Uncertain Dawn: Millennialism and Revolutionary Ideology in the Critical Period, 1783-1792

Stephen Marini, Wellesley College

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Over the past several decades the role of millennial religious beliefs and symbols in America culture has been well established by historians and other cultural interpreters. From Puritanism to the Cold War, scholars have found expectations of a thousand—year earthly reign of God’s chosen people deeply embedded in American identity. Despite this explosion in American millennial studies, the Revolutionary era remains the locus classicus for demonstrating the historical influence of religious eschatology on American culture. At that location, however, there stands a crucial and still unresolved problem for understanding the cultural career of millennialism.

This problem was first identified by Perry Miller in his 1961 essay "From the Covenant to the Revival." Miller argued that during the Revolution, Congregationalist and Presbyterian ministers invoked the idea of God's covenant with his virtuous American people to help fuel the independence movement. Miller found that this strategy, though effective during the war itself, did not long survive the Revolution. After a period of casting about for an alternative public theology, the Reformed clergy during the 1790s turned to revivalism rather than national covenant as their most effective vehicle to gain converts and sustain their cultural influence. The problem to be addressed, simply put, is why this abandonment of millennial political theology took place and what it means for the role of millennialism in America’s founding.

Miller took an essentially utilitarian view of the matter, seeing the Reformed clergy as pragmatic leaders who readily changed metaphorical horses in order to maintain their influence. It was simply more effective, he thought, for them to preach the jeremiad for revival and moral renewal after 1790, than to hold to ineffective millennial imagery in an uncertain political climate.

Nathan O. Hatch's 1977 book, The Sacred Cause of Liberty expanded and refined Miller's findings. Grounding his interpretation in Congregationalist sermons like Samuel Sherwood's The Church's Flight into the Wilderness (1777) and Ezra Stiles's The United States Elevated to Honor and Glory (1783), Hatch argued that the application of millennial expectations to the traditional Puritan covenant was the most important development in Revolutionary political theology. By associating victory in the war with the thousand-year reign of Christ with his saints, the "black regiment" of Congregationalist ministers created an effective propaganda tool that sustained morale both in the army and at home. This millennial expectation made liberty a "sacred cause" and the United States a divinely chosen people to whose providential destiny Congregationalist ministers and Federalist political leaders could appeal after the Peace of Paris.

Hatch did not acknowledge the Federalist and Reformed abandonment of millennialism during the 1780s that Miller had identified, seeing the millennial legacy as enduring more or less continuously through the early nineteenth century. This "steady-state" view of millennialism certainly has merit, for there can be no doubt that Americans embraced the role of God’s New Jerusalem again after 1800. But Hatch’s interpretation here is overgeneralized and cannot account for the hiatus Miller uncovered.

A 1990 essay by Ruth Bloch titled "Religion and Ideological Change in the American Revolution" best represents the current state of interpretation of Revolutionary millennialism. Employing a new three-fold periodization (1763-74, 1774-78, 1778-89), Bloch shows how covenantal and millennial ideas developed gradually between 1763 and 1774 into a cautiously optimistic endorsement of the Revolution as a just defensive war. In the swift transition of 1774-1778 from resistance to revolution, the millennial covenant theology suddenly announced that America was the New Israel of God destined for victories of transhistorical significance. During the chastened years after 1779, however, and especially during the Constitutional crisis, Bloch finds the vision of a national sacred covenant disappearing from public culture almost as quickly as it had blossomed.

Briefly summarized here, Bloch's argument represents a new sophistication, if not a fundamentally new direction, in analyzing what historians have assumed to be the canonical religio-political ideas and texts of the Revolutionary period. Yet Bloch essentially still follows Miller in noting the Federalist and Reformed abandonment of millennial rhetoric without explaining it.

The problem is more significant than may appear at first. While it seems at first glance to be merely a short-term interruption in a well-established American tendency toward millennial nationalism, the quick rejection of millennialism after 1783 by those who had used it prominently and self-consciously to promote the Revolutionary cause raises fundamental questions about the historical importance of eschatological expectation as a shaper of American politics. If millennialism could be rejected as easily as it was embraced, then just how much confidence should be placed in its substantive influence in Revolutionary political culture? Why not conclude instead, as both Progressive and postmodern historians have, that religious beliefs like millennialism are politically epiphenomenal, that they are at best symbolic legitimators of a political order which consumes them, and rejects them, strictly for its own self interest?

