History and Materiality of Dispensational Charts

Sunday, January 4, 2015
2nd Floor Promenade (New York Hilton)
A.T. Coates, Duke University
Brendan Pietsch, Nazarbayev University
In 1920, Baptist minister Clarence Larkin (1850-1924) produced a book called Dispensational Truth. The book contained ninety charts that “explained” the Bible’s relationship to history. With the precision of schematic diagrams, Larkin showed other Protestants the true meaning of complex biblical prophecies. More than just illustrations of biblical doctrine, Larkin’s charts created particular visions of the past. For Larkin, prophecies held the key to understanding history. Only a dispensationalist understanding of the Bible could reveal history’s true shape and ultimate trajectory. Depicting dragons, horned lions, and seven-headed leopards, Larkin’s charts proclaimed that the Bible could unlock all of the past’s mysteries. With absolute confidence in his historical schematics, Larkin even declared that the Bible’s prophecies about the future were “history written in advance.”

Most historians of American fundamentalism have made use of Larkin’s dispensational charts. They appear in almost every scholarly work on the subject, including four in George Marsden’s 1980 classic Fundamentalism and American Culture. In these works, dispensationalism appears as a theological/intellectual current within the broader fundamentalist Protestant movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Despite this familiarity with his work, Larkin has received little scholarly attention in his own right. Using his charts as window-dressing to their own arguments about theology or doctrine, scholars generally ignore the role visual artifacts played in the fundamentalist movement.

Our poster presentation engages the bold visuals of Larkin’s charts to offer new understandings of the history of an influential American religious movement, and offers a visual argument about the origins and sources of fundamentalist material culture. Tracing the history of dispensationalist charts, we locate Larkin in a particular context of ideas and technologies. Larkin’s training as a mechanical engineer and draftsman positioned him to create new biblical interpretations that emphasized dispensationalism’s modernist sensibilities toward precision, quantification, and taxonomy. These charts blended the interpretive stylization of apocalyptic drawings from seventeenth-century Cambridge scholar Joseph Mede with the chronological attention of eighteenth-century theologian Joseph Priestly, added in religious iconography borrowed from the nineteenth-century Millerites. Illustrating the connections and the innovations of Larkin’s charts, this poster offers new insights into the development of dispensational ideas.

Studying the charts as visual/material objects, we show how the senses operated in early twentieth-century conservative Protestantism. Contrary to popular perceptions of the movement, fundamentalists loved images and looked for truth with their eyes. From their production to their reception, Larkin’s charts reveal the central role of vision in a tradition known more for its love of texts and doctrines. Sitting at the intersection of history, religious studies, and visual culture studies, our poster offers an innovative argument about the history and role of images in American fundamentalism.

See more of: Poster Session #2
See more of: AHA Sessions