Inventor of false pre-trib rapture history
Dave MacPherson is an individual who loves to hate pretribulationism. In fact, he has thought up new ways to express his distain for pretribulationism by fabricating a false history of the pre-trib rapture. For the last thirty-plus years, MacPherson has dedicated his life to full time rapture hating in an attempt to participate in anything that he believes will obstruct its spread.
A Great Conspiracy Theory?
MacPherson believes that the key elements of the doctrine of the pretribulational rapture originated with a young Scottish girl named Margaret Macdonald in Spring of 1830. This is the thesis put forth in a number of books and publications for over thirty years by MacPherson, a newsman turned rapture researcher. MacPherson’s major book The Rapture Plot (Millennium III Publishers, 1994), is only one of the latest in a series of revisions of his original discourse The Unbelievable Pre-Trib Origin (Heart of America Bible Society, 1973). His books include the following: The Three R’s: Rapture, Revisionism, Robbery (P.O.S.T., 1998), The Great Rapture Hoax (New Puritan Library, 1983), Rapture? (New Puritan Library, 1987), The Incredible Cover-Up (Omega Publications, 1975), The Late Great Pre-Trib Rapture (Heart of America Bible Society, 1974).
Dave MacPherson is convinced “that the popular Pre-Trib Rapture teaching of today was really instigated by a teenager in Scotland who lived in the early 1800’s.” (Hoax, p. 7.) “If Christians had known all along,” bemoans MacPherson concerning the historical beginnings of the pretrib rapture, “the state of Christianity could have been vastly different today.” (Hoax, p. 180). He does not think that this research has been mere historical oversight, but rather a well-orchestrated “cover-up” which has been carefully managed by clever pretrib leaders each step of the way, even alleging that Dallas Seminary was grooming and commissioning Hal Lindsey for the purpose of popularizing the pretrib rapture for the Jesus Movement in the early 70’s. (Incredible Cover-Up, pp, 131-32). Jim McKeever, in the forward of the book, compares this pretrib cover-up to the Watergate cover-up. Before we get into the background of the pretrib rapture lets run a background check on MacPherson.
MacPherson has dedicated his life to the cause of disrupting belief in the pretrib rapture, since, according to his interpretation, it has been the cause for great disruption in his own life. “Back in 1953 I had a jolting encounter with the Rapture,” is the opening sentence in MacPherson’s Rapture Hoax (p. 3). This is a reference to his expulsion from a Christian College in California (BIOLA) for propagating views that conflicted with pretribulationism. He suggests that this experience was so devastating that it accounts for a setback in his Christian life. Because of his discouragement, MacPherson and a friend went out and got drunk in Mexico and passed out. MacPherson says this was a brush with death because of the many dangers that could befall someone in such a condition in Mexico. Later, he was involved in a wreck with a car while riding his motorcycle and almost lost his left arm. But these were not the beginning of his nor his family’s troubles because of the pretrib rapture.
Robert L. Sumner has noted that “MacPherson has a bad habit of attributing all kinds of personal tragedies to the pre-trib teaching: his mother’s death, his sister’s inability to have more children, his own failure to follow through on his calling as an evangelist, and other matters.” (“’Looking For The Blessed Horrible Holocaust!’ A book review of The Late Great Pre-Trib Rapture” in The Biblical Evangelist (May, 1975), p. 8.) Sumner cites another “illustration of how paranoid he has become concerns his conclusion that his ‘lovable dog, Wolf’ apparently became demon possessed just about the time MacPherson was about to write his first anti-pretribulation book, savagely biting his writing hand several times.” (“Hope? Or Hoax?” The Biblical Evangelist (Feb., 1984), p. 7.)
Trials and tribulation due to the pretrib rapture seems to run in the MacPherson family. Dave’s father, Norman, had planted a church in Long Beach, California and was doing quite well until a group of new people in the church caused a commotion over the timing of the rapture. Norman MacPherson was forced out of this prospering church because he had shifted from the pretrib to the posttrib view of the rapture. Norman S. MacPherson had authored posttrib books, Tell It Like It Will Be (privately printed, 1970), and Triumph Through Tribulation (by the author, 1944). He then started another, less successful church in Long Beach. Dave MacPherson displays a habit of blaming many of the personal tragedies in his life on the pretrib rapture teaching.
