The Boston magistrate, diarist, and lay theologian Samuel Sewall (1652–1730) left students of American Puritan millenarian eschatology with an interpretive problem. In his major work on biblical prophecy, Phaenomena quaedam apocalyptica ad Aspectum novi Orbis configurata (1697), and in other printed and manuscript sources, Footnote 1 he advanced a two-part argument that established to his satisfaction the site of the New Jerusalem, his term for the inaugural location and world headquarters of the millennial kingdom. Footnote 2 In the first half of his argument, Sewall proposed that the kingdom would begin in an unspecified site in America. “I conjecture the New Jerusalem will be erected in Columbina,” he wrote in a representative passage, in this case using a designation for America that he took from the early seventeenth- century English humanist Nicholas Fuller. Footnote 3 This portion of Sewall’s argument has never puzzled scholars because they can contextualize it within their larger interpretations of millenarianism in New England. The second half, however, has proved so vexatious that most Americanists writing about Sewall’s millenarianism either note it and then hasten by it, or else hasten by it without even noting it. Those few scholars who have endeavored to explain it do not properly account for it. In this second part, Sewall identified Mexico City as the specific American location where the millennial kingdom would begin following the destruction of Spanish colonial power during the decisive phase of the Battle of Armageddon.
There is no legitimate way for interpreters of Puritan millenarianism to avoid the second half of Sewall’s argument. The doctrine of the Mexican millennium was no passing fancy that might be dismissed on that basis but a nearly lifelong fascination. Sewall began to formulate the doctrine in the 1680s, Footnote 4 and once he explicitly articulated it in the 1697 edition of the Phaenomena, he continued to espouse it through his last extant discussion of biblical prophecy, a letter written four months before his death in 1730. Footnote 5 The Mexican millennium, moreover, is so conspicuously present in Sewall’s sources that no scholar could possibly overlook it. Indeed, he even included in the Phaenomena an itinerary for the future benefit of travelers from England who wanted to combine a pilgrimage to the “seat of New-Jerusalem” in Mexico City with a tour of English settlements in America, including those in New England. Footnote 6
At first blush, little seems to be gained by scolding scholars for sidestepping the problem of the Mexican millennium. Sewall is an extremely idiosyncratic figure in the history of New England millenarianism: he had no known disciples despite his persistent efforts to convert contemporaries to his point of view, Footnote 7 and he found no precedents for a Mexican millennium even though he searched tirelessly for them in printed and manuscript sources. Footnote 8 The study of American Puritan millenarianism rightly focuses on other persons, and particularly on mainstream thinkers like the Boston clergymen John Cotton (1584–1652), Increase Mather (1639–1723), and Cotton Mather (1663–1728), the major millenarians in New England through 1730, the end point of this essay. Nevertheless, the Mexican millennium is directly relevant to the larger topic that interests students of Puritan eschatology: the normative millenarian tradition in New England. The challenge to understand Sewall’s millennial doctrine is simultaneously the challenge to understand millenarian orthodoxy as John Cotton, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, and other colonists defined it. Only when the dominant perspective is correctly identified—an achievement that to varying degrees has eluded students of American Puritan millenarianism—does the Mexican millennium make sense.
