Chronology: the apocalyptic world view through the ages

Martin Luther

Martin Luther
Martin Luther nails his famous theses against the Church's sale of indulgences onto the church door at Wittenburg, Germany, launching the Protestant Reformation.

Luther's great belief was that Christians could best commune with God by studying scripture themselves, rather than relying on the Church for mediation. Although his own attitude toward the Book of Revelation is ambivalent at best, Luther's dictum, "sola scriptura," opens the way for new readings of prophecy and an explosion in Christian apocalypticism. Ever since, Protestants have generally proven far more willing than Catholics to read Revelation literally and develop highly apocalyptic belief systems.

1525The German Peasants' War violently shakes German society, as peasants, miners, and urban artisans storm castles and monasteries demanding a more equitable, postfeudal order.

Thomas Muentzer

Thomas Muentzer
One of those who brought revolutionary eschatology to this class war was Thomas Muentzer, a former student of Martin Luther who had gained many followers since taking up his ministry in 1520. His movement was violent and fiercely egalitarian--unlike Luther's, which attracted the well educated. Muentzer capitalized on the social unrest of the Peasant's War and made it a vehicle for his own messianic ambitions.

But in 1525, Muentzer's revolt was crushed in Thuringia. Despite his rousing promise that he would catch the enemy's cannonballs in his shirtsleeves, Muentzer's army was crushed and he was beheaded. As many as 100,000 or his followers may have died. Still, in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in East Germany, communists would rescue Muentzer from obscurity and celebrate him as a hero of the oppressed.

1535Defeat of the Anabaptists who had held the Westphalian town of Munster, which they declared the site of the New Jerusalem. They had first occupied the town the year before, led by Jan Matthys, who was killed leading a raid on Easter Sunday, the day they believed the world would end. When Jan Bockelson (a.k.a. John of Leyden) took over and a declared himself the "Messiah of the Last Days," events took an even stranger turn. Bockelson instituted polygamy, taking several wives for himself; issued coins with apocalyptic inscriptions; and generally terrorized the populace, who starved while he and his inner circle lived opulently. The following January, Bockelson would be publicly tortured to death, his body displayed in a cage which hung in the town square.

According to historian Paul Boyer, the Anabaptists were "religious radicals who rejected Luther's alliance with princely power in Germany and Calvin's theocracy in Geneva." They won support, especially among the poor of northern Europe, stressing "rebaptism of adult believers (hence anabaptists), personal piety, nonresistance, and separation from the world." They were strongly apocalyptic, believing that the return of Christ was near, and that "Christ and Antichrist were locked in the final struggle."

Luther, Calvin, and other Reformation leaders reacted with horror to the Peasants' War, the rise of Anabaptism, and the bizarre events in Thuringia and Munster.

John Winthrop, Puritan leader

John Winthrop, Puritan leader
The English Puritans begin to colonize America, in the hope that it would become the New Jerusalem predicted in scripture. Launched at a time of high apocalyptic awareness in England, the enterprise held great eschatological importance for those involved.

More on the Puritans.

1642-1653Civil war rages in England as radicals move against the crown. Led by Puritan Oliver Cromwell, the Parliament's forces defeat the King's army and take him prisoner in 1646. Three years later, Charles I is tried and beheaded, after which England is governed by an ineffective Rump Parliament.

In 1653, Cromwell takes over and is declared Lord Protector. The radicals who had supported Cromwell felt betrayed, and soon turn their apocalyptically fueled anger against him. They call themselves "Fifth Monarchy" men, a reference to the righteous kingdom which succeeded four earthly ones in the Book of Revelation.

As Paul Boyer has noted, "apocalyptic speculation surged among English radicals, largely drawn from society's lower ranks, who saw an egalitarian new order on the horizon. Like the Taborites and early Anabaptists, they invoked Bible prophecy to validate their expectations."

1650Anglican Bishop James Ussher publishes The Annals of the Old Testament, Deduced from the First Origin of the World. This widely influential chronology called for the Second Coming of Christ in the year 2000. It did this by following the common practice of assuming six thousand years of human history (based on six days of creation), and placing creation at 4000 B.C.E.
1666Just six years after the Restoration of King Charles II to the English throne, the great fire in London ignites an orgy of apocalypticism. The calendrical "666," cited in Revelation as the "number of the Beast," had already inspired dread in many.

