“Whenever a Christian encounters a doctrine that has not been taught by anyone in any branch of Christ’s church for over eighteen centuries, one should be very suspect of that teaching. This fact in and of itself does not prove that the new teaching is false. But, it should definitely raise one’s suspicions, for if something is taught in Scripture, it is not unreasonable to expect at least a few theologians and exegetes to have discovered it before. The teaching of a secret pretribulation rapture is a doctrine that never existed before 1830. Did the pretribulation rapture come into existence by a careful exegesis of Scripture? No. The first person to teach the doctrine was a young woman named Margaret Macdonald. Margaret was not a theologian or Bible expositor but was a prophetess in the Irvingite sect (the Catholic Apostolic Church). Christian journalist Dave MacPherson has written a book on the subject of the origin of the pre-tribulation rapture. He writes, “We have seen that a young Scottish lassie named Margaret Macdonald had a private revelation in Port Glasgow, Scotland, in the early part of 1830 that a select group of Christians would be caught up to meet Christ in the air before the days of Antichrist. An eye-and-ear witness, Robert Norton M.D., preserved her handwritten account of her pre-trib rapture revelation in two of his books, and said it was the first time anyone ever split the second coming into two distinct parts or stages. His writings, along with much other Catholic Apostolic Church literature, have been hidden many decades from the mainstream of Evangelical thought and only recently surfaced. Margaret’s views were well-known to those who visited her home, among them John Darby of the Brethren. Within a few months her distinctive prophetic outlook was mirrored in the September, 1830 issue of The Morning Watch and the early Brethren assembly at Plymouth, England. Early disciples of the pre-trib interpretation often called it a new doctrine.”2
John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), who was the leader of the Brethren movement and the “father of modern dispensationalism,” took Margaret Macdonald’s new teaching on the rapture, made some changes (she taught a partial rapture of believers while he taught that all believers will be raptured) and incorporated it into his dispensational understanding of Scripture and prophecy. Darby would spend the rest of his life speaking, writing and traveling, spreading the new rapture theory. The Plymouth Brethren openly admitted and were even proud of the fact that among their teachings were totally new ones which had never been taught by the church fathers, medieval scholastics, Protestant Reformers or the many commentators.
The person most responsible for the rather widespread acceptance of pretribulationalism and dispensationalism among Evangelicals is Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921). C. I. Scofield published his Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. This Bible, which espoused the doctrines of Darby in its notes, became very popular in Fundamentalist circles. In the minds of many a Bible teacher, fundamentalist pastor and multitudes of professing Christians, Scofield’s notes were practically equated with the word of God itself. If a person did not adhere to the dispensational, pretribulational scheme he or she would almost automatically be labeled a modernist.”
Brian Schwertley, “Is the Pretribulation Rapture Biblical?,” pp. 2-3
A Puritan Board discussion on the origins of the pretribulation rapture doctrine: http://www.puritanboard.com/f46/where-did-rapture-theology-originate-56088/