Influential Brethren

Outsized ideas from under-recognized sources always captivate me.  I have to admit that my own childhood fascination concerning, and fear of, “the rapture” still haunts me.  While our house isn’t large, the other day I couldn’t see or hear my wife anywhere when I knew she was home and my first thought was that she’d been raptured and I’d been left behind.  Please don’t try to console me with logic; I know very well the problems with this initial assessment and knowing the history of the idea of the rapture can’t stop the primal fear when it strikes.  So it is with religious ideas inculcated in the young.  That’s why I knew I had to read Massimo Introvigne’s The Plymouth Brethren as soon as I heard of it.  The Plymouth Brethren, and specifically one of their formative leaders, John Nelson Darby, were the inventors of the rapture.

Introvigne’s book doesn’t trace rapture history (other books do that), but he does narrate, in an admirably succinct treatment, whence the Brethren arose.  In the nineteenth century in the British Isles, some were very concerned that Christianity had gone off the rails.  Accommodating with secular society, it had become heavily doctrinal and, worse, political.  Breakaway groups were common, including those who went back to the “Bible alone” as the basis for assessing what being Christian truly was.  The Plymouth Brethren developed in this atmosphere and they still remain a relatively small Christian sect (I use that term completely neutrally).  Even though they themselves splintered over time, they were never a very large group.  They, however, invented the rapture.

John Nelson Darby, one of the founders of the movement, believed history was divided into dispensations, or periods, predetermined by God.  The dispensation in which we now live (and in which they lived two centuries ago) would include a dramatic rapture that would allow Darby’s understanding of eschatology to fall within the system he developed.  This idea was picked up by Cyrus Scofield and included in his enormously influential Scofield Reference Bible.  That Bible, although many evangelicals considered the Plymouth Brethren as a kind of “cult,” was used as the unquestioned roadmap for the end times.  It was picked up by such promoters as Hal Lindsey and Timothy LaHaye and made into a meme that just about any educated person recognizes.  We all know what “the rapture” is, although the Bible itself doesn’t spell it out at all.  Introvigne’s book is very informative on the Brethren but his chapter on their ten main divisions is, necessarily, a touch confusing.  Well balanced and fair, this is a great source for those who wonder who these people were that gave us such worries when our wives have “disappeared” into some other part of the house.

Built To Last

Those pyramids sure are sturdy.  The other day I was reading something from a biblical literalist that was discussing the pyramids.  The great pyramid of Khufu and its companions in Giza were built between about 2590 and 2505 BCE.  They’ve been around a long time.  Somewhat later this author casually mentioned Noah’s flood.  It had never occurred to me before, but since Archbishop Ussher dated the creation of the world at 4004 (and so it appears in the Scofield Reference Bible), the flood took place in 2348 BCE.  Now this flood was so catastrophic that it carved out the Grand Canyon and buried all those dinosaur bones that would eventually become fossils.  It was more than a little inconvenient, and terribly disruptive.  Except the pyramids had been around for well over a hundred years by that point.  It’s a wonder they weren’t harmed.

Such inconsistencies populate much of literalist literature.  When the Bible is the full measure of science and history and all human knowledge, there’s bound to be some issues, given that it was written at a specific time and place.  You see, the pyramids aren’t even held together with mortar.  These are loose stones we’re talking about, under great pressure.  The “Bent Pyramid,” at Dahshur, changed its angle at half-way up.  A physicist calculated that if they’d continued at the original angle, the weight of all that stone would’ve caused it to act like liquid, flowing like water.  Best repent and rethink your plan.  But these monuments were built to withstand world-wide floods!  And the mummies weren’t even mildewed.  If only Jericho’s walls had been so well built.

From WikiCommons

Maybe that’s why so many modern myths about the pyramids developed.  This sacred shape somewhere between a square and a triangle is said to have unusual properties.  I’ve read that if you put a dull razor (whatever that is) underneath a pyramid shape when you go to bed at night you’ll awaken to find it sharpened.  Made of wire, that shape on your head will not only prevent aliens from reading your thoughts, but will boost the power of your psyche as well.  The funny thing about the Bible is that it never mentions the pyramids at all.  Joseph spent a bit of time there and his descendants stayed for centuries.  Nobody bothered to note those wonders of the ancient world.  Since we’re literalists, though, that gives us a way out.  If the Bible doesn’t mention the pyramids they might not exist at all.  Problem solved.

