apocalypticism explained
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L. Michael White

White is Professor of Classics and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin, and served as historical consultant for "Apocalypse!"
In the early 1800s, really in the years right after the Revolutionary War, there's a massive new expansion of the country, the great push westward. And this period sees a number of new developments happening, especially on the religious front. And many of them have apocalyptic overtones to them. In fact, this is the period that gives rise to what is known as the Second Great Awakening. Like the first, it's a period of revival. But it's being put forward as a sense of the great expansion of the country as well. ...

One of the interesting things about the Second Great Awakening is, it gives rise to a number of new religious sects within the American cultural experiment. This is what some people have called the rise of a free market religious economy in America. But new groups are popping up all over the place. We hear of utopian groups that move to places like Amana and Oneida. New York itself is known as the "burned over district" because so many revivalist preachers come from that area. And in fact, it gives rise to several other groups that still exist to this day, including the Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists, and others who came out of that revivalist temperament of the early 1800's.

william miller

william miller.
One of the most significant figures to come out of this revivalist spirit of the Second Great Awakening is a farmer from upstate New York by the name of William Miller. Miller begins to read the Bible, and he undertakes a new sense of understanding of how to interpret prophecy and the Book of Revelation itself. The most important thing that William Miller brings to the discussions of the Book of Revelation is his new sense of how the events are going to unfold. In contrast to earlier interpreters, Miller argues that the Book of Revelation is completely unfulfilled. All of the events described there are things that will occur at the end of time, whereas earlier interpreters had seen events unfolding throughout Christian history in the past. ... The crucial change in Miller's interpretation of the Book of Revelation is that he sees all of those events as still to come in the future. Nothing there-- maybe the first chapter alone, but nothing in the rest of the book has been fulfilled. ...

Now, what Miller thinks is going to happen is that the prophecies of Daniel will be fulfilled in the end that's just about to come. This is when the Second Coming of Christ will occur, what he begins to call the Advent. In fact, that's what his movement comes to be known as: the Adventists' movement. But the Advent or the Second Coming of Christ will occur in 1843. And then, in a significant twist in interpretation of the Book of Revelation, he says that's when the thousand years, the millennium, will commence. So he places the events in the Book of Revelation and all of that expectation as a coming event after the return of Christ. This new interpretation, where all of the events in the Book of Revelation begin to occur only after Christ returns, and the Millennium, the thousand year reign, is a reign on earth after the return of Christ, that kind of interpretation comes to be known as pre-millennialism. And it's one of the important new developments in American religious history. And of course it still survives to this day, and is very influential.

Read more about the Seventh Day Adventist background of cult leader David Koresh in David Valdes Greenwood's article, "Waco:The Fire Next Time"

What are the key passages in Revelation that are meaningful to Miller?

For William Miller, most of the Book of Revelation has not yet come to pass. But in particularly, he really looks at the section between chapters 12 and 21, commencing with the great beast, the Antichrist, who arrives. And then the war, the battle of Armageddon in chapter 20. And in chapter 21, the New Jerusalem. These are the things that he thinks are going to be fulfilled at the Second Coming of Jesus and with the establishment of the millennial kingdom on earth.


How does the Miller movement gain momentum? . . .

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

(more about Boyer)

The Millerite movement gained momentum by utilizing the latest technologies of the day, of mass communication. The high speed printing press, for example, was very important in promoting pamphlets and newsletters and newspapers and colored charts that illustrated Miller's system. Miller himself was not a great preacher. He was not a great evangelist. His meetings were more like lectures. He was a teacher, and he would turn people to the Book of Daniel, and he would walk them through his system. And he was very fortunate in his lieutenants, particularly a man named Joshua Himes in Boston, who was a very skilled promoter and really turned the Millerite movement--helped do it, at least--into a mass phenomenon.

Did Miller see himself as a prophet? Or did he just feel he found the code?

I don't think Miller saw himself as a prophet. I don't think he believed that he had received some special revelation from God. Miller was a Bible student, and he believed that through careful analysis of the texts, particularly in the Book of Daniel, it was possible to develop a chronology that would lead you inevitably to the moment of Christ's Second Coming. So he was in the tradition of biblical interpreters, rather than in the tradition of prophets who receive a special vision.

Do you know the circuitous, complicated math he's doing?

