The agony and the eschatology: apocalyptic thought in New England Evangelical Calvinism from Jonathan Edwards to Lyman Beecher
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This dissertation contributes to the study of American Christianity by tracing the apocalyptic thought of New England evangelical Calvinism from Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) to Lyman Beecher (1775-1863). Covering the period of the First Great Awakening in the eighteenth century to the dawn of the Second Great Awakening in the nineteenth century, the study identifies Edwards as the progenitor of a distinctive tradition of Calvinist apocalyptic thought. Edwardsean historical-redemptive apocalypticism highlights the “work of redemption” as the unfolding spiritual drama of conversion enacted in various historical stages. Its three-fold emphasis is on revivalism, the afflictive nature of church history, and the cosmic dimensions of an overarching redemptive narrative culminating in Christ’s Second Coming. Edwards’s immediate disciples, Joseph Bellamy (1719-1790) and Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803), reinterpreted their mentor’s insights to create an Edwardsean school of New England “New Divinity” thought. Beneath the veneer of New Divinity theology was a strong undercurrent of Edwardsean apocalypticism, which the second generation Edwardseans adapted to reflect the young nation’s call to social action. The revivals of the Second Great Awakening were driven in large part by the millennial spirit of this New Divinity apocalyptic tradition. Due to rapid societal changes at the turn of the century, Edwardseans of the third generation led the efforts in institutionalizing religious and moral reform activities. Along with this Protestant “kingdom building” came a shift in Edwardsean eschatological priorities. It moved away from the central Edwardsean motif of conversion/redemption to moralism—from a theology centered upon otherworldly apocalypticism toward a greater focus on societal reform. This transition from subsuming the grand narrative of redemption under the overall rubric of God’s sovereignty to one that viewed the millennium in relation to humanistic moral reform was led by Lyman Beecher (1775-1863), who serves as the representative of the “millennial turn” in Edwardsean apocalypticism during the Second Great Awakening. An overview of Edwardsean apocalyptic thought between the two Great Awakenings provides historians an important window to connect and interpret the development of New England Calvinist eschatology that few have explored in depth. These ideas continue to enlighten our understanding of modern-day iterations of evangelical eschatology.