Dispensationalism is a theological system developed by John Nelson Darby
(1800-1882), an English theologian
and a leading figure among the Plymouth Brethren
. It became popular in North America
in the 1880s and has been disseminated by the Moody Bible Institute
and the Scofield Reference Bible
. Today, it is the dominant theology among American fundamentalist
Dispensationalism is named for its belief that salvation history is divided into a series of dispensations. Each dispensation begins when God sets down new rules for humanity (or a portion of it) to follow and makes new promises to humanity. There are many systems of dispensations, but most agree that new dispensations began with The Fall, the Deluge, the covenant with Abraham, the revelation of the Mosaic Law, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Dispensationalism explains Biblical inconsistencies by maintaining that different parts of the Bible are written to people functioning under different dispensations. In particular, it emphasizes a difference between Israel and the church, so that some passages of the Bible--primarily the Pauline Epistles and Revelation--are primarily written for the Church which the rest of the Bible (including the Gospels--is written primarily for Israel.
Dispensationalism uses so-called literal interpretation of the Bible to arrive at some innovative interpretations of the Bible--notably that Jesus will return to establish the Davidic kingdom for the Jews and that living and dead people who are saved will be bodily carried up to heaven in the Rapture. These ideas have wide currency among American Christians, many of whom are not trained in dispensationalist theology and methods.