A large and very politically active segment of the American population, mostly Evangelical Christians, can’t wait for the end of the world. As the Washington Times recently reported, a Barna Group poll found that 4 in 10 American adults believe that “the world is currently living in the ‘end times’ as described by prophesies in the Bible.” When the data was broken down further, the poll revealed that 54% of mainline Protestants agreed that the end times were immanent, while 77% of evangelicals and 45% of Catholics believed that Jesus would soon return to earth to do stuff that He could, as the Almighty, theoretically do from His celestial La-Z-Boy recliner instead. But I digress.
If millions of Americans believe that the biblical end times are near, then it stands to reason (in the unreasonable sense, of course) that American politicians and public figures will be ready to lead and represent their Christian constituents all the way to Jordan’s banks. Collectively, these Americans and their leaders are either pejoratively or proudly referred to as the Christian Right. Earlier this year, an elder-statesman of the Christian Right, the elfin televangelist and champion leg presser Pat Robertson told his 700 club audience that increased security cameras in U.S. cities evidenced the biblical “Mark of the Beast” that would usher in the Antichrist. During the 2012 presidential election, former Pennsylvania Senator, and Catholic sweater-vest model Rick Santorum claimed that the Iranian regime was trying to bring about the end times by calling on the return of the Shiah Muslim messiah.
Among the most fervent of U.S. end times-believing public figures, however, is Republican congressional representative from Minnesota — and noted poster child for the over-the-counter sale of horse tranquilizers — Michele Bachmann. The esteemed congresswoman is among the 1 in 4 Americans that, according to the Christian polling firm LifeWay Research, believes that possible U.S. airstrikes against Syria portend the end of the world. Bachmann recently expressed this view on the Understanding the Times evangelical radio show, where she claimed that President Barack Obama’s “intentionally sending arms to terrorists” was evidence that we are in God’s End-Times history.
Far from being depressed about the looming destruction that Heaven would apparently rain down upon earth, Bachmann is looking forward to the impending chaos. “Rather than seeing this as a negative, we need to rejoice, Maranatha Come Lord Jesus, His day is at hand,” Bachmann stated, “yes it gives us fear in some respects because we want the retirement that our parents enjoyed. Well they will, if they know Jesus Christ.”
Puzzled as to why Bachmann, like so many other Americans, would welcome the destruction of known history at the hands of the alleged Prince of Peace (it’s complicated), Alternet’s Amanda Marcotte recently tried to get into their heads. She identifies four reasons why the Christian Right craves the end times: 1.) They think they’ll be raptured and thus, spared the worst of it. 2.) The end times will prove them theologically right. 3.) It’s a great escapist fantasy from a messy real word, and 4.) They want to be vindicated as the rulers of mankind.
All of these reasons sound, well, reasonable, but Marcotte is missing an important historical precedent that has made end times belief a major issue in American history. Millennialism — the belief by a religious group in a coming major societal transformation that will bring about massive change, based on a 1,000 year cycle — has long played an important role in American religious culture. As historian Frederic Baumgartner explains in his excellent book Longing for the End: A History of Millennialism in Western Civilization, millennialism posits an eschatological view of history, in which “at some point, a deity or some other extranatural force will bring an end to time, often through the agency of a messiah who has a special mission to punish the wicked and reward the fatihful.”* End times-expecting American evangelicals and other Christian conservatives subscribe to this view of history, and they have major antecedents in the 19th-century group known as the Millerites.
The Millerites were named after their founder, William Miller. Miller spent his youth reading the deistic scepticism of Thomas Paine and other like minds before settling in the famous “burned over district” of upstate New York, the cradle of the Second Great Awakening. In New York, he converted to the Baptist faith and developed an obsession with studying the bible in order to ascertain which texts therein could be interpreted literally and which could be read figuratively. Miller became particularly enamoured with the Book of Revelation, and soon believed that he could use it to create a chronology of history from the world’s creation to its apocalyptic end.