The Scofield Connection

While reading about Cyrus Scofield recently—and that book has stayed on and played with my mind for some reason—I ran across the conferences that he held in preparing his famous reference Bible. Although he claimed the sobriquet “Doctor,” placing D.D. after his name, like many a self-puffer Scofield has no university that will support the claim. (It’s amazing how many high-level CEOs and “important” businessmen pad their résumés with false degrees. Even some government wannabes do it, and then they want to defund education after they get into office.) Perhaps because he had no seminary training, and likely didn’t even graduate from college, Scofield might’ve felt a sense of insecurity when it came to a very large book originally written in languages he couldn’t read. There’s a reason “King James Only” Christians exist. In any case, he set up meetings in a couple of conspicuous places to go over his work. One of those places was Grove City College.

Now, like many small, Christian colleges, Grove City isn’t widely known. Most of the student population—at least when I was there—was fairly local. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, for the most part. Still on the (admittedly rare) occasion when someone asks me where I went for my undergraduate work, they generally haven’t heard of Grove City at all. Even though I spent four years of my life there, I had no idea about the Scofield connection until I read Joseph Canfield’s book. That’s because not all Fundamentalists grow up with Scofield. I’m sure I heard about the Scofield Reference Bible but I didn’t own one and I wondered what the big fuss was all about. After all, the annotations were the work of a man, and I was interested in the words of God. Far more popular was the revision of Scofield known as the Ryrie Study Bible, but I never read that either.

The end result is that many people think that Scofield’s words are “the Bible.” As I used to tell my students, binding pages together within a book makes a statement. If you’re saying “this is the word of God” and part of “this” is Scofield’s annotations, most people can’t distinguish between text and commentary. I eventually acquired a Scofield Bible, not for valid information, but simply for information. I was amazed at how poorly executed it was. Nevertheless, a true believer reading through the first chapters of 1 Chronicles is ready to accept even minimal narrative as divine. So it is that many Americans have come to believe in a Bible that’s not biblical. Religion is full of paradoxes and in this case I’d shared sleeping quarters with one in my more formative years although the connection was unknown at the time.

Direct Address

For a man as amazingly influential as he was, Cyrus I. Scofield hasn’t been the object of much curiosity. In the venerable academic tradition of ignoring those you disagree with, serious scholars dismiss Scofield as some kind of evangelical aberration, a theological leper, if you will. It’s difficult to locate book-length treatments of the man, although he may claim considerable credit for the elections of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and the current incumbent. Somewhat skeptical of the obviously polemical The Incredible Scofield and His Book by Joseph M. Canfield, curiosity drove me to read it as an accessible and thoroughly researched account. Now, one evangelical going after another isn’t a pretty sight, but if you can get past the “this is what the Bible really means” oneupmanship, there is clear evidence of a sharp mind with legitimate historical accuracy as its priority in Canfield. This is especially clear where he demonstrates that scholars shown the evidence will choose to ignore it to preserve the sanctity of a man hardly a saint.

The strange religion that has developed from the Scofield Reference Bible has had an astoundingly long reach. If you know what “the Rapture” is, it’s probably because those who took their cues from Scofield’s Bible ensured that it became a standard American trope. It generally doesn’t have to be explained, even though the idea doesn’t occur in the Bible. It’s based on a set of “dispensations” developed among the Plymouth Brethren, a fairly small British and Irish sect that influenced the world through its prophet Scofield. (Scofield himself was not a member of the Brethren, but he learned his system of “history” from them.) Although the Scofield Reference Bible wasn’t technically the first study Bible, it was the first widely influential one. It is, in a sense, America’s Bible.

Scofield himself was hardly clergy material. Canfield documents this clearly and doggedly. Among the evangelicals, however, an admission of guilt—no matter how insincere—has to be taken at face value. If you’re caught “backsliding” after that, all you have to do is admit that too. They’re obligated to forgive you 490 times, if they’re truly literalists. We can see this at work in the bizarre evangelical backing of Trump, a Christian only by the loosest possible definition. If you say you’ve accepted Jesus they have to believe you. It’s the ultimate scam. Scofield himself seems to have been aware of this. Particularly wrenching was the account of how, after he was making a respectable income from his Bible, he refused to give money to one of his daughters from his first marriage when she wanted to buy a house. His will left no money to any charitable organization at all. You can take it with you, apparently. And so, we’re left with a world devised by such a man with no theological training. Since he’s so obviously low brow, however, we lack scholarly biographies that take the care of Canfield in exposing information readily available to those with open eyes.

