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  • Writer's pictureDr. Roger D Duke

The Bestselling Reference Bible That Remade American Evangelicalism


The Bestselling Reference Bible That Remade American Evangelicalism


By combining familiar and original material, the Scofield Reference Bible ushered in a theological sea change.


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(This is adopted and adapted by Dr. Roger D Duke. It was posted by Text and Canon Institute @ https://textandcanon.org/the-bestselling-reference-bible-that-remade-american-evangelicalism/#:~:text=That%20bestseller%20is%20the%20Scofield,million%20copies%20in%20its%20lifetime. It is used here since the web page gave permission to "share it." It was posted on July 1, 2024).


It is a useful fact for trivia night that Oxford University Press, one of the world’s most prestigious academic publishers, has a bestselling book of all time that it doesn’t often celebrate. That bestseller is the Scofield Reference Bible, edited by C. I. Scofield, first published in 1909, updated in 1917, and revised in 1967. In its first few decades, the SRB sold more than two million copies and, by one estimate, has sold more than ten million copies in its lifetime. It still sells in various formats in dozens of languages.


These sales have influenced an entire religious subculture in the English-speaking world. Journalist Amy Frykholm’s recollection is shared by millions of Americans: “In my mind’s eye I see my grandmother’s Scofield Reference Bible, a text from which she read every day of her life, a text that told her of the coming of the rapture” (4). Indeed, the SRB’s widespread adoption by lay evangelicals since 1909 has made it something of a driver of U.S. evangelical and fundamentalist culture writ large.


The SRB popularized the teaching of an any-moment “rapture” event (even as Scofield’s notes did not employ that term) and unobtrusively introduced readers to key teachings of dispensationalism, the theological tradition known for advancing biblical literalism, a strong Church-Israel distinction, and a sequence of distinct dispensations of God’s relationship with humanity that will end with a pretribulational rapture and a premillennial return of Jesus.


How original was Scofield?

Recent accounts of the SRB acknowledge the Bible’s importance in the history of evangelicalism. To reference the most recent, historian Donald Akenson concludes that it “became deeply embedded in American culture” (435). Other scholars agree, which is why the SRB has such a prominent place in the history of annotated Bibles.1


But a deeper question allows us to explore afresh some fundamental aspects of the SRB, including its origin, importance, and legacy: exactly how original (or not) was it? Historians, not to mention theologians and other informed observers inside and outside of the dispensationalist tradition, do not agree. Within religious circles, where historic creeds are important reference points, “originality” is a loaded term. And in non-religious scholarly circles, continuity is hotly debated. Assessing the SRB’s originality and continuity can supply a new appreciation for how it changed the world and why it has remained relevant more than a century after its publication.


The story of the SRB’s originality (or not) should be assessed at three levels:

  1. How much did it reflect American Protestant assumptions in the early twentieth century?

  2. How much did it reflect the teachings of what I call the Moody Movement, or the proto-dispensationalist movement, of which Scofield was a leader?

  3. How much of it was idiosyncratic to Scofield himself?


C. I. Scofield (1843–1921)

Most studies of the SRB begin with the man who produced it, Cyrus Scofield. Much has been made of Scofield, whose biographical details have been debated. Especially for his opponents, they have also been used as fodder to dismiss his writings.


My contention is that the figure of Scofield matters less than asking how much of what ultimately made its way into the SRB was original (and in what way) and how much was continuous with previous teachings in the American Protestant circles Scofield inhabited. The explanation for the SRB’s stunning sales and cultural success lies, in part, in the fact that answers to all of three of these questions are multifaceted and complex.


The early twentieth-century context

Historian Brendan Pietsch is correct when he writes that one key aspect to the success of the SRB was that “in its basic theology it reflected the beliefs and impulses of nonspecific American Protestantism, particularly among the laity” (178). In other words, it succeeded because it fit right in. On everything from the importance of conversion and evangelization to the Christian life to the essential reliability of the Biblical text, Scofield sounded like a “nonspecific” early-twentieth century Protestant. Moreover, he did so while presenting his findings as modern, “based on ‘a new and vast exegetical and expository literature,’” as he wrote in his Bible’s preface.


