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Opponents of pretribulationism have often tried to "poison the well" by contending that a pre-trib understanding of the Bible is novel and/or has sprung from a polluted source. However, the last few years have witnessed the discovery of voices from the past testifying to a two-stage return of Christ. The latest pre-Darby voice to join the chorus is that of an early American Baptist pastor and educator, Morgan Edwards (1722-95).
As was typical of early American Colonists, Edwards experienced significant tragedy in his life. He outlived two wives and most of his children. During a "dark period" in his life, he ceased attending church, took to drink and was excommunicated from his church. "After making repeated efforts to be restored, he was received into the church on October 6, 1788, and thereafter lived an exemplary life."2 Baptist historian Robert Torbet described Edwards as
a man of versatility, being both a capable leader for many years and a historian of some importance. In temperament he was eccentric and choleric. . . . With all of his varied gifts, he was always evangelistic in spirit.3
Another historian similarly says of Edwards:
Scholarly, laborious, warm-hearted, eccentric, choleric Morgan Edwards, one of the
most interesting of the early Baptist ministers of our country and one of those most deserving of honor. His very faults had a leaning toward virtues side, and in good works he was exceeded by none of his day, if indeed by any of any day. . . . He was an able preacher and a good man, but not always an easy man to get on with.4
Morgan Edwards taught some form of pretribulationism as can be gleaned from the following statement in 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; 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 Thess. 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 talk about 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.
The only difference, at least as far as the above statements go, between current pretribulationism and Edwards is the time interval of 3.5 years instead of 7. In fact, anti-pretribulationist John Bray wonders,
It would be interesting to know what, in those early years at the Academy, led Edwards to his concept of a pre-tribulation rapture. One could almost think he had been studying at one of our modern dispensational-entrenched schools, the teaching is so similar to that which is being taught today.5
It would be interesting to know what he studied at Bristol, but Edwards makes it clear in the introduction that his views are not those normally held in his day and that he was approaching eschatology with a literal hermeneutic. Such an approach is said by modern pretribulationists to be the primary determinative factor leading to pretribulationism. This is what J.N. Darby claimed6 and so does Edwards before Darby.
I will do my possible: and in the attempt will work by a rule you have often recommended, viz. "to take the scriptures in a literal sense, except when that leads to contradiction or absurdity." . . . Very able men have already handled the subject in a mystical, or allegorical, or spiritual way. (pp. 5-6)
Historian John Moore, quoting from Rev. William Rogers' sermon at Edwards funeral: "There was nothing uncommon in Mr. Edwards' person; but he possessed an original genius."7 Thus, as an original thinker, Edwards, like Darby, apparently saw his views flowing from a literal reading of the Bible. Also, like Darby, Edwards developed these views early in life. Edwards was between the age of 20-22, while Darby was about 26 years old.
Edwards adds to his earlier rapture statement later when he says,
Another event previous to the millennium will be the appearing of the son of man in the clouds, coming to raise the dead saints and change the living, and to catch them up to himself, and then withdraw with them, as observed before. [i.e., p. 7] This event will come to pass when Antichrist be arrived at Jerusalem in his conquest of the world; and about three years and a half before his killing the witnesses and assumption of godhead. . . . (p. 21)
It is clear that Edwards separates the rapture and the second coming from the following statements:
8. The last event, and the event that will usher in the millennium, will be, the coming of Christ from paradise to earth, with all the saints he had taken up thither (about three years and a half before) . . . (p. 24)
millions and millions of saints will have been on earth from the days of the first Adam, to the coming of the second Adam. All these will Christ bring with him. The place where they will alight is the "mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east." Zech. xiv, 4. (p. 25)
Of interest is the fact that Edwards wrote 42 volumes of sermons, about 12 sermons per volume, that were never published. Other than his historical writings and ecclesiastical helps, his essay on Bible prophecy was his only other published work. It is significant that this essay, from his youth, was published and not something else. This evidences that there was some interest in his views on this subject. Such an interest would have surely risen out of his bringing it to the attention of those to whom he ministered. Yet, on the other hand, the book only went through one printing, showing that all books on the rapture do not automatically become a number one best seller. It could also reflect the fact that Baptists were not a large denomination at this time in America. Nevertheless, Edwards' work on Bible prophecy did have some circulation and exposed early Americans to many of the ideas that would come to dominate Evangelicalism a century later.
2 John S. Moore, "Morgan Edwards: Baptist Statesman," Baptist History and Heritage (VI:1; January 1971), p. 31.
3 Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1950), pp. 243-44.
4 Henry C. Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists (Philadelphia: The American Baptist Publishing Society, 1907), p. 232.
5 John Bray, Morgan Edwards & the Pre-Tribulation Rapture Teaching (1788) (Lakeland, FL: John L. Bray Ministries, 1995): 8
6 See Floyd Elmore, "J. N. Darby's Early Years," in Thomas Ice and Timothy Demy, When The Trumpet Sounds (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1995), pp. 127-50.
7 John Moore, "Morgan Edwards," p. 33.
8 For information about the Pseudo-Ephraem material see Grant R. Jeffrey, "A Pretrib Rapture Statement in the Early Medieval Church," in Thomas Ice and Timothy Demy, When The Trumpet Sounds (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1995), pp. 105-25. Timothy Demy and Thomas Ice, "The Rapture and an Early Medieval Citation" Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (July-September 1995), pp. 306-17.
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