Apocalypticism in U.S. History
- Matthew Avery SuttonMatthew Avery SuttonWashington State University
Apocalypticism has had a powerful impact on American life. It has fostered among adherents a strong sense of purpose and personal identity, it has helped them interpret the challenges they face all around them, and it has provided them with a triumphant vision of the future. Although there are many kinds of apocalypticism, in the United States, Christian forms have dominated. The Bible’s focus on a coming millennium has offered Americans the promise of transformation and redemption in a world that sometimes seems void of both. When Christians have emphasized the Bible’s apocalyptic and millennial visions, they have acted in new and important ways. Apocalyptic visions, rather than fostering a sense of indifference to the coming of the end of days, have served as a call to battle. God, millennialists insist, has given them much to do and very little time in which to do it. Positive that Jesus is coming soon, they have preached revival and engaged directly and aggressively with their culture. Sometimes their actions have served to reinforce the status quo, and at other times they have sparked revolutions. The uses of apocalypticism and millennialism are almost as diverse as their adherents.
The end is near. At least it has seemed so for generations of Christians, based on their reading of the Bible’s many apocalyptic passages. According to visions written down by John in Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, a global cataclysm is coming, and history, time, and the world as we know it are all coming to an end. But Revelation is not all death and destruction: a new, peaceful, and perfect heaven and earth is coming as well.
Americans, like almost every Bible-reading people before them, have struggled to make sense of the Scriptures’ apocalyptic themes. When will history end? When will God establish his kingdom on earth? Where are we in God’s cosmic plan of the ages? Does the United States have a particular role to play in the end times? In seeking to answer these questions, almost every generation has worked to understand its place—and the place of the United States—in God’s timeline. In fact, some historians have argued that Americans have been unique in their efforts to find transcendent meaning in their experiences as a nation and a people in the long scheme of God’s seemingly unfolding revelation.
Millions of Christians have tried to make sense of local, national, and global events through the lens of biblical prophecy. The sacred text has offered a kind of secret knowledge to those anxious about everything from their own personal problems to the most complicated challenges faced by their generation. The Bible, they believe, offers the key to understanding ages past, present, and to come.
Analysis of the Bible’s apocalyptic passages has a long and deep history. Apocalyptic texts were fairly prevalent in the ancient world, and they certainly influenced the Bible’s various authors. The Greek word from which we derive “apocalypse” literally means “the revelation of that which was hidden.” In the Christian tradition, closely related to “apocalypse” is “millennialism.” “Millennialism” refers to a future one-thousand-year period (a millennium) of peace and prosperity, a golden age described by John in Revelation 20. According to traditional understandings of this term, Christian saints will reign on earth for a millennium before the final judgments of God.
While Americans have engaged with many different kinds of apocalyptic traditions, Christian apocalypticism has had by far the most powerful impact on American life. It has fostered among adherents a powerful sense of purpose and personal identity, it has helped them interpret the challenges they face all around them, and it has provided them with a triumphant vision of the future. The Bible’s focus on a coming millennium has offered them the promise of transformation and redemption in a world that sometimes seems void of both. When Christians have emphasized the Bible’s apocalyptic and millennial visions, they have acted in new and important ways. Apocalyptic visions, rather than fostering a sense of indifference to the coming of the end of days, have served as a call to battle. God, millennialists insist, has given them much to do and very little time in which to do it. Positive that Jesus is coming soon, they have preached revival and engaged directly and aggressively with their culture. Sometimes their actions have served to reinforce the status quo, and at other times they have sparked revolutions. The uses of apocalypticism and millennialism are almost as diverse as their adherents.
Apocalypticism and longing for the millennium have ebbed and flowed in the Christian tradition since the time of Jesus. For the first couple of centuries after Jesus’s death, many Christian leaders and theologians believed that Jesus was returning to earth soon to orchestrate a violent apocalypse, vanquish evil, and establish the millennium. In the 5th century, however, the theologian Augustine challenged such views. In the wake of the Christianization of the Roman empire and then the chaos that followed the sack of Rome, Augustine taught that the faithful should not interpret the Bible’s prophecies, especially those in the book of Revelation, as literal predictions of the troubles they were living through. The Bible’s apocalyptic ideas, he explained, were more metaphorical than literal. Over time, the more powerful Christianity became, the less emphasis its leaders put on millennialism.
The intensity of apocalyptic ideas fluctuated over the next one thousand years. Apocalypticism occasionally emerged in marginal, dissenting groups, and it helped inspire some of the Crusades. Then, near the time of the Protestant Reformation, radical Christians breathed new life into the apocalyptic views of the early church. They believed that the book of Revelation laid out a literal history of the past, present, and future, a history in which faithful readers could place the major events of the previous fifteen hundred years. The turmoil caused by the Reformers’ attack on the Roman Catholic Church and the Catholic reaction indicated to them that the return of Christ had to be near. The ramifications of the Reformation were felt around the globe.
Millennialism in Colonial and Revolutionary North America
The religious controversies raging in Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries had a direct impact on American colonists, who, like their European counterparts, debated how best to understand the Bible’s prophetic books. Eventually two primary schools of interpretation emerged in North America, although the differences between the two were not always clear-cut. Influenced by various ideas popularized across the Atlantic, the representatives of one school took a “historicist” position, which asserted that the fulfillment of prophecy had unfolded over time and was continuing to unfold. Others developed a more radical “futurist” position, in which they argued that the book of Revelation described what was to come in the “last days” immediately before the return of Christ. The futurist position was not prevalent in the United States until the late 19th century. Until then, most Christians saw biblical prophecy unfolding slowly over time.
