what finally made the doctrine of the rapture an enduring presence in America was the wide dissemination of the Scofield Reference Bible.
I suppose that this assertion might shock you, but the doctrine of the “rapture” was never taught prior to 1830. Even if it’s a little uncomfortable to consider, I would ask you to stay with me on this.
This relatively modern theological notion of the “evacuation of the saints” is completely absent from the Nicene Creed (325), the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (381), the Chalcedonian Creed (451), the Athanasian Creed (500), the Augsburg Confession (1530), The Canons of Dordt (1618-1619), the Baptist Confession of Faith (1644), the Westminster Confession (1646), and the Methodist Articles of Religion (1784).
While the “rapture” was actually first publicly espoused by the followers of Edward Irving (1792-1834) and John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), some are convinced that its roots go back to a sickly teenager named Margaret MacDonald (1815-1840) from Port Glasgow in Western Scotland.
MacDonald and her family later became loosely connected to Irving’s Catholic Apostolic movement, which was beginning to emphasize charismatic and eschatological expressions.
Sometime in the spring of 1830, Margaret MacDonald, who was confined to a bed, claimed to experience the “gift of prophecy.” There was fervor and excitement in some of the church meetings and MacDonald was caught up in it.
She claimed to experience a vision of the Church being caught away to heaven before the “tribulation.” One evening Margaret is reported to have exclaimed the following:
“this is the light to be kept burning – the light of God – that we may discern that which cometh not with observation to the natural eye. Only those who have the light of God within them will see the sign of his appearance. No need to follow them who say, see here, or see there, for his day shall be as the lightning to those in whom the living Christ is. ‘Tis Christ in us that will lift us up – he is the light – ’tis only those that are alive in him that will be caught up to meet him in the air.”
Robert Norton, M.D., an observer of these “stirrings,” recounted what happened to Margaret and how it impacted so many influential leaders.
“The power of the Holy Ghost rested upon her [MacDonald] for several successive hours, in mingled prophecy and vision… here we see the distinction between that final stage of the Lord’s coming, when every eye shall see Him, and His prior appearing in glory to them that look for Him.”
Along with the controversial Edward Irving, John Nelson Darby, the originator of Dispensational Premillenialism was also deeply influenced by the supposed “prophetic” utterance of this young woman. Historian Timothy Weber notes the following,
“The Plymouth Brethren commissioned Darby to go to Scotland and investigate. He arrived in the middle of 1830 and according to his own testimony twenty three years later, actually met MacDonald and heard her prophesy…Darby returned home… convinced that Margaret McDonald’s view of the rapture was true. He subsequently fit it into his [Dispensational] system, but never acknowledged his debt to her.”
This wasn’t just an association that Timothy Weber observed in his research. Scholars Carl Armerding and W. Ward Gasque became convinced of this same reality. They write,
“It is likely . . . [MacDonald’s prophecy] was grist for Darby’s mill. . . . As he left Scotland, he carried with him impressions which, after some years of reflection, would play their part in the formation of the teaching of the secret pretribulation rapture.”
However its origin is ultimately framed up, virtually everyone agrees that John Nelson Darby was the first major proponent of this teaching. He readily affirmed the rapture in his public addresses and made it a central component of his Dispensational Premillennialism in the early 1830s.
In the following decades Darby visited America a number of times to share his novel apocalyptic teachings, but it is suggested that
“his reception was cautious at best…Most people dismissed Premillennialism as silly and discredited. Others considered it a novelty and therefore unworthy of their consideration. The educational and ecclesiastical elite tended to reject Dispensationalism.”
Weber notes “It was not easy to stand against Christian consensus and still claim to be orthodox, but that is precisely what Dispensationalists were forced to do.” Darby follower, C.H. Mackintosh, once exclaimed, “It looks presumptuous to contradict, on so many subjects, all the great standards and creeds of Christendom. But what is one to do?”
By the 1880s, D.L. Moody and a few prominent Fundamentalists began to accept aspects of Darby’s Dispensational theological system. The rapture and its related apocalyptic story-line began to gain traction in some of the camp meetings and Bible Institutes.
