John Nelson Darby, the founder of dispensational premillennialism and the pre-tribulational “rapture” of the church doctrine, the basis of The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) and the multivolume Left Behind prophecy series, taught that “the imminent return of Christ ‘totally forbids all working for earthly objects distant in time.’” This would have included the study of mathematics, medicine, art, music, and the sciences unless there were “immediate spiritual results.” Darby would have approved of the printing press because such a device could reproduce the Bible in record numbers and more cheaply. Also, Darby’s own works could be reproduced.
I suspect that if the Scofield Reference Bible had been around in the seventeenth century, there never would have been a westward migration of Christians to build what has become known as “a city on a hill.” The 105 colonists and seamen carried the Geneva Bible with them. Before finding what would be their permanent settlement, Rev. Robert Hunt (1568-1608) offered the following prayer on April 29, 1607, at Cape Henry (now Virginia Beach, Virginia):
We do hereby dedicate this Land, and ourselves, to reach the People within these shores with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to raise up Godly generations after us, and with these generations take the Kingdom of God to all the earth. May this Covenant of Dedication remain to all generations, as long as this earth remains, and may this Land, along with England, be Evangelist to the World. May all who see this Cross, remember what we have done here, and may those who come here to inhabit join us in this Covenant and in this most noble work that the Holy Scriptures may be fulfilled.
Hunt was reminding his shipmates that the kingdom of God was their priority, and future generations were in view. “From these very shores,” Hunt reminded them, “the Gospel shall go forth not only to this New World but the entire world.” The following Bible passage was read at the conclusion of the prayer: “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee. For the kingdom is the Lord’s and he ruleth among the nations” (Ps. 22:27-28). There was no talk about Satan ruling the world, a call to await a “rapture” of the church, a prophetic parenthesis, or talk about Armageddon. It was all about the advance of God’s kingdom. They believed in a covenantal approach to history whereby future generations would “take the Kingdom of God to all the earth” — this is the important part — “as long as this earth remains.” These concepts came directly from the notes of the Geneva Bible with its kingdom-advancing approach:
[The Geneva Bible] provided much of the genius and inspiration which carried those courageous and faithful souls through their trials, and provided the spiritual, intellectual and legal basis for establishment and flourishing of the colonies. Thus, it became the foundation for establishment of the American Nation.
Their goal was not to build a political empire. While God’s kingdom included the political realm, it encompassed everything else as well. Government meant more than politics: self-government under God first, then family, church, and civil governments. God and governments is the best way to explain what they had envisioned. Even after the 1607 settlement, the Geneva Bible was being used to encourage the colonists from afar in the preparation of later waves of English immigration for the same purposes:
Considerable literature was put out and numerous sermons were preached in London, in the interest of the colony in Virginia, and much of this, at least—practically all, in fact that we have been able to examine—was provided by men, who used the Geneva Bible, presumably Puritans. The Good Speed to Virginia, written by Robert Gray, in the interest of the enterprise, was published in London, in 1609, and he quotes from the Geneva Bible. Several sermons were preached before the Virginia Company in London, for which service they chose freely, if not uniformly, Puritans. Perhaps the first such sermon was delivered at White Chapel on April 25, 1609, by the Rev. William Symonds, the minister of Saint Saviours in Southwark. He used the Geneva Bible, as his Scripture quotations prove.
What was uniformly true in Virginia in 1607 was equally true of the Plymouth colony in 1620. Like the earlier Jamestown settlers, the Pilgrims who had first gone to the Netherlands for refuge, came to the new world with the Geneva Bible in hand.
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The Mayflower Compact states that they undertook the voyage “for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith.” This included a cultural application of the Bible. They stated: “[We] Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.” They were not end-time system builders.
In his 1630 Model of Christian Charity, John Winthrop (1577/8-1649) offered the following exhortation to those aboard the Arabella as they were about to join the existing Massachusetts Bay Colony:
The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.
In his Of Plymouth Plantation, a first-hand account of the colony,Bradford recounts the tortuous history that brought them to this new world, “Satan hath raised, maintained and continued against the Saints, from time to time, in one sort or other. Sometimes by bloody death and cruel torments; other whiles imprisonments, banishments and other hard usages; as being loath his kingdom should go down, the truth prevail and the churches of God revert to their ancient purity and recover their primitive order, liberty and beauty.”
Bradford never considered that these external adversities were signs of an eschatological end. While he never dismissed the historical realities that stared him in the face, he did believe that a faithful and active church, with God’s providential government, could beat them into retreat.
This stated optimism changed after 1660, but to this point in time, almost no one was speaking of an imminent return of Jesus in the form of a cataclysmic end-time event. Historian Harry S. Stout writes:
Throughout the colonial period, ministers rarely preached specifically on millennial prophecies pointing to the end of time, and when they did it was generally in the most undogmatic and speculative of terms. For the most part, they did not base their preaching on the assumption that history would stop tomorrow, and in this respect they differed radically from popular millennarian movements in Europe and post-Revolutionary America whose plans of action were governed exclusively by apocalyptic considerations.
