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Apocalypticism in American Culture

Randall Balmer
Professor of American Religious History
Barnard College, Columbia University
©National Humanities Center


Americans have long evinced a fascination with the end of time and the role that they would play in such an apocalypse. Even Christopher Columbus invested the discovery of the New World with millennial significance. “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John after having spoke of it through the mouth of Isaiah,” Columbus wrote in 1500, “and he showed me the spot where to find it.”

More often, apocalyptic ideas have issued in the expectation that human history might screech to a halt at any moment and dissolve into some kind of apocalyptic judgment. Protestant Christians have been especially susceptible to these schemes, especially the more conservative Protestants known as evangelicals, because of their inclination to read the Bible literally. They have tended to focus on the New Testament book of Revelation as well as the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible. Both texts are replete with imagery and allegory that would strike most casual readers as downright bizarre, but many Christians throughout American history have expended untold energies trying to fit these writings into an interpretive framework for understanding the end of time.


A Diversity of Apocalyptic Interpretations

These notions, grounded in a literalistic interpretation of biblical prophecies, admit of many different constructions, and evangelical Christians who agree on such issues as biblical inerrancy (that divine inspiration rendered the Scriptures without error in the original autographs) and church polity will argue bitterly over whether or not God’s elect will go through the tribulation—seven years of rule by the antichrist—predicted in Revelation. Will the rapture—Christ’s return to summon the faithful, predicted in 1 Thessalonians 4—occur before, during, or after the tribulation? Who is the whore of Babylon described in Revelation 17? American Protestants historically identified the Roman Catholic Church as the only logical choice, but they disagree more often on the identity of the antichrist. Napoleon? The pope? Adolph Hitler? Benito Mussolini? John Kennedy? Henry Kissinger? Mikhail Gorbachev? Saddam Hussein? Will the millennium, one thousand years of godly rule on earth, take place before or after the rapture? The possibilities admit of many combinations: pre-trib postmillennialists, mid-trib premillennialists, post-trib postmillennialists, pre-trib premillennialists, and so on. For three centuries now, columns of the faithful have mustered to wage these theological battles and to propagate what is certainly, they contend, the only possible construction of these difficult and obscure passages.

John Humphrey Noyes Throughout American history, evangelicals have vacillated between pre- and postmillennialism. While the Puritans were decidedly premillennial in their views—that is, they knew that Christ’s return could take place at any moment—the revivals of the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s promoted a sense that God was even now working on earth to establish His millennial kingdom. No less a figure than Jonathan Edwards, regarded by many as America’s premier thinker, believed that the millennium would begin in America. The Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, better known as the Shakers, held that Christ had returned in the person of Mother Ann Lee and that they were busy establishing the millennial kingdom. [More Shaker resources] “The gospel of Christ’s Second Appearing,” according to the Shakers’ Millennial Laws, “strictly forbids all private union between the two sexes, in any case, place, or under any circumstances, in doors or out.” John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community in western New York, also believed that Christ had returned (in A.D. 70), but for him the millennium provided sexual license in the form of “complex marriage.”

“The principle of jealousy was rooted in a basic premise of the Whig canon: the idea that political power is of necessity antithetical to individual liberty. This premise gave rise to the distrust of government, and particularly the distrust of concentration in the powers of government, which was the hallmark of eighteenth-century radical whig ideology. Whig constitutionalism, generally, sought to render political power safe through various checks and limitations institutionalized in the constitution itself.”

The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson, by David N. Mayer. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 1994. page 320.
Various historical events of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries stirred apocalyptic sentiments and raised postmillennial aspirations. Many of the Patriots in the eighteenth century fused millennial expectations with radical Whig ideology and greeted the American Revolution as “the sacred cause of liberty.” While wandering through western Pennsylvania in 1779, Hermon Husband, a New Light evangelical, former North Carolina Regulator, and ardent anti-federalist, came upon the eastern corner of the New Jerusalem. “I saw therein the Sea of Glass, the Situation of the Throne; which Sea was as clear as crystal Glass,” Husband recalled. “I also saw the Trees of Life, yielding their monthly Fruit; and the Leaves of the Trees healing the Nations; one of which leaves I got hold of, and felt its healing Virtue to remove the Curse and Calamities of Mankind in this World.”

