One of the main arguments advanced by Michael Northcott in An Angel Directs the Storm is that a millennial spirit has animated the United States from before its founding.
[Jonathan] Edwards, like [Cotton] Mather, believed that the colonists were living in the end times, and he saw the revivals [of the Great Awakening] as evidence of the end time:Tis not unlikely that this work of God’s Spirit, that is so extraordinary and wonderful, is the dawning, or at least a prelude, of that glorious work of God, so often foretold in Scripture … And there are many things that make it probable that this work will begin in America.
Edwards, you’ll no doubt remember from school days, was the author in 1741 of what the Wikipedia calls “one of the most famous of all fire and brimstone sermons”: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them. …
There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire, if it were not for God’s restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell. There are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are seeds of hell fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments as they do in them.
You can see why people would be attracted to such a message.
According to Northcott, Edwards and his contemporaries were postmillennialists,
which is to say that they believed that in building a godly commonwealth in the New World they were ushering in the millenial rule of the Saints on earth after which they believed Christ would return as judge of the earth.
This sort of belief had positive effects on the approach people took to their communities. If you see your task as building a commonwealth that will be worthy of ushering in saintly rule to the earth, you’ll be looking for justice and truth in communal enterprises. You’ll be trying to make sure that God’s values, as you understand them, are incorporated into the methods and operations of the community. Naturally this will be imperfect, humanity being what it is, but the job is clear.
I should probably admit here that theism does not appear to me to fit with what we know of the world. For example, science appears to work; prophecy does not. It appears to me that miracles are more likely to be a manifestation of insufficient understanding than of a God that interferes in the events of this world. Deism, on the other hand, the idea that God created the world and set it running on its own laws, does not appear to me to contradict experience.
Clearly, this attitude leaves me open to the argument that my assumptions are incorrect, and that reasoning is not as important as revelation. But at least I can engage with postmillennialism as a philosophy that encourages morality.
Premillennialism, the subject of the next in this series of posts, seems quite different to me.