Using this reading of Revelation, Miller identified 1843 as the year when Christ would return and initiate the end times. He started preaching this conclusion publicly and gained a fairly large and extremely devoted following. Miller was among the first American proponents of premillennialism: the idea that Christ’s Second Coming, what he called the “Advent,” would set up Jesus’ thousand-year reign on earth. He initially claimed that Jesus would come sometime between March 21, 1843 and 1844, but when the dates passed, he revised his prediction date several times before settling on October 22, 1844 as the day of the Advent.
Miller’s followers wholeheartedly embraced Miller’s prediction of the Second Coming. On the night of Jesus’ suppose return, thousands of Millerites across the country gathered in churches and on hilltops, many dressed in so-called “ascension robes” donned to greet the Lamb of God. But the sun indeed rose on October 23 and Jesus never came. Some of the Adventists waited for hours longer, and a few even hung around for days before leaving in the wake of the “Great Disappointment” at Christ’s failure to show. Many had sold off all of their land and belongings in the hopes that Jesus would put an end to history. Miller himself spent his remaining life puzzled by his failure to predict the end times before dying in 1849.
One Adventist, Hiram Edson, wondered, “Is there no God, no heaven, no golden home city, no paradise?..Is there no reality to our fondest hope and expectation of these things?”* But Edson soon recovered from his grief, positing that Jesus’ Second Coming would be spiritual rather than earthly, and his sect developed into the modern-day denomination known as the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
Contemporary Christian conservatives like Michele Bachmann and Pat Robertson may not identify as Seventh Day Adventists, but their longing for the end of the world via Christ’s Second Coming is drawn from the same eschatological view of history that animated the Millerites and continues to play a major role in the theology of modern American conservative evangelicalism. Moreover, contemporary members of the Christian Right, like the Millerites before them, live in a time of vast social and economic change that they believe threatens their cherished values and traditions.
The Millerites emerged at the height of the Market Revolution in America, during which the growth of a mechanized capitalist economy, the emergence of cities as major centers of culture and finance, and the universal white-male suffrage of Jacksonian democracy created an American nation in constant flux. Further, sectional debates between North and South over the institution of slavery threatened to tear the young nation apart. Faced with these anxiety-producing social changes, the Millerites embraced the end times as a way of escaping an uncertain corporeal world. All of the stress, uncertainty, and change of modern American society would come to halt when Christ arrived and instituted paradise on earth.
Contemporary members of the Christian Right face similar changes in modern American society. Indeed, the fast-paced capitalist nation that emerged in the mid-19th century has only continued to accelerate into the twenty-first century. In a globalized marketplace, capitalism’s dynamic qualities — what the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter termed “creative destruction” — has left thousands without meaningful work and split up families via employment-based geographical separation.
On the cultural front, abortion, same-sex-marriage, and the liberal Barack Obama in the White House are all developments that are contrary to the Christian Right’s view of “traditional America.” Like the Millerites, the modern Christian Right sees the end times as the final say for their view of the world. For them, the end times are the ultimate escape from a society that has lost its way — the moment when Jesus will return to validate their beliefs and right so many cultural wrongs.
The Eschatological view of history, then, is like a soothing balm on the Christian Right’s burning psyche because it gives them a concrete reason for why things are the way they are, and assures them that these trying times will indeed pass. As Baumgartner observes, millennial cults, whether they be the Millerites or the modern Christian Right, offer their members psychological benefits via “a group to which they are fully committed where they can find a sense of love and belonging, the certainty of a truly happy fate, the expectation of vindication against those who have oppressed them, and of seeing their oppressors tormented and punished.”* For the American Christian Right, a group with no small persecution complex, the idea that Jesus will come and end history in their favor is just too good a hope to pass up.
If the history of the Millerites is any indication, however, folks like Michele Bachmann, Pat Robertson, and Rick Santorum will likely be left standing at the spiritual altar, waiting as lonely brides of an MIA Christ. Millennialism may offer hope to those who find it difficult to adjust to a world that seems to reject every value they hold dear, but merely holding values doesn’t legitimize those values as good or beneficial. The Christian Right should remember the Millerites the next time they wax apocalyptic in the wake of another disappointing election cycle. The Millerite experience shows Americans that there are far worse disappointments than losing an election.
See Frederic J. Baumgarter, Longing for the End: A History of Millenialism in Western Civilization (New York: Palgrave, 1999), 2, 6.