Christians also debated the relationship of the return of Christ to the timing of the prophesied millennium. The majority of 18th- and 19th- century American millennialists hoped to help establish the kingdom of God on earth and believed that the return of Christ would mark the conclusion of the millennium. As a result, they identified as “postmillennialists,” based on their conviction that the second coming of Christ would occur after the millennium. A small group of colonial leaders, however, embraced premillennialism. They believed that the world would come to a violent end at the battle of Armageddon. They emphasized death, destruction, and judgment. Only after this apocalyptic cataclysm would Jesus establish the millennium.
Many of the Puritans who settled in New England carried with them strong apocalyptic beliefs. Numerous ministers placed significant emphasis on analyzing and interpreting Revelation, and some read the social and political turmoil occurring in England through the lens of biblical prophecy. Important historical events, such as the English Civil War and the Interregnum, seemed to some rife with prophetic significance. King Philip’s War and later the French and Indian War also drove many colonists back to the Bible’s most apocalyptic texts. The violence and chaos of war led some to wonder if perhaps their actions had invoked God’s judgment as a prelude to the apocalypse. Overall, however, theologians and preachers expressed little consistency or unanimity. American colonists held many different beliefs regarding the use and interpretation of biblical prophecy.
The French and Indian War in particular led some colonists to identify the British with the forces of good and the French with the forces of the Antichrist, a diabolical leader who is supposed take power prior to the final judgment. They therefore wed the political and military victories of the colonies (and the British empire) with the unfolding of biblical revelation. As events changed on the ground, so too did biblical interpretations. Eventually, some Puritan leaders came to expect North America to play a central role in the end times. Perhaps the nation they were building, they mused, might serve as the new Jerusalem from which Jesus would rule during the millennium.
Although millennialism had characterized the sermons and writings of many early New England ministers, prophetic speculation reached a new phase in the careers of Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Like their predecessors, the Mathers, especially Cotton, tried to line up current events in the colonies and in Europe with biblical prophecy. They also looked at the supposed sins of their community—gossip, lax church attendance, immorality, and other problems—as indicative of the debauchery the Bible said would characterize the last days. Committed to a premillennialist interpretation of prophecy, the Mathers believed that humankind was on the verge of a horrific tragedy before they could hope to experience the glorious millennium.1
The so-called Great Awakening in the mid-18th century marked another turning point in American colonial prophetic speculation. Much more optimistic than the Mathers about the state of society, evangelical religious leaders believed that the revivals represented a last-days opportunity from God to prepare the world for the establishment of his kingdom. Jonathan Edwards wrote much in his diaries about the eschatological meaning of current events, and he believed that prophecy was unfolding before his eyes as God’s kingdom neared. On the one hand, like others before him he saw a lengthy history of Antichrist rule on earth, which explained the long history of periodic violence against Christians. On the other hand, the final apocalypse and judgment, he insisted, would not happen until much later, after the millennium and after God had removed the faithful to heaven. In breaking from the Mathers, Edwards was drawing on the ideas of other Puritans who had been more influenced by Augustinian practices of reading many biblical prophecies metaphorically.2
At the time of the American Revolution, numerous American theologians speculated that the millennium was beginning and that a new day was dawning. Theologians and preachers named various British leaders, naturally including King George III, as the Antichrist, and some worried that documents bearing the hated seals required by the Stamp Act bore the “mark of the beast,” a sign of the Antichrist’s economy described in Revelation. Apocalyptic theology, alongside other currents including republican ideology, helped colonists make sense of the war they were waging. The new United States, they believed, might truly serve as God’s vehicle for instituting his kingdom on earth.
The new nation’s leaders were obsessed with the prophetic implications of the American and then the French revolutions. Unlike some millennial movements that emerged from dispossessed groups, Revolutionary-era millennialism drew adherents from elite members of society. They believed that the rise of democracy was charting the path to the millennium. A new world, they hoped, was emerging before their eyes. As the historian Nathan Hatch explains, revivals in the 1740s encouraged believers to return to the traditional faith, to reclaim what they had lost. But in the era of the Revolution, millennialism functioned to encourage Americans to forget the past and look forward to a more democratic future.3
A final theme that sometimes appeared in the sermons, lectures, and speculation of colonial and Revolutionary-era Americans was the possible relationship between ancient Israel and North America. Many of the theologians and ministers writing on apocalyptic ideas believed that a correlation existed between the United States and the Bible’s “promised land.” As God had chosen Israel to spread his truth to the rest of the ancient world, in more recent times he had chosen the new settlers of North America (not the Native Americans, however) to launch his next great work—the establishment of his millennial kingdom. For this group of Christians, Israel became a type for the new United States.
