The Apocalypse in the Eighteenth Century | Stephen Basdeo


For some people who lived during the English Civil War, it seemed as though the end of the world was fast approaching. Clergymen such as John Owen called on magistrates to further the work of the Reformation by purifying the church and thereby help to bring about the Kingdom of God.[1]

Major-General Thomas Harrison, who was one of the men who signed Charles I’s death warrant, was the leader of an apocalyptic sect named the Fifth Monarchists. Taking their cue from the Book of Daniel—in which it was said that four monarchies or kingdoms would precede the fifth and final Kingdom of God—Fifth Monarchists believed that they were living in the end times and assumed that 666 was equal to 1666, which would be the date of the world’s end. For the Fifth Monarchists, however, one could not simply sit around and wait for the Second Coming; true believers had a mission to help ready the people for the end through preaching and political activism.

Title page of A Brief description of the Fifth Monarchy or Kingdome (1653) by William Aspinwall (New York Public Library/Wikimedia Commons)

In addition, campaigners such as Mary Cary toured the country making prophesies and publishing pamphlets warning everyone that the end was nigh. Cary’s prophecies were even more deranged than the Fifth Monarchists: Cromwell’s New Model Army, in her view, were one of the Two Witnesses foretold in the Book of Revelation (11: 1–6 KJV):

11 And there was given me a reed like unto a rod: and the angel stood, saying, Rise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein.

But the court which is without the temple leave out, and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles: and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months.

And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.

These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.

And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed.

These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will.

As Cary prophesied, the Parliamentarians would be victorious against the royalists and after the death of Charles I the Kingdom of Christ would arrive. Cary, however, prophesied that the end would arrive in 1701 and not 1666.

Apocalypticism in British Culture

But apocalypticism had little impact on the popular culture of the common people, who likely did not read some of the many tracts put out by clergymen and were not members of fundamentalist religious groups. Indeed, if one searches the English Broadside Ballads Archive, for instance, none of the popular poems and songs in the archives retell apocalyptic themes. Even popular literature with Biblical themes was focused, less on a final apocalypse, than on generally doing good works in the hope of salvation.

John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667)

In England, it was not until the publication of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) that apocalyptic themes entered mainstream literature. In that poem Milton made clear his belief in the apocalypse and the millennium when God the Father is seen telling the Son that

The World shall burn and from her ashes spring

New Heav’n and Earth, wherein the just shall dwell

And after all their tribulations long

See golden days, fruitful of golden deeds

With joy and love triumphing, and fair Truth.[2]

First edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Morgan Library)

What is especially interesting about Milton’s poem is the fact that, in the first Book, Milton feels that he has to

Illumine; what is low, raise and support;

That to the highth of this great argument

I may assert eternal Providence,

And justify the ways of God to men.

Previous scholarly examinations of the apocalypse from the medieval era did not feel that God’s ways had to be ‘justified’ to men. In those, the apocalypse was a given; it would come, humanity and the earth would most likely be destroyed; the sinful would perish, and the elect would enjoy God’s favour.

Yet this is a different world that Milton is writing in; it is a world in which, thanks to the Reformation and the rise of Deism—which holds that God does not reveal himself to mankind—people require an explanation of why God has done what he has. Milton’s poem, especially his depiction of the Flood of Noah—which is examined in a succeeding chapter—marks the point at which apocalyptic literature enters mainstream English literature: the end of the world, after Milton, was no longer something written about by clergymen whose works remained unread by the vast majority of the population. Instead the apocalypse would become something that people could be inspired by and enjoy reading about for its own sake.

Thomas Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth (1684–89)

Alongside Milton’s popular poem, of course, there were theological expositions of the apocalypse. Thomas Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth (originally published in Latin in two parts in 1684 and 1689 respectively, and in English in 1690) followed in the tradition of earlier literature from the likes of Joachim of Fiore by considering

‘the Rise and Fall … of an entire world’.

At the end of history there would be

‘The CONFLAGRATION, to which a new face of Nature will accordingly succeed, New Heavens and a New Earth, Paradise renew’d, and so it is called the restitution of things, or Regeneration of the World’.[3]

Burnet was a firm believer that the earth would be regenerated into a paradise—in which there would be no disease or death and there would be plenty of food for all—which would become the home of the faithful who would rule with Christ for a thousand years. Reflecting the Enlightenment admiration for classical learning, Burnet declared that the belief in a final conflagration and restoration of the world held by Virgil was further evidence that mankind had always known that something would happen at the end of history. Later millennialist groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe that most of the faithful will not ascend to heaven but live in a perfected state on a paradise earth, owe a lot to Burnet’s treatise.

