Early National Systems: Millennial Hope, I

Many Americans in antebellum times saw their nation as an engine for the bright future of biblical end times. Ranging from Henry Clay’s practical and even semi-realistic “American System”[1] to social engineering designed to hurry Christ’s return to earth, it was characteristic of the age that even non-believers saw the idea as a comfortable metaphor for the destiny of what they considered a political example to the world. Modern Americans seem far from such notions, but there are pockets of American society where those nineteenth-century ideas persuade and guide the minds of dedicated souls, Mormons among them.

Two views of John’s Apocalypse contributed mightily to the background of American motivations and perceptions. These two ideas are “post-millennialism” and “pre-millennialism.” The first harbored the notion that humans were destined to, or at least that they were capable of, bringing about the physical and social conditions of the Heavenly Will. It was God’s will that mankind, or at least Americankind, be set apart to bring in the thousand years of peace, prosperity, and happiness, which would terminate in the coming of Christ. It’s a remarkably positive view of humans as fully capable agents of God and seems to defy old school Calvinist anthropology. Pre-millennialits saw no such ability in mankind. Only a supernatural intervention could bring about such conditions. That had to be initiated by Christ himself. Hence, post-millennialism saw Christ come to receive a millennial kingdom at its ending, pre-millennialism saw Christ intervening to establish millennial conditions in a largely depraved and unregenerated world.

Pre-millennialists were typically separated from the culture of the age, with sharp boundary lines drawn to distinguish them from “the world.” Post-millennialists were in some ways the reverse: not reveling in hedonism to be sure, but seeing the progress in technology, medicine, learning, communication, and travel as signs of the ultimate good to come. Ideas, many of which shone out in Mormonism, that Zion would be built in America, that it would be a light to the nations and draw in the righteous, or teach the nations the truth was registered among Puritan believers of earlier centuries. Such beliefs carried with them the anxious hope that the end, whatever it might entail or how it might be accomplished, should be evident in Scripture. God would not leave his people comfortless! Predictions of the end (or beginning) grew with awesomely clever calculations and derivations. Cotton Mather computed by turns 1697, 1716, and 1736 as the hour without specifying the “day.” Even Jonathan Edwards, seeing an awakened Christianity in the colonies of the 1740s, found America as the likely place for Millennial beginnings and that they must be close.

By the nineteenth century, studied American progress on various fronts encouraged believers that things were moving rapidly in the right direction. Preaching of the period abounded with speech of improvement, spiritual and physical. The great Lyman Beecher, whose children would seed the coming century with still influential thought, saw America as the touch point for a divine opening of the promised holy age. Alexander Campbell, sometime Mormon critic, saw his own fractious following as part of a post-millennial elevation through a righteous, somehow not contradictory cessationism/primitivism. Charles G. Finney (sometime tutor for future Mormon apostle Lorenzo Snow) was perhaps the most enthused, and without appealing to arcane computation, saw the potential for the new age only a few years in the future.

JQA saw the progress of the age, Unitarian though he was, as the result of a superintending Providence. JQA saw himself as a kind of John the Baptist (though he did not use those words) but preparing the way for the Millennial Paradise. He tried to sell internal improvements, national roads, canals systems, across state lines, uniting the nation and empowering a federal overseership, binding the states together and extending a metaphysics of goodness that would reach out to the world beyond. He advocated the metric system in the hope that it would bind the whole world together, and at the same time, bind Satan in chains, as man became one in reaching for a better more equal world. Others noted the boom in printing, making for a lower and middle class who could take in the finer points of thought, increase the power to do good, and demonstrate the power of the social contract.

Imbedded in such statements was the development of modernized transport seen in steam power on rivers and a widely and deeply spread mail service. Roman Catholicism was cast in the light of an iron chain around the limbs of other nations, halting the spread of Protestant freedoms and the technologies that were tied to that spread. America was destined by its own internal progress and its influence in the world to break the hold of darkness and bring in the Messianic age. Post-millennialism became the most widely held eschatological view in antebellum America, and it meshed with revival religion perfectly well, seeing the enthusiasm as ever less punctate and ever more perpetuate as the improvement moved toward social, economic, and political perfection. It was a doctrine of the middle class to be sure, but its ideals bound together social perfection and sanctification in an obvious union that would last until reality burned it to the ground in the ashes of war.

Mormons took what might be considered a middle road. The establishment of Zion as a work in progress centered in a Missouri community that obeyed a Celestial ethos in utter unity, would bring in the humble from across the world, and cast fear in the hearts of the disobedient. But there was no question that Mormons saw Jesus at the beginning of Revelation’s thousand years of light, not its end, and as usual, it provided legends of fine detail in things like meetings to come of all the world’s past holy guides on a bluff in Missouri.

In the skepticism of a scientific age where even life seems a mystery solved, there is something to be longed for in the time when religion, or at least mainstream Protestantism was combined with social aims and the worship of progress all in the name of God.

————-
[1] Clay, John C. Calhoun, and the intellectual power John Quincy Adams (JQA) saw an American tariff system as essential to defend American ingenuity and manufacturing power. That and other points of the System fell pray to political intrigue and sectionalism. I’ve been thinking and reading some more on religion and politics in antebellum times to get some flavor of what early Mormons carried with them into a new religion. I’ve got more to spill, later.

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5 Responses to Early National Systems: Millennial Hope, I

  1. WVS says:

    Ugh. Dashed this off without edits yesterday. I think it’s readable now.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Solid stuff, WVS.

  3. WVS says:

    Thanks, J.

  4. rkt says:

    Fabulous, W. This is great context for early Mormonism.

  5. WVS says:

    Thanks, rkt.

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