Papers from Hillsdale College (1998)
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

Thy Kingdom Come:
Jonathan Edwards on the Millennium

by Amy Anderson

You are worthy to take the scroll, And to open its seals;
For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God
by Your blood ...And have made us kings
and priests to our God: And we shall reign on the earth.

-- Revelation 5:9-10

Peace or chaos? Will wicked rule increase before Christ's final return, or will it be preceded by a time of prosperity on earth? Beliefs about the end times widely vary among Christians today, from the pre-millennialist perspective, to post-millennialist, to a-millennialist. Eschatology directly affects one's entire theology as well as his present attitude and mission. The anticipation of Christ and the saints' triumph on earth evokes a spirit of excitement and victory, while the prospect of destruction and wicked rule is discouraging. Jonathan Edwards is referred to today as a post-millennialist, because he believed Christ's second coming would follow a thousand year reign of the saints on earth. Edwards believed there would be 6000 years of history, then 1000 years of rest, in which the saints would be recognized and the church exalted. Edwards post-millennialist perspective excited himself and his listeners about the whole work of redemption. This view of the millennium is crucial to his whole theology, most importantly because it demonstrates so vividly the sovereignty of God. For Edwards, the millennium was a source of optimism, and provided a framework within which New Englanders perceived their mission in America and the role of civil religion as a whole.

Jonathan Edwards was extremely passionate about the millennium. Revelation 20:4 was the main source of his understanding of it. In it John says, "And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshipped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years." Gerald McDermott stated that "Edwards insisted the number was literal"{1} and Edwards confirmed in Miscellany K that the saints would certainly reign with Christ for a thousand years. He cited eight distinct characteristics of the millennium in Sermon 27 of A History of the Work of Redemption: 1. "It will be a time of great light and knowledge. 2. It shall be a time of great holiness. 3. It shall be a time wherein religions shall in every respect be uppermost in the world. 4. These will be times of great peace and love. 5. A time of excellent order in the church discipline, and government be settled in his church. 6. The church of God shall be beautiful and glorious on these accounts. 7. [That will be a time] of great temporal [prosperity]. 8. [It shall also be a] time of great rejoicing."{2} John Gerstner labeled it a "Sabbath rest"{3}; that is, after 6000 years of history, during which time mostly the wicked ruled, the Lord would grant a time of peace. All in all this period of time will be a great season of rejoicing and rest for the saints, in preparation for the final judgment.

During this thousand year reign, most significantly, the saints will be recognized and reign with Christ. Because the saints are united with Christ, they will reign with him. Edwards cited numerous passages that corresponded and reinforced the claim that the saints will reign. Daniel 7:27 reads, "Then the kingdom and dominion, And the greatness of he kingdoms under the whole heaven, Shall be given to the people, the saints of the Most High."{4} Edwards interpreted Psalm 45:12, which says "And the daughter of Tyre will come with a gift; The rich among the people will seek your favor" to mean that great men and the rich will devote their "influence and Christ and his church."{5} Edwards also cited Matthew 5:5, "Blessed are the Meek, For they shall inherit the earth", as further evidence for the earthly reign of the saints (Works 2:31).{6} The Puritans believed "there would be within history an age of spiritual blessings for Christ's people and triumphant authority for his church."{7} Christians will be unified in the millennium, as he described it in Miscellany 262. He said, "the whole earth may be as one community, one body in Christ."{8} This is also the time when the Christ will promote the church. Not only are the saints recognized and reigning, but the Church also will reign. Christ will lift up the church in anticipation of his marriage to her.

During the Great Awakening, many people in America submitted to the belief that the millennium was fast approaching, due to the heightened religious fervor. More and more were converted on a daily basis, while the already converted experienced greater affection for God. Harry Stout commented on the revivals: "the work that is now begun in New England is...eminently glorious, and if it shall go on and prevail would make New England a kind of Heaven upon gives more abundant reason to hope that what is now see in America ...may prove the dawn of a glorious day."{9} The Great Awakening increased enthusiasm for God as well as the coming victory.