Millennialism in the 19th Century
The American Revolution and the expansion of democratic ideas fueled millennial hopes and ensured that millennialism would be a key emphasis in much of mainstream Protestant Christianity. Many of the faithful believed that they had a particular obligation to Christianize the world as they looked to a wonderful future. They felt sure that hard work and evangelism could inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth. For some, such convictions manifested themselves through a series of revivals, sometimes called the Second Great Awakening. The consequences of the revivals were mixed. Sometimes they helped launch new religious movements, and at other times they revitalized more traditional churches.
One prominent manifestation of Second Great Awakening millennial hope emerged in the work of the many new benevolent societies of the 1810s and 1820s, such as the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and the American Tract Society. God, members of these benevolent groups insisted, was not a wrathful, vengeful deity waiting to destroy the earth, but a gracious, benevolent father working to bring the whole world to salvation. As the historian James Moorhead explains, much of the cultural power of postmillennialism in the early republic drew on cataclysmic images of the end times and then turned that energy toward the making of an evangelical empire.4
Millennialism also helped shape parts of the abolitionist crusade, another significant reform movement in antebellum America. Many leading abolitionists believed that as the kingdom neared, individual humans would free themselves from sin. They also believed that they needed to purge society of its sins, and none was more significant than the sin of slavery. Theirs was not, however, a popular or even mainstream position. Their application of millennial theology to the slavery question created many more enemies—even among fellow Christians—than friends. Meanwhile, slave prophets like Nat Turner drew on the Bible’s most apocalyptic passages to justify and predict mass slave uprisings. They saw the Bible’s emphasis on a coming battle between the forces of good and evil as speaking directly to their times and conditions.
But mainstream Protestants and radical reformers were not the only ones using millennial themes to support their work. The revivals of the early republic produced numerous new religious movements that challenged traditional churches and traditional authorities. In many ways, they represented a new democratizing of the Christian faith. Helping to drive many of them, at least on a theological level, was faith in an imminent millennium. With Americans converting in droves and having seemingly new ecstatic religious experiences, it was easy for some of the faithful to speculate that indeed, a new age seemed to be at hand.
The former Quaker Jemima Wilkinson founded one early millennial movement. She believed that she had died and that the spirit of God had taken possession of her body. She began to call herself the Public Universal Friend, and claimed to be neither male nor female. She established numerous congregations called the Society of Universal Friends, where leaders emphasized celibacy and distinctive forms of dress and diet. The end of time was near, Wilkinson believed, and she counseled her followers to sanctify themselves in preparation for Jesus’s return. Salvation, she taught, was available for those who believed in Jesus and in his last-days prophet—the Public Universal Friend. Wilkinson’s movement was very controversial and was rejected by most mainstream American Christians.
Ann Lee was another innovative leader in the early republic who convinced hundreds of followers that the kingdom was at hand. She founded the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance, a group characterized by its commitment to communal living, celibacy, and obedience. Sex, Lee taught, was the root of sin. The group was more commonly and derisively called the “Shakers” for its distinctive worship style; the faithful seemed to shake during worship. After Lee’s death, her followers claimed that she in some ways represented the second coming of Christ. In addition to their distinctive furniture, the Shakers crafted numerous books, hymns, and pamphlets that emphasized and spread Lee’s message that the millennium was at hand. While many Americans scorned Wilkinson and Lee as religious outsiders, they demonstrated how millennialism could upend traditions and hierarchies, providing new opportunities for those whose gender or race often excluded them from exercising religious power in traditional churches and movements.
A few other, more enduring millennial groups emerged from the revivals of the Second Great Awakening. One, led by Alexander Campbell, aimed to create a new, pure church that approximated the New Testament church in as many ways as possible. They practiced baptism by immersion, communion each time they met for worship, and a congregational polity. Campbell wanted to be independent of denominations and creeds and not to hamper worship with anything that he could not trace back to the primitive practices of the New Testament. His followers formed the Disciples of Christ, which, ironically, became yet another American denomination. The Disciples, also simply called “Christians,” felt sure that the second coming was imminent, which was expressed most overtly through their magazine the Millennial Harbinger, a popular publication that helped spread their distinctive ideas and beliefs. Their goal was to unify Christians along their prescribed lines in order to launch the millennium—a goal that they believed was gradually nearing.
Perhaps the most successful millennial group to emerge from the early republic revivals was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In fact, the name of the group, with its emphasis on the “latter days,” signified the Saints’ belief that the end was near. Joseph Smith Jr., who claimed to have received new revelations from God, founded the church. Smith’s visions and translations of what he identified as secret ancient documents resulted in the publication of the Book of Mormon. Among the most common early message Smith claimed to receive from Jesus was “I come quickly.” Latter-day Saints expected Jesus to return soon to earth and believed that they would reign with him. Smith even identified the location from which Jesus would rule over his new kingdom. The new Zion, Smith taught, would likely be in Independence, Missouri. But not all went as planned. The suffering the Saints endured, including the murder of Smith, seemed further proof that some kind of apocalypse was in the making. After Smith’s death, Brigham Young modified the church’s early apocalyptic views. He claimed that the erection of Zion was already underway, and that the Mormons’ job was to continue the work initiated by the group’s founders, but not in Missouri. Zion, Young taught, was in Salt Lake City, Utah. For Mormons, the imminent judgment of Christ has been a powerful incentive for missionary work and a compelling message to induce conversion.
