Eschatology is almost universal in human cultures and religions. The world’s major systems of thought, as well as most minor ones, have an eschatological myth. Some religions expect the return of a deity to mark the end of time, while others believe that the world will be entirely destroyed (Baumgartner 1). Despite various factual and interpretational nuances, most eschatological myths are based on the promise of a new world for those who have remained faithful to the eschatological legend (Baumgartner 2).
As a result, eschatology became the refuge of several marginalized groups throughout history. These parties believed in the advent of a messiah who would liberate them from their plight and punish their tormentors. Being the chosen people, they would afterwards live in a permanent state of bliss. Whatever predicament they were experiencing was supposedly the “final test” to their faithfulness (Baumgartner 2).
Eschatology is a discipline that is as old as humanity. The prevailing eschatological myth during the Roman period, for instance, was that history was composed of “six ages…and then a lasting golden age identical to the first age” (Baumgartner 2). In about 40 BC, the poet Virgil predicted that the world was about to enter the said golden age. He wrote in his Fourth Eclogue that “the land would bear fruit without labor, men would put down their plows and the oxen would be released from their yokes” (Baumgartner 2). But it was unknown whether he was referring to the expansion of the Roman Empire or the arrival of Jesus Christ (Baumgartner 2).
The Judeo-Christian eschatological legend called for millennialism – a belief in the 1,000-year reign of Christ after his Second Coming. Some Christian denominations held that the final judgment and the complete transformation of the world would take place after the said period (Baumgartner 4). But such a strong adherence to millennialism often promoted social and religious conflict. In societies where millennial beliefs sharply contrast those of the mainstream, members of millennial groups are considered as deviant and are therefore punished (Baumgartner 5).
Calvinist clergyman John Foxe fled England during the reign of Mary Tudor and settled for some time in Swiss protestant cities. Akin to many conventional Protestants during his era, he believed that the Turks and the pope were the two antichrists. He also supposed that Satan had been bound for 1,000 years since the reign of Constantine. Satan’s unbinding coincided with the Roman Catholic Church’s persecution of Protestants, particularly in Mary’s rule. Foxe predicted that the hounding of Protestants would last until about 1600 – roughly the same length of time in which the Romans persecuted the first Christians (Baumgartner 102).
In his account The Book of Martyrs (1563), Foxe claimed that the final battle to defeat the Antichrist would take place in England. The English Protestants, meanwhile, are the “chosen people” who would vanquish the Antichrist and would therefore have a special place in the New Kingdom. These assertions very much appealed to the Puritans, a group of dedicated Calvinists who aimed to purify the Church of England of its corrupt Catholic practices and stop the persecution of Protestants. They believed that attaining these objectives was synonymous to fulfilling the Biblical prophecy of the New Kingdom (Baumgartner 102).
Puritanism was likewise the taproot of millennialism in the United States. Despite their interest in restoring primitive Christianity, the first Puritan settlers of the 1630s did not initially believe that New England had a role in the inauguration of the last days. Certain developments in England after 1640, however, resulted in the prominence of millennialism in the US. Just like their English coreligionists, American Puritans viewed the Civil War and Cromwell’s Protectorate as major steps towards the actualization of the New Kingdom. Edward Johnson, for instance, declared in his Wonder-Working Providence (1650-1): “For your full assurance, know this is the place where the Lord will create a new Heaven and a new earth…new Churches and a new Commonwealth together” (Fox and Kloppenberg 454).
By the 1740s, a millennial phenomenon known as the Great Awakening was already taking place in the US. As the Great Awakening was the culmination of a series of religious revivals in various colonies, Jonathan Edwards viewed it as a sign that the millennium would occur in America. Despite the possibility that he later retreated from this statement, many American Protestants shared the same opinion well into the 19th century. Political crisis was the major factor behind this collective belief – many Protestant ministers infused republican ideology with apocalyptic symbolism during the French-Indian War (1756-63) and the American War of Independence (1776-1783) (Fox and Kloppenberg 454).
Millennialism in the US grew further during the antebellum period. Numerous sectarian and communitarian ventures emerged during this era, all of which promised to build the new heavens and new earth. The Mormons sought to erect Zion in successive communities in Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and Utah. The Shakers, who established various villages scattered from New England to Indiana, maintained that the New Kingdom had already arrived in the person of their founder Ann Lee. Baptist preacher William Miller gained a huge following due to his prediction that Jesus Christ would return in about 1843 (Fox and Kloppenberg 454).
Postmillennialism, however, was the dominant opinion among antebellum clergy of the major denominations. Postmillennialism defined history as “(the) gradual improvement (of the) rational laws that human beings (learn) and (use)” (Fox and Kloppenberg 454). Simply put, postmillennialism argued that the new heavens and new earth were not celestial bodies but were merely metaphors for a just and humane society. Thus, several religious denominations were at the forefront of the struggle for causes such as the abolition of slavery and temperance. Furthermore, many religious leaders interpreted the Civil War as an apocalyptic battle that would pave the way for the building of God’s kingdom on earth (Fox and Kloppenberg 454).
Premillennial dispensationalism, however, eclipsed postmillennialism in terms of popularity after the Civil War. Dispensationalists, majority of whom came from conservative sectors of Protestantism, rejected the postmillennial belief that humankind was responsible for inaugurating the millennium. The dispensationalists believed that wars, increasing decadence and restoration of the Jews to their homeland were indicators of the Rapture – Christ’s removal of true believers from the earth prior to the tribulations near the end of the world. Some dispensationalist Bible institutes, as well as the Scofield Reference Bible (1909), predicted that the millennium would take place about a quarter-century after 1875. Dispensationalism eventually resulted in the rise of both fundamentalism and Pentecostalism (Fox and Kloppenberg 454).
At the height of premillennial dispensationalism’s popularity, some advocates of postmillennialism shifted their beliefs towards liberal Protestantism. For the liberal Protestants, there was no such thing as a Second Coming – the Kingdom of God was “a process of virtually unbounded progress in this world” (Fox and Kloppenberg 454). Furthermore, liberal Protestantism advocated the Social Gospel or the usage of the vision of God’s kingdom to reform the inequities of American society (Fox and Kloppenberg 454). By the 1920’s, however, premillennialism had already waned in popularity and was confined only to a large conservative subculture (Fox and Kloppenberg 455).
Despite its religious nature, the primary goal of eschatology is to attain a better society for humankind. Although it is rarely practiced in its original form – millennialism – today, the secular remnants of eschatology is still present in several popular concepts. The American Dream, material progress, Ronald Reagan’s vision of the US as a shining city on a hill, George Bush, Sr.’s “new world order” – these are the modern-day counterparts of eschatology. Indeed, despite remarkable advances in science, technology and reason, human beings still need the assurance that history does have a predetermined goal and that their existence truly has a meaning.
Baumgartner, Frederic J. Longing for the End: A History of Millennialism in Western Civilization. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.
Fox, Richard Wightman, and James T. Kloppenberg. A Companion to American Thought. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 1998.