According to Gerald McDermott, Edwards' believed the eighteenth century and beyond was a "preparatory age"; a period which would "precipitate the millennium." Furthermore, he believed this age would last for an extensive amount of time.{10} In fact, he believed that the millennium would occur around the year 2000. In the Apocalyptic Writings, Edwards said, "Satan's kingdom in the world will not be totally overthrown, his ruin will not receive its finishing stroke till the year two thousand."{11} John Cotton also believed that while the church gradually increased in size and influence, "the world would still be far from millennial perfection. Many individuals and nations would remain unconverted, and Satan would still tempt the saints. The condition of mortality would remain."{12} During the preparatory age progress for the Kingdom, as well as setbacks, should be expected. Regardless of its distance, Edwards looked forward to the millennium with great hope and anticipation. He took very seriously the task-at-hand-- to reach as many as possible with the Gospel.

Because many believed the Great Awakening was a sure sign of a fast-approaching millennium, an explanation of the degeneration was necessary. Edwards had to respond and interpret the declining enthusiasm for the things of God. "The fact that the kingdom's advance was checked, at least temporarily, led to deferred hope among some and outright pessimism among others," said Nathan Hatch.{13} The implications not only altered the time frame, but reached across geographical lines as well. Hatch continued, "Edwards could no longer find signs of the coming millennium exclusively in America; the decline of experimental religion there forced him to look beyond the Atlantic to see God at work."{14} In effect, Edwards and others were forced to rework their vision of the future. Gerald McDermott, author of One Holy and Happy Society, however, disagreed. Rather, he believed that all along Edwards did not look for the millennium in the near future, but acknowledged that almost certainly it would not occur in his lifetime. Therefore, there was nothing to rework. Despite pessimistic feelings toward the spiritual state of America after the Great Awakening, overall Edwards remained optimistic and dedicated to the doctrine of the millennium and merely broadened "his vision to include the [British] Empire."{15}

After the Great Awakening, the prominence of the post-millennialist perspective faded, while a new eschatology (pre-millennialism) was ushered in. J.F. Maclear contrasted the two fundamentally divergent views:

The decline of the Great Awakening left Christians less optimistic about the future. Christians who adhere to the pre-millennialist view, could expect troublesome times in their future, before they could look forward peace. In other words, things would have to get worse before they got better. Edwards held to his post-millennialist perspective with little regard to either positive or negative signs. McDermott said that "Edwards...took care to point out that the New England revivals were signs of a long period mixed with glory and affliction...."{17} Although these times of discouragement did not go unnoticed by Edwards (he was certainly disturbed by the declining society), he did not lose sight of God's greater work in history, and remained confident that God was doing "according to the pleasure of His will."{18}

To Edwards, history and the millennium were inseparable; neither could be understood without the other."{19} The millennium, according to Edwards, is the last stage of history, therefore vital to it. For him, New England "was the "city on a hill" that would knit together "all of Protestant America" and then, on behalf of the world, inaugurate the final stage of earthly history, the millennium."{20} America was more than just an experiment in founding a new nation. America was thought by many to be the site of the beginning of the millennium. From a historical perspective, this would make America crucial to the beginning of the end. To the Puritans, America was considered a Wilderness, to which they were bringing the Gospel and advancing the kingdom. John Cotton preached authoritatively on the coming millennium out of the book of Revelation, and under his preaching, feelings of excitement and intensity "flowered."{21} Cotton inspired the people with visions of the glorious millennium, to go into the harvest fields and recover lost souls to Christ, furthering the Kingdom and hastening the time of Christian victory. Their purity and faithfulness to God's word was a sign of the approach of the millennium, and this knowledge excited and motivated them to do more.

John Winthrop challenged his congregation to take very seriously their mission in America when he referred to them as a "city on a hill." The members had a responsibility to use this new beginning to demonstrate the faithfulness and blessings of their God. Since her founding, America has been an illustration of a chosen nation and what that means, as well as a land of opportunity-opportunity to worship God, free from European constraints. Europe was a place where tradition ruled, not God. America, on the other hand, was governed by God, through His agents, and was devoid of tradition. This void allowed the emigrants to found and root their polity in Christ. The millennium provided Christians with the vision of their final goal, which in turn gave them fuel to carry out their mission.

The belief that America was a chosen nation continued into the eighteenth century. Edwards was also convinced that America held a special place in spiritual history. The Great Awakening especially seemed to confirm this. The focus shifted though, from establishing the nation, to gaining freedom from her British counterpart. Americans increasingly felt Britain's hold on America got tighter and tighter as time went on. The prospect of a millennium was encouraging because it implied liberty. Edwards said in the Apocalyptic Works, that "every nation shall be a free people, not only with a freedom from spiritual slavery, but from civil too."{22} This freedom is both religious and political.{23} This perspective of the millennium corresponds with Micah 4:4, which says, "But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, And no one shall make them afraid."