Native Americans also experienced a series of revivals in this era. A Seneca prophet named Handsome Lake had a series of apocalyptic visions, which he shared among the Iroquois people. He believed that the destruction of the world was imminent and that his people needed salvation. But he did not believe that his followers should be apathetic. On the contrary, he instructed them to carry out a series of reforms to refine and revive their community, which his followers eventually codified into a new religious system that exists to this day.5
Although many Christians in the early to mid 19th century were postmillennialists, hoping to experience the millennium on earth before God’s final apocalyptic judgment, this was not true of all. William Miller, perhaps the most famous doomsday prophet in American history, resurrected and popularized premillennialism, causing a sensation around the country. A farmer and Baptist who became enamored with Bible prophecy, Miller believed that the events described in the Bible’s prophetic books had slowly unfolded since the 1st century. Using calculations based on his reading of the Old Testament and aligning them with history, he determined that Jesus would return in 1843. With the aid of a brilliant marketer, publicist, and fellow minister named Joshua Himes, he traveled the country sharing his interpretations. With sermons, signs, tracts, and colorful illustrations, Miller and Himes attracted a significant following of “Millerites.” When Jesus did not return as expected in 1843, the Millerites developed a new calculation and date. Jesus, they determined, would return on October 22, 1844. Journalists dubbed Jesus’s failure to appear yet again the “Great Disappointment.” Thousands of Miller’s followers felt disillusioned, while newspapers and magazines around the nation mocked them.
Rather than admit defeat, however, some of Miller’s followers crafted a new interpretation of biblical prophecy. They argued that Miller had been wrong in his conviction that Jesus was going to return in October of 1844; instead, they asserted that Jesus ascended at that time into the “holy of holies” in heaven. The job of the Millerites, then, was to proclaim that the end times had begun and that Jesus’s return to earth was imminent. They built a new movement and denomination, the Seventh-day Adventists.
Adventists emphasized the importance of the “seventh day,” or Sabbath, and believed that they should keep it holy. They also adopted the name “Adventists” to demonstrate their commitment to proclaiming the imminent return, or advent, of Christ. Their leader, Ellen G. White, was a visionary who helped rebuild the movement after the Great Disappointment. She shared Miller’s faith in the imminent second coming as well as his sense of urgency, but she did not set any dates for the return of Christ. Although Adventists claimed that the Bible was their only authority, they believed that White served as a prophet, helping shape, reform, and purify the church. Adventists also emphasized health and the purity of the body. To that end they have led the way on many dietary reform movements and have established a network of excellent hospitals.
The Civil War created its own kind of apocalypse. Like the American Revolution, the war provided an opportunity for some preachers, theologians, and laypeople to think about the Bible’s prophecies. For many northerners, the war represented the logical culmination of postmillennial optimism; it represented a necessary step toward the nation’s redemption. Slavery was a sin that had to be purged before the millennial kingdom could emerge. Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” best evidences the apocalyptic undercurrent of some understandings of the war: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored / He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword / His truth is marching on.”6
Many white southerners also embraced millennialist interpretations of the war. They saw the conflict as an opportunity to fight for what they felt was a righteous cause. Like their northern counterparts, they believed the millennium was at hand, but their millennium was one that seemed to them to be more faithful to the Bible’s clear teaching on authorities and hierarchies. The Bible, they insisted, taught neither democracy nor the abolition of slavery. To say that it did was to circumvent the clearest and most literal readings of the biblical text. Confederates believed that they were paving the way for the new heaven and earth by defending, not overturning, the southern status quo.
In the aftermath of the war, many mainstream ministers and theologians began to downplay the Bible’s apocalypticism. In the wake of new science and advanced textual criticism of the Bible, the Scriptures’ apocalyptic passages seemed to represent a crude and embarrassing throwback to the ancient world—not fodder for serious theology for the modern Christian seeking to make his or her faith relevant to an increasingly diverse world. A group of ministers and lay leaders including Jane Addams, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch developed a new “social gospel” that aimed to restructure communities to make them as godly as possible. Like the reformers of the early 19th century, they paid little attention to the idea of a literal or imminent apocalypse.
This was not true of all Christians, however. One group of radical evangelicals in the post-Civil War United States revived a powerful form of apocalypticism that has shaped the trajectory of religion in the United States in profound ways ever since. Sprinkled throughout the country, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, and others from traditional denominations, as well as those from new movements, called for their fellow Christians to reject modern trends and to embrace instead the apocalypticism of the early church. They drew on the work of dissenting theologians and ministers in Europe who had modified various premillennial beliefs, eventually molding a theological system called dispensational premillennialism. Their work emphasized the interrelationships among secular politics, divine history, and the end times.