This year was also predicted as the end of history by the Jewish Kabbalistic leader Shabbetai Tzevi, who had gained a large following since declaring himself the Messiah in 1648. Shabbetai was excommunicated by the rabbis of Jerusalem in 1665, then imprisoned when he arrived in Constantinople the following year. Threatened with further torture, he converted to Islam, disillusioning most of his followers. But a core remained, and spread what became known as Shabbetaianism, which would reach its peak in the 18th century.

1740sThe first Great Awakening brings spiritual and eschatological revival to England and her colonies, despite the trend toward rationalism earlier in the 18th century.

The dominant eschatology of the time is known as postmillennialism, or the belief that Christ would return only after righteous men had created a godly kingdom on earth through their own efforts.

One prominent leader was Jonathan Edwards of Northampton, who saw the revival as "the dawning, or at least a prelude, of that glorious work of God, so often foretold in Scripture, which in the progress and issue of it, shall renew the world of mankind." He added that "Many things ... make it probably that this work will begin in America."

The Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre
The American Revolution.
Apocalyptic rhetoric fuels the rebellion: colonial pamphleteers equate the hated Stamp Act with the "mark of the beast" from Revelation, and cast King George in the role of Antichrist. They also see their victory in apocalyptic terms, as a sign that America is truly destined to become Christ's new millennial kingdom.

More on the American Revolution.

1780Calling themselves the "Millennial Church," a religious sect known as the Shakers begin to attract followers in upstate New York. Founded by Ann Lee, who had left a small sect known as the Shaking Quakers in England, they establish an unusual communal life near Albany. Their name derives from their worship services, which feature frenetic dancing so that believers might "shake" sin from their bodies. Believing the Millennium is at hand, the Shakers require celibacy, hold property in common, and share ministry equally among men and women. Eventually establishing villages from Maine to Kentucky, they would become one of the more successful (among many) apocalyptic sects in America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
1820s - 1830s Religious revival known as the second Great Awakening sweeps through America, igniting religious energies so fierce its epicenter in western New York becomes known as the "Burned Over District."

In many ways, this represents the cresting of the religious tide which had been surging in the U.S. for decades, spawning sects like the Shakers, the Rappites, the Amana and Oneida Communities, and the Mormons. These groups are all millennial and utopian to some degree, and while some did not last very long, they bear witness to the incredible vitality and diversity of American religious life during this period and beyond.

1830After receiving a vision, Joseph Smith publishes the Book of Mormon, beginning his effort to restore the "true" church of Christ. According to religious historian Stephen Stein, "In Mormon eyes, the world divided sharply between Latter-day Saints--what they called themselves--and Gentiles, who rejected the gospel." Smith's Mormons look forward to Christ's imminent return, believing they would "reign with Christ a thousand years on the earth."

Although he avoids setting specific dates, Smith is hardly afraid of prediction: he holds that there will be "two places of gathering" in the latter days, Palestine for the Jews and Zion in western Missouri for the Gentiles. He leads followers to various settlements in the Midwest, finally founding the town of Nauvoo in Illinois. Their strange beliefs and practices (including polygamy), as well as their militance, engender hostility from outsiders, and Smith is murdered by a mob in 1844. To the faithful, such persecution only confirms that the latter days are upon them.

William Miller

William Miller
"The Great Disappointment" of the Millerite movement. In the preceding years, the self-proclaimed Baptist preacher William Miller had attracted as many as 100,000 followers in New York and Massachusetts. Miller boldly predicted that Christ would return and engulf the world in fire some time between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When that didn't happen, he changed the date to October 22. Many followers left after that spectacular failure, but enough stayed to form the 7th Day Adventist movement. The type of eschatology espoused by the Millerites is called premillennialism, which holds that the world will grow more and more sinful until Christ returns to usher in the Millennial kingdom--in other words, man can't save himself. Although their failure would serve as a great caution against hard date-setting, historians view them as a harbinger of the type of apocalyptic thinking so prevalent in the 20th century.
John Nelson Darby

John Nelson Darby
British minister John Nelson Darby begins preaching in America. He would create an ingenious theology known as premillennial dispensationalism, which remains the dominant eschatological system in Christianity today. "Dispensationalism" refers to Darby's belief that human history can be divided into a series of epochs, or dispensations, in which God has dealt with humanity in different ways. Darby teaches that biblical prophecy refers to the past and future periods, but is silent on the present "Church Age," which began with Christ's crucifixion. By asserting that God's prophetic clock had temporarily stopped ticking, this "Great Parenthesis" ingeniously preserves prophecy while avoiding the risks of date-setting.

