Review: Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era
Ben Wright and Zachary W. Dresser, eds. Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2013. 296 pp. ISBN: 978-0-80-715192-1.
Nineteenth-century American Christians shared a faith in the providence of God over human affairs. Many also believed that the millennium, the thousand year era of peace prophesized in the Revelation, fast approached, and that the United States would play a vital role in this eschatological drama. Secular life thus became infused with sacred meaning, and many Americans sought to divine the will of God in the course of contemporary events. But despite their shared religious assumptions, Christians found disparate religious implications in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Ben Wright and Zachary Dresser’s edited volume, Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era, traces the diverse expressions of millennialism among Americans in the middle decades of nineteenth century. Cumulatively, the volume argues that millennialism shaped Americans’ understanding of war, emancipation, and Reconstruction, while at the same time transforming those providential beliefs.
Jason Phillips examines proslavery secessionist Edmund Ruffin’s prophetic novel, Anticipations of the Future (1860), which pushed white southerners toward secession by predicting southern victory in a future civil war. Stressing an implicit theme of the volume, Phillips argues that historians should embrace prophecy as an analytical category comparable to memory because it shapes action in the present while helping people envision and achieve a different future. Moreover, the study of prophecy helps lay bare the culture that gives rise to such prophecies. Thus, Ruffin’s prophetic novel, Phillips argues, embodied the secessionist’s enlightenment and rationalist sensibility as well as his pro-active disposition. Prophetic thinking also shaped the output of novelist James Fenimore Cooper, according to Ryan Cordell. Cooper’s novel The Crater (1847), much like Ruffin’s later novel, reflected contemporary concerns. Cooper and other northern evangelicals worried that the sectarianism of the 1830s and 1840s—especially the sectional split of the Baptist and Methodist churches—exacerbated many of the nation’s moral ills, including slavery, and would ultimately lead to an apocalypse.
Other essays explore the influence of prophetic thinking in New England, Canada, South Carolina, and the Far West. Robert K. Nelson examines how the growth of spiritualism transformed the millennial expectations of some radical abolitionists. These activists looked askance at spiritualists’ claims of promoting a national moral revolution, leading them to “temper their perfectionism and millennialism” and embrace a pragmatic political program (33). Farther south, the biracial Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in upcountry South Carolina, according to Joseph Moore, espoused colonization to achieve the redemption of Africa and the gradual end of slavery. These southerners’ millennialism, Moore argues, led them to embrace an alternative to sectional conflict, though their efforts failed before South Carolina’s proslavery consensus. In the Far West, according to Jennifer Graber, American missionaries interpreted the mass Dakota conversions after 1862’s Dakota War as evidence of the power of “redemptive violence” (111). Such interpretations, however, ignored the motives and traditional beliefs of the Dakota who, according to Graber, sought an alliance with a powerful Christian god to ensure their survival. In Canada West (present-day Ontario), a different form of millenarian nationalism prevailed, according to Nina Reid Maroney, based on the Church of England’s identity as the national church of a redeemer nation. The Mission to the Fugitives Slaves in Canada (MFSC), Anglican leaders believed, would forward the millennial goal of ending slavery in the United States. But the reality of life in Canada West—harsh conditions and racial prejudice—and slavery’s end in the United States tempered ministers’ millennial expectations.
The next four essays explore the impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on American millennialism. Co-editor Zachary W. Dresser argues that most white Americans neither abandoned their religious beliefs nor simply reaffirmed them, but instead altered their faith in order make traditional notions fit a dramatically changed world. Focusing on Old School Presbyterian theologians Robert Lewis Dabney and Benjamin Morgan Palmer, Dresser documents the way both men reworked their theological notions to retain the core of their faith. Matthew Harper’s examination of African American millennialism in post-Civil War Wilmington, North Carolina, argues that freed people understood emancipation as part of God’s plan and the fulfillment of black prophecy, prompting a sharp rise in black conversions and the creation of independent black churches. The memory of emancipation also provided hope during the dark years that followed the collapse of Reconstruction. Scott Nesbit’s study of black leaders’ post-Civil War debate over land in Lowcountry South Carolina reflected differences on how best to attain a providential future. Hardliners argued that the new moral order required foreclosing on indebted slaveholders to punish them and dismantle the old economy, while more moderate black leaders believed extending Christian charity toward the planters would bring concord. When whites responded with violence in the late 1860s and early 1870s, many Lowcountry African Americans concluded that only through migration, including for some exodus to Liberia, could they achieve their providential goals. Finally, Charles Irons explores how African Americans’ desire at war’s end to forge a biracial “beloved community” (210) and redeem the South helped shape their decisions to remain within white churches or create independent black churches. Irons argues that historians must focus on local conditions to understand why, in the immediate aftermath of the war, some African Americans concluded they could achieve their millennial ends through the “radical” step of building independent churches, while others embraced “accommodationist” (209) approaches.
The volume helpfully concludes with Edward Blum’s overview of the changes war and Reconstruction brought to American Christianity—and specifically to millennial thought. American believers, Blum notes, suffered a loss of certainty and authority, in large part because of their conflicting millennial claims. In response, they often sought to incorporate greater flexibility and ambiguity into their religious assumptions. This recasting of Christianity manifested itself most notably in the shift away from pronouncements about the literal return of Christ to a focus on “what he would think and how he would be treated,” were he to return (246). Blum proves less successful in showing how millennialism shaped emancipation and Reconstruction, but his essay helps tie together what at times seems a disparate collection of localized studies. Certainly, the essays in this volume demonstrate the diverse manifestations of American millennialism, but that very multiplicity raises questions about the practicality of eschatological thought as a category of historical analysis. Ultimately, these essays demonstrate—as contributor Charles Irons stresses—how local conditions rather than shared providential beliefs helped shape Americans’ understanding of the millennial significance of the Civil War and its aftermath.