I'm not looking for Biblical support of the doctrine, but for a post-Biblical teaching that clearly articulated a pre-tribulation rapture, as opposed to a post-tribulation or mid-tribulation rapture, or clear documentation that an early Christian group specifically held pre-tribulation views.
John Darby (1800-1882), often considered the father of dispensationalism and one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren, tends to be given credit for inventing the doctrine, or at least for having "provided the intellectual mantle that helped make it respectable." (1 2 3 4). Anti-pre-trib sources often allege that he got it from a certain Margaret MacDonald, who could be described as a proto-Pentecostal, but that's not generally seen as plausible by scholars (for instance, F.F. Bruce, who instead says that "it was in the air in the 1820s and 1830s among eager students of unfulfilled prophecy.")
C. I. Scofield (1843-1921) is also an important figure in the development of the doctrine, which popularized, legitimized, and gave authority to dispensationalism and related doctrines in the century since first publishing one of the most successful study Bibles in the world. Of course, the fact that Darby's and Scofield's eschatological schema is the default position of so many Christians owes much to writers such as Hal Lindsey (The Late Great Planet Earth) and Tim LaHaye (Left Behind) as well.
Pro-pre-trib sources would say that the seeds of the doctrine were present in the teachings of churchmen well before Darby, dating back to the first century. They may list Papias, Clement, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian as supporters of the doctrine. (1 2)
However, the pre-tribulationist Larry Crutchfield says in his article, "The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation in the Apostolic Fathers":
With few exceptions, the premillennial fathers of the early church believed that they were living in the last times. Thus they looked daily for the Lord's return. ... It should be noted that dispensationalists have neither said that the early church was clearly pretribulational nor that there are even clear individual statements of pretribulationism in the fathers. As Walvoord says, "the historical fact is that the early church fathers' view on prophecy did not correspond to what is advanced by pretribulationists today except for the one important point that both subscribe to the imminency of the rapture."
The preponderance of evidence seems to support the concept that the early church did not clearly hold to a rapture as preceding the end time tribulation period. Most of the early church fathers who wrote on the subject at all considered themselves already in the great tribulation. Accordingly Payne, as well as most other posttribulationists, takes the position that it is self-evident that pretribulationism as it is taught today was unheard of in the early centuries of the church. Consequently the viewpoint of the early church fathers is regarded by practically all posttribulationists, whether adherents of the classic view or not, as a major argument in favor of posttribulationism. However, the fact that most posttribulationists today do not accept the doctrine of imminency as the early church held it diminishes the force of their argument against pretribulationism.
Others list post-Reformation pre-Darby writers who wrote things that seemed to agree with the idea of a pre-tribulation rapture, but here too, it is at least clear that their idea of the rapture was not well developed. Such cited writers include John Gill and Increase Mather.
So to sum up, early church fathers taught the imminence of Christ's return, which is vital to pre-tribulation doctrine, though they believed they were in the midst of the tribulation. Many centuries later, Darby systematized the teaching of a pre-tribulation rapture, which Scofield helped rocket to popularity.
Synopsis: The pre-tribulation “rapture” teaching was first developed at the Albury prophecy conferences in the late 1820s and can be found in "Dialogs on Prophecy" published as a result of those meetings. Edward Irving was a member of these meetings and brought his friend, Lady Powerscourt to at least one of the meetings. She was so impressed that she started her own series of meetings. Irving and his family spent at least a week as a guest of Lady Powerscourt in 1830. John Darby, the founder of “Dispensationalism” is credited as developing the pre-trib rapture theory out of the Powerscourt Prophecy Conferences. One of the first proclaimers of the Pre-trib rapture theory, Robert Baxter, credits its origin with demonic deception. Matt 24 contradicts the pre-trib rapture so Darby and others invented the “Jewish Interpretation” of Matthew, thus discrediting clear Bible teaching with recent man-made theologies.
From a personal unpublished document: (Please forgive any errors and unreferenced quotes. This is just a draft.)
