Book Review: Dispensationalism Before Darby by William C. Watson

Dispensationalism Before Darby corrects a common misconception about the origins of Dispensational beliefs (image from

This book is perfectly titled and offers an immediate challenge to those who allege that John Nelson Darby invented the system of Bible interpretation known as Dispensationalism around the year 1830. Watson provided an accurate subtitle as well: Seventeenth-Century and Eighteenth Century English Apocalypticism. For those unfamiliar with the term, Dispensationalism is marked by three key principles, known as the sine qua non of Dispensationalism:

  1. Maintain a clear distinction between Israel and the church
  2. Utilize a “literal” (read: plain sense) hermeneutic
  3. The doxological purpose of God (God’s glory is the central theme of Scripture)

Evangelicals and other conservative Christians have traditionally adopted either Dispensationalism or Covenant Theology as their overarching interpretive framework. Generally speaking, whereas Dispensationalism maintains a strong distinction between Israel and the church, Covenantalists view the church as the fulfillment, extension, or replacement of Israel in God’s redemptive plan (most do not like the term replacement in this context). In recent decades, Dispensationalism seems to have become less popular, and there have been some attempts to find ground somewhere between the two views, such as Progressive Dispensationalism or New Covenant Theology. Much more could be said about all of these views, but this post will focus on reviewing Watson’s work.

William C. Watson is a professor of history at Colorado Christian University, specializing in seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century English history. He earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in British history from the University of California, Riverside.

Righting a Wrong

As mentioned in the first paragraph, a common argument against Dispensationalism (and the pretribulation rapture) is that it was invented by John Nelson Darby around 1830. Watson proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that this popular belief is absolutely false and those who promote it grossly mischaracterize church history. It is safe to say that Darby systematized and popularized Dispensationalism, and thus it is fair to identify him as the father of modern Dispensationalism, but every major element of the belief system was commonly taught in England and North America for at least two centuries before Darby. Yes, a belief in a literal thousand-year kingdom for the Jewish people (the Millennium), a pre-tribulation rapture, a return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, and other hallmarks of Dispensationalism were well known in the centuries before Darby. Of course, Dispensationalists claim that these beliefs come right from the pages of Scripture, but that is a debate for another time.

Watson’s book includes hundreds of lengthy quotations from 17th and 18th century pastors and theologians whose views either matched or were quite similar to those of classic Dispensationalism. Let’s consider a handful of examples. Note: Watson preserved the original spelling and capitalization of the various writers, which was often quite different than the standards found in modern English.

John Birchensa

John Birchensa published The History of Scripture in 1660 and used the term dispensation in the context of drawing a distinction between God’s differing plans for Jews and Gentiles in different eras.

[I]ndeavor to informe your selfe of those things which belong unto your present Dispensation. Look not for the Accomplishment of those things in your Age, which the Scripture hath declared shall not be brought to passe until future Times. Take heed how you apply those Promises that are made unto the Jewes, (and shall not be fulfilled unto them before their restoring out of their present Captivity) unto the Gentiles who shall live before the conversion of the Jewes. (Watson, 206)

Robert Maton

Robert Maton (1607–c. 1653) published several works about prophecy shortly after 1642, when press censorship ended in England. He wrote the following about Ezekiel, Joel, Zechariah, and Revelation:

[They] all foreshow one and the same battell…First, because they all speake of a more generall confederacy and combination of the Kings of the world….Secondly, because they all say, that the returning of the Jewes into their owne Land, shall be the occasion of this warre-like assembly…Thirdly, because they all declare, that the destruction of this great army, shall be in the land of Judea. (Watson, 139)

Ephraim Huit

Ephraim Huit (1591–1644), founder of the first church in Connecticut in 1639, wrote the following about the future kingdom God would give the Jewish people:

Thirdly, upon this comming of the Son of Man in the cloudes…the kingdom is given to the Iewes [Jews]…but upon the Incarnation of our Lord, the kingdom was taken from the Iewes, and given to the Romanes.