The Irishman John Nelson Darby, dispensational premillennialism’s greatest early popularizer, introduced North Americans to his beliefs in the 1860s and 1870s during a series of evangelistic tours. His campaign to convince Canadians and Americans that exceedingly dark days loomed ahead initially met with little success. Nevertheless, his influence and ideas spread, and he provided American apocalypticists with a pallette of ideas from which they could pick and choose. Darby and his coreligionists believed that God had broken human history, stretching from the Garden of Eden to the millennial kingdom, into distinct chronological sections called “dispensations.” Most believed that the church age, which began in the era of the original Apostles and continues to this day, was the great “parenthesis” between Christ’s post-resurrection ascension to heaven and his coming return for his church and initiation of the millennium. The vast majority of Christians who embraced Darby’s ideas settled on a “futurist” interpretation of the Bible, believing that prophecies of the last days outlined in Daniel, Ezekiel, Matthew, and Revelation will occur in rapid succession just before Christ’s return. This contrasted with the more traditional “historicist” position of people like William Miller, which held that the fulfillment of prophecy had unfolded over centuries.7
Late 19th century radical evangelical apocalypticists helped develop and explain a relatively new idea in Christian theology: the concept of the “Rapture.” Identifying and explaining the Rapture, a dramatic experience in which all living Christians will mysteriously vanish from the earth and the dead will rise to heaven, was one of their great theological innovations. The word “rapture” does not appear in the Bible, and it was not a well-developed biblical concept prior to the 19th century. Premillennialists locate the rapture in I Thessalonians 4:15–17: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” Furthermore, they taught that after the Rapture, those left behind will undergo a seven-year tribulation. A new leader, who is actually the Antichrist, will take power in this period, assuming control over a ten-kingdom confederacy established within the boundaries of the old Roman empire.
This scheme has had profound implications for many aspects of American theology and life. But nowhere, perhaps, was dispensational premillennialism more relevant to outsiders than in Christians’ understanding of Jews. Dispensationalists’ reading of the Scriptures convinced them that God planned to reestablish a Jewish nation in Palestine, and that this restoration would serve as a major signal that the end times had begun. They taught that Jews will play a prominent role on the world stage in the last days, and without a major Jewish migration, there could be no second coming. As a result, they have been some of the most fervent non-Jewish Zionists in the United States.
For African Americans living through the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, apocalypticism could promise redemption. The minister T. G. Steward invoked Daniel and Revelation to discuss the coming apocalypse. But rather than affirming the white premillennialist view that the Antichrist would soon take power in western Europe, he saw the devilish tyrant assuming control of the United States. Americans, he warned, had provoked the wrath of God because they substituted for the true gospel an Anglocentric message that applied the gospel only to people of their own race. Under white rule, the tribulation predicted in Revelation had already commenced for Native and African Americans. But destruction would soon come to Anglo Americans as Jesus set all things right. Steward was not alone. While white Americans in this era grew increasingly concerned over the growing power and influence of people of color—especially in Africa and Asia—African American Christians linked their millennialist views with liberation movements abroad.
Native Americans were also using millennialist ideas to empower themselves and to critique the evils they saw in mainstream society. During the winter of 1888–1889, a Paiute in Nevada named Wovoka dreamed that he was in an Indian paradise full of fertile grasslands and abundant wildlife, and peopled by his ancient ancestors. Wovoka believed that he had received this vision in order to tell his people to stop fighting with each other and with whites. But his was an apocalyptic vision, not a pacifist vision. He believed that performing a new sacred dance called the Ghost Dance would more effectively hasten the day when whites would vanish from the world and the earth would be restored. Wovoka’s message spread rapidly among the tribes in the American West. The Sioux modified it and determined that performing the dance in long white shirts with red symbols would make them bulletproof. Rather than use the Ghost Dance as an alternative to battle, the Sioux saw it as the ultimate tool of battle. As their passion for the dance spread across reservations, white authorities tried to ban it, but emboldened by their convictions, the Sioux defied US soldiers. The final confrontation came at Wounded Knee in South Dakota in 1890. There Sioux and soldiers battled until two hundred Sioux were wiped out.
Millennialism in the 20th and 21st Centuries
In 1906, the African American preacher William J. Seymour initiated the Azusa Street revivals in Southern California. These meetings, led and supported by an interracial and interethnic group of African Americans, Anglo-Americans, Asians, European immigrants, and Latinos, lasted almost three years and attracted Christians and curiosity seekers from around the country. Millennialism infused the revivals, where modern-day “pentecostals” felt sure that the early church story of Pentecost was reoccurring before their eyes. They practiced New Testament “gifts of the spirit” such as healing, speaking in tongues, and prophesying. They believed that the return of apostolic-era spiritual gifts was proof that they were living at the very end of time. Their work, they insisted, must herald the last days. As word of the unique events occurring at the Azusa mission spread, a Los Angeles Times reporter broke the story, bringing national attention to the new movement.8
Pentecostals put substantial emphasis on a sermon preached by the Apostle Peter in Acts 2: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” This they interpreted as justification for female preaching. The most famous early pentecostal, Aimee Semple McPherson, made the second coming a fundamental part of her ministry; she even painted a message on her “gospel car” that read, “Jesus is Coming Soon Get Ready.” The millennialism of the pentecostal revivals, like that of the Second Great Awakening, encouraged an upending of traditional gender and racial hierarchies.