In other words, the SRB was successful precisely because on many topics it did not question received views and presented those received views as justifiable in a modern intellectual climate. This includes views that are rejected today but were commonplace in the early twentieth century, including the “gap theory” interpretation of Genesis 1 and the racist assumption of a “curse of Ham” (see Scofield’s note for Gen. 9:1).


Scofield divided Genesis 1:1–3 into three sections, allowing for a presentation of the “gap” theory of an undisclosed but vast amount of time between each verse. As note two explains, “The first creative act refers to the dateless past, and gives scope for all the geologic ages.”


Neither of these views fell outside the American Protestant mainstream of the time and Scofield was merely one proponent of both. Had they been more fringe, or had Scofield presented novel views on historic teachings in too particular a manner, the SRB’s appeal would have shrunk and its status would have become isolated as a “Scofieldian” production rather than a broadly evangelical one.


We can see this in action by comparing Scofield’s work to a contemporaneous Bible which represented some of the same unique theological teachings that influenced him. Scofield’s work was indebted, in part, to the teachings of John Nelson Darby, the influential leader of the Exclusive Brethren movement and the prodigious writer and articulator of such doctrines as the any-moment rapture. While the two men never met, we know that Scofield was familiar with Darby’s writing and the Exclusive Brethren movement. Scofield cites Brethren in the SRB acknowledgements and Brethren helped to fund and bring it to publication. Yet, as historian Crawford Gribben has recently argued, Scofield did not regard himself as beholden to Darby’s ideas. The notes presented Darby’s teachings in a “radically revised, simplified, and contracted form”2 intended to apply to American evangelical rather than British Exclusive Brethren concerns.


But Scofield was not the only biblical annotator working to adapt Darby’s teachings. Another person influenced by Darby was Fredrick W. Grant, perhaps the most prominent U.S.-based Exclusive Brethren at the turn of the century. Grant had produced his own seven-volume Numerical Bible from 1888–1905 that we can see as a similar project to Scofield’s. Grant’s work included expository notes, but the nature of these notes was different from Scofield’s. Grant combined intricate numerology and typology, a novel way to number verses, and Exclusive Brethren teachings about ecclesiology and pneumatology more aligned with Darby that made his Numerical Bible a robust offering, but one destined for a niche market. Grant’s work is notable today mostly because, according to one of the first chroniclers of the SRB, Scofield kept Grant’s work by his side constantly as a reference.


The role of the ‘Moody Movement’

Unlike Grant’s Bible, the SRB was not so novel as to become niche. What it did do was offer a distinctively conservative presentation of Biblical teachings that aligned with Exclusive Brethren emphases and the growing premillennial convictions of conservative evangelicalism in the United States. And it did all this in an emerging fundamentalist-modernist polarization of American Protestantism. This conservative evangelicalism was, as historian Michael Hamilton has defined it, essentially the outgrowth of Dwight Moody’s era-defining revivals, missions work, and institution-building.


The “Moody Movement” incubated the first Bible institutes, the first wave of nondenominational global missions agencies, and was powered by the robust Bible and prophecy conference circuits such as the famed Niagara Bible Conference (1875–1897). Scofield himself was at one time the pastor of Moody’s own church in Massachusetts, helped found the Central American Mission, and founded the Philadelphia School of the Bible (now Cairn University).


D. L. Moody speaking to a group at Northfield Camp in Massachusetts. Wikimedia Commons

The Moody Movement was more distinctive than “nonspecific American Protestantism” on a number of fronts, each of which made it into Scofield’s notes. The Moody Movement was generally premillennialist in eschatology (breaking with the dominant postmillennial Protestant consensus a generation before), was committed to Keswick or “Higher Life” teachings (breaking with both confessionally Reformed sanctification and Wesleyan perfectionism), rejected Darwinian evolution (Scofield’s note for Gen. 1:26 declared, “Man was created, not evolved”) and young earth creationism (Scofield preferred to interpret the “days” of Gen. 1 as “a [longer] period of time marked off by a beginning and an ending”).

Moody and Scofield represented a thoroughly interdenominational movement, focused on parachurch activity.

Moreover, Moody and Scofield represented a thoroughly interdenominational movement, focused on parachurch activity, with a default to congregationalism in church polity and structure allowing for the mixing of such disparate denominational members in the movement as Exclusive Brethren, Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Stone-Campbellites, and some early Pentecostals.


