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As Mark Noll observes in his foreword to this outstanding collection of essays, Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era “comes at a moment when the strange reluctance to examine the religious convictions of Americans in the mid-nineteenth century has finally given way” (p. viii). Historians of the Civil War era have indeed explored an abundance of religious themes of late, but oddly none before have earnestly considered apocalyptic thought and its concomitant, millennialism. Nevertheless, during the tumultuous years before, during, and after the Civil War, almost all American Christians were certain that “history was approaching an end point” after which the thousand-year (or millennial) earthly reign of Christ would commence, a “final victory of God over evil” (p. 2). The eleven accounts compiled and introduced by editors Ben Wright and Zachary Dresser collectively reveal how variedly, but also how significantly, apocalyptic and millennialist thought informed the politics and inspired the activism of citizens of every ilk during the Civil War era.
A majority of religiously concerned Americans were postmillennialists who trusted that the perfecting of humanity would bring Christ’s return. Others, especially in the South, were premillenialists who rejected the doctrine of perfectibility and instead expected an advent of wrath and judgment. No matter if one believed Christ would come before or after mankind’s refinement, however, most believed that the Civil War—like everything else in God’s master plan—was part of the millennial process. Thus, they pursued their assorted objectives in the common conviction that their work was more than temporal. Some were far less pious than prophetic, as is made clear in Jason Phillips’s insightful treatment of the archetypical firebrand in “The Prophecy of Edmund Ruffin: Anticipating the Future of Civil War History.” Others, be they the radical Christians [End Page 675] of Robert Nelson’s thought-provoking “Spirit Politics: Radical Abolitionists and the Dead End of Spiritualism,” or the evangelicals who hoped to bring about a great wartime wave of Christian conversion among Native Americans in Jennifer Graber’s expertly crafted “The Great Indian Pentecost: Providential Revisions, Indian Evangelization, and the Taking of the American West,” were stirred by a real sense of religious benevolence. Finally, the providentialism of millions of Americans was part and parcel of their anticipated vindication as a people. Certainly for African American Protestants, the “clearest intersection of divine history and human history was the emancipation of southern slaves in 1862–1865” made possible by the war, as Matthew Harper shows in “Emancipation and African American Millennialism” (p. 154).
Although a few of the essays fit less readily into the analytical framework of the book than do others, what becomes apparent in reading the assorted offerings is how pervasive millenialist thought was in mid-nineteenth-century American life. It was there, for example, in songs such as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (indeed, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the Coming of the Lord”), in important literary offerings from the likes of Harriet Beecher Stowe and James Fenimore Cooper, and in important societal turns like the Spiritualist and colonization movements. But no matter how their providentialist belief in an apocalyptic and/or millennialist future found expression and no matter how different their motivations and objectives might have been, the Americans (and in the case of the campaigners in Nina Reid-Maroney’s exceptional “Millennialism and the Church of England’s Mission to Fugitive Slaves in Canada,” Canadians) chronicled in Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era shaped the history of the age to an extent scarcely understood by most today. More than any other work to date, this volume of essays from some of the best scholars of religion during the nineteenth century will do much to remedy such historical obliviousness. [End Page 676]
TIMOTHY L. WESLEY is the author of The Politics of Faith during the...