Crawford Gribben. Evangelical Millennialism in the Trans-Atlantic World, 1500-2000.
In 2011 an American Christian radio broadcaster named Harold Camping attracted massive media attention, and some actual following, for his prediction that on May 21 of that year Christ would return to earth and rapture away the faithful, carrying them heavenward, while the rest went through terrible earthly tribulations that would culminate five months later with the end of the world. It was not Camping's first exercise in date-setting; he had earlier published predictions of the end in 1988 and 1994. When May 22, 2011, dawned with the faithful still very much earthbound, Camping revised his date forward to October 21, 2011.
Harold Camping is hardly the first to set dates for the various events in the end-of-the-world scenarios espoused by millions of Christians around the world. Indeed, every age since the dawn of Christianity has seen date-setting. Millennialism--which defined broadly is found in many, if not most, religious traditions and not just Christianity--is one of the most durable forms of utopianism in the world. It is easily the most widely followed form of utopianism, in terms of numbers of true believers, numbers of people fascinated with its ideas (including many skeptics), and numbers of scholars studying it. It is more than just utopian; indeed, it blends utopian and dystopian themes thoroughly.
Gribben has given us a survey history of the main types of millennialism and their development over the last five hundred years. One whose grounding in premillennialism, postmillennialism, dispensational millennialism, amillennialism, the pretribulation or posttribulation or midtribulation rapture, and other such topics is shaky will benefit from the book's introduction, which provides an excellent survey of them. Gribben is unusually well acquainted with the scholarship on the subject as well as with its advocates, past and present. The title is somewhat misleading, however; the earlier parts of the book are heavily English and Irish in emphasis, and America comes to the fore in the last two chapters. Other European and North American countries get very little attention.
The book begins with the millennial expectations (or lack of them) of the early Protestant Reformation and their many cultural manifestations, including the bizarre Muenster episode of the mid-1530s, and it tracks the early Protestant disputes over the validity of the Book of Revelation. Although one would never guess it from the heavily millennial focus of contemporary Protestantism, most of the early Reformers disavowed the book, and even when its canonicity had been generally accepted, most Protestant leaders still rejected its millennial theory. Gribben's first chapter finishes with a tracking of the reacceptance of the book as English and Scottish theologians, especially, returned to millennial thinking and demonstrates that by 1600 the debate over it was finished.
Gribben then traces the return of millennialism to Protestant thinking more broadly. In the earlier part of the seventeenth century many influential theologians still refrained from seeing the Book of Revelation as future-oriented, locating such critical passages as 20:1-10 in the distant past, but by the 1630s the tide was shifting, and the notion that Revelation was about the future began to gain traction. In was in that century, incidentally, that theologians began to go beyond the Bible for their millennial groundings, finding a new interest in such sources as the Cabala, Hermeticism, and Nostradamus.
Gribben surveys a variety of millennial theologies from the later seventeenth century, plumbing the works of such prominent figures as Jonathan Edwards, Charles Wesley, and John Gill. Next, in turn, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, comes a new type of popular millennialism, such as that of Richard Brothers, who combined millennial thinking with the newly popular British Israel theory (which held that the British, not modern Jews, were the true descendants of the ancient Israelites), and of Joanna Southcott, who gained prominence on the strength of reportedly fulfilled predictions (such as the crop failures of 1799 and 1800) and who inspired a whole new millennial lineage on both sides of the Atlantic.
The nineteenth century saw a surge of millennial date-setting. One popular date-setter was Edward Irving (d. 1834), who said that the End would come in 1868, and he had such a powerful following that a group of young women, dressed in white, sat by his tomb for a time awaiting his resurrection. The most famous of the date-setters was the American William Miller, who in 1831 began to proclaim that the End would come in "about 1843" and, after various twists and turns, finally saw a mass of his followers focus their expectations on October 22, 1844. But the "Great Disappointment" that followed did not silence millennial believers, date-setting or otherwise. By the end of the nineteenth century evangelical millennialism was rising in both Great Britain and the United States.
Gribben has an excellent handle on the diverse millennial streams that flowed through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. John Nelson Darby's dispensational millennialism, so influential on twentieth-century movements, is given its due. When Zionism arose a bit more than a century ago, it fanned millennial hopes, and Gribben shows how that process worked. The atomic age, and then the Cold War, kept millennialism glowing brightly. Religious best sellers, perhaps most famously Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth (twenty-eight million copies in fifty-four languages), kept the pot boiling. Millennialism was widespread enough, Gribben shows, that it actually influenced politics at the national level, especially in the United States.
The bottom line: millennialism has not merely endured but has had a massive following over most of the last five hundred years. That said, it has taken a remarkable variety of forms and has been the subject of dizzyingly many interpretive schemes. It has taken somewhat different directions on the two sides of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, it is socially influential, and anyone who would write it off as a marginal phenomenon would be quite mistaken.
One could quibble with Gribben's emphases; American readers might think that their side of the pond does not quite get its fair share of attention, and continental Europeans similarly might well feel slighted. One could wonder why one of the most important millennial groups of all, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and its founder, Charles Taze Russell, is barely mentioned (and its most important leader after Russell, J. F. Rutherford, is not mentioned at all). But the subject is vast, and choices have to be made. The core story comes through well.
Gribben has given us a well-written monograph that amounts to a fine chronicle of a subject often inadequately understood by scholars. That said, its most enduring value may well be as a reference work. Anyone who wants a quick rundown on the millennialism (or antimillennialism) of Augustine, the early Protestant Reformers, Archbishop James Ussher, Thomas Brightman, Jonathan Edwards, Joanna Southcott, Edward Irving, William Miller, John Nelson Darby, and any number of others now has a reference that is both scholarly and literate. It is too expensive to be within the reach of most nonspecialist scholars, but any respectable library should add it to the permanent collection.
Timothy Miller, University of Kansas
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2012|
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