Of all the books in the New Testament, the Book of Revelation elicits the most varied responses from within the Christian community. Radicals use it as part of their revolutionary rhetoric; liberals treat it as an elaborate pipe-dream (or should I say a mushroom-induced hallucination); scientific rationalists haughtily dismiss it; while evangelicals alone seem to rejoice in its promise for the future. The most common response in recent years, however, has been benign neglect, or worse yet, indifference.

Perhaps the daily threats of nuclear holocaust, ecological collapse, catastrophic over-population, and genetic genocide have bludgeoned our sensitivities about the future into a comatose state. The old classroom distinction between the responses of two sets of trapped people to an uncontrollable fire—moviegoers frantically scurrying toward the door of their only escape, and the resigned submission of sailors in a sinking submarine to impending destruction—illustrates the critical role that hope and promise play in determining our perceptions of the future. Without any hope for the ultimate salvation of the historical process, man no longer dares or cares to think about the future.

Christians may find themselves reflecting this attitude. They may fail to remind the world that their philosophy of history includes not only forgiveness for the past and salvation in the present but also the biblical promise of total fulfillment in the future. To the extent that they do this, they are rejecting their peculiar heritage as Christians. Concern for the future has been a constant in the history of Christianity, as Christian men and women, inspired by apocalyptic passages in the Old Testament, the apocalypses in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the Book of Revelation, have anxiously awaited Christ’s return and anticipated the millennial kingdom.

All this is familiar to us. Less understood, however, has been the profound impact that the biblical image of the future has exerted on history and the extent to which what we mistakenly label “secular” history has been fashioned by the vision of a future millennium, especially as outlined in the Revelation of Saint John.

At certain times in history, millennial sentiment has spread to exercise a formative sway over diverse social movements and over broad sections of society. Among the periods and events that come to mind are the year 1000 A.D.; the crusades; the plague years, such as 1348, when even Petrarch was convinced that “the end of the world is at hand”; the monastic movements inspired by Abbott Joachim of Fiore in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; the early periods of exploration and Franciscan colonization of the New World; Lollardy and the Radical Reformation (specifically Thomas Müntzer and Münster); Queen Elizabeth’s apocalyptic assessment (shared by many of her subjects, such as John Foxe) that her reign was set in “these last and worst days of the world”; the English, French, and American Revolutions, and revolutionary periods in general; and nineteenth-century American reform movements. Increasingly, secular historians are realizing that millennialism cannot be dismissed, as a recent biographer tried to do, as “a certain hysteria, indicative of some mental unbalance.” Rather, a spirit of millennialism and concern for examining the future through the spectacles of the Book of Revelation have signified, not isolation from the mainstream of history, but total immersion in it.

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A case in point is that of a much neglected abbot named Joachim of Fiore (ca. 1150–1202), who developed a philosophy of history that was to dominate Europe until the advent of Marxism. Even such modern philosophers of history as Comte, Lessing, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, and Marx himself have been found to have Joachite underpinnings, and the secularized Joachite undertones in the phrase “the Third Reich” have not escaped attention. Joachim’s predictions (based on Revelation) of an imminent third and final dispensation of the Holy Spirit were so influential that in 1215, when Frederick II was given the imperial crown of the Roman Empire, he was perceived (and perceived himself) as the predicted Emperor of the Last Days who would liberate the Holy Sepulchre and prepare the way for the second coming and the millennial reign of Christ (see Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, 2nd ed., 1961, p. 103).

A similar mission largely motivated Christopher Columbus, a fact that most historians have ignored. In his little-known Book of Prophecies, Columbus related his commission as a “Christ bearer” (Christoferens) to free Jerusalem from the Muslims and to diffuse the Gospel throughout the world in order to pave the way for the millennium. In addressing Prince John, Columbus revealed his role in this cosmic drama: “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth, of which He spoke in the Apocalypse by Saint John, after having spoken of it by the mouth of Isaiah; and He showed me the spot where to find it.” It should not surprise us, then, that in a ship emblazoned with crosses on the sails and “in the name of Jesus,” Columbus embarked on what was in many ways the last of the crusades, invoking Joachim of Fiore as his patron in the expected evangelization of the world and, inadvertently, in the discovery of the Americas. As Mircea Eliade has recently admitted, it was in a “messianic and apocalyptic atmosphere” that “the transoceanic expeditions and the geographic discoveries that radically shook and transformed western Europe took place.”

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But to appreciate fully the influence that millennialism in general and Revelation in particular have exerted on history, we must turn to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Within the past few years, various historians have mined an amazingly rich quarry of millennialism in the allegedly “communistic” ideal of Digger Gerrard Winstanley; in the poetry of the mystic William Blake, who was inspired by such millennialist movements as Joachism, seventeenth-century Muggletonianism, and Swedenborgianism; in the history of the struggle of women for emancipation from the shackles of Kinder, Küche, und Kirche, begun in earnest during this period; in the sophisticated thought of John Milton; in the political and historical writings of Thomas Hobbes; and in the ideological apologists and actors in the English Revolution, including the indomitable Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army.

Equally fascinating is the fashionable attention given to Revelation during this period. Sir Isaac Newton, who spent more time ruminating on biblical prophecies than on scientific experiments, argued in his posthumously published commentary on Daniel and Revelation that to repudiate these prophecies was to reject the entire Christian religion and tradition. (The only conspicuous dissenters from Newton’s observation would have been the early Martin Luther and John Calvin, who found the Book of Revelation too elusive for intelligible exposition.)

This connection between science and Revelation was the norm for the seventeenth century. John Napier, whose commentary on Revelation went through at least twenty-three editions by 1700 and numerous translations, attempted to translate scriptural mathematics into scientific calculus. In so doing he invented logarithms, which he proceeded to use to compute the date of the Parousia—between 1688 and 1700. The scientist and mathematician William Whitson, Newton’s successor as professor of mathematics at Cambridge, was expelled in 1710 as a result of his Arian efforts to resurrect primitive Christianity, in his mind a necessary preparation for Christ’s second coming. And William Oughtred, the inventor of the symbol x and “the greatest mathematician of his day,” according to Christopher Hill, spent many hours hovering over the Book of Revelation, trying to decipher the date of Christ’s return. So did other mathematicians, such as John Pell and Robert Boyle.

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But of all the English commentators on Revelation (King James I included), Joseph Mede—botanist, anatomist, mathematician, astronomer, pre-cursor of Cambridge Platonism, and tutor of Milton—wielded the greatest influence through his Clavis Apocalyptic (1627). The relevance of this work so intrigued a committee of the British House of Commons during the English Civil Wars that they ordered it to be translated in 1643 under virtually official auspices. In fact, to Thomas Twisse, the Presbyterian divine and prolocutor of Parliament’s Assembly of Divines, the merging of expanding scientific knowledge and an expanding world by means of navigation and commerce were harbingers of the millennium. And Roger Bacon’s assertion that modern science contained the seeds for the eventual flowering of the millennium was shared by many Englishmen; they felt that both science and biblical prophecy were supplemental ways of getting to know God and his plans, purposes, and lessons for mankind.

The significance of all this is that millennialism, defined as a belief in and quest for an imminent period of total, ultimate, collective salvation and peace, has not been the preserve of fringe groups in history, but has pervaded the spirit of many ages and many leaders, both spiritual and secular. And although evangelical Christians cannot share Friedrich Engels’s estimation of the Revelation of Saint John as “worth more than all the rest of the New Testament put together,” we ought at least to be aware of the immense historical importance attached to this reportedly “least read book in the New Testament” and to the entire subject of millennialism.

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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