[The following paragraphs are quoted from Less Than Conquerors: How Evangelicals Entered the Twentieth Century, by Douglas W. Frank, copyright 1986 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.]
I suspect that the wildfire growth of premillennialism in the decades after the Civil War really represented a bold move on the part of evangelicals to recapture their control of history. Sandeen puts it succinctly: premillennialists believed “that this whole panorama of coming glory and judgment was specifically foretold in the prophecies where one could, if taught by the spirit, discover the truth and be ready for the coming of the bridegroom.” This meant that for premillennialists there could be no surprises. They had a line on the future, and that line allowed them to place under their own intellectual or spiritual control every event that might transpire in the last days. Was evil on the increase? Of course, premillennial doctrine predicted it. Was Christian civilization threatened by “religious formalism, adulterous friendships with the world, waning of faith, tyranny, anarchy, general revolution?” Naturally—any Bible reader would have come to expect it. Were families disintegrating? Yes, they were—and it would only get worse until Christ returned.
One can see how easily the fears of losing control were thus transformed into claims of possessing control. To premillennialists looking for the return of the Lord, bad news was essentially good news. The worse things got, the nearer their reward approached. No evil could befall the world that they had not predicted and they could not welcome. . . .
But for most evangelicals who sought such control, premillennialism alone was insufficient. Sometime during the 1880s and 1890s, it seems, most evangelicals also adopted dispensationalism. This doctrinal system was the brainchild of one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren movement in England, John Nelson Darby, who brought it to North America on seven different occasions between 1862 and 1877. It is Darby’s premillennialism, specifically, that we must examine if we are to understand the extent of the evangelical drive to regain control of history. . . .
In America, at least through to the end of the nineteenth century, the absence of a formal religious establishment led evangelicals like Moody to think primarily of society—and not the church itself—as a wrecked vessel. But in Britain a close formal identification existed between the church and the culture. In addition, Darby felt that the established church was implicated in his own lack of spiritual power and his works-orientation in the days before his deliverance. These facts led to a slightly different articulation of the declining times. Darby’s own words were: “The church is in ruins.” His extensive and detailed indictment of the church did not, however, lead him to a call for reform. In his opinion, the church was beyond repair. Believers might better forsake the established church and separate themselves from this embodiment of evil, keeping their worship pure by assembling instead in small groups where, without ritual or hierarchy, they could symbolize the unity of the church in Christ Jesus. As Darby expressed it, “it is positively stated (2 Tim. iii) that the church would fail and become as bad as heathenism, and the Christian is directed to turn away from evil and turn to the Scriptures, and Christ (Rev. Ii and iii) is revealed as judging the state of the churches. . . .”
This is a very different picture from the then fashionable one of the church of Jesus Christ marching forth triumphantly to spread the gospel and inaugurate the millennium. Far from being the agency of Christ’s victory, the church has become in Darby’s hands the clearest sign of apostasy, subject to God’s judgment. . . .
I tend to think that it was just this quality of dispensationalism—its rationalistic neatness and systematic comprehensiveness—that recommended it to evangelicals who, during the perilous times at the turn of the nineteenth century, were casting about for some new means to bring history under their control. Dispensationalism assumed the Bible to be a thinly disguised guidebook to human history: all one needed in order to decode its message and thus acquire God’s master scheme, according to dispensationalists, was a commitment to a commonsense, literalistic reading of Scripture and the assumption that Israel and the church were two very distinct entities. Using these tools, one could essentially take Scripture apart, verse by verse, and rearrange it into a tight, coherent system of truth—one, for example, that could be displayed graphically on a carefully drawn chart and hung in the front of the church auditorium for all the faithful to see.