Revelation Ignored: Newspapers and Eschatology in Colonial America, 1690-1775


  • Dan Papsdorf Wichita State University


Colonial America, John Wilkes, colonial newspapers, eschatology


Historians have often asserted that during the colonial era, prominent ministers and their congregations, especially those in New England, imagined themselves as living in a "city on a hill" or a "New Jerusalem." This belief, if true, placed colonists at the literal center of the spiritual universe. But, unlike ministers, colonial newspapers were not above using the imagery of the apocalypse for secular arguments, such as humorously linking radical English politician John Wilkes with the antichrist. Alan Heimert wrote in Religion and the American Mind, that, "Whether the millennial theory of post-Awakening Calvinism was intellectually respectable may be questioned, but what cannot be gainsaid is that the expectancy expressed in that theory controlled the mind of the period."2 Heimert's thesis, controversial even at its birth, that the Great Awakening provided the impetus for the American Revolution, has since its publication been largely discarded as provocative but unpersuasive.3 Despite Heimert's discourse-provoking work, the understanding of how eschatology was approached by ministers and laymen has remained largely stagnant. If eschatology, broadly defined as the theology of the last things including judgment, death, heaven and hell, did not control the entire mind of the period, did it at least control religious thought? The record provided by religious texts appeared clear; Colonial Americans believed in and feared the imminent destruction of the earth and the thousand-year reign of Christ, though not necessarily in that order. However, an examination of colonial newspapers suggests that millennial theory did not control religious thought and that furthermore, newspapers deliberately declined to publish discourse related to the serious study of eschatology.4