Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

This Chaotic Earth: On Clarence Larkin’s Charts

The apocalypse stressed me out. This is an obviously true, maybe irresponsibly glib statement in material terms—the sixth extinction, global pandemic, nuclear annihilation, space rocks, methane farts, these all terrify me daily in ways that I have the luxury to be terrified.

But I’m not talking here about contemporary, climate-related neurasthenia. In this instance, I mean that apocalypse as a research subject stressed me out. When I was in college, I wrote a senior thesis comparing failed apocalypses in Andrei Bely’s 1915 symbolist novel Petersburg and Don DeLillo’s 1997 Underworld. The idea was that these were two books about growing comfortable (or uncomfortable) with living in the end times. They are books about bombs that never go off. But immersing myself in all of this anticipation—however frustrated—was too much. I was anxious, in banal ways, about the end of college, the loss of friends, the move into the actual world, and all of that got funneled into the apocalypse and the complex, immersive webs of prophecy and doomsaying that help us to imagine it. The end times became for me a convenient theater for all the piddly worries that filled my brain. DeLillo writes in Underworld that “it’s the special skill of an adolescent to imagine the end of the world as an adjunct to his own discontent.”[1] I hear you, Don.

So, when I went to grad school, I decided that I was done with the apocalypse. I spent enough time recreationally worrying about global preparedness for asteroid strikes, I didn’t feel it would be healthy for me to do it professionally. My ingenious fix was to simply redirect my attention a few books earlier in the Bible. I’ve spent the last fifteen years reading and writing about the first—much less apocalyptically ominous—coming of Jesus on Earth and the ragtag group of turn-of-the-century novelists, photographers, filmmakers, and illustrators who saw him as a useful medium for coming to terms with modernity. I worry every day about our increasingly uninhabitable earth, but I’ve done so only as much as any other amateur in the Anthropocene, not as an expert.

Now, at the end of that project, in this moment of possibility and renewed anxiety, I return, inevitably, toward the apocalypse. Specifically, I turn to a figure whose eschatological visions I kept running into and charting courses around for those many years that I worked on my first book: Clarence Larkin, the great twentieth-century artist of the end of the world.

Clarence Larkin, “The Spirit World."
Fig. 1. Clarence Larkin, “The Spirit World,” from Dispensational Truth, or God’s Plan and Purpose in the Ages (Philadelphia, PA: Clarence Larkin Estate, 1918).

Dispensational Style

“Apocalypse,” write Jessica Hurley and Dan Sinykin, “is never a locatable event but rather an imaginative practice that forms and deforms history for specific purposes: an aesthetic that does as much as it represents. Apocalyptic art may represent an imagined future, but it acts in and upon the present.”[2] This seems true to me, both personally and in terms of the work of a figure like Larkin, whose elaborate, hand-drawn charts of the end times have anchored the visuality of Christian apocalypticism for the better part of a hundred years. The trick, as is the trick with all visual regimes, is that the most successful apocalypses don’t represent themselves transparently. What they say about the future is clear as a bell, but deciphering what they do about the present requires a particular type of attention, as paranoid as it is blasé about the spectacular content of Armageddon.

How can we ever tell what an apocalypse is about? How do we negotiate our skepticism toward a form defined by both its blunt literalness and its symbolic excess? Whose world is destroyed by the apocalyptic imagination, and whose world is reborn? These, to me, are the big unanswered questions of Clarence Larkin’s charts.