Huit added that the Jews of that time would be “very troublous” but they would finally be saved when Christ “and gods Church as a Bride royally attired descends from Heaven.” (Watson, 142–143)

Nathaniel Holmes

Nathaniel Holmes (1599–1692) wrote of the pretribulation rapture and even used the term “rapture,” following the example of Joseph Mede who preceded him in print by 26 years. Yet, many non-Dispensationalists claim that Darby invented the pretribulation rapture. Holmes wrote:

What may be conceived to be the cause of this rapture of the Saints on high to meet the Lord in the clouds, rather then to wait his coming to the earth. What if it bee, that they may be preserved during the conflagration of the earth, and the works thereof, 2 Pet.3.10. That as Noah, and his family were preserved from the deluge, by being lift up above the waters in the Ark, so should the Saints at the conflagration bee lift up in the clouds unto their Ark, Christ, to be preserved from the Deluge of fire, wherein the wicked shall be consumed? (Watson p. 145)

Holmes further explained that the rapture would coincide with the calling of the Jews.

The likeliest maine time to make out the true meaning of this Text [“they will look upon him whom they have pierced and mourn” Zachariah 12:10] is the time of the general Call, and conversion of the Jewes yet to come, at the beginning of the Restitution of all things…[T]his coming is meant of a coming after his Ascension, and yet before the ultimate day of doome….HEE COMETH implies a future thing…it is not intended of his last Act that ever hee will doe, which is the ultimate judgment. BEHOLD implies some eminent coming, and none more eminent than this, for the RESTITUTION OF ALL THINGS…HEE cometh…IN the clouds…this coming shall not bee so obscure, as his Incarnation…but he shall come conspicuous and glorious visibly to all upon the earth…Zechary the Prophet, and John the Apostle both prophesie in the aforesaid places of one and the same personall appearance of Christ visibly to the eyes of men on earth after his Ascension. But this cannot be understood of his appearance at the ultimate general judgement, because they speak of his pouring out of grace, and giving repentance to the families of the Jewes. (Watson p. 145)

Flawed Vessels

The writers cited above and throughout the book would not necessarily agree on every major point of modern Dispensationalism. Part of the reason for this is that these men were in the early stage of trying to figure out eschatology (study of end times). The early Reformers generally did not focus much on eschatology so they did little to correct Roman Catholic eschatology—they were focused largely on soteriology (study of salvation), and rightly so. Within a century of the Reformation, many theologians and pastors came to believe that Rome’s eschatology needed similar scrutiny.

Watson does not lionize the writers he cites, and he is unafraid to point out their mistakes. Like some today who practice “newspaper eschatology” (reading current events into the prophecies of Scripture) some of these 16th and 17th century writers viewed their own trying circumstances as the events prophesied in the Bible. Also, a handful of those cited by Watson were not entirely orthodox in more central doctrines. After all, if one happens to be correct in their eschatology, it does not guarantee the rest of their theology will be sound. Nevertheless, despite their errors and disagreements, it is easy to see Dispensational beliefs in their writings.

Concluding Thoughts

The “Darby invented Dispensationalism” myth is extremely common, but this refrain is demonstrably false. There have also been many vicious attacks on Darby’s character, but these baseless attacks disparage and slander a faithful Christian brother. Yet both of these ideas commit the genetic fallacy in that they attempt to discount Dispensationalism by going after its perceived source. Even if Darby were the originator of this view, it would not invalidate Dispensationalism. The system must be examined in light of Scripture. The fact that all the elements of the system existed long before Darby does not prove it to be true either, and Watson does not claim that he has proven the view to be true. He set out to correct a fallacious argument and he succeeded in obliterating it.

I knew before reading this that Darby did not invent Dispensationalism, and I was familiar with a few of the writings in this book, but I had no idea how common Dispensational ideas were in the 17th and 18th centuries. Perhaps most surprising to me were the number of Puritans who held to views consistent with Dispensationalism. I assumed that all, or nearly all of the Puritans would have been Covenantalists (given their close affiliation with Calvinist soteriology), but a sizeable minority of Puritan writers held eschatological views consistent with modern Dispensationalists. Watson wrote, “Further, many of those revered by contemporary preterists—such as Westminster Assembly divines, Anglican bishops, and renowned Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean—were actually premillennialists. While preterists claim that premillennialism is new; it is actually preterism that was considered an innovation in the early eighteenth century” (Watson, viii).

Since the book consists largely of quotes from 16th and 17th century writers along with explanatory paragraphs from Watson to introduce each writer and summarize his view, it can be a bit tedious during its 373 pages. However, it serves as an outstanding reference work. Watson apologized for this but he knew of no other way to include more than 350 primary sources and give them enough space to prevent the charge that he was pulling quotes out of context.

The book could also use one more round of editing. I found several minor formatting errors (missing spaces between words, general typos, etc.). Hopefully, these will be corrected in a second printing. However, I still wholeheartedly recommend it for anyone interested in understanding Dispensationalism, whether you are in favor of it or stand against it.

