No political movement has impacted the United States over the past century more than Progressivism. The principles, policies and values of Progressive ideology are integrated into the fabric of the American nation at every level of governance and society, and its views and beliefs are ingrained in the hearts and minds of many in every class across every region of the country. At one time, however, Progressivism was not natural or accepted ideology, but a new and foreign concept that was rejected by many Americans, or at least unknown and vaguely defined. The question that confronts the historian is, how did the philosophy of Progressivism, which would give rise to so much of the modern and postmodern socio-political landscape, become the most effective, impacting and powerful American political movement of the last 100 years?
There were, of course, many contributing factors to the formation of the movement that would become known as “Progressivism.” The nexus of these influences are complex and widely varied – beginning with the early monarchical machinations of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton who desired an all-powerful centralized government, and the Alien and Sedition Acts passed in 1798 by the Federalist Congress in part to restrict criticism of President John Adams’ policies and silence his political oppositions “free speech.”  Some would also label as a “progressive” trait the rather heavy-handed style of leadership characteristic of the presidency of Andrew Jackson who “defended his own authority with resolute determination, [but] he did not manifest a general respect for the authority of the law when it got in the way of the policies he chose to pursue.”
The Progressive Movement certainly doesn’t owe its whole existence to American sources and personalities. With the emergence of the socio-economic political theories of Karl Marx, “socialism” or “communism” became quite popular after the publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848, and the philosophical premises of Marx’ ideology were to some extent adopted by those in American Government and politics, which contributed greatly to the continuing hunger of many for the centralization of power in a Federal State, a centerpiece of the Progressive Movement.
Many members of the early Marxist movement from Germany and France immigrated to the United States after the failed Marxist French Revolution of 1848, and became leading proponents of the Union Cause in the American Civil War, supporting Lincoln, the strengthening of the Federal Government, and centralized political power. Karl Marx himself, as well as Friedrich Engels saw the victory of the Union as a triumph for Socialism, and Marx even penned a letter of support to Lincoln during the course of the war. These early infusions of foreign “socialist” intellectual encouragement in addition to the many thousands of Europeans that immigrated, bringing their dialectical materialist worldview with them certainly had an impact in creating the foundations of the Progressive Movement.
Furthermore, Progressivism came from a long line of American protest movements particular to the American Mid-west, beginning with the Grangers and moving to the rural Populists, and then naturally migrating into major population centers to form what became Progressivism. While Historian Russell B. Nye noted that Progressives were generally urban,
and not of the same “class” as their predecessors in protest, the Populists, he contended they came from the same general line of ideological remonstrance against the system. While Populist rural farm and ranch laborers protested against the Cattle Barons and Railroads, Progressivist urban industrial laborers took up the cause against so-called “Robber Barons” or Captains of Industry.
Socio-Economic and Political forces did not exhaust the attitudes and convictions that were driving formation of Progressivism, either. The United States was a nation given to religion, and particularly to a predominantly Protestant brand of Christianity that had its roots sunk deep into the traditional faiths of their European forefathers, particularly as they emerged from the Reformation era of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. While many Americans came from spiritual backgrounds steeped in one of the English Church traditions or its “spin-off’s,” the Anglicans, Episcopals, Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalist Puritans, and so forth, many others followed similar Protestant Church traditions, though with their own national and cultural flavors, such as the German Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, Scottish Presbyterian, French Huguenot, Moravians, Waldensians, and so on. Regardless of the particular strain of Christianity, however, Historian Nathan O. Hatch observed two very important “central components” that were common to most Christians of the Early Republic, and that by their nature would come to mesh well with a Progressive agenda and political ideology, at least on the surface. First, Hatch noted that Christianity in America, unlike its European counterparts, had largely jettisoned the antiquated idea of the strict distinction between clergy and laity, and had instead adopted as the “central force” of the American faith “its democracy or populist orientation.” Hatch went on to explain that this “empowered ordinary people by taking their deepest spiritual influences at face value” rather than subjecting them to “the frowns of respectable clergy,” and actually freed the lay people to act on their faith, their belief system, and to become involved. These two elements of personal empowerment and populist orientation were big influences on the psyche of common Christians in the first half of the nineteenth century, which explains why a growing number of them became involved, not only in spiritual matters such as the “Second Great Awakening,” but also in social issues of the day like abolition of slavery, temperance and the fight against alcoholic beverages, women’s suffrage, the labor movement, and many more.