In 1983 MacPherson declared, “Fifteen years ago I knew nothing about Pre-Trib beginnings.” (Hoax, p. 47) He began his quest by writing to his father and received back an answer which indicated a lack of consensus among scholars, “so I decided to do some research on my own.” (Hoax, p. 47) MacPherson’s investigation gathered steam when he found a rare book in 1971 by Robert Norton, The Restoration of Apostles and Prophets; In the Catholic Apostolic Church (1861). “The important part in Norton’s book,” claimed MacPherson, “is a personal revelation that Margaret Macdonald had in the spring of 1830.” (Hoax, p. 47) MacPherson uses this finding to project the notion that the source of the pretrib rapture is of demonic origin through a 15-year-old Scottish lassie.
For MacPherson, his calling in life is a crusade to develop and sharpen his theory and to propagate it around the world. Operating as would any covert agent in hostile, enemy territory, MacPherson has made many trips onto the enemy turf of pretrib colleges and seminaries in order to dispense his material. His campaigns have led him to travel around the country with his message of the hidden story of the genesis of the pretrib rapture, which he believes if people knew, the doctrine would virtually become extinct. This mission has taken him to such places as Dallas Seminary, the great stronghold of the pretribs, where he speaks of distributing literature informing naive pretribers concerning their heritage. (I have retrieved two of his clandestine flyers from library books at the seminary.) As another typical example, he once blitzed a bus of students from Jerry Falwell’s college. John Walvoord has noted:
MacPherson made these charges against pretribulationism and then afterward went to great lengths to find historic verification. . . . Readers will be impressed that as a newsman MacPherson builds a strong case for his position, but will be less impressed when they begin to analyze what he has actually proved. (John F. Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation (Zondervan, 1979), pp. 42-43.)
Irvingite Robert Norton included a handwritten account of Margaret Macdonald’s “prophecy,” which is said by MacPherson to be the fountainhead for J. N. Darby’s development into the pretrib rapture doctrine. MacPherson does not say that Macdonald’s utterance included a clear statement of the pretrib rapture, but that she “separated the Rapture from the Second Coming before anyone else did.” .” (Hoax, p. 121) According to MacPherson, Darby pilfered this two-stage teaching from Macdonald, according to MacPherson, and then developed it systematically, skillfully passing it off as the fruit of his personal Bible study.
Macdonald’s so-called revelation that MacPherson cites to make his case revolves around two key phrases. “Margaret dramatically separated the sign of the Son of man from the coming of the Son of man,” (Hoax, p. 125) declares MacPherson based upon the phrase “now look out for the sign of the Son of man.” (Hoax, p. 128) MacPherson argues that “she equated the sign with the Rapture—a Rapture that would occur before the revealing of Antichrist.” (Hoax, p. 129) He bases this on her statement, “I saw it was just the Lord himself descending from Heaven with a shout, just the glorified man, even Jesus.” (Hoax, p. 126)
MacPherson makes at least three major errors in his attempt to argue that Margaret Macdonald originated the basis for the pretrib rapture. First, it is highly doubtful that the Macdonald “prophecy” contains the two-stage coming of Christ, as MacPherson advocates. Therefore, it would be impossible for this source to be the basis for a new idea if it did not contain those elements. MacPherson has misinterpreted Macdonald’s words by equating her use of “sign” with a rapture. Rather, she is saying that only those who are spiritual will see the secret sign of the Son of Man which will precede the single, posttrib second coming of Christ. In other words only those who have the light of the Holy Spirit within them will know when the second coming will take place because this spiritual enlightenment will enable them to have the spiritual perception to see the secret sign (not secret rapture). These are her own words:
. . . all must, as Stephen was, be filled with the Holy Ghost, that they might look up, and see the brightness of the Father’s glory. I saw the error to be, that men think that it will be something seen by the natural eye; but tis spiritual discernment that is needed, the eye of God in his people. . . . Only those who have the light of God within them will see the sign of his appearance. No need to follow them who say, see here, or see there, for his day shall be as the lightning to those in whom the living Christ is. Tis Christ in us that will lift us up–he is the light–tis only those that are alive in him that will be caught up to meet him in the air. I saw that we must be in the Spirit, that we might see spiritual things. John was in the Spirit, when he saw a throne set in Heaven. . . . it is not knowledge about God that it contains, but it is an entering into God . . . I felt that those who were filled with the Spirit could see spiritual things, and feel walking in the midst of them, those who had not the Spirit could see nothing. . . (Hoax, pp. 126-27)
Macdonald is clearly concerned with spiritual insights for the following reasons: 1) Stephen saw into heaven; he was not raptured or taken to heaven. 2) She clearly says that the sign will be seen only by the spiritually enlightened and that it would not be a natural or physical sign, but one perceived by “spiritual discernment.” 3) She is talking about “the sign of his appearance,” not an actual appearance. 4) Once a person has been so enlightened, they will have no need for direction from others, they will be guided directly by “the living Christ.” 5) The whole emphasis is upon seeing: “John was in the Spirit, when he saw,” “those who were filled with the Spirit could see.” Posttrib advocate D. H. Kromminga observes that Macdonald’s “prophecies made it plain that the return of the Lord depended upon the proper spiritual preparation of His Church.” (D. H. Kromminga, The Millennium in the Church: Studies in the History of Christian Chiliasm, (Eerdmans, 1945), p. 250.)