Edward Young by Louis Philippe Boitard, after Joseph Highmore, line engraving, mid 18th century (Eighteenth-century Poetry Archive)

Edward Young’s Poem on the Last Day (1713)

Milton’s Christian epic was clearly an influence upon the celebrated poet Edward Young who, in 1713, published his own Christian epic, in heroics, titled A Poem on the Last Day. Just as the case was with many previous representations of the apocalypse, contemporary politics played a part in how Young envisions humanity’s last days. The European-wide War of Spanish Succession had ended, the Treaty of Utrecht had been signed, the Duke of Marlborough was feted as a hero by the British people (even if Marlborough had been exiled from Queen Anne’s court) but the poet’s thoughts turn to deeper subjects:

While others sing the fortune of the great;

Empire and arms, and all the pomp of state;

With Britain’s hero set their souls on fire,

And grow immortal as his deeds inspire;

I draw a deeper scene: a scene that yields

A louder trumpet, and more dreadful fields;

The world alarm’d, both earth and heaven o’erthrown,

And gasping nature’s last tremendous groan;

Death’s ancient sceptre broke, the teeming tomb,

The righteous Judge, and man’s eternal doom.


Time shall be slain, all nature be destroy’d,

Nor leave an atom in the mighty void


Fall’n are [earth’s] mountains, her famed rivers lost,

One universal ruin spreads abroad;

Nothing is safe beneath the throne of God.[4]

Edward Young’s Poem on the Last Day (1713)

When academics and clerics had previously delved into the deeper nuances of the Book of Revelation, they were always of the view that the end of the world would be a happy event for all mankind. The millennium would come. The elect would rule with Christ. The wicked would be punished. Heaven and earth may or may not pass away (depending on who was writing). But in Young’s poem, although the apocalypse is a happy event for some people, there is an increasing emphasis on the suffering that many humans will experience when the Day of Judgment comes, as the following lines reveal:

Now charnels rattle, scatter’d limbs and all

The various bones, obsequious to the call,

Self-mov’d, advance; the neck perhaps to meet

The distant head; the distant legs, the feet.

Dreadful to view.[5]

Young’s is perhaps the first gory depiction of end times events in British literature; human bodies are scattered in pieces and try their various body parts move and writhe, attempting to re-join one another. The infusion of violent imagery into stories of the apocalypse—whether they be religious, environmental, or even a zombie apocalypse—is something that has become a staple of the genre.

However, Young’s apocalypse is not imminent; it shall only occur

‘Sooner or later, in some future Date … Or when ten thousand harvests more have rose’.

This carried Augustinian reasoning to an extreme; the apocalypse will happen, but it might be 10,000 years into the future as to be almost immaterial to readers.[6] There’s an internal tension in Young’s text, then, which no doubt contemporary readers picked up as well: The apocalypse will happen. The apocalypse will be violent and gory. Yet an eighteenth-century reader would not experience it and they could view it from a safe distance.

Dr Samuel Johnson (Wikimedia Commons)

For eighteenth-century critics, it was not the violence that Young’s poem was criticised for, but its rather convoluted structure. As Samuel Johnson remarked:

‘many paragraphs are noble and few are mean, yet the whole is languid; the plan is too much extended and a succession of images divides and weakens the general conception’.[7]

In spite of Doctor Johnson’s criticisms, Young’s poem was reprinted frequently throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The British Library’s catalogue of rare books lists 24 different editions from the 1700s alone, while A Poem on the Last Day was also incorporated into several anthologies of Young’s works in the Victorian era.[8]

Copies of Young’s poems were translated into Italian, German, and French and were reprinted into the nineteenth century, even as continental philosophers such as Immanuel Kant had argued—as he did in 1781 in The Critique of Pure Reason—that the existence of God was unprovable. Kant also published his own assessment of religious apocalypse and argued that they were ‘speculative conceits’ (or fanciful tales) that were useful only for guiding men’s morals and illuminating humanity’s great questions.

At the end of the eighteenth century one event in particular made two Frenchmen turn to Young’s poem for inspiration when writing their own poems about the end times. This particular event also spawned several further iterations of the apocalypse. It was an event which stimulated the publication of a number of

‘prophecies, relative to the destruction of almost every kingdom and empire in the world’.[9]

The event was the French Revolution.