Biblically Business

Bibles are business. I recently read that the first book of which Oxford University Press sold a million copies was the Scofield Bible. The Scofield is incredibly resilient to the advancement of scientific thought, and, although large print editions seem to be gaining, it is nevertheless an icon. Conservative Bibles still make good business sense. Still, the Bible originated in a rather more Catholic context. As Christianity was being born, and growing up, there were many sources of information on what it mean to be a member. Initially, being Jewish was a prerequisite. When that was dropped, you would have needed to be able to find an enclave. This wasn’t always the easiest thing to do since Roman emperors sometimes made a quasi-Olympic sport out of killing Christians. Once a church was found and joined, you just participated in the fellowship and listened to the leader. Reading from “Scripture” was likely part of worship services, but the Bible we recognize didn’t exist.

Well, parts of it did. Torah and Prophets were around. The Writings were written. Paul’s letters—several of which are still missing—were still circulating. The Gospels and Revelation would come somewhat later. About the fourth century there was general agreement about which books we meant when the word “Bible” was used. There was some fuzziness around the edges, though. Books like Tobit and Maccabees were accepted by the church, but had never been part of the Jewish canon. Judaism never officially closed its canon, so putting a limit around what would become the “Old Testament” was not as easy as saying it was just the “Jewish Bible.” No books have been added, of course, but nobody bothered to set the list in stone. Now Catholic Bibles, largely because of the counter-Reformation, included the Deutero-Canonical, or Apocryphal books. Protestants soundly rejected them. And Protestants were the champions of personal Bible reading.

About the midpoint of last century, both Roman Catholicism and Judaism began to show a renewed interest in what had largely been a Protestant (and somewhat Teutonic) endeavor: critical study of the Bible. Bibles specifically directed toward these new readerships began to be produced. With metaphorical bells and whistles. The zipper Bible has always intrigued me. I never owned a zipper Bible. Once I had a zipper case, but never a zipper Bible. What was the message here: the word of the Almighty had to be protected? The other day I came across two zipper Bibles with saints’ medals as fobs. One was St. Christopher (who protects travelers) the other was for St. Mary (generally overall saint). These symbols of tradition interact with the more textual tradition that has come to be known as Bible. Religion is seldom monolithic, and even saints can watch over what is hidden by a zipper and regarded as the ultimate truth among those for whom Bibles are business.



With its endless versatility, gold is many things to many people. Already at the dawn of civilization, both in the old world and the new, it was a valued commodity. It is one of the few things that conquistadors didn’t have to impose on their victims; love of gold was already there. One of the qualities of gold that makes it such a remarkable metal is that a little bit can go a long way. Gold plating, for example, can be accomplished with very thin sheets of gold. This made it ideal for decorating statues of gods in antiquity, or at least the heads of the statues, as reflected in Daniel’s dream of Nebuchadrezzar’s statue. “Thou art this head of gold,” even Daniel obsequiously crows. Today, of course, gold represents commerce and it often sits, unused, in great storehouses heavily guarded, so as to prove a nation’s worth.

Gold still has industrial uses in the book business, particularly with Bibles. A classic Bible with calfskin leather, gold letters stamped on the cover, and gilt-edged pages, can be a luxury item. The gold on the edge of Bible pages is only 1/300,000th of an inch thick, or thin, meaning that a Troy ounce goes a long, long way. Only books with an idolatrous value get this kind of treatment. And they still sell. Somehow an ebook just doesn’t compare. The irony here is that the contents of the Bible suggest that gold is of lesser value than the spiritual truths contained within. Still, we can’t help but smooth the outside with burnished gold. Show and tell it on the mountain.


Although the populace demanding evangelical standards such as the Scofield Bible are going ever more and more towards the large-print editions, the leather-and-gold crowd is still alive and has the cash to prove it. The same content is available online with just a few keystrokes, but there is no gold coating here. All that glitters is not gold, goes the old saying. As we turn our gaze ever heavenward, the glass visors of space helmets are also covered with a thin layer of gold, as if the deity we might glimpse is best viewed through gilded glasses. From the moon—humanity’s farthest step—back to the early statues of gods whose names have been forgotten, even though it may be the thinnest veneer possible, we look at the world through gold.