An eschatological shift took place in later generations. Like the generation that “did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10), there arose a generation in the American colonies that did not share the biblical ideals of their forefathers. A morose pessimism set in as seen in the highly popular “The Day of Doom” and “God’s Controversy with New England,” both published in 1662 and written by Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705).
Today’s preoccupation with eschatology has led many to advocate a wholesale abandonment of this age, stating that there is no relationship between the temporal kingdom and the eternal kingdom. There is no prescription for the transformation of this world based on the certainty of the next, so some want us to believe. The transformation of the present social structure is built “upon the concept of commitment to the heavenly society as being primary and determinative for this worldly order.” There is continuity between the present age and the age to come. The preaching of Jesus regarding affairs in everyday society was based on an
intimate continuity between the world to be and the world that was, even now, being summoned into likeness with it. What the Lord wills for this life cannot be severed from his ultimate plans to be realized fully in the eternal kingdom. Jesus’ own parables makes clear that this kingdom which is future in its complete fulfillment is already present in its operation and influences. Far from proposing a rigid separation of the future and the present, Jesus is proposing, not another world in which to find refuge, but one whose character and being is even now modifying and reshaping the present organization of life.
A concern for this world is evidence of concern for the next. Love for our neighbor is evidence of our love for God who presently occupies the throne of heaven. The exhibit of our Christian life in this world is a reflection of our regard for the world to come. The world to come is the Christian’s focal point. The Christian takes his stand with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:5-7), and brings from heaven, through the “God-breathed” Scriptures, instructions for this present world (2 Tim. 3:16-17). “This constitutes setting one’s affections on things above. It does not spell the turning of one’s back on things beneath. . . . The kingdom of God is not brought in by man. It will come in God’s own way and with his unconquerable consummation. It is coming even now, in its present impact upon the belligerent, but already defeated, world that knows it not.”
Unlike modern mass media, the sermon stood alone in local New England contexts as the only regular (at least weekly) medium of public communication. As a channel of information, it combined religious, educational, and journalistic functions, and supplied all the key terms necessary to understand existence in this world and the next. As the only event in public assembly that regularly brought the entire community together, it also represented the central ritual of social order and control.
God has judged the world numerous times, and we’re still here. No one’s dismissing the moral decline in certain parts of the world. God could wipe the United States off the map, and it wouldn’t mean it was the end. Consider Elijah and God’s response regarding those who have bowed the knee to Baal:
“Lord, THEY HAVE KILLED YOUR PROPHETS, THEY HAVE TORN DOWN YOUR ALTARS, AND I ALONE AM LEFT, AND THEY ARE SEEKING MY LIFE.” But what is the divine response to him? “I HAVE KEPT for Myself SEVEN THOUSAND MEN WHO HAVE NOT BOWED THE KNEE TO BAAL” (Rom 11:3-4; 1 Kings 19:10, 14, 18).
If Satan is in control of the world prior to the return of Jesus (see Rom. 16:20), as Jan Markell seems to believe, then is the radio station from which she broadcasts her weekly show controlled by Satan? Jesus took all kinds of things away from Satan (Matt. 12:22-29), and so did the church for nearly two millennia. Are we to believe that all the progress that has been made in so many areas of life has not benefitted people in this life? If we treat the world like a dirty fishbowl or a sinking Titanic, should we be surprised that the fish go belly up?
The relationship between gospel and society can best be seen in how our nation’s founders appreciated education, and how education was conceived as a way to preserve the Christian past and the establishment of a Christian future. Harvard College (founded in 1636, six years after the arrival of the British Puritans to New England and named after John Harvard), set the agenda for the nation’s future: “Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.”
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Those who conceived and built Harvard wanted the Puritan legacy to continue. First the change of the heart in the application of the gospel; second, the change of society by men who have changed hearts: “One of the next things we longed for, and looked after was to advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches, when our present Ministers shall lie in the Dust.” Why an educated ministry? Ministers were often the only source of education in the colonies. “No other thinker had such as wide audience as did the preacher in his pulpit, and his printed sermons and treatises were the staple reading matter of his parishioners.”
Francis William Newman, Phases of Faith; or, Passages From the History of My Creed (London: George Woodfall and Son, 1850), 35.
]Newman, Phases of Faith, 37.
]Louis B. Wright, The Cultural Life of the American Colonies: 1607–1763 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957) and Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986).
The actual title is A Good Speed to Virginia (London, 1609).
]P. Marion Simms, The Bible in America: Versions that Have Played Their Part in the Making of the Republic (New York: Wilson-Erickson, 1936), 75–76.
John Winthrop, “Model of Christian Charity” (1630): http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/charity.html
William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620–1647, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison with notes and introduction (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 3.
Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 8.
Ray C. Petry, Christian Eschatology and Social Thought: A Historical essay on the Social Implications of Some Selected Aspects in Christian Eschatology to A. D. 150 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1956), 18.
Petry, Christian Eschatology and Social Thought, 18–19.
Petry, Christian Eschatology and Social Thought, 21.
Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 3.
Richard B. Schlatter, The Social Ideas of Religious Leaders, 1660-1688 (New York: Octagon Books,  1971), v.