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The Millenarian Turn:
Millenarian Contexts of Science, Politics, and Everyday Anglo-American Life in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
James E. Force and Richard H. Popkin, editors. The Millenarian Turn: Millenarian Contexts of Science, Politics, and Everyday Anglo-American Life in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Vol. 3 of Millenarianism and Messianism in Early Modern European Culture. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001. Pp. xxv + 190. Cloth, $85.00.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a significant body of scholars called attention to the idea of the millennium in English thought during the seventeenth century. These scholars argued that, especially during the epoch of the Civil Wars and Commonwealth, 1640 to 1660, religious speculation that history was moving toward its imminent consummation in a thousand-year reign of Christ exercised powerful influence on English politics and society, both in England itself and in colonial New England. To a lesser extent, scholars also noted the persistence of millennial anticipation after the Restoration, including speculation by mathematicians and scientists such as Isaac Newton.
Richard H. Popkin, in addition to his well-known work on the history of skepticism, has played an important role in fostering and contributing to continued scholarship on millenarian and messianic ideas in the early modern era. In The Millenarian Turn: Millenarian Contexts of Science, Politics, and Everyday Anglo-American Life in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Popkin collaborates with James E. Force to publish eleven papers from a 1998 conference at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA. The book interprets the work of biblical exegetes, theologians, and scientists in the two centuries from 1600 to 1800 and places millenarian ideas in such varied contexts as Whig politics, the production of almanacs, Jewish-Christian relations, and early modern theories of geological history.
The essays that comprise The Millenarian Turn are most successful when they reconstruct the millennial ideas of particular thinkers, relate these ideas to other aspects of a given individual's thought, and trace the revision of millennial ideas through successive generations. For example, Sarah Hutton of the University of Hertfordshire carefully describes the influential commentary on the Book of Revelation by the Cambridge biblical scholar Joseph Mede (1586-1638), in order to demonstrate the paradoxical point that Mede's theories were appropriated for dramatically different political and ecclesiastical purposes by Puritan radicals and by Church of England apologists. Margaret J. Osler of the University of Calgary shows that the physicist and chemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691) was not only preoccupied with questions about the extent and limitations of human knowledge, but also consistently extended these questions into his views on the afterlife, in which he identified heaven with enlarged capacities for knowing the beauty and harmony of the cosmos. And Reiner Smolinski of Georgia State University expertly traces the series of exegetical and theological shifts from early seventeenth-century millenarians to the New England minister Cotton Mather (1663-1728), who became "the first American to develop a fully coherent premillennialist system in the modern sense" organized around the idea that Christ's return at the beginning of the millennium would purify the world from "wickedness, death, and destruction" (166).
As these three examples suggest, The Millenarian Turn makes an important contribution through the chronological span of its essays. Chapters usefully describe the principal millenarian exegetes of the early seventeenth century (Thomas Brightman, Joseph Mede, J. H. Alsted), but nine of the book's eleven chapters focus on the continued vitality of millenarian ideas after 1660. In this regard, the book stakes out an important agenda for future scholarship on the cultural history of millenarian and messianic beliefs and movements.
At the same time, it must be said that Force, Popkin, and their colleagues could have done more to explore the cultural work done by millenarianism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Having provided extensive evidence of the...