Interpretations of the Mexican Millennium
At least five Americanists have accepted the challenge of explaining Sewall’s millennial doctrine. Each of these persons has addressed the three points that, in combination, provide a satisfactory explanation for the Mexican millennium as a problem in Puritan eschatology. The first is to elucidate Sewall’s rationale for choosing Mexico City as the American location for the New Jerusalem; the second is to identify the human agents whom he expected to inaugurate the kingdom in Mexico; and the third, and most important, is to contextualize the Mexican millennium within the orthodox millenarian tradition in New England. None of these individuals has fitted the pieces together correctly, although one of them, Reiner Smolinski, came close to solving the puzzle. Footnote 9
The secondary literature is otherwise an exercise in evasion. Several scholars have observed in passing that Sewall located the future New Jerusalem in Mexico but provide little or no evaluative comment. Footnote 10 Other interpreters have simply pretermitted the Mexican millennium, as though Sewall never advanced such a claim. Persons taking this approach include, among others, Footnote 11 Sacvan Bercovitch in 1975 and again in 1978 and Mason Lowance in 1980. Bercovitch and Lowance stated that Sewall expected the millennial kingdom to appear in “America” or “the New World,” and they documented this characterization of his position exclusively on passages taken from the first portion of his argument, where he made the case for the kingdom commencing somewhere in America. Footnote 12 Bercovitch said nothing about Mexico, let alone about the kingdom originating there; Footnote 13 and Lowance hinted at the Mexican millennium but stopped short of explicitly acknowledging it. Footnote 14
Bercovitch and Lowance stood in an interpretive tradition that long dominated the scholarly study of American Puritan millenarianism; in fact, they were probably the persons most responsible for establishing this tradition in the academy. Using textual evidence discussed elsewhere, Footnote 15 they argued that John Cotton, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, and many other New Englanders believed that they were destined to “inaugurate the millennium” in America, the divinely ordained location for “the establishment of the long-awaited kingdom.” The clergy and their lay allies pursued this objective from the Great Migration of the 1630s through the First Great Awakening of the early 1740s, but they never accomplished it because backsliding colonists “prevent[ed] the realization of prophecy.” This sense of a “messianic national destiny” then became part of the Puritan legacy in America, developing over time into a settled conviction that the United States and its citizens were God’s chosen instruments for the renovation of the world. New England Puritan millenarianism thus provided the ideological foundation for the “redeemer nation” mythology, a claim assessed later in this essay. Footnote 16
These two scholars portrayed Sewall as a conventional New England millenarian, a sure sign of something amiss in their analysis. Bercovitch quoted him as a spokesperson for Puritan orthodoxy about America’s millennial destiny, and Lowance stated that he “fully corroborates” the views of Increase Mather and others that America was “intended to be the seat of the New Jerusalem.” Footnote 17 They were able to construe Sewall as an orthodox millenarian only by leaving two points unaddressed. The first is his choice of Mexico as the American location of the New Jerusalem. When discussing John Cotton and other mainstream figures, these two scholars used the terms “America” and “the New World” to refer to New England, the portion of America where the Puritans resided and hence the place where they could pursue their presumed millennial ambitions. But when claiming that Sewall was a representative millenarian, Bercovitch and Lowance did not explain that, for him, Mexico, not New England, was the privileged location in America. The second is the question of human agency: there were no Puritans in Mexico to inaugurate the millennium.
Neither Bercovitch nor Lowance perceived the full extent of Sewall’s millenarian heterodoxy. Not only was the second, or specifically Mexican, portion of his argument at variance with normative millenarian opinion in New England, but so too was the first, or generically American, portion of it. For this reason, the fundamental problem with their interpretation of Sewall is not that these scholars were unable to fit the Mexican millennium into their model for understanding Puritan millenarianism, but that they were using a defective model. Sewall, for his part, recognized that both halves of his argument departed from millenarian orthodoxy. In fact, his sources abound with evidence—accurate evidence—that American Puritan millenarians did not characteristically situate the future New Jerusalem in New England or anywhere else in America, nor did they see themselves as the persons destined to inaugurate it.