Edward Irving was a gifted orator and drew several thousand people to his weekly sermons at the Scotch National Church in London where he had been head minister since 1822. People would come at five in the morning to be assured of a seat. Admission was by ticket only. He was also popular in Scotland where he was known to preach to groups as large as 12,000 people. In one church so many people came that the balcony collapsed and several people were killed .
A key aspect of his preaching was the "immanency" of Christ's return. This is the idea that Christ's return could happen at any moment and that it is to be expected very soon.
An opinion had been advanced in some of Mr. Irving's writings, that before the Second Coming of Christ, and before the setting in upon the world of the day of vengeance, emphatically so called in the Scriptures, the saints would be caught up to heaven like Enoch and Elijah; and would be thus saved from the destruction of this world, as Noah was saved in the ark, and as Lot was saved from Sodom. [Narrative of the Facts, p10]
The immediate expectation of the Great Advent is the most powerful motive in their [the Irvingites] lives. Believing, as they do, that the Lord will come at once, and that the faithful amongst them will in a few days "be caught up to meet the Lord in the air," they pass their time on the very tiptoe of expectation. [Miller, vol. 2, p.261]
About the year 1825, and primarily under the preaching of Edward Irving, the emphasis began to be placed on the "imminence" of that event. Irving held that the Lord might appear any day, at any hour, and that He would certainly come during the lifetime of the generation then living. [Allis p.168]
And this salvation is no earthly deliverance, nor restoration of earthly dignity or power. The last notes of the knell of this world's Dispensation are pealing, -- the world passes away, and the things of the world; the only hope is that which hath been ever the hope of the Church, to be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, and so be ever with him, saved from the snare of the temptation and the great tribulation which are coming upon the earth. [Quoted from an Irvingite document, "The Great Testimony," by Miller, vol. 1, p.435]
Irving taught that Christ's return was imminent, that it could happen at any moment, and that shortly before his return, the apostolic gifts, such as prophecy and tongues, would be restored to the church. Irving called this restoration the "Baptism of the Holy Ghost" and that it could be attained by very spiritual individuals who were looking for Christ's imminent return.
In 1828 Irving hired an assistant named Alexander J. Scott. In late 1829 Scott spent time teaching James and George MacDonald and their sister Margaret, of Port Glasgow Scotland, and Mary Campbell, a teenage girl in nearby Row, about Irving's end times beliefs, including a coming FOR the saints, THEN the tribulation, then a coming WITH the saints. The McDonald's also learned about Irving's novel beliefs of the restoration of miraculous gifts through the "Baptism in the Holy Ghost."
A few months later in early 1830, teenager Mary Campbell claimed to have a "vision" and started "speaking in tongues". She wrote Irving in London explaining her experience and he was convinced it was a manifestation of God.
She first claimed her language to be that of the Pelew Islanders and later included Turkish and Chinese to her repertoire. Eventually, her claims were investigated and she was approached with the fact that her utterances were in no known language. She then claimed to be speaking in the tongues of angels.
Several days after Miss Campbell's experience, her close friend, 15 year old Margaret MacDonald, sister of James and George, also had a "vision" and started speaking in tongues.
In her "prophecy", young Margaret addressed the return of Christ. She stressed the importance of the word "sign" and separated it from the 2nd coming.
I felt this needed to be revealed, and that there was great darkness and error about it; but suddenly what it was burst upon me with a glorious light. I saw it was just the Lord Himself descending from heaven with a shout - the glorified Man - even Jesus; but that all must be, as Stephen was, filled with the Holy Ghost, that they might look up and see the brightness of the Father's glory. ... Only those who have the light of God within them will see the sign of His appearance. ... then we shall be caught up to meet Him. None will be counted worthy of this calling but His body the church ... Now will the wicked one be revealed with all power and signs, and lying wonders, so that if it were possible the very elect will be deceived. It will be a fiery trial. [Norton, p15-17]
This was a secret coming of Jesus for the spiritually prepared, those "filled with the Holy Ghost." She prophesies this to be separate from Jesus' final second coming. She also prophesies that this "secret rapture" would be before the wicked one is revealed.
