December 18, 2017

Why Are Most Fundamentalists Dispensationalists?

David Saxon

Although precise statistics are not available, it is undeniable and commonly recognized that the majority of American believers calling themselves “Fundamentalists” today are also dispensationalists. For instance, the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, the Baptist Bible Fellowship International, the World Baptist Fellowship International, the Sword of the Lord, Pensacola Christian College, Hyles-Anderson College, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary, Central Baptist Theological Seminary (MN), Central Baptist Theological Seminary (VA), Maranatha Baptist Seminary, and the state independent Baptist associations of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Illinois all explicitly affirm dispensational eschatology in their doctrinal statements (or in addenda to the same). This list could be extended considerably but already represents a large number of self-styled Fundamentalists who differ widely on a significant array of doctrinal and practical issues. Nevertheless, they are all dispensationalists.

Of course, no claim is being made here that all Fundamentalists are dispensationalists or that all dispensationalists regard themselves as Fundamentalists. Both statements are demonstrably false: one could compile lists of Fundamentalist organizations that do not explicitly affirm dispensationalism and dispensational organizations that are reluctant to be considered Fundamentalist. The observer must be careful, therefore, to avoid overgeneralization.

Historically, the proto-Fundamentalists[1] who gathered at the Niagara Bible Conference were deeply committed to premillennialism, but one cannot characterize them as predominantly dispensationalist. Similarly, the assortment of anti-Modernists who allied together between 1918 and 1930 reflected a variety of eschatological perspectives (reflecting a variety of hermeneutical approaches to Scripture). The “Fundamentalists” associated with Machen founded Westminster and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, both of which repudiated dispensationalism and, quite quickly, the Fundamentalist label (which Machen had never particularly valued). The National Association of Evangelicals, although including many Fundamentalist stalwarts at its founding in 1942, left the hermeneutical question open. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was on the vanguard of Evangelicalism as the great rupture with Fundamentalists occurred in the 1950s and ’60s. In general, after 1930 many institutions and organizations left dispensationalism concurrently with leaving Fundamentalism or became non- Fundamentalists once alliance with dispensationalists was deemed no longer necessary.

These observations bring us back to the original issue: why does Fundamentalism find itself today largely dominated by dispensationalists?

Sea Cliff and Scofield

When the Niagara Bible Conference began to fragment in the late 1890s, the primary source of disagreement was the timing of the Rapture. Robert Cameron and Nathaniel West led the contingent that argued for a posttribulational Rapture. On the pretribulational side were C. I. Scofield, A. C. Gaebelein, and others. Dispensationalism drove the logic of the pretrib side. In the first decade of the twentieth century the dispensationalists launched the Sea Cliff Bible Conference, which considered itself the successor to Niagara, and Scofield began working on his great reference Bible. In short, the dispensationalists organized and perpetuated their beliefs in popular literature more effectively than did their “historic” premillennial brethren (the rather optimistic title assumed by many posttribulationists).

Oxford Press issued the Scofield Reference Bible (SRB) in 1909 (first edition) and 1917 (second edition) and discovered that it had a bestseller on its hands. Over the next half century the SRB became the principal Bible for Fundamentalists, and the SRB embodied the classic dispensationalism developed in systematic form by the Plymouth Brethren and popularized in the writings of Scofield and L. S. Chafer. Of course, this history suggests a “chicken-and-egg” problem: did Scofield’s Bible rise to popularity because of the dispensational hermeneutic already reigning within Fundamentalism, or did the SRB shape Fundamentalism in a dispensational direction? The increasingly homogenous dispensationalism of Fundamentalists as the twentieth century progressed suggests that to some extent the latter is the more significant factor: Fundamentalists imbibed and institutionalized the dispensationalism of their favorite study Bible.


The rise of key institutions also contributed to the triumph of dispensationalism in Fundamentalism. While enforcing a standard fundamental creed and having at times a mix of dispensational and covenant professors, Bob Jones University (founded as Bob Jones College in 1927) has consistently maintained allegiance to a premillennial, pretribulational eschatology that makes the most sense in a dispensational context. Quantifying the influence of such an institution is difficult, but the sheer number of graduates it has sent into Fundamentalist churches worldwide suggests that this influence has been substantial.

While less visibly associated with the Fundamentalist movement, Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) has been committed to dispensationalism since its founding by leading dispensationalists Chafer and W. H. Griffith- Thomas in 1924. During the presidencies of Chafer (1924– 52) and John Walvoord (1952–86) Dallas exerted enormous influence on both the Fundamentalist and broader Evangelical communities through its graduates and publications, especially Bibliotheca Sacra, which it took over in 1934. Prominent among the Dallas graduates who contributed to the dispensational direction of Fundamentalism was Charles Ryrie. DTS influenced Moody Bible Institute (MBI) to move decisively in a dispensational direction in the 1930s and ’40s, and MBI has been a leader in dispensational training and publishing since that time. DTS and MBI have belonged to a broader religious spectrum than Fundamentalism throughout their histories, but their influence on Fundamentalism has been undeniable.

Fundamentalists in the twentieth century established a number of Bible colleges and seminaries in addition to BJU, and the great majority of these schools have espoused dispensationalism (several of these institutions are mentioned in the first paragraph above). As Fundamentalists drew away from denominational and Evangelical schools, they received dispensational teaching in the Fundamentalist schools. Thus, the dominance of dispensationalism in the movement was perpetuated and reinforced.

Also contributing to the sway of dispensationalism is the fact that Reformed Christians, many of whom were willing to ally with dispensational Fundamentalists in the culture wars of the 1920s, saw no further value in working with dispensationalists after 1930. Their commitment to Reformed orthodoxy and the Westminster standards was far more important to most of them than the separation issues that came to define the Fundamentalist movement. When the great Fundamentalist/ New Evangelical divide occurred in the 1950s, most Reformed Christians were simply spectators. While many were skeptical of the Arminianism implicit in ecumenical evangelism, they did not have a separatist tradition that would cause them to draw ecclesiastical lines such as were drawn by leading Fundamentalists. Hence, Fundamentalists viewed most Reformed Christians as simply part of broader Evangelicalism. Reformed elements have never disappeared from Fundamentalism— one thinks of the Faith Free Presbyterian churches, for instance—but Fundamentalist separatism has never been a hallmark of the Reformed tradition.

To be continued tomorrow

A professor of church history, writer, and speaker, Dr. Dave Saxon has taught in Christian colleges for over twenty years. He and his wife, Jamie, have four children.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2010. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. “Proto-Fundamentalist” refers to late-nineteenth-century conservatives who opposed Modernism and generally espoused premillennialism. They laid a foundation in American Christianity upon which the self-styled Fundamentalists built in the years immediately after World War I. The title “Fundamentalist” first appeared in 1920 among Northern Baptists. []

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