Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: The Lisbon Earthquake, The Prosperity Gospel, and Some Other Stuff, Part 1

[This is part of a series of Sunday school lessons I'm teaching this summer. The material repeats material from some earlier posts, but has some new material as well.]
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The Lisbon Earthquake

The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 had a dramatic impact on European Christianity. The prevailing attitude was that we believe in God; therefore, God will protect us. After all, the Portuguese were ruling a large part of the world. Certainly, the rest of Europe felt the same way, as the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch were near the heights of their worldwide empires.

And yet the earthquake struck on All Saints Day, a Catholic holy day, while worshippers were in church. Cathedrals collapsed, killing thousands of believers.

Lisbon’s great cathedrals, Basilica de Santa Maria, Sao Vincente de Fora, Sao Paulo, Santa Catarina, the Misericordia – all full of worshipers – collapsed, killing thousands. Lisbon’s whole quay and the marble-built Cais De Pedra along the Tagus disappeared into the river, burying with it hundreds of people who had sought refuge.

George Pararas-Carayannis.

Survivors ran outside for safety, only to see that the sea has retreated and unaware that this presaged a massive tsunami. Shortly thereafter, a fire broke out, burning the portions of the city not destroyed by the quake and tidal wave.

The total death toll in Lisbon, a city of 230,000, was estimated to be about 90,000. Another 10,000 people were killed in Morocco.

George Pararas-Carayannis.

The impact of this deadly event on religious thought was profound, and historians see the roots of Postmodernism in the disillusionment with God that followed. Indeed, it wasn’t long unti the French Revolution sought to rid France of Christianity altogether. Certainly, the earthquake gave momentum to skeptics and atheists.

As you can imagine, after the earthquake, debates about the cause followed. Some argued that God was punishing Portugal, and they urged a national repentance. Other said that earthquakes happen and we should be busy rebuilding. Others said that the earthquake proves that God does not protect us from calamity.

Soon afterwards, Portugal’s government separated itself from Catholicism, becoming a secular government.

However it was the rise of Pombal and the decline of the Jesuits, combined with the catastrophic earthquake, that ultimately caused Portugal to be the first European country to undermine the role of religion in government. This, in turn, set a precedent for other nations to follow.

Allison Leidner.

Unlike the French Revolution that shortly followed, Portugal did not become anti-Christian, but rather separated church from state.

Perhaps the most significant result of the earthquake was to push European philosophy toward greater pessimism. No longer could the philosophers contend that we live in the best of all possible worlds or that our worship of God will protect us from calamity. Atheism suddenly became a respectable worldview, leading ultimately to the Post-modern perspective, which is utterly pessimistic.

Why do our philosophers doubt the absolute nature of truth and our ability to communicate meaningfully? Because truth lets us down. Neither science nor God can solve our problems.

American Millennialism

The United States, however, was spared much of this pessimism. Rather, the early 19th Century was a time of great optimism. Many Americans saw the founding of the United States as a step toward the beginning of the Millennium. Indeed, Alexander Campbell’s periodical was named The Millennial Harbinger, because he saw the unity movement he was leading as a major step toward the return of Jesus.

This feeling is seen in the phrase Novus ordo seclorum on the Great Seal of the United States, found on the back of the one dollar bill.

The phrase is taken from the fourth Eclogue of Virgil, which contains a passage (lines 5-8) that reads:

Latin English
Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas; Now comes the final era of the Sibyl’s song;
Magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo. The great order of the ages is born afresh.
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna, And now justice returns, honored rules return;
iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto. now a new lineage is sent down from high heaven.

… Medieval Christians read Virgil’s poem as a prophecy of the coming of Christ. The Augustan Age, although pre-Christian, was viewed as a golden age preparing the world for the coming of Christ. Of which, the great poets were viewed as a source of revelation and light upon the Christian mysteries to come.

In other words, the slogan on the Great Seal sees 1776 as parallel the Augustan age, as preparatory to the coming of Jesus!

19th Century America was a time of great optimism. The US was likely the wealthiest nation in the world, with the highest standard of living. They’d escaped European aristocracy and created true freedom of religion — and yet the US was likely the most devout nation in the world as well. It’s hardly surprising that Campbell thought he could led Americans to unite into a single Christian communion. In fact, Campbell’s movement spread to England and Australia during his life, and he helped found a missionary society designed to send missionaries around the world.

It was common then, as now, to see America as the new Israel — God’s chosen people. While we would never say such a thing today, that’s unquestionably how many of us feel. Many believe that the United States has a special place in God’s plan as a source of light to the world, not only to spread Christianity but to spread democracy, free enterprise, and freedom of religion, and we see this attitude reflected again and again in our national policies.

Now, recently, it’s become unpopular to say that American influence should be used to spread the gospel, but that was certainly taught in the 19th and early 20th Centuries — and remains commonly believed today.

Who are God’s people today?