But, what motivated the involvement of these Christians? What internal conviction, what doctrinal affirmation compelled them to labor toward the ends of establishing positive social change? Of particular interest in addressing this question, particularly during this period of American History, is the way Christians saw the future. Eschatology is “a branch of theology concerned with the final events in the history of the world or of humankind; a belief concerning death, the end of the world, or the ultimate destiny of humankind; specifically : any of various Christian doctrines concerning the Second Coming, the resurrection of the dead, or the Last Judgment.” Most American Christians have always considered their understanding of how the future will unfold from both a Biblical and a social perspective to be an essential facet of their religious faith.
From the earliest days of the nation, and in fact, back to the beginning of the Colonial period, many of the prominent Protestant ministers and theologians, heavily influenced by the Reformation tradition and Puritan experiences in the New World, took a very optimistic view of the future, believing that redeemed humans, as embodied in the Christian Church, would eventually evangelize and win the world to Christ, leading not only to a spiritual but also to a social transformation of the entire globe; a Kingdom of God come on earth.
One such Protestant leader was Puritan John Winthrop, who led the early English settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was Winthrop’s fervent hope that he and his colony would serve as an example of redemption and reform that would transform, not only the “New World,” which they called “New England,” but also the “Old World” of Europe, and eventually the entire world. Despite the hardships of the early years, Winthrop’s famous words echo through history and set the optimistic, but demanding tone so characteristic of Puritan eschatology of the time: “We must consider that we shall be as a city set on a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.”
America’s most famous native scholar of Scripture, Johnathan Edwards, also affirmed this optimistic and theologically progressive view of eschatology in his works during the first half of the 1700’s. Edwards, a Newport, Rhode Island Congregational Minister, is most renowned historically for his leadership in the spiritual revival known as “The First Great Awakening” of the 1730’s and 1740’s, and the classic sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which he preached hundreds of times in Churches throughout New England and beyond. He was, however, also a prolific writer and theologian who contributed a great deal to a uniquely American Protestant theological vision, and his most important conclusion with regard to how the Kingdom of God would be achieved on earth is revealed in his The Works of Johnathan Edwards, A.M., in a commentary entitled, “To the Fall of the Antichrist.” Edwards, regarding the coming of the Millennium, or Kingdom of God on earth, summarizes, “This is a work that will be accomplished by means, by preaching of the gospel, and the use of the ordinary means of grace, and so shall be gradually brought to pass.”
During the Colonial and Early American era, this concept of Christian Eschatology formally became known as “Postmillennialism.” The formal theological definition of Postmillennialism is “The Christian doctrine that Jesus Christ’ Second Coming will follow the millennium, a kingdom or utopian age (that may not necessarily be viewed as a literal 1,000 years). In this view, the Church progressively “conquers the world” so to speak. During this present age, Postmillennialists believe that sin will not cease, but it will be minimized because of the influence of the church. Christ will not physically reign but rather he will spiritually reign through the church because of its vast influence over all facets of life. At the culmination of time, Jesus will return to judge the world, sending the wicked to Hell and the righteous to their reward.” In very simple terms, Postmillennialism understands the future “millennium” or “kingdom age” as “the climax and goal of human progress, with human effort contributing to the realization of God’s providential design…. This is called postmillennialism [because] the Second Coming of Christ occurs at the end of the millennium.”
The question, then, is how this popular, fervent and optimistic brand of Christian Eschatology became an influential, perhaps even formative element in the development of the political movement called Progressivism in the late nineteenth century United States.