One of the most enduring elements of Darby's system is the Rapture, in which true believers in Christ would travel instantly to heaven, where they would watch the terrible seven-year Tribulation unfold on earth, killing all but a righteous few. His emphasis on the Jews' return to Palestine and his strong reliance on scripture over church authority have also won favor with fundamentalists.

1861-1865America is torn by the Civil War, a conflict so great it taps into apocalyptic fears and expectations. For example, the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" written by Julia Ward Howe, clearly is drenched in apocalyptic imagery: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord ... He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword ..."
January 1, 1901 While millions sip champagne on the first day of a new century ripe with promise, a curious thing happens at a small bible school in Topeka, Kansas. During an all-night prayer vigil, a zealous young woman named Agnes Ozman begins babbling in unrecognizable tongues--it is the first authenticated "Spirit Baptism" of modern times and the beginning of the Pentecostal movement. Today, at the end of the century, Pentecostals and other charismatic Christians number in the hundreds of millions and are perhaps the fastest growing religious group in the world.
1909Cyrus Scofield publishes the first of many editions of his influential Scofield Reference Bible, which helps spread Darby's dispensational system. By 1990, various editions had sold upwards of ten million copies, making it one of the most important documents in Christian fundamentalist literature. Shrewdly placing his comments in the margins of the scripture itself, Scofield advances a classic Darbyite dispensational system which both reflected and solidified the emerging premillennialist consensus of his day. Deeply suspicious of all organizations, the Scofield Bible encourages individual study as the path to the utopian "Kingdom Age," his term for the Millennium.
1910The Fundamentals are published between 1910 and 1915. A committee of "Fundamentalists" is formed to write the pamphlets, which are sponsored by two California oilmen and sent to some 3 million Protestant leaders. The Fundamentals stress the accuracy of biblical history, the important role of the Jews, and the value of prophetic prediction, which one "fundamentalist" called "the ultimate antidote for all infidelity and the impregnable bulwark against liberalism and false cults."
1914The outbreak of the First World War, the largest-scale conflict the world had ever seen, unleashes a torrent of apocalyptic fears.

The Jehovah's Witnesses also believe that this will be the year of the Second Coming, when Christ will free the world from Satan's domination through national governments. Charles Taze Russell, founder of the movement, had predicted Christ's invisible return in 1874, followed by his Second Coming in 1914, which would mark the end of "the time of the Gentiles." In 1884 he founded the Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society, which produced books and pamphlets explaining his system. In 1931, the Society would change its name to the Jehovah's Witnesses.

1917The Balfour Declaration expresses the British government's support in principle for establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This strikes many as a sure sign that the Temple will be rebuilt and the prophecies of Revelation will soon be fulfilled.
1929Italian dictator Benito Mussolini signs a concordat with the Pope, convincing many that he is the prophesied leader of a restored Roman Empire in league with the Antichrist.
Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler
National Socialist leader Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany, within months establishing single-party rule and turning the country into a police state. His twisted millennial vision of a Third Reich, while not overtly religious, borrows heavily from the religious apocalyptic tradition. The most obvious parallel is the Nazi's demonization of the Jews, which would mark a new low in the long history of antisemitism.
a mushroom cloud
The Second World War outpaces the first, making it the most destructive event the world has ever known. In 1945, the world enters the Atomic Age with the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Suddenly, the second epistle of Peter didn't sound so far-fetched: "But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night ... the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with a fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up." (2 Pet. 3:10 KJV) The fact that man now clearly possessed the means of his own destruction would reawaken apocalyptic fears among believers and non-believers alike.
The Israeli Flag

the Israeli Flag
The Jewish State of Israel is established in Palestine, igniting a veritable frenzy among prophecy believers, who had been looking for Jews to regain control of the Holy Land since the late 19th century.
The Six Days War, 1967

The Six Day War, 1967
The Israelis capture Jerusalem in what comes to be known as the Six Day War. Christian prophecy believers would see this as an important sign that the End Times were approaching.
Hal Lindsey

Hal Lindsey
Hal Lindsey publishes Late Great Planet Earth, which becomes so popular the New York Times has called him the best selling author of the 1970s. Espousing a basic premillennialist vision, the former Campus Crusade for Christ recruiter pitches his argument to young people, cleverly demonstrating how current events could best be viewed in light of prophecy. In 1977, Orson Welles would narrate a movie version of Late Great Planet Earth.

