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Premillennialism in Church History: Part VI, the Return to Futurism

August 15, 2014

Continuing in this series through Premillennialism in Church History, we come finally to the 19th century and the development of Futurist Premillennialism, after over two hundred years of Protestant, historicist premillennialism. Nathaniel West did not address this issue, the development of futurism, in his essay “History of the Premillennial Doctrine.”  Thus, the following information comes from several online sources, pulled together for overall information.

As briefly noted concerning the early church, the chiliasts understood the prophetic texts as referring to actual 1260 days as ordinary days, and affirmed that there would come a future 3 ½ year tribulation period during which antichrist would rule and persecute the saints during this time just prior to Christ’s Second Advent. The 5th century introduced “realized eschatology” and an allegorical hermeneutic for the “church triumphant” Roman Catholic church, and the corruption and apostasy of that age finally led to believers embracing the idea that the Pope is really the antichrist, and therefore we are not now in the kingdom but in the age which occurs BEFORE Christ returns to slay the antichrist and inaugurate His kingdom – hence the return to premillennialism, though of this historicist variety, during the early Protestant era — late 16th through the 17th century, and continuing in opposition to the newer postmillennial idea through the 18th century.

Yet for several centuries into the Protestant era, the identification of the Pope with antichrist held as a very strong idea, such that the suggestion that the antichrist described in Revelation was a future ruler (and not the Catholic Pope) was taken as being pro-Catholic. Further complicating the matter was the fact that, in the post-Reformation era, it was the Catholics who first suggested a futurist view – and their motivation did appear to be the cause of promoting Catholicism and deflecting criticism from the Pope. The Jesuit Ribera in the late 16th century first proposed the futuristic approach, in his commentary (1590) on the book of Revelation. As noted by several sources, the early 19th century saw the development of futurism, within Protestantism, from two groups: Protestants who disagreed with the Reformation and had leanings toward Rome, but also by the continually-reforming type Protestants who saw that the Reformation had not been completed. Both of these groups recognized and referenced the tradition of the early church in reference to a future antichrist reigning for 3 ½ years just prior to Christ’s return.

The earliest Protestant futurist premillennialists included S.R. Maitland, James H. Todd, William De Burgh and Isaac Williams. As Robert Gundry observed, in Church and the Tribulation: A Biblical Examination of Posttribulationism  (specific page viewable here and click ‘page’ to see the full page):

Historicism having discredited itself through the fixing of dates and fantastic interpretations of current events, Maitland, Todd, Burgh and Isaac Williams restored premillennial futurism to Protestant circles. Tregelles, B.W. Newton, Nathaniel West, and many others followed. Both premillennialism and futurism revived before the first glimmer of pretribulationism.

The later futurists – Tregelles, B.W. Newton and others – have previously been noted, and included in the list of resources here.  Many of the writings of these earliest Protestant, futurist premillennialists, can be found online.  Following are several links to these:

George Ladd’s “The Blessed Hope” (Google view of this section available here) also provides much of the history, including details about Ribera the earliest (post-Reformation) futurist (an amillennial futurist), as well as the three key Protestant futurists (S.R. Maitland, James H. Todd, and William Burgh), noting their clearly historic premillennial yet futurist understanding. An excerpt:

Burgh knows of only one coming of Christ, at the end of the Tribulation when the dead in Christ shall be raised and the living believers raptured. He believed that Israel was to be restored at the end of the age when the seventieth week of Daniel would occur. Antichrist will make a covenant with Israel only to break it in the midst of the week and to turn in wrath against Israel. … These early futurists followed a pattern of prophetic events similar to that found in the early fathers, with the necessary exception that Rome was not the final kingdom. In fact they appealed to the fathers against the popular historical interpretation for support of their basic view. A pretribulational rapture is utterly unknown by these men, and while Israel is to be restored, the gospel which Israel will preach in the millennium is the Gospel of grace, and those who are saved are included in the Church. The Tribulation concerns both Israel and the Church; in fact, it will be the time of testing an apostate Christianity.