Amid the Second Great Awakening, with all of America intoxicated with self-determinism, an air of optimism about the perfectibility of both humanity and society prevailed; postmillennialism, the doctrine of Christ’s triumphal reign on earth, suited the mood, and it complemented nicely the Enlightenment’s sanguine appraisal of human potential. This spirit of optimism unleashed all manner of reform efforts—temperance, abolitionism, prison and educational reform, missions—consonant with the assurance that Christ was even then vanquishing the powers of evil and establishing his millennial kingdom.


Other Apocalyptic Schemes

Yet even in the heady days of evangelical reform and utopian idealism in the first half of the nineteenth century postmillennialism could not claim a monopoly on evangelical eschatology. Sobered by the excesses of the French Revolution, many evangelicals had tempered their optimism about the perfectibility of humanity and society and reverted to premillennialism. William Miller’s Adventist sentiments were unmistakably premillennial; he believed that Jesus would return sometime between March 1843 and March 1844. As many as fifty thousand Americans, known as Millerites, were persuaded by his teachings. Millerism became so popular, in fact, that Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune, published an “extra” edition of his newspaper on March 2, 1843, to refute Miller’s calculations and try to quell the Millerite frenzy.

The New-York Tribune, March 2, 1843,
from the University of Virginia Library
Joseph Smith’s apocalyptic notions led him in a slightly different direction. The founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons, was convinced that the New Jerusalem would center in Jackson County, Missouri. Smith led a surveying party there, and on May 19, 1838, he staked out the holy city of Adam-ondi-Ahman. Persecution from neighbors and Smith’s assassination in 1844 interrupted the preparations for the coming kingdom, but in recent years, a small band of Mormons has returned to resume the task, to await the resurrection of Adam, the prophets, and church leaders, and the onset of the millennium.

Among antebellum blacks, mired in slavery, apocalypticism took yet another form, a conviction that God sanctioned rebellion against white slaveholders, whose oppressions marked them for divine judgment. On May 12, 1828, God appeared to a slave preacher in Southampton County, Virginia, and, according to Nat Turner, “I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” Thus emboldened, Nat Turner unleashed his own apocalypse on August 21, 1831, a rebellion that claimed the lives of fifty-five whites and two hundred blacks. David Walker, a free black, tried to sear the conscience of slaveholders with predictions of impending judgment: “O Americans! Americans!! I call God—I call angels—I call men, to witness, that your DESTRUCTION is at hand, and will be speedily consummated unless you REPENT.”

So pervasive were millennial notions in the nineteenth century that even Reform Jews caught the spirit. As part of their assimilation and Protestantization efforts—mixed-gender seating, sermons, and worship on Sundays—some Reform Jews were even prepared to recognize America as the New Zion and Washington as the New Jerusalem.


The Transition from Postmillennialism to Premillennialism

With some important exceptions, postmillennialism generally prevailed among American evangelicals until the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the decades following the Civil War, however, much of the optimism about society’s perfectibility began to dissipate. As the nation urbanized and industrialized, as waves of European immigrants, most of them Catholic or Jewish, reached American shores, evangelicals lost their dominance. Teeming, squalid cities and greedy industrialists hardly looked like fixtures of a millennial kingdom. Society was not improving, becoming more Christian; it was degenerating, falling into enemy hands. America, moreover, began importing alien notions: Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which, pressed to its logical conclusions, undermined literal understandings of Scripture; and the German discipline of higher criticism, which attacked the integrity of the Bible itself.

Dispensations
A religious system or code of commands considered to have been divinely revealed or appointed.

