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JAMES WEST DAVIDSON

How does apocalyptic rhetoric and belief come together with revolutionary ideology? What's new about that?

Davidson is a historian whose books include The Logic of Millennial Thought: Eighteenth Century New England.

(more about Davidson)

The Great Awakening provided a sense of expectation among many millennial scholars and among ordinary people, that this kingdom, divine kingdom, was expanding. The American Revolution changed, in a sense, the direction of how that kingdom was perceived. ... In the Great Awakening, you're dealing primarily with a question of spiritual conversion. There's a sense that if enough people experience the new birth, we're going to have a kingdom coming on, spreading gradually through what has amounted to a worldwide revival. The American Revolution changes the sense of what it means to bring this kingdom about, or what this kingdom entails, what's at the center of it. It's not simply a matter of personal conversion now. There is a sense of political as well as spiritual liberty; that you must have the freedom to govern yourselves in a political, in a civil sense, as well as in a religious sense, to have the religious freedom that is your due. ... And therefore now there is both a civil and political side to this religious vision.


PAUL BOYER

Boyer is the Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

(more about Boyer)

I think at the time of the American Revolution, there was an interesting process of a coming together of apocalyptic understandings of what the meaning of the American experience was, with some very genuine political grievances against British government of the late 18th century. So sort of underlying the political debates of the Revolutionary era was another discourse of prophetic meaning, that this struggle with England was not simply a political struggle about whether they have the right to impose certain taxes on the colonists, but it quite literally was a struggle to determine what the future of America would be.
boston massacre

the boston massacre
Would America fulfill that vision that the Puritan founders had created of the city on a hill, the New Zion? And it was really quite literally, at that level, a struggle about the future, and the apocalyptic future of the nation.

The Stamp Act was really important from that point of view, because here was a specific piece of legislation that required the colonists to have on all their legal documents, to have on all their newspapers, a stamp for which they would pay. And given a culture in which the idea of the mark of the Beast was very much a part of their thinking, the Stamp Act became a kind of particularly outrageous and literal example of this sort of demonic power that is threatening virtuous, righteous America.

There are fascinating continuities here when you stop and think about it, because in the 1760s, the colonists saw the Stamp Act, the requirement of the stamp on legal documents, as possibly the mark of the Beast. In the 1930s, in the Depression era, some writers said it's the union label that's beginning to be put on products. It's the NRA blue eagle. In the contemporary context, it's the consumer product code. So there's a real continuity here of efforts to find a kind of literal representation of this account in the Book of Revelation of the mark of the Beast, the mark of the Evil One.


JAMES WEST DAVIDSON

Apocalyptic rhetoric could be used in any number of ways to bolster this sense that this was not just a simple political dispute; this was the history of redemption in the balance. That King George was not just some sort of well intentioned but obtuse king--King George could be seen as the Antichrist. The Stamp Act was not just some piece of bureaucratic legislation. This was the mark of the beast being put upon all those who followed it and accepted it. ... All of this creates the sense of polarization, the sense that things are coming to a height. It's not just a matter of reasoned political discourse, but much larger issues in the balance.

On the positive side ... it's not simply that antichrist is Britain, but it is that this is something worth fighting for in a positive sense; that this is a kingdom that is evolving and spreading. And it almost comes to Americans with sort of a breathtaking surprise. All of a sudden we are not English citizens any more. We are Americans. And there may be a sense in which this is God's plan. That there is a grand empire, and it need not be a British one. It may be an American one, and we are pioneering new ground here. ...

The American Revolution provides a new timbre to apocalyptic thinking, because it combines what is the traditional religious sense of conversion, spiritual conversion and new birth with a political sense of a civil liberty. The Stamp Act, the Intolerable Acts, all these controversies that the colonies have with Great Britain are now melded into this vision which says: This is not simply a divine empire of religious belief, but also a political sense of liberty that goes on; that we are seeing something here we have not seen in the world before, and that this new young nation in North America is going to show the world the way to the New Jerusalem. ...

beast with magna carta

revere's engraving of an apocalyptic beast with the magna carta

Because millennial rhetoric is woven into the warp and woof of colonial culture, even people like Paul Revere, whom we know as a patriot and a talented silversmith--not what you would call a card carrying millennialist-- [drew on apocalyptic imagery]. And when the Stamp Act came and mobilized the colonies, Revere did a wonderful engraving, trying to convince people not to use stamped paper. And there he used for his imagery a beast-like dragon, very much like the beast in Revelation, with wings of a dragon, a fierce tail, talons clutching the Magna Carta and ripping it to shreds, and the colonists being ground underfoot. All imagery that just naturally came to Revere as something you could use for the ordinary person, perhaps the people who didn't read, as a way to say, "Don't use stamped paper. This is the mark of the beast." ...

For preachers, the Revolution was something they firmly grounded in the prophecies, scripture. But there was a message for many Americans that went beyond that strict biblical, church-oriented millennialism ... without talking chapter and verse about the prophecies, there is this sense that America is exceptional; that it's born out of this religious conviction; that there is, in a broad sense, an American tradition of liberty yoked with religion and a divine plan that gives the United States and its citizens the confidence to spread out into the world and bring this message of democracy and freedom all across the globe. ...

Colonials come out of the America Revolution with a new sense of possibility. One might almost say, a millennial sense of what is possible. So much so that they are comfortable in the 19th century of speaking of a manifest destiny, that this tremendous republic, which has won a revolution against all odds, has now the opportunity to become a republic that will spread all the way across the North American continent, and by its example, bring wisdom, religious belief, and a sense of millennial possibility to the rest of the world.

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