John Howard Smith is Professor of History at Texas A&M University-Commerce. This interview is based on his new book, A Dream of the Judgment Day: American Millennialism and Apocalypticism, 1620-1890 (Oxford University Press, 2021).
JF: What led you to write A Dream of the Judgement Day?
JS: It all started when I presented a paper on the eschatological aspects of the First Great Awakening and the American Revolution for the Center for Millennial Studies Fifth Annual Conference in 2000. At the end of our panel session, Richard Connors approached us and stated that he thought our session was one of the best of the entire conference, and that he would like to publish our papers in an edited volume for Brill Academic Publishers. The experience of refining my essay for that book, Anglo-American Millennialism, from Milton to the Millerites (2004), edited by Connors and Andrew Colin Gow, took what had been an interest in the history of eschatology in America and enlarged it to a significant aspect of my study of religious history. I touched upon it in my second book, The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725-1775 (2015), and I decided that a new study of the topic in American history was needed.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Dream of the Judgement Day?
JS: Millennialism and apocalypticism, rather than being relatively marginal aspects of American Christianity and American society, are in fact integral to these phenomena. They constitute core attributes of American culture, never far from our collective consciousness.
JF: Why do we need to read A Dream of the Judgement Day?
JS: In light of the intense political and cultural polarization in the United States today, particularly with regard to the incredible rise and popularity of the “Qanon” conspiracy theory that includes many tropes and imagery borrowed from evangelical Christian eschatology, Americans need a review. Scholarship on eschatology is comparatively thin in comparison to other aspects of the history of religion, and since the year 2000 has slumped. My book serves as a synthesis of the extant scholarship, and an expansion upon it and upon themes I discuss in The First Great Awakening. Belief in an end of the world in one way or another is more prevalent in the United States than anywhere else in the world, and previous scholarship has highlighted this in tightly focused periods, and Paul Boyer was just one of a very few who have ever attempted to cover the subject through the entirety of American history. A Dream of the Judgment Day provides a detailed synthesis of American eschatology from the beginnings of the British colonial period through the nineteenth century.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JS: I looked at a horde of writings by known apocalypticists and millenarians such as Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Jemima Wilkinson, Joseph Smith, Jr. and William Miller, as well as the writings of more obscure figures such as Rebecca Jackson and Harriet Livermore. More importantly, I incorporated accounts by or about self-proclaimed prophets and movement founders such as Neolin, Tenskwatawa, Smoholla and Wovoka, as well as Nat Turner and Theophilus Gould Steward. I was slightly surprised by how much popular apocalypticism appeared in early American newspapers, while it was of course ubiquitous in the denominational newsletters and magazines of the nineteenth century. The primary source bibliography alone runs to 14 pages!
JF: What is your next project?
JS: Again, considering the unfolding of events in the last few months, I have decided that my next book should be a continuation of the story, with the working title Some Revelation at Hand: American Millennialism and Apocalypticism, 1890-2020. I plan to expand upon some key points made by Matthew Avery Sutton in his excellent book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (2014), and update studies written by Boyer, Stephen D. O’Leary and Daniel Wojcik.
JF: Thanks, John!