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Hello again, Ron!
Back with Part II of my answer to your question of how Dutch Reformed folks compare to Evangelicals, at least in North America.

Last time I discussed their two different concepts of salvation. Evangelicals focus on a new heart, the Dutch Reformed on a new creation. Each proceeds out from that center, of course, and will recognize the other’s main point but from a different angle and with a different priority.

It’s About Time

Now let’s talk about time—not eternal life, beyond all time, which is what salvation is often thought to be about, but life in time, on earth. This brings up the question of history—what it is and where it’s going. And the question of history both comes out of and feeds back into another question: what good is the world? What’s the earth worth? Different conceptions here have had sharply different consequences.

The matter jumped out at me growing up whenever I crossed over into Evango-land. Ask about history and up popped a vast panorama featuring “prophecy,” the end-times, and the second coming, a string of lurid figures scattered throughout the picture. Daniel’s huge statue and the scarlet whore of Babylon. The Antichrist and the Beast. Armageddon. 666.

Look closer and things got complicated. Granted that Jesus’ second coming was everything: would it be premillennial or post-? As we’ll see in a minute, after the Civil War Evangelicals more and more answered “pre-“. But what kind of “pre-“: with or without the rapture? If “with,” then would the rapture be pre-trib or post-? (Trib = “tribulation,” another can of worms…)

A Dutch Calvinist wandering into this maze could well get lost. Our tradition is neither pre- nor post- but amillennial. After all, the relatively few biblical passages that address the topic don’t amount to much in the overall volume of Scripture. And isn’t it telling that the largest collection of such passages, the Revelation of St. John, was the one book of the Bible that John Calvin did not write a commentary on? Apparently Revelation just didn’t have much to reveal.

The Millennial Obsession

Not so for Evangelicals; the business is baked into their DNA. We can trace it back to the fits and starts of the English Reformation that left the zealous Puritan party (Evangelicalism’s ur-ancestors) frustrated by setbacks and delays and compromise with lingering papist impurity. How long would a holy God put up with such Laodicean abominations? Not forever, and the judgment when it descended would be fierce. The faithful remnant were to read the signs of the times, therefore, and prepare for a mighty visitation of divine wrath. Out of it the longsuffering righteous would finally come into their own while the proud and wicked would be pitched from their thrones into darkness.

A good many items here reverberate in the Trumpian political cult to which Evangelicalism has been reduced in our own day. The alienation and persecution complex. The stark binary between good people and bad. The lust for revenge. The suspicion of power and authority—unless it’s their own. God as warrior, majoring in destruction.

A couple more elements are needed to fill out the picture, however. Back to pre- vs. postmillennialism.

In 1834 Charles Finney, the champion revivalist of the pre-Civil War era, declared on Broadway that if “the church will do all her duty, the millennium may come in this country in three years.” Postmillenarianism in a nutshell: Christ will return after the valiant witness of the church has brought the world to the verge of the kingdom of God. First the millennium, then Jesus’ return. Post.

In contrast, fifty years later the champion revivalist of the Gilded Age, Dwight L. Moody, pronounced the world a sinking ocean liner from which he was to rescue as many as possible.

This is the premillennial bottom line, and it would dominate Evangelicalism (soon re-branded as Fundamentalism) for the next hundred years. The world was bound to get worse and worse, all the accomplishments of “civilized progress” and Christian witness to the contrary notwithstanding. History was literally going to hell and only a dramatic, supernatural intervention—namely, the second coming of Jesus Christ—could turn things around. First Jesus, then the millennium. Pre.

The Individual Submerged

What caused the reversal? First, the curse of answered prayer. The United States army crushed the Southern rebellion in the Civil War, enabling the abolition of slavery. Slavery being the last Great Evil in America, its elimination would bring us close to the Kingdom. But abolition happened precisely by might and power and not by the Spirit, unless the Holy Spirit had been changed from a dove into cannon and bayonet as Unitarian composer Julia Ward Howe declaimed in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

More troubling, not individual sanctity or individual willpower dictated the outcome; rather, the tectonic plates of history, slow grinding, finally broke through via an amassing of social power that was quite more than the sum of its individual parts. With that, Charles Finney’s key premises evaporated and the script had to be re-written.

The new script borrowed something of the old but added some new elements and put it all in a new frame. Salvation was still resolutely personal but occurred out of the world and pitched one spiritually over against the world. Not just the worldly part of the world but the world itself.

