How Did We Get Here? - Millenarianism on the Rise

Updated: Sep 28, 2018


“If the Church could be aroused to a deeper sense of the glory that awaits her, she would enter with a warmer spirit into the struggles that are before her. Hope would inspire ardour. She would even now arise from the dust, and like the eagle plume her pinions for loftier flights than she has yet taken. What she wants, and what every individual Christian wants, is faith – faith in her sublime vocation, in her Divine resources in the presence and efficacy of the Spirit that dwells in her – faith in the truth, faith in Jesus, and faith in God. With such a faith there would be no need to speculate about the future. That would speedily reveal itself. It is our unfaithfulness, our negligence and unbelief, our low and carnal aims, that retard the chariot of the Redeemer. The Bridegroom cannot come until the Bride has made herself ready. Let the Church be in earnest after greater holiness in her own members, and in faith and love undertake the conquest of the world, and she will soon settle the question whether her resources are competent to change the face of the earth.” Dr. J. H. Thornwell[1]


As mentioned last week, Church history is an oft neglected subject for too many Christians. A large swathe of evangelicalism is Dispensational Premillennial (DP). In fact, I was once an adherent to this theological system. In my experience, Christians in (DP) are often some of the more ill-informed; even about their own theological system’s history. This lack of hindsight could be attributed to many factors but I agree with one scholar who says that the reason for this is because, at least partly, “its adherents do not believe that they have a future. A record of the past, they believe, is hardly worth preserving because the earthly future for Christians will soon be cut short.”[2] If your eschatology is such that you believe in the any moment rapture and that there is no future for this world, you will probably not be too concerned with the particulars of how we got here.

This article will trace the rise of millenarianism in general and DP in particular, in the 19th century. We will give some reasons for the rise of the millennial movement in general; namely, the social conditions of the time period, the year-day theory approach and date setting, and the revivalistic religious culture of the early 19th century. Then, we will see how DP arose and eventually became dominant during this period of great millennial expectation in Great Britain and North America. In the second half we will trace how DP came to dominance over the other eschatological systems.

As we related in the introduction article last week, following the Protestant Reformation a great Postmillennial hope was fostered among the English Puritans; the descendants of the Genevan tradition. This hope was passed down to their theological descendants and in the late 17th and 18th centuries it was the vastly dominant view among the Puritans. In general they believed that,

The kingdom of Christ would spread and triumph through the powerful operations of the Holy Spirit poured out upon the church in revivals. Such periods would come at the command of Christ, for new Pentecosts would show him still to be ‘both Lord and Christ.’ Their whole Calvinistic theology of the gospel, with its emphasis on the power given to Christ as the Mediator for the sure in-gathering of the cast number of his elect, and on the person of the Holy Spirit as the One by whom the dead are quickened, dovetails in here. They rejected altogether a naturalistic view of inevitable progress in history – so common in the nineteenth century – but asserted that the sovereign purpose of God in the gospel, as indicated by the promises of Scripture yet unfulfilled, points to the sure hope of great outpourings of the spirit in the future.[3]

This view was held by such Puritans as Thomas Brightman (1562-1607), Wlliam Perkins (1558-1602), Richard Sibbes (1577-1635), John Cotton (1585-1652), Thomas Goodwin (1600-1679), John Owen (1616-1683), Elnathan Parr (1577-1632), Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), John Howe (1630-1705), Matthew Henry (1662-1714) and passed down to men such as Isaac Watts, Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, Archibald Alexander, A.A. and Charles Hodge, Augustus Strong, Robert Dabney and many others. Iain Murray shows in “The Puritan Hope” that this view of history and prophecy led to worldwide missions efforts, great awakening revivals, and the hope that the Gospel of the kingdom would impact every nation; even to a renewal of the Jewish nation.[4] As we pointed out last week, premillennial eschatology, which held to a pessimistic outlook for the world, became virtually non-existent on the theological scene.

Things began to change as the 19th century rolled around. The Puritan hope began to fade. Throughout the 19th century a large number of millennial (pre-millennial) groups emerged with many different beliefs. There have been a number of reasons put forward as to why this change took place. One of those reasons is the disruptive and changing social conditions in the early 19th century. Things like Industrialization, modernism, the rapid change in the establishment Churches, all played a part in the resurgence of millennialism.[5] The pessimistic views of history held by the millennial groups fed into the idea that the world was soon to end and they would argue that world events obviously illustrated this fact. In this period, the chaos of the French Revolutionary era had a profoundly negative impact on the Church. The social and political upheaval caused a general renewal of interest in prophecy and the end of the world.[6] It has been noted by some historians that millennialism often is tied to chaotic conditions in the culture. Wars and rumours of wars have ended in a prophecy conference or two. DP is often criticized for holding to “newspaper eschatology”: the idea that we need to keep an eye on every current event happening in the Middle East in order to fit that into the newest edition of our end-times chart. It seems that the early 19th century was no different than today in this matter.

