Faith in Focus

The Millennium and its significance for the English Church (Part 3)


Last month we looked briefly at the events which gave the Puritans great hope that God was beginning his final work in their midst, a work written clearly on the pages of the book of Revelation.

Westminster divine William Reyner preached before the House of Common in 1644. The title of the Sermon, “Babylons Ruining-Earthquake and the Restauration of Zion, is transparent enough. Reyner refers to the three Englishmen, Bastwick, Burton and Prynne , in his sermon. Reyner identifies the two witnesses of Revelation 11, as all those who were raised up to bear witness to the truth against the Antichrist. The witnesses proclaim the gospel for the 1260 years the Antichrist (the Popes and Rome)  reigns. The slaughter of the prophets (The witnesses) is literally fulfilled in many in recent years, but slaughter, he interprets, may refer to torture, imprisonment and exile. The three English “prophets” have now returned after three days and a half in prophetic time (three and a half years). He is careful to point out that the defeat of the Antichrist should be computed from the last place of slaughter, which Reyner believes will be England –“which very probably was our church.” In verse 13 of this same chapter, a “great earthquake” is prophesied. This earthquake which destroys Babylon (Rome) may be at hand.

Reyner has some application to convey. “For the publique, every one should assist the Lord in his place in shaking downe the Kingdome of Antichrist and all his supporters.” He explains that the Kingdom of the Beast must shaken by the Word and by prayer. His third use is a political one. “Everyone as farre as his power will stretch,” is to execute judgement for God. He explains: “this duty is principally incumbent upon the Magistrate [Politicians] who is to execute judgement of the Lord…according to the rule of the Word, both for matter and manner.” He complains that it was the great failure of the first Reformation that “the Masse priests were suffered still to continue in their places…” In practical terms Parliament was to eject all Episcopalians from their office in England. The reign of the Antichrist was almost ended and England’s parliament was duty bound to help in the shaking of anything that smacked of the taint of Rome.


English Episcopalians also Antichrist

Such were the great hopes of the majority  of Reformed ministers in that day. A great expectation that history was now reaching a climax, which would usher in a golden period of rule by the saints. Westminster divine Stephen Marshall preaching before Parliament in 1640, made it plain that he saw no difference between the Roman Catholic and the Anglo Catholic. Both were part of the same Babylon and kingdom of Antichrist. Marshall was a Presbyterian, but Westminster divine Jeremiah Burroughs, demonstrates how church polity was an issue of eschatological importance. Burroughs was following the lead of Burton who had first linked the need for thorough going reformation and the defeat of Babylon with Episcopal Church government. Both believed that the Elect should separate themselves from the English church and covenant in independent Congregations. This would bring about the defeat of Babylon, at least in England. Even Prynne had rejected the idea that a godly prince was needed for the defeat of Babylon.

Another Westminster divine and Independent, Thomas Goodwin, had become a separatist  after 1634. He was among those, as we have seen, who fled the Laudian persecution to Holland. Goodwin wrote much on the subject of prophecy and owed many of his insight to Mede. The prophecy of the New Heavens and the New Earth in Isaiah 66, was understood to be this present cosmos transformed, ultimately resulting in a Millennium, a thousand year golden age of the Church. The New Heavens and the New Earth begin their transformation from the time of the Messiah’s preaching ministry on earth. A significant factor in Goodwin’s scheme was the connection between the purity of church government and the Millennium. The church would continue to make progress in purity by becoming independent in government, the pristine condition of the early New Testament Church, which had been lost and distorted in Episcopacy and Presbyterianism. Goodwin believed that now with the increasing influence of the Congregational or Independent Churches, the Antichrist’s power would reach its climax in 1666. The two witnesses of Revelation 11, for Goodwin, were the congregational Churches which would be ‘resurrected’ or revived. The Papacy and Islam would be destroyed and the thousand year reign of the saints and martyrs begun. Goodwin, like Mede was not dogmatic about the second coming of Christ during or before the Millennium to usher in the day of judgement, which, as Mede had done before him, he understood to be an extended period of time during the Millennium. The defeat of the Antichrist and the inauguration of the Millennium would begin in 1700.


The Fifth Monarchy men

Mede’s true heirs were the Fifth Monarchy men - a radical sect who took Mede’s end-time teaching (eschatology) to what, at least to them, was its logical conclusion. Their name, of course, comes from Daniel chapter 7, whose vision describes four beasts consumed by the fifth. The fifth and final empire which would consume the rest was the reign of God. The powerful idea, which engaged the minds of these radicals, that political action was necessary to bring about the victory of the Fifth Monarchy, was dangerous and destabilising. Few intellectuals, gentry or those from scholarly circles were attracted to this sect, which was mainly made up of tradesman and apprentices. The acceptance of the legitimacy of violence to place Christ upon an earthly throne was naturally repugnant to many. And yet the millennialism of Mede and Goodwin was little different from the Fifth Monarchy men. Like Goodwin, 1666 was a crucial year in the apocalyptic calendar, and the view that this year had significance because it contained the number of the Beast, was one shared by other earlier commentators. However, there were also significant differences between this radical sect and their Independent cousins. They taught  that Christians must act to initiate the Millennium; they identified much of symbolism in the Book of Revelation with contemporaries in the English Government and politics; and they developed a detailed view of how society should be socially, politically and economically in the Millennium. They could quote texts to confirm their theology and programme. Psalm 149 6-9 was a favourite. They were the saints of whom it was prophesied: “Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand;  7  To execute vengeance upon the heathen, and punishments upon the people;  8  To bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron;  9  To execute upon them the judgement written: this honour have all his saints. Praise ye the LORD.”