If such a conclusion is warranted by the historical evidence, then the project of millennial studies as a substantive cultural hermeneutic comes to risk. The stakes are raised still further when it is recalled that the historical case for the millennial character of American culture was first made by Miller and Hatch from precisely these Revolutionary sources. If they were wrong, if millennialism was just a passing expediency of Revolutionary ideology, then the historical fabric of the millennial hermeneutic begins to unravel.

Happily, none of these inferences can be justified by the evidence, but the historical evidence does require a shift of interpretive perspective in order to understand millennialism during the Revolutionary era. Miller, Hatch, and Bloch have all followed the same conceptual limitation in dealing with Revolutionary millennialism. Like most historians of that period, they have concentrated exclusively on the writings of the Patriot victors. This focus is appropriate if one wants to understand the inner workings of the Revolutionary movement, which is their explicit aim. Millennialism, however, is a religious category whose meaning cannot be restricted in any given period to any one political movement. If millennialism is approached as a complex of religious beliefs, symbols, and moral imperatives, then the burden of historical interpretation is to explore all of its expressions during a given period, especially one of political conflict, regardless of their political valences and applications.

Millennialism is a permanent yet indeterminate category of Christian religious culture: permanent because it is fixed in the sacred text of the New Testament, especially in the Apocalypse of St John; indeterminate because the prophetic images of that text are historically opaque, symbolic cyphers capable of being interpreted by any religious communities and applied to any given historical situation. Millennialism therefore reaches across particular religious communities and political movements as a constant, overarching symbolic element of Christian culture.

The evidence shows that millennialism presented a wide range of expressions in the Revolutionary era. Given the instability of that transformative period, it should not be surprising to find millennialism playing several different roles in Revolutionary religious and political culture. In that variety, borne of sharply differing religious and political groups, is to be found a more adequate approach to the problem of millennialism’s apparently abrupt career in Revolutionary America.


Millennial themes played a vital role in bringing the Revolutionary movement into being. Miller, Hatch, and Bloch all presented careful analyses of how the millennial ideal, deeply grounded in traditional New England theology, gradually emerged as a political identity for Americans in their contest with the British Empire. Sparked by events like the conquest of Louisbourg and the repeal of the Stamp Act, millennial speculation at first offered an optimistic gloss on their colonial experience that infused Americans with confidence that they would play a significant role in world history. New England proved to be an especially powerful source for this millennial connection owing to the influential theology of Jonathan Edwards, whose lectures on what he called "the history of redemption," posthumously published in 1770, opined that the dawn of the millennium might begin in America.

Up to 1775, Edwardsean postmillennialism sustained a moderate, gradualist political stance. Emphatically colonial, the Edwardsean strand continued to voice John Winthrop’s Puritan hope that New England, and by extension America, would complete Britain’s political perfection, not challenge it. With the outbreak of revolutionary war in 1775, however, millennial categories took another form, pressed into service as eschatological justifications for a rebellion judged "unnatural" only months before.

Samuel Sherwood’s now-famous sermon identifying the woman in the wilderness of Revelation 13 as the saved American remnant overshadowed by God’s righteous power has become, by Nathan Hatch’s analysis, the classic exposition of Patriot identification with millennial imagery. While such millennial enthusiasm undoubtedly propelled the Patriot cause, it is important to note that Sherwood consistently named the church, and not the rebels, as the object of God’s providential protection. In this ecclesial definition of the millennial kingdom, Sherwood followed Edwards, who quite deliberately refused to secularize his millennial vision.

For Edwards and his followers of the Revolutionary generation, preeminently Samuel Hopkins, the millennial reign was exclusively an ecclesiastical affair and not to be confused with American national asperations. In this Edwardsean tradition, from which most alleged examples of political millennialism have been drawn, God saved the church, not the state, from the perfidious threats of Satan. Given the Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms linking an elect church with a theonomous commonwealth, it was natural enough for New England ministers to conflate God’s church and the American cause, as they regularly did in Thanksgiving and Fast sermons during the war. But it is worth noting that this move secularized and contradicted Edwards’s own teaching, which insisted that God’s salvific action in history was directed solely to the elect saints.