The theological debate within premillennialism, historicism versus futurism, continued throughout the 19th century in the form of many papers written by one side opposing the other or responding to the other. The anti-Catholic historicist view still held on with some historic premillennialiasts, who saw the futurist view as being sympathetic to Catholicism. Though some who promoted a futurist view during this time did have sympathies toward Catholicism, clearly not were pro-Catholic, but returning to the original chiliast futurist premillennial faith. H.G. Guinness’ 1905 book, History Unveiling Prophecy (see pages 284-295), is a good example of the historicist rhetoric against futurism. Guinness’ protest against the futurist view adds his own emotional involvement in the issue as being one about the Pope, including faulty reasoning that if the Pope is not said to be THE antichrist spoken of in the scriptures, then the Pope would really be the vicar of Christ. He apparently could not understand a third possibility, that the Pope is AN antichrist (of which there have been and are many, as per 1 John), while recognizing that the prophetic scriptures speak instead of a future antichrist who will rule for 3 ½ years rather than 1260 years.

The only other development within overall premillennialism is the well-known one begun by Darby and his associates, what continues today as pre-tribulational dispensational premillennialism, a topic well-known with popularity especially in the U.S. Non-dispensational, historic premillennialism continues today with such organizations as the Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony in England, and other resources available online. Most premillennialists today are futurist, though I hear of a few exceptions, as for instance author James M. Hamilton, who take the historicist approach instead.

  1. August 21, 2014 at 10:53 pm

    I have enjoyed the history series. You mentioned Darby and his associates being premillennial pretrib dispensationialist (I think I know which ones you are referring too).

    I just was wondering if you heard of Robert Govett, G.H. Pember, R.C. Chapman, Hudson Taylor, Anthony Norris Groves? All of them were part of the brethren save Robert Govett. They had a different view on the rapture than Darby and Newton holding a partial rapture or First Fruit Rapture.

    Pember and Govett mainly are the writers that have developed more on prophecy than Chapman, Taylor or Groves. They held similar views to Darby but differed in Prophecy (Govett and Pember also believed Babylon would literally be rebuilt)

    They mainly were in the 19th century. D M Panton and G.H. Lang were 19th century but were around halfway through the 20th century and also taught this as well.

    Isaiah Unfufilled By Govett is on Google Play

    The Great Prophecies Concerning the Gentiles, the Jews, and the Church By Pember on Google Play

    • August 22, 2014 at 9:46 am

      Thanks for the info and the books for reference. In my searching online I found references to Robert Govett as having a variation on the pre-trib view, and that some 19th century teachers had a “partial rapture” that only the more godly of the believers would be raptured early. I have heard of Anthony Norris Groves and Hudson Taylor in reference to their missionary work, and saw that they had some other variation on the pre-trib rapture, but didn’t study more closely on what exactly their view was. I wasn’t aware of Pember or Chapman, Panton or Lang. That is interesting, about their rapture views as well as their views on prophecy and Babylon.

  2. August 22, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    When it comes to Bayblon, Pember has a book on it as well along with other books on prophecy. He studied literature. He like Govett have a lot of similar dispensational teaching to Darby with differences in the rapture and other points of prophecy.

    Panton came after Govett writing articles in the Dawn magazine

    RC Chapman was a brethren during the time of Newton and Darby. He doesn’t write that much but was a good brother who lived out his Christian life and was considered the apostle of love. He was gracious to Newton when he taught the wrong doctrine and repented.
    This website has some of their teachings about the millenial with the different rapture views

    Lang was brethren but became a worker in India, the middle east and europe preaching, teaching and evangelizing with many Christian groups.
    His eschatolgy is really good. He also has good topical teachings.

    He has a different view regarding the 4th Kingdom not being Rome but the final kingdom pointing out that Babylon, Medo Persia and Greece ruled from Babylon
    Lang’s book on. Daniel is really good

    • August 23, 2014 at 1:38 pm

      Thanks for the further resources, Daniel. A good addition to the resources here, for further research.

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