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How Did We Get Here? - Niagara Bible Conference

Updated: Oct 18, 2018

"It was in 1878 that the first “Bible and Prophetic Conference” was held in the city of New York. At that time the discussions were widely read and attracted to themselves large attention among Christian people. Taking up the promise of our Lord’s coming, looked forward to by all, and considering the doctrine of the second advent from no sectarian stand-point, a freedom of speed and of hearing was granted, which would not otherwise in all probability have obtained. A new impulse was thereby given to subjects of prophetic study, the religious press of the country gave larger and larger space to the treatment of the intimations of the book of Revelation and kindred Scriptures, and new advocates of [Dispensationalism]…Pre-Millennial views, whatever may be said of them, have become so widespread in the various denominations, not excluding the Baptists, that it is folly to ignore this mode of Christian thinking, or to attempt to silence the discussion which is in progress." -- The Baptist “Standard” newspaper, 1886[1]

The late 19th century saw the popularization of Dispensationalism in America. John N. Darby died in 1882, but his influence, through men like James. H. Brooks became readily apparent in the closing years of that century and into the 20th. One the main ways that Dispensational Premillennialism (DP) was popularized was what came to be known as the “Niagara Bible Conference”. Held annually from 1877 until 1900, the conference was held in various places in the northern United States and Canada. It received its name because the conference found its home in Niagara-on-the-Lake between 1883 and 1897. Eventually these conferences would popularize the DP hermeneutic through their “bible readings”, and give the DP the upper hand in the millennial landscape. Generally, Niagara gained many to the DP cause throughout North America because it allowed this formally fringe group to become increasingly mainstream.

Just as the Albury and Powerscourt prophecy conferences solidified Irvingism and Darbyism in Britain (see previous articles), so the Niagara conferences solidified DP in America. These conferences became a coming together of almost all of the major premillennial figures in North America. They became a spiritual community for many in DP and other premillennial camps. These leaders were given the opportunity at Niagara to gather outside of their denominations with a common goal of seeing premillennialism spread in the church. As we mentioned in a previous article, Darby’s anti-denominational ecclesiology was not accepted by many of the early DP in North America. At this point, then, Darby’s ecclesiology could finally take hold among his eschatological disciples. Brethren influence could be seen throughout all of these conferences. Sandeen puts it succinctly when he says that “the Niagara conference represented J.N Darby’s concept of the church adapted to the American environment.”[2]

Premillennialism was, in fact, a prerequisite to teach at these conferences. Post-tribulationalists were tolerated; postmillennialists, outlawed.[3] Many of the lectures were aimed at refuting postmillennialism directly. James Brooks was constantly on the offensive against postmillennialists in his lectures and his periodical “The Truth”. A.J. Gordon attempted to refute the postmillennial view that the righteous and the unrighteous would be raised at the same time at the end of the age with his lecture “The First Resurrection”.[4] It was also dealt with in such interesting sounding lectures as “Does the word of God teach that, prior to the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are to look for the conversion of the world to Him, and a prolonged season of universal peace and prevailing righteousness, or does it teach the contrary?” by Samuel Kellog.[5] During these meetings, the “contrary” was always the correct answer.

As we mentioned last time, DP prided itself for their high view of scripture in opposition to the Liberalism of the time. The Niagara conferences popularized the “plain” and “literal” approach to scripture through its “Bible Readings”. These Bible Readings, invented by the Brethren, were simple public readings of scripture where all “relevant” scripture passages on a specific topic were read and briefly commented upon. These were often organized in a seven point scheme.[6] Though many conference goers became familiar with Biblical passages through this method, many in the seminaries of the day became concerned with this proof-texting method.[7] Francis L. Patton gave his homiletics students at Princeton seminary a fair evaluation of this method:

There is what is called a Bible-Reading… I suppose that the Bible-reading is a feature of the school of thought of which Mr. Moody is such a distinguished leader. With some of the theology of some of the members of this school I have no sympathy; and I particularly object to their arbitrary and unhistorical system of interpretation [DP]. But we cannot too much admire the earnestness of these men; their reverence for the Divine Word; their profound faith in the blood of Christ; and their working familiarity with the English Bible. But few, I fear, know the English Bible as they do. I advise you to learn their secret in this regard, but do not adopt their shibboleths; and I warn you against supposing that you have given an adequate substitute for a sermon when, with the help of Cruden’s Concordance, you have chased a word through the Bible, making a comment or two on the passages as you go along.[8]

The bible reading method was a key factor in systematizing DP. At these conferences Darby’s doctrines were portrayed in neat 7 point outlines with numerous verses in supposed support. How could one not accept the Rapture when presented numerous scriptures in its support and a neat 7 point outline to organize it (presented by an esteemed Presbyterian minister like James Brooks)?

If the conference leaders prided themselves on their bible teaching, their main concern continued to be prophecy. The emphasis during the conferences was always the DP system. Lectures included such topics as “The Present Age and the Development of the Antichrist”, “The Dispensational Progress of Redemption”, “God’s honored missionary to the Jews”, and of course C.I. Scofield’s 1888 lecture “Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth”.[9] One author notes that “Dispensationalism as a hermeneutic was introduced gradually into the teaching at Niagara and by the late 1880’s was gaining acceptance as being the only correct approach to scripture.”[10]

Though the conference goers were premillennialists from all stripes, then, the “pre-tribulational” faction ultimately was dominant and in the end, won the day. After the death of more tolerant leaders like James Brooks (d. 1897) and A.J. Gordon (d. 1895), the conferences fell apart. A battle began between the post-tribulational camp of men like Nathaniel West and Robert Cameron, and the pre-tribulational camp of men like C.I. Scofield and Arno Gaebelein. The Niagara Conference movement soon ceased as a result of these intramural premillennial battles. One scenario serves to illustrate the tension between the two sides. Cameron had been given the legal rights to James Brooks’ popular DP pamphlet “The Truth”. With Scofield’s help, Gaebelein obtained the lucrative mailing list of “The Truth” and advertised to its subscribers his much more orthodox, pre-tribulational pamphlet, “Our Hope” as the spiritual successor to Brooks.[11] Scofield, though a lawyer, failed to see the legal problems with this scheme.

Gaebelein and Scofield soon began plans to begin a distinctively pre-tribulational series of conferences. The pre-millennial alliance of the conferences ended around 1900, at the close of the last Niagara conference. Though the alliance was dead, men like Scofield and Gaebelein stepped out into the 20th century as the spokesmen of pre-millennialism. The post-tribulational party fell into decline. Soon these men would also publish the popular “Scofield Reference Bible” and solidify Darby’s theology in evangelicalism. This, we will take up in our next article.

[1] Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millennialism, 1800-1930 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 154.

[2] Ibid, 136.

[3] In fact, it was made clear that, though they could attend, they had to remain quiet. No dissent from the pre-millennial party line was allowed.

[4] Walter Unger, Earnestly Contending For the Faith: The Role of the Niagara Bible Conference in the Emergence of American Fundamentalism, 1875-1900, PhD Dissertation, (Simon Fraser University, 1981), 160.

[5] Ibid, 158-59

[6] Ibid, 83.

[7] Sandeen, 137.

[8] Presbyterian and Reformed Review 1 (1890): 36-37. Quoted in Sandeen, 137.

[9] Unger, 90.

[10] Ibid, 84.

[11] Ibid, 103.

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