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Volume 13, Issue 3: Eschaton

Eschatalogical Decline of 1865_1925: Pt.3

Jack Van Deventer

this is the third part in a history series dealing with the eschatological decline during the sixty-year period from 1865 to 1925. It was during this period that an attitude of pessimism took root in the Church,1followed by newly developed doctrines designed to give this new worldview biblical warrant. In this article, I'll take a step back in time and review the events prior to this sixty-year period.

The modern revival of apocalyptic thinking began with the French Revolution in the 1790s when Europe was in the midst of a violent upheaval affecting all aspects of social and political life. Through a series of elaborate calculations, some religious scholars believed the period of Roman Catholic domination would last 1,260 years. When Roman Catholic power in France was overthrown in 1798, it was surmised that the tyrannical reign of the pope had come to an end. By back-calculation it was concluded that the rise of papal power had begun 1,260 years earlier in a.d. 538.
The significance of these date assignments was that it launched a newfound belief that prophecy and history could be correlated if one could only find the hidden prophetic key. After 1799, prophetic speculation and prediction became popular in Britain among some clergymen, but especially among laymen. Many claimed to have found a particular scriptural insight that they believed made their view superior to that of others.
Historian Ernest Sandeen wrote, "[T]he most widely known author [of prophetic studies] was William Cuninghame of Lainshaw, an odd, cantankerous layman who never seems to have rested from a labor of vigorous attacks upon fellow millenarians whose opinions or motives he questioned. Cuninghame eventually built a small nondenominational chapel near his estate and became its minister, a pattern often repeated among millenarians."2
Millenarianism was the belief in a future reign of Christ in a millennium, which differed both in degree and kind from the historic view of the millennium. Millenarians had a pessimistic worldview and believed in an imminent return of Christ. Early millenarianism appeared among radical fringe groups during the English Civil War of the mid-1600s and included the Ranters, Muggletonians, Diggers, Quakers, and the violent Fifth Monarchists.3 Sandeen notes that the violent excesses, especially by the latter group, "served to damn the whole movement" until the French Revolution. Millenarian doctrine was more fully developed during the 1800s, and ultimately evolved into dispensational premillennialism.4
Around 1811, Lewis Way, an eccentric barrister5 who had grown weary of "the bondage of an irksome profession" became intrigued with the condition of Jews in Europe. Having been given a large endowment, he funded a ministry and a training college with the goal of converting Jews to Christ. Eventually Way became known as an advocate of Protestant Zionism, the restoration of the Jews to the promised land of Palestine.6 This position became a central tenet of millenarianism.7
In the 1820s, premillennialism became the next stage in millenarian development. The timing of the millennium was not the distinctive issue separating pre- from postmillennialism so much as the nature of the millenium. Premillennialists believed that evil would ultimately overwhelm the Church, that the world could not be won to Christ, but that God would demolish the world in judgment.
The driving force behind the spread of premillennialism doctrine in the 1820s was Edward Irving. He was a sensational preacher, known for passionately embracing and promoting doctrines, regardless of contradictions or consequences. Irving spread premillennialism in England, through preaching, books, periodicals, and prophecy conferences. The conclusions of these conferences were that world conditions were in a crisis, the social and political decline was irreversible, and that world history was nearly over. The Second Coming was believed to be within a few years.
Many millenarians anticipated that God would restore supernatural Pentecostal signs during these "last days" prior to the Second Coming. To the dismay of some premillennialists and to the delight of others, the apostolic "gift of tongues" suddenly and alarmingly appeared at Irving's church in October of 1831. These events put London in an uproar. Observers of these events described "hysterical shrieking," and scenes of "great confusion," "chaos and alarm," "dissension and riot," "sacrilege and profanation." Irving refused to stand in the way of these events, endured much criticism, and was ultimately tried and convicted of heresy. He later helped to found the new Catholic Apostolic Church.
Thus, in the context of millenarian expectation, the modern charismatic movement had its beginning. The events surrounding Irving proved detrimental to millenarianism. Critics associated this doctrine with heresy and schism. Supporters strove to disassociate premillennial doctrine from Irving, but the damage was done. Over the next few decades the development of premillennial doctrine came under the control of another group that had withdrawn from the Established Church, the Plymouth Brethren. In the next issue, we'll continue of this series, by looking at the contributions of the Plymouth Brethren and their controversial leader, John Nelson Darby.

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