Anti-pretrib rapture advocate, John Bray, agrees that she was only teaching a single coming and not a two-staged event. “The only thing new in her revelation itself seems to be that of just Spirit-filled Christian being caught up at the second coming of Christ following heavy trials and tribulation by the Antichrist,” notes Bray. (John L. Bray, The Origin of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture Teaching (John L. Bray Ministry, n.d.), pp. 21-22) In other words Macdonald appears to be teaching a posttrib, partial rapture. Bray further explains:
It seems to me that Margaret MacDonald was saying that Christians WILL face the temptation of the false Christ (antichrist) and be in “an awfully dangerous situation”, and that only the Spirit IN US will enable us to be kept from being deceived; and that as the Spirit works, so will the antichrist; but the pouring out of the Spirit will “fit us to enter into the marriage supper of the Lamb”, and those filled with the Spirit would be taken while the others would be left. . . . Margaret MacDonald did teach a partial rapture, of course, but this did not necessarily mean that the teaching included a tribulation period FOLLOWING THAT for the other Christians. . . . It would not be right to take for granted that Margaret MacDonald believed in a tribulation period following the appearing of Christ unless she had definitely said so. Rather, it would be more logical to think that her view would have been the same as prevalent among the futurists at that time, that is, tribulation then the second coming. (Bray, Origin, pp. 20-21).
Another point MacPherson makes to support his opinion is that “Margaret Macdonald was the first person to teach a coming of Christ that would precede the days of Antichrist.” (Cover-Up, pp. 155-56.) This would mean, according to MacPherson, that Macdonald had to be teaching a two-stage coming. However, it is highly questionable, as noted above, that Macdonald was referring to the rapture as MacPherson insists. Also Macdonald was still a historicist; she believed the Church was already in the tribulation and had been for hundreds of years. Therefore, the Antichrist was to be soon revealed, but before the second coming. She said believers needed the spiritual sight, so that they would not be deceived. Otherwise, why would believers, including herself, need to be filled with the Spirit in order to escape the deception which will accompany “the fiery trial which is to try us” associated with the Antichrist’s arrival? Further, she certainly includes herself as one who needs this special ministry of the Holy Spirit as can be seen from this passage from her “revelation.”
. . . now shall the awful sight of a false Christ be seen on this earth, and nothing but the living Christ in us can detect this awful attempt of the enemy to deceive . . . The Spirit must and will be purged out on the church, that she may be purified and filled with God . . . There will be outward trial too, but ’tis principally temptation. It is brought on by the outpouring of the Spirit, and will just increase in proportion as the Spirit is poured out. The trial of the Church is from the Antichrist. It is by being filled with the Spirit that we shall be kept. I frequently said, Oh be filled with the Spirit–have the light of God in you, that you may detect satan–be full of eyes within–be clay in the hands of the potter–submit to be filled, filled with God. . . . This is what we are at present made to pray much for, that speedily we may all be made ready to meet our Lord in the air–and it will be. Jesus wants his bride. His desire is toward us. (Hoax, pp. 127-28)
Ryrie also notes a further misunderstanding of Macdonald’s “prophecy”: “She saw the church (“us”) being purged by Antichrist. MacPherson reads this as meaning the church will be raptured before Antichrist, ignoring the “us” (pp. 154-55). In reality, she saw the church enduring Antichrist’s persecution of the Tribulation days.” (Charles Ryrie, What You Should Know About the Rapture (Moody, 1981), p. 71.)