The Millenarian Mainstream in New England
The regnant form of millenarianism in New England designated Jerusalem as the inaugural location for the millennial kingdom. “I am far from being positive that Judea … must afford situation to the New Jerusalem,” Sewall wrote in a rejoinder to colonial orthodoxy. Footnote 18 The dominant perspective—Judeocentric millenarianism or Judeocentrism—awarded the privilege of establishing the kingdom to the two tribes of Judah and the ten lost tribes of Israel. In conjunction with their massive and miraculous conversion to Protestant Christianity, the twelve tribes would vanquish the Ottomans in the Middle Eastern phase of Armageddon. The Jews and the lost Israelites would then return to Palestine and inaugurate in Jerusalem the millennial kingdom, which Judeocentrists construed primarily as the restoration of the apostolic church to its original splendor. From their base in Jerusalem, the reunited descendants of Jacob would oversee the expansion of the millennial order throughout Europe, an expanse already prepared for the kingdom’s arrival by the Protestant destruction of Catholicism in a separate phase of Armageddon, and to other parts of the world. Footnote 19 The Judeocentrist ranks in Puritan America included John Cotton, Increase Mather, and Cotton Mather,Footnote 20 as well as many other colonists.Footnote 21 These American Puritans, moreover, were part of an international Judeocentrist movement that began in the early seventeenth century with Thomas Brightman and Joseph Mede in England and with Johann Heinrich Alsted and others on the European mainland.Footnote 22
The prevalence of Judeocentrism among New England millenarians can be documented directly from their own writings, without any guidance from Sewall. Several scholars, most notably Theodore Dwight Bozeman in To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism (1988) and Reiner Smolinski in “Israel Redivivus: The Eschatological Limits of Puritan Typology in New England” (1990), have done precisely this. In combined effect, these two studies span the period of time covered in this essay. Bozeman focused on John Cotton and other first-generation New England millenarians, and Smolinski concentrated on Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, and other members of the second and third generations, including Sewall, whom Bozeman had no reason to discuss. Bozeman and Smolinski not only showed that the established form of millenarianism in New England located the New Jerusalem in Palestine,Footnote 23 but they also exposed the chief problems with the supposition that the American Puritans anticipated that the millennial kingdom would commence in New England under their leadership. Bozeman observed, for instance, that texts that Bercovitch, Lowance, and others cited in support of the claim—John Winthrop’s “Modell of Christian Charity” (with its famous image of “a city on a hill”), John Cotton’s God ’s Promise to His Plantation, Samuel Danforth’s retrospective Errand into the Wilderness, among others—contain no clear references to the millennial kingdom, let alone to a kingdom beginning in America.Footnote 24 Smolinski, more ambitiously, attacked the foundation of the older scholarship, the contention that the Puritans “literally and historically” viewed themselves as the new chosen people, America as the new promised land, and New England as the future site of the New Jerusalem.Footnote 25 Smolinski explained that this claim was “diametrically opposed” to what John Cotton, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, and other Judeocentrists professed.Footnote 26 For them, the children of Israel were the chosen people still, Palestine remained the promised land, and the City of David would become the New Jerusalem once Jacob’s converted and repatriated descendants had restored the apostolic church.
The revisionist historiography of Bozeman and Smolinski has since led many early Americanists, such as Janice Knight in 1994, Michael P. Winship in 1996, Joseph Conforti in 2001, Kristina Bross in 2004, Jeffrey Jue in 2006, and Jan Stievermann in 2016, to reject the proposition that the Puritans located the future New Jerusalem in New England.Footnote 27 But even though this thesis is no longer the article of nearly universal orthodoxy that it was in the colonialist scholarship of the late 1970s and the 1980s,Footnote 28 it continues to find adherents among specialists in the period,Footnote 29 and it remains a staple in broad surveys of American history, literature, religion, and politics. Footnote 30 Sewall’s sources readminister the corrective judgment with vivid geographical clarity. “The situation of Jerusalem is not so central,” he wrote in the same passage where he charted the pilgrimage route from England to the New Jerusalem, “but that a voyage can be made from London, to Mexico, in as little time, as from London, to Jerusalem.” Bercovitch’s paraphrase of this statement (“Sewall add[ed] for the consolation of the English saints that Boston was no further from London than from Jerusalem”) encapsulates the problem with his interpretation of American Puritan millenarianism. Not only did he mistake the word “Mexico” for “Boston” and thus bring Sewall into line with the supposed millenarian orthodoxy in New England, but, more importantly, he overlooked Sewall’s characterization of the nature of orthodoxy itself. Footnote 31