The Reign of Terror in France (Wikimedia Commons)

The French Revolution

On 5 May 1789 King Louis XVI of France convened a meeting of the Estates General. The French nation’s finances were in a parlous state. Having expended a lot of money in helping the American colonists win their independence from Britain, it was time to pay the bill. Representatives of the three estates—the clergy, nobility, and the third estate—gathered together to discuss the matter. But this set in motion a chain of events that would eventually see Louis XVI beheaded, the execution of over 40,000 supposed enemies of the revolution during the ‘Reign of Terror’, a quarter of a century of worldwide warfare, and the rise and fall of Napoleon.

The watchwords of the revolution were LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY. Radicals in Britain, inspired by events across the channel, began campaigning for universal suffrage. The brave people of Haiti at this time, too, rose up in rebellion against their French colonizers. The world was truly being turned upside down. As people sought to make sense of this new world, apocalyptic literature flourished.[10]

Emanuel Swedenborg (Wikimedia Commons)

Emanuel Swedenborg

Some of the radicals and revolutionaries across Europe truly believed that the revolution would usher in a new golden age for humankind. One such group were followers of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), who was revered as a prophet and was the founder of the (still existing) New Church. Swedenborg declared that the Last Judgment of mankind began in 1756—the year that witnessed the beginning of the ‘first’ world war, the Seven Years War—and that Israelites would soon be restored to their natural homeland.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Although Swedenborg died before the French Revolution occurred, his followers simply adapted his prophesies to suit ongoing political events: It turned out that God had called the true Church to him in the 1790s, conveniently when the New Church was most active. The celebrated artist and poet William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, for instance, gave Swedenborg a central role in his text that tells of the forthcoming New Heaven and New Earth:

‘As a New Heaven is begun … And lo! Swedenborg is the Angel sitting at the tomb; his writings are the linen clothes folded up. Now is the dominion of Edom, & the return of Adam into Paradise’.[11]

William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Wikimedia Commons)

Rich in symbolism, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is not a linear narrative but might best be described as a series of vignettes, in which the events of the apocalypse and the millennium occur at the same time. The book ends with a ‘Song of Liberty’ in which Blake declares that the ‘Son of Fire’

Spurning the clouds written with curses, stamps the stony law to dust, loosing the eternal horses from the dens of night, crying: Empire is no more! and now the lion and wolf shall cease.[12]

Although broadly influenced by Swedenborg, Blake’s own ideology differed from that of the New Church in several ways and Blake certainly had reservations about their views on concubinage. Prior to the publication of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake had also written the first section of a poem titled The French Revolution, in which he uses apocalyptic imagery to describe the events of the Estates General.

Blake was not the only British person captivated by the revolution’s potential to bring about a golden age of reason. When the revolutionary intellectual and writer Thomas Paine published the Rights of Man in 1791—which aimed to vindicate the French Revolution from detractors such as Edmund Burke—the radical philosopher William Godwin, father to Mary Shelley, thought that the publication of Paine’s book and the revolution more generally would bring about a New Jerusalem.[13]

The Birth of the Illuminati

It was not only British radicals and those on the religious fringes who assumed that the French Revolution was a sign that the world was marching towards a new era of Enlightenment; there were Swedenborgians in France whose beliefs in the imminent end of the world overlapped with those of the Freemasons and the Illuminés (or ‘Illuminati’). Of the last group, which was quite secretive, there were many conspiracy theories surrounding their activities.

The Abbé Augustin de Barruel in France and John Robison in England both argued that the Illuminés were engaged in a secret plot to overthrow all the governments and religions in Europe.[14] The Illuminés were deemed too radical even for the Jacobins (who began the Reign of Terror) and many of those allegedly part of the movement were ‘watched’ by the agents of the Committee of Public Safety.[15]

Nevertheless, for radical religious, quasi-religious, and philosophical thinkers alike, then, it seemed that a new ‘millennium of Enlightenment’ was being ushered in, for better or for worse.

The Approaching End of the World

The influence of the French Revolution was marked also in new theological treatises that were published. The anonymous The Approaching End of the World described through its Remarkable Events since the Time of Creation, published in Germany in 1793, did not directly reference the French Revolution but certainly did reference the universal ‘state of depravity’ and ‘miserable Enlightenment’ which can only be a sign of the impending end of the world.

