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.

Fundamental Law

Last year I posted a piece on Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints fugitive Lyle Jeffs. The occasion for my venturing into this sect was that Jeffs’ lawyer, after Jeffs had escaped house arrest claimed the Rapture was responsible for his disappearance. Now that an unraptured Jeffs has been recaptured, I begin to wonder about the special immunity of lawyers. Surely Jeffs’ attorney knew that his client hadn’t been spirited to heaven in the fictional escapade we all know as the Rapture. Indeed, all criminal lawyers—or at least most—know the facts behind a case before they step into the courtroom. While their witnesses are guilty of perjury if they lie under oath, lawyers, through careful wording, are permitted to insinuate the opposite of the truth with no hint of wrong-doing. It’s just their job.

Legalism and religion go hand-in-hand. After an interesting preamble, the Bible begins by laying down the Torah. Among its stipulations is not bearing false witness. But then, that was before the modern legal system. Religions tend to serve as moral compasses—and that’s the phrase that’s frequently used. A compass helps to find direction, ensures that we go the right way. What exactly the right way is can be a matter of debate, however. It all depends on where it is we want to go. When religious law, such as polygamy among Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, and civil law (generally recognizing one spouse at a time) clash, lawyers debate with the comfort of knowing they need not be accountable for the truth.

I’m no legal expert—in fact, I wouldn’t even have known about this had not a friend sent me the piece by Ruth Graham on Slate—but the question does trouble me. Religion is often all about laws. Specialists in Islam are called jurists, and in Judaism rabbis know the Torah inside out. Religious laws sometimes—often, actually—conflicts with the laws of the land. Believers either accommodate the differences or get into trouble in the secular courts. It’s headline news when religious law becomes civil law in this modern day and age. Isn’t there something cynical, however, when a lawyer pleads the Rapture as probable cause for a disappearance? Knowing the law, they need not reveal the truth they know. And yet, if you personally implicate any wrongdoing in another you can be sued for liable or slander. Lyle Jeffs wasn’t in heaven. He was living out of his car, keeping off the grid. Of course, following religious law can be like that some times.

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.