The Seven Dispensations: Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth by C. I. Scofield

Chart of the Seven Dispensations
In the face of such degeneration, evangelicals began to revise their eschatology. Postmillennialism, with its optimism about the perfectibility of culture before the apocalypse, no longer fit, so American evangelicals cast about for an alternative, which they found in John Nelson Darby’s dispensational premillennialism. Darby, a member of the Plymouth Brethren in England, believed that all of history could be divided into seven dispensations and that the present age, “the age of the church,” immediately preceded the rapture of the church, the seven-year tribulation, and the coming kingdom of God.

Darby’s novel ideas, grounded in typology, numerology, and literalistic interpretations of the Bible, perfectly suited the temper of evangelicals in the late nineteenth century. Instead of a society on a steady course of improvement, they saw a society careening toward judgment. Increasingly pushed to the margins of American culture, evangelicals—many of whom became fundamentalists after the turn of the century—began to espouse a theology that looked toward the imminent return of Christ to claim His followers and prosecute His judgment against a sinful nation.

More often than not, this conviction prompted evangelicals to separate themselves from the corruption they saw everywhere around them. “I don’t find any place where God says the world is to grow better and better, and that Christ is to have a spiritual reign on earth of a thousand years,” the popular evangelist Dwight L. Moody declared confidently in 1877. “I find that the earth is to grow worse and worse, and that at length there is going to be a separation.” At the turn of the century John Alexander Dowie, a Pentecostal faith healer, attracted 7,500 followers to live in his utopian community, Zion City, Illinois, which he believed was the New Zion predicted in the book of Revelation and whose official incorporation in 1902 marked the beginning of the millennial drama. In some cases, especially early in the twentieth century, the rhetoric of evangelicals betrayed a thinly veiled contempt for the culture that had spurned them. “It is a great thing to know that everything is going on according to God’s schedule,” William Pettingill smugly told an audience of premillennialists in 1919. “We are not surprised at the present collapse of civilization; the Word of God told us all about it.”

Cyrus Ingerson ScofieldAs American culture and modernity itself turned increasingly hostile in the early decades of the twentieth century, evangelicals continued their turn inward. Reeling from the humiliation of the Scopes Trial in 1925, they immersed themselves in dispensational ideology, with its implicit condemnation of American culture. The Scofield Reference Bible, compiled by Cyrus Ingerson Scofield, provided a dispensational template through which evangelicals read the Scriptures. This Bible, first published by Oxford University Press in 1909, became enormously popular among evangelicals and fundamentalists and remains a strong seller, even though supplanted in some ways by an updated version, the Ryrie Study Bible, published in 1978.


Guiding Student Discussion

I expect that the most daunting challenge will be for students to understand just how seriously many Americans read the Bible, especially in the nineteenth century. Many Americans were newly literate in the antebellum period (women especially), and many households had few books, if any. Due to most Americans’ religious sensibilities and abetted by such organizations as the American Bible Society, which printed and distributed Bibles in the early republic, the only book available to most Americans was the Bible. Protestants in particular, because of Martin Luther’s notion of sola scriptura (the Bible alone as the source of religious authority), pored over its pages, seeking to understand it for themselves.

Once our typical nineteenth-century American turned to the Scriptures, she would doubtless be confused by the prophetic passages in Daniel and Revelation. Students might be asked to read some of these passages for themselves: the vision of the four beasts in Daniel 7, for instance, or the “seventy weeks” of Daniel 9. In the book Revelation, chapter 5 talks about the seven seals, chapter 14 the 144,000 on Mount Zion, and chapter 20 describes the millennium.

The result of this exercise doubtless will be utter confusion. And that is the point. If students are bewildered by these prophecies, and yet they know that they should take them very seriously (as many Americans have), they will begin to understand the attraction of various interpreters like William Miller or Joseph Smith or John Nelson Darby, who claimed to be able to unlock the secrets of these recondite writings.