But as positive interpretations of millenarian orthodoxy, the studies of Bozeman and Smolinski are less satisfactory. Both scholars were necessarily polemical because their common purpose was to undermine the received wisdom about American Puritan millenarianism. For them, the important point to make about Jerusalem is that it was not Boston. Bozeman stated, for instance, that John Cotton “did not hold that New England had inaugurated, was called to inaugurate, or conceivably could inaugurate the millennium” because “the inaugural events … would occur far from American shores.” This phrasing shows what Bozeman wanted to emphasize. Smolinski was more concerned than Bozeman with the positive side of Judeocentrism; nevertheless, he also stressed what New England millenarians rejected rather than what they affirmed. His American Puritans, like Bozeman’s, located the New Jerusalem “in an entirely different country” and assigned the inaugural agency to “an entirely different people.” Footnote 32 The same negative orientation, moreover, characterizes the later studies of Knight, Winship, Conforti, Bross, Jue, and Stievermann. None of the first four observed that the New England millenarian mainstream identified Palestine as the home of the New Jerusalem; Jue devoted a single sentence in a footnote to the matter; and Stievermann noted it only occasionally in the course of a lengthy study. Footnote 33
The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel
The major point that does not receive proper attention from Bozeman and Smolinski is the millennial role of the lost tribes of Israel as distinguished from the Jews, the well-known people of Roman Palestine, Islamic Spain, Christian Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and other familiar locations. This distinction originated in the late tenth century BCE, when the death of King Solomon resulted in the division of the monarchy into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Biblical discussions of the period of the two monarchies often use the term “Israelites” to differentiate the ten northern tribes from the two southern ones. Footnote 34 The Assyrian destruction of the northern kingdom in the late eighth century BCE led to the Israelites’ deportation and eventual disappearance—hence the phrase, “the ten lost tribes of Israel.” Except for some fleeting references to the missing Israelites, the remainder of the historical narrative in the Hebrew Bible pertains to the inhabitants of the southern kingdom and their descendants, who became known as “Judahites,” “Judeans,” or “Jews.” Footnote 35 Judeocentric millenarians held that both branches of Jacob’s posterity, the Jews and the lost Israelites, would inaugurate the millennial kingdom following their conversion and repatriation. “What, shall they return to Jerusalem againe?” Thomas Brightman wrote in a characteristic Judeocentrist passage. “There is nothing more certaine, the Prophets do everywhere directly confirme it and beat upon it.” Footnote 36 This conviction rested on a literalist, and Christianized, reading of Isa 11:11–16, Jer 23:1–8, Ezek 37:15–28, and other prophetic texts which suggest that the Jews and the recovered Israelites will return to Palestine during the messianic era.
Bozeman and Smolinski consistently used the term “Jews” to designate the human agents who would initiate the kingdom in Jerusalem. This designation sufficed for their polemical purposes: the two revisionists, after all, only needed to establish that the millennial pioneers were not the New England Puritans. But as a descriptive term in academic discourse about Judeocentric millenarianism, the word “Jews” is inaccurate unless one explains that it extends to the lost tribes as well. Justification for adopting this shorthand usage certainly exists in Judeocentrist sources, which often refer to both Jews and Israelites as “the Jewish nation.” Bozeman and Smolinski, however, evidently restricted the word “Jews” to the Jews per se; in any case, neither scholar observed that Judeocentrists anticipated that the lost tribes, no less than the Jews, would return to Palestine and establish the kingdom. Footnote 37
