[Part 4 in the Revival and Reform series]
God’s work of revival and reform in 19th century America was marked by believers’ commitment to holiness and expectation of the end times. In the previous article we explored the former, the teaching and experience of “perfect love.” Here we will explore the latter, the anticipation of Christ’s kingdom brought to earth.
In Revivalism and Social Reform, Timothy L. Smith recounts the bright hope shared by pastors, evangelists, and scholars in the 1830s-1850s. The sweeping movements to address not only personal sin but structural corruption signaled the coming of a new era in their minds. Like postmillennialists of earlier generations, they believed God would use the church’s evangelism and social engagement to usher in an era of righteousness, justice, and peace. In this iteration the work would begin in America and spread to the entire world. Thus missionary societies were formed to call people to Christ the king both at home and abroad.
This hope was articulated with language of progress, consummation, triumph, and glory. Wars, oppression, corruption, injustice, and cruelty would cease. God was bringing this about through the church and–very soon–Christ’s return would bring this work to its climax.
Then, in 1861, the Civil War began. For many, this dampened the hope of harmony on earth before Christ’s return. Some simply avoided the issue of the end times. Yet others redoubled their hope that Christ’s return was imminent. The splintering of millennial perspectives would make way for a spectrum of belief from conservative dispensationalism to the liberal social gospel.
As with Wesley’s doctrine of perfectionism, the end-times beliefs of 19th century evangelicals merits critique. The engine driving the social work was the conviction that that very reform would bring about Christ’s return. As Smith puts it, holiness leaders held “optimistic views of a temporal millennium and the necessity of social action to achieve it.” The biblical basis for such hope is slight, primarily because the Bible’s teaching about the end times is limited and often vague. Nothing in the scriptures clearly teaches that human effort and social progress will hasten God’s final timeline.
Yet what is clear is that, as the angels told the disciples, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). What is clear is Jesus’ final declaration to the church–“Surely I am coming soon”–and the church’s appropriate response–“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20) What the apostles made clear in their teaching on Christ’s return was that our full hope in this glorious consummation is meant to purify, sanctify, and clarify how we live in the present time (Titus 2:11-14, 1 Peter 1:13-16, 2 Peter 3:8-13, 1 John 2:28-3:3).
While we can scold the presumption of antebellum evangelicals, we have much more to learn from them. They lived with a visceral anticipation of Christ’s kingdom that chastens our spiritual complacency. Their historical vision was permeated with “the glory of the coming of the Lord.” They were the wise virgins ready for the bridegroom’s coming, the faithful and wise managers doing the master’s bidding until his return. They were so consumed with the holiness, justice, and mercy of Christ’s reign that they were impelled to labor toward these ends in their society.
If we are to engage issues like foster care, immigration, abortion, human trafficking, domestic violence, sexual anarchy, and mass incarceration in our day, our idealism or good will cannot sustain us. We must have hearts wholly devoted to our Lord’s use and eyes fixed on his coming kingdom. Our efforts may not cause his return but they will certainly give concrete expression to our proclamation, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”