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 Gregory J. Miller (Department of History, Malone College)
Published on H-German (September, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The End Is Closer Than You Think
Through an examination of the history of ideas in western culture, in this book Arthur Williamson makes a specific, yet grandly sweeping argument: apocalypticism created the modern world. By this he means that apocalypticism created the modern historical sense and opened up the possibility of amelioration in human institutions through time. Apocalypticism was the hammer which broke up the oppressive, static view of a hierarchically ordered medieval society (which Williamson refers to as the "Great Chain of Being"). Reminiscent of the rhetoric of the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) about Windex, for Williamson there is almost nothing that cannot be traced back to apocalyptic ideas. For example, he argues that in early modern Britain, "the argument for a free press not only derives from an apocalyptic vision (and could not exist without it), but the whole dispute is conducted within a shared eschatological tradition" (p. 141). Also, "toleration ... derived from millennial expectations and could make no sense without them" (p. 143). Apocalyptic perspectives had "powerfully injected into European culture" an "uncompromisingly civic space" (p. 252). The apocalypse "is the central motor of modernity," the "driving force of progressive values" (p. 266). Moreover, "the apocalypse proved essential in creating what we can call the program for science" and "proved essential in creating the scientist as a social type" (p. 105). And son, and so on. For Williamson, then, the term "apocalypse" basically refers to any understanding of change leading to liberal secularism and the modern West. Any movement away from these values, is (by his definition) anti-apocalyptic. For example, despite the scholarly consensus that the soon-expected apocalypse was an important context for Puritan witch hunts, Williamson states that these "inherently deflected the apocalypse" (p. 125). He claims people either believed in witches or in the apocalypse, but by (his) definition, could not believe in both. This kind of Manichaean dualism pervades the entire book.
Williamson's overall organization is diachronic. He begins with the Middle Ages, discusses the (Lutheran) Protestant Reformation, focuses on early modern Britain and the English Revolution, and concludes by examining the development of a "bad" kind of apocalypticism (premillennial eschatology) in the nineteenth century. This latter type of apocalypticism is portrayed as a dire threat to secular modernity, the West's greatest cultural achievement.
Because Williamson credits the (Protestant) Reformation with the birth of apocalypticism, it means that he must discount the role of apocalyptic in medieval history. He does this in his typical fashion of bold, sweeping statements such as the following: "Accordingly, the apocalypse never guided medieval civilization. It never organized medieval cultural achievement.... The formative events of the era--its turning points, its characteristic institutions, and its greatest upheavals--all attest to the marginal role of the apocalypse in the experience of the Middle Ages" (p. 15). As throughout the book, the author must surely be aware of important scholarship covering each of the time periods he discusses, but he seems to misread much of the secondary scholarship upon which he relies. For example, he cites Bernard McGinn and Marjorie Reeves in support of his position about the marginality of apocalyptic thought in the Middle Ages. He does discuss Joachim of Fiore, but dismisses him as of little import for medieval people as a whole. His conclusion concerning the medieval period is that "in the end the apocalypse turned out to be a modern or proto-modern phenomenon, not a medieval one" (p. 23). I am certain that the scholars whom he cites would not agree with his conclusions.
His argument then proceeds to connect a sense of history to apocalypticism, which is foreshadowed for him in the Florence of (especially) Savonarola. He characterizes the medieval centuries as intentionally ahistorical, attempting to escape time by freezing society in place. It was in Florence that the first hints of historical progress could be found: "Historical process and apocalyptic progression supplanted Fortune's wheel, the recurring cycles that one might hope to stop" (p. 28). For the author, this development was characterized by moving beyond an apocalypticism of "moments" (like the search for individuals who might be the antichrist) to the history of institutions. As a result, "for the first time in ten centuries the apocalypse re-entered the mainstream" (p. 33). However, only the slimmest of secondary scholarship is discussed and individuals that one would think important to his argument, like Lorenzo Valla, are conspicuously absent from it.
For Williamson, the Protestant Reformation, especially in its Lutheran form, is the key. For him, through Martin Luther's apocalypticism the modern western sense of history and study of history was initiated: "The sixteenth-century Protestant apocalypse created the first genuinely historical vision of Europe" (p. 65). The centerpiece of this development is Luther's identification of the antichrist as an institution (the papacy) rather than as a particular individual (such as a specific pope). The author is correct here: this is an important aspect of Luther's apocalyptic thought. However, as in so much of the book, an important insight is elevated to the level of a comprehensive and essential interpretive key. And then these extraordinarily overstated arguments are supported with the thinnest of primary- and secondary-source references. As an example of the former, such overstated arguments lead to such absurdities as the "history of the Antichrist became at the same time the history of rising consciousness" (p. 53). As an example of the latter, on the section concerning the Reformation, the author relies heavily on Robin Barnes's Prophecy and Gnosis (1988), and also cites Bob Scribner's For the Sake of Simple Folk (1981), but otherwise seems to be unaware of the vast literature on Lutheran apocalyptic, let alone Luther's own writings or those of others. This lacuna results in numerous small but not insignificant errors, such as the one on p. 48 where Luther is specifically described as not connecting Islam and the Turks with the biblical apocalyptic trope of Gog and Magog, or the claim that the Book of Revelation is "a foundational text for all Protestants" (p. 51). John Calvin would beg to differ.
