Liberalism, the Apocalypse, and Europe’s Doom: John Watson Adams’ “The Crisis,” 1848

Millennial impulses among American Congregationalists and Presbyterians defined Calvinist religiosity throughout the Nineteenth Century. Early Republic divines in North America tended to embrace a postmillennial eschatology. John Watson Adams, a prominent Presbyterian minister in Syracuse, New York and board member of Hamilton College, portrayed the Apocalypse as “the finishing of God’s work of mercy on earth; the winding up of that great plan of grace which has been in progress now for nearly six thousand years, and its glorious termination in a millennial day, or state of universal holiness and happiness on earth.” Adams believed that there would be earth-shaking events that preceded the earthly utopia. “The opinion has long prevailed in the church,” Adams told his congregation in 1848, “that events of extraordinary interest and of a portentous character would immediately precede this consummation.”

Adams—and many other Protestant ministers in the United States—believed that the 1848 liberal revolutions that convulsed Europe beginning in February 1848 were the extraordinary and portentous events that preceded the millennial kingdom. Adams surveyed the political situation of the Western world in an 1848 sermon entitled “The Crisis” and confidently announced that “nothing can be more evident than that we have reached a new era, and that the hand of God is moving with unwonted energy, and decision, in executing his purposes.” Nations in Europe were “convulsed, and fear is taking hold of the hearts of men, and the gospel is doing a short work with sinners, and angry judgments are abroad, and there is every indication that the world is on the eve of a mighty revolution which will hurry her on to her doom.”

The doom of Europe lay not in a woeful tidings for its people, but in the downfall of monarchy, nobility, and the old state churches that lorded their power over downtrodden peoples. The elements of conservative society in the old world, Adams declared, “are broken up, and its institutions, sacred and political, are tottering and falling into ruins. The minds of men, by a simultaneous impulse, have been driven up from their repose, and thrown into a whirlwind of uneasy thoughts and disquieting fears.” All of Europe was “agitated, and the struggle is for quietude and security, but the tempest thickens, and the angry surges roll higher and higher every moment. Monarch and people, laws and religion, are hastening together into the vortex of a revolution.” The nations of the earth were “anxiously gazing on the scene, expecting hourly to witness the catastrophe that buries them in one common grave. It was impossible to build on the ancient foundations a structure, either in politics or religion, that would be suited to a state of millennial blessedness.”

Europe’s conservative institutions were incompatible with earth’s potential millennial glory, Adams argued, because of “jarring elements of a false philosophy had stripped them of those attributes which give stability and moral glory to human institutions, and doomed them to decay and dissolution.” There was nothing that could be done “to hasten the event of a universal renovation, without overturning the ancient establishments, and laying anew the foundations of society.” The millennial process of regeneration was, Adams sermonized, “terrible, but there is no alternative: the world must be redeemed from the bondage of corruption, and the nations that cannot be reformed, must be over thrown, and the time of the ordeal is come, and the consumption decreed is beginning to overflow with righteousness.” The divine necessity of remaking Europe from its conservative form in to a millennial—and by proxy liberal and—manifestation was the first cause of the “sudden and perilous changes that are now passing over Europe, and the agonizing suspense in which the public mind is held, and the presentiment of fearful things that throbs in every bosom.”[1]

[1] John Watson Adams, “The Crisis,” in Sermons on Various Subjects (Syracuse, NY: Stodard and Bobcock, 1851), 164, 176-77.


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