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How Did We Get Here? - The Scofield Bible

"The [Scofield Reference Bible] is perhaps the most influential single publication in millenarian and Fundamentalist historiography. The Scofield Reference Bible combined an attractive format of typography, paragraphing, notes, and cross references with the theology of Darbyite dispensationalism. The book has thus been subtly but powerfully influential in spreading those views among hundreds of thousands who have regularly read the Bible and who often have been unaware of the distinction between the ancient text and the Scofield interpretation."[1]

Last week we saw that there was a large Bible conference movement that spread the pre-tribulational “hope” in North America in the late 19th century. We also saw that the movement was broken up as the “pre-trib” and “post-trib” parties began to divide on their plain and literal interpretations on the second coming. We saw that one of the main figures who led the “pre-trib” party out of this era and into the early 20th century was Cyrus Ingerson Scofield. This article will briefly show how Scofield, through his Reference Bible, was the biggest factor in popularizing Dispensational Premillennialism (DP) in the 20th century.

C.I. Scofield (1843-1921) is an interesting character. I encourage all those interested (especially my Dispensationalist friends) to do some serious research and reading on Scofield. Many inaccuracies about his life have been propagated by DP writers from his early biography by Charles Trumball down to the present day. Scofield was born and raised in Michigan but moved to Tennessee in his teens where he enlisted in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He was discharged after one year of service after his unit discovered he was a native Yankee. In 1865 Cyrus moved to St. Louis and began a law apprenticeship and married his first wife, a French Catholic, named Leontine. Soon a political career blossomed which took the young barrister from a local politician to United States District Attorney General; appointed by President Grant himself.

As in many cases, politics got the best of Scofield. He resigned after rumours had him defrauding other members of the government. This habit of fraud continued after his political career as he became involved in schemes to defraud people through forging false names on bank notes.[2] There is no evidence that Scofield ever made restitution for his questionable or even criminal activities. Scofield had some sort of salvation experience and immediately began Christian work at a Moody crusade in 1879. He soon committed his life to Christian work and quickly had a pastorate in a congregational church in Dallas. Unfortunately, this ministry did not include his wife and two daughters, as he had become an absentee in the household. His conversion did not seem to affect his attitude in this matter as he never returned to his wife to rectify his marriage. His wife was eventually granted a divorce and Scofield married his second wife; a girl from his Dallas Church. As he gained influence in the fundamentalist movement through the Niagara conferences and associates like D.L. Moody and James H. Brooks, Scofield abandoned his Dallas congregation for speaking engagements, other pastoral positions, and research for his bible for months at a time. He eventually gave up his pastorate when he realized his bible project required his utmost attention.[3]

Scofield began his Reference Bible project after securing support from his fellow “pre-trib” prophecy expert, Arno Gaebelein, and funding from Brethren backers.[4] Gaebelein also provided his expertise on all things DP and was an editor on the project. With his second wife’s help, Scofield cut and pasted the whole bible into notebooks and began to write his annotations, notes, and cross references that would become his Reference Bible. Through a Brethren, publisher connection in London, Oxford University Press decided to publish the Bible.[5] This has given Scofield’s work a vastly wider audience than it has deserved. The first edition was published in 1909 and after some success, was revised in 1917. This best-selling study Bible is still published by Oxford to this day.

The Scofield Reference Bible was clearly a synthesis of Darby’s theology. We noted in a previous article that the DP heritage passed down from Darby, to Brooks, and then Scofield. Though Scofield had no formal theological training (though he styled himself as a D.D. for some reason), he had learned the prophetic system of Darby from his close associations like Brooks and Gaebelein, and through the many conferences he attended. Though it is commonly thought of as a commentary of the whole bible in the tradition of a Matthew Henry, the original Reference Bible was mainly a targeted work designed to propagate Darby eschatology. In fact, of the 1353 pages in the bible, 781 had no comment whatsoever, and the books of Ruth, Esther, Obadiah and Jude had no comment at all.[6] This is not a study bible or commentary as such, but a Brethren eschatology textbook. This Bible popularized such problematic, classical DP ideas as the utter separation between the Church and Israel, division between the law and grace dispensations (his note on John 1:17 even imply that justification was through legal obedience in the Mosaic Dispensation), gap and day-age theories, the rapture theory, and the church “gap” theory. The theology of Darby, Brooks, and the Niagara conference movement, largely closed off from laymen in the church, exploded into laps across North America through Scofield’s 1917 revised Reference Bible.

The revised 1917 Scofield Reference Bible spread DP throughout the world. It has been published millions of times and in multiple languages. It has been handed out as a gift to countless graduating seminary students and pastors who have used it as a guide for decades. Writing in the 1970’s, after decades of Scofield’s influence, William Cox remarked that

Scofield’s footnotes and his systematized schemes of hermeneutics have been memorized by many as religiously as have verses of the Bible. It is not at all uncommon to hear devout men recite these footnotes prefaced by the words, “The Bible says …” Many a pastor has lost all influence with members of his congregation and has been branded a liberal for no other reason than failure to concur in all the footnotes of Dr. Scofield. Even many ministers use the teachings of Scofield as tests of orthodoxy![7]

These pastors utilizing the DP found in their Scofield Bibles passed down Darby’s system to their congregations. Many have used these doctrines as a test for orthodoxy. The Scofield Bible went through a revision in 1967 and we now have the New Scofield Study Bible. The New Scofield distances itself from many of the classical DP positions and updates many of Scofield’s notes. As with the abridged version of Chafer’s systematic theology, make sure to pay attention to the changes and what has been left out. It is the case, nonetheless, that the classical form of DP has become so ingrained in many churches that no amount of revision will make them rethink their “divisions” of the Bible. C.I. Scofield and his Bible played a massive part in spreading this new “orthodoxy”.


[1] Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millennialism, 1800-1930 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 222.

[2] Joseph M. Canfield, The Incredible Scofield and his Book (Vallecito: Ross House Books, 1988), 57-64.

[3] John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (Apologetics Group Media, 2009), 36.


[5] Cranfield, 185.

[6]Cranfield, 211-212.

[7] William E. Cox, An Examination of Dispensationalism (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974), 54. Quoted in Cranfield, 218.

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