Arthur H. Williamson. Apocalypse Then: Prophecy and the Making of the Modern World. Westport: Praeger, 2008. 368 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-275-98508-0.
Reviewed by Warren Johnston
Published on H-Albion (December, 2008)
Commissioned by Brian S. Weiser
The End of the World (And We Feel Fine)
It is tempting to begin this review with an (overly?) obvious commentary upon current apocalyptic believers and their incorporation of the chaos of world financial markets, war in Iraq, and the U.S. election into their expectations of the advent of the last days. However, too closely linking Arthur Williamson's expansive new study of the influence of apocalyptic thought on the modern world with beliefs that many early twenty-first-century readers regard as a creed for cranks (to borrow William Lamont's well-known phrase) would risk misrepresenting and doing a disservice to Professor Williamson's fine book. Apocalypse Then is more than just a history of eschatological and prophetic ideas: it contains a complex analysis of the intellectual legacy of such convictions and their introduction of a particular way of comprehending time, history, and human institutions.
Historians who study apocalyptic ideas always face a similar problem: while we might accept that this prophetic thought once influenced certain societies and cultures in the past, we must explain where and why it lost its significance and effect as a means of understanding the world. Williamson provides a response to that question, though his answer explains the absorption, not the disappearance, of eschatological concepts into modern intellectual traditions.
Apocalypse Then does not simply follow the well-worn path of early modern apocalyptic thinkers--from John Bale and John Foxe to Thomas Brightman, to Johann Alsted and Joseph Mede, to the climax of millenarianism in the British civil wars and interregnum, and finally to the cause celebre of the case for apocalyptic influence, Isaac Newton (though Williamson does not ignore or neglect these figures either). Instead, he traces the influence of apocalyptic belief more subtly through its effect on broader concepts of early modern ways of thinking about the past and the present. John Milton, Oliver Cromwell, and the Fifth Monarchy Men are here, but so too are other figures of intellectual import, like Francis Bacon, Baruch Spinoza, and Denis Diderot, among others, who would not necessarily spring to mind when one thinks of eschatological theology. To be sure, Williamson explicitly states that the apocalypse had no meaning for Diderot, but he does see in this philosophe a dedication to the pursuit of knowledge and truth through a public, cooperative effort over time, a commitment which originated in early modern apocalypticism (p. 232). Williamson's interest is not focused solely on apocalyptic thought in itself, but on its impact upon more recognizable modes of thought and ideas that are less esoteric, longer lasting, and of more immediate significance to modern readers and their more secular sensibilities.
Williamson's central argument is that apocalyptic scriptures required early modern believers to understand time and "created ways for making change meaningful", enabling "people to make sense of a transforming world" (p. 2). The book begins with a brief recounting of the origins of apocalyptic ideas in ancient Jewish and early Christian thought. It then relates the discounting of these beliefs by Augustine and the medieval church. It then turns to its principal focus, the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. The period between 1500 and 1800 is crucial because, Williamson asserts, many influential Western people believed that they were living in the last days of human history (p. 1). In these years apocalyptic thinking altered the way that Europeans thought about history and change, as well justifying the physical world and incorporating it into Christian belief systems (p. 3). It was the Reformation, with its accompanying criticism of Roman Catholicism, that forced a need to explain the course of church history prior to the early sixteenth century. Early Protestants asked "why in the world was there the medieval church at all? If the church at Rome embodied false Christianity, indeed anti-Christianity, then how did this come about?" (p. 38). Apocalyptic prophecy provided reformers a means to answer these questions and explain historical developments in the church. They began to describe the European past as a linear historical process (pp. 40, 44-45).
Williamson recounts the origins of early modern millenarianism in preterist convictions that the prophecy of the 1000 years of Satan’s binding (Revelation 20: 2-3) had been fulfilled in the past. This view held that the millennial kingdom began with Constantine’s endorsement of Christianity in the early fourth century CE and ended with the corruption of the late medieval church and papacy. Such beliefs eventually gave way to a belief in a coming future millennium, as laid out in the apocalyptic interpretations of Joseph Mede. The influence of apocalyptic ideas is demonstrated in chapters on how prophetic expectations fit with the expansion of Spain and Portugal into New World empires beginning in the late fifteenth century (chapter 3); changing early modern attitudes toward nature, magic, and science (chapters 4 and 6); and new political and social ideas that were emerging in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (chapters 5, 7, and 8). Williamson also includes over twenty illustrations that are thoroughly analyzed and complement the discussion of these topics.
