Charlotte Mason and the Millennium

Charlotte Mason and the Millennium

The first time I ever spoke at a Charlotte Mason event was the 2008 Living Education Retreat. I thought I did pretty well, but I wasn’t sure I would ever be invited back. (I was, thankfully, in 2015.) A key element of my 2008 presentation was Charlotte Mason’s theology. My focus was narrow, however, and I entitled my talk “The Nature of Children.” By 2010 I had broadened my coverage of Charlotte Mason’s beliefs sufficiently enough that I could entitle my new workshop “The Theology of Charlotte Mason,” a workshop which I co-hosted at the Charlotte Mason Institute conference that year.

I adapted, evolved, and presented this “Theology of Charlotte Mason” presentation many times in the succeeding years. But from the first, in 2010, I told my audiences that I was primarily focused on Mason’s theology of “personhood and personal development.” I had a line that I would always deliver: “Her theology of eschatology is very interesting, but probably not so relevant to a conference on education.” That was my statement of (or so I thought) the obvious notion that no one really cares about Mason’s theology of the end-times. After all, what bearing could that possibly have on pedagogy?

Well, fast-forward to 2020, and now I find myself wanting to retract my little disclaimer. Over the years I have learned just how many things do in fact have a bearing on pedagogy. For example, the clothes we wear, the air we breathe, and the decorations we employ have all worked their way into articles and discussions about education. So 10 years after laying down the guardrails for my exploration of Mason’s theology, I hereby widen my aperture. Charlotte Mason’s eschatology is now fair game.

But even then, I will limit my investigation to just one aspect of Mason’s eschatology: her view of the millennium. Now what, you may ask, is the millennium? It is one of the most debated elements of Christian theology, based on one of the most fiercely contested passages in all of Sacred Scripture:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while.

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom judgment was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life, and reigned with Christ a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years. (Revelation 20:1–6, RSV2CE)

The “thousand years” of this passage in Revelation are known as the millennium. The great question that has engaged Christian expositors and thinkers across the centuries is the relationship between these thousand years, the millennium, and the bodily return of Christ to earth described in the immediately preceding passage, Revelation 19:11–21. Interpreters have generally fallen into three camps:

Broadly there are three schools of thought: amillennialism, premillennialism, and postmillennialism. The prefixes “a,” “pre,” and “post” suggest the view of the timing of the Lord Jesus Christ’s second advent in relation to the “thousand years.” Hence, postmillennialists argue that Christ returns after the “thousand years.” Premillennialists argue that Christ comes before the thousand years. Amillennialists also contend that the Lord comes after the thousand years much like postmillennialists, but they understand the thousand years differently. For the amillennialist, as the prefix suggests, there really is no literal thousand years. Instead, the whole interadvent period between the first and second comings of Christ is taken to be the “millennium.” Some postmillennialists argue with the amillennialists that the millennium may not be a literal thousand years, yet they generally agree with the premillennialists that the millennium is yet future. There are many variations even among adherents to the same broad view of the millennium.[1]

The three schools represent three quite different views of the future. The premillennial view is perhaps the most jarring to the modern mind as it contemplates an extraordinary state of affairs on planet earth itself:

The second coming will be a great, single, outstanding, and glorious event, but will be accompanied by several others bearing on the Church, on Israel, and on the world. The dead saints will be raised and the living transfigured, and together they will be translated to meet the coming Lord. Antichrist and his wicked allies will be slain; and Israel, the ancient people of God will repent, be saved, and restored to the Holy Land. Then the Kingdom of God, predicted by the prophets, will be established in a transformed world. The Gentiles will turn to God in great abundance and be incorporated in the Kingdom. A condition of peace and righteousness will prevail in all the earth. After the expiration of the earthly rule of Christ the rest of the dead will be raised up; and this resurrection will be followed by the last judgment and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.[2]

In can be difficult at first to grasp the full implications of this vision of the future. The idea is that right here on our planet earth (not the “new heaven and new earth” of Revelation 21), resurrected human beings will be serving under the Lord Jesus Christ, appearing now as a worldwide King, no longer a suffering servant. Planet earth will become a literal theocratic paradise. And this will last for one thousand years, before eternity begins, in which “the dwelling of God is with men” (Revelation 21:3, RSV2CE).

