Millennialism and its Discontents: The Theology of American Foreign Policy from 1630-1789, Part 1

And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended . . . Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign for a thousand years.[i]

Millennialism—a Christian theological belief according to which scriptural prophecies can be deciphered to interpret the past, benchmark the present, and predict the future—remains one of the most underappreciated factors that has shaped American foreign policy. Millennialist ideas are not exclusive to Christianity (other religious sects espouse millennialist beliefs), and can be secularized by being gradually woven into the fabric of a nation’s identity and sacralized as a part of a nation’s civil religion. The United States undeniably boasts a robust secularized millennialism as its creed. In fact, one could view our present political situation as indicative of a conflict within the civil religious principles of the United States itself. There are two contenders in this battle of millennial visions: one is an exclusivist (nationalist), nostalgic (backwards-looking) millennialism epitomized by Donald Trump’s campaign slogan—Make America Great Again— while the other is an inclusivist (internationalist), idealistic (forward-looking) millennialism whose most prominent civil religious prophets include Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. Common to both millennial views is a belief that the United States of America is special (i.e. exceptional, indispensable, and chosen), and accordingly has a mission (i.e. a mission to be a city upon a hill, make the world safe for democracy, or defeat international terrorism) whose fulfillment will commence some sort of utopia. Accordingly, millennialism, whether religious or secular, cultivates a Manichaean worldview—one which simplistically frames world events as struggles between the forces of good and evil—in individuals who explicitly or implicitly accept its premises.

Millennialism impacts American foreign policy via the ideas it promotes—chosenness, mission, a Manichaean worldview, and the realizability of utopia. It goes without saying that other factors (self-defense, assisting our allies, and the desire for land and resources) have shaped American foreign policy. Therefore, it is important to explicitly state how millennialism affects U.S. foreign policy, and then argue that the historical record bears witness to these effects. Millennialism influences American foreign policy by justifying, and sometimes motivating, foreign policy endeavors. Millennialism provides a justification—a vindication—for politicians and other actors involved in producing foreign policy decisions. As historian Richard M. Gamble so aptly observed, “The shining city in the American imagination can be used to justify any economic reform, tax scheme, energy initiative, immigration policy, or military venture no matter how ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’.”[ii] Furthermore, since organized and civil religion have firmly stamped millennialism upon the American psyche, many members of the American public not only cite millennialist ideas to justify their support for some policy position, but are often motivated by those ideas to support that policy initiative. Hence, a politician, who probably has ulterior motives for proposing some initiative, can appeal to millennialist ideas (e.g., by claiming that a war is necessary to prevent a genocide, and, therefore, the United States has a duty to intervene) to garner public support for a war, maintain support during the war, and justify the war—regardless of its consequences— after its conclusion. Millennialism is a useful tool for policymakers and an opiate of the masses. Before examining how millennialism has specifically shaped American history, some historical-theological context is necessary, since it situates the arrival of millennialism on American shores within a larger, cohesive narrative.

A natural starting point for this narrative, it turns out, is the Fall of Rome.

Saint Augustine’s amillennial theory of history dominated the outlook of the Roman Catholic Church (and by extension medieval Europe) for more than a thousand years prior to the Protestant Reformation.[iii] Confronting allegations that Christianity brought about the decline of Rome, Augustine penned his magnum opus—The City of God—in which he posited a sharp distinction between the goals and fate of the church (the City of God) and the world (the City of Man).[iv] To motivate this distinction, Augustine interpreted the Book of Revelation allegorically.[v] He denied that there would be a literal millennium of peace on earth that could be prepared for, much less brought to fruition, by human exertion. Instead, the millennium in Revelation 20 was figurative; it represented the age of the church, which had begun with the resurrection of Christ. Prophecies in Revelation, therefore, did not provide a roadmap to grasp the past, situate oneself in the present, or foresee the future. Furthermore, evil persisted despite Satan having been bound, and having lost the ability to “deceive the nations.”[vi] Accordingly, the idea of progress toward an earthly utopia—an idea whose realization seemed especially unlikely given the decline and fall of the Roman Empire—was completely incompatible with Augustinian amillennialism.[vii] Augustine’s influence outlasted his life, as subsequent theologians did not interpret “history by means of the image of a cosmic drama” but in its stead “substituted the image of the pilgrim people of God seeking a destination beyond history.”[viii]

