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The Millennium---A Major Theme of American Protestantism

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Archives / 1977 / November

 

 

The Millennium---A Major Theme of American Protestantism

N. Gordon Thomas
N. Gordon Thomas, Ph.D., is professor of history at Pacific Union College, Angivin, California.

 

 

THE SEARCH for the millennium has been one of the great common elements of American faith. Through the study of American millennialism one can find a unity that exists beneath the tremendous diversity of Protestantism, and can attempt to measure the consequent effect this unity has had on our culture.

Millennialism, of course, is as old as Christianity. Christians have always longed for the return of Christ and His kingdom. But only after the Protestant Reformation and the resulting schisms did the millennial hope become an integral part of Christian culture. As schismatic groups and dissidents came to America, millenarian belief in one form or another became a principal ingredient in the religious "melting pot."

When American Protestants spoke of a millennium, it was not just a philosophical figure of speech used to denote the progress and perfection of society. The millennium was a definite measure of time that involved, in some way, the second coming of Christ. Christian millenarians often accepted the secular idea of progress as it developed, how ever, as long as it could be harmonized with what they thought was the will of God or could be given scriptural justification. To those adhering strictly to a secular view, the millennium was broadly construed as a future period when man's reason and scientific achievements would reign supreme and man would perfect the world with his own enlightened mind. Yet the secular and religious reformers actually sought the same goal, since both were agreed upon the eventuality of perfection on earth.

Throughout early American history, the Puritans, who had a fascination for the prophecies of Christ's second coming, kept the hope of the "kingdom of God" alive. Despite the fact that they did not experiment with idealistic Utopian kingdoms such as those of the nineteenth century, and despite their belief that the kingdom might not occur immediately, the Puritan hope for the Second Advent was a literal aspiration. It should be stated, though, that the Puritans' desire to set up a holy commonwealth on this earth before Christ's Second Advent, and their natural aversion to any individualistic or spirit-led movement, kept the millennial hope subordinate during the early years.

But with the coming of the Great Awakening and its revival enthusiasm, millennial hopes became an important part of evangelistic emphasis. Jonathan Edwards, the last of the great Puritan preachers, adopted the views of postmillennialism in a figurative resurrection and a temporal millennium. He believed that this millennium would start in America. Further, he asserted that the revival itself was evidence that God was beginning a new spiritual world in this country.

The "Great Revival" or "Second Awakening" at the turn of the century brought another wave of millennial thought and hope. Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, decided that the millennium would come before the year 2000. William Lynn, president of Rutgers, placed 1916 as the date of Christ's personal appearance. Most preachers, college teachers, and academic leaders accepted and preached millennial doctrines during the early nineteenth century.

Yet throughout that century surface demonstrations of the American millennial impulse, especially any bizarre or what one might describe as fanatical movement, misled a later generation of historians into underestimating the true force of this millennial current in the mainstream of American society. For instance, as the millennial hope reached a peak toward the middle of the nineteenth century, Millerism and Mormonism, the two most spectacular millenarian crusades of the day, were treated almost as isolated phenomena. In truth, they were simply the most immediate and dramatic demonstrations of a millennial belief that was already a commonly held American religious doctrine. Millennialism neither began with the fervent revivalism and perfection ism of the Jacksonian period nor died with the disappointed hopes of the Millerites when Christ did not appear in person on October 22, 1844, as they anticipated He would.

It is quite true, however, that the pre-Civil War reform years saw the most evident exhibitions of millennialism. In general, millennialism of this period could assume two forms: either premillennialism, the expectation of Christ's return before the thousand-year period, or postmillennialism, the belief that Christ's spirit would usher in a thousand years of peace and righteousness before His return at the end of the millennium. Premillennialists expected the world to continue to grow evil, then Christ would come to destroy sin and save the righteous. Postmillennialism was more optimistic and popular, since it predicted that the world would grow better and better until the millennium itself was achieved by Christ's spirit. Either society must be warned to repent of its evil ways and be prepared for Christ's personal coming from heaven (premillennial view) or evil must be eradicated in order to make way for a spiritual millennium (postmillennial view).

