May 31, 2010

A very short and sketchy history of America as seen through her eschatologies
"[M]illennialism grounds the transcendent promise of salvation for the elected few on the word of God and projects it onto a particular social group in history."

-- Jan Stievermann, "The Discursive Construction of American Identity in Millennialist Tracts during the War of 1812." Millennialists Thought in America.
1630s - 1700s -- New England theologians assert that New England will, indeed, be involved in the millennial kingdom (against old world theologians who say that American territory is not mentioned in Bible's prophetic promises), and some even argue New England will have a central role.

1730s, '40s -- Revival is seen as sign of coming kingdom. Increased attention to church and theology, to the point of ignoring work and politics, seen as sign of revival. Jonathan Edwards says the millennium will probably "begin in America."

1750s, '60s -- Millennial hopes are connected to political and esp. military events, and millennial tropes are common in sermons raising anti-Catholic sentiment in support of the French and Indian War.

1770s - 1800s -- America is understood as the "wilderness" to which the church retreats in Revelation. Revolution explained in eschatological terms; eschatology explained in terms of recent history.

1810s, '20s -- Whig and Republican ministers offer alternative accounts of millennium, which connect to their understanding (quasi-aristocratic/Puritan and democratic/Jeffersonian, respectively) of what "America" means, and their political positions on the war.

1831 -- Eschatological visions inspire Nat Turner to lead a slave rebellion.

1830s, '40s -- Second Great Awakening puts emphasis on "simple" theology and "plain" readings of scripture. Alexander Campbell says kingdom will come with return to "primitive" faith, while Andrew Jackson wins election as a common man who was born in a log cabin and Henry David Thoreau attempts to reclaim simplicity in woods.

1840s, '50s -- Mainstream church generally eschatologically optimistic. Kingdom thought to come through gradual social progress and reform. At the same time, marginal groups such as the Millerites, Mormons, Shakers, etc., gather masses of socially dislocated peoples into new religions with starker millennial prophecies.

1860s -- Meteor shower starts Civil War. Churches splinter. Pessimism prevails.

1870s - 1900s -- Dispensationalism is developed and popularized by C.I. Scofield, southern veteran and convicted forger who was converted in prison. D.L. Moody promotes idea that world is sinking ship, Jesus is lifeboat. Labor movement criticizes Christians for eschatology of "pie in the sky bye and bye."

1900s - '20s -- Mainline churches adopt social gospel with reform movements (women's suffer age, prohibition), expect gradual, progressive perfection of world leading to kingdom. Previous version of this idea ended with Civil War, and this one ends with WWI.

Interwar period -- Dispensationalism continues, with attendant general detachment from politics. Focus generally shifts from end of times to beginning, as evangelicals and fundamentalists put their efforts into opposing evolution, which they connect to the decadence of Europe that lead to the war, and atheism that lead to communism.

1940s -- Eschatology resurges with worries about WWII. If A=100, B=101, etc., HITLER=666. Mussolini is man most often identified with Antichrist.

1950s, '60s -- Wholly secular apocalyptic emerges around fears and iconography of the nuclear bomb, and increased anxiety of Cold War. Continues into the '70s and '80s in science fiction.

1970s, '80s -- Fundamentalists abandon separatism with the rise of the Religious Right, and eschatology is increasingly aggressively political, incorporating nuclear war, the Cold War, Israel, OPEC, pollution, race riots, assassinations, drugs, the student movement, homosexuality, feminism, abortion and other issues into End Times expectations and interpretations.

1990s, 2000s -- Eschatology is marginalized/downplayed, but persists. Evangelical millennialists downplay and/or avoid explicitly eschatological interpretations of events, such as war in the Middle East, the rise of the internet, the turn of the millennium, and homosexual marriage, at least in public, though the commitments and inclinations continue.