The lost tribes are the forgotten people in the literature about Judeocentric millenarianism, not only in the studies of Bozeman and Smolinski, but also in the work of Nabil Matar on English Protestant, particularly English Puritan, opinion about “the conversion of the Jews” or “the restoration of the Jews.” Footnote 38 Any proper interpretation of Judeocentrism must recognize that the Jews and the lost Israelites, not simply the Jews, were understood to be the people who would undergo a miraculous collective conversion to Christianity, defeat the Ottomans in the Middle Eastern phase of Armageddon, resettle Palestine, restore the apostolic church in Jerusalem, and supervise the spread of the kingdom to Europe—by this time purged of papal power through the Protestant victory in the northern phase of Armageddon—and to other places in the world. Moreover, any such interpretation must also address a number of issues easily overlooked when the millennial agents are seen simply as “Jews,” which is the word of choice for Matar no less than for Bozeman and Smolinski. Footnote 39 The inclusion of the ten tribes in Isa 11:11–16, Jer 23:1–8, Ezek 37:15–28, and other repatriationist prophecies created for Judeocentrists a set of problems that did not exist, or exist to the same degree, in the case of the actual Jews of the early modern period: determining to the extent possible the lost tribes’ main place(s) of residence; pondering the logistics of repatriation for a people generally assumed to be vastly more numerous than the Jews; gauging the Israelites’ present-day knowledge, if any, of their ancestral religious faith; and, above all else, establishing that the lost tribes still survived in an unassimilated condition nearly twenty-five centuries after their disappearance. Footnote 40
Sewall’s Case for Mexico
This inattentiveness to the Judeocentrist requirement that Israel reunite with Judah impairs the existing interpretations of Sewall’s millenarianism; again, getting the formal components of the Mexican millennium correct means first getting the formal components of orthodox millenarianism correct. Sewall was as much a product of Judeocentrism as a critic of it: he kept the standard inaugural agents, the Jews and the lost tribes, and then moved the Judeocentrist armature of apocalyptic events, except for the European phase of Armageddon, Footnote 41 from Palestine to Mexico. In his formulation, Mexico was the place where the reunion of the twelve tribes would occur. “Christ shall … join Joseph and Judah’s stick in this Mexican Valley,” he stated in a paraphrase of Ezek 37:16–17, a passage that uses “Joseph” as a shorthand expression for Israel as distinct from Judah. Footnote 42 The lost tribes—for him, the Native Americans Footnote 43 —were already in the New World, as were some Jews, both conversos and former conversos. The American Indians, or at least a significant portion of them, Footnote 44 and the conversos and ex-conversos would then assemble in Mexico, where they would be joined by many Jews theretofore living in the Old World. Coincident with their massive conversion to Protestant Christianity,Footnote 45 Jacob’s now reunited descendants would defeat the Spanish, not the Ottomans, for control over the site of the New Jerusalem,Footnote 46 restore the apostolic church, the defining institution in the millennial kingdom, in Mexico City,Footnote 47 and then preside over the expansion of the kingdom throughout Christendom and the remainder of the world.Footnote 48 This transplanted form of Judeocentrism, then, provides the framework for Sewall’s millennial doctrine, a point none of the scholars who have tried to locate the Mexican millennium within American Puritan millenarian eschatology correctly perceived, because none of them got the form of orthodoxy quite right.Footnote 49
It was structurally an easy task for Sewall to substitute Mexico City for Jerusalem in the Judeocentric armature of events. The hard part was explaining why Mexico would host the New Jerusalem when the scriptural evidence pointed to Judea. As he compartmentalized this problem, he had to make one argument showing that the millennial kingdom would begin somewhere in America, and then a separate one establishing that it would commence in Mexico. Only then could he claim that central apocalyptic events would unfold in and around Mexico City.Footnote 50
Sewall’s primary argument for a generically American, as opposed to a specifically Mexican, inaugural location relied on the early modern identification of America as the fourth quarter of the world. But unlike Judeocentrists, who made this identification for the less ambitious purpose of establishing that the millennium would eventually reach the New World,Footnote 51 Sewall wanted to show that the kingdom would begin in America. To this end, he disqualified the three Old World quadrants from hosting the millennial capital because of their supposedly unsavory religious histories: Islam had become the dominant faith in portions of Asia and Africa, and Catholicism remained strong in Europe. “Asia, Africa, and Europe have already had their Turn,” he stated, “and they ought not to envy, but to rejoice” that America has remained sufficiently unsullied to house the New Jerusalem.Footnote 52 Sewall argued secondarily that the image in Rev 10:2 of a “strong angel” placing his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the earth “signified] Christ’s taking possession of the Universe for himself. And I hold that He set his Right foot on the New World; and his left, on the Old.” The millennial kingdom will arise in America because “the Right foot is the foot of Motion and Enterprise” and thus “excels the Left.”Footnote 53 He also drew an analogy that presupposed the conventional Protestant wisdom that papal Rome was the new Babylon of Rev 17:5. The old Jerusalem was west of the original Babylon in Mesopotamia; therefore, “New-Jerusalem must be to the westward of Rome.”Footnote 54