While this vision of the future was “the dominant position among the ante-Nicene Fathers,”[3] its vision of a physical, earthly kingdom was distasteful to later theologians. St. Augustine (354–430) is thus generally associated with the emergence of the second school of thought, amillennialism:

Augustine discussed Revelation 20:1–10 in some detail in the City of God…, reasoning by analogy of faith with other passages of scripture that the millennial kingdom is best viewed as the present Christian era wherein the powers of evil are already being restrained and the church being given time to proclaim the gospel. The strongman Satan is being bound up by Christ on the cross and in the descent into the netherworld… Ultimately, “to the strong, even the devil is weak”…, though penultimately he may be permitted to rage before his final collapse.

During this postresurrection period the gospel is being preached with the hope that Christ will increasingly reign in human hearts. The millennium is not to be awaited but has already begun. The church constitutes the proximate firstfruits of the kingdom of God on earth…

Augustine’s view became prototypical for much Western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. When the glorious return did not occur in the year A.D. 1000, the idea of millennium increasingly became viewed symbolically as a long though unspecified period of time.[4]

Across history, then, most Christians have been amillennial along with St. Augustine. In this view, the millennium is a symbol of the present age. It is the span of time between Christ’s first advent and his second. And the “new heaven and new earth” of Revelation 21 begin immediately upon that second advent.

Over time, however, a third position emerged, distinct from the other two. The postmillennial view is described as follows:

Postmillennialists tend to appear as historical optimists who believe in the triumph of the gospel in human society… Many have a gradualist and progressive view of the coming kingdom, wherein Christ, though physically absent, is gradually coming more and more to reign upon the earth and will come when that process has come to completion. Postmillennialists expect history to get better, not worse…

Postmillennialism means that Christ will return after the gospel has been preached to all and has taken full effect among the nations. The glorious return will occur after the millennial kingdom has been established.[5]

This description of the kingdom of Christ may ring a bell for people who have read a wide range of Charlotte Mason’s writings. For example, in 1904 Mason wrote:

But we are in the dark hour before dawn; such a Christianity is coming upon us as neither the world nor the Church has ever dreamed of…[6]

Similarly, in 1916 she wrote:

… perhaps the great Hope rising upon us out of the present distress is that an era of passionate Christianity is coming, when we shall hear the shout of a King in our midst and shall all stand at attention waiting his word of command, when we shall hasten to do his bidding, and, like any other courtiers, be aware of the mind of our King upon all the matters of our daily life, small and great, knowing indeed that in his eyes there are no small things and no great.[7]

Indeed, Chapter V of Part II of Mason’s Formation of Character could be recast as a postmillennial view of the future. Entitled “A Hundred Years After,” it describes a future utopia when life-giving ideas have spread throughout the world. Particularly touching in this vision is a description of the transformation of the church of Christ:

A century ago, our Church was supposed to show some signs of decadence; to-day she is quick to her remotest extremities… our clergy are raising up about them a body of ardent young spirits to whom self-devotion is a law; labour in spiritual uplands a necessity.[8]

For some students of Charlotte Mason, this chapter entitled “A Hundred Years After” is the most embarrassing portion of the canon. I suspect the embarrassment is less due to Mason’s limited skill as a science fiction writer and more due to a deep mistrust for such a progressive view of the future.