The details of Miller's system are extremely complicated. They're difficult to follow. He drew upon passages in the Book of Daniel that refer to 1,260 days, and translated the days into years, and used as his beginning point the command to rebuild the Jewish Temple after the Babylonian captivity, moved forward from that, and by a really very elaborate and somewhat circuitous system, came up with the year 1843. It was an interpretive system that he found convincing, and that evidently many thousands of Americans of his day did as well.

Does that put him on the absolute cultural fringe, or does he represent more of the mainstream?

We tend to marginalize prophecy believers as cranks, people on the cultural fringe. The Millerite movement is a good antidote, I think, to that marginalization, because it's very hard to find how the Millerites were different from other Americans. They were ordinary Americans. Many of them were involved in other reform movements. Joshua Himes in Boston, for example, was also involved in the abolitionist movement. Sarah Grimke was involved in the women's rights movement and the anti-slavery movement. People were drawn to Miller out of a larger cultural climate of the moment. And they were not cranks. They were not fringe people. They were ordinary Americans who found his interpretation compelling. ...

As March 1843 approaches, how is the movement covered in the news? How does the greater society view them? There were some circulation wars built around this idea, weren't there?

Well, of course, inevitably the Millerite movement attracted a great deal of attention. Some of it was skeptical. Some of it was in the tone of ridicule. Others took it rather seriously. I think everyone recognized its importance, not only religiously but economically. These rallies were attracting many thousands of people. The Millerites really pioneered mass journalism in many ways, in getting the message out through their publications. ...

So what happens when the first disappointment comes?

When the first disappointment came in 1843, they went back to the drawing board, and they realized that they had made an error of one year by neglecting to take into account the transition from BC to AD, and because of that, they had gotten it off by a year. So they simply moved it forward one year to 1844. So that extended the excitement for one more year. But then at that point came the Great Disappointment, and the movement simply fragmented for the moment. ...

How do they prepare for that final day? Tell me about the Great Disappointment.

After the Great Disappointment, we have very poignant accounts of believers who describe the dismay, the weeping, literally the disappointment they felt. They had anticipated that they were going to be carried into heaven. It didn't happen. The world went on as before. Life went on as before. And it was a very traumatic experience for those who had been caught up in the movement. ...

What then becomes the lesson about date setting that people learned from Miller?

People learned from Miller a very important lesson: the dangers of date setting. There are warnings in scripture about date setting. Jesus tells his disciples, "No man knoweth the day nor the hour of my coming." But that lesson had been lost by the Millerites. After the Great Disappointment, prophecy interpreters for the most part avoided date setting. The argument that was now made was: We must look at the signs of the times. We know the end is near, because all the signs are coming together, but we don't know the exact date. We must be ready at any moment for the end to come. And that creates a powerful psychological dynamic of expectation, but expectation of an event whose precise date is unknown. And the inherent tension in that mindset is very, very great. But the avoidance of date setting was a very powerful lesson that emerged from the Millerite movement.



Was there skepticism about prophecy belief after Miller?

After the Great Disappointment, there was a great deal of skepticism about prophecy belief. I think there was a period when it was really discredited. And it was at that point, in the mid-19th century, that John Nelson Darby, a brilliant British theologian and preacher, emerged with a new system, premillennial dispensationalism, in which he offered an interpretation of the prophecies that was really quite different from Miller's. Miller saw the prophetic scheme unfolding over historical time and ending at a certain point. Darby sees a series of dispensations, which will culminate in a dramatic moment, the moment of the Rapture, when true believers will be taken from the earth. And at that point, the prophetic clock will begin to tick again, and a series of events will then inevitably follow: the Great Tribulation, the second coming, the battle of Armageddon, and so on. ...