One suggestion might be that Postmillennialism combined the perfectionist ideals of the Second Great Awakening with the kingdom-building optimism of “Yankee pietism.” Yankee Pietism emerged as a movement among the:
New Testament oriented, anti-ritualist, congregational in governance, active
in para-church organizations, and committed to individual conversion and
societal reform in order to usher in the millennial reign of Jesus Christ.
Pietists did not compartmentalize religion and civil government. Right
belief and right behavior are two sides of the same spiritual coin.
Mark Noll and Luke Harlow additionally observed that, though most of the “Yankee Pietists” were from the “anti-liturgical” traditions (such as “Baptists, Methodists, Disciples, Congregationists, Quakers”), in the political and social movements, the term was “too vague,” and “confessionalists can be pietists and devotionalists too.” The social and political implications of “Yankee Pietism” transcended the sectarian Christian doctrinal differences. This ecumenism naturally lent itself to “other than Christian” motivations for accomplishing goals for the greater good, and later perhaps motivations with no religious foundation at all.
Numerous historians have addressed the effect of the Christian eschatological belief system of Postmillennialism and how it influenced the development of the United States politically, particularly during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Daniel Walker Howe noted that “Postmillennialism provided the capstone to an intellectual structure integrating political liberalism and economic development with Protestant Christianity.” This was certainly not the universal view of all Protestant Christians of the time, but with the champions of Second Great Awakening like Lyman Beecher, Richard T. Ely and Charles Grandison Finney, it became the prevailing view by mid-century, and certainly after the Civil War.
Part and parcel of postmillennial eschatology was the encouragement of activism. It was this brand of Christian eschatology that drove the “continuing moral and social improvement” movements such as abolition, temperance and women’s suffrage, and also “provided the rationale and motivation to sustain the imperial vision” along the way, leading to such events as the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, the Spanish-American War and ultimately World War I.
According to Mark Noll and Luke Harlow, there is no doubt that as Postmillennial “Yankee Pietism” grew in numbers and social clout, beginning early in the nineteenth century when they “launched a crusade to Christianize America.” This agenda was deliberate and divided into two phases.
First, they created the “benevolent empire” in the 1810’s to spread
the Gospel and teach the Bible. Then, in the 1820’s, they established
reform societies to eradicate slavery, saloons, Sabbath desecration,
and other social ills. Finally, in the 1830’s, they entered the political
mainstream by joining the new Whig Party against the Jacksonian
Democrats. By the end of the 1840’s….they added nativist legislation
To their agenda, especially by extending the naturalization period
from four to fourteen years.
Somewhere along the way, however, Postmillennialism lost its “spirituality” but retained its optimism, its utopian ideals, and its concept of human progress. Historian James H. Moorhead refers to this as an “erosion to the more open-ended eschatology of the kingdom,” which is also seen in the emergence of theological liberalism and Biblical “higher criticism” regarding heretofore traditionally accepted orthodox doctrines of the faith. William R. Hutchison quotes Charles S. Briggs, a late nineteenth century proponent of “Modernism” and Biblical higher criticism as saying “We have undermined the breastworks of traditionalism; let us blow them to atoms. We have forced them from the face of the earth that no man hereafter may be kept from the Bible.”
In the absence of a strong reliance on Christian traditions and staunchly held cardinal doctrines, those who maintained a generally “postmillennial” eschatology began to gravitate to a philosophy that placed their reliance in another means of “establishing the kingdom.” “God,” Richard T. Ely declared, “works through the State in carrying out His purposes more universally than through any other institution.” This was the perfect soil into which was sewn the seed of collectivism, Darwinian Evolution, a drive by Radical Republicans during and following the Civil War toward centralization of power in the Federal Government, and a Marxian Dialectical Materialistic philosophy that conspired to produce Progressive political pioneers like Robert M. La Follette, and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
The emergence of politicians like Wisconsin Governor and later Senator Robert M “Fighting Bob” La Follette in the last half of the nineteenth century tracked with the merging of the social practices and political ideas of the more liberalized Postmillennial Pietists and their more secular and materialist counterparts in public life. La Follette, born in 1855, rose to prominence as a Congressman first elected in 1884 and serving three terms as a champion of the populist interests of common laborers and farmers, and an outspoken foe of the industrial giants and corporate interests like railroads and the lumber industry, very prominent in Wisconsin.