Margaret's "vision" was quite a news-getter in the small town of Port Glasgow, Scotland. Although the town only had about 5000 people in it, the evening meetings were drawing upwards of 1000.
Some have claimed that John Nelson Darby came to investigate this new teaching himself for two or three weeks. [Darby, p.283-285]
After Mary Campbell and Margaret MacDonald started speaking in tongues and prophesying, others in Irving's church also started speaking in tongues and prophesying. Mary Campbell later moved to London and became one of the six "Prophets" of Irving's church.
These "Irvingites" eventually separated themselves from the Church of Scotland and renamed themselves the "Catholic Apostolic Church".
Another of the six "Prophets" was Robert Baxter. Baxter would often be moved to prophecy when "the power" was upon him.
and yet I was distinctly conscious of a power acting upon me beyond the mere power of excitement. So distinct was this power from the excitement that in all my trouble and doubt about it, I never could attribute the whole to excitement. [Narrative of the Facts, p3]
On January 14, 1832, Mr. Baxter "prophesied" that in 3 1/2 years Jesus would come for his saints and that after a 3 1/2 year reign of antichrist he would return with his saints.
count the days one thousand threescore and two hundred - 1,260 - the days appointed for testimony, at the end of which the saints of the Lord should go up to meet the Lord in the air, and evermore be with the Lord. ... This is the translation of the saints, whilst the rest of the world are left in their usual occupations. [Narrative of the Facts, p10]
This escape is from the days of vengeance, and the standing before the Son, is for those who are counted worthy to be translated." [Narrative of the Facts, p11]
on other occasions, by the "utterances in the power," was the same thing again and again declared. [Narrative of the Facts, p11]
[Concerning 2 Thess 2:6] "He who letteth" was declared [by "the power"] to be the Spirit of God: and the taking of this letting power out of the way, to be the taking away of the Spirit of God from the visible Church. [Narrative of the Facts, p14]
[This is the Dispensational teaching that the church will restrain evil until it is taken away by the Pre-trib rapture.]
so at the end of the three years and a half from the beginning of the prophecy of the witnesses, would God take away His Spirit and His Church altogether from the earth, by causing His faithful spiritual Church to be caught up to heaven like Elijah; and the earth being then without a witness for God, Satan should take to himself the sovereignty, and stand forth in all hideous power in the person of one man, to receive the worship of all the earth: that this in particular and in fullness was the man of sin, [Narrative of the Facts, p15]
The purport of his utterance was confirming what had been said upon the rapture of the saints within three years and a half. [Narrative of the Facts, p27]
Notice the usage of the word "rapture". The term was in use in 1832.
In late summer of 1830, Irving, with his wife and daughter, spent more than a week in Dublin at the castle of Lady Powerscourt. Irving traveled around the Dublin area preaching to thousands. During one eight day period, he preached thirteen times. At one church so many people came to listen to him that one of the windows of the church was removed to enable the people outside to hear.
The Rev. Edward Irving, who our readers may recollect is minister of the Caledonian Chapel in London, preached an able and admirable discourse yesterday, at the Scots' Chapel.... This place of worship was not only crowded to suffocation, but several hundreds assembled outside on benches placed at the south-west window, the frame of which had been previously removed, from which he was audibly heard by the external as well as internal portion of the congregation. [Saunder's News-Letter, 18th Sept. 1830 / from Oliphant, p.300]
Lady Powerscourt visited the Albury conference in 1827 and had become very interested in prophetic subjects. She is said to have read every book on prophecy available at the time.
[She] was so delighted with them [the Albury conferences] that she established a similar series of meetings at Powerscourt House near Bray [Fuller 1957 p.51/Neatby p.38]
Irving attended some of these meetings [Fuller 1957 p.51/Froom, V3, p.585] as did Irving's mentor, Hatley Frere.