The French Revolution may have been the catalyst for publication, but it took matters in weird and wonderful directions. By 1867, the author predicted, all religion will have disappeared and humanity will have reverted to a state of savagery. The Antichrist will appear in Russia. The Pope will declare himself, not merely God’s representative on earth, but God himself. The 1970s and 1990s would see the earth’s rivers dry up; earthquakes would lead to the death of thousands; successive world wars would lead to the deaths of millions; and then the Pope and the Antichrist would be cast into hell before the Last Judgment occurred in the year 2000.[16]

The anonymous author’s treatise also bears a remarkable resemblance to a novel published in the beginning of the twentieth century titled the Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson. It depicts a future socialist Britain which has joined a political union with mainland Europe and has completely abandoned God. Euthanasia is legal. Religion is banned. And people are in thrall to a new politician who seems to win political power across the world. The new leader or ‘Lord of the World’ is the Antichrist and whose rule results in the destruction of the earth.

The Lord of he World (Wikimedia Commons)

German Idealism and Georg W.F. Hegel

 The French Revolution also had a profound effect upon German philosophy, in particular the writings of Georg W.F. Hegel.[17] Hegel argued that, as the natural world is governed laws, so too does history develop in a rational manner; history is not simply, as Shakespeare might say,

‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.[18]

Instead, history will have an end point (telos).

‘Universal history’, Hegel wrote in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History,

‘exhibits stepwise progression in the development of that principle the content of which is the consciousness of freedom’.[19]

The realisation of human freedom and liberty was therefore gradual. Thus in the ancient ‘oriental’ world, only one person was truly ‘free’: the ruler. Then in Ancient Greece the idea that some people—a group of people—were ‘free’. Thanks in part to Christianity, in northern European nations the idea developed that all men could be free, much as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen declared in its preamble that

‘Human Beings are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good.’

While the French Revolutionaries were elevating the cult of reason and deism, for Hegel, there was not necessarily a conflict between the ‘secular’ French Revolution and spirituality; the revolution was a ‘glorious spiritual awakening’ in which

‘all thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch. Emotions of a lofty character stirred men’s minds at that time … as if the reconciliation of heaven and earth were now first accomplished.’[20]

Paradise Regained: A Period of Reaction

Reactionaries across Europe offered their thoughts on revolution as well. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France had given opposition to the Revolution’s ideals an intellectual basis, and it remained for conservative and religiously-inspired poets to make the anti-revolutionary case in the arts.

The revolution was not a positive agent of change for such conservative writers. James Ogden’s Emanuel; or, Paradise Regained (1797) is a case in point. Although Ogden’s title recalls John Milton’s Paradise Regained (1671), Ogden was not, like Milton, a revolutionary. By this point the war between Britain and France had been going for quite some time. The British government was paranoid that the revolution would spread over to the United Kingdom and a Reign of Terror would ensue. Pro-democracy pressure groups, such as the modestly-named London Corresponding Society, were the target of government repression. A number of courts cases saw radicals such as John Thelwall and John Horne Tooke hauled into the dock on trumped up charges of treason in 1794. The government, headed by William Pitt the Younger, also restricted people’s freedom of speech and assembly. With some justification, then, the brief period of government suppression of radicals’ activities was called ‘Pitt’s Terror’.

Ogden was firmly on Pitt’s side. At first glance, the poem appears to be the usual Revelation-inspired poem and references the events of that book, as well as Daniel. But later in the poem Ogden deplores the rise of a ‘MYSTIC BABLYON’ who, with ‘false philosophy’ causes people to turn away from God. Ogden becomes more explicit when he exclaims

Shield, Lord, our Church and King from this foul fiend,

In his worst form, by DEMOCRATS now loos’d.[21]

The Final Battle between Heaven and Hell: Sonnenberg’s Donatoa

Franz Sonnenberg, a minor German aristocrat, was inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost and wrote Donatoa (1806) which

‘tells the story of the final battle of Heaven and Hell over the hearts of mankind’.[22]

Responding directly to the events of the French Revolution—particularly the revolutionary governments’ policies of de-Christianization, and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars—the Spirit of the Earth in Sonnenberg’s text begins by deploring the degeneration of the human race. Thus the Spirit summons the Angel of Death, Donatoa, to wreak destruction upon the world. In spite of the fact that Sonnenberg was fervently religious, what is interesting about the poem is that God appears very little in it. God is, according to Robert K. Weininger, simply ‘aloof’ from events. God’s role in the apocalypse is marginal here, and this is a trend that would continue in future portrayals of apocalyptic events. Thus Sonnenberg, although he deplores the increasing secularisation of society, is contributing to it.