La Follette himself had been raised by a Baptist mother who had come west with Yankee Pietist ideals already formulated, however his father Josiah La Follette, who had died when Robert was young, was an agnostic. When his Mother remarried John Z. Saxton, a very conservative, strict and dedicated Baptist, Robert grew to dislike the formal religion and doctrinal absolutes of his Step-father.
“I got fed up with that sort of thing as a boy. My stepfather insisted on entertaining the Baptist Minister every Sunday,” La Follette once quipped when asked about his disposition to churches and religion. According to biographer Nancy Unger, his disdain went further than merely disliking the institution, but the harsh discipline his religious Stepfather often inflicted upon he and his siblings for “poor manners, impoliteness, and discourtesy” and other unacceptable behaviors in children of the day. Yet La Follette never abandoned the ideals of “Yankee Pietism” he was taught as a child, and he wove them into his social philosophy and political ideology, forming a microcosm and prototype of the exemplary “Progressive” in the late nineteenth century, having moved away from the overt religious faith, but kept the social involvement and activism, and gravitated toward a much more statist and collectivist theory of governance. In this sense, Robert La Follette serves as the nearly perfect reflection of what happened to the population of Postmillennial Yankee Pietists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
By the time Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley, the “Progressive Era” was well underway. During Roosevelt’s Presidency, the “Social Gospel” movement was at its height, and theologically liberal leaders such as Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch, Episcopal Richard T. Ely, and Congregationalist Washington Gladden were championing many diverse social causes. Common during this time were temperance and the push for prohibition of alcohol, support of labor unions and “worker’s rights,” women’s suffrage, working against poverty, and just the beginnings of racial desegregation and “civil rights.”
Teddy Roosevelt was no political slouch. Unlike McKinley, Roosevelt was a Republican in the more “progressive” vein of the Party. While he was certainly no Robert La Follette, Roosevelt more than once spoke of his appreciation for the Progressive firebrand, so the direction Roosevelt took in governing the nation was not surprising. Roosevelt demonstrated his “progressive faith in scientific management and committed to enlarging presidential power,” also “sponsoring legislation that expanded the administrative power of the federal government.” Theodore Roosevelt rightly earned the title of the first “Progressive” President, because the Federal Government had not taken a leap in regulatory power or legal control over the people or the States since the end of “Reconstruction.”
President Roosevelt knew how to make his view of an “energetic national government” palatable to the American people, however. As an example, this was demonstrated when he chose to run for re-election in 1912 after a term out of office. The Republican Party failed to nominate him, instead re-nominating incumbent President William Howard Taft. Taft was from the Conservative wing of the Party, and Roosevelt bolted, running on the “Bull-Moose” ticket – another name for the Progressive Party. At the conclusion of the Progressive Party convention that year, Roosevelt is reported to have proclaimed, “Our cause is based on the eternal principles of righteousness; We stand at Armageddon, we battle for the Lord.” As a response to his speech, Roosevelt had the Convention delegation wave their Bibles and march out of the auditorium as they sang the Christian hymn Onward, Christian Soldiers.
Woodrow Wilson was, by far, the most successful President of the classic Progressive Era. Wilson managed to integrate the formerly separate Progressive Party into his Democrat Party, and persuade his party to adopt many of their ideas. Among his greatest triumphs were the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank, the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment approving the “graduated” or “Progressive” Income Tax, the Seventeenth Amendment authorizing the direct election of Senators by democratic vote rather than by vote of the State Legislatures, the creation of the Federal Trade Commission and the passage of the Clayton Anti-Trust Act regulating commerce and limiting monopolies as well as aiding organized labor, the Keating-Owen Act outlawing child labor, the Federal Highway Act, and the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the transport and sale of intoxicating liquors.
