Saturday, November 14, 2009

Old Time Religion and End Time Religion

The end of the world is coming—again.

Apocalyptic prophecies are a recurring phenomenon in Christian history and in America’s past. Puritan theologian Cotton Mather foresaw the end would come in 1696, then in 1736, and finally in 1716. In the next century, William Miller famously selected the date of October 22, 1844, for Christ’s Second Coming. Thousands of followers were left disappointed on hilltops, where they’d gathered to be closer to the heavenly dispensation, when the appointed day came and went with no grand finale.

Now 2012 is the pre-determined moment for the final curtain to fall. Hollywood, the Mayan calendar, and a cottage industry of New Age catastrophizers say so.

While doom sayers have deep roots in America soil, however, their prognostications are far removed from the vision of the country’s founders, who believed that history was just beginning, not coming to an end.

Tom Paine, for instance, called the American Revolution “the birthday of the world.” As the Constitutional Convention drew to a close in 1787, Ben Franklin was convinced that the image on the back of the moderator’s chair, depicting the sun upon the horizon, represented a dawning moment, not a dusk. Similarly, the Great Seal of the United States, designed by Charles Thomson, called for a Novus Ordo Seclorum or “New Order of the Ages.” The phrase, interestingly, came not from Biblical sources, but from the Roman poet Virgil:

Now comes the final era of the Sibyl’s song; The great order of the ages is born afresh. And now justice returns, honored rules return; now a new lineage is sent down from high heaven.

The motto captured the upbeat mood of that generation. How many would have thought independence worth fighting for, had they imagined a general cataclysm was imminent?

If films like “2012” and “The Day After Tomorrow” are any indication, the “world-is-coming-to-an-end” message will always draw a big audience. Global warming, AIDS, H1N1, shifting weather patterns and similar threats will be seized upon as evidence that all is lost. The task for our time will be to recapture the faith of the founders, not to abandon hope, but to take melting ice caps, nuclear proliferation, economic recession and all the rest as problems for human ingenuity to solve.

“Do not anticipate trouble,” advised the wise Mister Franklin, “or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight.” The alternative is to let worst case scenarios become self-fulfilling predictions.


Mark in Spokane said...

Of course, for many American evangelicals, influenced by the twin streams of the Great Awakening on the one hand, and Calvinist orthodoxy on the other, there was a strong sense of God doing a building a new thing in America, not instead of the parousia but in anticipation of it.

Apocalyptic imagery certainly wasn't absent in the preaching of the Founding Era -- one can look through the Liberty Fund's anthology of American preaching from that period and it is plain to see. The key to understanding how the beliefs in the end times that were common among evangelicals at the time could co-exist and actually strengthen the push for independence is the simple fact that many evangelicals echoed the older Puritan idea that believers were called to build the kingdom of God, not just wait for its arrival. Jesus would usher in the fullness of the kingdom at the end of time, but as part of the divine plan, believers were called to work to make this world conform more closely to the world to come.

This idea, by the way, is at the root of virtually all Christian social activism in this country since the Founding period. It was one of the key animating ideas that motivated the Christians who opposed Cherokee removal in the 1820's, the Christian abolitionists, the Christian temperance and suffrage activists, and much of the modern pro-life movement.

Daniel said...

One of the best-known Apocalyptic hymns is the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Is it a description of the union armies or of Christ's final conquest? A combination of the two, it seems.

Apocalyptic imagery is most often thought of in terms of the end of the world. More commonly, in Hebrew and Christian scripture, it depicts a changed world. Thus, that imagery could serve the New World Order.

It is great fun to watch thousands of people gather on hills anticipating the impossible. But the same imagery can propel similar people to accomplish the impossible.

Tom Van Dyke said...

For the record, The Battle Hymn's author was a unitarian. I did an in-depth piece on it if you're interested, Daniel.

Mark, I'd love to hear more on your thesis, or as Julia Ward Howe put it:

"Our God is marching on..."