Franz von Sonnenberg (Wikimedia Commons)

The Growth of a Poet’s Mind

By the time he was writing, Sonnenberg’s poem was a kind of relic. Religious poetry of the type that Milton produced was not a popular choice with publishers and readers in the early 1800s, which is perhaps further evidence of the increasing secularisation of society and culture more generally. Donatoa was only reviewed once in an obscure German periodical. Readers, notably in Britain, still enjoyed long epic poetry, but the type of poetry that was popular—and which publishers would invest in—were either historically-themed or they emphasised the primacy of the individual and became introspective, focusing on a poet’s life, inner thoughts, and the inspiration that they took from the world around them.

William Wordsworth

Sometimes, however, the ‘introspective’ poems did adapt apocalyptic and millennialist tropes. In Britain, the brilliant William Wordsworth in The Prelude; or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1799)—the poem’s subtitle obviously foregrounding the ‘individual’—gave readers glimpses into Wordsworth’s experiences in France during the revolution and life back in Britain as the country was preparing to go to war. For young Wordsworth, enamoured with the French Revolution, the event first appeared as something approaching a millennial event that would bring about a new earth:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very Heaven! O times,

In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways

Of custom, law, and statute, took at once

The attraction of a country in romance!

When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,

When most intent on making of herself

A prime enchantress–to assist the work

Which then was going forward in her name!

If the French Revolution was the secular political version of heaven and earth, Wordsworth would also find Paradise by turning to the natural world around him for inspiration. It might be said that Wordsworth almost prays to nature when he declares

‘Ye Mountains! Thine, O Nature! Thou hast fed

My lofty speculations’.

Other poets turned to history: the likes of Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel and Robert Southey’s Joan of Arc were published to great critical and popular acclaim. The epic was gradually being shorn of its religious ideology and nature and the natural world was glorified. A revolution in literature and art was occurring: A Romantic Revolution.


[1] Martyn Calvin Cowan, John Owen and the Civil War Apocalypse: Preaching, Prophecy and Politics (London: Routledge, 2017), 5.

[2] John Milton, Paradise Lost: A Poem in Twelve Books (London: William Sharp, 1816), 74.

[3] Thomas Burnet, The Sacred Theory of the Earth, 2 vols (London, 1697), II, 100.

[4] Edward Young, ‘A Poem on the Last Day’, in The Poetical Works of Edward Young (Edinburgh: Gall and Inglis [n. d.]), 228–30.

[5] Edward Young, A Poem on the Last Day, quoted in Robert K. Weininger, Sublime Conclusions: Last Man Narratives from Apocalypse to Death of God (Cambridge: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2017), 45.

[6] Robert Weininger, Sublime Conclusions: Last Man Narratives from Apocalypse to Death of God (MHRA Publishing, 2017), 90.

[7] Samuel Johnson, quoted in Harold Forster, Edward Young: The Poet of Night Thoughts, 1683–1765 (Alburgh Harleston: Erskine Press, 1986), 32.

[8] Weininger, 46.

[9] William Hamiliton Reid, The Rise and Dissolution of the Infidel Societies in the Metropolis (London: J. Hatchard, 1800), 29.

[10] W.H. Oliver, Prophets and Millennialists: The Uses of Biblical Prophecy in England from the 1790s to the 1840s (Auckland University Press, 1978), 43.

[11] William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 3, E.34, quoted in Paley, Apocalypse and Millennium, 32.

[12] William Blake [online], The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (London, 1793; repr. Boston: J.W. Luce, 1906), accessed 9 September 2021, available at: http://www.gutenberg.org.

[13] C. Kegan Paul, William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries, 2 vols (London: Henry King, 1876), I, 69.

[14] Michael Taylor, ‘British Conservatism, the Illuminati, and the Conspiracy Theory of the French Revolution, 1797–1802’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 47: 3 (2014), 293.

[15] Paley, Apocalypse and Millennium, 28.

[16] Anon., Das nahe Ende der Welt aus den merkwurdigen Begebenheiten derselben von ihrer Erschaffung an 1792 ([n. p.] [n. pub], 1792), 205–06 cited in Weininger, 53.

[17] Georg W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Trans. E.S. Haldane and Frances H. Simson, 3 vols, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 1955), III, 409.

[18] Peter Singer, Hegel: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2001), 14.

[19] Georg W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Trans. Ruben Alvarado (Aalten: Wordbridge, 2011), 50.

[20] Chris Arthur [online], ‘Hegel and the French Revolution’, Radical Philosophy, Summer 1989, accessed 12 September 2021, available at: radicalphilosophy.com

[21] John Ogden, Emanuel; or Paradise Regained (Manchester: Sowler and Russell, 1797), 110.

[22] Weininger, 66.