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The Erosion of Postmillennialism in American Religious Thought, 1865–1925

  • James H. Moorhead (a1)


In 1859 an influential theological quarterly asserted without fear of contradiction that postmillennialism was the “commonly received doctrine” among American Protestants; but by the early twentieth century, it had largely vanished, and Lewis Sperry Chafer, with only slight partisan exaggeration, could claim in 1936 that it was without “living voice”. In part, this change resulted from the defection of conservatives like Chafer to the expanding premillennial ranks, and several historians have told their story in detail. The disappearance of postmillennialism outside of premillennial quarters, however, has received scant attention. There—especially among the moderate to liberal Protestants with whom this article is chiefly concerned—the once dominant eschatology appears not to have suffered outright rejection but to have ebbed away. Although its remants endured as faith in progress, it gradually ceased to be a distinct biblically grounded eschatology.



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I wish to acknowledge support for this study provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and to thank Grant Wacker for his perceptive comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

1. “History of Opinions Respecting the Millennium,” American Theological Review 1 (1859): 655; Chafer, Lewis Sperry, foreword, in Feinberg, C. L., Millennialism (1936; reprint ed., Chicago, 1980), p. 9.

2. On the growth of premillennialism, see Sandeen, Ernest R., The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800–1930 (Chicago, 1970);Weber, Timothy P., Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism, 1875–1925 (New York, 1979); and George Marsden, M., Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (New York, 1980).Quandt, Jean, “Religion and Social Thought: The Secularization of Postmillennialism,” American Quarterly 25 (1973): 390409, is one of the few explicit treatments of postmillennialism after 1865. Hutchison, William R., The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Cambridge, 1976), gives hints of the fate of postmillennialism among liberals. General works on American millennialism include Tuveson, Ernest L., Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America's Millennial Role (Chicago, 1968); and Bercovitch, Sacvan, The American Jeremiad (Madison, 1978).

3. Tuveson, , Redeemer Nation; Bercovitch, American Jeremiad. Samuel Harris, The Kingdom of Christ on Earth (Andover, 1874), offers a classic statement of the progressive evolutionary character of nineteenth-century postmillennialism as well as glimpses of its residual apocalypticism.

4. Ariès, Philippe, The Hour of Our Death (New York, 1981), p. 473. Aries discusses an earlier period of European history, but the description also fits American evangelicalism in the early 1800s.

5. Cross, George, “Millenarianism in Christian History,” Biblical World 46 (1915): 34.

6. Berg, Joseph F., The Second Advent of Jesus Christ, Not Premillennial (Philadelphia, 1859), p. 192.

7. “The Fulfilment of Prophecy,” Princeton Review 33 (1861): 84. For a sample of diversity, compare Read, Hollis, The Coming Crisis of the World (Columbus, 1861); and “The Millennium of Rev. XX,” Methodist Quarterly Review 25 (1843): 83–110. See also Whalen, Robert K., “Millenarianism and Millennialism in America, 1790–1880” (Ph.D. diss., State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1972).

8. Carpenter, J. Estlin, The Bible in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1903);Cheyne, T. K., Founders of Old Testament Criticism (New York, 1893); and Kummel, Werner Georg, Das Neue Testament: Geschichte der Erforschung Seiner Pro bleme (Munich, 1958).

9. Stuart, Moses, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 2 vols. (Andover, 1845), 1:158, 2:353395.Brown, Jerry Wayne, The Rise of Biblical Criticism in America, 1800–1870: The New England Scholars (Middletown, 1969), is an excellent guide. Unfortunately no comparable volume traces post-Civil War biblical studies. The Biblical Scholarship in North America series, recently begun by the Society of Biblical Literature, marks an important step toward meeting this need.

10. Briggs, Charles A., Messianic Prophecy (New York, 1891), pp. 3445;Ryder, William H., “The Fulfillment of Prohecy,” Andover Review 13 (1890): 21, 23, 24;Fullerton, Kemper, Prophecy and Authority (New York, 1919), pp. 197, 199200.

