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Saturday, July 9

The Study Of The History Of The End Of The World, Part 5

 Today, most theologians specializing in eschatology will readily agree that America is likely not directly referenced in the portions of Scripture dealing with the End Times. Interestingly, that belief was not necessarily the case in regards to the eschatologically inclined during the era of early European settlement and formation of America as a nation. Nor has fascination with the consummation of all things gripped as pervasively the imagination of a people as those of the United States of America.

Without a doubt, the Puritans in particular left an indelible mark upon the American psyche and character. And that particular brand of Christianity certainly possessed a number of millenarian proclivities. However, it is interesting to observe that this spiritual way of life was not as unified in its approach to the End Times as one might expect for a system that emphasized conformity to accepted norms in much of its thought. Most Puritans tended towards some form of postmillennialism. For example, Jonathan Edwards taught that the Millennium would transpire before the Second Coming as the Holy Spirit worked through the redeemed to defeat the Antichrist in the form of the papacy as this remnant subdued all of the Earth in the name of Christ. The Mathers --- Cotton and Increase --- on the other hand were more dispensationalist in their thinking, teaching that believers would be snatched up with that event followed by the disasters foretold in prophetic passages such as the Book of Revelation to be completed when Christ returned to establish the millennial kingdom.

Regardless of where individual Puritans stood along the pre or post millennial divide, those endeavoring to view all of life through a particular interpretative lens without a doubt perceived the events of the day in terms of prophetic fulfillment. For example, at the time of the French and Indian Wars, Catholic France was often cast in the role of the Antichrist. When that scenario did not quite unfold as expected, postmillennialists came to believe that the Revolutionary War would be the conflict through which the faithful would usher in the Millennium, with this time around King George III depicted as the Antichrist (Kyle, 81).

Even if the American Revolution and the founding of the Republic did not result in an anticipated utopia, these events in one sense did result in a degree of religious liberty hitherto until then unheard of in history. As such, a number of sects flourishing in such an environment professed eschatologies that could only be described as unconventional. One such group was called the Society for the Public Universal Friend.

In 1770, Quaker Jemina Wilkinson was believed to have died from the plague, with her body even having grown cold. However, she seemed to have miraculously revived. Eerily, the voice that emanated from her claimed that the body was no longer inhabited by Jemina but rather by the Spirit of Life also referred to as the Public Universal Friend (Kyle, 82). This individual professed to be the Second Coming of Christ who would rule for a thousand years. For the record, the body known as Jemina Wilkinson expired in 1819, far short of the end of that being's prophesied reign.

The Shakers were yet another unusual millennial sect to dot the religious landscape of the early American republic. Formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming, the Shakers traced their origins to the Shaking Quakers. Ann Lee Stanley led the group to America in 1774 where they established a communalist settlement. The group came to regard Mother Ann as the incarnation of the feminine attributes of God in the form of the Holy Spirit. In terms of the sect's eschatology, the Second Coming took place in the form of God manifesting the feminine through Ann Stanley. As such, since salvation could only be obtained by abstaining from sex, Shakers were to await the commencement of the Millenniuum in a state of celibacy. Given that Shakers did not reproduce and that it is difficult to hoodwink considerable numbers into embracing perpetual celibacy, the movement eventually petered out.

The millenarian figure that probably had the most profound influence upon American apocalyptic thought was William Miller. Miller was a farmer and Baptist layman from New York with a penchant for what might be categorized as Biblical numerology. Working from Daniel 8:14 that the sanctuary would be cleansed in two-thousand, three hundred days and assuming that this cleansing was a reference to Christ's return to Earth and that one prophetic day equaled a year, Miller calculated using Bishop Usher's chronology that Christ would return in 1843.

Interestingly, initially Miller did little to promote public interest in his speculations. It was not until urging by his friends that Miller took to the preaching circuit. Miller's message made the leap from being a rural movement to a national phenomena when his teachings were publicized through newspapers, pamphlets, and extensive evangelistic outreach which at the time included tents capable of seating up to 4000 souls (Kyle, 89). As the time grew closer, under pressure Miller relaxed his natural hesitancy and advocated a more specific date between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When that time frame passed and the world continued on as it always had, the movement attempted to save face by setting the date of the Lord's return as October 22, 1844.