After his discussion of the Lutheran Reformation, the author turns his attention to the English situation of the seventeenth century. Here again this book discusses important insights, such as the eschatological nature of some utopian writings concerning science and progress, like those by Francis Bacon. However, the attempt to promote the central argument that pre-contemporary apocalypticism was the primary force for political amelioration in the early modern period forces some unlikely conclusions. For example, the apocalypticism of Oliver Cromwell is seen as an (almost completely) unmitigated good and it is asserted that as a result he was "one of the great anti-imperialists" (p. 95). (I would not recommend trying to make this argument to an Irish audience, by the way.) Again and again, the valid insight that an apocalyptic mind-set was an important factor in the development of the modern West is effaced by statements that clearly exaggerate its importance. For example, concerning the English development of global commerce (stated to be a kind of global liberation), Williamson states: "Religious liberty, political liberty, and economic liberty melded together as a common cause, and behind all this proto-liberalism, this new world in birth, lay the apocalypse" (p. 100). Likewise, throughout his treatment of seventeenth-century Britain, huge gaps both in primary and secondary sources appear. There is no treatment of the Fifth Monarchy Men, for example, or the work of Christopher Hill concerning Puritans and Quakers.
To his credit, Williamson demonstrates a remarkable conversance with the primary sources in early modern Britain in regard to views of and connections to Jews. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is in its thorough-going harvesting of so many of British political thinkers' comments when they say anything about Jews. The role of Judaism is not marginal to his story. In fact, it is central to his claims for the value of apocalypticism: "the more an individual's outlook was informed by apocalyptic expectations, the more likely he would hold positive attitudes toward the Jews" (p. 147). However, even if this claim might be true in general, some significant counter-examples are obvious, not least of which is Luther, an individual credited by Williamson with status as an originator of this modernity-producing apocalypticism. Luther's anti-Judaic attitudes are not dealt with in this book.
According to Williamson, in the nineteenth century apocalyptic ideas became the enemy rather than the ally of modernity. Although the seeds of this development can be seen earlier, the real culprit, according to Williamson, is the Second Great Awakening. According to the author, it created for the first time (and he argues this point rigorously) a divide between premillennial and postmillennial eschatology, both of which in the end repudiated "good" eschatology and "resoundingly replaced the linear-time eschatologies of the Reformation" (p. 286). So for example, in the thinking of a figure like J. N. Darby, Williamson argues, the linear past lost its meaning, "history was bunk," and the new secular culture was comprehensively rejected. It seems to me that Darby scholars would agree with no more than one of those three statements, however. Other Christian figures, including D. L. Moody, Arthur Tappan, and Cyrus Scofield, are likewise blamed for retreating to a vision of a basically unchanging world and rejecting any prospect of reform, amelioration, and progress. According to Williamson, it wasn't secularism and the modern world (or Darwinism and its companion ideas) that killed apocalypticism, but rather premillennial dispensationalism. He concludes the book by linking premillennial thought to postmodernism. Williamson goes so far as to indulge in a little guilt by association by linking premillennialism to proto-fascist futurism as two sides of the same reactionary coin.
Still, for Williamson, one last great exemplar of "good" apocalypticism remained: Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, in a nutshell, Williamson's entire argument could be diagrammed as a historical arc beginning with Reformation apocalypticism, which produces the political revolutions (most importantly the English Revolution) and the Enlightenment, which produces modern secularism, which ultimately culminates in Dr. King and the Great Society.
However, more recent forces have undermined this great historical accomplishment, including the rapture movement (which "in almost every way ... reversed the hopes of 1963" [p. 311]) and Nation of Islam. There is quite a dualism here. On one side are arrayed the forces of good: progress, secularism, and tolerance; on the other, the forces of authoritarianism, among which Williamson includes such diverse movements as Hal Lindsey's rapture theology, Nation of Islam, and postmodernism. And the key difference between the two is stated to be the shifting eschatologies of the nineteenth century. On his last page Williamson paints a bleak (one is tempted to say apocalyptic) picture. An alliance of conservative Republican politics (beginning with Ronald Reagan), Islamist militancy, and "authoritarian" Christian renewal, all forms of "bad" apocalypticism, now threaten to destroy all the signal achievements of the modern world.
In conclusion, one can simultaneously appreciate the provocative and counter-intuitive insight that Williamson advances in this book about the importance of apocalyptic thought in the creation of modernity, while at the same time ruing the manner in which he makes his argument. Nevertheless, scholarship is a participation in an ongoing conversation and these ideas deserve to be discussed. Certainly, such a conversation can only make the world a better place. That is, if it doesn't end first.
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Gregory J. Miller. Review of Williamson, Arthur H., Apocalypse Then: Prophecy and the Making of the Modern World.
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