A number of historians of the idea of progress trace the notion to the mystic Joachim of Floris (1131-1202). Karl Löwith, in his classic Meaning in History (1949), believed that Joachim had delineated a “new scheme of epochs and dispensations by which the traditional scheme of religious progress from Old to the New Testament became extended and superseded.” This new scheme is found in his work that came to be called the “Eternal Gospel,” which outlined three stages in history, the Age of the Father, Age of the Son, and Age of the Holy Spirit, corresponding with the Old Testament, New Testament, and an impending apocalyptic event, or eschaton.
Robert Nisbet, in his History of the Idea of Progress (1994), also saw in Joachim and his followers, the Joachimites, a combination of “belief in the necessity of a period of catastrophic violence to usher in the golden age on earth with a philosophy of cumulative, stage-by-stage progress from the past to the future.” Both Nisbet and Löwith explain how Joachim’s vision of history had unintended consequences, when Saint-Simon, Comte, and other positivists appropriated his vision for their own purposes.
Joachim had rejected the Church of his day as corrupt. His followers, the Spiritual Franciscans, or Fraticelli, also decried the corruptions of the Church.
I mention Joachim because about midway through his Intellectual Development of Europe (1863), Draper praised his “Everlasting Gospel.” He observed that “notwithstanding its heresy, the work displayed an enlarged and mastery conception of the history of progress of humanity.” Earlier in his book, Draper had also concurred with the Fraticelli when they claimed that the “fatal gift of a Christian emperor had been the doom of true religion.” According to Draper, the Spiritual Franciscans were reformers, and those generations who had survived the fires of the Inquisition became followers of Martin Luther.