A mammoth, striking and powerful Dispensationalist banner

[Probably after Clarence Larkin], THE DISPENSATIONS. No place, no date, but American, 20th century.
Hand-painted banner on muslin, 36”h x 116”w, outlined in pencil then accomplished in black, green and red paint. Overall toning, some light soiling at staining. Tack holes along edges, upper corners worn from stress of hanging.

A mammoth and striking dispensationalist banner, mapping the spiritual development of humanity as purportedly predicted in the Old and New Testaments. Unsigned and unattributed, but the design strongly reminiscent of the work of Dispensationalist minister Clarence Larkin, and with a crude power that renders it a remarkable piece of American folk art.

Clarence Larkin and Dispensationalism
Dispensationalist theology divides Biblical history into distinct periods or “dispensations,” each with its own “administrative principles.” History is thus understood as a progressive revelation of divine truth, culminating in the Second Coming of Christ, his 1000-year reign on Earth, and the Day of Judgment. Broadly speaking, such structural approaches to Biblical interpretation date back to early Christianity, but Dispensationalism in particular is traced to the teachings of Englishman John Darby (1800-82). Darby traveled in the United States, where his work eventually took hold among some members of the Baptist and Presbyterian churches.

One such devotee in America was Clarence Larkin (1850-1924). Born in Chester, Pennsylvania and trained as a mechanical engineer, in his twenties he pursued a wandering professional path as a draftsman, educator of the blind and “manufacturer” (whatever that means). Larkin converted from the Methodist to the Baptist Church in 1882, undertook training for the ministry, and was ordained two years later. He held at least a couple of pastorates in Pennsylvania, but left a larger mark as an educator and communicator, culminating in his publication of Dispensational Truth in 1918:

“His study of the Scriptures, with the help of some books that fell into his hands, led him to adopt many of the tenets of the premillennialist theology that was gaining favor in conservative Protestant circles in the Gilded Age. He began to make large wall charts, which he titled “Prophetic Truth,” for use in the pulpit. These led to invitations to teach elsewhere. During this time he published a number of prophetical charts, which were widely circulated and contributed articles for the Sunday-School Times. In 1918, he completed Dispensational Truth, but high demand for the work led him to produce a greatly expanded edition of 1920.” (“Clarence Larkin”, on Wikipedia)

Presumably influenced by his engineering background, Larkin took the idea of a “blueprint” literally, for Dispensational Truth includes more than 100 detailed charts representing his ideas. These charts, which combine a prophetic-apocalyptic vision with clear and rigorous draftsmanship, continue to hold sway in some modern sects. Many may be viewed on the web site of the Rev. Clarence Larkin Estate Publishers.

Chart of The Dispensations
Larkin’s dispensationalist charts seem to have been valuable teaching tools, for after his death his estate began to license their use, which included their re-creation as large banners used for backdrops and teaching tools at evangelical gatherings. Offered here is a mammoth rendering titled “The Dispensations” by an unknown artist, though the person from whom I obtained it purchased it at a Dallas, Texas-area flea market. I have not found this particular title in Larkin’s works, but thematically and stylistically it appears to be of a piece with others he produced. The size and condition of the banner suggest that it saw some hard use, figuratively or perhaps literally “in the field”.

Theology is hardly my strong suit, but the banner offers up an extraordinary chronology, attempting to parallel the spiritual and historical progress of humanity as predicted in the Bible. The action moves from left to right, following spiritual evolution through the seven “Dispensations” of “Innocence”, “Conscience”, “Human Government”, “Promise”, “Law”, “Grace” and “Kingdom”. The transitions between dispensations are illustrated; so for example “Expulsion” marks the transition from Innocence to Conscience, “Flood” that from Conscience to Human Government, and “Babel” that from Human Government to Promise. Each element of the chart is keyed to a passage in the Old or New Testament.

The banner’s vertical axis is also significant, with each Dispensation consisting of three elements arranged hierarchically: At the bottom are the damned or fallen, shown in black and red and occupying successively “Tartarus”, “The Grave”, the “Bottomless Pit”, and so on. In the middle is humanity on its spiritual journey, depicted in black and green. And at the top is represented the shifting conception (or role?) of the divine, rendered in black and red.

In all, a rare, striking and eccentric example of evangelical Americana, doubling as a unique piece of folk art.