John Darby's prophetic scheme really, in some ways, echoed that of Joachim of Fiore, centuries before. Joachim had also seen human history unfolding in a series of stages or dispensations. In Joachim's case, it was three great stages, based on the Trinity. And the millennial stage, the Age of the Spirit, still lay in the future. With Darby, again, he sees human history segmented into a series of stages, in each one of which God deals with humanity in a different way--the means of salvation differ: the period of the Garden of Eden, the period before the Flood, the period after the Flood, the era when Christ walked on earth, and then the Church Age. And that was the dispensation that we were in, and in fact are still in, according to this system. The next dispensations lay in the future. Darby called the Church Age the Great Parenthesis, because this was a period when, in a sense, the prophetic clock had stopped. With the coming of Christ, the first coming of Christ, a key prophetic stage had been fulfilled. Then Christ is crucified and ascends to heaven, and the Church Age begins. And the Church Age, he called The Great Parenthesis, because while Christian effort is going on and so on, prophetically it is not a dispensation full of great significant events. But toward the end of the Church Age come a series of events that signal that the end of that dispensation is near. And the key dividing point that would mark the beginning of the next dispensation, was an event that Darby derived from a passage in the Book of Thessalonians, describing the Rapture, the moment when the saints will be taken, snatched from the earth. ... And here is where Darby and his followers paid great attention to the signs of the times. Wars and rumors of war, increasing wickedness, new technologies, the age of steam, the age of electricity, the coming of the telephone and the telegraph. These are all signs that the end times are being prepared, and the Rapture could come at any moment. ...

dispensations chart

Ages and Dispatches, by charles larkin
(copyright clarence larkin estate. reproduced with permission)

Explain Darby's scenario for the end. What exactly happens?

Darby's scenario for the end is a very dramatic one. The first event that will happen is the Rapture, the saints taken to heaven. Then a 7-year period, the Great Tribulation: the Antichrist arises, tremendous persecution; the number 666 is emblazoned on the forehead and the hands of his followers. Then the battle of Armageddon. Christ returns from the skies with his saints, as the Antichrist and his army gather at Armageddon. Antichrist and his armies are destroyed. Christ establishes in Jerusalem the Temple, and the thousand year reign of justice and righteousness, the Millennium. At the end of that period on earth comes the Last Judgment: all those who have ever lived will be consigned either to heaven or hell. And essentially then human history ends. The great drama that began in the Garden of Eden comes to its close. A new heaven, a new earth are created, and essentially the great prophetic scheme has been fulfilled. ...

How did the Rapture end up solving the problem of date setting? What does that mean about how Christians would have to live?

... I think the doctrine of the Rapture is a tremendous breakthrough in the history of prophetic teaching, because with it Darby avoided the problem of the Millerites, the problem of date setting, but at the same time the doctrine of the Rapture holds believers in a state of constant readiness. They could be snatched from the earth literally at any moment. So one must always be observing one's behavior. What would happen if the Rapture occurred at this moment? ... But on the other hand, it may be far in the future. So one must live a responsible life; one must be a good citizen; one must obey the laws. It avoids the other risk of irresponsible behavior, because if the end could come at any moment, who cares about keeping my house in repair; who cares about buying life insurance, or educating my children? So it provides both that sense of readiness for a dramatic breakpoint in history, but also provides for the possibility that life may go on very much as it always has.

Tell me about the Tribulation, and the role of Jews.

The Great Tribulation in Darby's scheme will be a 7-year period. Initially a figure will arise, a man of peace. ... But halfway through the Great Tribulation, this person will reveal himself as the Antichrist, the enemy of righteousness, and will bring a period of horrendous persecution and suffering to the earth. Historically, many prophecy believers have taught that the Antichrist will be a Jew. And it makes sense logically, because the Antichrist will be a mirror of Jesus. Jesus was Jewish, therefore the Antichrist will be Jewish. So we have, for example, the televangelist Jerry Falwell very recently announce that he believes that the Antichrist is a young Jewish male who is probably alive today. That got a lot of attention, but in fact it was very much in the tradition of this strand of prophetic belief that the Antichrist will be a Jew, and that the end could come at any moment. ...

Why have Darby's views come to dominate prophetic belief in our time?

I think Darby's views have come to dominate prophetic belief, certainly in America in our era, because first of all it's such a powerful and appealing system in terms of the drama of the events that are described. In Darby's system, human history takes on meaning, and it has an end point. Events are leading toward a final culmination. And also, his system is very appealing because it avoids date setting. It avoids that risk of pinning the system down to a precise date, and therefore it's not falsifiable. There's literally no way to prove Darby's system false, because it involves events that lie in the future. Combine that with the tremendously powerful engine of American mass culture, with paperbacks that can be sold by millions of copies, televisions, videos, movies. There's just a tremendous coming together, it seems to me, of theological and cultural forces propelling this belief system.

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