Lindsey's success spawns a host of imitators, whose books, films, videos, web sites and other products are a multi-million dollar business today.

1975William Luther Pierce writes The Turner Diaries, a fictional account of a "Great Revolution" by Aryan Christians in the 1990s. In the book, Aryans, who have become second-class citizens, fight back against Jews, African-Americans and Hispanics. Earl Turner, the protagonist, dies in a kamikaze attack on the Pentagon. The book remains popular and influential today among right-wing extremists.
1978The world is shocked by the mass suicide at the Jonestown community in Guyana. The Reverend Jim Jones had established branches of his People's Temple up and down California in the late 1960s, appealing to the urban poor, especially African Americans, with his curious blend of religious and socialistic messianism. By 1976 he had accumulated enough influence and political power in San Francisco that he was named to the city's Housing Commission. But beginning in July 1977, exposes of his group's outlandish practices forced Jones to flee permanently to the colony he had begun building in Guyana a few years before, which he saw as "a revolutionary challenge to a corrupt world." The mass suicide was ordered by Jones after members of the Temple had murdered Congressman Leo Ryan and four others as they prepared to depart Guyana after an investigation. Before the grisly end came, Jones had been preparing the group for a possible relocation to Russia, which he had been slated to be the next "heaven on earth," an interesting departure from the anti-communism of most American Christian millennial sects.
1980With strong support from the growing Christian fundamentalist movement, Ronald Reagan is elected President of the United States.

A Gallup poll this year reports that 40 percent of Americans regard the Bible as "the actual Word of God."

1981James Watt, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior and a prominent Pentecostal, publicly states that we need not worry too much about exploiting our natural resources because "I don't know how many future generations we can count on until the Lord returns."

The following year, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger would remark, "I have read the Book of Revelation and yes, I believe the world is going to end--by an act of God, I hope--but every day I think time is running out ..."

1983President Reagan makes his infamous "Evil Empire" speech in which he calls the Soviet Union "the focus of evil in the modern world." It's no coincidence that his use of apocalyptic rhetoric came in an address to the National Association of Evangelicals.
1989Televangelist Pat Robertson founds the Christian Coalition "to give Christians a voice in their government again and to reverse the moral decay that threatens our nation by training Christians for effective political action," through local politics, particularly school boards. By 1998 the CC has over 400,000 members spread through 900 branches in all fifty states. Robertson claims to have spoken in tongues and even to have altered the path of hurricanes. Although a confirmed premillennialist, Robertson, who ran for President in 1988, recently has embraced aspects of Dominion Theology, which emphasizes political activism toward creating a postmillennial kingdom on earth. This may be part of a more general shift among fundamentalists toward a more activist, postmillennial eschatology in keeping with their increased involvement in politics.
April 19, 1993
Fire at the Davidian Compound

Fire at the Davidian Compound
A standoff in Waco, Texas between federal agents and an apocalyptic Christian sect known as the Branch Davidians ends in disaster; fire kills some 80 Branch Davidians in their compound. They were led by the messianic David Koresh, and the Davidians are direct descendants of the 19th century Millerites, through the Seventh Day Adventist movement. The F.B.I. and Department of Justice receive harsh criticism for their handling of the situation, during which they showed little understanding of the Christian apocalyptic tradition of which Koresh and his followers were clearly a part.

More on Koresh's apocalyptic faith.

April 19, 1995 The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City kills 169, making it the bloodiest act of terrorism in American history to date. Perpetrators Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, members of the loosely organized American militia movement, claimed they wanted "revenge" for the actions of the Federal agents at Waco two years earlier.
March, 1997 39 members of messianic guru Marshall Applewhite's Heaven's Gate cult commit suicide, capturing the nation's attention. With its strange amalgam of New Age, science fiction, and Christian beliefs, the group is a great example of what historian Michael Barkun calls a new "improvisational style" of apocalypticism, in which small groups pluck religious and secular elements out of the great cultural "millennial stew" and fashion their own unique systems.
1998 - 1999
As the end of the millennium draws near, the impending "Y2K" computer crisis receives more and more attention. Y2K hits two classic apocalyptic nerves--fear of technology and global interconnectedness--while also possessing the classic feature of a hard and fast date, which fosters increasing panic as "the End" approaches.
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