As the pentecostals’ movement was growing, so was another branch of apocalyptic evangelicalism that would soon claim the name “fundamentalism.” The term “fundamentalism” as a religious descriptor arose in the early 20th century around the publication of twelve booklets entitled Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. The Fundamentals’ editors sought to call Christians back to the supposed “fundamentals” of the Christian faith. Out of their seemingly backward-looking, primitivist religious impulses, a network of interconnected men and women emerged who believed that the end was nigh. They built a new, interdenominational movement shaped by shared support for specific Bible Institutes, prophecy conferences, evangelistic organizations, magazines, and radio stations. At the heart of the movement lay fundamentalists’ conviction that the biblical apocalypse and the return of Jesus to earth were imminent. This conviction defined their relationships to those inside and outside of the faith, and it influenced their evaluation of alternative expressions of Christianity as well as competing religions. It conditioned their analysis of politics and of the economy and affected how they voted and for whom. It affected the curriculum they brought into their schools and their views of American higher education. It framed their understanding of natural disasters, geopolitical changes, and war. In short, fundamentalists’ anticipation of the soon-coming apocalypse made them who they were.9
But pentecostals and fundamentalists were not the only ones offering new interpretations of traditional faiths. Competing with more traditional Christians for adherents, especially in East Coast cities, was an African American preacher of mysterious origin who called himself Father Divine. Probably born George Baker, Father Divine taught that he was God returned to earth and that his work fulfilled the Bible’s prophecies. He created the Father Divine Peace Mission Movement with bases in Long Island, Harlem, and Philadelphia. The missions hosted enormous popular banquets during the Great Depression, and there his interracial group of followers lived, worked, and prayed together in a semi-communal setting. While some religious leaders among groups like Mormons and pentecostals lived with the urgent expectation that Christ was returning soon, others like the Public Universal Friend and Father Divine taught that they were God incarnate.
Meanwhile, among more theologically liberal Protestants, a postmillennialist social gospel continued to predominate, which often helped to reinforce the United States’ growing influence around the globe. In 1908, leaders from dozens of denominations formed the Federal Council of Churches in order to streamline their work and join in the common cause of Christianizing the United States and the world. One of their explicit goals was to build further the missions movement, thereby bringing American faith and American “civilization” to the rest of the world. It was such ideas, which dated back to the reform movements of the 1830s, that had inspired missionary work in places like the Philippines, Cuba, and Hawaii. In each of these regions as well as in others, building God’s kingdom eventually served as a justification for American military intervention.
In the post-World War II era, apocalyptic expectations were more prevalent in the United States than ever. When their military dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, Americans of all faiths and no faith at all realized that a global apocalypse was possible and even likely. Fears of the end of the world saturated popular culture. Lowell Blanchard and the Valley Trio, for example, translated millennialist ideas into music. They recorded “Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb” (1950), fretting that “Everybody’s worried ‘bout the Atomic Bomb, but nobody’s worried ‘bout the day my Lord will come when He’ll hit—Great God Almighty—like an Atom Bomb when He comes, when He comes.”10
The Cold War cultivated substantial apocalyptic fears, but it also fostered another wave of religious revivals. Just as the revivals of the early republic sparked a series of new millennial movements, so too did postwar religious fervor. Fundamentalists, who had begun calling themselves “evangelicals,” were as interested in the end of the world as ever. This was especially evident in the work of the nation’s most famous preacher, Billy Graham. Graham never doubted that the time was nigh. Although he, like so many others, believed that the specifics of biblical prophecy were vague enough to guarantee vigorous debate, the evangelist made apocalypticism a central component of his ministry throughout his entire career; the second coming was one of the topics that most animated him. His invocation of apocalypticism served to instill in followers a belief that time counted, and that it mattered how they spent their lives. With Jesus, he preached, the men and women attending his crusades, reading his books, or listening to him on television or radio could find salvation. For Graham, if Jesus’s return was not right around the corner, it was around the next corner after that.11
A series of less mainstream millennial movements also emerged in the second half of the 20th century. Having suffered so much tribulation in American history, numerous African American religious leaders drew on apocalyptic themes to build new movements. One such leader was Elijah Muhammad, who helped spread the Nation of Islam. Muhammad, and his most famous assistant Malcolm X, taught that an epic battle of good and evil was coming, and that soon people of color would overthrow their oppressors and establish a new millennium. After Malcolm’s death, one faction of the movement rallied behind Louis Farrakhan. He revived publication of one of the Nation of Islam’s original newspapers, Final Call, which made explicit the apocalyptic ideas at the root of the movement.
While the Nation of Islam had a deeply racialized theology, another pioneering religious leader tried to bridge racial divides. Jim Jones grew up in the Disciples of Christ, and the faith-healing aspects of the pentecostal movement also influenced him. In San Francisco he opened the “People’s Temple,” where he mixed mainstream Christian ideas and racial reconciliation with harangues against an impending nuclear Armageddon. He and his followers eventually moved to Guyana, where they founded a commune called Jonestown. As the U.S. government began to bring pressure on the group for various illegal activities, they participated in a mass suicide. Almost one thousand people died. Rather than experience the nuclear holocaust Jones had been predicting, his followers initiated their own tragic apocalypse.
Jim Jones was only one of a handful of controversial millennialist messiahs in recent decades. David Koresh grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, but in the early 1980s he left the church to join the Branch Davidians, a small Adventist splinter group. He eventually became the Davidians’ leader. Like many apocalypticists before him, Koresh preached that the tribulation was imminent and that all people would soon face the judgment of God. But that was not all. Koresh taught his small remnant of saints that since God had chosen them to be his sole representatives on earth during the tribulation, they were sure to have to battle the forces of evil. To prepare for the inevitable confrontation, Branch Davidians began stockpiling guns and other weapons. Almost completely oblivious to Koresh’s theology and beliefs, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) attempted to storm Koresh’s Waco, Texas compound on February 28, 1993. A bloody ninety-minute gun battle ensured, which left four ATF agents dead and at least twenty wounded. Koresh was shot twice in the confrontation. The battle ended with a cease-fire followed by a fifty-one-day standoff. On April 19, the FBI attacked the compound with tear gas, hoping to drive the Davidians out. Instead, massive fires started in the compound, rapidly consuming the complex and killing many of those inside. More than eighty Davidians died, including many children.