In any event, is it safe to infer that Mason was postmillennial because some of her optimistic statements about the future sound like what a postmillennialist might say? Of course, if we could find an explicit statement about the millennium from Mason, then the case would be closed. But I have searched high and low for such a statement and I can’t find one. So we have to rely on circumstantial evidence to answer the question. A first approach might be to consider who the postmillennialists were, and whether any of them would have been anywhere near Charlotte Mason’s circle of thought. We can begin with a few examples:

Among varied representatives of postmillennialism are Joachim of Fiora, Daniel Whitby, Cocceius, Witsius, and Rauschenbusch.[9]

Examining this list, we find that Joachim of Fiora (1135–1202) was an Italian Catholic. Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669) and Herman Witsius (1636–1708) were Dutch Reformed theologians. Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) was an American Baptist. The only Anglican on this representative list is Daniel Whitby (1638–1726), who “was a controversial English theologian.”[10]

I mention the Anglican aspect because Mason stayed pretty carefully within the boundaries of her church. All of the commentaries assigned in the PNEU programmes were written by Anglicans. (There were zero exceptions.) Most of the theologians Mason quoted (such as F.D. Maurice) were Anglican. Very rarely did Mason point to other sources, and as far as Anglicans go, I can find no evidence that she was reading the writings of Whitby or any postmillennialist.

What I can find evidence for, however, is a theory about what Mason’s students would have learned when they studied Revelation. We know that they did study this book, in the highest two forms:

The study of the Epistles and the Book of Revelation is confined for the most part to Forms V and VI.[11]

While we do not have a full programme in the digital archive in which Revelation was assigned, we do have a programme fragment from 1918 which includes an exam question about the book. We have many later programmes for Forms V and VI and they all assign the same commentary for all Bible lessons without exception: John Roberts Dummelow’s One Volume Bible Commentary. The evidence points to an unshakable conclusion: when Mason’s PNEU students encountered Revelation, they had Dummelow at their side. And what did this Anglican theologian have to say about the Millennium? Let’s see what the Form V and VI PNEU scholars would have read.

First, they would see that in the introduction to the book of Revelation, Dummelow states:

The sketch of the purpose of this book will have shown that the ‘Preterist’ view is at the basis of the present Commentary.[12]

The preterist view holds that all or most of the prophecies in Revelation were fulfilled in the first century AD. This view is commonly associated with amillennialism. Indeed, on the next page the commentary elaborates:

The question remains whether those predications which have to do with the millennium, i.e. the thousand years during which Christ would reign on earth (cp. 204f., were meant to be understood literally or spiritually. The earliest interpretation was literal. Those who accepted the book expected a literal reign of Christ on earth. It was for this reason that many, not believing in a literal millennium, would not accept the book as canonical. It was only the spread of spiritual interpretation, by which the ‘thousand years’ denoted the present period of the Church, the view advocated by Jerome and Augustine, that enabled the Church as a whole to receive the book.[13]

This is quintessential amillennialism: “the ‘thousand years’ denote[s] the present period of the Church.” Not only that, but also the students of the PNEU would be taught that without amillennialism, the canonicity of Revelation would still be in doubt.

When Dummelow actually gets to Revelation 20:1–3, he exegetically defends his amillennial view:

The meaning is, that for ‘1,000 years’ the power of evil would not be able to gather itself into an organized attack upon Christianity. The ‘1,000 years’ are not to be understood numerically, but as a period of rest and happiness. For 1,000 is a multiple of 10, which was regarded as a sacred number because the commandments are 10; and it is the number which was considered to stand for the sabbath in the history of the world, 1,000 years’ rest coming after 6,000 years’ toil: cp Ps904.[14]

This would not have been controversial in the Anglican context of Mason’s day. If Mason did not accept Dummelow’s amillennial position, so carefully argued theologically and exegetically, why would she put his commentary in the hands of her students? Perhaps this circumstantial evidence is conclusive, and we can rest assured that Mason was an amillennialist. And perhaps I should end my article here.

