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How Did We Get Here? - The Bible School Movement

We have now come to the final article in the “How Did we Get Here” series. This time we will have a look at how Dispensational Premillennialism (DP) was institutionalized through the Bible School Movement. As we have argued in an earlier article, the Niagara Bible Conference movement formed a DP community in North America that endures to this day. At the same time that these conferences were happening in the late 19th century, the members of this pre-millennial clique began to found “Bible Schools”. These schools, founded by Niagara men, were almost always dispensational and began graduating vast numbers of eschatological pessimists throughout North America.

The earliest school was founded in 1882 in New York by A.B. Simpson. This would later be named the Missionary Training Institute of Nyack.[1] Simpson, a Canadian, later founded the largely dispensational Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination. A.J. Gordon, a leading Niagara leader, founded his Boston Missionary Training School in the 1880’s which became Gordon College of Theology and Missions. Northwest Bible Training School was founded by Niagara sympathizer A.J. Frost in 1902.[2] 1886 saw the founding of the Bible-Work Institute of the Chicago Evangelization Society; later renamed Moody Bible Institute in 1899.[3] Though Moody Bible Institute was not the earliest, it became the model for many of the later Bible Schools. Moody had connections to many in the Niagara movement and even met and partnered with Darby and later Scofield. Though eschatology was not a foremost concern for Moody and his Bible Institute, Dispensationalism was taken for granted.

The Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) was founded in 1908 by the funding of Lyman Stewart of Union Oil. R.A. Torrey, a Niagara man, became president in 1912. The first Bible School in Canada was the Toronto Bible Training School founded in 1894. After some name changes, accreditation, and the dropping of Dispensationalism as a distinctive, we know it now as Tyndale University College and Seminary. Elmore Harris was the first president of the school. Harris took part in the Niagara conferences and was also a consulting editor for the Scofield Reference Bible. Countless other schools shot up in the tradition of the Niagara Bible Conference movement. By the 1930’s, in fact, there was “one Bible School in every large American City and several in some of the very large cities.”[4] For example, in Boston, Gordon’s school had graduated by the mid 1930’s “100 pastors in the greater Boston area and 48 out of the total 96 Baptist pastors in New Hampshire. At one time in the 1930’s every Baptist pastor in Boston was either a Gordon alumnus, a professor or trustee.”[5] This pattern was followed in all areas that had a Bible Institute. Niagara Dispensationalism had its distribution network.

These early Bible Schools were an extension of the practical Bible instruction of the Niagara and other Bible conferences. They offered basic Bible courses for the future pastor and laymen alike. The motivation of basic Bible literacy for all Christians is commendable and should be lauded. The issue, however, should be obvious to the reader in this last article. The teaching in these Bible Schools took up the banner of Darby, Brooks, and Scofield. Students were taught to “Divide the Word of Truth” in the Scofieldian manner. All other views were out of bounds.

The Bible School movement was the result of many of the other factors we have discussed in this series. Liberalism in the denominational seminaries pushed many students to the Bible Schools. Large revivalist evangelistic crusades by men like D.L. Moody created a mass of converts who needed a place to learn the basics of the Bible. Walter Unger puts it this way:

A combination of dissatisfaction with denominational seminaries which were considered to be contaminated by liberalism, and the conviction that zealous laymen with a few years of Bible instruction and some training in practical Christian service could function effectively in a local pastorate or on the foreign field caused the Bible instituted movement to flourish.[6]

Academic requirements were minimized in this movement. The requirements were based mostly on “zeal, eagerness to learn, and spiritual qualifications.”[7] Educational pursuits were (and are) often a “small part of the Bible School’s total mission. Students would be drawn to a Bible Institute because of its reputation as a center of piety and sound doctrine, as these concepts had been understood in the [DP] tradition.”[8] John Gerstner comments that the Bible Schools then produced

thousands of lay workers, missionaries, ministers, and Bible teachers, and have furnished thousands of wives for such Christians workers. In many cases, the students were given a more or less stereotyped courses and were not exposed to literature of a different school of thought. The assumptions on which they operated were held with considerable naivete.[9]

Liberal arts schools and seminaries such as Dallas Theological Seminary, Wheaton College, and Bob Jones also grew up at this time. Though they provided a more rigorous education, Scofield Dispensationalism was at the core of their theology. In fact, Dallas became the leading center in propagating DP from its founding to the present.

The Bible Schools and these other DP seminaries and liberal arts schools trained the next generation of Fundamentalist pastors and leaders. After the denominations went liberal, these Bible Schools became headquarters for the Fundamentalist movement and the next generations of Niagara men. As we have noted, Darby’s anti-denominationalism did not catch on in North America initially. The early Dispensationalists remained in their denominations; most of which were Presbyterian. Much like the Niagara conferences, these inter-denominational Bible Schools allowed Fundamentalists to begin to form their own distinctives apart from their denominations after the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy.[10] The second generation Fundamentalists often affiliated themselves with Bible Schools, and not denominations.

The Bible School movement, then, spread the DP message by passing on the doctrine of Niagara men like James Brooks, Scofield, Moody, and A.C. Gaebelein. The message of DP was taken for granted mostly, and when compared to other teachings was paraded as the alternate to Liberalism. Like at Niagara, Postmillennialism became equated with Liberalism and the old Puritan eschatology was simply ignored. The world was getting worse, and people needed to hear about it.


[1]John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (Apologetics Group Media, 2009), 44.

[2]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), 304.

[3] Gerstner, 45.

[4] Unger, 305.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Unger, 304.

[7] Gerstner, 44.

[8] Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millennialism, 1800-1930 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 242.

[9] Gerstner, 46.

[10] Sandeen, 239-241.

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