Another crucial matter that students should grasp is the distinction between postmillennialism and premillennialism. On the face of it, the difference is pretty simple: Postmillennialists believe that Jesus will return to earth after the millennium, the one-thousand years of righteous rule predicted in Revelation 20, while premillennialists hold that Jesus will return before the millennium—that is, at any moment.

First, ask students to imagine how they would function on a day-to-day basis if they truly believed that all of human history might come grinding to a halt at any time. How would they live their lives differently? How would they regard material possessions or how would they approach their friends, especially if they believed that their friends’ eternal destinies might be imperiled if they failed to believe in the validity of apocalyptic teachings?

More important, however, the distinction between postmillennialism and premillennialism helps to explain religious attitudes toward society over the course of the nineteenth century. The preponderance of American Protestants in the antebellum period were postmillennialists. They believed that Jesus would return after they had constructed the godly kingdom here on earth—and, more particularly, here in America. These postmillennialists were convinced that they bore the responsibility for ushering in the millennium. Accordingly, postmillennialism animated many of the social reform movements of the antebellum period because these Protestants believed they were constructing the kingdom of God.

By the 1880s, however, many Protestants had shifted from postmillennialism to premillennialism. This had an enormous effect on attitudes toward society. Students should be able to see this for themselves, but if you believe that Jesus will return at any moment, that effectively absolves you from the burden of reforming society according to the norms of godliness. I sometimes refer to premillennialism as a “theology of despair” because it says, in effect, there’s nothing we can do to reform society. The best we can hope for is that Jesus will come and retrieve the faithful out of this mess. The quotation from D. L. Moody (above) illustrates this sentiment nicely.

Finally, ask students to place contemporary Christian figures into the postmillennial-premillennial paradigm. Billy Graham, for example, is clearly a premillennialist, which is what lends an unmistakable urgency to his preaching: repent, because Jesus is coming. Leaders of the Religious Right are a bit more difficult to characterize. Most of them—Pat Robertson, James Dobson, the late Jerry Falwell—would all claim to be premillennialists. Yet their efforts to reform society in the decades surrounding the turn of the twenty-first century suggest a disposition toward postmillennialism and a confidence (however misplaced) that they could make this world a better place.


Scholars Debate

The best survey of apocalyptic ideas in American history is Paul S. Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. Boyer provides a comprehensive study of Americans’ fixation with the “end times” and finds that this is a phenomenon that has been omnipresent in American life and one that crosses religious, ethnic, and class boundaries.

Historians of American religion and evangelicalism in particular, have recognized the importance of apocalyptic ideas in shaping American Christianity. For the eighteenth century, Ernest Lee Tuveson (Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role) and Nathan O. Hatch (The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England) examine the intersections between apocalyptic ideas and Whig ideology. Ernest R. Sandeen’s book, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800–1930, looks at nineteenth-century apocalyptic schemes as a background for understanding the emergence of fundamentalism in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Timothy P. Weber has added important insight into this phenomenon as well. His survey of evangelical fixation with the apocalypse and how it affects their view of the world is Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism, 1875-1982. More recently, Weber has looked at evangelical attitudes toward Israel and how they have been shaped by apocalyptic convictions: On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend.

Finally, for a sense of how a consciousness of the imminent return of Jesus affects evangelicals in their everyday lives, see my book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, especially the chapters entitled “Dallas Orthodoxy,” “Phoenix Prophet,” and “On Location.” Regarding evangelicals and the inherent contradictions between their premillennialism and their politics, see the chapter entitled “Campaign Journal.”


Randall Balmer is professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University and a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School. He has taught at Columbia since earning the Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1985 and has been a visiting professor at Princeton, Rutgers, Yale, Drew, and Northwestern universities and at Union Theological Seminary, where he is also an adjunct professor of church history. He has published a dozen books, including A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies, which won several awards, and Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, now in its fourth edition, which was made into a three-part documentary for PBS. His most recent books are Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America and God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.

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Illustration credits

To cite this essay:
Balmer, Randall. “Apocalypticism in American Culture.” Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/apocal.htm>

 

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