Are there seven ‘eras of the church’, as some say – ‘Sardis era’, ‘Philadelphian era’, ‘Laodicean era’ and so on?
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Some churches have dogmas which say that the seven assemblies of Revelation 2 and 3 “represent seven successive eras of the church of God”, stretching from the apostle John’s day to our day.
Is there some biblical basis for such dogmas? The question in a nutshell: Were the “seven churches” of Revelation 2 and 3 contemporary assemblies in the days of the apostle John, as the Bible says, or are they “successive eras of the church of God” that came to exist in later times and continue to our day, as some say? Or, is there perhaps some symbolism or “spiritual meaning” connected to those seven assemblies of John’s day, or, are there later “copies” of them?
One thing is clear: The Bible does not mention the phrase or concept “church eras”. But do they exist, nevertheless? In other words: Are there “seven eras of the church” – “Sardis era”, “Philadelphian era”, “Laodicean era” and so on?
(Regarding Matthew 16:18 and the “true church” dogma, see the article naa010.htm.)
It appears that the dogma regarding “church eras” was invented by Baptist preacher William Miller (1782–1849). One of his central teachings was a claim that there were “seven eras of the church”. – Miller was either the inventor of that dogma, or at least he was among the first to promulgate it in a more public manner. Later, many others have copied his writings, and modified them in different ways.
According to an in 1842 printed version of Miller’s dogma, “the Ephesus era” was in the first century. Miller said that after that, there came “the Smyrna era”, from circa year 100 to year 312. After this, claimed he, “the Pergamos era” took over and lasted from 312 to 538. Then, said Miller, there was “the Thyatira era”, from 538 to the tenth century. Further, he said that “the Sardis era” was from the tenth century to “the Reformation”. He claimed that the Waldenses (Valdenses) formed that “era”, and he spoke about “the church in the valleys of Piedmont” and “valleys of the Pyrenees”. He said that that was followed by “the Philadelphia era”, beginning from the start of “the Reformation” and lasting to 1798, at which time “the Laodicea era” began and was to last 45 years, to 1843.
So, the original “eras” dogma by William Miller had these timings:
It was on the basis of some “calculations” that Miller claimed that Jesus was to come in 1843. But, Jesus did not come. And so, new calculations were made and new dates were given, October 22 in 1844 being the last of them. But even that day passed without anything special happening.
When Miller’s predictions were thus shown to be nonsense, this led to the “Great Disappointment” among his followers. At that time, most of them left Miller and Millerism. But, for some reason a small number of people nevertheless continued as Millerites. Some of them produced different kinds of explanations for Miller’s “calculation error”, or in regard to what “really happened” in 1843 or 1844, “invisibly” or in some other manner.
Over time, the small post-1844 remains of the Millerite movement grew larger. Later, this led to the formation of many different churches and denominations, among them some Sabbatarian ones such as Seventh Day Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists and a number of “Church of God” and “Sacred names” groups.
Again, Miller’s doctrine regarding “seven eras of the church” said that 1843 was the end for the last of those “eras” (and also the end of “2520 years”, but that is another subject). When year 1843 came, his predictions were shown to be false, and even more clearly in 1844. But later, some preachers copied Miller’s “eras” dogma and modified it in regard to dates as well as other details, and adapted it to their own needs.
The Seventh Day Adventist variant of the “church eras” dogma is probably the most widely spread one, but there are others. If we look at the seventh-day keeping part of post-1844 Millerism, we find for instance a certain “Church of God” grouping where the preacher J. T. Williamson in 1924 wrote an article about “church eras” in a paper called ‘Bible Advocate’. It may be that Williamson was copying the writings of a certain C. G. Rupert (1847–1922) who for a time was a Seventh Day Adventist preacher. It is likely that Rupert in his turn had copied some earlier Millerite/Adventist writings, and modified them. In the 1930s, the preachers A. N. Dugger (1886–1975) and C. O. Dodd (1899–1955) published a further modified version of the “eras” dogma. Then, other preachers in that grouping produced different variants of it.
But again, it appears that the original “eras of the true church” dogma was invented by the Baptist preacher William Miller. He promulgated that doctrine from circa 1830 to 1843.
Most probably, Miller created his “eras” dogma for the purpose of gaining new followers and keeping existing ones happy. He caused his followers to think that they were “the true church” which was “genuine” and had “apostolic roots”, in contrast to all other churches which were not and did not.
In other words: He created for his own Baptist church a new history and new “roots”, a history that did not originate from the Catholic Church but was instead parallel with it.
Background: By the end of the Middle Ages, the grip of the Catholic Church over western Europe began to weaken. And so, there arose many new churches (Protestant, Baptist and other). Some of those “new” churches condemned the Catholic Church as deception. But, this led to a logical problem, for if the Catholic Church was not of God, then what was the justification for the existence of those new churches? For, people could see that they were splits from Catholicism. In other words: If the root and trunk were rotten and false from the beginning, then how could the branches be “original”, “genuine” and “pure”? No “reformation” could remedy this.
That is where Miller’s “church eras” dogma came in so handy. It said that a “true”, ”pure”, ”genuine” and ”original” church had somehow been “preserved” through the centuries, totally separate from the Catholic Church and hidden from its power, in some “secret place” in western Europe, such as in alpine areas in Piedmont (Italy) or in some valleys in the Pyrenees (France/Spain).