These movement-level distinctives are what helped demarcate the SRB reading public and friendly churches from American Protestantism as a whole. Landing when it did in 1909 and, especially, with the revised 1917 edition, this meant that the SRB’s legacy would both be limited (to the more conservative wing of the emerging fundamentalist-modernist polarization), but would also permeate that fundamentalist wing and disproportionately shape the baseline interpretations of verses and passages for those within the fundamentalist fold.


Scofield’s committee of “consulting editors” was another testament to this specific strand of Protestantism to which he belonged. It was made up of Moody Movement leaders representing key institutions (Moody Bible Institute, Toronto Bible Training School—now Tyndale University) and luminaries (Arthur T. Pierson, Arno C. Gaebelein—the latter of which assisted Scofield on writing most of the prophecy-related notes), among others.


The front plate of the Scofield Reference Bible’s 1917 edition provides a detailed description of the resources Scofield is adding to the Biblical text as well as a list of the consulting editors, significant as much for what the list signals as for exactly how instrumental these individuals were to the substance of the SRB.


The extent to which these consulting editors—excepting Gaebelein—directly aided Scofield in the substantial creation of the SRB is limited. More important to Scofield was establishing that he was indebted to, as his preface made clear, “the valuable suggestions and co-operation” of such an esteemed group of Moody Movement leaders whose names essentially vouched for the high quality of the final product.


Alongside the SRB’s interpretive commitments, the book helped to popularize new Bible reading techniques and technologies that had been gaining legitimacy in the preceding decades. Beyond extensive help notes at the bottom of the page intended for lay readers, Scofield introduced newly titled section headings that could play a significant interpretive role, as in the aforementioned case of the “gap” theory of Genesis 1:1–3 or the various headings declaring a new dispensation (see, for example, headings preceding Gen. 8:20–22 or Exod. 19:8).


Moreover, he offered an elaborate chain system of verses that ran down a central column of each page that created thousands of analog “hyperlinks” across the entire Biblical text, producing new associations, systematizations, and meanings for key terms including Israel, salvation, and antichrist. Scofield’s chain system, as Donald Akenson documents, emerged alongside similar systems such as that developed by Frank C. Thompson (in his Thompson Chain Reference Bible, first published in 1908).


Alongside the hundreds of notes, Scofield developed an extensive system of subject references. These created a vast internal architecture of biblical meaning and resemble something like an analog “hyperlink” system for establishing systematic meanings of words and passages. This instruction page was inserted more than a dozen times in the Bible, preceding each grouping of books (Pentateuch, Historical Books, Poetical Books, etc.).


Both Scofield and Thompson were indebted to the Biblical indexes and concordances developed in the previous thirty years by Augustus Strong and Robert Young which gained immediate widespread adoption by lay Christians. Scofield embedded each of these technologies in his own reference Bible to create, as he wrote in the 1917 introduction, a one-stop Biblical interpretive resource for “the plain people of God in their homes.”

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Scofield’s unique contribution

Finally, there is Scofield himself. Born in 1843 in Michigan, he was living with relatives in Tennessee when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Scofield enlisted for a one-year term in the Confederate Army where he served at Antietam in September 1862. But, when he was conscripted, he prosecuted his own discharge on terms of bad health and being underage when he had enlisted. He spent the rest of the war in St. Louis and married into a wealthy Catholic family in 1866. His story is a rough one from this point: he was appointed a U.S. attorney, dismissed for corruption, became an alcoholic, and fled his home, separating permanently from his wife and two daughters.


In the midst he converted to Christianity and became a disciple of one of St. Louis’s most prominent pastors, James Brookes, who also happened to be one of the most significant adopters and promoters of Exclusive Brethren teachings in the U.S. Scofield was a quick learner and became a successful popularizer and co-organizer with Brooks, Moody, and many other prominent evangelicals of the era. Scofield had a gifted mind, learned and synthesized vast amounts of information, and worked tirelessly, amid significant health challenges, to complete his work.