Making a case for an explicitly Mexican birthplace was an even greater challenge. Sewall managed to locate only one biblical passage, the vision in Rev 4:6–8 of four creatures surrounding the divine throne, that he could use for this purpose. He said that these creatures represent the “Four Quarters of the World,” and that the millennially privileged fourth creature, which the text identifies as an eagle, betokens Mexico because this “Royal Bird … was once the Standard of the Mexican Empire.” Footnote 55 Sewall tried to buttress the case for Mexico by finding biblical evidence for a related point, the Spanish seizure of power over the future site of the New Jerusalem. The scriptures, he explained in an extended analysis of Dan 11, forecast the establishment of New Spain, “the Antichristian Plantation spoken of [in] Dan. 11.45.” Footnote 56 He also claimed that the Bible predicted the demographic catastrophe that resulted from the Spanish conquest and colonization of America. “There is no Verse in the whole Bible which doth so pathetically, and with so much Amplitude and Variety, foretell … the Blood & Slaughter of America,” he wrote of Rev 6:8, the account of the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse, the one that brought death through warfare, pestilence, and famine to its quarter of the world. “Las Casas,” he continued in the same passage, “gives an account of Twenty Millions Slain [and] Destroy’d … by Spanish Cruelties” and “sent to Hell” by Spanish missionary neglect. Footnote 57
Sewall wanted to find support for these two geographical arguments, such as they were, in millenarian texts written by American Puritans or by other early modern authors. But despite his extensive research, he uncovered no precedents for a specifically Mexican inaugural location, Footnote 58 and he found only one precedent, and a poor one at that, for a millennial kingdom originating in America. To begin with, this single precedent was distant in time, appearing in a statement that the English Puritan William Twisse made in a 1635 letter to the Judeocentrist patriarch Joseph Mede. Sewall tried to transform the antiquity of Twisse’s statement into a virtue by claiming that “the newness of it in its return after so considerable a space of time will … render it gratefull.” Footnote 59 Far more troublesome for Sewall, however, was the fact that Twisse retracted his claim about the American origin of the millennial kingdom in the very passage where he broached this possibility, and then gave Mede the credit for convincing him that “the place of New Jerusalem” was “the land of Jury [Jewry]” and not America:
Heretofore I have wondered in my thoughts at the Providence of God concerning that world, not discovered till this old world of ours is almost at an end, and then no footsteps found of the knowledge of the true God, much less of Christ. And then considering our western plantations of late, and the opinion of many grave divines concerning the Gospel’s fleeing westward; sometimes I have had such thoughts, why may not that be the place of New Jerusalem? But you have handsomely and fully cleared me from such odde conceits. Footnote 60
Sewall discounted Twisse’s retraction, on one occasion by saying that “First Thoughts are sometimes the best,” and on another by pretending that Twisse had never recanted his original statement (“Renowned Dr. Twisse’s problem, why may not that be the place of New Jerusalem? was never answered,” he wrote, as if Mede had not answered the query to Twisse’s satisfaction). Footnote 61
Having salvaged the precedent, Sewall then cited it in the opening paragraph in the body of the 1697 edition of the Phaenomena: “One that has been born, or but liv’d in America … may ask, Why may not that be the place of New- Jerusalem? … [T]his was set up by Dr. Twisse above threescore years ago.” When he published the revised version of the Phaenomena in 1727, Sewall continued to give Twisse the place of honor in the first paragraph of the work; he simply changed the chronological reference from “above threescore years ago” to “above Ninety years ago.” Footnote 62 Thirty years of research into Puritan sources and thirty years of residence in Massachusetts Bay lay between the two editions of the book. Yet in the interim, Sewall had uncovered no better precedent for an American inaugural location than a dated and disavowed statement made by someone who was not a New England Puritan. His inability to find a single American Puritan precedent makes perfect sense within the revisionist framework of Bozeman and Smolinski, whose orthodox New England millenarians looked to Jerusalem; at the same time, Sewall’s failed quest should disconcert any scholar who still wishes to argue that mainstream American Puritan millenarians anticipated that the millennial kingdom would first appear in the New World.