Finally, it is unbecoming of Christians to make false claims. To argue that Darby invented the pretribulation rapture and/or Dispensationalism is patently false and largely irrelevant to the debate. Many make this claim in ignorance, repeating what they’ve heard others teach. It is my hope that Watson’s book will go a long way to eliminating this notion. As Christians, we need to strive to proclaim the truth in love. That means we must seek to accurately represent the beliefs of those we disagree with when we attempt to correct them. Misrepresenting an opponent’s position might lure uninformed bystanders to your cause, but it is contrary to our mandate to be people of the truth. May we all (Dispensationalists, Covenantalists, and others) strive to proclaim the truth and love one another even though we disagree on these particular issues.

Fallen: The Sons of God and the Nephilim Is Finally Available

The front cover of my new book, Fallen: The Sons of God and the Nephilim. Click here to order from my online store.

I have been waiting a long time to write this blog post—a little over eight years to be more precise. Ever since completing my Th.M. degree and successfully defending my thesis on the sons of God and the Nephilim (Genesis 6:1–4), I have been rewriting my thesis as a popular level resource instead of an academic paper. Regular readers of this blog and the comment sections on particular threads (particularly those on subjects related to the sons of God and the Nephilim) know that I have been pointing to this day for quite a while.

At long last, Fallen: The Sons of God and the Nephilim is available from my store, and I believe it is the most thorough book available on this topic. At nearly 500 pages, Fallen brings clarity to passages that have confused and frustrated countless Bible readers. If you have ever wondered what Genesis 6:1–4 is about, or if you think that it’s too controversial or just too vague to confidently interpret, then Fallen is for you.

Brief Overview

The book is divided into four sections. After some introductory matters, the first section spans 17 chapters and deals with properly identifying the sons of God. Each of the three major views is carefully analyzed by looking first at the positive arguments and then addressing the many objections. Considerable attention is also given to the divine council in this section.

The second section consists of 10 chapters focused on the Nephilim. What does the Bible say about them? Who were they? Were they giants? How tall were they? Why were they here? How could they have been on the earth after the Flood? These and many other questions are tackled.

The book’s third section features five chapters dealing with peripheral yet practical matters. These chapters didn’t quite fit in the logical flow of the first two sections of the book and are somewhat speculative. But I believe they are important for a richer understanding of the topic. Is there any supporting evidence for giants from outside the Bible? What can we learn about these matters from other ancient cultures? Is the activity described in Genesis 6:1–4 still going on? Are there some popular arguments that should be avoided?

The final section of the book is made up of nine appendixes. Some of these could have been entire chapters, but they did not really fit anywhere in the first three sections. Some of the appendixes are short and deal with frequently asked questions.

For a full list of the chapters, see the “Look Inside” feature on the book’s Amazon page.

Frequently Asked Questions

To wrap up this post, I want to address several questions to help you understand more about the book.

Why have you spent so much time on this topic?

This is an excellent question. Everyone should agree that one’s views on the sons of God and the Nephilim have nothing to do with salvation, so why should anyone spend much time on these topics? The simple answer is that this passage is part of the Bible, and since I believe God wanted this information in His Word then I think Christians need to do their best to understand it. Also, there is a huge amount of misinformation and sensationalism that often accompanies discussion of these verses. My goal was for Fallen to provide a serious and respectful study of these intriguing topics.

Sometimes, people ask this question with a bit of cynicism or derision, as if I have been wasting my time or doing something wrong by focusing my energy on the passage. But this question could be asked of a huge number of biblical topics that are not directly related to one’s salvation, and yet we can find scores of books on plenty of these subjects. Are the critics accusing these authors of wasting their time?

Furthermore, too many Christians think salvation is the only subject worth discussing at length, but Christians are called to mature in their faith and to study Scripture so that they might properly understand it—all of it, not just the parts about salvation (2 Timothy 2:15). One of the reasons why I took over eight years to complete this book is because during that time I also wrote a book and recorded nearly eight hours of material on what is by far my favorite topic and one that is at the core of the salvation message, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (see In Defense of Easter, Risen: Without a Doubt, He Is Risen, and Shrouded in Mystery). So I do focus on other matters.

Michael Heiser’s book, The Unseen Realm, is often viewed as the definitive work on this subject. How is Fallen different?

