Early American Millennial Eschatology - 18th Century Views of the End of the World Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Early American Millennial Eschatology - 18th Century Views of the End of the World

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An 18th-century American preacher tells of the end of the world.
And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.
And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
– Book of Revelation 20:1-6. King James Version.

Even to some devout Christians, the Bible's Book of Revelation reads like a bad acid trip. Christian theologians and eschatologists1 frequently contend that Revelation can be understood by removing a thick and obscure layer of symbolism. The historian has the luxury of ignoring what these verses mean, or whether they mean anything at all. The present history will indulge in this privilege to study instead how Americans from 1750-1800 understood many of these passages as signs of an imminent millennium of peace and prosperity2.

For the greater part of the history of Christianity, the Catholic Church tended to interpret these obscure verses figuratively. Catholics actually deemed some more literal-minded interpretations of Revelation to be heretical. However, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th Centuries freed Christians to formulate their own understandings of Biblical Revelation.

Millennialism was first developed in the modern Anglophone world during the English Civil War of the mid-17th Century. English Puritans developed an attitude of millennial expectation, believing that their triumph would pave the way for Christ's millennium. Since then, Protestant millennial expectation has tended to accompany unusual and revolutionary events. When many of these Puritans travelled to the New World, they brought these beliefs with them.

The structure of millennial belief proved helpful in understanding and perpetuating conflict in Europe and in the New World. While the layman may have been unable to parse the implications of geopolitics, economic considerations and dynastic rivalry in a conflict, it was far easier to understand a war in cosmic terms. A contemporary observer's view of conflict thus often identified their sympathetic party as the force of Heaven, struggling against the anti-Christian forces of Hell. Such a structure served to emotionally dramatize wars, revolutions and other strife. According to this logic, a friendly group's victory would fulfil Revelation and help to bring on the 1,000-year reign of peace and happiness known as the 'millennium'. Events such as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 seemed to lie along the path towards the millennium when Protestants attributed the secular power of kings to the intervention of the anti-Christ.

Millennialism in 18th Century America

Eventually, millennialism waned in England. However, American theologians and believers continued this tradition and imbued it with their own sense of American exceptionalism. For many preachers, America represented a new Israel which would serve as the site of Christ's millennial reign. Three major events served to trigger waves of millennial expectation – the French and Indian War, the American Revolution and the French Revolution.

French and Indian War

In the 1750s, a series of earthquakes unsettled the already-perpetually-jittery Puritans of New England. Another seismic shift occurred during the mid-1700s with the growth in Christian piety subsequently referred to as the First Great Awakening. When the French and Indian War (a name for the North American front of the Seven Years' War) broke out in 1754, Americans sensed that the end of the world was near. They began to speak about the millennium more than ever before. Despite its modest historical significance3, Americans often viewed the French and Indian War as a turning point in, or a cataclysmic end to, history. In this environment, other apparently heavenly events such as comets and wildfires seemed to be signals from God of the approaching millennium.

The millennial rhetoric surrounding the French and Indian War established a pattern that would play out for the next half century. The Book of Revelation was so open to argument over translation and interpretation that virtually any major world event could be made to apply to some aspect of the story of the end of the world. The variety of publications and predictions surrounding the war further meant that at least some of the millennial theorists would be vindicated. For instance, during the war, the famous American theologian Jonathan Edwards posited a British victory as more in line with prophecy. On the other hand, a French victory substantiated the eschatological views of the New Jersey minister Aaron Burr, Senior (father of the famous Vice President of the same name).

A key feature of millennialism during the French and Indian War was its association of Catholicism and the Pope with the anti-Christ. The anti-Catholicism or 'anti-popery' of Americans during this period proved to be a dramatic driving force behind their eschatological tendencies.

The American Revolution

Several decades after the world failed to end in the 1750s, the American Revolution galvanized a new millennial response after 1773. This generation of eschatology bore little resemblance to earlier forms of millennialism. Rhetoric became more explicitly polarizing and dramatic. Patriot millennialists urged their audiences to support the revolution, warning that British victory would spell the ultimate triumph of the anti-Christ and despotism, whereas American independence would lead to the arrival of Christ's millennium. This form of millennialism was more political, and less anti-Catholic than its prior incarnation (the English being notably less Catholic than their neighbors, the French).

In this period of extreme nationalism and egalitarianism, millennial rhetoric was infected with concern for universal rights and the place of the United States as the seat of Christ's millennium. Appeals for Christ's return were a staple of the political and religious Thanksgiving addresses of this period. Some briefly believed that these prayers were answered when the smoke from a huge wildfire in New Hampshire and Vermont blocked the sun out on 19 May, 1780.

After the war ended, millennialism did not abate. Rather, a new form of millennialism replaced it. Instead of seeing Christ's reign as coming at the conclusion of a catastrophic war banishing the anti-Christ, Americans briefly came to expect the millennium to result from gradual political change. Accordingly, some reformers tied eschatological rhetoric to political changes such as the separation of church and state, the abolition of debtor's prisons and, in at least one case, lowering taxes. However, the greater mass of millennialists tied the millennium with increased education, piety and morality among the American people. The adoption of the Constitution in 1787 brought about some millennial feeling. However, because the millennialism of the 1770s was so intense, yet such a spectacular failure, Americans lost faith in eschatological rhetoric during the following decade.