Further, there is no historical evidence that Macdonald, Edward Irving, or the Irvingites ever held to pretribulationism. So how could non-pretribulationists be the source of pretribulationism? Recently, one of the most extensive critical analysis ever produced on Irvingite doctrine declared that they were still historicist, while Darby and the Brethren had become futurist. Columba G. Flegg notes that the Brethren teaching on the rapture and the present invisible and spiritual nature of the church,
were in sharp contrast to Catholic Apostolic teaching, . . . There were thus very significant differences between the two eschatologies, and attempts to see any direct influence of one upon the other seem unlikely to succeed–they had a number of common roots, but are much more notable for their points of disagreement. Several writers [referring specifically to MacPherson] have attempted to trace Darby’s secret rapture theory to a prophetic statement associated with Irving, but their arguments do not stand up to serious criticism. (Columba Graham Flegg, ‘Gathered Under Apostles’ A Study of the Catholic Apostolic Church (Clarendon Press, 1992), p. 436.)
Second, in spite of MacPherson’s great amount of research and writing he has yet to produce any hard evidence that Darby was influenced by Macdonald’s utterance, regardless of what they meant. MacPherson only assumes the connection. If MacPherson’s suppositional approach were applied to the study of history, then we can make all kinds of connections between people and events. It would mean that you could “prove” that since Hubert Humphrey had a slick lawyer’s mind, was in Washington D.C. during the early 70’s, and was well-informed, he must have known about the Watergate break-in before it became public. Walvoord observes that,
Readers of MacPherson’s Incredible Cover-Up will undoubtedly be impressed by the many long quotations, most of which are only window dressing for what he is trying to prove. When it gets down to the point of proving that either MacDonald or Irving was pretribulationist, the evidence gets very muddy. The quotations MacPherson cites do not support his conclusion. (Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation, p. 44.)
Throughout MacPherson’s writings, he keeps dumping information about issues, developments, and beliefs from Great Briton during the early 1800’s apparently thinking that he is adding proof for his thesis, that “the popular Pre-Trib Rapture teaching of today was really instigated by a teenager in Scotland who lived in the early 1800’s.” (Hoax, p. 7.) Much of the information is helpful and interesting, but does not prove his thesis. If his research were represented as a river, it would be a mile wide (amount of information) but only an inch deep (actual proof). Even if Darby developed the pretrib rapture after Macdonald’s utterance, specific proof would be needed to make a link between Macdonald and Darby. Instead MacPherson only offers speculative guesses about how Darby used his training for the law profession to manipulate Christians by hiding the supposed true origins of the pretrib rapture. Perhaps MacPherson is using his investigative, journalism training and experience to publicly smear Darby. This leads to my final point.
Third, Brethren writer, Roy A. Huebner claims and documents his belief that J. N. Darby first began to believe in the pre-trib rapture and develop his dispensational thinking while convalescing from a riding accident during December 1826 and January 1827. (R. A. Huebner, Precious Truths Revived and Defended Through J. N. Darby, Vol. 1 [Present Truth Publishers, 1991].) If this is true, and there is every reason to believe that it is, then all of the origin-of-the-rapture-conspiracy-theories fall to the ground in a heap of speculative rubble. Darby would have at least a three-year jump on any who would have supposedly influenced his thought, making it impossible for all the “influence” theories to have any credibility.
Huebner provides clarification and evidence that Darby was not influenced by Margaret Macdonald, Lacunza, Edward Irving, or any of the Irvingites. These are all said by the detractors of Darby and the pre-trib rapture to be bridges that led to Darby’s thought. Instead, Huebner demonstrates that Darby’s understanding of the pre-trib rapture was the product of the development of his personal interactive thought with the text of Scripture as he, his friends, and dispensationalists have long contended.