But I must point out that there was another minority view among Anglicans: some were actually premillennialists. The most notable example, is perhaps, Bishop J.C. Ryle (1816–1900). Although he was never (as far as I know) quoted by Charlotte Mason, many Christians today have heard of him because of his strong evangelical beliefs. When it came to the millennium, his view was quite clear:

V. I believe that the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ will be a real, literal, personal, bodily coming; and that as He went away in the clouds of heaven with His body, before the eyes of men, so in like manner He will return. (Acts i. 11)

VI. I believe that after our Lord Jesus Christ comes again, the earth shall be renewed, and the curse removed; the devil shall be bound, the godly shall be rewarded, the wicked shall be punished; and that before He comes there shall be neither resurrection, judgment, nor millennium, and that not till after He comes shall the earth be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. (Acts iii. 21; Isa. xxv. 6–9; 1 Thess. Iv. 14–18; Rev. xx. 1, etc.)[15]

Indeed, Ryle insisted that “placing the millennium between ourselves and the advent”[16] has the unfortunate effect of destroying the possibility that Christ could return at any time. This concern of upholding the immanence of Christ’s return was perhaps as important to Ryle as the concern of upholding the canonicity of Revelation was to Dummelow.

At this point you may ask why Ryle would have influenced Mason towards premillennialism any more than Whitby would have influenced her towards postmillennialism. And there really is no reason. Except that it is so interesting to read about Masons’ view of the resurrection. This view comes out clearly in a remarkable letter from 1911. Speaking of “the world to come,” she writes:

I do not look for anything in the way of punishment or reward or compensation more than of the sort I get here—with the one vast exception of “life more abounding,” that is, I think God-knowledge, God-consciousness.

But there will be there
So much to do
So much to know
So much to see
So much to love

At the present time people can only see, know, do, love, as they are prepared, and I have a notion we have to begin the things in the flesh. We shall go on with it in the spirit. All the people we shall meet we ought to know, realise, first; all the flowers in the world—all the stars in the universe (and I know no astronomy to speak of!)

I think the most astonishing statement in this letter is when she says that the next life will be more “of the sort I get here.” The sense is that the current life is a “dress rehearsal” for future wonders that differ only in degree but not in kind. And what of this tantalizingly obscure statement about “all the flowers in the world”? Perhaps the notion is that we should get to know our flowers now because we shall see them again in the next age?

You might say, “well enough, this will be fulfilled in the new heaven and the new earth of Revelation 21, not the millennium of Revelation 20.” And of course, you are probably right. And yet there is something so tangible, so earthy, so real about Mason’s vision of the resurrection. Will we see those flowers again?

The December 1918 issue of The Parents’ Review contained a most interesting article. With Mason as the editor, we know that nothing got into the magazine without her approval. The Rev. F. H. Bickersteth Ottley had given a lecture to the PNEU at St. Agnes School. As an Anglican priest, he certainly had the qualifications to speak reliably on spiritual matters. His topic was “Jerusalem and Palestine.” Something about the lecture appealed enough to Mason to make her want to include the text in The Parents’ Review.

The article runs a generous twelve pages. It is really a first-rate geography piece, as suggested by the first paragraph:

My only qualification for attempting to deal with this subject is the fact that I have travelled myself on horseback from Jerusalem to Damascus; and in that journey I became convinced that a knowledge of the geographical configuration of Palestine is an absolute necessity to an intelligent understanding of the stories of the Old and New Testaments.[17]

Why does one need to know geography to understand the Old and New Testaments? Because the stories it recounts are so tangible, so earthy, so real…

In the twelve pages, Ottley dives into a detailed review of all kinds of elements of Palestinian geography. Through it all, he ties the facts and features to relevant portions of the Old and New Testaments. It is wonderful and rich, but not overtly paradigm-shifting. But then in the last paragraph he breaks the glass:

I feel now that I have said enough to enable teachers to realize what a wealth of material is at their disposal with a map and a pair of compasses, a series of photographs and some of the many books published on Palestine, to make the Scripture lesson the most fascinating lesson of the day, instead of a dull, dry task. The History of the Jews is the key of God’s great design, and the land of this mysterious chosen people will be the land where the greatest event of the future will take place—the Second Coming of our Lord to this world. Just as for the past 4,000 years Palestine has been the centre from which has radiated out in ever growing circles the Divine purposes which led up to and followed the fact of the Incarnation. So shall it be the centre of the Millennial Reign, when His feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives which is before Jerusalem upon the East.[18]

I read this paragraph. And then I reread it. And then I reread it again. This is the premillennialism of the ancient church. This is the hope of Bishop Ryle. This is the belief that Jesus Christ will come and rule in personal, bodily form, right here on planet earth, for one thousand years.

