The Idea of America


Radical Protestant Millenarianism


   Absolutely fundamental to the world view of the radical Protestants that settled America was millenarianism, as discussed in the previous section. Millenarianism is complex affair and dates back, as a world view and a set of mythologies, to Persian Zoroastrianism. In Zoroastrianism, the unverse was divided into two distinct and nearly equal halves: good and evil. At the end of time, a final battle would be joined by these conflicting forces and good would win out. Exilic Jews absorbed much of the Zoroastrian world view and carried it back to Israel when Cyrus released them for exile. While post-Exilic Jews in orthodox belief returned to a more strict Mosaic religion, the popular religion among Jews incorporated many elements of the newer Zoroastrian religion: the dualistic universe of the Zoroastrians was adopted as the popular Jewish religion incorporated an active force of evil arrayed against God, the afterlife was accordingly divided into a place of evil and punishment and a place of reward, and Zoroastrian eschatology began to filter through the popular Jewish world view. It was from this popular Jewish religion that Jesus of Nazareth had his origins, so Zoroastrian habits of thought were standard aspects of the theology of Jesus of Nazareth. Unlike orthodox Judaism, the religion that Jesus promulgated included a heaven and hell, a place of punishment, and and eschatological world view. Like the Zoroastrians, Jesus believed, as near as we can tell, that the end of time would witness a final, cataclysmic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil—the end result would be the final triumph of the forces of good. Like Zoroastrianism, Jesus also promulgated a belief in a final judgement at the end of time. While the eschatological statements attributed to Jesus are hotly debated as to their authenticity—some scholars argue that Jesus preached any eschatological theology—it is clear that early Christians enthusiastically embraced an eschatological theology.

   Christian eschatology is fairly difficult to sort out; there are numerous references to events and principles of the end of time scattered throughout both the gospels and the letters of Paul of Tarsus. The most extended discussion of Christian eschatology occurs in Revelations by one John of Patmos. While this book is chock-full of detail, its general theology of the end of time is difficult to sort out since John was mainly concerned with writing about the contemporary situation in the Roman empire rather than with some future end of time. Most scholars agree that John believed himself to be in the last days and the book itself is largely an exposition as to how the contemporary situation can be read against an eschatological theology.

   Still, there are clear elements to Christian eschatology that can be unambiguously agreed on. Although the order of events is unclear, several key events will occur at the end of time. These include some kind of trial or ordeal, the peirasmos , some kind of battle between good and evil, some kind of last judgement of all souls living and deceased, and a one thousand year rule of saints (the millenium, or "thousand years").

   The key element to understanding the radical Protestantism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is that last element, the millenium. The nature of the millenium had been hotly debated within Christian ranks for centuries: was the millenium going to be a spiritual or a physical reality? John Calvin's doctrine of election made it possible to rethink the millenium in terms of physical realtiy. Now that one had living saints walking around on the earth, that is, members of the Calvinist church, one now had candidates for the one thousand year rule of saints. Translating the rule of saints into a physical reality meant reorganizing the church into a political authority, which is one of the fundamental aspects of Calvinism.

   As a result, the eschatology of radical Protestantism took on a far different character than the eschatology of moderate Protestantism or Catholicism. Of all the final events in history, the millenium began to occupy center stage in the radical Protestant imagination. Like many Christians before (and after) them, they believed that they were entering into the final days, that the events predicted in Christian eschatology were about to take place. They believed, however, that the one event which was literally about to happen was the millenium. In this one thousand year rule of saints, who were the candidates? You got it. The living saints of the church. It was this eschatology which drove the Puritans to agitate politically in England in the seventeenth century, and, ultimately, to settle in America. Cleaning up the English church was a prelude to the millenium, and many Puritans saw the overthrow of the monarchy in 1645 and the establishment of the Puritan republic to be the event signalling the millenium.

   However, being a radical Protestant in England was not a safe affair. The political and religious persecution that the radical Protestants faced led them to believe that the millenium would not take place in England. So many left for America. It's important to realize that they did not come to America in order to find "religious freedom," for the radical Protestants wanted to impose their version of the church on the entire English population. Nor did they come to America to practice their own religion freely. They came to America because it represented an idea: they believed that the events leading to the end of time would occur in America, not in Europe. In particular, the one thousand year rule of saints would begin in the wilds of America and spread itself across the globe as saints around the world imitated their church and their government.

   This was the "idea" of America, the place where the perfect government and perfect social organization would begin and spread itself across the globe. In the eighteenth century, this idea was secularized. Enlightenment thinkers, the ones responsible for the formation of American government, theorized that America would be the place where a new form of government was formed that would serve as a model for the rest of the world. This secularized version of the millenial idea of America still animates our self-identity today. When Ronald Reagan would refer to America as "the city on the hill," he is making reference to Christian eschatology (one of the events of the end of time will be the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the city on the hill) and promulgating the secularized millenial vision of America.

   The millenial vision, however, was not all roses. Two other aspects of Christian eschatology played crucial roles in the Protestant vision of the settlement of America: the Ordeal and the final conflict between good and evil that would a.) either precede the millenium or b.) follow it. Both of these eschatological ideas spelled bad news for the people already living in America: the Native Americans.

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Imagining the Native American


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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-2-97