The common view of interpreting prophecy of the period, namely historicism and its year-day theory, only perpetuated this apocalypticism. The year-day theory allowed prophecy teachers to calculate the days (turned into years) in such texts as Daniel 7 and Revelation 13 and come up with a date for the return of Christ. These groups, following in the tradition of the Reformation, saw the Papacy as the Antichrist and thus based their calculations on the founding of the Roman Church sometime in the 6th century and then calculated the 1260[7] year reign of the Papal powers.[8] At this time, the Catholic Church in France was largely abolished by the revolutionaries and Rome was taken by French forces in 1798. The mortal wound of the beast from Revelation 13 had clearly taken place. You see, once you begin to interpret highly symbolic texts meant for the first century by current events, all manner of speculation ensues. The combination, then, of a historicist view of prophecy fulfilment and the disruption of the Catholic Church in the French Revolution resulted in an anticipation of Christ’s immediate return and many date-setting endeavours in the early 19th century.

The most prominent example of this is the American millennialist, William Miller (1782-1849). His followers, the Millerites, were eventually encouraged to leave their denominations (some were kicked out), and even their professions to prepare for the end of the world. Utilizing the year-day theory Miller predicted the end of the world for April 1843. When this date came and went, the Millerites decided upon the more exact date of 22 October, 1843.[9] After Christ failed to return on this date as well, the Millerites fell out of popularity and indeed, tainted millennialism for many in North America for a generation.[10]

This date-setting tradition has been carried down from the general millennial movement into modern DP. They do, of course, use different date-setting methods than the historicists and are predicting the rapture rather than the second coming (everyone knows the second-second coming will happen at the end of the seven-year tribulation [except for those in the Tribulation of course]). For example, there have been oft attempts at calculating the last generation of Matthew 24 from the founding of the modern state of Israel. Hal Lindsey and authors like him have sold a lot of books doing just these types of things. Though many in the DP camp rightly attempt to distance themselves from the date-setter types, many on the fringes just cannot help themselves.

The 19th century also saw a massive influx of revivalism and Methodism in the established churches. Emotional appeals, experience, rhetoric, and group pressure were all used to bring this “gospel” to the masses. They were characterized by calls for Christians to leave the corrupt established churches and denominations and separate from all of things of the world. Evangelists like Charles Finney perfected these strategies and further invented ‘new measures’ such as “’planned protracted meetings’, the first ‘altar calls’, an invitation for the penitent to take the ‘anxious seat’ at the front, inquiry meetings in the ‘anxious room’ for the people seeking salvation, and the repeated call for immediate action of will manifest in repentance.”[11]. This revivalism ripened the fields for the millennial preaching in the 19th century. Many of the group’s leaders utilized the same emotional preaching strategies as the revivalists. One author explains how the millennialists co-opted these strategies when he writes:

Millennialism was revivalism writ large. It used the conception of God and creation that underlay the revivalistic interpretation of individual salvation and applied it to the structure of society and the world at large. The personal struggle with evil became the cosmic battle between the forces of Christ and the forces of darkness; sudden redemption Christ; individual perfection became the millennial garden that encompasses the whole earth.[12]

Revivalism, therefore, proved to be a catalyst in the parallel revival of millennial thinking.

There were many effects of the shift from a post-millennial eschatology to a markedly pessimistic millenarianism. Iain Murray in his excellent book, The Puritan Hope, gives us a few reasons. Firstly, the political and social endeavours like that of William Wilberforce began to be seen as illegitimate and worldly.[13] Any cultural endeavours were ultimately divorced from the Gospel. A withdrawal from culture, from their standpoint, was obvious as all cultures were ‘secular’ and were soon to be destroyed by the quick-coming judgement anyway. From this point on, the strategy of retreat from culture slowly took hold in the Church. Modernism and Liberalism demanded not a call for reform, but retreat. An early member of the Plymouth Brethren, B.W. Newton shows this attitude well when he said that,

The importance of this doctrine is, that it totally forbids all working for earthly objects distant in time; and here the Irish clergyman [Darby] threw into the same scale the entire weight of his character. For instance, if a youth had a natural aptitude for mathematics, and he asked, ought he to give himself to the study, in hope that he might diffuse a serviceable knowledge of it, or possibly even enlarge the boundaries of the science? My friend would have replied, that such a purpose was very proper, if entertained by a worldly man. Let the dead bury their dead; and let the world study the things of the world… but such studies cannot be eagerly followed by the Christian, except when he yields to unbelief.[14]

If I truly believed the end of the world was immanent and also could occur at any moment, I might be inclined to think similar to this. At least Darby was consistent.

