The Eschatology of Jonathan Edwards
At no time did Edwards believe or preach that America would be either the focus or the locus of the coming millennium. Rather, he suggested that, at best, America may be where those intermittent revivals would occur that eventually would bring on the millennium, the latter being at least 250 years away.
Edwards believed in the concept of the “national covenant,” according to which God entered into covenant with a people or nation and blessed or punished them in proportion to their obedience or rebellion. To the degree that they were faithful to the terms of the covenant they could expect economic prosperity, good weather, political peace, etc. To the degree that they fell into sin and abandoned God they could expect national disaster, drought, invasion from foreign armies, etc. Thus, for Edwards, Indian attacks and crop failures and the collapse of a building and lightning striking were all indications of God’s disfavor for the people having violated the covenant.
Edwards was generally pessimistic about the prospects for religion in America. If New England in general and Northampton in particular were a “city set upon a hill” for all to see it was as a negative example of behavior to avoid, not a model for people to imitate. The only sense in which America was a “Christian land” is that Christianity was the established religion.
Edwards regularly denounced the people of New England (Northampton) as being on the verge of committing the unpardonable sin. He feared the ultimate destruction of America and spoke often of the continuous need for repentance. If there was a consistent theme in his sermons it wasn’t that America was to play a crucial role in the coming millennial glory but that God’s judgment on her for her sin was imminent.
“That he was so relentless and ferocious in denouncing his countrymen’s sins makes it more comprehensible, though perhaps no less defensible, why they should have banished him to a lonely frontier outpost for most of his last decade” (One Happy and Holy Society, McDermott, 35).
Contrary to considerable scholarly opinion, Edwards did not believe that the millennium would be situated in America. His view of the millennium was international and global, such that he condemned all egoistic nationalism.
The millennium is the goal of redemptive history. It is the purpose toward which God in providential power is directing human affairs. It is the culmination of all the ages of human history. He believed that his generation was standing on the threshold of the age that would precipitate the millennium. This preparatory age would last for another 250 years. Edwards believed the millennium would in all likelihood begin around the year 2000.
Edwards actually spoke of four “comings” of Christ:
(1) The first coming of Christ was his personal and physical advent in the first century when he inaugurated the kingdom spiritually and formed the church.
(2) The second coming of Christ was a spiritual advent in which he destroyed the heathen Roman empire during the age of Constantine (early 4th century).
(3) The third coming of Christ would also be spiritual when he comes to destroy Satan’s kingdom and establish the millennium. This was in the distant future and would probably not be seen until the year 2000.
(4) The fourth coming of Christ would be after the millennium. It, like the first coming, will be personal and physical as he comes to bring the final judgment and consummate the kingdom.
Much of the confusion concerning Edwards’ beliefs came from one statement in his Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival (1742) where he declared that “this work of God’s Spirit [i.e., the revival, the Great Awakening], that is so extraordinarily and wonderful, is the dawning, or at least a prelude, of that glorious work of God, so often foretold in Scripture.” He later said that this “glorious work of God” . . . “must be near” (ST, 353). But “that glorious work of God” was not a reference to the millennium itself but “to a long period of intermittent revival that would lead up to the millennium” (McDermott, 51).
As for the awakenings or revivals of the late 1730s and early 1740s these were but “forerunners of those glorious times so often prophesied of in the Scripture, and that this was the first dawning of that light, and beginning of that work which, in the progress and issue of it, would at last bring on the church’s latter-day glory” (Some Thoughts, 560).
As for the nature of the millennium itself, Edwards believed it would last for a literal 1,000 years, that it would be a period of absolute peace and stability until such time as Satan was loosed to lead his final apostasy. After he is destroyed the final judgment will ensue. The reign of Christ during the millennium would be “spiritual”. Christ’s body would remain in heaven (the biblical “second coming” not to occur until the close of the millennial age).
“In all of Edwards’s descriptions of the long period of revivals and international tumults that were to precede the millennium, then, America was either absent, vilified, or given leadership by default” (McDermott, 85).