Presbyterians and eschatology

With Mayan calendar nearing its end, historians examine traditional ‘end-times’ beliefs

November 9, 2012


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.

  1. Yes, we claim David Austin as ours. The following is an extract from a book about the history of FPC Elizabeth, "The Church of the Founders of New Jersey" A church led astray Mr. Austin ... preached a remarkable sermon entitled, “The Downfall of Mystical Babylon’ or, A Key to the Providence of God, in the Political Operations of 1793-94.” The sermon was preached on Sunday, April 7, 1794, and repeated in a New York church. It caused a profound reaction among the congregation. In essence, Mr. Austin assumed that a day in biblical terms was a year in contemporary calculations. Using this theory, and drawing upon selected sections of the Apocalypse, Mr. Austin was able to convince many members of his audiences that the second coming was not far off. In 1795, Mr. Austin became violently ill with Scarlet Fever, and it is believed that the disease in some way affected his mind. On May 8, 1796, Mr. Austin stated with no equivocation that according to his calculations, the second coming of Christ would occur the following Sunday, May 15, 1796. One can imagine the excitement this announcement evoked! Mr. Austin made plans to properly receive the Lord, appointing several young ladies to wear special white gowns and be prepared to serve Christ when He appeared. All week long the church buzzed with activity. Members prayed that they might face their Lord free of sin and be worthy of Him. On Saturday night there was a meeting in the local Methodist Church at which Mr. Austin warned his audience of the need of immediate repentance. Fear, remorse and excitement gripped the entire populace. Sunday, May 15, 1796, was a lovely spring day. The congregation and as many visitors as could crowd into the church filled every seat. They waited expectantly, but nothing happened. After a long wait, Mr. Austin preached a sermon, using as text St. Matthew 24, verse 48: “My Lord delays his coming.” For much of the day the audience sat praying and singing, but nothing happened,- nothing at all. Late in the day the people began trickling out of church, disillusioned. A New York newspaper printed this account of the unfortunate day: “On Sunday before last, an Enthusiastic Preacher in a neighboring town predicted the millenium would come that day week. Numbers of his weaker parishioners were frighted half to death, and came out of church wringing their hands and wiping their eyes, uttering the most howling lamentations. The news reached this city, that the world was coming to an end last Sunday, to the great terror of old women. The day however came,- the Sun rose as usual, and all went well, till evening came to the unspeakable joy of the poor frightened dupes of a fanatic Preacher. Mr. Austin explained that there must have been a slight miscalculation in his figuring, but he did not renounce his main theme...

    by Rev. Bob Higgs

    November 12, 2012