Raised the son of a Presbyterian Pastor and Theologian, he drank deeply from the well of Calvinist theology, believing in the tenets common to the Reformed tradition: Predestination, the omnipotence and sovereignty of God, and a personal life of devotion to his faith which included daily Bible reading, morning and evening prayers, and church attendance, including at mid-week prayer services. If Robert La Follette was the prototype of Progressivism’s beginning, it’s flirtation with Christian themes but adoption of secular and materialistic methods and goals, then President Woodrow Wilson was the personification of the Postmillennial Progressive Christian. His religious convictions and ideas of God formed the framework of his entire worldview. His assurance in the truth of God’s sovereignty and predestination gave him a confidence in God’s guidance, both for himself as a leader, and for the nation he led. He held an optimistic and idealistic view that the United States, as a Christian nation, was to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture.” Wilson was firmly postmillennial, viewed his role as a messenger of God, and considered his support for democracy, the “War to End All Wars” (World War I) and establish a “League of Nations” as “divinely inspired paths” to achieving the prophesied “Kingdom of God” spoken of by the prophets in Scripture.
The eschatological view of Postmillennialism found its greatest acceptance among Protestant Christians in the United States, Europe and around the industrialized world as Christian missionaries continued to reach new lands with the Gospel, revivalism and awakenings continued to flourish, and Christian nations enjoyed general prosperity and comfort. Is it any coincidence that during this period of time, the political movement known as Progressivism developed, and enjoyed its greatest popularity during the Industrial Revolution in America and England when people saw their world improving, their faith growing, and their causes advancing?
Of course, it couldn’t last forever. Woodrow Wilson’s second term ended after he’d won “The Great War,” but the American People balked at his “League of Nations,” fearful of the international entanglements it could bring. Wilson was struck down by a stroke, and the US economy suffered a brief but sharp recession as he left office, returning a Conservative, Calvin Coolidge to the Presidency. So, too, the days of Postmillennialism’s popularity were numbered. After 1921, the United States suffered two more major blows that caused many Christians to entirely abandon the optimistic eschatological prognostications once held by so many in the prior century. The Great Depression, which began in 1929 with the crash of the Stock Market, followed by a second and even more devastating World War less than three decades after the first simply crush whatever optimism many had left for a better world.
Progressivism, however, has remained one of the most pervasive and longest lasting political movements in American history. The proponents of Progressivism and its reforms may find it politically expedient to change the labels they are wearing at a given time in the life of the national body politic, like “Liberal,” for instance, or they might retreat on certain policy issues when the political tone and atmosphere turns against them. A great example of that might be the Clinton triangulation on the issue of “Workfare” rather than “welfare,” which President Clinton initially resisted, but once a Republican Congress was elected, he not only embraced, but claimed credit for. This kind of tactical retreat and incrementalism has allowed the survival of Progressivism as political movement far longer than most others, and for that reason, its impact cannot be overestimated.
Often, however, one of its most important sources is glossed over or completely missed by some historians and modern commentators. Much of the basis for the optimism, collectivism, and the positive belief in building a better world “progressively” may be attributed to the ascendancy of the nineteenth century Protestant eschatological view known as postmillennialism. Affirming a great optimism in the abilities of “redeemed humanity,” they believed the Church could bring about the Kingdom of God on earth through reform, economic and social improvement, and the use of Government to implement these changes, both in the United States and eventually, abroad. Though the initial dedication of early Protestant adherence to traditional doctrines gave way to higher criticism and their rejection, these more liberalized Christians retained their optimism, collectivism, concepts of Statist centralization and high opinion of human abilities to achieve a “utopian” ideal, and the result by the beginning of the twentieth century was a full and complete political philosophy known as “Progressivism.” This movement gave birth to modern Liberalism, and indeed, remains a major player in politics today as expressed in the ideology and policies of President Barack Obama, the Democrat Party, major Unions, Occupation Wall Street and the like. While it may seem unlikely in some cases, one of the pillars of Progressivism was a Christian Eschatological view with a positive view of the future, and of human’s abilities to bring it to pass. That vision endures in most Progressives of today.