Amillennialism’s reign as the authoritative eschatology among Christians came to an end with the onset of the Protestant Reformation, which effected a monumental paradigm shift in how Western Europeans viewed history. Animated by their slogan sola scriptura, Protestants reexamined Scripture with little concern for preserving Roman Catholic dogma; very few matters of doctrine were exempt from critical evaluation and reinterpretation. Eschatology, the Christian doctrine of the end times, was no exception. Surrounded by incipient religious wars and captured by the significance of their historical moment, some Reformers envisioned their struggle against the Roman Catholic Church through apocalyptic lenses. Whereas medieval apocalypticists anticipated the antichrist would be a secular tyrant or a fallen pope, Martin Luther identified the very institution of the papacy as the antichrist, which became the default view among Protestants.[ix] Many Protestants assumed a millennial, as opposed to an amillennial, theory of history. The onset of a literal millennium seemed to be just over the horizon, and furthermore could be prepared for (if not positively hastened) by human efforts. And since “in such a pattern of history it was inevitable that God would have to operate through certain nations,” the concept of a chosen people commissioned to make way for God’s kingdom was revived.[x]

The notion of being a “chosen people” was one that the Puritans, frustrated by the religious and political climate in Britain, took for granted as they established the Massachusetts Bay Colony.[xi] Several theological strains intertwined to form the Puritans’ belief in their own chosenness. The Puritan colonists inherited the tradition of national covenant theology from their English counterparts; they believed that just as God had formed covenants with the people of Israel, so also had he formed a covenant with them as part of his plan to redeem the world.[xii] Furthermore, the Puritans supported their claim to being God’s covenant people by drawing on a biblical method of interpretation known as typology. A type is “an Old Testament place, event, institution, office, object, or even person that serves as a foreshadowing of what God has planned in the future.”[xiii] For most of church history, Augustine’s “strict differentiations between the City of God and the City of Man [denied] the applicability of typological exegesis to the public, social life of man.”[xiv] Augustinian typology was a backward-looking hermeneutic, drawing types from the entire Old Testament, all of which pointed to and were fulfilled by the life and person of Jesus Christ, the sole antitype (that which is pointed to by the types). However, the Puritans “extended the hermeneutical method of typology from mere biblical interpretation to a providential interpretation of secular history.”[xv] In his sermon, “A Brief Recognition of New England’s Errand into the Wilderness,” Puritan pastor Samuel Danforth compared the strivings of the Puritans in the wilderness of North America to the wanderings of the Israelites in Canaan.[xvi] Danforth identified the Israelites as a type for the Puritans, thereby linking God’s covenant promises to the Israelites to the actions of the Puritans.[xvii] Finally, millennialism undergirded and reinforced both the national covenant theology and heterodox typology of the Puritans. The expectation of impending apocalyptic violence that would befall the Old World made finding a refuge from those tribulations a matter of utmost importance, and motivated the Puritans’ errand into the wilderness.[xviii] This move was also motivated by the desire to complete the Protestant Reformation, a task impossible to accomplish in the Old World. Thus, the Puritans believed that by founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they were acting as God’s chosen agents to prepare for the advent of Christ’s millennial kingdom.[xix] Their theocracy “was to be at once a model to the world of Reformed Christianity and a prefiguration of the New Jerusalem to come.”[xx]

It is important to note that Massachusetts Bay Puritans did not see their Puritan counterparts in Britain (much less colonists who settled elsewhere in America) as chosen. The Puritan notion of covenantal chosenness was quite exclusive; they alone were God’s covenant people, commissioned to establish an ideal ecclesiastical polity—a model Christian community.[xxi, xxii] Furthermore, the Puritans did not believe that their chosenness entailed a mission to redeem the world. The Puritans were premillennialists; they believed that the dawn of the millennium would be preceded by the apocalypse and that a deus ex machina—namely, the bodily return of Jesus Christ to rectify the world’s evils and establish his earthly kingdom—would be necessary to bring the millennium to fruition.[xxiii] Therefore, while colonial Puritans hoped that God would establish his New Jerusalem in the New World, they did not believe that human progress could hasten that day.[xxiv]

