Presbyterians and eschatology
With Mayan calendar nearing its end, historians examine traditional ‘end-times’ beliefs
Speculation persists surrounding the end-date of the Mayan calendar on Dec. 21, 2012.
Some interpret that the date symbolizes total annihilation of the world resulting from a cataclysmic event. Others believe it will the dawn of a new age. Still others expect to wake up on Dec. 22 noticing very little change, if any at all.
While end times prophecy is not common in Presbyterianism, Presbyterian preachers and authors have focused on eschatological themes at various times in the past.
Interest in biblical eschatology was spurred at the end of the eighteenth century by many who saw the American revolution as a sign of Christ’s return. The Millennium (1794) compiled essays and sermons by American ministers who wrote about the thousand-year reign of peace following the second coming of Jesus Christ.
The book includes essays by David Austin (1760-1831), pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth), N.J. Austin predicted the thousand-year reign of peace would begin on May 15, 1796.
His strong millennial beliefs eventually frustrated his congregation, and church members petitioned the Presbytery of New York for his removal. The presbytery granted the request in 1797, condemning Austin’s beliefs as “delusions of Satan” that “mislead, deceive and destroy the souls of men.”
Five decades later, the Rev. John Lillie (1812-1867) found himself defending his eschatological views before the Presbytery of New York. During his defense, he claimed that many of the ministers who helped create the catechisms and confessions at the Westminster Assembly of Divines (1643-1652) held pre-millennial beliefs.
While the presbytery refused to admit him to membership in 1842, Lillie did find a Philadelphia printer to publish his statement in 1843.
In 1849, the Second Presbytery of New York (Old School) listed Rev. Lillie as a member. He went on to lead Presbyterian churches in New York City and Kingston, N.Y. He also built a reputation as a respected biblical scholar and contributor to the work of the American Bible Union.
However, he never strayed from his millenarian views, which “struck the key note of his preaching, colored his conversation, and tinged his fervent and heavenly prayers.”
In the twentieth century, Presbyterian minister and artist McKendree Robbins Long (1888-1976) was influenced by the pre-millennial fundamentalist ideology that had become increasingly popular in the South. Long was raised in North Carolina and ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1921.
Renowned as an evangelist and fiery preacher, Long’s artistic talent was as strong as his religious passion. Throughout his life, he created many biblical drawings and paintings. Later in his career, he painted a series of vivid scenes from the Book of Revelation.
Rev. Long was fond of creating illustrated sermon outlines, which he followed when preaching. Many of these sermon notes included illustrations of a lamb. According to Revelation, the Lamb and his followers are victorious: “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13, NRSV)
The Lamb is mentioned 31 times in Revelation alone and is thought to represent Jesus symbolically giving of his life as an atoning sacrifice: “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29, NRSV)
For Presbyterians in 2012, all the discussion about the end of the Mayan calendar may seem largely irrelevant to their lives and to their faith.
However, for men like David Austin, John Lillie and McKendree Robbins Long, eschatology profoundly shaped their beliefs as Christians and Presbyterians.