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World Without End: Mainstream American Protestant Vision of the Last Things, 1880-1925

By James H. Moorhead.
Indiana University Press. 1999. 26 pp. $29.95. ISBN 0-253-33580-9

Reviewed by George Laird Hunt
Lakeland, Fla.

 

From the latter part of the 19th century through the first quarter of the 20th, mainstream Protestantism's post-millennial stance (that Christ will return after a "thousand years of earthly bliss," p. xi) led to strenuous efforts toward bringing in the kingdom of God and the evangelization of the world "in this generation." It was a period of social reform, social progress, which, at a later date, led to movements toward social justice.

Premillennialism — the view that Christ would return and then the thousand years of peace would take place — was preached and practiced, even in some mainline churches, but it was a minority viewpoint there. Yet today, at the end of the 20th century, the idea of the End “has remained very much alive and well in popular culture, whether at its center or on its fringes” (p. 202).

Professor James Moorhead of Princeton Seminary tells the interesting story of the transformation of postmillennialism into optimistic social progress. His book is a careful study of primary sources in the sermons and writings of the period. He concludes that the transformation envisioned a “world without end,” and that this lack of some sense of an End has left mainstream Protestantism with “reveries of a bland, rationally mastered future that longs for more than parlor games and amiable recreations” (p. 202). That is to say, some concept of an End, some sense of ultimate meaning, is a necessary part of human existence if life is to be more than a Shakespearean “tale told by an idiot, . . . signifying nothing,” and if the church is to be faithful to the biblical message.

Moorhead begins with the changing understanding of the Bible and its authority in the 19th century which led to the re-evaluation of the prophetic and apocalyptic literature in spiritual rather than literal terms. Moorhead is very careful to point out the contradictions and inconsistencies in this kind of biblical interpretation; nevertheless, it prevailed, and what emerged was the kingdom of God as an ideal community — “God and humanity in a filial relationship slowly evolving toward perfection” (p. 44).

This optimism and vision, of course, led to significant action in meeting the social needs of the new century. Moorhead leads us in his succeeding chapters through these movements of concern, service, optimism and “the often frenzied activism of Protestantism” (p. 79). He marks how “the extraordinary triumphs of technology and industry” affected the churches, the rise of ecumenical and cooperative enterprises, the growth of church bureaucracies, the emphasis upon efficiency and management, and so forth. Moorhead’s chapter on how the doctrine of last things became simply one more step in man’s process of self-fulfillment is particularly telling.

This book opens up a number of important questions about the church today. The author hints at some of these questions in his last chapter and an epilogue. For example, how did neo-orthodoxy and the theology of crisis affect the optimism and extravagant hopes of the early 20th century? Moorhead thinks “not much” because the post-war Eisenhower years came along with church growth and prosperity.

What is the eschatological view of the church today, what might be called “eschatology.com”? Is a concept of an End as important as Moorhead thinks it is? What view of an End is embodied in our new statements of faith? For example, the Confession of 1967, while strong on social action, speaks of “ultimate judgment and redemption” and “the final triumph of God.” Again, the 1991 Brief Statement of Faith ends with these words: “we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, ‘Come, Lord Jesus.'” Are these merely rhetoric or do they make a difference in our preaching and our actions? What is at stake here?

Moorhead’s admirable review of what brought us to our present situation may help us to take the End more seriously.

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