When I received an advance copy of The Unseen Realm in 2015, I had already written about half of Fallen, and I was concerned that Heiser’s book would make mine unnecessary. As I read his book, I was relieved to discover that it was quite different, even though we reach similar conclusions on most of the topics. Check out my review of The Unseen Realm.

Those familiar with the distinction between biblical theology and systematic theology will probably understand what I mean here. Generally speaking, Heiser’s book treats this topic from the perspective of biblical theology while Fallen is more of a systematic approach. That is, Heiser moves chronologically through the Bible examining how the original audience might have understood the message, keeping in mind the progressive revelation of Scripture and cultural limitations. A systematic approach starts with the completed text and logically organizes everything Scripture has to say on a subject, while taking into account relevant scientific and historical findings.

Both approaches are important and are dependent upon each other. A good systematic theology must rely on strong biblical theology to ensure each passage is properly understood in its context. Meanwhile, since the Bible is inspired by God and inerrant, a good biblical theology must be tempered by a strong systematic theology to make sure one’s conclusions on early passages do not contradict later passages or scientific and historical data.

That being said, the two books are quite different. For example, Heiser spends only about three pages addressing two of the major views on the sons of God, the Sethite and Royalty views. In a sense, Heiser assumes (rightly, I believe) that the Fallen Angel view is correct and moves forward on that basis. The alternative views are indirectly critiqued elsewhere in the book as he shows how the Fallen Angel view makes sense of other passages. In contrast, Fallen devotes sixteen chapters to demonstrating the correct understanding of the sons of God. Each view is given significant space, detailing the positive arguments and the objections. In fact, there are four chapters devoted to the many objections to the Fallen Angel view.

There are plenty of other differences. Despite a handful of different conclusions on peripheral matters, I believe that Unseen Realm and Fallen are complementary books that will provide readers with a tremendous study on these fascinating subjects.

Will Fallen Be Available from Your Employer?

No. Regular readers of this blog know that I have been employed by Answers in Genesis since 2010. As a ministry, Answers in Genesis does not hold an official view on Genesis 6:1–4, so I would not expect them to carry a book that strongly advocates for one view over the others. That’s not to say that the ministry completely avoids the topic. Several years ago, I wrote an article for Answers magazine to provide a neutral overview of the three main views on the sons of God and the differing views on the Nephilim (see “Battle Over the Nephilim”).

One thing I like to point out when issues like this arise is that it shows that Christians can work side by side with fellow believers who hold opposing perspectives on controversial topics that do not directly relate to salvation. This is how it should be.

Do you rely on the books of Enoch and Jubilees for your position?

Definitely not! One of the many objections I’ve heard against the Fallen Angel view is that it is dependent upon the book of Enoch and other Jewish writings of the intertestamental period. While there are some people who promote this perspective and give a great deal of attention to the book of Enoch, my book rarely mentions it. In fact, I don’t even discuss its identification of the sons of God until page 125 in a chapter that surveys ancient Jewish writings on the subject. This occurs after two chapters focusing on the support for the Fallen Angel view from the Old Testament and New Testament. The Bible is my primary source throughout the book except when surveying ancient writings and cultural beliefs.

Is Fallen full of end times conspiracies?

Nope. Although several books have been published about fallen angels and Nephilim having some role to play in end times events, my book has nothing like this. The only time this sort of issue comes up in Fallen is in the chapter near the end about arguments that we should avoid. In other words, I specifically encourage people not to engage in this type of speculation.

Didn’t Jesus rule out the Fallen Angel view?

This is the number one objection to the Fallen Angel view, and easily the most important one. If Jesus spoke against it, then the Fallen Angel view cannot be correct. However, this idea is based on a misreading of Matthew 22:30. Jesus never said that angels cannot marry or produce offspring. He simply stated that the angels in heaven do not marry. He didn’t mention what they can or cannot do while in rebellion on earth. Also, there is a huge difference between cannot and do not. For example, I do not eat chili—ever! I despise the stuff. But that doesn’t mean that I cannot do it. Of course, whether angels are capable of physically manifesting and siring children is of a more serious matter than chili, but Fallen addresses these concerns in detail. This blog has already addressed some issues related to what Jesus said about the Fallen Angel view, including the possibility that He might have endorsed it. (see “Did Jesus Teach that Angels Cannot Marry?”).

Where Can I Purchase a Copy of Fallen?

Right now, signed copies of Fallen are available at my web store. Otherwise, you can find the paperback and Kindle version on Amazon. If you read and enjoy the book, please take a few moments to leave a positive review on Amazon and Goodreads.