The pre-tribulation rapture doctrine is a tenet of dispensationalism which holds that living believers will be taken to heaven to avoid a future Great Tribulation. However, it is noteworthy that no verse in the Bible specifically says that Christ will come to take the church off planet earth to heaven before a 7-year tribulation. Neither is there found in Scripture a distinction between Israel and the church―or a parenthesis that stops the prophecy clock prior to the 70th week of Daniel 9:24-27. These are the distinctives that define dispensationalism and the pre-trib rapture.
The rapture doctrine was introduced to the world, or at least enhanced, in the 1830ss in the British Isles. There were 4 key players that had a hand in its early development:
- In the spring of 1830, a sickly 15-year-old Scottish girl named Margaret McDonald had a vision (“revelation”) about a rapture event. Her idea was based in part on Bible verses which in the KJV speaks of people being “taken” (Matthew 24:40-41) and “caught up” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). We know about her vision because she wrote to several prominent clergymen about it, and it was later reprinted in a couple of books. McDonald reasoned that only after a literal rapture, when some would be left on earth, would the Antichrist be revealed. It would be a secret event in that only believers would be able to see “the sign of Jesus’ appearance.” No one in the 18 centuries preceding her had ever clearly communicated this totally new doctrine of “escapism.” Scholars have even debated whether McDonald’s vision was strictly a pre-tribulation rapture, as some see elements of historicism and post-tribulation in it.
- One of those clergymen who received McDonald’s letter was Edward Irving. As early as June 2, 1830, Irving confessed in a private letter that the “substance of . . . Margaret McDonald’s visions or revelations . . . carry to me a spiritual conviction and a spiritual reproof which I cannot express.” Interestingly, Irving was also from Scotland and drew large crowds, so McDonald may have been influenced by him (as well as the reverse).
- In September 1830 a writer going by the pen name of “Fidus” expressed this novel idea in a prophecy journal which Irving published called “The Morning Watch.” Dave MacPherson, who studied pre-trib history for many years, stated in his 1994/2000 book titled “The Rapture Plot,” that this article is “the earliest moment I’ve found anyone publicly teaching the pretrib rapturescape.” Irving (and “Fidus”) seem to have been the first also to see the seven churches of Revelation as symbolic representations of seven successive stages of the church―a key element of dispensationalism. The identity of “Fidus” is unknown, but if it was not Irving himself, it seems likely that it was one of his associates.
- John Nelson Darby, Anglo-Irish founder of the Plymouth Brethren church, became aware of the above. He attended at least one of the Albury prophecy conferences, of which Irving was a part. Darby became a champion of the rapture and promoted it extensively, becoming “The Father of Dispensationalism.” It’s uncertain when Darby put together all of the many aspects of dispensationalism. But MacPherson argues that Darby did not fully embrace the pre-trib rapture until about 1839.
The 1830 beginning for pre-tribulationism is an embarrassment to dispensationalists. So, they have desperately tried to find pre-tribulation rapture before 1830, and have sloppily cited numerous church writers as being pre-trib rapturists. But my research finds all such citations suspect, being open to various interpretations based on one’s predilections or presuppositions. Here are some examples:
- Irenaeus (130-c. 202)―Jeffrey L. Edwards stated, “Irenaeus, while a second century testimony to dispensational premillennialism, ambiguously writes about his views on the tribulation and the rapture.” 
Gary Demar said, quoting Irenaeus, “ ‘And therefore, when in the end the church shall be suddenly caught up from this, it is said, there shall be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning, neither shall be. (Matthew 24:21) For this is the last contest of the righteous, in which, when they overcome they are crowned with incorruption.’ It seems to me that the church goes through the tribulation in Irenaeus’ view, otherwise why write, ‘when they overcome’? Overcome what? The tribulation. It’s difficult to know what Irenaeus meant by ‘caught up from this.’ How can there be a ‘contest of the righteous’ if the ‘righteous’ are no longer on earth?” 
- “Pseudo-Ephraem”―called “pseudo” because this was not the real Ephraim the Syrian. No one really knows who this person was, when his tract was written, or which version of the work to rely on. While some find pre-trib in this writing, MacPherson argued that this person was not a pre-tribulationist, but rather what we would call today a post-millennialist or amillennialist―with Christ’s Second Coming only at the end of history, which he expected very soon (“at hand”). Bob Gundry in his book “First the Antichrist” understood that Pseudo-Ephraem was a post-tribulationist. Stephen P. Bohr points out that Pseudo-Ephraem does not say that the saints will be ‘taken to heaven’ or ‘snatched away” or ‘evacuated.’ In fact, he never quotes any of the choice Bible verses which are used by pre-tribulationists such as 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 and dispensationalists read into the text what is not there, saying “That Lindsey would even dare use this document as evidence for a pre-tribulation rapture in the early church is astonishing and stretches credulity to the breaking point!” 
- Morgan Edwards (1722-1792). MacPherson said that Edwards was a “historicist post-tribulationist” and not a pre-tribulationist. Stephen P. Bohr, in response to Hal Lindsey, states, “There is no indication in the statement [by Edwards] that there will be two comings of Jesus. It seems, rather, that Edwards tacks on three and a half years to the beginning of the millennium to allow for the righteous to participate in a work of judgment. It is notable that Edwards does not mention the tribulation or the reign of Antichrist. He doesn’t even tell us where he gets the three-and-a-half-year figure. Furthermore, he doesn’t even hint that only the church will disappear and that literal Israel and unbelievers will be left behind. . . At best, Edwards taught a mid-tribulation rapture, a view that Hal Lindsey vigorously rejects in his book. At worst for Lindsey’s view, Edwards was not teaching a mid-tribulation rapture at all. . . Therefore, in the light of the evidence, it is safe to say that the idea of a pretribulation rapture was first introduced upon mainline Protestantism in the early 19th century.” 
- Manuel Lacunza (1731-1801). Lacunza was a Jesuit priest from Chile. Irving translated Lacunza’s book, “The Coming of Messiah,” into English. MacPherson said that Lacunza was a post-tribulationist, not a pre-tribulationist. Irving added the pre-trib rapture theory, which he may have gotten from Margaret McDonald. Others note that Lacunza thought the resurrection would be after the millennium, clearly contrary to dispensationalism.  However, it is true that Lacunza in his book promoted elements of dispensationalism: (1) saying “the Antichrist would [re]build the city and the temple” (page 301) and (2) “the restoration of the Jewish nation, to be again be the Church of God.”  Lacunza used the word “dispensation” numerous times in his book. Influenced by Lacunza, Irving taught the pre-trib rapture at the Albury and possibly the Powerscourt conferences―thus the effective origin of dispensationalism can be realistically identified with Edward Irving more than any other person.
For more on dispensationalism, check out this section on my website:
In addition to the endnotes below, here are some helpful links:
 Pseudo Ephraem and Morgan Edwards | PDF | Rapture | Western Philosophy (scribd.com) See also Bohr’s book Taken or Left.