He was also a socially conservative Christian who regarded theological and social truth as intertwined. Scofield spent much of his pastoring career in Dallas, Texas and by all accounts accepted the Jim Crow system of racial segregation then in force. Scofield preferred clear, distinct, and hierarchal categories and relations between concepts—between law and grace, periods of time, between goodness and sin, and between groups of people.


He was skeptical of social reform movements of all kinds and pessimistic about the prospect of international peace, socialism, ecumenism, or capitalism as solutions to sin and injustice. We might see socialism and capitalism on separate ends of an economic spectrum, but for Scofield both pointed toward a concerning consolidation of power and authority in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

We might see socialism and capitalism on separate ends of an economic spectrum, but for Scofield both pointed toward a concerning consolidation of power.

Consolidation was both politically and prophetically significant—it presaged more difficulty for Christians and the fulfillment of worsening conditions on earth before the return of Jesus. Scofield’s views permeated his notes in ways obvious and implicit, whether it was an imposition of law-grace distinctions across all parts of the Bible, or his endorsement of the curse of Ham mentioned above.


Scofield came into funding and opportunity for the SRB through his involvement with Exclusive Brethren businessmen and prophecy conference circuits in the 1890s and early 1900s. By 1902 he had secured some support from benefactors to quit his pastoral duties and dedicate all of his time to the production of his Bible. He spent the years 1905–1908 largely in Europe where he met Henry Frowde, the famous publisher of Oxford University Press who was also at work developing a new North American branch for the press. Scofield and Frowde came to an agreement in April of 1909 that landed the SRB in hands of readers on both sides of the Atlantic (though with a much larger built-in audience in the United States).


Taking all three dimensions together, the SRB could not be what it became without a mix of continuity and originality relative to American Protestantism in 1909: the Moody movement as the dominant buying market for the Bible and the specific efforts of Scofield himself (and those he surrounded himself with).


Akenson declares that the SRB was “a successful rewriting of the scriptures… a new Bible,” (427) which seems too strong a claim given the significant lines of continuity Scofield advanced from both Exclusive Brethren and American Protestant circles. Historians R. Todd Mangum and Marc Sweetnam, on the other hand, conclude that Scofield’s theology “is characterized by (1) social conservatism; (2) irenic evangelicalism, and (3) distinctive dispensationalism” (133). This gets closer to the analysis presented here, though it was not just the theological but social, cultural, and publishing context that shaped these commitments.


Perhaps the most iconic product of early dispensationalism was its detailed charts, many of which illustrated prophetic timelines. The most recognizable were those by American Baptist pastor Clarence Larkin (1850–1924).


Assessing the legacy

We can assess the legacy of the SRB in the subsequent century using the same levels of analysis as we have used so far. For Scofield himself, the SRB made him a singular name in the Moody Movement and, though he died in 1921 before the fundamentalist movement had fully cohered, he was a household name there, as well. In the circles of fundamentalism where it took hold, the book had a unique shaping power on lay and pulpit Biblical interpretations—theologically, culturally, and devotionally. As the historian Paul Boyer observed, Scofield was “a towering figure” and his Bible “more than any other single work solidified the premillennial movement” (97).


Yet on the flip side, Scofield himself became a lightning rod in other sectors of fundamentalism. Perhaps most significantly, the coiner of the term “dispensationalism” was a disaffected fan of Scofield named Philip Mauro, who came to reject proto-dispensationalist theology in part because of reading the SRB. While Scofield’s notes on eschatology did not align with Mauro’s views, other facets of the SRB were even more alarming to him. Picking up the Bible for the first time, Mauro could not make it past the notes for Genesis 1 which allowed for a nonliteral reading of “days” of creation. In an out-of-print book from 1919 titled A Kingdom Which Cannot Be Shaken he wrote, “I found to my surprise and disappointment that these notes made room for, and indeed rather favored, the absurd notion that the ‘days’ of Genesis 1 were long periods—ages—of time” (10–11).


A passionate advocate of a six-day reading of the creation account, Mauro could not brook difference on this issue. His depiction of Scofield and his notes as “modern” and “clever” were not meant as compliments. As later twentieth century doggerel from dispensationalist opponents attests, Scofield remained polarizing. A satire based on the famous hymn “On Christ the Solid Rock” runs like this: “My hope is built on nothing less / Than Scofield’s notes and Moody Press / I dare not trust this Thompson’s chain / But wholly lean on Scofield’s fame.”