In 1917, Oxford University Press published the second edition of the Scofield Reference Bible, a heavily annotated King James Version of the holy text that had initially been published in 1909. The annotations were provided by Cyrus Scofield, who interpreted each Biblical event by way of the tenets of premillennial dispensationalism.[3] While there are many varieties of dispensationalist thought, in general, the system advocates a literal interpretation of the Bible and a schema that divides the ages of the world into a series of historical “dispensations.” Scofield suggested, as many dispensationalists do, seven world-historical eras, each of which involves a revelation from God, followed by humanity’s endeavor to conform to God’s revelation, followed by failure, followed by judgment. According to dispensationalist calculations—and calculation is as important to dispensationalism as any narrative or vision—humanity is in the midst of its sixth dispensation. When the cycle completes, it will usher in the seventh dispensation, or the one thousand-year millennial kingdom on Earth. When that wraps up, God will hand down his final judgment on humankind, and, well, that’s that.

This system has been the foundation for much conservative, fundamentalist Christianity in the twentieth century, and its evocation of humanity’s perilous perch in the longue durée of history has provided the imaginative spark for innumerable pop apocalyptic texts like Hal Lindsey’s 1970 The Late, Great Planet Earth and, at the turn of the twenty-first century, the Left Behind series. Despite its authoritative claim on the Bible’s meaning in world history, though, dispensationalism as we know it is essentially a nineteenth-century invention. Its contemporary life can be traced to the writings and lectures of John Nelson Darby, an Irish theologian who developed and circulated the dispensationalist system in the 1830s and 40s.[4] His teachings were codified and popularized by Scofield’s 1909 Bible, which was revised with specific dates for Biblical events and an essay titled “A Panoramic View of the Bible” in 1917.

So, in 1909 and 1917, Scofield made dispensationalism readily accessible to readers in the United States. But in 1918, Clarence Larkin drew it.

As his estate explains, Larkin was a Pennsylvanian engineer and draftsman who left his career in his early thirties to become a Baptist minister. His claim to fame, however, was neither his sermons nor his original concepts, but his illustrated books. In 1918, he published Dispensational Truth, or God’s Plan and Purpose for the Ages.[5] It is, like Scofield’s annotations, an extended primer on premillennial dispensationalist Biblical interpretation, but it also features nearly one hundred illustrative images and charts, hand-drawn by Larkin. Many of these charts are almost unfathomably complex, both conceptually and aesthetically. They are overlaid with multiple types of text, connecting lines, and illustrations of varying sizes.

In this way, they visualize a key element of dispensationalism’s persuasiveness. Dispensationalism, as B. M. Pietsch has argued, grew out of the popular nineteenth-century impulse to apply technological methodologies to spiritual questions. Its rationalist veneer is bolstered by its performative complexity, its extravagant temporal and historiographical logic. Larkin’s drawings reflect that in spectacular fashion. While drawn from an imaginative reading of scripture, dispensationalism is clothed in the aesthetic of calculation, classification, and historiographical precision. This detail-rich aesthetic “sought to imbue religious ideas with the same quality of factuality that increasingly buttressed the cultural authority of scientists.”[6]

Fig. 2. Clarence Larkin, “Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth,” from Dispensational Truth, or God’s Plan and Purpose in the Ages (Philadelphia, PA: Clarence Larkin Estate, 1918).

Such detail is visible in the chart “Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth,” which is, essentially, a map of all human history, moving chronologically from the creation of the earth to the end of the world (fig. 2). Note the sequence of each of the six dispensations, as well as the corresponding labels of “Generation” and “Regeneration.” But we also see figures (Satan falling once in between the Creation of the Earth and again between the sixth and seventh dispensations), events (the War in Heaven), and buildings (the Tower of Babel, the Pyramids). Perhaps most unusually, the temporal chart morphs into a spatial one: in the bottom right-hand corner, we see a roughly detailed map of Hell. And, of course, we see numerous scriptural citations scattered throughout to verify Larkin’s illustrative work. From a distance, history is a machine, mechanically producing its own demise. (The “renovation of the earth by fire,” on the right side of the drawing, is both a source of destruction and energy.) This is an explanatory chart, but its multidimensionality, its ambition to contain time and space, the divine and the damned, gives it an impossible depth.