The Varieties of Biblical Experience

Working with Bibles can be a heady experience. I mean, the sheer numbers are staggering. A whole herd of cattle must be slain annually just to manufacture the covers for all the Scofield Bibles in the world. What is it about literalists that demands animal sacrifice to read the words of the Prince of Peace? Bibles, Bibles everywhere, and not a word to read! According to, there are over 6,001,500,000 Bibles in print. That’s closing in on a parity with the world population, only one billion to go. There are websites dedicated to selling only Bibles. Nearly any bookstore will have at least a shelf full of them. I even ran across the website of an enterprising individual who seems to have figured out that there’s a market for taking Gideon Bibles from hotel rooms and selling them online. The Bible business, in the words of Big Dan Teague, “is not a complicated one.” And every year more are printed. Full-text versions are freely available online at any number of sites, and still more can be sold.


I often ponder the western love affair with the Bible. My entire career, with all its ups and downs, has been fashioned from an early intrigue with holy writ. In the beginning was the Bible. And culture followed in the footsteps of holy scripture. It’s not difficult to see why. Even further back than ancient Palestine, people worried about dying. Consciousness is funny that way—it has trouble conceiving of the world without itself. The Bible, for many centuries, offered the accepted solution to the death equation. You may have to die, but you don’t have to stay dead. Today we think of zombies as those refusing to remain lifeless. The Bible begs to differ, unless, of course, you’re reading the Zombie Bible. And still the presses roll on.

Considering the profit to be turned by selling Bibles, I wonder that more don’t show the cynicism of Big Dan. Is no one suspicious that printing the Good Book is called an industry? What other book, so freely given away, can sustain such a massive global market? I have to plead guilty myself to having a least a dozen different Bibles within easy reach every day. They even have their own separate labels at Barnes and Noble. So as I sit down planning on how to grow this ever-expanding market even more, I think of the many other industries that rely on mine. We have spun off worlds that orbit around the Bible. It is, despite the many nay-sayers, the cornerstone of modern Western civilization. If a tree falls in the woods, a Bible may be printed from it. Which of the 57 varieties do you take with your daily bread?

Eleventh Hour

Religion, as many a charlatan knows, makes a very good investment. History has demonstrated time and again that the confident huckster can easily siphon the money from the gullible in the name of God. What follows does not make any assertions about the character of the people involved. It is, however, a fascinating story.

Cyrus Ingerson Scofield did not have an exactly stellar career. He was raised Episcopalian (which may explain some of it), but upon being drafted into the Confederacy during the Civil War, deserted to become a lawyer in St. Louis. Scofield was forced to resign from his law post because of “questionable financial transactions” which may have included forgery. He was a heavy drinker and abandoned his wife and two daughters. The year of his divorce he remarried. Then he had a conversion experience. Conversion is the ultimate clean wiping of the slate. Any life of dissipation may be excused following a religious experience, eh, Augustine? And furthermore, in the sanctified state the motives of the former reprobate are never questioned.

Scofield went on to join the Congregational Church and to grow wealthy from his Scofield Reference Bible, still a perennial seller, despite his lack of formal theological training. This notoriety was largely because Scofield had adopted another unlikely scheme, dispensational premillennialism. This end-time scheme grew out of the work of John Nelson Darby and later evolved into what would be called Fundamentalism. The idea was that the Bible contained an esoteric roadmap to the future, culminating in the book of Revelation, whereby the blessed could figure out exactly how the end of the world would unfold. As a child I bought a literal roadmap to the end of the world, but having survived several such putative apocalypses, I have grown a tad skeptical about the efficacy of my chart.

Any number of religious leaders have a background of self-promotion and more than a whiff of Phineas Taylor Barnum about them. A converted soul, however, is never to be questioned. Cyrus Scofield adopted Archbishop James Ussher’s dating scheme for the creation of the world in 4004 “BC” and placed it in his reference Bible, forever putting the cast of scriptural authority to a date that would come up in court cases even through the twenty-first century in Dayton, Tennessee, Little Rock, Arkansas, Dover, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, wasting tax-payers’ money on a myth of biblical proportions. Often creationists use “stealth candidates” who don’t exactly tell the truth before school board elections. I don’t doubt the depth of the convert’s belief, but I smell money here. And once upon a time literalists believed that it was the root of all evil.

The reason most Creationists cite 4004 is Scofield...

The reason most Creationists cite 4004 is Scofield…