The Redeemer Nation
The prevalence of Judeocentrism in early New England erodes the foundation of what Sacvan Bercovitch and Mason Lowance considered to be the legacy of New England millenarianism: the transfiguration of the United States into the redeemer nation, the heir to ancient Israel as the land with a special destiny in God’s plan for history. With acknowledged precedents, Footnote 63 these two scholars argued that New England millenarians bequeathed to later Americans a body of millennial rhetoric that shaped national self-identity during the First Great Awakening, when revivalist preachers carried Puritan sources throughout the Atlantic seaboard, and also after the creation of the Republic, when this rhetorical inheritance lived on even though Puritanism no longer survived as a discernible movement. Footnote 64 “During the eighteenth century,” Lowance maintained, “the Great Awakening extended this paradigm [of a ‘messianic national destiny’] to the time of the American Revolution and enlarged what had been a parochial New England idea into a national conception of America as the location of Christ’s millennial fulfillment.” Footnote 65
The proposition that American Puritan millenarianism elevated New England, and in time the United States, to world-redemptive status continues to appeal to Americanists for the same reason it fascinated Bercovitch and Lowance: it enables scholars to chart a master narrative of national self-aggrandizement that commenced in seventeenth-century New England, continued through the First Great Awakening and the War for Independence, and then endured through the Second Great Awakening, the westward expansion of the nineteenth century, and the quasicolonialist ventures of the twentieth century. “New chosen people, city on a hill, promised land, destined progress, New Eden, American Jerusalem,” Bercovitch wrote in a summary of the “flexible forms of symbol and metaphor” that he traced from seventeenth-century New England into eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth- century America. Footnote 66 In the forty or more years that have elapsed since the appearance of Bercovitch’s work in the mid-1970s, many Americanists have disseminated his argument through professional publications Footnote 67 and through countless college and university courses on American history, literature, religion, and politics. As a result, educated Americans no longer hear about their nation’s special mission in the world simply through time-honored venues like evangelical sermons and political speeches; they also learn through scholarly works and undergraduate lectures that their forebears all the way back to the Puritans believed in America’s “messianic national destiny.” To be sure, Bercovitch was not championing America’s duty to redeem the world. For him, as for the many academics who likewise identify as political liberals, this master narrative is a colossal tale of national arrogance. But the same narrative, when embraced or exploited by political conservatives, becomes an edifying saga of American exceptionalism that is now nearly four centuries old. Thus, no matter how much they might deplore this outcome, Americanists of the past four decades have helped to legitimate the ideology of contemporary political conservatism.
But whether recounted by the Left or the Right, this national narrative is flawed from the standpoint of the persons who supposedly first began to tell it, the New England millenarians. John Cotton, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, and all other colonists who stood in the dominant Judeocentrist tradition believed that Palestine—not New England or America—would become the redeemer nation once the Jews and the Israelites had fulfilled their divinely appointed destiny. John Cotton anticipated that “all Christendome [shall be] bedewed with Heavenly light and grace” radiating from Jerusalem; Increase Mather wrote that the repatriated and converted twelve tribes “shall shortly become the most glorious Nation in the whole world, and all other Nations shall have them in great esteem and honour”; and Cotton Mather said that “the Jewish Nation” will be “marvellously filled with Heavenly Influences transcending any that the By-past Ages have had Experience of.” Footnote 68 Had these Judeocentrists been speaking about New England, and had they been talking about themselves, then Bercovitch and Lowance would have reason to conclude that American Puritan millenarianism laid the foundation for the redeemer nation mythology.