Another close friend of Lady Powerscourt, himself from the Dublin area, was John Nelson Darby. It was said that at one time Darby and Lady Powerscourt were engaged, but they canceled their engagement because of his heavy traveling schedule. Darby also came to the conferences sponsored by Lady Powerscourt, attending with Irving and Frere.
The late Dr. Harry Ironside had a thirty year background with the Plymouth Brethren, the denomination Darby helped found. He was a believer in the pre-tribulational rapture. He has even been called the "prince of dispensational preachers." [Ryrie, p.31] Ironside writes about the beginning of the pre-tribulation theory:
... a group of earnest Christians had been meeting in the castle of Lady Powerscourt for the study of prophecy. To these meetings Mr. Darby and Mr. Bellett were invited. Here also they met George V. Wigram, who was to become one of Mr. Darby's most earnest collaborators in after years. ... Many clergymen attended, and quite a few who were linked with the Irvingites, thus giving rise to the erroneous impression that the Brethren Movement was more or less linked with the 'Catholic Apostolic Church'. ... It was at these meetings that the precious truth of the rapture of the Church was brought to light; that is, the coming of the Lord in the air to take away His Church before the great tribulation should begin on earth. The views brought out at the Powerscourt castle not only largely formed the views of Brethren elsewhere, but as years went on obtained wide publication in denominational circles, chiefly through the writings of such men as Darby, Bellett, Newton, S. P. Tregelles, Andrew Jukes, Wigram,... [Ironside, p.23]
John Darby copied much of his theology about the pre-trib rapture and resulting Dispensationalism from Irving and others at the Albury conferences. Baxter, however, had second thoughts about the pre-tribulation rapture idea and its true origin.
Mr. Robert Baxter subsequently repented deeply of his part in the impiety. Humbly confessing his sin, he separated himself wholly from the partisans of the 'fables' and published a 'Narrative of the Facts.' He constantly maintained that the manifestations with which he had been connected were supernatural, but that Satan, not the Holy Spirit, was their author. [Prophetic Outlook Today, E.P. Cachemaille (1918); p.20 / McDougall, p.24]
Fearful denunciations of judgment were given both morning and evening, and the reiterated declaration that, within three years and a half, the believers in the Lord would be caught up to Him, and the world delivered over to the judgments of God. Much as was the false prophecy which was mixed up with this testimony, I have been confounded by the fact, occurring in this instance, as also in other similar public testimonies in preaching; that Christ was preached in such power, and with such clearness, and exhortation to repentance so energetic and arousing, that it is hard to believe the person delivering it could be under the delusion of Satan. Yet so it was, and the fact stands before us, as a proof that great errors may be associated with a considerable amount of light and zeal for God's truth. [Narrative of the Facts, p21]
I endeavoured to convince him [Irving] of his error of doctrine, and of our delusions concerning the work of the spirit; but he was so shut up he could not see either. [Baxter, Narrative of the Facts, p42]
Dr. Tregelles, editor of the Greek New Testament and one of the foremost biblical scholars of the nineteenth century, was involved in promoting the "Secret Rapture" for a time (note his name in Dr. Ironside's quote above), but he also had a change of heart. Later he writes:
I am not aware that there was any definite teaching that there would be a secret rapture of the Church at a secret coming, until this was given forth as an "utterance" in Mr. Irving's Church, from what was there received as being the voice of the Spirit. But whether anyone ever asserted such a thing or not, it was from that supposed revelation that the modern doctrine and the modern phraseology arose. It came not from Holy Scripture, but from that which falsely pretended to be the Spirit of God, ... After the opinion of a secret advent had been adopted, many expressions in older writers were regarded as supporting it; in which, however, the word "secret" does not mean unperceived or unknown, but simply secret in point of time. [Tregelles, p.35]
Dr. Robert Cameron, one-time editor of "Watchword and Truth," claims that
...until the days of Edward Irving, who was excluded from the Presbyterian church for heresy, no one ever heard of this "coming for," and "coming with" the saints; no one ever intimated that the saints would not be on the earth in the days of the Antichrist. [Robert Cameron, "Notes by the Way," 'Watchword and Truth', XXIV (January, 1902), 395. / from Fuller, p.112-3]
"no hint of any approach to such a belief can be found in any Christian literature from Polycarp down, until the strange utterances given out in the Church of Edward Irving ... by women speaking in tongues." ... Then, according to Cameron, "they recovered the long-neglected truth that a 'Second Coming' of the Lord was 'the hope' of the Apostolic Church" ... Since that day was then eighteen centuries closer than in Apostolic days, they "became possessed of the feeling that it was the 'midnight' hour of Christendom, that the Advent was at the very door," ..[Theissen, p.188-9]
The pre-trib rapture is not a result of Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism is a result of the pre-trib rapture.