The new secular millennialism of the Revolutionary movement continued to thrive after 1780, rising to a paroxism of self-congratulation and gratitude to God in the Thanksgiving sermons celebrating the Peace of Paris in 1783. Yale President Ezra Stiles’s famous sermon, The United States Elevated to Honor and Glory was but the most sanguine of those utterances whose design was to commend the new nation to God’s continuing providence while reminding the people of their religious and political obligations of being God’s new chosen people. Anything seemed possible in those heady months after the Peace of Paris, even the kingdom of God in America. Yet just a few years later the rhetoric of millennialism was gone from public sermons grown penitential, even scolding, of the people of God’s New Israel. Jeremiad had replaced millennial optimism. Why?

This is the great unanswered question of Revolutionary millennial studies, but a substantive response can be made by considering the logic of millennialism. For nearly two decades, ministers and other public intellectuals had been arguing the moral superiority of the American people. As befits the people of God, Americans had made great sacrifices for a just and divine cause, from the conquest of Louisbourg and the Stamp Act boycott to the nonimportation campaign and the bitter military struggle itself.

The logic of postmillennialism requires such exemplary moral performance to justify the optimistic claim that God’s kingdom can begin here and now in history. Any lapse in that moral discipline must be read as declension at least and fatality at worst. Between 1783 and 1787 the new nation was riven by a series of dangerous internecine political conflicts. Struggles over the Articles of Confederation, state constitutions, back pay for military service, disproportionate rewards for Revolutionary officers, currency, credit, and taxes. Several states experienced disorganized protests and occasional violence before the entire nation was stunned in late 1786 by Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts, an armed uprising by distressed Revolutionary veterans who shut down every county court west of Boston before being finally defeated in January, 1787 by an army of eastern Massachusetts militia under General Benjamin Lincoln.

Immediately Congregationalist ministers in the Connecticut Valley and near Boston sharpened their pens to condemn the Shaysites. Joseph Lathrop of West Springfield was especially active, publishing explicit denunciations of the rebellion and its perpetrators in the under the nom de plume of "Censor" Hampshire Gazette. Lathrop’s thanksgiving sermon after the first defeat of the Shaysites in December, 1786 was a paean to God’s protection against corrupt and violent men, but the threat now came from fellow citizens, not a transatlantic empire. (Evans 19751 and 20451).

In Boston, the legislature appointed Joseph Lyman of Hatfield, a loyal "Friend of Government" from a Shaysite hotbed, to deliver the annual Election Sermon. Lyman followed his colleague Lathrop in attacking the Shaysites as "wicked and disobedient subjects" who are "presumptuous, self-willed, and are not afraid to speak evil of dignities, and speak evil things which they know not, have little sense of their duty to magistrates, are disturbers of the peace, and shall utterly perish in their own corruption." In his peroration, Lyman pronounced the gravest of warnings against such disordered citizens: "Men who resist lawful authrotiy and are angageds in tumults ande confusion, may be fit for the realms of anarchy, darkness, and despotism, but without repentance they shall never behold the seats of the blessed, where every man is content in his station." (Shays FN 55/56) Unrepentant Shaysites, in a word, will be damned to an anarchistic hell while godly citizens will enjoy eternal contentment in a hierarchical heaven. God’s New Israel on earth had been translated to the New Jerusalem in heaven.

Shays Rebellion was a mortal blow to postmillennial optimism among Reformed clergy and political leaders in New England and the Middle States. They joined their voices to the rising call for a new national constitution possessing "energetic powers" capable of maintaining public order. The Federal Convention was gavelled to order in Philadelphia just six months after Shays's Rebellion and the classic document advocating its proposed constitution made the same sombre assessment of the people at large that Lathrop and Lyman had made of the Shaysites.

Indeed, The Federalist's analysis of political factions stressed a grimly Calvinist anthropology without the possibility of either a redemptive national covenant or a virtuous citizenry. James Madison's famous analysis of human nature in Federalist 10 condemns Americans to liberty and derives republicanism from that condemnation. "As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed," Madison wrote. "As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects of which the latter will attach themselves. ...The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man." Madison, member of a prominent Virginia Anglican family and educated in the Calvinist traditions of Princeton, understood that federalism could not sustain a postmillennial political theology any more than it could assume the perfectability of human nature. Postmillennialism would never again be embraced by the Federalists.