Darby’s pre-trib and dispensational thoughts, says Huebner, were developed from the following factors: 1) “he saw from Isaiah 32 that there was a different dispensation coming . . . that Israel and the Church were distinct” (Precious Truths, p. 17). 2) “During his convalescence JND learned that he ought daily to expect his Lord’s return.” (Precious Truths, p. 19). 3) “In 1827 JND understood the fall of the church. . . ‘the ruin of the Church’” (Precious Truths, p. 18). 4) Darby also was beginning to see a gap of time between the rapture and the second coming by 1827 (Precious Truths, p. 23). 5) Darby, himself, said in 1857 that he first started understanding things relating to the pre-trib Rapture “thirty years ago.” “With that fixed point of reference, Jan. 31, 1827,” declares Huebner, we can see that Darby “had already understood those truths upon which the pre-tribulation rapture hinges” (Precious Truths, p. 24).
German author Max S. Weremchuk has produced a major new biography on Darby entitled John Nelson Darby: A Biography (Loizeaux Brothers, 1992). He agrees with Huebner’s conclusions concerning the matter. “Having read MacPherson’s book . . .” says Weremchuk, “I find it impossible to make a just comparison between what Miss MacDonald ‘prophesied’ and what Darby taught. It appears that the wish was the father of the idea” (Weremchuk, Darby, p. 242).
When reading Darby’s earliest published essay on biblical prophecy (1829), it is clear that while it still has elements of historicism, it also reflects the fact that for Darby, the rapture was to be the church’s focus and hope. Even in this earliest of essays, Darby expounds upon the rapture as the church’s hope.
In addition to the above points, there have been at least three pre-Darby rapture discoveries in the last decade. Evidence of pretribulationism surfaces during the early medieval period in a sermon some attribute to Ephraem the Syrian entitled Sermon on The Last Times, The Antichrist, and The End of the World. The sermon was written some time between the fourth and sixth century. The rapture statement reads as follows:
Why therefore do we not reject every care of earthly actions and prepare ourselves for the meeting of the Lord Christ, so that he may draw us from the confusion, which overwhelms all the world? . . . For all the saints and elect of God are gathered, prior to the tribulation that is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins.
This statement evidences a clear belief that all Christians will escape the tribulation through a gathering to the Lord. How else can this be understood other than as pretribulational? The later second coming of Christ to the earth with the saints is mentioned at the end of the sermon.
Francis Gumerlock, an anti-pretribulationist, claims that someone named Brother Dolcino taught a form of the pre-trib rapture in 1304. The reason that Gumerlock believes that Brother Dolcino and the Apostolic Brethren taught pretribulationism is found the following statement:
Again, [Dolcino believed and preached and taught] that within those three years Dolcino himself and his followers will preach the coming of the Antichrist. And that the Antichrist was coming into this world within the bounds of the said three and a half years; and after he had come, then he [Dolcino] and his followers would be transferred into Paradise, in which are Enoch and Elijah. And in this way they will be preserved unharmed from the persecution of Antichrist. And that then Enoch and Elijah themselves would descend on the earth for the purpose of preaching [against] Antichrist. Then they would be killed by him or by his servants, and thus Antichrist would reign for a long time. But when the Antichrist is dead, Dolcino himself, who then would be the holy pope, and his perserved followers, will descend on the earth, and will preach the right faith of Christ to all, and will convert those who will be living then to the true faith of Jesus Christ. (Gumerlock’s translation of the Latin text in Francis Gumerlock, “A Rapture Citation in the Fourteenth Century,” Bibliotheca Sacra (July-Sept. 2002), pp. 354-55.)