No less than these Judeocentrists, Samuel Sewall awaited the restoration of the twelve tribes to divine favor and the concomitant birth of the millennium. “The New Jerusalem is so styled, because the Citizens thereof will be mostly Jews,” he stated in 1723, applying the word “Jews” to both Judah and the lost Israel. Then in August 1728, he observed in one of his last diary entries that
a Noble Rainbow was seen in the Clouds after great Thundering and Darkness, and Rain: One foot thereof stood upon Dorchester Neck, the Eastern end of it; and the other foot stood upon the Town [of Dorchester]. It was very bright, and the Reflection of it caused another faint Rainbow to the westward of it. For the entire Compleatness of it, throughout the whole Arch, and for its duration, the like has rarely been seen. It lasted about a quarter of an hour. The middle parts were discontinued for a while, but the former Integrity and Splendor were quickly Recovered.
Sewall interpreted the rainbow as an emblem of the chosen people, again identified simply as “Jews.” They were estranged from God during the still-ongoing “middle parts” of their history, but they would recover their “former Integrity and Splendor” at the dawn of the millennium: “I hope this [rainbow] is a sure Token that Christ Remembers his Covenant for the beloved Jews, … and that He will make haste to prepare for them a City … whose Builder and Maker is God.” Footnote 69
What made Sewall’s vision possible was his support for the lost tribes theory. Footnote 70 Those New England Judeocentrists who commented on the Indians’ ancestry saw the Native Americans as “Tartars,” an early modern designation for the ancient Scythians, the seminomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppe.Footnote 71 These millenarians characteristically held that the lost Israelites were unassimilated ethnic minorities living in Asian territories dominated by larger population groups like the Persians, the Mongols, and the Chinese.Footnote 72 From these locations the Israelites could travel overland to Palestine when the time came for reunion with the Jews. Judeocentrists in New England had two main reasons for rejecting the lost tribes theory. First, it created a massive logistical problem, for the American Indians, if Israelites, would need to return to Palestine.Footnote 73 Sewall diminished the size of the problem by proposing that the Jews, whom he assumed were far less numerous than the Indians, would move from the Old World to Mexico. He also noted that this transoceanic migration was under way, for impressive “Numbers of Jews are [already] seated in the New World.”Footnote 74 Second, the lost tribes theory necessarily elevated the Native Americans, a widely disparaged people in Puritan New England,Footnote 75 to millennial grandeur. In Increase Mather’s words, the lost Israelites and the Jews “shall be acknowledged and respected in the world above any other Nation or people.”Footnote 76 Sewall’s sources, in contrast to those of most other colonists, abound with expressions of sympathy for the Indians.Footnote 77 “The English Nation, in shewing Kindness to the Aboriginal Natives of America, may possibly shew Kindness to Israelites unawares,” he stated in the Phaenomena. Footnote 78 Once the millennium began in Mexico City, the Native Americans and the Jews would surpass all other peoples in global esteem. “New-Jerusalem will … wonderfully dilate, and invigorate Christianity … in Asia, in Africa, in Europe, and in America,” he wrote elsewhere in the work. Footnote 79
Samuel Sewall was surely the only American Puritan who said what scholars once thought all New England millenarians believed: “God hath chosen America to be … the Seat of the New Jerusalem” and “the Inheritance of his Ancient People.” Yet Sewall was not saying what these scholars would have supposed. For him, the coming “Seat of the New Jerusalem” was Mexico City, not Boston, and God’s “Ancient People” were the original children of Israel—the Native Americans and the Jews—and not typological prefigurements of the New England Puritans. The twelve tribes thus defined America’s place in millennial geography and made the New World the future home of the redeemer nation. “Shout, Sing tryumphantly, O America! America! America!” Footnote 80