“My hope is built on nothing lessThan Scofield’s notes and Moody Press.”

The fundamentalist reaction to Scofield bleeds into movement-level analysis of the SRB’s legacy. In theological terms, the SRB cemented the ascendance, for most of the century after its publication, of futurist, pre-tribulational premillennialism as the dominant eschatological position among a large swath of fundamentalism and post-World War II evangelicalism (and relevant still today). Scofield had been part of a resurgent premillennial movement in the late 19th century that then splintered over debates on the nature and timing of end-times events, leading, among other things, to the ending of the famous Niagara Bible Conference in 1897.

The New Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1967, was the culmination of more than a decade of scholarly collaboration. The editorial committee made thousands of changes to the 1917 edition, including revisions away from key Scofieldian emphases such as typologies. The committee also added notes that included tacitly endorsing Zionism (see note for Gen. 12:3) that reflected changing world events since 1917.


The SRB appeared at an opportune time to assure that Scofield’s views prevailed and became more permanently embedded in the Moody Movement and, later, in large parts of the Billy Graham-oriented evangelicalism. For his part, Scofield articulated his own end-times position into his notes and did not acknowledge other views. The scholarship of later evangelical premillennialists such as George Ladd, Carl Henry, and James Montgomery Boice—among many others later in the 20th century—had to contend with the SRB’s massive reach and success in shaping the premillennial movement.


Finally, how significant was the SRB’s broader national reach in the United States and beyond? We can say without a doubt it has contributed to dispensationalism being, as one historian described it, “perhaps the most resilient popular theological movement in American history” (246). The SRB’s continuing popularity is a testament to its impermeability to being dismissed, especially in communities where it has already gained authority.


Yet a truly national and international legacy is harder to discern. Its influence on global missions and successive generations of Christianity in the Global South is evident, but not yet assessed systematically by scholars. In terms of the United States, Akenson concludes his study of the SRB by describing it as “the ur-text, the script and scripture, of twentieth-century American white Christian nationalism” (436). This would be remarkable if true.


Scofield and today’s ‘Christian Nationalism’

Yet as alluring as it might be to draw a straight line from Scofield to Trump, such claims to the SRB’s significance should be resisted. We can too easily commit the violation that anthropologist Susan Harding warned about the “internally ‘orientalized’” (390) othering of American fundamentalism, assuming static and largely unchanging influences in the twentieth century that do not account for, in the case of the SRB and Christian nationalism, an intervening century of dynamic development, reforms, splits, and reassessments of theology including the SRB.


The SRB resides theologically and ideologically distant from much of what is commonly referred to as “Christian nationalism” today. It would certainly have been news to Scofield, as well as to contributing editors James Gray (president of Moody Bible Institute) and Arno C. Gaebelein, all of whom received critiques from other Protestants for not being nationalistic enough during World War I (1914–1918). Those charges, lobbed by modernist critics of premillennialism such as Shirley Jackson Case, who equated premillennialism with political quietism, the Moody Movement’s relationship to American power and war was complex in the 1910s.


It was not until the 1940s—World War II and the start of the Cold War—that evangelicalism developed a more thorough nationalism, and still decades later that the more familiar politicized dispensationalism of Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye shaped evangelical activism at the grassroots. By the 1980s we are a long way from the SRB’s original context and, indeed, a long way from its direct (though certainly there was indirect) influence on these developments.


Today’s leading advocates of Christian nationalism tend to represent the theological tradition, not of Scofield and the SRB, but of his critics (confessionally Reformed and Pentecostal postmillennialists).

Today’s leading advocates of Christian nationalism represent the theological tradition, not of Scofield and the SRB, but of his critics.

Conclusion

In the end, the Scofield Reference Bible remains significant as ushering in a theological sea change among lay evangelicals in the early twentieth century—and not because everything Scofield introduced was new. The layering of familiar and original, the addition of distinctive teachings alongside lines of continuity, created a text that indeed has shaped far more of American Protestantism than Scofield could have imagined.


Daniel (PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison) is the director of The Lumen Center in Madison, WI and a research fellow in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author most recently of The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a Nation. Learn more at danielghummel.com

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