Individuals were “saved” but institutions were “lost,” and all their science, learning, power, and expertise with them. They were replaced by an alternative network of Bible schools and mission agencies designed for Moody’s rescue project, but these were of and for “heaven,” not the earth.

Politics and entertainment were particularly suspect, unless the latter could be copied stylistically and refit with pious substance. Government seemed the ultimate in mass power, replete with compromise, ambition, and corruption. Industrial corporations were suspect unless run by godly men (see Sun Oil). The entrepreneurial side of capitalism, on the other hand, was wonderful—totally under individual control and so completely redeemable by righteous intention. Thus also the personal empires of the most successful revivalists.

The Nation Elect

Yet one part of the big bad world turned out to be too precious to be consigned to doom, and that was America. Interestingly, a few consistent voices in the camp said “no” at this point, but the majority have granted the country an exemption—American exceptionalism in excelsis. With this modification the mightiest Great Power of the past century becomes the chosen people of God, the agent of world destiny.

Theologically, this stems from a low conception of the church, an ecclesiology that fits under a snake’s belly, to use the technical jargon. For “the church” too, with all its power and institutional rigamarole all too easily becomes part of “the world,” a polluted body from which one must flee, often as a mark of one’s new (or reclaimed) born-again status. The true church is thus one’s immediate band of the proven faithful. Yet that bears little weight in the larger scheme of things; one does need a larger body to matter. What body larger, mightier, and potentially holier than the United States? A United States, that is, redeemed from its proud and wicked usurpers (a.k.a., “the elites”) and restored to righteous rule.

That will involve a bloody battle, a mini-Armageddon, a battle for which the righteous can be steeled by understanding how the usurpation occurred in the first place. My former Calvin University history colleague Peggy Bendroth explained the matter well in her 2016 presidential address to the American Society of Church History. For Fundamentalists, Peggy shows, history is flat, a straightforward extrapolation from a set beginning without process or development along the way. Hence the need to sanctify that beginning, to get George Washington kneeling in the snow at Valley Forge and to turn Thomas Jefferson into an orthodox Christian.

Contrary understandings of the Founding Fathers must thus be the result of a conspiracy on the part of God-denying, secular, woke historians to willfully distort the historical record. For that matter, the entire deflection of the United States from its godly origins is due to malign conspiracy by the varied troops of Satan. Against them, holy war is necessary, inviting, enthralling, with no quarter required. And so Joe Biden could not have been elected president and January 6 will be commemorated forever as a noble gesture toward righteous restoration.

A Quieter Option

Well, Ron, I’ve spent my whole word count laying out one side of the comparison you asked for. The white American Evangelical answer to the question of history is so peculiar, so intricate, and so powerful that it deserves the space.

The Dutch Reformed answer is far less colorful, less defined as to action and outcome. I’ll talk about that next time with some hypotheses about how and why people who have long lived under that canopy are leaving toward the Evangelical side.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    It is all so much more exciting than boring catechisms.

  • RZ says:

    I have such a difficult time following a consistent logic trail here. This feels so cultish, exclusive, and intellectually insulting. If something does not add up, you simply insert a demon as the cause…. Or a convenient historical distortion. I just fail to see a lot of Christ in this kind of kingdom. Ironically, this preserved-for-eternity paradigm feels like an earthly empire, and a closed system at that.
    Thanks for the analysis, disturbing as it is.

  • John Haas says:

    This is a gem.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    The End Times = the Ultimate Conspiracy Theory, complete with its occultic knowledge that is all so clear when you do your own research through Bible study!
    I find it so odd that every time I drive to W Mich that on the Christian radio station I hear nothing but “these godless times” and “Revelation” passages, but on the godless secular station I hear a requiem or a lovely cantata. The Chart, in lurid color illustration and easily 30-ft long, unrolled. for special occasions, aka “revival meetings” on hot summer nights, was a feature of my Fundy Baptist youth. Stuff and nonsense.