Upon their arrival to the New World, the Puritans evangelized Native Americans, hoping to form bonds that would promote peace while checking the progress of Catholicism in the New World.[xxv] When Native Americans did not convert en masse and were largely unwilling to assimilate to Anglo-Saxon culture, negative stereotypes of Native Americans as “savages”—a term deeply embedded within European thought—and God-loathing heathens proliferated within the colonial consciousness.[xxvi] When wars broke out, the Puritans did not treat Native Americans as they would European enemies.[xxvii] The Puritans infused just war theory, which seeks to provide a rationale by which Christians can go to war while simultaneously attempting to limit the scope of war, with a crusading mentality. The boundaries of jus ad bellum (the right to war), intended to limit the circumstances under which a war could be justly initiated, were expanded by the Puritans so as to increase the occasions to go to war. But the principles of jus in bello (justice in war), designed to limit the scope of a conflict and protect noncombatants, the Puritans essentially jettisoned.[xxviii] That the Puritans distorted just war theory in this manner should not come as a surprise. The Puritans, after all, saw themselves as a chosen people, commissioned by God to establish a theocracy in the New World. Since their errand conjoined spiritual flourishing with material goals, conflicts with Native American “others” assumed a spiritual dimension. By threatening the earthly enterprise of the Puritans, the Native Americans were opposing God’s plan for his chosen people; hence the Pequot War of 1636-37, and King Philip’s War of 1675-76, were exceptionally brutal.[xxix]

In the 1680s, the consolidation of state power by Louis XIV (a Catholic) in France, and the ascension of James II (another Catholic) to the English throne concerned Protestants on both sides of the Atlantic.[xxx] These fears appeared to be validated when Louis annulled an edict protecting French Protestants. Meanwhile, James nullified colonial charters, which had guaranteed the colonies a measure of political autonomy, and installed Sir Edmund Andros—an Anglican (i.e., an “almost-Catholic” to non-Anglican Protestants)—as the governor of his newly created Dominion of New England (an amalgamation of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey).[xxxi] When the Glorious Revolution overthrew James in 1688 and installed a Protestant monarch in Britain, British colonists followed suit by deposing Andros and a host of other Catholic authorities from New York to Maryland.[xxxii] Over the next few decades, English colonists found themselves embroiled in two English imperial wars—the War of the League of Augsburg (1689-97) and the War of Spanish Succession (1701-13)—that did nothing to benefit the American colonies.[xxxiii] While both wars pitted the colonists against France and its Native American allies, the War of Spanish Succession saw France allied with Spain, which expanded the theater of the colonial war from French Canada all the way down to Spanish Florida.[xxxiv] Although religion did not cause these wars, it molded their “contours and meaning,” for the colonists.[xxxv] Colonial clergy and laypeople envisioned the conflicts not only in terms of survival, but also as part of a greater apocalyptic struggle against the Catholic antichrist. That these wars went by different names (King Philip’s War and Queen Anne’s War) among the colonists underscored the tension between the British roots of most colonists and their realization that British interests did not always align with, and sometimes ran contrary to, colonial interests.[xxxvi] While peace eventually came to Europe when the Treaty of Utrecht ended the War of Spanish Succession in 1713, it proved elusive in the colonies as the animosities between the colonists and their French, Spanish, and Indian foes produced several intracolonial wars throughout the 1710s and 1720s.[xxxvii]

The eighteenth century witnessed the transformation of colonial millennialism, as the Puritans’ exclusivist millennialism metamorphosed into a more inclusive civil millennialism. Ubiquitous wars played a role in this transformation; the other ingredient was a series of revivals in the 1730s and 1740s known as the Great Awakening. Spearheaded by figures like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, the Great Awakening featured massive revivalist concerts of prayer reminiscent of the Puritan Jeremiad, which “was the ritual of a culture on an errand— which is to say, a culture based on a faith in process,” a ritual that “discarded the Old World ideal of stasis for a New World vision of the future” and functioned to “create a climate of anxiety that helped release the restless ‘progressivist’ energies required for the success of the venture.”[xxxviii] Whereas Puritan clergy preached Jeremiads to call their flock unto repentance and covenant renewal with God, and thus reinforced their own sense of exclusive chosenness, revivalist preachers called all colonists unto repentance, salvation, and the pursuit of holiness. In doing so, revivalists took a practice intended to exclude, and used it to open “the ranks of the American army of Christ to every white Protestant believer.”[xxxix] Capitalizing on the incipient sense of colonial Protestant unity, Whitefield made sure “to exhort my hearers themselves against the first approaches of Popish tyranny and arbitrary power.”[xl]