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Unger, Nancy. Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer. Chapel Hill: University Of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Wilson, Clyde. “Lincoln’s Marxists: a Review.” Chronicles Magazine, April 2012. p. 27
 DiLorenzo, Thomas. Hamilton’s Curse. (New York: Crown Forum Publishing Group, 2008), pp. 16-17.
 Schweikart, Larry & Michael Allen. A Patriot’s History of the United States. (New York: Penguin Group, 2004): p. 152
 Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007): p. 411
 Wilson, Clyde. “Lincoln’s Marxists: A Review,” Chronicles Magazine (April, 2012): p. 27
 Nye, Russell B. Midwestern Progressive Politics: A History of its Origins and Development 1870-1950 (East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State College Press,1951): 4, 13, 21-22
 Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. (Boston: Yale University Press, 1989): pp. 9-10, 213
 Hatch, p. 10
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (Encyclopedia Brittanica Co., 2012): http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/eschatology
 Schweikart, Allen. p. 29
 Edwards, Johnathan, Henry Rogers, Sereno Edwards Dwight. The Works of Johnathan Edwards A.M. 2 Vols.(London: Childs & Son, 1839): Vol. 2, p. 605
 Online Bible Dictionary. (Spreading the Light Ministries, 1999-2009): http://www.spreadinglight.com/theology/dictionary/definitions/postmillennialism.html
 Howe, p. 286
 Paul Kleppner. The Third Electoral System, 1835-1892: Parties, Voters, and Political Cultures. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), p. 190; Howe, p. 619
 Noll, Mark A., Luke E. Harlow. Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present. (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2007): p. 150
 Noll, Harlow, ibid.
 Noll, p. 142.
 Howe, p. 287
 Howe, pp. 287, 580
 Jean B. Quandt. “Religion and Social Thought: The Secularizing of Postmillennialism.” American Quarterly 25 (October 1973): p. 403
 Howe, pp. 174, 287
Moorhead, James H. World Without End: Mainstream American Protestant Visions of the Last Things 1880-1925. (Bloomingtom, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999): p. xv
 Moorhead, p. 47
 Moorhead, p. 6
 Noll, Harlow, p. 150
 Noll, Harlow, pp. 150, 151
 Moorhead, p. 173
 William R. Hutchison. The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992): p. 94
 Sidney Fine. Laissez Faire Thought and the General-Welfare State: A Study of Conflict in American Thought, 1865-1901. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1956): p. 180
 Steven M. Gillon & Cathy D. Matson. The American Experiment: A History of the United States. (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006): p. 816
 Gillon & Matson, p. 828
 Gillon & Matson, p. 836
 Gillon & Matson, pp. 816, 817
 Unger, Nancy C. Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000 ): p. 22
 Evans, Christopher H. The Social Gospel Today. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001): p. 149
 Gillon, Matson, p. 829
 Pestritto, Ronald J. & William J. Atto, Ed. American Progressivism: A Reader. (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2008): p. 10
 Gillon, Matson, p. 837
 Link, Arthur S. ed. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977): Vol. 23, p. 20. “The Bible and Progress,” a speech delivered May 7, 1911, in Denver, Colorado.
 Link, ibid.
 Magee, Malcolm D. What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy. (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2008 ): p. 34
 Online Bible Dictionary. (Spreading the Light Ministries, 1999-2009): http://www.spreadinglight.com/theology/dictionary/definitions/postmillennialism.html