But not all millennial movements ended so violently. On May 21, 2011, thousands of Christians eagerly expected to be raptured to heaven. As they prepared to leave this world, millions of Americans followed their story live in newspapers, on the internet, and on television. Some pitied the faithful, while others playfully mocked them with rapture parties, apocalyptic playlists, and humorous tweets. Some of the more creative even inflated blow-up dolls with helium, releasing them to the heavens. At the center of the rapture drama was Harold Camping, an elderly radio preacher from Oakland, California. Much like those of William Miller, his apocalyptic pronouncements combined with his media savvy to make this failed rapture one of the most intriguing apocalyptic non-events of the new millennium.
Throughout Camping’s ministry, he taught a traditional Calvinist message of individual salvation through the grace of God. His ministry, called Family Radio, grew to the extent that by the early 2000s, it owned 140 radio stations in the United States and translated Camping’s show into dozens of foreign languages. Newer technologies were proving to be excellent tools for getting Camping’s apocalyptic messages out. As the May 2011 date approached, Camping’s followers spent vast sums of money on tracts, billboards, benches, and motor homes to advertise their message. They printed over 100 million pamphlets in sixty-one languages and raised 5,500 billboards in the United States and abroad. But the rapture did not happen. In the aftermath, many critics complained that the media had given an obscure group living on the religious margin too much attention. But the Camping phenomenon represented much more than the creation of over-eager twenty-four-hour news networks. Thousands of Christians had absorbed Camping’s message of an imminent rapture, which had clearly struck a chord.
While religious pioneers like William Miller and Billy Graham preached apocalypse, many others spread millennial ideas through popular publications. In the postwar period, a number of best-selling books brought millennialist themes into millions of American households. Few people tapped into Americans’ fascination with Armageddon as effectively as a former tugboat captain, Hal Lindsey. In 1970, he published The Late Great Planet Earth. In it Lindsey claimed that the rapture would happen by 1988 (Late Great is still in print and has not been updated or revised). The book is in part a rehashing of the many prophecies that had long mesmerized other premillennialists. More than anything else, however, Israel occupied the center of Lindsey’s analysis. He believed that as the world moved toward the battle of Armageddon, three events would occur. A Jewish nation would reemerge in Palestine, Jews would repossess old Jerusalem and the sacred sites, and finally, they would rebuild the ancient temple on its original site—currently occupied by the Dome of the Rock, a major Muslim holy site. The most radical Christian apocalypticists gleefully anticipate the day when this Muslim sacred space is destroyed, and even trade stories about secret farms where ranchers are trying to raise pure red heifers in preparation for future temple sacrifices. The book, filled with silly puns for chapter titles and subtitles including “Russia is A Gog,” “Scarlet O’Harlot,” and “Sheik to Sheik,” became the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s, with 7.5 million copies sold in its first decade and nearly 20 million copies in print by 2015. In 1979, Orson Welles narrated a popular film version of The Late Great Planet Earth. The broad reception of Lindsey’s work reveals how millennialism’s influence continued to grow in the second half of the 20th century, as well as the ways in which the many crises of the era—environmental fears, overpopulation, the Vietnam war, and nuclear annihilation—all made apocalyptic evangelicalism palatable to the broader American public.12
Christian apocalypticism also became ubiquitous in American pop culture. Films like The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, and dozens more depicted a cataclysmic end to the world, while the music of popular groups like Megadeath, Iron Maiden, Kiss, and many others used evangelical motifs to entertain millions of Americans. A singer calling himself Marilyn Manson demonstrated how apocalypticism had influenced his generation through albums like Antichrist Superstar and a memoir in which he recalled his fear of the coming rapture. Eventually, like many other musicians and filmmakers, he found a way to transform evangelical fears into pop-culture riches. In so doing, Manson demonstrated that no part of American life was immune to Christian apocalypticism. “Zombie apocalypses” are simply the latest incarnation of this prevalent American fear that the end of the world is on the horizon.13
Nothing, however, rivaled the impact on American popular culture of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind novels. The Left Behind series, which eventually consisted of sixteen volumes, became so successful that the publisher followed up the initial books with numerous spinoffs, including a forty-book Left Behind series for youth, a run of graphic novels, and another fiction series targeting military personnel. The Left Behind books explain American Christian apocalypticism from beginning to end through fiction. The first novel begins with the rapture of all true Christians from the earth and the ensuing chaos that follows as the world awaits the second coming of Christ and his establishment of the millennial kingdom. With over 63 million copies in readers’ hands, the Left Behind books have become a major cultural phenomenon. The Left Behind franchise even spawned a few feature-length films starring outspoken evangelical and former teen heartthrob Kirk Cameron, and later a remake with Nicolas Cage.14