In the sobering days of the Critical Period, however, the other principal variety of millennial thought, premillennialism, found significant appeal. The premillennial persuasion found its constituency not among the Reformed elite of New England and the Middle States, but among the Evangelical sectarian movements that had been born in the Great Awakening and flourished through the late eighteenth century. Before the Revolutionary crisis leaders of these groups —Separate Congregationalists, Separate Baptists, Methodists, Shakers, Freewill Baptists, Universalists- did not appear in print except to advocate their religious beliefs or to appeal for religious liberty.

When the war began, however, most of these sectarians opposed it, some refused to bear arms, and a few of them offered premillennial interpretations of the war as a sign of the imminent return of Christ. Perhaps the earliest of these premillennial utterances was a 1776 Thanksgiving sermon by Separate Congregationalist Eliphalet Wright of Killingly, Connecticut titled A People Ripe for an Harvest. Wright employed the text of Revelation 14:18--"Thrust in thy sharp sickle, and gather the Cluster of the Vine of the Earth, for her Grapes are fully ripe"-- to attack the Revolutionaries for failing to observe sufficient moral discipline in pursuing political independence, and thereby inviting Divine judgment on their cause.

In addition to a traditional jeremiad against "profaneness, cursing, swearing, blaspheming," and disregarding the Sabbath, Wright added political, social, and economic elements to his protest that the Revolutionaries were "ripe in sin." Complaining bitterly about the unwillingness of "our rich men" to serve in the army without officers' salaries, the inadequate pay to "our poor soldiers," and price-gouging by "the rich merchant and farmer" at home, Wright concluded that "as affairs are now going on, the common soldiers have nothing to expect, but that if America maintain her independency, they must brecome slaves to the rich. It seems as if our rich men, like so many hard millstones, had got the poor people between them, and had agreed to grind them to death. . . . Oh! my friends, are these the fruits that God expects from us, under his chastening hand?"

Other sectarians shared Wright’s premilliennial doubts about the Revolution and its troubles during the Critical Period. At the height of the Shaysite unrest Benjamin Foster, a Separate Baptist, published a Dissertation on the Seventy Weeks of Daniel at Newport, arguing that the mystical time of waiting for the Messiah had been completed and all was in readiness for the Second Coming. The most radical millennial sect of the period, of course, was the Shakers. Under Mother Ann Lee’s New England mission during the early 1780s, thousands were converted to a celibate, communal, pacifist gospel. After her death in 1784, Father James Whittaker gathered the converts into a communal society at New Lebanon, New York, just across the Massachusetts border. When the Shaysite agitation broke out, Whittaker declared that the Shakers, while sympathetic to the cause of the struggling Shaysites, would remain strictly apolitical. They chose instead to live in their New Jerusalem, hailing Mother Ann not only as their deceased leader, but as the Second Coming of Christ in female form.

While the Evangelical sects had remained largely Neutral during the war, the social and constitutional struggles of the Critical Period combined with their own rapid growth to give them a significant stake in the political future of the new nation.

The battle over the Federal Constitution in particular marked a sudden new phase in their eschatological thinking and in their political participation. The ratifying conventions of 1787-1788 brought fast-growing movements like the Methodists and the Baptists into the political mainstream. They elected some delegates of their own to conventions in almost every state and helped return hundreds of other Anti-Federalist delegates. urious battle to reject the proposed constitution. The Evangelical agenda was not restricted to the demand for religious liberty, though this was certainly a primary demand. Quite apart from religious liberty, the Evangelicals relentlessly attacked the institution of slavery, spoke openly against the wisdom of a commercial or capitalist republic, and more generally sought to restrain government by a series of absolute moral imperatives.

Slavery was a particularly crucial concern. Evangelicals of the Revolutionary era understood the moral imperatives of manumission and abolition as direct dictates of the Holy Spirit. Methodist Freeborn Garrettson's 1775 experience was archetypal:

As I stood [at family prayer] with a book in my hand, in the act of giving out a hymn, this thought ;owerfully struck my mind, "It is not right for you to keep your fellow-creatures in bondage; you must let the oppressed go free." I knew it to be that same blessed voice which had spoken to me before [in conversion]--till then I had never suspected that the practice of slave-keeping was wrong; I had not read a book on the subject, nor been told so by any--I paused a minute ands then replied, "Lord, the oppressed shall go free."

