Niagara Conferences

Gatherings for Bible study at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. These assemblies marked the beginning of the Bible Conference movement. The idea of the conferences probably originated in 1868 when eight men associated with the premillennial (or millenarian) periodical Waymarks in the Wilderness met informally in New York City. Other conferences followed, but early in the seventies several of the original group died, and the meetings were interrupted until younger men assumed leadership.

In 1875 another small group met near Chicago. Nathaniel West, James H. Brookes, W.J. Erdman, H.M. Parsons, and two other men agreed to meet the following summer. In July 1876, these six along with A.J. Gordon* and others met at Swampscott, Massachusetts, for fellowship and Bible study. They agreed to call their group “Believers' Meeting for Bible Study.” This Swampscott meeting marked the birth of the Bible Conference Movement, for each year following these men and a growing company met for Bible study. From 1883 to 1897 the conference gathered at Niagara-on-the-Lake from which it received its name.

The conferences usually opened with a Wednesday evening prayer meeting. Then, for the next week the participants heard two Bible lessons each morning, two each afternoon, and another each evening. Topics studied during the Swampscott meetings were typical: “The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit,” “How to Study the Bible,” and “The Second Coming of Christ.” Both the method of “Bible readings” and the topics of the conferences strongly suggest that the gatherings were a result of J.N. Darby's* travels in the United States and the influence of the Plymouth Brethren.*

Due to differences in the 1877 conference, Brookes drew up a fourteen-point doctrinal statement in 1878 which was officially adopted in 1890. The first article affirms that “the Holy Ghost gave the very words of the sacred writings,” and the last article professes belief in “the premillennial advent” after “a fearful apostasy in the professing Christian body.” Thus the confession reflects its background in the teachings of Darby and anticipates twentieth-century fundamentalism.

See C.N. Kraus, Dispensationalism in America (1958), and E.R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism (1970).