Since colonial times, a significant portion of American Christians have expected Jesus to return to establish a new heavens and a new earth. Many continue to believe that this is going to happen, and soon. A 2010 Pew poll revealed that 41 percent of all Americans (well over 100 million people) and 58 percent of white evangelicals believe that Jesus is “definitely” or “probably” going to return by 2050. These convictions derived from the ways in which respondents approach their Bibles. Many see it as a guidebook that reveals in fairly specific detail how history will end. According to the 2014 Bible in American Life report, of the 50 percent of all Americans who had read the Bible at all in the previous year, over one-third claimed that they did so “to learn about the future.” While the vast majority of respondents to these polls probably have little to no understanding of the complex millennialist theology undergirding their opinions, the fact that millions of Americans believe that the Bible promises an imminent second coming of Christ reveals how thoroughly apocalyptic ideas and hope for the new millennium have saturated American culture. In American history, hope for doomsday springs eternal.15
Review of the Literature
The literature on apocalypticism and millennialism is vast. Bernard McGinn has long worked to put Christian millennialism in its historical context. Scholars focusing on the United States have often built on his work and that of others as they explain how Americans made sense of the long and abiding millennial tradition. McGinn, John J. Collins, and Stephen J. Stein’s edited series of essays entitled The Continuum History of Apocalypticism provides an excellent overview of the topic. The leading scholars of Puritanism, dating back to Perry Miller, inevitably confront their subjects’ wrestling with millennialism. Ruth Bloch and Nathan Hatch have both highlighted the ways in which millennialism influenced American religion in the 18th and 19th centuries. James Moorhead’s World Without End shows how apocalypticism evolved among Protestants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse demonstrates the centrality of apocalyptic ideas to the shaping of the fundamentalist and evangelical movements of the 20th century. Finally, Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More expertly traces the millennial and apocalyptic ideas in the post-World War II period.
- Bloch, Ruth H. Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought 1756–1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- Boyer, Paul. When Time Shall be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.
- Bull, Malcolm, ed. Apocalypse Theory and the Ends of the World. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
- Fulop, Timothy E. “‘The Future Golden Day of the Race’: Millennialism and Black Americans in the Nadir, 1877–1901.” In African-American Religion: Interpretive Essays in History and Culture. Edited by Timothy E. Fulop and Albert J. Raboteau, 227–254. New York: Routledge, 1997.
- Hatch, Nathan. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.
- Martin, Joel, and Mark A. Nicholas. Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
- McGinn, Bernard. Apocalypticism in the Western Tradition. Aldershot, UK: Variorum, 1994.
- McGinn, Bernard, John J. Collins, and Stephen J. Stein, eds. The Continuum History of Apocalypticism. New York: Continuum, 2003.
- Miller, Perry, and Thomas Herbert Johnson. The Puritans. Rev. ed. Harper Torchbooks. Academy Library. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
- Moorhead, James H. World Without End: Mainstream American Protestant Visions of the Last Things, 1880–1925. Religion in North America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
- Numbers, Ronald L., and Jonathan M. Butler, eds. The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
- Sandeen, Ernest. The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800–1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
- Sutton, Matthew Avery. American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism. Cambridge, MA, and London: Belknap, 2014.
- Turner, John G. The Mormon Jesus: A Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.
- Weber, Eugene. Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
1. Cotton Mather and Reiner Smolinski, The Threefold Paradise of Cotton Mather: An Edition of “Triparadisus” (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995); and Jan Stievermann and Reiner Smolinski, America’s First Bible Commentary: Essays in Reappraisal (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2011).
2. See for example Edwards’ published works online at http://edwards.yale.edu/.
3. Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989).
4. James H. Moorhead, World Without End: Mainstream American Protestant Visions of the Last Things, 1880–1925 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).
5. For the Code of Handsome Lake see Amanda Porterfield, American Religious History (Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 2002).
6. Battle Hymn of the Republic, Great Neck Pub, 2009. http://search.ebscohost.com/direct.asp?db=aph&jid=267D&scope=site.
7. John Nelson Darby, Writings of J.N. Darby (Jackson, NJ: Present Truth Publishers, 2005).
8. “Weird Babel of Tongues,” Los Angeles Times, April 18, 1906.
9. The Fundamentals; A Testimony to the Truth (Chicago: Testimony Pub. Co, 1910–1915).
10. Lowell Blanchard with the Valley Trio, “Jesus Hits Like and Atom Bomb,” on Atomic Platters: Cold War Music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security (Bear Family, 2005).
11. On Graham’s apocalypticism see Billy Graham, Christ is Coming (Minneapolis: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 1955), n.p.; Billy Graham, World Aflame (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1965); Billy Graham, Approaching Hoofbeats: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Waco: Word Books, 1983); and Billy Graham, Storm Warning, rev. ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010).
12. Hal Lindsey with C. C. Carlson, The Late Great Planted Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970).
13. Marilyn Manson and Neil Strauss, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell (New York: Regan Books, 1999).
14. On Left Behind.
15. “Jesus Christ’s Return to Earth,” Pew Research Center (July 14, 2010). Available online http://www.pewresearch.org/daily-number/jesus-christs-return-to-earth/; http://www.raac.iupui.edu/files/2713/9413/8354/Bible_in_American_Life_Report_March_6_2014.pdf.