McDermott also cited economic and social progress during this time, in addition to increased knowledge and advanced technology as consequences of the millennium. Each of these characteristics was significant to the millennial perspective because they "shall then be consecrated to God, and improved for holy uses."{24} As a result of greater knowledge and technology, America would become even more prosperous and influential. McDermott explained, "American economic and social progress became part of deity's plan for world redemption."{25} Yet again, the centrality of America in the greater plan, is indisputable.

Some people questioned why God has kept his church on earth, rather than immediately ushering in the millennium.{26} What is He waiting for? Fundamental to Edwards theology was the sovereignty of God. This central belief allowed him to conclude that the church remains here for a purpose, whether evident to us or not. He said in The History of the Work of Redemption, "What great things were done in the world to prepare the way for Christ's coming to purchase--and what great things were done in the purchase of--redemption."{27} And in Miscellany 351, he reiterated God is keeping His church on earth in hopes of a more glorious state. The purpose of the prolonged presence of the church on earth is to "quicken and enliven their endeavors to propagate religion and to advance the kingdom of Jesus."{28} Edwards acknowledged the fact that the time leading up to the millennium will be full of both misery and delight, but the church is called to persevere, and Christ sustains her. The mission remains the same: spread the gospel so that others may know the joy and fullness found in Christ.

The millennium was crucial to Edwards' entire theology, because it provided an explanation of his goal, and the goal of every Christian. Christians live with one eye on the present and the other on the future reward; so Edwards lived in the eighteenth century with the coming days of glory in mind. He preached the gospel in order that others could take part in the end reward: eternity in the presence of God. He was excited about the kingdom advancements in the Great Awakening, and remained steadfast during times of degeneration because he was confident that God's will was being accomplished. He never forgot there was to be a glorious end to it all. America was and is unique because she was founded on God. Although America has certainly deteriorated, in light of Edwards' eschatology, Christians must remain confident in the sovereignty of God. In addition, Christians should look for the kingdom to increase in anticipation of the saints reign. Romans 8:17 assures the children of God: "and if children, then heirs--heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together."


1.McDermott, Gerald. One Holy and Happy Society. Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992. p. 59
2.Edwards, Jonathan. A History of the Work of Redemption. Sermon 27, p. 482 in the Yale edition.
p. 480-485.
3.Gerstner, John. Jonathan Edwards: A Mini-Theology. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1996. p.97
4.Edwards, Jonathan. A History of the Work of Redemption. Sermon 27, p. 482 in the Yale edition.
5.Ibid. p. 482
6.Gerstner, p.98 He quoted from the History of the Work of Redemption.
7.Maclear, J.F. "New England and the Fifth Monarchy: The Quest for the Millennium in Early American Puritanism." in William and Mary Quarterly p.227
8.Edwards. Miscellanies. p.369
9.Stout, Harry. The New England Soul. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. p. 204
10.McDermott, Gerald R. p. 49
11.Edwards, Jonathan. The Apocalyptic Writings. ed. Stephen J. Stein. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977. p. 129
12.McDermott, p. 55
13.Hatch, Nathan O. "The Origins of Civil Millennialism in America: New England Clergymen, War with France, and the Revolution." in ? p. 414
*Sometimes it sounds like Edwards believed they were on the brink of the millennium, while at other times, he clearly believed the millennium was in the distant future. McDermott cited a passage in Edwards' Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, in which it sounds like Edwards adhered to the belief that millennium was imminent. McDermott basically said that Edwards most likely was not talking about the millennium, but maybe the preparatory stage instead. (McDermott, 51-52)
14.Hatch, p. 415
15.Ibid. p. 416
16.Maclear, J.F. p. 259
17.McDermott, p.57
18.Ephesians 1:5b
19.McDermott, p. 47
20.Ibid. 38
21.Maclear, p. 225
22.Edwards, Apocalyptic Works. p. 136
23.McDermott, p. 75
24.History of the Work of Redemption, p.484
25.McDermott, p. 39
26.Edwards, Jonathan. The Miscellanies, no. 351. p. 427
27.History of the Work of Redemption. p. 511
28.Edwards, Jonathan. The Miscellanies. p. 427

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Last updated: 25 May 1998