Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (1992)

It’s hard to imagine myself back to the time when someone needed to write this book. But when it first appeared, Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More mapped academic terra incognita. In 1992, neither Google nor Amazon existed and relatively few people had heard of the internet, some retailers did not accept credit cards, the Wall had just come down, and Left Behind hadn’t even been published yet. Into that context, Boyer’s book appeared, insisting that many Americans believed Jesus would return during their lifetimes. He argued that a) the belief that the world was rapidly approaching its end—particularly premillennialism—formed a major current in American Christian history and b) prophecy beliefs were alive and well during the postwar and Cold War eras, shaping public opinion on matters like economic policy and foreign affairs. Boyer offers careful readings of a massive body of material—and peppers his history with funny, fascinating tidbits. For example, he explains how a Canadian $1000 bill from 1954 got pulled from circulation after some citizens observed a smiling devil in Queen Elizabeth’s hair. This, of course, meant that the country had aligned itself with the antichrist to conduct trade during the Last Days (283). Though occasionally sarcastic, at its best this book offers sensitive explanations for the “grassroots appeal” of dispensational premillennialism’s esoteric eschatological schemes. “Meschech” kind of sounds like “Moscow,” and Moscow is directly north of Jerusalem on a map, so it’s easy to see why Americans might have interpreted Russia as the northern invader of Israel named “Gog” mentioned in Ezekiel 38 (see 155-156).

Though a little stale in its theoretical outlook, most of this book seemed surprisingly fresh 20 years after its publication. Boyer himself suggests that readers skip the first 112 snooze-inducing pages, which offer a sweeping overview of the apocalyptic genre, apocalyptic beliefs throughout premodern Christian history, and the emergence of premillennialism in America. The real meat of this book comes in its analyses of popular texts since 1945. The five chapters of part II point to themes we still grapple with as scholars of conservative Christianity: one big one being the ambiguous status of Judaism. As Boyer notes, dispensationalists were willing to grant Jews “a glorious past and future,” but they did not know how to fit the present into their eschatological schemes (219). At least abstractly, conservative Christianity afforded Israel and essentialized “Judaism” important roles in the past and in the End Times. But dispensationalists simply didn’t know what to do with living, unconverted Jews. Remarks Boyer, “at the heart of dispensationalism lies the assumption that Jews are essentially and eternally different” (220). Being trained by two experts in Christian Zionism—Yaakov Ariel and Shalom Goldman—has probably overdetermined my interest in this subject, but I think we still have a long way to go in unpacking conservative Christianity’s interest in Israel and its ideas about Judaism’s “biblical authenticity.” I still can’t figure out why so many evangelicals love Seder suppers and Marc Chagall’s paintings, but still insist that Jews need to convert to Christianity. But I digress.

A person could still assign chapters of When Time Shall Be No More for an undergrad course on Christianity post-1945. As I hinted above, this book has grown only a little musty with time. It completely disregards images, occasionally makes snide judgments about the quality of the material it examines, and—worst of all—focuses unrelentingly on prophecy beliefs. But it still holds tremendous value for scholars of postwar conservative Christianity… and it offers a wealth of primary sources for the future dissertation writer.