This chart is defined by organization and confusion, by precision and muddle; look closely, and you’ll see the detailed logic; look casually, and you’ll find a maze. Describing an apocalyptic vision from a vastly different time­—the “dense, seemingly impenetrable forests of text” in A. S. Byatt’s 2011 Ragnarök—Sarah Chihaya writes, “The demand of these exhilaratingly or exhaustingly disorganized inventories is for the reader to negotiate a new and particular way of reading.”[7] This speaks across time to Larkin, suggesting a shared aesthetic of apocalypse. Of course, charts such as the one above are meant to be explanatory, but part of their power comes from their visual density. While nominally an image of order, there is still something chaotic about the image, like a Rube Goldberg machine or a day’s worth of notes and doodles scribbled between middle-school deskmates. They work, they give an account, but their interpretation requires a trained eye. Chihaya says that Byatt’s inventories demand a new way of reading that’s arguably more important than the specific myth she’s narrating. Similarly, Larkin’s images demand a new way of seeing.

But if the content of these images is secondary to the style of vision they require, what are they supposed to help viewers see? Despite the encyclopedic detail of these drawings, the reason I keep coming back to them is for something I can’t find in them. That is: where is race?

Race, Reconstruction, and “The Six Days of Re-Creation”

Dispensationalism began its rise in popularity in the U.S. during the years after the Civil War, the years of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. It found a bulwark in the Southern Baptist Convention, formed in 1845 in part to resist Northern abolitionism. And, as Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews has recently shown, in the period between the wars, African American Protestant theologians and ministers largely avoided the pretzeled futuristic logic of dispensationalist thought.[8] Premillenial apocalypticism was by no means a phenomenon exclusive to white fundamentalists, nor did its theology ground itself in any sort of easily perceptible anti-black racism, but the demographic imbalance was certainly notable. As Mathews suggests, a theology that relied on such acrobatic calculations to predict future terrors held little appeal for African American Christians in the early twentieth century, whose everyday world “contained distinct and present dangers” (Doctrine and Race, 80).

So dispensationalism was a movement powered by white evangelicals and bolstered institutionally by an organization founded on a laissez-faire attitude toward slavery, during precisely the years when the legislative architecture of Jim Crow was being constructed. While historical narratives about racism and the underpinnings of fundamentalist Christianity are many, few trace this pernicious thread through the logic of dispensationalism itself.[9] To return to the framing Hurley and Sinykin provide: how do Larkin’s charts do the work of American racial politics in their apocalyptic form?

Clarence Larkin, “Generation."
Fig. 3. Clarence Larkin, “Generation,” from Dispensational Truth, or God’s Plan and Purpose in the Ages (Philadelphia, PA: Clarence Larkin Estate, 1918).

Here I’m struck not so much by the elaborate technical infrastructure of Larkin’s charts as by the choices he makes in those images that require the most creative license. Take, for instance, the image titled “Generation” (fig. 3). In this illustration, we see the three phases of the young Earth: the Original, the Chaotic, and the Present. In the “Present” Earth, we see a familiar globe, missing several important landmasses, but recognizable primarily because of the centrality of the Americas. We even see the outline of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. This Earth is an American one. But the other Earths are notable, not just in their lack of identifying features, but also, and precisely, in their otherness. In the pale blankness of origins and the furry darkness of chaos, Earth fundamentally does not look like itself.

Clarence Larkin, “The Six Days of Re-Creation."
Fig. 4. Clarence Larkin, “The Six Days of Re-Creation,” from Dispensational Truth, or God’s Plan and Purpose in the Ages (Philadelphia, PA: Clarence Larkin Estate, 1918).
Clarence Larkin, “The Fourth Day."
Fig. 5. Clarence Larkin, “The Fourth Day,” from Dispensational Truth, or God’s Plan and Purpose in the Ages (Philadelphia, PA: Clarence Larkin Estate, 1918).