This is from the Vanguard Church blog

The Family Research Council is asking evangelical pastors to participate in their July 5 event, Call 2 Fall. In a video, Tony Perkins says,

“I don’t think I have to explain to you that our nation is in deep trouble. One glance at any paper in the nation, on any given day, the headlines scream at us that America is in trouble: economically, culturally, socially, and, yes, spiritually. The Scripture (sic) gives clear direction to us in what we are to do in a situation like this. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is a very familiar verse.

It is up to God’s people, to his spiritual leaders, to call a nation back to him. Not the politicians, not those who are in power, not those who have great influence, but rather God’s people. The Family Research Council recognizes the role that pastors play, the spiritual leaders – the importance of having them lead this nation back to God.”

The website, call2fall.com, explains:

The Call 2 Fall Declaration comes straight from the pages of Scripture:

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14).

The journey back to God, to His forgiveness and favor, begins on our knees in humility and repentant prayer. Consider the words of the Declaration prayerfully:

I will answer God’s call to fall on my knees in humility and seek His face in repentance so that He might forgive my sins and heal our land.

Is there right? God certainly spoke the words that are quoted. But how do they apply today?

* Those words were spoken at the dedication of Solomon’s temple. But they are a reference back to Deuteronomy 30, where God explains what will happen if the Israelites reject him –

(Deu 30)  When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, 2 and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.

4 Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. 5 He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. 6 The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. 7 The LORD your God will put all these curses on your enemies who hate and persecute you. 8 You will again obey the LORD and follow all his commands I am giving you today.

9 Then the LORD your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The LORD will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your fathers, 10 if you obey the LORD your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

19 This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The concluding blessings and curses of Deuteronomy find multiple fulfillment. The curses were certainly realized with the Fall of Jerusalem — both under Nebuchadnezzar and the Romans. The blessings, however, find ultimate fulfillment in Jesus — which is why Paul quotes vv. 11-14 in Romans 10 while he is explaining how people are saved in the New Covenant –

(Rom 10:5-12)  Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: “The man who does these things will live by them.” 6 But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: 9 That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. 11 As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile — the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him,

Paul is not quoting Deuteronomy because he likes the phrasing. Rather, his point is that the blessings promised by God to Israel are found in Jesus — and given to all nations.

Just so, verse 6, in contrast to Deuteronomy 10:16, says that God will circumcise the hearts of Israel, so that no longer is it a matter of obedience — it’s a gift from God. This, of course, parallels Jeremiah 31 –

(Jer 31:33-34)  “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

The passage is quoted in full in Hebrews 8, where it becomes the centerpiece for chapters 8 – 10 — and is applied to God’s Kingdom brought about by the sacrifice of Jesus.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that 2 Chronicles 7:14, as we should read it today, speaks to the church, not to the United States of America — and confusing the two is a colossal mistake. You see –

* Why should we be concerned to heal the US and not, say, Malawi? or Iraq? or Russia? There are Christians there, too. Why focus on the US?

* Why should the US Christians repent — and not the Christians of Italy and Argentina? What makes our repentance more urgent than theirs — unless we consider the prosperity of the US more important than the prosperity of their lands? Why pray for the healing of our nation and not theirs?

* Has God promised to heal the United States “economically, culturally, socially, and, yes, spiritually”? Is that really what those passages mean in the Messianic Age?

* Who is Israel today? What is “the land”? When are these promises to be fulfilled?

The church is all about the Kingdom of God — God’s reign on earth. The scriptures speak of the Kingdom as having come, as coming, and as yet to come. The land won’t be fully healed until –

(Rev 21:2-7)  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.

In the Old Testament, the inheritance given by God is the Promised Land, that is, “the land.” In the New Testament, our inheritance is the new heaven and new earth — everything made new. It’s not as radical a change as it sounds, except that the time of inheritance is no longer under Joshua but when Jesus returns.

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3 Responses to Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: The Lisbon Earthquake, The Prosperity Gospel, and Some Other Stuff, Part 1

  1. Jerry Starling says:

    Jay,
    What an appropriate post for July 4! While we can appreciate our American citizenship and use it for our advantage when possible – as Paul did his Roman citizenship – we need to realize that our citizenship is in heaven.

    Our freedom is in Christ. Are set free from sin, not from the despotism of King George. As many of the founding fathers of our nation realized, any government can become tyranical – as many believe ours is becoming.

    But there is one Kingdom that will never rule over unwilling subjects, and is the Kingdom of our God.

    For too long we have mixed Americanism and Christianity – unequal things – together and called them one. Thank you for this call for repentance and prayer by all of the church throughout the world that God might heal this sin-sick world.

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  3. nick gill says:

    Myths America Lives By by Richard Hughes and Things Unseen by Leonard Allen really bring to light a) the millennial passion of the 18th century in America, and b) how closely Campbell related the rise of America with the millennial kingdom. I had no idea how post-millennial Campbell was — very interesting! As well as how his writing changed as the movement grew, becoming more comfortable with the Constantinian compromise between culture and Christianity.

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