Again, Miller created for his own church a new history and new “roots”. By the help of this, he could claim “originality” and “apostolicity” for his own church or group. That was an effective tool for keeping his followers happy, and for gaining new ones. And indeed, numerous people were drawn to Miller and his teachings – but not for a long time, because in 1843/1844 when his predictions failed, most of those people realised that he was a deceiver, or at least they left him.
Miller pointed out certain groups as “successive eras“ of the “true church”, which supposedly formed a “chain”, from the first century to Miller’s own church or group in the 1800s. This has to do with such groups as Cathars (Albigenses), Bogomils and Waldenses. Miller claimed that they formed “eras of the true church”, but it appears that they were simply sects, or splits from the Catholic Church.
Then, there is something else to consider. Have you ever wondered, what happened to the saints? That is a relevant question in this connection, because Miller claimed that there was “continuity”, from the saints, to his own church in the nineteenth century. Consider this: Why is it that the New Testament record of the saints’ doings abruptly comes to an end, as if they had vanished from the scene, some time after the middle of the first century? And, why was there after this nothing, until some 200 years later when there came on the scene a new religion (Catholicism) which was totally different from what the saints had practised?
Indeed, why and how did the saints suddenly disappear and vanish out of sight? Well, the New Testament records what Jesus and the apostles said in regard to what was to happen to them. The article nga040.htm has more on this.
It is in Revelation 2 and 3 that we find a record of the letters or messages which the Lord had the apostle John write and send to seven assemblies, in the towns Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. Those towns were situated in the Roman province that was called Asia. On modern-day maps the area in question is the western part of Asiatic Turkey.
Those assemblies or fellowships were contemporary, and they existed in the apostle John’s day, in the first century. There is no biblical basis or support for the dogmas concerning “successive church eras”.
William Miller said that his own church or group was “the last era”, “Laodicea”. 1843 was “the end”. In contrast to that original “eras” dogma by Miller, many of the preachers who in later times have promulgated some modified form of it, have instead said their own church to be “the Philadelphian era”. And, 1843 is no longer defined as “the end”. Also, some have added to the “eras” dogma a new dimension, of the kind that can be used for controlling people through fear. Clarification: Quoting certain verses in the book of Revelation, some preachers have defined their own church as “the Philadelphia era”, and they have promised safety to their followers, and “great tribulation” is said to be waiting for those who do not follow the preacher. Here is one of the passages they have used for that purpose:
Revelation 3:7 ‘And to the messenger of the assembly in Philadelphia write: […] 10 ‘Because thou didst keep the word of my endurance, I also will keep thee from the hour of the trial that is about to come upon all the world, to try those dwelling upon the earth. (YLT)
(Please keep in mind that the things recorded in Revelation 1, 2 and 3 were written to the saints in the Roman province Asia, regarding things and events in their own day and age, in the first century.)
In other words: Those preachers have caused people to believe that the preacher’s own followers (called “Philadelphians”) will be kept safe from an “hour of trial” (“great tribulation”), but that it will come upon the “Laodiceans”. (Those preachers have sometimes used that latter name of competing churches.) In other words: They have used Revelation 3:7–10 for making people believe that they must be active supporters of the preacher and remain as such, or else they will end up in tribulation.
The article nta040.htm contains a study on the different times of tribulation [affliction or persecution] that are mentioned in the New Testament.
The article nta030.htm has some notes on the 144000 and the great multitude and the difference between those two groups.
The article nga060.htm has some notes on the origin and actual meaning of the word “church”.
In other words, are there later “copies” of those seven ancient assemblies which existed in the apostle John’s day?
Again, please keep in mind that those ancient assemblies were contemporary, and not successive or consecutive. In other words: The “seven churches”, that is, the seven first century assemblies of saints in what today is Turkey – those that are mentioned in Revelation 1, 2 and 3 – existed in the apostle John’s own day, almost 2000 years ago. The Bible does not in any way say or indicate that those seven contemporary assemblies would come to have “equivalents” or “successors” in later times.
The messages which Jesus had John write to those assemblies (see Revelation 1–3) were addressed and sent, not to or regarding people of our day, but to and regarding the people in those assemblies in the first century.
Some might suggest that those assemblies could in some way have represented “mentalities or attitudes among believers in general, through the centuries”. But, the Bible does not say anything of that kind.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm
Matthew 16:18, “I will build my assembly, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it”. What and where was the ekklêsia or assembly which Jesus said he would form? Was it an earthly religious organisation as some claim, or something else? → naa010.htm
What happened to the saints? Why is there no record of their doings, after the middle of the first century? → nga040.htm
Are parousia and rapture biblical concepts? → nga050.htm
What does the Bible say about the “great tribulation”? On Matthew 24:21 and Revelation 7:14. → nta040.htm
Who are the 144000 and the great multitude of Revelation 7? And, who are the first-fruits or virgins of Revelation 14:1–4? → nta030.htm
The origin and meaning of the word “church”. → nga060.htm
Pride and humility in connection with religion. → nga100.htm
Whom should one listen to, in regard to spiritual matters? → nsa050.htm
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