As was stated above, however, the value of this book does not lie only in its retelling of the history of apocalyptic interpretation, which many have undertaken before, but, rather, in Williamson's analysis of the wider influence of apocalyptic thought in realigning European attitudes. It was here, he argues, that the apocalypse had its greatest impact. In the description of the various early modern applications of the apocalypse, Williamson also demonstrates how such perceptions changed intellectual attitudes and concepts. In the discussion of Baruch Spinoza, for example--as with Diderot above--Williamson makes it clear that Spinoza's ideas "precluded the apocalypse," yet Spinoza's philosophy owed much to radical millenarian thought in its rejection of ceremony, theological dogma, and priesthood, instead emphasizing toleration and rationality. Williamson argues that, in such responses to existing ecclesiastical and political structures, early modern religious radicals, many of whom emerged out of the heady climax of millenarian expectations in Britain during the 1640s and 1650s, transformed political and social thought. While radicals "pushed back [and internalized] the eschaton" in subsequent decades, they had also "contributed to an intellectual revolution of first importance, challenging scriptural authority and subverting clerical power and, in doing so, had "shaped the foundations of the Enlightenment" (pp. 229, 230). Many other "modern" political ideas also emerged in the mid seventeenth-century decades of civil war and interregnum in Britain, including freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and ideas of "democracy," and Williamson contends that apocalyptic ideas "proved integral to each of these developments" (pp. 135, 136).
A similar case is made for the influence of apocalyptic thought on modern attitudes toward the accumulation of knowledge. Again, the apocalypse itself is not claimed to be scientific, nor was any scientific knowledge gained from apocalyptic interpretation. What apocalyptic convictions achieved, however, was to change "magic [and science] from an individual quest for private gnosis to a community quest for open discovery and the shared integration of multiple insights." As apocalyptic fulfillment came to be embodied in community and cumulative spiritual enterprise, science also emerged "as a collective, time-bound process ... [with] civic and public character" in the late seventeenth century (pp. 110, 105).
Despite this early modern emphasis, Apocalypse Then's argument does not end as the nineteenth century begins. Instead, it traces the ways in which attitudes developed from apocalyptic interpretations of history have infused many elements of political and social ideas that continued for the next 200 years. Williamson demonstrates that the crucial formative episodes in American history from the colonial period to the Civil War (chapter 9) were "suffused with apocalyptic expectations that were uniquely widespread and embraced with unparalleled intensity" (p. 265). But once more, in addition to explicit apocalyptic beliefs, it is in more subtle transpositions that Williamson makes his case for the lasting impact of prophetic ideas. He asserts that the American Civil War was, for the Union, "an eschatological crusade, a struggle to realize the national mission and thereby bring about the prophesied millennium: global freedom through the creation of civic societies" (p. 288). With its principles and emerging political prominence in place, post-Civil War America set out to firmly stamp its influence upon the world: "The new America's circumstances and aspirations, and the vocabulary through which they were articulated, found their sources in the republic's seventeenth-century British predecessor. Its ideology derived earlier still, from the Reformation's historical apocalyptic" (p. 291). This could be found in convictions about the nation's leading place in the "progress" towards political and social ideals, a society that would found a civic millennial golden age.
Of course, as had the Protestant movement over thee centuries before, the United States failed to live up to these high-minded aspirations of a perfectly reformed society. Williamson describes how the apocalyptic vocabulary of reform and development in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries (chapter 10) "became increasingly difficult to distinguish from nineteenth-century notions of secular progress" (p. 293). Yet, the closing pages of the book again detect the continued prophetic connection to important developments in the "postapocalyptic age." Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1963 "I have a dream" speech is perhaps the best-known articulation of the unfulfilled promises of the American Constitution and of emancipation. Williamson points out that Reverend King's articulation of his hopes of their future accomplishment "embraced the Enlightenment" but also "spoke from the historical sources of those values." King's imagery toward the conclusion of this speech was taken from Daniel 2: 34, 35, of "the little stone that grew into the great mountain of righteousness that filled the whole earth at the end of days." Williamson notes that most of King's audience at the time--and today, I would add--were entirely unaware of this scriptural reference. "His voice was of an earlier America, ... of the Anglophone apocalypse, and of the European Reformation" (p. 308). Williamson concludes that the power and effect of King's speech was found in its application of "modern ideals, [and] secular values" but also ... the eschatological imperatives that had underwritten them and made them so powerful" (p. 309).
Apocalypse Then combines an account of the nature of early modern apocalyptic interpretation with an explanation of its influence on, and incorporation into, modern political, social, and philosophical ideas. At times this effort to draw connections over 500 years of intellectual evolution and history forces the reader to pause and review Professor Williamson's line of reasoning in order to properly comprehend his argument: this is well worth the effort, both for those who study apocalyptic thought, and for those who are interested in the origins of modern intellectual traditions.
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Warren Johnston. Review of Williamson, Arthur H., Apocalypse Then: Prophecy and the Making of the Modern World.
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