Exporting the Rapture

John Nelson Darby and the Victorian Conquest of North-American Evangelicalism

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Donald Harman Akenson
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     2018.
     520 pages.
     $39.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190882709.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Donald Harman Akenson’s Exporting the Rapture: John Nelson Darby and the Victorian Conquest of North-American Evangelicalism is the second in a trilogy of books that examine the origins of a variety of end-times theology—known as “dispensationalist premillennialism”—born in Ireland in the late 1820s. The most distinctive feature of this theology was the belief that Christians would be imminently taken to heaven, or “raptured,” prior to a period of tribulation that God would unleash on the earth which would culminate in the last judgment. Today, this eschatological position is dominant among evangelical Protestants in the United States, and in parts of the global south that have been influenced by American Christianity. 

In the first volume of the series, Discovering the End of Time: Irish Evangelicals in the Age of Daniel O’Connell (McGill-Queen’s University, 2016)Akenson meticulously traced the social and cultural Irish milieu in which this distinctive end-times doctrine germinated. In this volume, he focuses on the institutionalization of the eschatology in the fissiparous network of religious dissidents across the British Isles who came to be known as the Plymouth Brethren. This nascent community fractured in the 1840s, in large part due to the volatile and self-indulgent temperament of its chief architect, John Nelson Darby. Akenson focuses his narrative on the highly sectarian “Exclusive Brethren” that cohered around Darby’s leadership from the late 1840s onward.

This history of the Exclusive Brethren is pockmarked by arcane disagreements about ecclesiology and eschatology, and infused with the toxin of spiritual egotism. For those without a prior investment in the subject, the story may seem impenetrably wearisome, yet Akensen marries a forensic grasp of the labyrinthine history of the movement with an energetic, crisp, and sometimes mordant prose that mitigates against the potential claustrophobia inherent in the historical narrative. His ironic analyses, summations, and segues give the reader permission to acknowledge that the subject matter is, indeed, quixotic and exasperating.

Despite a brilliant level of historical detail and incisive critique of the Exclusive Brethren movement, the book is—in one important point—anticlimactic: although Akenson promises to examine the export of Darbyite eschatology to North America, he actually devotes a mere eight concluding pages to the topic. It seems, perhaps, that Akenson could not decide whether he should write a history of the Exclusive Brethren (or perhaps just a biography of Darby) on the one hand, or whether he should write a broader history of Victorian transatlantic premillennial eschatology on the other. He has thus attempted to make the former serve the latter, but this produces a constrained and unsatisfying account, as it suggests late Victorian American Evangelical eschatology was created ex nihilo by the Darbyites.

In fact, the infiltration of Anglo-Irish premillennialism into the North American religious mainstream was a more complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. Darbyite Brethenism was not the only form of premillennial eschatology at work in the British Isles, and was not, therefore, the only kind of premillennial eschatology with which American Evangelicals engaged. Moreover, American Evangelical premillennialism ended up flowing in channels less narrow and dogmatic than those represented by the spirit of Darby’s Exclusive Brethren. As Akenson himself admits, Exclusive Brethrenism was not revivalist, yet in the United States premillennialism became firmly tethered to an energetic proselytizing network associated particularly with D.L. Moody. As Joel Carpenter demonstrated in his Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (Oxford University Press, 1997), this revivalist impulse lived on even into the 1930s Fundamentalist movement, even among highly separatist churches that might otherwise be presumed to be the direct offspring of Darbyite sectarian ecclesiology. In locating the origins of premillennialism fused with a relatively ecumenical missionary zeal, it may actually have been the non-Darbyite Open Brethren, along with British Anglican and Presbyterian Evangelicals—many of whom were also highly premillennialist in their theology, even though they diverted from Darby’s more exotic excursions—who were the more decisive influence on the drift of post-bellum American evangelical Protestantism. 

Still, Akenson is entirely correct to assert that Darbyite eschatology was a formative ideology within late Victorian American Christianity, filtering, often in diluted form, into many non-Brethren communities on both sides of the Atlantic. Its tenets contributed important elements to the foundations of the fundamentalist and neo-fundamentalist movements of the 20th century, especially after they were distilled by Cyrus I. Scofield into the best-selling reference Bible first published in 1909 (Scofield Reference Bible, Oxford University Press). Akenson is also right to remind historians of American religion that much of what is now considered a quintessentially American religious synthesis was, in fact, an import from the Old World and cannot, therefore, be explained simply by appeal to the particular cultural and social history of the United States in the post-bellum era. If Akenson’s promised third volume delivers on plotting the precise mechanisms by which Darbyite eschatology infiltrated American evangelicalism, then this trilogy will have filled a large gap in our understanding of how the North Atlantic Gilded Age eschatological economy was born.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Martin Spence is Associate Professor of History at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, MI.

Date of Review: 
April 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Donald Harman Akenson is Douglas Professor of Canadian and Colonial History, Queen's University, Ontario. He has published several award-winning books on the history of Ireland and on the development of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

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