Yet either form of millennialism provided a powerful motivating force be hind all Protestant endeavor in the pre-Civil War years, whether the cause was antislavery, temperance, prison reform, women's rights, dietary reform, or even Utopian socialism. Though it was true that both the perfectionism and the revivalism of the era worked together toward the purification of the earth, they only became, as Timothy L. Smith noted, "socially volatile" when combined with Christ's imminent conquest of the earth.

Miller's Premillennialism

The story of William Miller and the 1843-1844 movement is without doubt the best and most obvious example of the great millennial hopes in America. Yet Miller's chronology differed but little from that of many other nineteenthcentury millennialists. His premillennialism was more dramatic, mainly be cause it was more exact. His preaching was especially effective because he was so positive and forceful in his certainty of Christ's personal coming for judgment at a precise time. As Whitney Cross has written, "All Protestants expected some grand event about 1843, and no critic from the orthodox side took any serious issue on basic principle with Miller's calculations." J William Miller, who had descended from a long line of Baptist ministers, did not have far to look in support of his own belief concerning Christ's soon return. The Baptist Church Manual plainly stated that the "end of this world is approaching.... At the Last Day, Christ will descend from Heaven, and raise the dead from the grave to final retribution."

Notice too that the great Baptist evangelist Charles H. Spurgeon continued to warn his listeners of the imminent Second Coming long after the dis appointment of the predicted year of 1844. The saints, preached Spurgeon in 1857, will one day "reign on the earth. This truth appears to me clear enough, whatever may be the different views on the Millennium." He expected "that even in our life the Son of God will appear."

Second only to Millerism in its millennial fervor was the new faith of Mormonism founded by Joseph Smith. Born in New England, he had been reared in the "burned-over district" of New York, at the very fountainhead of revivalism and religious excitement in America, and as a boy seems to have absorbed, or at least become well aware of, every prevailing millennial doctrine. The imminent second coming of Christ became central to Smith's thought and therefore to early Mormonism.

But Smith was never as definite as William Miller on the precise time the great event would take place. He declared that a direct revelation from God, however, told him that it would occur during his lifetime. He prayed earnestly to know the time but was told, "Joseph my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the son of Man." 2 In a prophecy given March 14, 1835, Smith affirmed that "fifty-six years should wind up the scene." He must find a refuge and assemble his followers to be ready, for all else besides the Mormon Zion would be destroyed.

The Mormon "gathering," the assembling of the saints to a place of safety, which was to precede the coming of Christ, became a unifying idea in Mormonism. While other millenarians set the time for the millennium, Mormons specified the exact place where Christ's government would be established.3 Yet the assembling of the saints was only a preparatory event to the establishment of the personal literal reign of God on earth.

But even a casual reading of the denominational literature of the pre-Civil War years indicates a prevalence of the millennial hope in one form or another in all the Protestant churches of the period. According to Timothy L. Smith, the disappointments of the premillennial crusades of the 1840's did not end the hope, but only helped "speed the adoption of a fervent postmillennialism, attuned to the prevailing optimism of the age."

Impact From American Reformists

The greatest impact from the millennial impulse upon society was evident in a more general way. As Dixon Ryan Fox pointed out years ago in his book Ideas in Motion, "The Bible societies, foreign mission societies, abolition societies, and the like . . . were hailed as the harbingers of the millennium." 4 H. Richard Niebuhr, in The Kingdom of God in America, a book showing the central theme of millennialism in American history, states that the expectation of the kingdom of God on earth could be the "unyielding core . . . which accounted for its [America's] reformist activities, explained its relations to the democratic, antislavery and socialist movements, and its creativity in producing ever new religious groups." 5

To many a reformer and social worker, the millennium was a literal truth and not a fanciful dream concocted by some legendary misty-eyed millenarian fanatic. It was a hope, a Biblical promise that could be fulfilled during his own lifetime.

For an illustration of the strong motivating force millennialism provided in the reformation of society before the Civil War, one need only examine two of the more powerful crusades of the era temperance and abolition. Christians believed that God required their cooperation to eradicate the evils of society and thereby prepare the way for the Lord. The Lord would come, they were sure, only when man had done his part in the purification process. After the great evils of society had been destroyed, or at least reduced to a mini mum, Christ's triumph would be assured, He would pour out His Spirit upon a civilized, enlightened, and sanctified world, and Christians would then enter into their millennial joy. Among the obstacles to the millennial day, the two glaring evils, intemperance and slavery, drew the greatest concentration of fire from reformers.