A new outlook for missions was also fostered which focused exclusively on ‘soul winning’. A.A. Hodge, a missionary himself, explains the difference between the missionary strategies:

Millenarian missionaries have a style of their own. Their theory affects their work in the way of making them seek exclusively, or chiefly, the conversion of individual souls. The true and efficient missionary method is, to aim directly, indeed, at soul winning, but at the same time to plant Christian institutions in heathen lands, which will, in time, develop according to the genius of nationalities. English missionaries can never hope to convert the world directly by units.[15]

These millennial missionaries did not believe there was a future for these nations and therefore only sought to snatch souls away from the enemy. Post-millennialists like A.A. Hodge sought to bring these nations under the Lordship of Christ the King by building Christians and Christian institutions. He recognized that winning souls was best done by establishing a gospel culture amongst them and placing this at the feet of Jesus.

This rising millenarianism also saw the dismissiveness of the Church as an institution. This was especially true of millenarianism in Britain and with the Plymouth Brethren. The church had largely apostatized and was an institution without a future. In fact, Darby went so far as to say that the Church was a spiritual entity, existing outside of history; no institution at all.[16] Individuals were encouraged to seek new groups which would faithfully strive until the end of the world; the pastoral office was seen as unneeded as all were to be able to fulfill this charge; and the study of teachings from previous churchmen were regarded as ‘human tradition’.[17] These attitudes were largely held by John N. Darby and those of the Plymouth Brethren movement. Darby’s ecclesiology was the foundation for his eschatology.

The 19th century, then, saw the emergence of a large number of millennial groups both in Britain and North America. In our very own Ontario, as the 19th century rolled along, groups such as the Irvingites, Hornerites the Campbellites, Perfectionists, Millerites, the Children of Peace, and indeed, the Plymouth Brethren, were all active and disrupted the Church.[18] There were mass calls to leave the churches for the separatist sects. Their message was directed towards all of the established denominations. Ministers often did not know how to deal with the chaos and loss of church members that accompanied these groups. Many farmers left their farms and business men left their jobs in anticipation for the Second Advent.[19] Culture was now hopeless and something to escape. Pessimism became orthodoxy. This is the general millennial expectancy that characterized the early 19th century. This is the theological canvass upon which John N. Darby would paint.

Next time: Now that we have sketched a general picture of the time period, we will trace how the Plymouth Brethren perspective, later known as DP, came to prominence.



[1] Quoted in J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory, (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1971), 6.

[2] Greg L. Bahnsen, Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., House Divided: The Break-up of Dispensational Theology, (Tyler: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), xxxv.

[3] The Puritan Hope, 52.

[4] Ibid.

[5] William Westfall, Two Worlds: The Protestant Culture of Nineteenth Century Ontario (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), 174.

[6] Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism:British and American Millennialism, 1800-1930 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 5-7.

[7] From Revelation 13 and its forty-two months which were each weighed at 30 years.

[8] Ibid, 5-7.

[9] Sandeen, 54

[10] Ibid, 55-54. After this “Great Disappointment”, Millerite leaders reinterpreted Miller’s prophecy. This eventually led to the founding of the Seventh Day Adventist movement.

[11] Joseph Boot, The Mission of God: A Manifesto of Hope for Society (Ezra Press, 2016), 577.

[12] Westfall, 171.

[13] Murray, 214.

[14]William Blair Neatby, A History of the Plymouth Brethren (1901), 339. Quoted in Murray, 214.

[15] C.A. Salmond, Princetoniana. Charles and A.A. Hodge: with class and table talk of Hodge the younger (1888), 238-9. Quoted in Murray, 215.

[16] Sandeen, 67.

[17] Murray, 216.

[18] Ibid, 168.

[19] Ibid, 173.

#Eschatology #Postmillenialism #Dispensationalism #History

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