Nevertheless, what finally made the doctrine of the rapture an enduring presence in America was the wide dissemination of the Scofield Reference Bible.
Cyrus I. Scofield (1843 – 1921) had become acquainted with Dispensational Premillennialism and came up with the idea of printing an annotated Bible to help individuals master the complexities of this Darbyite system. It seems that the Scofield Reference Bible “brought the apocalyptic into the heart of evangelicalism.”
Shortly after it was published in 1909, this Bible became the textbook of choice for Evangelical and Pentecostal Bible institutes. The detailed notes were studied with great diligence and widely accepted — even though they articulated “a decidedly different interpretation to actually what is being read in the Bible text.”
Reflecting on all of this, Charles Lippy writes,
“One did not need to be a convinced premillennial dispensationalist to be influenced by the Scofield Reference Bible since for generations of American Protestants it was the only edition of scripture to use for reading and study of the sacred text of Christianity, etching deeply into the popular religious consciousness.”
While the rapture was never taught prior to 1830, Michael Williams acknowledges that, “Virtually every revivalist preacher and populist religious leader of any fame since D.L. Moody has been a Dispensationalist.”
Over one hundred seventy years later, the rapture and its cataclysmic worldview continues to define theology for many Americans. Multitudes hold to it passionately, never considering that it only emerged as a doctrine in the 19th Century. I know first-hand that many are eager to break fellowship and renounce anyone who questions their apocalyptic timeline. They are ready to die for an idea that is completely absent from all historic creeds of the Church.
It’s time for us to have a better conversation about what our forefathers actually believed. What was the worldview that defined the faith of Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley? In their generation they saw thousands of conversions and knew the glory of God. Would they have been comfortable defining Christianity as an evacuation effort?
 Dave MacPherson, The Incredible Cover-up. (Omega Publishers, 1975): 151. MacPherson cites Robert Norton, Memoirs of James and George MacDonald of Port-Glasgow (1840): 171-176.
 Robert M. Norton. The Restoration of Apostles and Prophets: In the Catholic Apostolic Church. (London: 1861) 15.
 Timothy P. Weber. On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2004) 24.
 Carl E.Armerding and W. Ward Gasque. A Guide to Biblical Prophecy: A Balanced and Biblical Assessment of the Nature of Prophecy in the Bible. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1989) 52.
 Timothy P. Weber. On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2004) 26.
 Timothy P. Weber. On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2004) 28, 31.
 C.H. Mackintosh. Papers On The Lord’s Coming. (London: 1907) 56.
 Dr. Peter Prosser writes, “While Moody never really endorsed the Dispensational view of Premillennialism, he did not try to prevent its teachings from spreading either. He was attracted to it because of its pessimistic view of culture gave a strong impetus to evangelism.” Peter Prosser. Dispensationalist Eschatology and Its Influence on American and British Religious Movements. (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1999) 143-144.
 Michael Williams writes that “Scofield’s failure to acknowledge his indebtedness to the Plymouth Brethren does not disguise the fact that Darbyite Dispensationalism provided the structure and content of the Scofield Bible.” Michael Williams. This World is Not My Home:The Origin And Development Of Dispensationalism. Mentor, 2011, 31.
 Michael Williams. This World is Not My Home:The Origin And Development Of Dispensationalism. (Fern, Scotland: Mentor, 2011) 21.
 Peter Prosser. Dispensational Eschatology and Its Influence on American and British Religious Movements. (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press,1999) 74.
 Charles H. Lippy. Being Religious, American Style: A History of Popular Religiosity in the United States. (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1994) 134.
 Michael Williams. This World is Not My Home:The Origin And Development Of Dispensationalism. (Fern, Scotland: Mentor, 2011) 19. Timothy Weber also affirms that, “Every major American revivalist since D. L. Moody has been a Premillennialist of some kind.” Timothy P. Weber. “How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend.” Christianity Today. (October 5, 1998).