Why was Jonathan Edwards a Postmillennialist?
In 1959, C.C. Goen declared that Jonathan Edwards was “America’s first major postmillennial thinker.” It was not a compliment. According to Goen, Edwards’ heterodoxy catalyzed this unique strain of eschatology and subsequently steered America in the direction of “manifest destiny.” Finding no trace of postmillennialism in Puritan creeds such as the Westminster Confession of the 1640s, Goen locates this “new” end-times theology in Edwards. Despite the historical lacunae in Goen’s tenuous thesis, it still indicates a development in the way this particular eschatology was perceived. While Edwardsian scholarship has grown exponentially since the efforts of historian Perry Miller, Edwardsian eschatology has done the exact opposite. In some sense postmillennialism has gone the way of the theological dodo, begging the question: why was Jonathan Edwards a postmillennialist?
Over a century after Edwards’ death, the modified postmillennialism of modern thinkers like Shailer Matthews and Harry Emerson Fosdick repulsed conservative theologians. According to George Marsden, “Postmillennialism, by far the prevalent view among American evangelicals between the Revolution and the Civil War, helped provide the framework for this approach to secularization.” Postmillennialist liberals were typically optimistic about the spiritual progress of the culture. Where fundamentalists saw the rise of evolutionary theory and the loss of prayer in schools, modernists saw the dawn of the age of knowledge and understanding. (Most fundamentalists responded instead with rapture eschatology.) New York City pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick, who both summarized and inaugurated the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in 1922 with his famous “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, declared, “I believe in the victory of righteousness upon this earth, in the coming kingdom of God whereon Christ looking shall see of the travail of his soul and be satisfied, but I do not believe in the physical return of Jesus.” Much like its science curriculum, postmillennialism had evolved. And many scholars pointed the finger at Jonathan Edwards.
Edwards’ eschatology, while unique today, contained elements rather typical for his time. According to John F. Wilson, “Edwards thought on postmillennialism represented, therefore, nothing remarkably new until the Enlightenment transformed it.” In other words, it wasn’t Edwards who adapted millennial thought; it was later postmillennialists who adapted Edwards. For example, like most Reformation thinkers since Luther, Edwards’ interpretation of Revelation led him to identify the Pope as the Antichrist. Moreover, consistent with his epoch, Edwards’ millennial hopes were inextricable with his view of America as a covenant people. The Northampton Sage’s covenant theology contained both the covenant of grace and a national covenant that made heavy use of fast sermons and jeremiads calling the “peculiar” people of God to repentance. Like the “Jewish church,” America’s corporate identity as a chosen people manifested a strong sense of hope for deliverance in the earthly future. For this reason Harry Stout has called the federal covenant the “master organizing principle of New England culture.” Therefore, despite his departure from the Half-Way Covenant (“Stoddardism”), Edwards also drank deep from the well of American covenantalism.
Perhaps the most impressive panoply of Edwards’ postmillennialism is found in his An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, Pursuant to Scripture Promises and Prophecies Concerning the Last Time (1748). In this publication, Edwards outlines not simply a vision for the American church, but a global expansion of Christ’s kingdom. In his very first sentence Edwards declares, “In this chapter we have a prophecy of a future glorious advancement of the church of God.” Edwards’ ecclesiology stretched far beyond Northampton or Stockbridge or New England. It was an international vision suited for a global Great Commission.
For Edwards, the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s served as the prelude or possibly even the beginning of the millennial reign of Christ upon the earth. Therefore, evident in other works such as A History of the Work of Redemption (1774), Edwards interpreted the events of his time through a deeply Christological lens that saw significance and meaning in everything. He very much believed himself to be living in the midst of a global Awakening of biblical proportion, and his postmillennialism provided a sanguine worldview capable of sustaining such weighty expectations of glory.
Edwards outlines his global vision of Christian unity as such: “As ‘tis the glory of the church of Christ, that she, in all her members, however dispersed, is thus one, one holy society, one city, one family, one body; so it is desirable, that this union should be manifested, and become visible; and so, that her distant members should act as one, in those things that concern the common interest of the whole body, and in those duties and exercises wherein they do with their common Lord and Head, as seeking of him the common prosperity.” (Humble Attempt) The telos of the millennium was the realized union of God’s people with one another and with their Head. For this reason Rhys Bezzant has dubbed Edwards both an “ecclesial internationalist” as well as an “ecclesial millennialist.” His eschatology was horizontal as well as vertical. The postmillennial optimism that died with the world wars of the twentieth century was birthed in the open-air pulpits of a revolutionary Awakening. According to Allen Guelzo, “It was the fondest hope of Jonathan Edwards that the Great Awakening of the 1740s was simply the overture to the Day of Judgment and the thousand-year reign of God directly on earth, the Millennium, when ‘religion shall in every respect be uppermost in the world.’”
Edwards understood the millennial reign as primarily exercised through the church. Christ’s rule would be extended as the church expanded steadily through the success of the Gospel. The millennium itself, according to Edwards, was the climax to the history of the church that “witnesses Christ’s rule with minimal opposition in the world, with the saints in heaven as co-rulers through the church militant on earth.” (Bezzant, 153) In order to fulfill the inauguration of Christ’s millennial reign on earth, Edwards included in Humble Attempt a summary of a “Memorial” sent by ministers from Scotland rallying for an international prayer meeting. In it Edwards set forth his hope that ministers would encourage their congregants to meet for weekly “concerts of prayer.” These meetings would be the means through which God would consummate his salvific work around the world. Avihu Zakai locates this penchant for revival and insists, “By placing revival at the center of salvation history, Edwards conditioned many generations of Protestants in America to see religious awakenings as the essence of sacred, providential history.” In some sense Edwards’ postmillennialism reached relative extinction. In another sense it lived on in the national optimism of successive American generations. Taking seriously the covenant made between God and His people, Jonathan Edwards was a postmillennialist who interpreted the monumental events of his age through an acutely Christological and especially optimistic lens.
(originally published on June 7, 2016)