A variation on this image shows this layer of chaos literally being peeled back to reveal North America (figs. 4-5). Such depictions of an American Earth emerging from disorder were common in this period. In 1914, Charles Taze Russell, founder of what would become the Jehovah’s Witnesses, depicted a similar process in his eight-hour slide lecture/film The Photo-Drama of Creation. Henry Adams, likewise, described the arc of modern history as a progressive movement from “chaos” to “unity” in his 1907 Education (officially published in 1918).

But not every invocation of the chaotic postbellum was so racially agnostic. The “Dunning School” of Reconstruction historians in the early twentieth century absolved white slave owners and indicted abolitionists and black Americans by re-narrating Reconstruction as a “social and economic chaos” that could only be resolved by reunifying the nation under white rule.[10] Thomas Dixon Jr. wrote in 1902 that the purpose of the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan was “to bring order out of chaos, protect the weak and defenseless, the widows and orphans of brave men who had died for their country, to drive from power the thieves who were robbing the people, redeem the commonwealth from infamy, and reestablish civilisation.”[11] And D. W. Griffith, in adapting Dixon, echoed this framing in his 1915 The Birth of a Nation—itself a U.S. creation myth. The movement from chaos to order in this period is invariably narrated at planetary scale from the vantage of contemporary, white America.

The secular notion of American unity emerging from the upheavals of war is a founding myth of the twentieth century, but it’s a myth that only makes sense if it ignores all those who were disenfranchised, whose exclusions afforded that unity. Indeed, in Larkin’s illustrations, this connection between the emergence of the “present” Earth from chaos and the emergence of the modern U.S. nation from the chaos of war and Reconstruction is given visual form. America could look like itself only after emerging from chaos, and that chaos was invariably associated with Reconstruction’s stymied efforts to enfranchise black Americans.

Larkin’s apocalypticism is not Griffith’s. But that doesn’t mean Larkin’s drawings don’t draw on some of the same visual vocabularies or participate in the same aesthetic genealogies. To read for apocalypse might not only be to read for explicit narratives of the present but also to see the ways in which tales of deep time, tales reaching toward the immortal, bear the markings of the local and the momentary.

Elsewhere in Underworld, DeLillo describes a revelation: “He felt he’d glimpsed some horrific system of connections in which you can’t tell the difference between one thing and another, between a soup can and a car bomb, because they are made by the same people in the same way and ultimately refer to the same thing” (DeLillo, Underworld, 446). The creation of the world and the birth of a nation, the dispensations of the earth and the dispensation of Jim Crow, chaos, unity, the renovation of the earth by fire—you can’t tell the difference between one thing and another because they are made by the same people in the same way and ultimately refer to the same thing.


Notes

[1] Don DeLillo, Underworld (New York: Scribner, 1997), 88.

[2] Jessica Hurley and Dan Sinykin, “Apocalypse: Introduction,” ASAP/Journal 3.3 (2018): 451-56, 451.

[3] See R. Todd Mangum and Mark S. Sweetnam, The Scofield Bible: Its History and Impact on the Evangelical Church (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster Publishing, 2009).

[4] See Donald Harman Akenson, Exporting the Rapture: John Nelson Darby and the Victorian Conquest of North-American Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[5] Clarence Larkin, Dispensational Truth, or God’s Plan and Purpose in the Ages (Philadelphia, PA: Clarence Larkin Estate, 1918).

[6] B. M. Pietsch, Dispensational Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 2.

[7] Sarah Chihaya, “What is Missing: Cataloguing the End,” ASAP/Journal 3.3 (2018): 571-593, 580.

[8] Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelical and Fundamentalism Between the Wars (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2017), 77.

[9] The relationship between American Christian Zionism and dispensationalism, on the other hand, is well documented. See, most recently, Amy Kaplan, Our American Israel: The Story of an Entangled Alliance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[10] William Dunning, Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 18651877 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1907), 58.

[11] Thomas Dixon, Jr., The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden, 18651900 (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1902), 152.