Gumerlock clearly believes that this is a pretrib rapture statement as he concludes:
Two things are fairly certain from The History of Brother Dolcino. First, Dolcino and the Apostolic Brethren believed that the purpose of the rapture was related to the escape of the saints from the end-time tribulation and persecution of the Antichrist. Second, Dolcino and the Apostolic Brethren believed that there would be a significant gap of time between the rapture of the saints to paradise and their subsequent descent to earth. Because of this The History of Brother Dolcino stands as yet another literary witness for the existence of pretribulationism before the nineteenth century. As such, it challenges evangelicals to reevaluate their thinking about the history of the pretribulational rapture, especially those views that place the origin of the teaching or its initial recovery within the last two hundred years. For this fourteenth-century text demonstrates that there were some in the Middle Ages who held a theology of the rapture that includes basic elements in pretribulationalism. (“A Rapture Citation,” p. 362)
Frank Marotta believes that Thomas Collier in 1674 makes reference to a pretribulational rapture, but rejects the view, (Frank Marotta, Morgan Edwards: An Eighteenth Century Pretribulationist (Present Truth Publishers, 1995), pp. 10-12.) thus showing his awareness that such a view was being taught. One could not have objected to something that did not exist.
Perhaps the clearest reference to a pretrib rapture before Darby comes from Baptist Morgan Edwards (founder of Brown University) in 1742-44 who saw a distinct rapture three and a half years before the start of the millennium. During his student days at Bristol Baptist Seminary in England (1742-44), Morgan Edwards wrote an essay for eschatology class on his views of Bible prophecy. This essay was later published in Philadelphia (1788) under the following title: Two Academical Exercises on Subjects Bearing the following Titles; Millennium, Last-Novelties. The term in the title “Last-Novelties” refers to what we would call today the eternal state; “novelties” refers to the new conditions of the future new heavens and new earth, not that he had a novel view of the Bible. Upon reading the 56-page work, it is evident that Edwards published it with only minor changes from his student days. Thus, it represents a view that he had developed by the early 1740s. Thus, we can date Edwards’ pretribulationism as originating in the early 1740s. The pretribulationism of Morgan Edwards can be see in the following statement from his book:
II. The distance between the first and second resurrection will be somewhat more than a thousand years.
I say, somewhat more—, because the dead saints will be raised, and the living changed at Christ’s “appearing in the air” (I Thes. iv. 17); and this will be about three years and a half before the millennium, as we shall see hereafter: but will he and they abide in the air all that time? No: they will ascend to paradise, or to some one of those many “mansions in the father’s house” (John xiv. 2), and so disappear during the foresaid period of time. The design of this retreat and disappearing will be to judge the risen and changed saints; for “now the time is come that judgment must begin,” and that will be “at the house of God” (I Pet. iv. 17) . . . (p. 7; emphasis added; the spelling of all Edwards quotes have been modernized)
What has Edwards said? Note the following:
• He believes that at least 1,003.5 years will transpire between resurrections.
• He associates the first resurrection with the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, occurring at least 3.5 years before the start of the millennium (i.e., at least 3.5 years before the second coming of Christ at the start of the millennium).
• He associates the meeting of believers with Christ in the air and returning to the Father’s house with John 14:2, as do modern pretribulationists.
• He sees believers disappearing during the time of the tribulation, which he goes on to describe in the rest of the section from which the rapture statement is taken.
• He, like modern pretribulationists, links the time in heaven, during the tribulation, with the “bema” judgment of believers.
It is clear that Edwards believed in a two-staged return of Christ at least 85 years before Darby. Edwards’ pre-Darby statement is something that MacPherson cannot answer. I am not claiming that Darby was influenced by Morgan Edwards.
F.F. Bruce’s conclusion as to where Darby got the doctrine of the pretrib rapture appears to be correct. “It was in the air in the 1820s and 1830s among eager students of unfulfilled prophecy, . . . direct dependence by Darby on Margaret Macdonald is unlikely.” (F. F. Bruce, Review of The Unbelievable Pre-Trib Origin in The Evangelical Quarterly, (Jan-Mar, 1975), p. 58.) Dave MacPherson has failed to demonstrate that Macdonald’s “prophecy” contains latent rapture ideas, nor has he linked Darby to her influence with clear, historical evidence. This is why the doctrine of the pretribulational rapture did not begin with Margaret Macdonald. Perhaps Darby’s training at Dublin accounts for many of his views, especially his views of the nature of the church. Walvoord concludes,
any careful student of Darby soon discovers that he did not get his eschatological views from men, but rather from his doctrine of the church as the body of Christ, a concept no one claims was revealed supernaturally to Irving or Macdonald. Darby’s views undoubtedly were gradually formed, but they were theologically and biblically based rather than derived from Irving’s pre-Pentecostal group. (Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation, p. 47.)