The most popular theological system in American Evangelicalism today is Dispensationalism. The basic tenants of the dispensationalist system were first pioneered by a Jesuit scholar Manual Lacunza, who pretended to be a converted Jew (Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra) in Chile during the early 1800s. Lacunza published a book in Spanish called The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty , with the aim toward countering the Reformation claim that the Pope of Rome was the Antichrist of the book of Revelation. The work of Lacunza popularized the futurist interpretation of the book of revelation (that was pioneered by Jesuit Francisco Ribera during the Reformation) and was centered upon the failure of the Church and the restoration of the ethnic Jews to Israel. Edward Irving, a Scottish pastor and founder of Catholic Apostolic Church and fore-runner of the modern charismatic movement, was so moved by these new revelations that he taught himself Spanish in order to properly translate the prophecy to English. Irving’s primary contribution to the system was the invention of the secret rapture of the church in order to make way for the restoration of Israel by ethnic Jews.
Prior to Irving, most Jesuit futurists believed that the church would endure the tribulation period. Irving ammended the system after a female member of his Catholic Apostolic Church revealed a in prophetic vision that Christ would return twice – once to remove his apostate church, and then to establish a physical kingdom on the Earth and rule from a restored Israel. Irving became a popular prophecy teacher in the UK and had a profound influence over John Nelson Darby – a brilliant scholar and the leader of a Church of England split-off congregation nicknamed the Plymouth Brethren. Darby did not pioneer the dispensational system, but he popularized it through prophecy conferences and brought the system to America. Prophecy conferences became popular in America in the mid-1800s, just after after the Second Great Awakening and the Great Disappointment had burned through Western New York in the early 1800s. The Millerite movement, the wake of Revivalism, and strong opposition to Liberalism combined in the mid-1800s to produce a uniquely American system of religion that still predominates today. From this religious movement came the Scofield Reference Bible and Dallas Theological Seminary. The system is as strong today as ever, although, like the Plymouth Brethren of yore, the followers of the system have branched out into many different directions. For all its diversity, most dispensationalists strongly adhere to some basic core principles: 1) inerrancy of Scripture, 2) A Literal interpretation of Scripture, 3) A distinction (or radical separation) between the Old Covenant Nation of Israel and the Church of Christ, and 4) A literal, physical millennial reign of Christ. Of these, #3 is solely unique to the system. There are several other unique characteristics of adherents to the system which usually include: justification without a necessary sanctification, arminianism, a secret rapture of the gentile church before the 7-year tribulation period, several resurrections (rapture, Christ’s return, end of the millennium), and at least two judgments.
The primary American systemizer and most influential leader of dispensationalism is, without controversy, Lewis Sperry Chafer, co-founder of Dallas Theological Seminary.