Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Among evangelical Christian churches in the Great Plains, dispensationalism is an influential hermeneutical system or framework intended to make sense of the vast and varied literature of the Bible. The system assumes the existence of a personal God who created the world and humankind; a historical, grammatical interpretation of the Bible (which describes both God's work and providential plan for human history); and a premillennial understanding of eschatology. Although the number of "dispensations," or historical periods, is sometimes thought to be the distinctive feature of dispensationalism, other hermeneutical systems (such as covenant theology) also describe biblical history in terms of such phases. The major periods include the patriarchal, Mosaic, church, millennial kingdom, and eternal kingdom. Dispensationalism relates these to one another as distinct outworkings of God's purposes. For example, God's purposes during the Mosaic dispensation are different from his purposes during the dispensation of the church. Likewise, the relevant entities are distinct: during the Mosaic dispensation people related to God through the nation of Israel and the covenants that God made with that nation. Following the death of Jesus Christ, however, God instituted a new entity, the church, as the vehicle through which he would accomplish his purposes for the present dispensation.

Churches in the Plains that are best known for their dispensational approach to the Bible include the Berean Fellowship of Churches (centered in Nebraska), Independent Fundamental Churches of America (Kansas and Colorado), General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Montana), Baptist Bible Fellowship (centered in Missouri), and World Baptist Fellowship (strongest in Texas). There has also been some dispensational influence in the mainline denominations, though it is not extensive. W. A. Criswell has been the best-known dispensationalist in Southern Baptist circles; Lewis Sperry Chafer and John F. Walvoord (both associated with Dallas Theological Seminary) were Presbyterian. The American Sunday School Union has also been influential in beginning Sunday schools in the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Colorado. The Rural Home Missionary Association, headquartered in Illinois, is active in ministry in the Plains states.

Dispensational Bible colleges and institutes that are located in the Great Plains include the Rocky Mountain Bible Institute in Denver (now part of Colorado Christian University), Midwest Bible and Missionary Institute (Salina, Kansas, now part of Calvary Bible College and Seminary in Kansas City), Prairie Bible Institute (Three Hills, Alberta), Montana Bible Institute (Lewiston, Montana), and Frontier School of the Bible (LaGrange, Wyoming). The most significant dispensational influences on churches of the Great Plains have been Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute (Chicago), which have trained many of the pastors and teachers for ministry in these institutions.

The two best-known popularizers of dispensationalism in the Plains have been C. I. Scofield and William Aberhart. Scofield was an attorney and politician from Kansas who, after ordination to the Congregational ministry in 1882, edited the dispensational Scofield Reference Bible. Aberhart was a Baptist radio preacher in Calgary who founded the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute and headed Alberta's Social Credit government from 1935 until his death in 1943.

See also PROTEST AND DISSENT: Aberhart, William.

Rodney J. Decker Baptist Bible Seminary

Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Ryrie, Charles. Dispensationalism. Chicago: Moody Press, 1995.

Sandeen, Earnest. The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800–1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

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