The Apocalyptic Metaphor - Part 3

The History of Demonization

According to Fuller, "During the first three centuries of Christian thought, the identities of Satan and the Antichrist were frequently intertwined," but after that, "The Antichrist has generally been understood to be Satan's chief disciple or agent for deceiving humanity in the final days...." The idea of the Devil, an incarnate powerful evil demon leading a battle against God, gains prominence in the eight and ninth centuries in Christianity. By the thirteenth century, "the Devil reached the acme of his influence." By opposing magic and witchcraft, Christian authorities in this period taught the obvious lesson that some persons in league with the Devil possessed the requisite skills. Whether this was through demonic possession (preferred cure being exorcism), or through a secret pact of soul-selling (preferred cure being execution), the seeds of future witch hunts had been sown. Devil worshipping has been a charge leveled against religious dissidents, followers of other religious traditions, non-believers, and dissidents of all stripes. According to Caras, "[t]he saddest side of the Devil's history appears in the persecution of those who were supposed to be adherents of the Devil; namely, sectarians, heretics, and witches."

The original Papal inquisition in the thirteenth century was directed against dissenters and linked to satanic influence. Sometimes the charge served an opportunistic purpose. The orthodox order of the Knights Templar was accused of "bestial idolatry" by "an avaricious king of France...anxious to deprive them of their wealth." The later Spanish Inquisition, in the fifteenth century, sought to test the sincerity of converted Jews and Muslims, some of whom were suspected of concealing Devilish intent.

The demonization of Jews as magical agents of the powerful Devil gains strength during the sixteenth century Renaissance and the Reformation. During this period, Jews are charged with the ritual murder of children, poisoning of wells, desecration of communion bread and wine, and other false allegations that became widely believed among Christians. Martin Luther believed Jews were agents of the Antichrist in what he thought were the approaching end times, although he also included orthodox Catholics loyal to the Pope, the Turkish invaders of Europe, and eventually all non-Lutherans.

Demonization and conspiracist scapegoating arrived on our shores with the overwhelmingly Protestant early settlers and their view that Godly persons were in a struggle with a literal Satan bent on subverting God and country. The Salem witch hunts were designed to expose conspiratorial subversion by agents of Satan in the form of witches and their allies. That Jews were the Christ-killers and objects of justified scorn was a matter of unquestioned religious doctrine for most Christians in early America. Overlapping this during some periods was widespread Protestant suspicion that Catholics were satanic agents of the Antichrist in the personage of the pope.

After several episodes of evangelical and millennialist fervor, the US Christian fundamentalist movement grew during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as a backlash against the principles of the enlightenment, modernism, and liberalism. Since fundamentalists expect the literal return of Christ in the millennialist end times, they are watchful for the "signs of the times." They scan contemporary and historic events attempting to match them to Biblical prophecies, looking for evidence that the end times have arrived. They are especially concerned with false prophets: political, religious, or business leaders who are subverting God's will and betraying the faithful by urging them to abandon their righteous conduct, especially in terms of sinful sexuality or crass materialism.

Leo Ribuffo's study The Old Christian Right, demonstrated the influence of apocalyptic Biblical prophecy on Protestant far right conspiracist movements in the interwar period, especially on the major figures Ribuffo profiles: William Dudley Pelley, Gerald B. Winrod, and Gerald L. K. Smith. Barkun has studied apocalyptic millennialism in the Christian Identity movement, and its influence on major racist and antisemitic ideologues such as Wesley Swift, William Potter Gale, Richard Butler, Sheldon Emry, and Pete Peters. Robert Fuller notes that "Over the last two hundred years, the Antichrist has been repeatedly identified with such 'threats' as modernism, Roman Catholicism, Jews, socialism, and the Soviet Union."

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