The hope for a purified America where temperance reigned was not lost in the conflicts over methods of building the perfect society, such as the disagreements among reformers over whether to preach temperance or total abstinence, or whether to sponsor licensing or prohibition legislation. Neither the increasing preoccupation with antislavery activity nor even the Civil War permanently stopped the movement. The impulse ebbed and flowed always with the expectation that Christ's spiritual return depended upon the removal of this great evil of American society. After the Civil War, as described in the Templar's Companion in May of 1866, the reformers would once again set out to:

"Cast, cast the stumbling block away

O'er which unnumbered thousands fall;

Then, soon will dawn the better day,

When Christ our King shall reign o'er all.

Your flags inscribe with this device—

We'll make the world a paradise."

For evangelistic reformers the millennial spirit manifested itself as clearly in the antislavery reform movement as in temperance. Many of the great national antislavery leaders were emphatically millenarian. Such prominent abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Dwight Weld, Lewis and Arthur Tappan, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, and Wendell Phillips espoused millenarian doctrines in their attempts to renovate American society. Garrison declared in the Liberator of December 15, 1837, that the object of the abolitionist was to usher in the kingdom of God on earth.

George Fitzhugh, perhaps the most perceptive of all the spokesmen for the Southern social order, who also had traveled in the North and talked freely with the antislavery leaders, could see that millenarian Utopian ideas were the taproot of abolitionist endeavor. He believed that this millennial drive threatened not merely the institution of slavery but all existing law and order. The abolitionists, to Fitzhugh, were neurotics obsessed with a millennialism and perfectionism that would destroy any institution not perfect. He could see that William Goodell, the New York abolitionist, philosopher, and newspaper editor, believed "the condition of his society is so bad, that it becomes necessary to upset and reverse it by the millennium." 6

The abolitionist's desire to hasten the millennium and set up the kingdom of God was a strong factor in the antislavery impulse. It is obvious that Southern white leaders realized the significance of and the dangers involved in accepting any Utopian or millennial "romatic" reform. It was a luxury that they could not afford, one that could easily ruin their "peculiar institution." Therefore millennial movements were not usually successful in the South be fore the Civil War.

Looking back over American history, one can see that millennial expectancy ended neither with the Adventists' "great disappointment" of 1844, nor with the death of Joseph Smith in that same year. The question remains then, Did the millennial impulse die with the abolition of slavery, or with the ratification of the eighteenth amendment in 1919? Is it possible that a theme so prominent in American history should disappear during the disappointments of the twentieth century—the great depression, the wars, the disillusionment with science and materialism, the general disenchantment of "now" generations with the failure of their fathers to build a more perfect civilization?

It is not likely. It seems certain that the modern emphasis on reform, the occult, Utopian communes, love and peace, the Jesus movement, and other types of religious escapism can testify to the strength of the recurring millennial theme in American society. The under lying hope still remains that Christ, one way or another, will create a perfect world. And for many it is in the Second Coming that man will find the perfect peace and happiness that he seeks.

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Notes:

Adapted from an article appearing in Adventist Heritage, Winter, 1976, vol. 3, no. 2.

1 Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Ithaca, New York: Harper & Row, 1950), p. 321.

2 Joseph Smith, The Doctrines and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Containing a Revelation to Joseph Smith, Jun., the Prophet for Building Up the Kingdom of God in the Last Days (Liverpool, 1891), p. 461.

3 An explanation of "the gathering" is found in William Mulder, "Mormonism's 'Gathering': An American Doctrine With a Difference," Church History, XXIII (1953), p. 251.

4 Dixon Ryan Fox, Ideas in Motion (New York: 1935), p. 116.

5 H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Hamden, Conn.: Harper & Row, 1937), p. XI.

6 George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All: Or Slaves Without Masters (Richmond, Va., A. Morris, publisher, 1857), p. 133.

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