Sunday, February 21, 2021

John Howard Smith's "A Dream of the Judgment Day"

John Howard Smith is Professor of History at Texas A&M University-Commerce and author of The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725-1775.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Dream of the Judgment Day: American Millennialism and Apocalypticism, 1620-1890, and reported the following:
Page 99 of A Dream of the Judgment Day appears in a chapter explaining the degrees of millennialism attending the American Revolution. Most of the page is dominated by a paragraph that discusses the reactions Pietist sects had to the Revolution, specifically its being, in their opinion, “the regrettable outcome of civil strife born of an overall inattention to Christian duty.” That particular paragraph is not highly reflective of the book itself, except to underscore the hypocrisy of the Patriots’ demanding liberty and equality for themselves while denying those rights to any who opposed them or, in the case of some Quakers and other neutral religious groups, those who refused to take part on either side of the conflict. American Christians, especially those of radical Protestant persuasions, tend to see the world in starkly Manichean terms of good versus evil. Good Christians stand for Christ and the righteous, and any who does not has sided with Satan and the damned. The American Revolutionaries generally believed that the Revolution was a prophesied event, or otherwise shared a millenarian conviction that it was the beginning of a new era for human civilization, if not the dawning of the Millennium itself. Anyone who questioned or opposed the Revolution was thus lumped with the Antichrist—a trope that has become a feature of American politics even to the present day.

The following paragraph does emphasize an important and timely point that I think my book makes. “Loyalists had long argued that the merchant leaders of the Revolution were a cabal—or a network of cabals—organized to enrich themselves at the expense of the majority of colonists who depended upon them for the necessities of living. Patriots countered by portraying Loyalist elites as sunk in the same corruption that had eaten away the British constitution.” Popular apocalypticists throughout the history of Christianity—especially in the United States—consistently appealed to the concerns of lower-class people in ways that mirror those of elites currying political support. Revolutionaries like John Adams exulted that American victory in the War for Independence was a fulfillment of prophecies in the Book of Daniel, while others employed millenarian rhetoric in order to maintain popular support for independence and—later on—for ratification of the Constitution, anti-French sentiment in the late 1790s, the War of 1812, Manifest Destiny, and both sides of the Civil War, to name only a few examples. Millennialism and apocalypticism are deeply interwoven with the fabric of American society from its beginnings, and remains so to this day.
Learn more about A Dream of the Judgment Day at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue