College Quarterly
Winter 2009 - Volume 12 Number 1
Reviews Apocalypse Then: Prophecy and the Making of the Modern World
Arthur H. Williamson
Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Whenever you think it was—1 January, 2000 or 1 January, 2001—the turning of the millennium was an event that caught our attention. Some people imagined that “Y2K” would bring the Internet crashing down around our ears, make airplanes fall from the sky and shut down our utilities, industries, favoured television shows and gas pumps for an unspeakably long period of time.

Others were more traditional and imagined the “End of Days,” possibly to be escaped by divinely inspired ecstasy and a possible rescue from Armageddon in a variation on what E. L. Bynum has called the “Hale-Bopp Comet Flop.” Members of the “Heaven’s Gate” cult, you may recall, anticipated a collision of sorts between Earth and a comet, from which only a self-selected few would be raptured and rescued by a spaceship trailing in the comet’s tail. By the time this particular tale was disproved, thirty-nine true believers had committed suicide (the price to be paid for the first-class ticket to heaven).

Of course, there are more serious apocalyptics. And they probably have a point. Systemic human overpopulation and consequent degradation of the natural environment, aided and abetted by air, soil and water pollution and a looming and possibly permanent energy collapse conspire to make predictions of ecological catastrophe all too probable. And then there’s always the chance of a war to end all wars and all human life to boot.

In sum, anyone inclined to pessimism has plenty of material upon which to build doomsday scenarios no matter how cheerful the smile on the fast food server or how sincere the welcome from the Wal-Mart greeter closest to you.

According to Arthur Williamson, we ought not to consider the gloominess of the early twenty-first century to be novel. In fact, he argues, apocalyptic thinking is central to modernity. It is the foundation of the modern world. Without it, we would never have invented the notion of progress and consequently prodded ourselves to make everything better, including ourselves. Who, after all, but a people persuaded that such a thing as progress was possible, desirable and even necessary, would ever have put so much energy into medical treatments and therapies up to and including artificial organs and transplants from other humans and animals alike? Who else would have saw fit to use electricity to transmit dots-and-dashes and the human voice along wires, vocalizations and visual images through the air and cybermessages across the Internet to a computer screen near you? Who else would have used e-mails and satellites to send love notes, maps and college assignments instantaneously to lovers, travellers and teachers with the expectation of a good outcome before you can say: “Go lick a postage stamp!”

Prior to the Enlightenment, such secular hopes were literally unthinkable. The promise of an escape from poverty, disease, ignorance and tyranny were close to blasphemy since such things were deemed to be God’s will.

The universe, human society and human life itself were generally considered to be a closed system, unalterably hierarchical and generally glum. True, there was the admonition of the ancients to lead a life of virtue, and several religious traditions offered some sort of afterlife—though not inevitably a pleasant one. Indeed, doctrines such as “original sin” and the apparent necessity to be obedient to both celestial and terrestrial authority were reinforced by threat of harsh punishment here or in the hereafter.

So it is that, in order to get on with its historical mission, modernity required the destruction of older spiritual and intellectual traditions. To initiate the concept of hope, it was first necessary to upset the dominant idea the universe—fixed and eternal—and to replace the idea of an immutable and everlasting order with a recognition and, eventually, a celebration of change.

Edmund Burke knew this and, though sympathetic to free trade and the American Revolution (though not the French), he found it in his heart to lament the passing of the customs and traditions that made injustice tolerable and life meaningful. Karl Marx knew this too and, though dedicated to a communist revolution and the speedy transformation to a just, equitable and free world, could occasionally be heard speaking almost nostalgically of the time before the bourgeois impulse made “all that is solid melt into air” and “all that is holy be profaned.”

Hard though the transition from feudalism to modernity may have been, Williamson regards the result as civilization’s highest achievement. Whether in the form of the corrosive market economy which undermined and ultimately destroyed feudal economic arrangements or in the form of democratic reform that overthrew monarchical authority and placed sovereignty in the hands of at least some of the people, Williamson judges innovation, the scientific mentality, the appeal to technology, the concept of liberty to be laudable contributors to the state of affairs that Ronald W. Reagan celebrated in commercials for General Electric in the 1950s. “At GE,” he warmly pronounced, “progress is our most important product.” He then took that preternatural cheerfulness all the way to the White House, with a little help from his friends in Iran, by using his sunny disposition defeat the malaise-infected Jimmy Carter and introduce an unsuspecting world to the joys of “neo-conservatism.” More of that later.

For his part, Arthur Williamson has taken on a formidable task. Above all, he seeks to privilege idealism over materialism as the foundation of social change. The history of humanity, he avers, is largely the history of ideas turned into action. His main thesis is that, from the Renaissance to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the concept of the apocalypse, predicted in much religious literature, was a central part of Western culture, and that the expectation of the end of Creation as we know it was always near at hand. In Williamson’s view, this prospect was essential to the Reformation, the English Civil War and the American Revolution among other extraordinary events.

So, when Christopher Hill famously linked mid-seventeenth-century politics in Great Britain to the eschatology of radical Protestant sects such as the Ranters, the Quakers and even the Puritans in “a world turned upside down,” he wasn’t referring just to the proto-communism of the True Levellers, but to equally or allegedly greater hints at a metaphysical as well as a political and economic shake-up. That Hill and his Marxian associates generally considered the shift in the mode of production to be at the base of “superstructural” modifications of ideas and ideologies is another matter.

Williamson’s account, whatever its empirical accuracy, provokes interest and invites comparisons, especially in the United States, with the worldviews of these pioneering pre-modernists which are kept alive in the sermons of fundamentalist preachers and politicians in the mold of US presidential hopefuls Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin.

Williamson credits millenarian apocalyptic thought with producing are the principles of free speech, religious tolerance and democratic reform. He sees in Protestantism and its break from medieval traditions a seismic shift in Western thought. While not denying the existence of the apocalyptic theme, most obviously in the Christian Book of Revelations, he insists that it had very little importance prior to the labour of making the modern age. Indeed, he says, apocalyptic strains were experienced as the cultural birthing pangs of the new age.

For Williamson, apocalypticism is almost entirely a proto-modern and then a modern phenomenon. This line of thought is questionable, and it is seriously disputed by many historians for whom the belief in the termination of the Earthy experiment was not as marginal to medieval society as Williamson contends. Still, there is something to his argument that premodern thinking effectively froze time or, at best, spoke of a cyclical theory of history rather than in the metaphor of the projection of time’s arrow toward an increasingly secular target of improvement. For Williamson, modernity was initiated when Martin Luther located the “anti-Christ” in the institution of the Papacy and undertook to redesign Christian institutions accordingly. Perhaps.

Williamson goes on to examine the effect of eschatological and utopian writing and thinking on the development of science and of the politics (though not so much the political economy) of the mighty conflict between the English royalists and Cromwell’s roundheads. Throughout, the conflict between static medievalism and the dynamic expectations of divinely ordained transformation is linked to the emergence of libertarian (though never licentious) demands for social change. These demands and their fulfillment are not coincidentally intertwined with favourable attitudes toward Judaism, self-government and freedom in all its forms.

Of course, as Williamson’s narrative complains, the Whiggish arc of history is losing momentum. The exciting, upbeat historicist line from Luther to the Enlightenment to political, economic and religious liberty that is said to have resulted from a sort of Nietzschean hammer used to smash the order and stability of Catholic Europe ends on a bit of a downbeat. Whether in the form of “Christofascism” or “Islamofascism,” as critics of both George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden have been known to label the growing rigidity, intolerance and violence of the contemporary “clash of civilizations,” the joys of reason and freedom are now in jeopardy. Just as the pay-off of centuries of hopeful struggle was becoming evident and apparently global with the nineteenth-century spread of enlightened, progressive European culture, an undercurrent was felt. It is building in a wave of reaction and is poised to undo all the good that flowed from Luther’s hammer.

Like a toxic atavism, premillenial apocalypticism (of ancient origin and separate from the possibility of Earth-bound improvement) re-emerged in the person of that charming huckster, Mr. Reagan, the enthusiasms of crusades and jihads, and mouth-frothing alarmism whether coming from the pulpit, Rush Limbaugh’s microphone, Fox News or the Sarah Palins of this world who combine noxious ignorance and lethal arrogance in a blend that threatens to undo the kind of progress in which Williamson so passionately believes, and that threatens to end the journey toward human happiness in (what else?) a new apocalypse.

Not everyone will find Williamson convincing, either in his approach or in the details of his presentation. It is, however, often insightful, frequently entertaining and sometimes striking as he probes unconventional sources (while sometimes ignoring conventional ones, to his detriment). Both casual readers and scholars who are willing to be open-minded (though not empty-minded) will be apt to find Apocalypse Then worthwhile.

p>Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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