By 1655, Cromwell rather than Charles I who had been executed in 1649, was identified as the “little horn” of Daniel 7:8. But they believed that they could not take political and military action until Christ personally commanded them. A number of things had to happen, if 1666 was to be the year of inauguration of the Millennium, including the conversion of the Jews and their return to Israel. Idiosyncratic Independent and Westminster divine, William Bridge, thought that Christ might make a short appearance and then return to heaven, although the Fifth Monarchy men differed as to the necessity of his actual presence. What they were sure about, was that they would be involved in judging the heathen. One London Preacher, John Simpson looked forward to the day when the, “wicked , ungodly and unbelieving men shall be raised as slaves, and vassals, and be brought forth in chaines and fetters.” They proposed a Government structure mirroring Old Testament Israel. They also proposed that the Mosaic law would be reintroduced. John Rogers could tell the Barebones Parliament in 1653, “Then if Moses dare not set up any other dare you.” We can safely say that this fascinating sect, which lasted into the 1680s got it wrong. Even though twelve Fifth Monarchists were part of Cromwell’s 1653 Barebones Parliament (Named such after a member called Praise-God Barebone), the Parliament of saints was replaced by the immediate or direct rule of Cromwell. But it was the Restoration of 1660 which destroyed the hope of many, in an impending Millennium. The year 1666 went by with about as much fizz as 1999. Though involved in a number of plots including attempts to overthrow the Government, the Fifth Monarchists were finally defeated morally and militarily in the Monmouth Rebellion in1685, an attempt to kill Catholic sympathiser James, Duke of York.


The growing disillusionment of the Reformed Orthodox.

The saner millenarians, who made up most of the Westminster Assembly, also were disillusioned men. The great hope of the divines of that Assembly was for a union based upon a common confession and Church Government, of the three kingdoms England, Scotland and Ireland. They too, as we have seen, were expecting to see much of the remaining prophecy in the book of Revelation fulfilled in their own lifetime.

Samuel Rutherford was one of those. This Scottish theologian’s literary fruits range from the most spiritually intimate and pastoral letters to Lex Rex (The Law and the Prince), a logical scholastic justification for the subordination of the King to the Law of Christ. Two of Rutherford’s fellow Scots Commissioners to the Assembly held differing views regarding the Millennium of  chapter 20 of the book of Revelation. Robert Baillie held to the traditional Augustinian view that the Millennium was the whole Church age, while George Gillespie believed that the Temple of Ezekiel would be rebuilt, the Jews converted along with the vast majority of all races. While none of these Scots believed in a premillennial return of Christ, or His personal rule on earth, Rutherford did look forward to a period of triumph for the Reformed Churches, the defeat of the Antichrist and the conversion of the Jews. Although always a realist Rutherford, had believed, at least from the signing of the National Covenant in 1638 - a covenant that vowed to fight for the overthrow of the Antichristian religion - that things were moving fast in God’s timetable. By 1648 however, he was despairing of any thorough-going reformation. The open toleration and proliferation of heretical sects in England, during the sitting of the august Westminster Assembly, had wrung the bitter diatribes, A survey of the spiritual Antichrist and A free disputation against the pretended liberty of conscience from his pen (Though written on his return to Scotland). Following the defeat of the Scots by Cromwell’s English forces at Dunbar, Rutherford was devastated. “Alas alas,” he wrote, “poor I am utterly lost. My share of heaven has gone...(Letters, 653).” At the crowning of Charles II at Scone in 1651, the old enemy, the Royalists were again in public office. John Coffey in his recent book on Rutherford, Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions. The Mind of Samuel Rutherford, concludes that with the defeat or at least the deferral of the Apocalyptic dream of universal reformation, the English and the Scots inevitably fractured toward both rationalism and pietism. The promise of the three Kingdoms living under God, which meant adhering to the Reformed religion, was dealt a fatal blow in the political and social disintegration of the Interregnum and the Restoration. Where had these brilliant and pious men,  gone wrong? Certainly the historicist interpretation of the Book of Revelation, which saw the history of the nations unfolding amidst the trumpets and vials of God’s wrath, had much to commend it. There are remarkable concurrences of historical events and the timetable of Revelation to be found. If they were wrong about anything, it was making a correlation of contemporary political events with God’s intentions. Puritan theologians had always taught that there would be more light given to the Church to understand the prophetic visions of the Apostle John as history progressed. This was one factor. Although they did not do it with the same daring as the Fifth Monarchy men, the Reformed theologians of their day, nevertheless endeavoured to write God’s agenda, based upon a hoped for Reformation. Fatally this hope rested too heavily upon the power of a sympathetic, but coercive state, while the majority of the population were untouched by experiential Christianity, and so foreordained to failure. Does that mean that the Saints were wrong to get involved in politics, or to endeavour an ecclesiastical ecumenism based on a thoroughly Presbyteria