  • John Hubers says:

    Well and entertainingly said. I would just add one caveat. Those who have “long lived under that canopy” have been leaning towards evangelicalism for a long time. Many were just as captured by the strange headline millenialism of the Late Great Planet Earth and subsequent derivations as were not. Nothing new under the sun.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    If you can locate it, the 2/29 edition of Fresh Air featured a brilliant and horrifying interview with Bradley Onishi. From the episode description : “Onishi became a Christian nationalist and a youth minister in his teens and then left the church. He is the author of Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism —And What Comes Next”. It includes shallow dives into the New Apostolic Reformation and the Seven Mountains form of theocracy. I suspect this is exactly what folks in Ottawa County (and countless others) are witnessing face to face. For many years Americans wondered why moderate Muslims were not speaking more loudly against fundamentalism (which, by the way, wasn’t true; they were). Now the same question could well be asked of moderate Christians. Silence will breed increasing violence, because violence is baked into this heretical and anti-Christian ideology.

    • Karen Obits says:

      Your suspicion about what we Ottawa Co residents have been facing matches my own assessment – an assessment derived from many one-on-one conversations in my community that date back to the summer of 2022 and for which attendance at county board meetings over the past year has provided ongoing substantiating evidence – especially during the public comment period.
      My initial encounter with the NAR was thanks to an interview Bradley Onishi had with Matthew D. Taylor on Onishi’s Straight White Jesus podcast episode dated 10/30/2023. This and further research into the Independent Charismatic movement has helped me refine my grasp of the language I hear at those public meetings and in the community at large, and informs my attempts to speak to it when given an opportunity.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    I spent five long stays in psychiatric hospitals, had 13 shock treatments, and lost a family and 30 years of my life because of being terrified into evangelicalism under the cultist control of the Rev. Jerry Kirk. Thank you for your extremely helpful work, clarification.

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    Thank you, Jim. You have exceeded my expectations and, in the process, raised another important question that needs an answer written by someone with a comprehensive view of American religious history. I will be in touch.

    I’m looking forward to part three.

  • Steve Norden says:

    Thanks for a fascinating and insightful analysis. What wasn’t mentioned in the blog or in the comments is that there is serious money to be made in the fascination/obsession with end-times prophecy. Some years ago, a church member gave me a flyer promoting a prophecy conference that was going to be held at our community center. I was astounded by the price of admission.

  • Henry J Baron says:

    Thanks, Jim! As a historian, you give us a lot to chew on here, as does your colleague Kristin DuMez and Heather Cox Richardson. It’s sobering, but we’re grateful for the illuminating insights.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    What’s particularly valuable in your short survey here, Jim, is your connecting the “theology” (such as it is) with the context in American history at the time. Rarely done, but obviously important, once you show it. I wonder if anyone’s done the same for the British context for Darbyism?

    • Jim says:

      Chapter 1 in Daniel Hummel’s Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism looks at the Darbyite origins, though he stays pretty much within the bounds of the movement itself with little attention to broader context. It’s interesting that the Oxford Movement develops at the same time. Walter Conser’s Church and Confession: Conservative Theologians in Germany, England, and America, 1815-1866 (Mercer Univ Press, 1984) is a good intellectual history of the broader “church question” but, again, thin on political and social context.

    • John Hubers says:

      Anglican priest, Stephen Sizer, does a credible job with this in his book detailing the religious roots of Christian Zionism.

      Zion’s Christian Soldiers?: The Bible, Israel and the church

      Robert Smith gives this background, as well, in his doctoral dissertation More Sesired than our Own Salvation:

      More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism

    • Jim says:

      Check out the first chapter of Daniel Hummel’s new Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism (Eerdmans 2023). He mostly stays within ecclesiastical debates and initiatives; I’d like to see more on the Brit context (which also saw the Oxford Movement arising at the same time). Walter Conser’s Church and Confession (Mercer UP 1984) surveys ‘the church question’ across Germany, Britain and the US but, again, more in terms of institutional and political power than larger cultural and social forces. But these will whet your appetite.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Excellent. If we can show that the world is not going to hell but actually improving, will that carry any wright with evangelicals?

    • Jim says:

      They would probably have an exacting standard for measuring “improvement” so that anything w/ secular bearings or ‘big-government’ agency wouldn’t count…..

    • Wesley says:

      If I recall correctly, some evangelicals were against Pat Robertson running for President in ’88 because they thought if he won, it would improve America and thus delay the tribulation and Second Coming! So, rooting for death and destruction is, unfortunately, for some, part of the point.

  • John Tiemstra says:

    Thanks, Jim. This gives some context to the many happy hours I spent practicing the organ at Finney Chapel in Oberlin.

  • RZ says:

    I have often wondered if Darby’s prophetic literalism would not have taken hold except for a climate of worldwide reaction against Darwin. They published roughly at the same time.

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