The French Revolution

The greatest outpouring of American millennialism occurred in the last decade of the 18th Century, as the French Revolution caused a major eschatological response. Americans tended to connect the French Revolution with the revolutionary millennialism of the 1770s, believing that the two revolutions represented components of the same worldwide wave of republicanism. Americans widely pictured the French Revolution as leading to a worldwide destruction of Papal and secular despotism, satisfying the conditions for Christ's return. The Francophilic millennialism of the early-to-mid-1790s thus resembled the millennialism of the 1770s in its political and cataclysmic nature. However, its anti-Catholic focus distinguished it from the eschatology of the American Revolution.

Americans from 1791-1798 frequently argued that the French Revolution would serve as a catalyst for the millennium. This millennial rhetoric was frequently egalitarian and liberal in nature. Consequently, the growing Republican political movement associated with figures like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison was more comfortable with this form of millennialism. The rise of Jacobinism in France, the outbreak of European war and increasing strife between France and the Catholic Church only served to accelerate American millennialism.

The specific theological arguments from this period are diverse and complex, but a few examples may be illustrative. American eschatologists frequently used numerological analyses to justify their millennial beliefs. Americans tended to interpret The Book of Revelation as predicting that the reign of the anti-Christ on earth would last for 1,260 years. Millennialists attempted to use this number to argue that the world would end soon by supplying a date roughly 13 centuries earlier that could be taken as the beginning of the anti-Christ's reign.

Similarly, some millennialists attempted to use numerology to associate certain figures with the anti-Christ. In his 1794 pamphlet, Discourses on the Signs of the Times, New York minister William Linn attempted to show that the Catholic Church was the anti-Christ. He used the Greek word 'Lateinos' and the Hebrew word 'Romiith', claiming that they referred to the Catholic Church. By applying values to each letter of these words he discovered that they added up to the 'number of the beast', 6664. James Bicheno's5 popular pamphlet Signs of the Times attempted a similar analysis, except that it declares Louis XIV to have been the Beast of Revelation. Taking the supposed Latin form of Louis' name and applying numerical values (at least partially) from Roman numerals, Bicheno created the following (apparently damning) table:


However, by 1798, Americans started to become increasingly critical of the French Revolution. They came to notice that atheism and Deism6 were rampant in France. The fear of this 'religious infidelity' came to counterbalance the revolution's anti-Catholic course. In response, a new brand of millennialism arose in New England following 1798. This 'Francophobic' millennialism did not stress the secular value of equal rights or political progress, but rather focused on religious piety as a route to Christ's millennium. Individuals associated with the anti-French Federalist Party were therefore far more comfortable with this form of millennialism.

According to this millennial ideology, the French Revolution was not a step in the direction of social perfection that would bring about Jesus's return. Rather, it constituted the apogee of Satanic power prior to God's final intervention and the Battle of Armageddon. On the eve of the Second Great Awakening, American preachers urged their congregants to piety, believing that the forces of Satan and the forces of God would soon face each other in a final confrontation.

I Feel Fine

Historians have noted the fact that millennialism played a role in the development of American nationalism during the 18th Century. It served to reinforce the disparity between political factions that would come to define American politics. More importantly, however, it provided contemporary Americans with a sense of universal purpose. Millennialists in the United States commonly believed that their nation's revolution had begun the process of challenging despotism which would bring about the millennium. Many observers also theorized that the pious United States would serve as the seat of Christ's millennium. In these confident pronouncements we see some of the first glimmerings of what would come to be known as American exceptionalism.

As of this writing, the world still exists7. However, eschatological beliefs have recently become more popular. The study of early American millennialism is thus still relevant to modern society. It is important to remember that the history of millennialism is a succession of false dawns. In the analysis of this phenomenon, one finds new meaning in the old truism, 'It's not the end of the world.'

1The term 'eschatology' refers to theological considerations of the end of things. In this context, the term will be used to refer to theological interpretations of the end of the world.2This Entry is intended to be a brief, accessible introduction to this topic. In an effort to remain brief, it has purposely neglected important subjects of study such as apocalyptical Manichaeanism, the influence of whiggish history, the full pre-millennial/post-millennial distinction, denominational differences, and most of the details of the millennial theories in question. For more complete coverage of this topic, see especially Ruth Bloch, Visionary Republic: millennial themes in American thought 1756-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). See also: James Davidson, The logic of millennial thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977); Henry May, The Enlightenment in America (New York: Oxford UP, 1976); J.F. Maclear, 'The Republic and the Millennium', in Elwyn Smith, ed., The Religion of the Republic (Philadelphia: Fortress Press).3In fact, we shudder to think what percentage of modern Americans could identify the war's belligerents given its somewhat confusing appellation.4It's unclear where he actually got these numerological values.5Bicheno was actually an Englishman, but his work was widely reprinted in the United States. English millennialism was briefly revived by the French Revolution in a way that the American Revolution, understandably, had failed to do.6Deists believe that the universe was created by a supreme being, but that he did not intervene in its subsequent progress in any way after the initial creation.7Should the world end, please alert an h2g2 Guide Editor that an update of this Entry is required.

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