Friday, May 24, 2013

Charles Savidge and the End Times

*this is part two of the indeterminately ongoing "Charles Savidge Stories" series*

On April 16th, 1892, Charles W. Savidge's father (Charles H. Savidge) took the pulpit at his son's People's Church in Omaha, Nebraska. His sermon topic was summed up nicely by the Omaha World Herald the following day: "Only Seven More Years: This Sinful World Will Then Come to an End, According to Dr. Savidge."

Charles H.'s end-times prediction was based on a close reading of the text of Matthew 24, the chapter in which Jesus answers his disciples' question, "what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Savidge took the cryptic statements Jesus made, like "many false prophets will appear and will deceive people" and "there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now" and interpreted them within the light of his limited historical perspective.

Most of Jesus' end-times descriptions in Matthew 24 were explained away by Savidge as having "received a partial fulfillment in the destruction of Jerusalem" or referring to "the fearful persecutions of the Dark Ages when thousands were put to death for Christ’s sake.” Verse 29, however, struck closer to home. In fact, the key to deducing the time of Jesus' return, according to Savidge, could be found in verse 29, which reads:
Immediately after the distress of those days [Savidge interpreted "distress of those days" as the persecutions of Protestants during the religious wars in Europe, which he believed to have ended by the 18th century]‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.'"
If statements like "the sun will be darkened" and "heavenly bodies will be shaken" and "the stars will fall from the sky" could be linked properly with specific events, then Jesus' claim in the following verses that "This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened" would become incredibly important. First, though, one had to identify what Jesus meant by the phrase "this generation."

"Is [this generation] the one to whom he spoke," Savidge asked, "or the one who should witness the last of the three signs [from verse 29]”?  Savidge dismissed the former view, arguing that "If one believes it was the generation to which Jesus spoke, it makes the Bible a myth because Jesus did not come back in the clouds."  For Savidge, then, the only acceptable view was to believe that "this generation" was referring to the generation that witnessed the last of three predicted signs from verse 29.

Although he did not explicitly cite his sources, Savidge clearly adopted the view proposed by Ellen White and the Adventists that the three signs in verse 29 corresponded to 1) the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, 2) the "darkened day" of May 19, 1780, in which what most historians now believe was a forest fire led to darkness descending on New England in mid-morning, and 3) the particularly intense Leonid Meteor Shower of 1833.

With the three signs accounted for by 1833, and with the prophecy in hand that "this generation will not pass away" after the appearance of the three signs, Savidge's exegesis was nearly complete. All that remained was to explain that "a generation equals 70 years, so from 1830 (allowing to commence a little previous to the falling of the stars) we find the end of it near at hand, the close of this century.” In other words, in 1900 the world would end.

Savidge's prediction was not conjured up out of thin air. Along with the obvious Adventist influence, he drew on the work of C.A.L. Totten, a Yale professor who in 1892 used mathematical calculations and biblical prophecies to predict that in 1900, the beginning of a new and better millennium would dawn. And Savidge was likely influenced by the radical holiness movement, which in the 1890s increasingly adopted belief in premillennialism (usually of the dispensationalist variety, which was first advanced by John Nelson Darby in the early 1800s but became especially prominent after the publication of C.I. Scofield's reference Bible in 1909). Premillennialism differentiated itself from the dominant Protestant eschatology of the time, postmillennialism, because premillennialists believed that the world was getting increasingly worse, and that Christ would return before the world had been thoroughly Christianized. For premillennialists, it would take nothing less than the second return of Christ to usher in a new millennium. Postmillennialists, on the other hand, believed that human effort and the progress of Christian civilization would eventually lead to the hoped-for thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth.

The establishment Protestant churches in Omaha at the time expressed little interest in end-times prophecies and predictions. However, Savidge was not alone in his endeavor. The Omaha World Herald  mentioned an individual named "Mr. Morrison" who was a machinist in the Union Pacific shops and an end-times enthusiast who had "a chart twenty feet long on which the successive steps of the argument are designated."  The Omaha World Herald also reported that Charles H. Savidge's son, Charles W., "holds the same views."

Even if Charles W. Savidge did hold the same views as his father, he rarely spoke about them. In fact, despite publishing four books of sermons, Savidge never himself preached a sermon about premillennialism. And unlike Charles H., who proclaimed that the "Jews would go back to Palestine" by 1900, Charles W. did not seem so inclined to support the idea of a Jewish state. In 1917, he told a newspaper that Jerusalem was never intended to be part of a restored Jewish nation, instead saying that its purpose was to "be a nation of all the peoples of the earth.”

Flying in the face of the common criticism of premillennialists, Charles W. was much more concerned about the social welfare of people on earth than in proclaiming and predicting the imminent second coming of Christ. Savidge criticized the church of his time for telling him "the substance of our teaching refers to the future life” and that “if I lived right I should wear golden slippers hereafter.” What does the afterlife matter, Savidge asked, when “I and my family needed calf-skin shoes here?”  Even the typical refrain of present-world liberal theology, that Christianity was the “fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man,” was appropriated by Savidge for a sermon.

Given such statements, it is clear that Savidge was less enthusiastic about the end times than his father. It seems that Savidge's premillennialism, in the words that R.G. Robins once used to describe early pentecostal leader A.J. Tomlinson, was “dressed in a coat of postmillennial assumptions.” Perhaps the failure of his father's end-times prediction help to steer Charles W. Savidge away from speculation on the last days. Whatever the case, Union Pacific machinist Mr. Morrison and those with similar interests had plenty of other options in the early 1900s to satisfy their desire to chart out the Bible's cryptic prophecies and determine the time of Christ's return.