John Wesley had written passionately against slavery, and Methodists as a communion formally committed themselves in 1784 to freeing their slaves as a Christian imperative. Baptists, New Side Presbyterians, and Edwardsean Congregationalists also embraced the antislavery cause and criticized the Revolutionary regime for not opposing slavery.

The Evangelicals' economic critique has not been as thoroughly studied as their antislavery, but fragmentary evidence suggests a deep distrust of commercialism and its institutional supports. The Evangelical sects were virtually unanimous in demanding that business be conducted by the Golden Rule and in condemning believers who made loans at interest, incurred debts, sued one another in secular courts, or indulged in conspicious consumption. After 1783 and especially in the Shays' Rebellion crisis, Evangelicals continued to press their moral indictment of unscrupulous merchants, corrupt government officials, and worldly-minded consumers who together threatened to bring Divine wrath on the new nation.

There was also a strong tendency among Evangelicals toward communalism as the economic model of the Apostolic church, explicitly manifested by the Shakers and the Universal Friends and only slightly less strongly expressed in Baptist church covenants "to bear each other's burdens" spiritual and material and in the close Methodist oversight of their members' commercial activities.

Antislavery, antipathy towards commercialism, and distrust of legal and political institutions were hallmarks of the emergent Evangelical political theology of the late 1780s. When the Philadelphia Convention proposed a fundamental law that compromised on slavery and envisioned a centralized government dedicated to property rights and commercial promotion, Baptists, Methodists, and other sectarians resisted it on grounds of religious principle. This resistance marked a new stage in Evangelical political theology, a sudden shift from premillennial separation from the world to postmillennial engagement with the political realities of the new nation, albeit in the opposition al form of Anti-Federalism.

Not all Evangelical sectarians opposed the Constitution, nor did all of the Evangelicals within the older colonial churches. The actual pattern of religio-political identification was more complex: there were Evangelical and Liberal parties, and Anti-Federalist and Federalist camps, within virtually every American communion. Yet there was a clear correlation between Evangelicalism and Anti-Federalism and a correponding one between Federalists and Liberals. By 1787-1788, the Evangelical constituency had grown so large that it helped return hundreds of Anti-Federalist delegates to the state ratifying conventions. And when the Constitution barely survived, they demanded a Bill of Rights guaranteeing that the new Constitutional order would be itself governed by certain norms not open for debate.

Although this first political action by Evangelical sectarians was thus negative in character, it gradually brought the Evangelical sects into a new mode of thinking that applied millennial expectations to this world, not the next.

Evangelical political theology was grounded on restricting the competence of government not only in specifically religious matters of doctrine and worship, but on a wide array of moral concerns. In place of government, which they categorically distrusted, the Evangelicals placed their faith not in covenants or in leaders, but in the people themselves. The reason for their optimism is not hard to discover: it lay in the their experience of revival during the 1780s, a Revolutionary Revival that would be a precursor of the Second Great Awakening to come. Methodist and Baptist revivals had transformed their local communities and regional enclaves from profane society to sacred precinct. By the late 1780s, the American Evangelical sects had begun to glimpse the possibility of a regenerate majority capable of translating the imperatives of personal sanctification into public order. Slavery could be abolished, greed and commercial corruption could be replaced by a virtuous yeoman society, religious liberty could be guaranteed, government could be prevented from exercising from legal or military coercion. All this and more was possible if one assumed a regenerate citizenry that bore its virtue inwardly, through the indwelling of the Spirit, rather than outwardly through complex social contracts.

Evangelical political theology in America was a mutation of sixteenth and seventeenth-century English sectarian radicalism, which predicated an inexorably fallen world from which the saints must separate, into something truly new, a regenerate society in which virtue and good order proceeded not from the law written in social compacts but from the law engraved on human hearts. As the traditional Reformed postmillennial covenant theology faded in the Federalist political twilight, a new American Evangelical political theology emerged with Anti-Federalism, destined eventually to underpin the Jeffersonian hegemony of the early nineteenth century. The journey from the New Israel to the New Jerusalem had begun.