Interpreting the revival of Christianity in the colonies as a sign that God’s kingdom drew near, Edwards exposited the eschatological theory of postmillennialism, which embraced elements of the Puritan millennial vision, but differed in several crucial respects.[xli] Contrary to pre-millennialism, postmillennialism maintains that Jesus Christ will return after the millennium foretold in Revelation 20. While Edwards and his Puritan predecessors believed that God would establish New Jerusalem in America, the Puritans thought this would only be accomplished by Christ’s return, whereas Edwards believed that spiritual revival would precipitate the redemption of society and the dawning of God’s millennial kingdom.[xlii] The Puritans assumed the worst tribulations were yet to come, whereas Edwards believed they had already passed.[xliii] Hence the Puritans sought to withdraw from the Old World to escape the worst of the apocalyptic tribulations preceding the millennium. However, postmillennialists envisioned the outpouring of the vials of judgment prior to the millennium as cathartic events that would ultimately improve the condition of the world; hence postmillennialists recommended engagement with the world.[xliv] However, much to the dismay of Edwards and his colleagues, the revivalist fervor of the Great Awakening started to dissipate in 1743, prompting one minister to ruefully exclaim, “Manna grows tasteless and insipid after a Year or two’s Enjoyment . . . and too many are for making a Captain, and returning to Egypt.”[xlv] Postmillennial revivalism, with its apolitical aim of overthrowing the antichrist by drawing multitudes into the Protestant fold, proved insufficient to sustain a distinctively American identity.[xlvi] Nonetheless, the Great Awakening grafted optimism into the colonial consciousness, which would prove crucial to the development of civil millennialism.

The emergence of colonial nationalism and an American identity in the second half of the eighteenth century owed to the synthesis of postmillennial optimism with republican political ideals.[xlvii] While the Great Awakening was in full swing, the colonies again found themselves embroiled in a European war, known as King George’s War (1739-48), in which they again were pitted against Catholic foes.[xlviii] Keeping with a theme in colonial history, peace eluded the colonies as the French and Indian War (1754-1763) erupted a few years after the conclusion of King George’s War.[xlix] Colonial pastors issued countless sermons embroidering these conflicts with apocalyptic imagery, likening French Canada to Babylon, the Old Testament enemy of Israel.[l] The demise of Catholicism in Canada, many hoped, would incur a “most signal revolution in the civil and religious state of things in the world.”[li] However, clergy not only appealed to religious traditions to foster unity, but also “the civic traditions of Anglo-America—not only Protestantism, that is, but English libertarianism.”[lii] Many colonists, therefore, believed that England and the colonies shared the same fate.[liii] These strains of postmillennial optimism and Christian republicanism conjoined to produce civil millennialism and a more robust, autonomous colonial identity.[liv] Civil millennialists anticipated a millennium preceded by the propagation of civil and religious liberty, rather than the gospel; the realization of this millennium required the redemption, or overturning, of political and social institutions, rather than the spread of global Protestantism or the return of Christ; the antichrist, it seemed, could just as well be an oppressive secular ruler as a heretic.[lv] When the French sued for peace in 1763, many colonists believed their victory marked the beginning of the millennial era.[lvi]

Such expectations proved futile as Great Britain engaged in a series of political blunders that earned it the ire of its colonists.[lvii] The prohibition on colonial settlement west of the Appalachians, the efforts of the Anglican church to convert Native Americans and, more troublingly, other Protestant colonists, and the passage of the Stamp Act of 1765 prompted colonial clergy, men who had previously lauded the bonds between the colonies and England, to upbraid Great Britain.[lviii] London became the new Rome.[lix] The British monarch was a secular analogue, and to some an agent, of the Pope.[lx] Americans were a people with a unique millennial destiny, epitomized by John Adams’s diary entry: “I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over earth.”[lxi]