What did Mason think when she read these words? Did she notice the discrepancy with Dummelow? Did she sympathize with Ottley’s view? Or did she merely tolerate it? Perhaps we will never know. There is no footnote. There is no editor’s note.

But I can’t help but wonder if Mason imagined for a moment what this kind of future would be like. Jesus Christ would be here on earth, our earth. The saints would be raised too (Revelation 20:4). Did she think about her 1911 letter: “All the people we shall meet we ought to know, realise, first; all the flowers in the world—all the stars in the universe”?

All the flowers of the world. Right here before Jesus Christ. And we, under His government, going for a nature walk. After the wondrous meeting on the road to Emmaus, the disciples reflected, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32, RSV2CE). How would our hearts burn within us if we could walk among the flowers with the King who created them?

Surely it was Rev. Ottley’s hope. It is my hope too. Was it Mason’s? I don’t know. I do know one thing for sure, however. Mason wrote, “Let [the children] grow up, too, with the shout of a King in their midst.”[19] If there is a King, then there is a Kingdom. Whether our King is in heaven or on earth, He rules just the same. And our job as parents is to enthrone Him in every heart.

Endnotes

[1] Zachariades, D. (2003). “Millennium.” In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 1127). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

[2] Berkhof, L. (1938). Systematic theology (p. 709). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[3] Oden, T. (1992). Life in the Spirit: systematic theology, vol. III (p. 427). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.

[4] Ibid., pp. 421–422.

[5] Ibid., pp. 423–424.

[6] Mason, C. (1904). Home Education, 3rd ed. (pp. 303–304).

[7] Mason, C. (1916). “The National Mission.” In The Parents’ Review, vol. 27 (p. 771).

[8] Mason, C. (1906). Formation of Character (pp. 171–172).

[9] Oden, T. (1992), op. cit., p. 424.

[10]Daniel Whitby,” Wikipedia.org, last retrieved 9/19/2020.

[11] Mason, C. (1925). Towards a Philosophy of Education (p. 169).

[12] Dummelow, J. (1908), The One Volume Bible Commentary (p. 1066).

[13] Ibid., p. 1067.

[14] Ibid., p. 1089.

[15] Ryle, J. (1879). Coming events and present duties. London: William Hunt and Company (p. x.).

[16] Ibid., p. 21.

[17] Ottley, F. (1918). “Jerusalem and Palestine.” In The Parents’ Review, vol. 29 (p. 760).

[18] Ibid., p. 771.

[19] Mason, C. (1904). Parents and Children (p. 57).

One Reply to “Charlotte Mason and the Millennium”

  1. Listening to this article was like hearing a thrilling piece of reader’s theater! It has so many ideas in it that I will be thinking about it for a long time. Of course, your opening about the LER caught my attention right away as I certainly do remember the 2008 talk, then the 2015 presentation, and others since then. It takes humility to admit that our views and understanding have grown and changed, so I’m grateful that you admit that and then so clearly explain how that has happened in your own CM journey. I wonder if this is the first time the words “Mason” and “science fiction” have been in the same sentence?!?

    But in the broader view, this little bit of the history of eschatology, specifically millennialism and Mason’s view, is a fascinating thing to ponder. Thank you for explaining it so well and bringing your vast knowledge and reading to bear on the topic.

    “And our job as parents is to enthrone Him in every heart.” Amen.

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