The categories of pre- and postmillennialism are coming under increasing scholarly fire as are their concomitant connotations of being pessimistic and politically ineffectual or optimistic and progressive respectively. This dissertation will argue that millennialism is constituted by an alternative construction of time itself which allows for myriad possible relations to time and personal behaviors based on those relations. Millennialism is inherently eschatological and in violently foregrounding the immanence of closure these groups must for their own survival continually defer the closure that is their defining characteristic.
As such, this dissertation will utilize narrative theory to examine nineteenth- century American millennialist movements. Contemporary narrative theory stands as a sophisticated hermeneutic tool that is concerned both with narrative, i.e., that which drives toward closure, and with anti-narrative, that which resists or disrupts closure. The immediacy or postponement of the end of days may be seen not as fanatical or progressive responses to social crises but rather as a sense-making position within the present. Just as the plot of a novel is comprehensible in its entirety only after it is finished, so too religious meaning is created in relation to a conception of the whole of history. By focusing on the dire necessity of closure, millennial groups are performative of the deferral of closure in narrative: the end of time is paradoxically that which allows for disruptions, reversals and regressions within time.
The academic conversation this dissertation will be entering into is two-fold: constructions of the nature of millennialism, particularly in American Protestantism, and the form and function of narrative. While most scholarly accounts of such religious movements discuss eschatology as the defining feature of millennialism, none to my knowledge focuses on the construction of final days as a dynamic interplay between closure and anti-closure with the end of history as a strategy of creating meaning. Secondly, there is no literature arguing that the cosmologies of millennialist religions are analogous to the paradoxical nature of how anti-narrative--that which resists the traditional progress of plot--is also narrative. The contribution of this dissertation will be to offer those arguments to the study of millennialism and narrative as well as to bring more postmodern theoretical tools to the study of American religions which has been reluctant to take that direction.
The introduction will address the above-mentioned issues and lay the foundation for the theoretical approach to the historical material. The first chapter will address the rise and structure of the novel and the concept of religious dispensations, God's granting a particular group the right to exist in an alternative and often scandalously different manner than the rest of society. Both the novel and the dispensation center on participating in a highly artificial and self-consciously constructed alternative world. William Miller's writings on the Christian dispensation that supersedes God's Biblical promise of chosenness to the Jews will be examined as will John Humphrey Noyes' perfectionism which was the basis of the defense of complex marriage at the Oneida Community. The second chapter will examine the rise of the Mormons and their temporal and spatial deferral of meeting the conditions for the second coming. The third chapter will focus on millennial bodies. The practices of polygamy, group marriage, and free love may be "read" as strategies of reversals of expectations and deferral of stasis. The fourth chapter will examine millennial heavens, with Mormon and Spiritualist heavens constructed as continuity rather than closure: the dead continue to grow, physically, intellectually and spiritually in these cosmologies. The fifth chapter will discuss the nature of millennialism as performative of the co-existence of anti-narrative and narrative within a single entity. This chapter will draw on the information of the previous ones and aim at furthering an understanding of the self- disruptive nature of narrative, particularly that which experiments with time. The conclusion will summarize the findings of the dissertation, focusing on religious and narrative deferrals of closure and their contribution to the creation of meaning. It will also suggest the importance of narrative theory for the study of religions and some future directions for the study of millennialism.