Religious frenzy (one might even categorize it as a panic) gripped the nation. As a result of the ensuing media blitz, many of the fervent sold their homes and quit their jobs for a predicted apocalypse that never materialized. This profound letdown known as the Great Disappointment reverberated across the American religious landscape. Foremost, the Great Disappointment would serve as a lasting reminder as to the dangers of setting firm dates regarding the Second Coming in the minds of the most discerning Christians. It would also serve as the origin of two distinct theological traditions that would grapple with the ramifications of the Great Disappointment each in its own way.

The first group that came to grips with the Great Disappointment over time became what would be known as the Seventh Day Adventists. The Adventists, for the most part, spiritualized their eschatology in order to avoid additional theological upheaval and existential hardship. On October 22, 1844, Christ did not physically return to Earth to clean it as the sanctuary. Instead, Adventists believed, the Lord entered the holiest parts of Heaven to begin investigating the sins of His people in preparation for His imminent return (Abanes, 227). Seventh Day Sabbitarianism became attached to the Adventist movement when Ellen G. White speculated that Christ did not return in 1844 because believers had neglected a literalist application of that particular Old Testament law and He would not do so until God's people once again observed Saturday as the day of rest.

The second prominent sect to come out of the Millerite Great Disappointment was the Jehovah Witnesses. Whereas the majority of Adventists learned from past mistakes and grew more tentative in regards to setting nailed down dates, the Jehovah's Witnesses continued on in this practice with gusto along with the other assorted doctrinal errors for which this sect would become infamous. Charles Taze Russell hoped to preserve Millerite eschatology by postulating that the error was actually to be found in the chronology formulated by Archbishop Usher. As such, it was predicted that Christ would instead return in 1874. When this prophecy did not transpire, it was insisted that Christ had indeed returned to Earth, but that He would remain invisible until the Battle of Armageddon.

Russell continued to tinker with the dates. He then came to the conclusion that all would be revealed by 1881; and, when that did not pan out, it was claimed that 1914 would be the year to end all years. That did turn a few heads as at that time the world was indeed gripped in the overwhelming conflagration then known as the Great War. Yet Russell proved wrong once again and tried to save face by insisting that 1918 would be the year of cosmic significance. However, Russell died in 1916 before getting to realize he would once again be profoundly mistaken.

His successor Joseph Franklin Rutherford, though admitting the mistakes made, did not learn from these by changing course. Instead Rutherford continued on with the pattern, insisting that 1925 would assuredly be the year in which all things would be consummated. The results were once again no different after many Witnesses quit their jobs and sold their homes. It would take for additional embarrassments in 1975 and 1984 for acolytes of the Watchtower to to realize that it might be best simply to hold that Jesus was coming soon without exactly advertising a highly specific estimated time of arrival.

Given that America was in part founded by a people of profound religious motivations, it is expected that fascination with the End Times would play an important role in the psyche of those believing that they were a part of a special destiny or divinely-appointed plan. By studying those motivated in such a manner, discerning Americans can be on guard to protect against such an impulse from getting out of hand.

By Frederick Meekins

Bibibliography

Abanes, Richard. End-Times Visions: The Doomsday Obsession. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1988.

Kirsch, Jonathan. A History Of The End Of The World: How The Most Controversial Book In The Bible Changed The Course Of Western Civilization. San Francisco, California: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.

Kagan, Donald, Ozment, Steven and Turner, Frank. The Western Heritage Since 1789 (Fourth Edition). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991.

Kyle, Richard. The Last Days Are Here Again: A History Of The End Times. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1988. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1996.

Ladd, George. The Blessed Hope: A Biblical Study of The Second Advent and The Rapture. Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1956.

Thompson, Damian. The End Of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium.