Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism: II -- By: Randall Balmer

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 38:0 (NA 2006)
Article: Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism: II
Author: Randall Balmer

Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism: II

The Transition from Postmillennialism to Premillennialism

Randall Balmer

Charles Finney’s theological revolution had repercussions for evangelicals far beyond the arcane arena of soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. At least as popularly understood, Finney’s Arminianism assured Americans that they controlled their own religious destiny, that they could initiate the process of salvation simply by exercise of volition. Finney’s declaration that revival was “the work of man” led to a codification and a routinization of evangelism. Beginning with Finney and extending to B. W. Gorham’s Camp Meeting Manual and to Billy Graham and various revivalists of the twentieth century, the enterprise of revival became formulaic, almost mechanistic. As long as you followed certain conventions, Finney and others promised, revival would ensue.

The social implications of Finney’s ideas were even more profound. If individuals controlled their ultimate destinies, surely it didn’t require much of a leap to suppose that their actions here on earth could affect the temporal realm as well. And the aggregate actions of believers could bring about monumental changes in society.

Aside from the individual empowerment implicit in Arminian soteriology, another theological discipline figured into antebellum evangelicalism: postmillennialism. Throughout church history, generations of theologians have puzzled over the prophetic passages of the Bible, from Isaiah and Ezekiel and Daniel in the Hebrew Bible to Revelation and 2 Thessalonians in the New Testament. Jesus himself suggested some sort of apocalyptic development within a generation, and the book of Revelation contains all manner of images and events that should or should not be interpreted literally and should or should not be understood as prophetic. What do we make of the mark of the beast or the emergence of the antichrist? Revelation 20 talks about a millennium, one thousand years of godly rule. What does that mean? When will it occur, now or later? Ann Lee Stanley of the Shakers, for example, taught that the millennium was already in place and that this new age dictated that women and men should no longer engage in sexual relations, whereas John Humphrey Noyes of the Oneida Community believed that the millennial age loosened the bonds of exclusivity in marriage, thereby allowing for sexual license.

Theologians over the centuries have disagreed, sometimes spectacularly, over the meaning of these apocalyptic passages, but by the nineteenth century two broad streams of interpretation had emerged: premillennialism and postmillennialism. Although the multitude o...

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