Premillennialism is the eschatological doctrine that Jesus will return for the true believers before the millennium, the thousand years of righteousness predicted in the Book of Revelation. Throughout church history believers have debated the precise meaning of the prophetic writings in the Bible—principally the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures and Revelation at the end of the New Testament. Although many believed, for example, that Revelation was intended as a source of comfort to the persecuted early Christians, an assurance that God would eventually avenge their sufferings, others have chosen to interpret Revelation as a kind of "prehistory," a prediction of the sequence of events leading to the end of time. These literalists have generally divided between post-millennialists (those who believe that Jesus will return after the millennium) and premillennialists, who hold that the return of Jesus is imminent.
American evangelicals have vacillated to a remarkable degree between premillennialism and postmillennialism. Although some, notably the Millerites, held premillennial beliefs in the antebellum period, most were postmillennialists: They believed that Christ would return after the millennium, so they took it as their responsibility to bring on the millennium by working to reform society according to the norms of godliness. Postmillennialism, with its general optimism about the perfectibility of individuals and of society, animated most of the social-reform movements of the early nineteenth century—abolitionism, temperance, women's suffrage.
Premillennialism began to take hold after the Civil War, however, as evangelicals recognized that the teeming, squalid tenements of the cities, beset by labor unrest, would never resemble the precincts of Zion. Evangelicals also grew increasingly uneasy with the arrival of non-Protestant immigrants, most of whom did not share their scruples about temperance. In response to these social changes, which in turn were prompted by rapid urbanization and industrialization and unrestrained capitalism, evangelicals shifted their eschatology from postmillennialism to premillennialism, which insisted that the world was getting worse and worse and that the only hope was for Christ's return. Specifically, they adopted the variant of premillennialism called dispensationalism, or dispensational premillennialism, which divided all of human history into different ages, or dispensations, and insisted that human history was grinding imminently to a halt, that Jesus would return at any moment to rescue the true believers from the apocalyptic destruction awaiting the unrighteous. Dispensationalism, brought to North America from Great Britain by John Nelson Darby, became enormously popular among evangelicals during the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, and its success was enhanced by the Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909 by Oxford University Press, which provided a kind of template for reading a dispensational premillennialist interpretation into the Bible. In contrast to the social optimism implicit in postmillennialism, premillennialism was a theology of despair because it posited that this world was irredeemable and was careening toward apocalyptic judgment. "I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel," evangelist Dwight L. Moody declared toward the end of the nineteenth century. "God has given me a lifeboat and said, 'Moody, save all you can.' "
Evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, have for the most part held on to premillennialism throughout the twentieth century. They have invoked premillennialism as justification for their evangelistic appeals, as demonstrated by Billy Graham's crusades or A Thief in the Night by filmmaker Donald W. Thompson, and for their strong support for the State of Israel, which evangelicals believe will play a central role in the unfolding apocalyptic drama.
On the face of it, the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s represents a movement away from premillennialism and back toward postmillennialism because the leaders of the Religious Right seek, at least according to their own lights, to construct a godly society. While there is some justification for this interpretation—the Religious Right has been greatly influenced, for example, by the postmillennial interpretations of a movement called Reconstructionism—the majority of evangelicals remain premillennialist in their eschatology. They may act like postmillennialists, but they profess to be premillennialists.
See alsoDispensationalism; Eschatology; Evangelical Christianity; Fundamentalist Christian; Graham, Billy; Millenialism; Reconstructionist Christianity; Religious Right; Revelation, Book of; Temperance.
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