11. Peake, Arthur S., The Revelation of St. John (London, 1919), p. 368;Grant, Frederick C., “The Permanent Value of the Primitive Christian Eschatology,” Biblical World 49 (1917): 157;Metcalf, Arthur, “The Parousia Versus the Second Advent,” Bibliotheca Sacra 64 (1907): 54, 55, 59;Stormes, A. B., “The Heart of the Apocalypse,” Methodist Review 84 (1902): 99, 107;Zenos, Andrew C., “Apocalyptic Symbolism,” Homiletic Review 65 (1913): 199. Behind this changed evaluation of apocalypticism lay the work of such scholars as R. H. Charles, Johannes Weiss, and Wilhelm Boussett. For surveys of important works influencing American thought, consult Robertson, A. T., “The Modern Preacher and the Apocalypse of John,” Homiletic Review 72 (1916): 354359; and Geissinger, James Allen, “Recent Literature on the Book of Revelation,” Methodist Review 106 (1923): 2435.

12. Case, Shirley Jackson, The Revelation of St. John (Chicago, 1919), p. 407;idem, The Millennial Hope (Chicago, 1918), pp. 215–225; “The Passing of Apocalypticism,” Biblical World 36 (1910): 147–151.

13. Brooks, s, “An Inquiry into the Meaning of Matthew XXIV, 1–36Methodist Quarterly Review 52 (1870): 350365.

14. Schweitzer, Albert, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906; reprint ed., New York, 1961);Castor, George D., “The Kingdom of God in Light of Jewish Literature,” Btbl. otheca Sacra 66 (1909): 352;Rall, Harris F., Modern Prernillennialism and the Christian Hope (New York, 1920), pp. 5674.

15. Hutchison, pp. 122–132, examines the influence of Harnack and Ritschl.

16. Brown, William B., The Problem of Final Destiny (New York, 1900), pp. 298, 299;Rail, Harris F., The Coming Kingdom (New York, 1924), p. 26.

17. Merrill, S. M., The Second Coming of Christ (Cincinnati, 1879), pp. 13, 282.

18. Warren, Israel, The Parousia (Portland, 1879), p. 24;Clarke, William N., An Outline of Christian Theology (New York, 1909), p. 444; Metcalf, p. 65; Campbell, James M., The Second Coming of Christ (New York, 1919), p. 70;Parker, T. Valentine, “The Second Advent and Modern Thought,” Bibliotheca Sacra 68 (1911): 600. See also Smith, C. E., “Will the World Ever End?Baptist Review 1 (1879): 305312;Curry, Daniel, “The Future of Christ's Kingdom,” Methodist Review 69 (1887): 1126;Barton, William E., “The Descent of the New Jerusalem,” Bibliotheca Sacra 52 (1895): 2947;White, G. L., “The Parousia of Christ,” Homiletic Review 49 (1905): 3740; and Urmy, William S., Christ Came Again (New York, 1900).

19. Mains, George P., Premillennialism (New York, 1920), p. 152.Davidson, James W., The Logic of Millennial Thought: Eighteenth-Century New England (New Haven, 1977), has compared the morphology of conversion to the Apocalypse—a comparison I would extend by adding notions of death and afterlife.

20. Grant, Peter, Light on the Grave, 3d ed. (New York, 1869), pp. 7172; Berg, The Second Advent, pp. 250–251.

21. Boylan, Anne M., “The Role of Conversion in Nineteenth-Century Sunday Schools,” American Studies 20 (1979): 3548;Sizer, Sandra, Gospel Hymns and Social Religion: The Rhetoric of Nineteenth-Century Revivalism (Philadelphia, 1978), pp. 111137. Although Moody was a moderate premillennialist, his influence extended to many postmillennialists as well. To what extent and in what fashion premillennialism was also transmuted by the forces affecting postmillennialism is a subject for further research. We need new analytic categories transcending the pre- and postmillennial typology; see Sandeen, Ernest R., “The ‘Little Tradition’ and the Form of Modern Millenarianism,” Annual Review of the Social Sciences of Religion 4 (1980): 165180.

22. Brown, William A., Christian Theology in Outline (New York, 1906), pp. 410, 411;Coe, George A., The Religion of a Mature Mind (Chicago, 1902).

23. Stannard, David E., ed., Death in America (Philadelphia, 1975);Jackson, Charles O., Passing: The Vision of Death in America (Westport, 1977); and Farrell, James J., Inventing the American Way of Death, 1830–1920 (Philadelphia, 1980).

