had no small part.33
Revised 31 August 1998
1 Iain H. Murray, The Puritan Hope: Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1971), p. 188.
2 Arnold Dallimore, The Life of Edward Irving: The Fore-runner of the Charismatic Movement (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1983); Gordon Strachan, The Pentecostal Theology of Edward Irving (Peabody, Massachusetts, 1973).
3 J.D. Douglas, 'Edward Irving' The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. ed. J. D. Douglas. rev. edn. (Exeter, Paternoster Press, 1978) p.517.
5 M. O. W. Oliphant, The Life of Edward Irving 2 vols. (London, 1862), p. 96.
7 Arnold Dallimore, The Life of Edward Irving, Fore-runner of the Charismatic Movement (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1983), p. 62.
8 Edward Irving, preliminary discourse, 'on Ben Ezra', The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty, by Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra a converted Jew, Translated from the Spanish, with a Preliminary Discourse (London, L.B. Seeley & Sons, 1827), pp. 5-6.
9 Edward Irving, The Rev. Edward Irving's Preliminary Discourse to the Work of Ben Ezra entitled the Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty 1859 reprint, pp. 7-8, quoted in Iain Murray, Hope., p. 190.
10 Edward Irving, The Last Days A Discourse on the Evil Character of These Our Times, Proving Them to be The 'Perilous Times' and the 'Last Days' (London, James Nisbit, 1850), pp. 10-22.
12 Dean Hugh M'Neile, The Collected Works, Vol. II. The Prophecies Relative to the Jewish Nation (London, The Christian Book Society,  1878)
13 Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1971), p.191.
14 Edward Irving, Preliminary Discourse., pp. 197-202
15 Bruce L. Shelly, 'Niagara Conferences', The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church ed. J. D. Douglas. rev. edn. (Exeter, Paternoster Press, 1978) p. 706.
16 Joseph M. Canfield, The Incredible Scofield and His Book (Vallecito, California, Ross House, 1988), pp. 122-130. See also Richard R. Reiter, The Decline of the Niagara Bible Conference and Breakup of the United Premillenial Movement. Unpublished Paper, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1976.
17 Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (Brentwood, Tennessee, Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991), p. 25.
18 John Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and The Tribulation (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1976), p. 48.
19 Bass, Backgrounds., p. 41; Jon Zens, Dispensationalism: A Reformed Inquiry Into Its Leading Figures and Features (Phillipsburg, New Jersey, Presbyterian and reformed, 1980), p. 18. Cited in Gerstner, Wrongly., pp. 25-26
20 Dave MacPherson, The Unbelievable Pre-Trib Origin (Kansas City, Heart of America Bible Society, 1973) and The Incredible Cover-Up (Medford, Oregon, Omega Publications, 1975)
21 Canfield, Incredible., p. 127.
22 Arno C. Gaebelein, The History of the Scofield Reference Bible (Spokane, WA, Living Word Foundation, 1991), p. 41.
23 Gaebelein, History., p. 43.
25 Canfield, Incredible., pp. 129-130. See also his fn. 27, p. 132.
27 Le Roy E. Froom, The Prophetic Faith of our Fathers (1946), Vol. 3, p. 447. quoted in Murray, Puritan., p. 194.
28 Irving, Last., Preface.
29 Henry Houseman, John Ellerton, A Sketch of his Life and Works (1896), p. 19, quoted in Murray, Puritan., p. 196.
30 E.B. Elliott, Horae Apocalypticae, A Commentary on the Apocalypse 4th edn. (1851), quoted in Murray, Puritan., p. 197.
32 W. Carus, Memoirs of the Life of Rev. Charles Simeon (1847), p. 514.
33 Arthur Pollard, 'The Influence and Significance of Simeon's Work' in Charles Simeon 1759-1836 eds. Arthur Pollard & Michael Hennell (London, SPCK, 1964), p. 180.
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