A specific instance where Darby designed Dispensationalism to support his pre-tribulation rapture idea is in his interpretation of Matthew 24 where an average reader unindoctrinated in the beliefs of Darby Dispensationalism would place the gathering of the saints after the tribulational period.
Nothing in context or orthodox biblical interpretation would indicate that Christians are excluded from Matthew 24. Indeed, the general historical consensus is that this applies to the church and that the church will go through the tribulation.
Benjamin W. Newton was a close associate of Darby in the early years of the Plymouth Brethren movement. Darby later excommunicated Newton for disagreeing with him on certain theological points, such as the following.
At last Darby wrote from Cork, saying he had discovered a method of reconciling the whole dispute, and would tell me when he came. When he did, it turned out to be the 'Jewish Interpretation'. The Gospel of Matthew was not teaching Church Truth but Kingdom Truth, and so on. He explained it to me and I said 'Darby, if you admit that distinction you virtually give up Christianity.' Well, they kept on at that until they worked out the result as we all know it. The Secret Rapture was bad enough but this was worse [MacPherson, p.199]
Mr. Kelly further remarks, that "it so happens that, during a visit to Plymouth in the summer of 1845, Mr. B. W. Newton, told me that, many years before, Mr. Darby wrote to him a letter in which he said that a suggestion was made to him by Mr. T. Tweedy (a spiritual man, and most devoted ex-clergyman among the Irish brethren), which, to his mind quite cleared up the difficulty previously felt on this very question. [Carlsson, p.69]
But since they were Bible students and not fanatics, they had difficulty with Matt. 24:29,30, where we read: "Immediately after the tribulation ... shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven." For three years they were perplexed about the meaning of this statement. The tribulation had not come, nor had the "abomination" that preceded it been seen; "therefore the Advent was not historically imminent, however it might be to the heart."... At that time a godly clergyman, by the name of Tweedy, came from England to Dublin and solved the problem by teaching that the so-called Olivet Discourse was for the Jews, that the Church would be caught up, secretly, before the tribulation. This interpretation these godly men accepted and proclaimed to the world. J. N. Darby is especially mentioned as giving it currency by speech and pen. [Theissen, p.188-9]
Is it possible to determine where Mr. Tweedy came upon this "new teaching" of Matthew 24?
While not definitely saying that Tweedy got this teaching from the women who spake in tongues in Irving's meetings (he [Cameron] says that Irving taught it too), he seems to insinuate that is the case. [Theissen, p.189]
A brief anecdote on Darby's tendency of reinterpreting the Bible can be seen in the following quote by an early member of Darby's Plymouth Brethren movement.
... I am a constant reader of my Bible, and I soon found that what I was taught to believe did not always agree with what my Bible said. I came to see that I must either part company with John Darby, or my precious Bible, and I chose to cling to my Bible and part from Mr. Darby. [Reese, p.320]
Thus, George Muller, one of the great saints of the 1800's, chose to believe his Bible instead of what John Darby taught. Muller, incidentally, was also excommunicated by Darby because he also disagreed with Darby on certain points of theology.