24. Bellamy, Joseph, Sermons Upon the Following Subjects (Boston, 1758), pp. 6266; Charles G. Finney, in Oberlin Evangelist, 6 December 1843, p. 195; Morris, E. D., Is There Salvation After Death? (New York, 1887), pp. 237238.

25. Hodge, Charles, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (New York, 18741875), 3: 557.

26. Shedd, William G. T., The Doctrine of Endless Punishment, 2d ed. (New York, 1887), p. 159.

27. Progressive Orthodoxy (Boston, 1892), pp. 67111.

28. McConnell, S. D., The Evolution of Immortality (New York, 1901), p. 85;Abbott, Lyman, Signs of Promise (New York, 1889), p. 301.

29. Gordon, George A., Immortality and the New Theodicy (Boston, 1897), pp. 7879.

30. That Unknown Country (Springfield, 1891), pp. 395396. This collection of essays by authors of various persuasions provides an excellent gauge of opinions on hell in the late 1800s. See also Rowell, Geoffrey, Hell and the Victorians (London, 1974).

31. That Unknown Country, p. 387; Rowlands, H. O., “The Present Drift in Eschatology,” Baptist Quarterly Review 11 (1889): 411.

32. See, for example, essays in defense of hell in That Unknown Country.

33. Phelps, Elizabeth S., Beyond the Gates (Boston, 1885), p. 47. See also Branks, William, Heaven Our Home, 3d ed. (Boston, 1864);Bayard, Adeline J., Views of Heaven (Philadelphia, 1877); and Harbaugh, H., The Heavenly Recognition (Philadelphia, 1856).

34. Kimball, H. D., Beyond the Horizon (New York, 1896), p. 229;Ulyat, William C., The First Years of the Life of the Redeemed After Death (New York, 1901), p. 30.

35. Lemon, W. P., “The Pulpit and Eternal Punishment,” Homiletic Review 81 (1921): 362363;Vernon, S. M., Probation and Punishment (New York, 1886), p. 290.

36. Brown, Richard D., “The Emergence of Urban Society in Rural Massachusetts, 1760–1820,” Journal of American History 61 (1974): 40. On the United Front, see Foster, Charles I., An Errand of Mercy (Chapel Hill, 1960).

37. Mathews, Donald, “The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process, 1780–1830: An Hypothesis,” American Quarterly 21 (1969): 2343; and Scott, Donald M., From Office to Profession: The New England Ministry, 1750–1850 (Philadelphia, 1978), pp. 3651.

38. Emerson, Joseph, Lectures on the Millennium (Boston, 1818);Cogswell, William, The Harbinger of the Millennium (Boston, 1833).

39. Foster, , Errand of Mercy, pp. 249274.

40. Rosenberg, Carroll Smith, Religion and the Rise of the American City: The New York City Mission Movement, 1812–1870 (Ithaca, 1971);Veysey, Lawrence R., The Emergence of the American University (Chicago, 1965);Oleson, Alexandra and John, Voss, eds., The Organization of Knowledge in Modern America (Baltimore, 1979).

41. Wiebe, Robert H., The Search for Order, 1877–1920 (New York, 1967);Weinstein, James, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State (Boston, 1968).

42. Strong, Josiah, The New Era (New York, 1893), especially p. 30. Hopkins, C. Howard, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865–1915 (New Haven, 1940), remains the best comprehensive treatment of the social gospel.

43. Mathews, Shailer, “Theological Seminaries as Schools of Religious Efficiency,” Biblical World 47 (1916): 84;Ernst, Eldon, Moment of Truth for Protestant America: Interchurch Campaigns Following World War One (Missoula, 1972);Primer, Ben, Protestants and American Business Methods (Ann Arbor, 1979).

44. Eckman, George, The Return of the Redeemer (New York, 1920), pp. 257258;Everhart, R. O., “Engineering and the Millennium,” Methodist Review 96 (1914): 44.

45. Goodenow, Smith, “We Shall Not All Sleep,” Bibliotheca Sacra 49 (1892): 668;Mullins, E. Y., Christianity at the Crossroads (New York, 1924), pp. 30, 151.

46. Weber, , Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming, p. 40.

47. Marsden, , Fundamentalism and American Culture, pp. 141195;Ahlstrom, Sydney E., A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, 1972), pp. 733824.

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