When the Revolutionary War began, most denominations supported the Revolutionary cause, overcoming opposition to the war from Anglicans and pacifist sects.[lxii] Colonial pastors issued Jeremiads calling God’s New Israel to “repent and gird itself with holiness for the defeat of the [British] enemy.”[lxiii] Typological interpretations of colonial destiny were construed, comparing Great Britain to Egypt, and the colonists to the Israelites seeking their promised land. The Revolution stood as an antitype to “the flight of Noah, the wanderings of Abraham, the desert march of Israel, the formation of the early church, (and) the revolt of Luther and Calvin against Rome.”[lxiv] Benjamin Franklin, hardly a devout Christian, described his proposed Seal of the United States as follows: “Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.”[lxv] The success of the American Revolution confirmed the veracity of civil millennialism and sanctified America’s mission. Americans had squared off against Native Americans, Roman Catholics, and finally their own colonial overseers, and emerged victorious each time. The world would never be the same.
i. Revelation 20: 1-3, 6 (ESV).
ii. Richard M. Gamble, In Search of the City on a Hill (New York: Continuum International Publishing
Group, 2012), 9.
iii. Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (London: University of Chicago Press, 1968), ix; Stanley J. Grenz, The Millennial Maze: Sorting out Evangelical Options (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 44.
iv. Tuveson, 13-14.
v. Tuveson, 16.
vi. Revelation 20:3 (ESV).
vii. Tuveson, 15.
viii. Tuveson, ix; Grenz, 45.
ix. Grenz, 49-50.
x. Tuveson, x.
xi. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language: Third Edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 297.
xii. John D. Wilsey, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 41.
xiii. Frederic M. Martin, American Evangelicals & Modern Israel (Sisters: Deep River Books, 2016), 99.
xiv. Sacvan Bercovitch, “Typology in Puritan New England: The Williams-Cotton Controversy Reassessed,” American Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1969): 176.
xv. Wilsey, 43.
xvi. Wilsey, 44.
xvii. Wilsey, 44.
xviii. Avihu Zakai, “Theocracy in Massachusetts: The Puritan Universe of Sacred Imagination,” Studies in the Literary Imagination Vol. 27, No. 1 (1994); Conrad Cherry, God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 26.
xix. Sacvan Bercovitch, American Jeremiad (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), 9.
xx. Bercovitch, American Jeremiad, 8.
xxi. Gamble, In Search of the City on a Hill, 46-47
xxii. Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Anchor Books, 2012), 25-26.
xxiii. Sacvan Bercovitch, “The Typology of America’s Mission,” American Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 2
(1978): 137.
xxiv. David Smith, “Millenarian Scholarship in America,” American Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 3 (1965): 539.
xxv. Preston, 27-28.
xxvi. Wilsey, 100; Andrew Preston, 29.
xxvii. Preston, 29.
xxviii. Preston, 32-35.
xxix. Preston, 31.
xxx. Preston, 48.
xxxi. Preston, 49.
xxxii. Preston, 49.
xxxiii. Preston, 46-52.
xxxiv. Preston, 52.
xxxv. Preston, 52.
xxxvi. Preston, 46-52.
xxxvii. Preston, 54.
xxxviii. Bercovitch, American Jeremiad, 23.
xxxix. Bercovitch, “The Typology of America’s Mission,” 142.
xl. Preston, 57.
xli. Bercovitch, “The Typology of America’s Mission,”139.
xlii. Bercovitch, “The Typology of America’s Mission,” 143.
xliii. C. C. Goen, “Jonathan Edwards: A New Departure in Eschatology,” Church History, Vol. 28, No. 1 (1959): 30.
xliv. Bercovitch, “The Typology of America’s Mission,” 143.
xlv. Nathan O. Hatch, “The Origins of Civil Millennialism in America: New England Clergymen, War with France, and the Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 3 (1974): 413-414.
xlvi. Hatch, 413.
xlvii. Christopher M. Beam, “Millennialism and American Nationalism, 1740-1800,” Journal of
Presbyterian History Vol. 54, No. 1 (1976): 183.
xlviii. Preston, 59.
xlix. Preston, 63.
l. Hatch, 417-419.
li. Bercovitch, “The Typology of America’s Mission,” 147.
lii. Bercovitch, “The Typology of America’s Mission,” 148.
liii. Beam, 183.
liv. Preston, 69.
lv. Hatch, 422.
lvi. Preston, 69.
lvii. Preston, 77.
lviii. Preston, 77-79.
lix. Preston, 79.
lx. Hatch, 429.
lxi. Tuveson, 25.
lxii. Preston, 83.
lxiii. Conrad Cherry, God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 62.
lxiv. Bercovitch, “The Typology of America’s Mission,” 154.
lxv. Franklin, Proposal for the Great Seal of the United States, [before August 14, 1776], in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. William B. Wilcox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 22:562-63.


Luke Dickens ’18 is from Fortson, Georgia. He is a double major in Economics and Philosophy.

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