MILLENNIALISM (MILLENARIANISM, CHILIASM)Draft of article for the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of World Religions, 1999

Literally, millennialism refers to the belief, expressed in the book of Revelation, that Christ will establish a one-thousand year reign of the saints on earth before the Last Judgment. More broadly defined, millennialists expect a time of supernatural peace and abundance here on earth.

At its origins, millennialism offers a concrete version of the fundamental eschatological belief that at the "end of time" God will judge the living and the [resurrected] dead. This belief in an ultimate divine justice, has provided the solution to the problem of theodicy for countless generations of believers — Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists — suffering hardship and oppression, and has, therefore, had immense appeal for commoners in every age. Whereas the name comes from the 1000-year period, in fact the key factor concerns the earthly nature of the coming "new world": whether it is of a duration of forty years or four thousand, the radical transformation necessarily means an end to the current institutions of power and, therefore, gives all millennial beliefs a revolutionary quality that has made them unwelcome to those in positions of authority.

The key issue in terms of millennialism's impact on society, however, is the matter of timing. As long as the day of redemption is not yet come, millennial hopes console the suffering and inspire patience (Revelation13:10) and political quiescence, and have a profoundly conservative influence. But driven by a sense of imminence (apocalyptic), believers can become disruptive, even engaging in revolutionary efforts to overthrow an unjust socio-political order in an attempt to bring about the kingdom of "peace" for the meek and the defenseless. Thus, apocalyptic millennialism constitutes a powerful and volatile mixture, fascinating the hearts and minds of people throughout the ages. No matter how often the apocalyptic beliefs have been proven wrong (until present, always), no matter how often the millennial efforts to establish God's kingdom on earth have led to disastrous results, apocalyptic expectations repeatedly revive. From the Jewish revolts against Rome which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths (3 CE, 66-70, 132-5) to the Taiping Rebellion that led to the death of some 20-35 million people, such movements have a tendency to self-destruct in the most spectacular fashion. And yet, for all the costly failures, the appeal remains and generation after generation finds devotees in search of the chimerical kingdom.

Apocalyptic millennialism, for all its dangers, offers immense rewards: believers find themselves at the center of the ultimate universal drama and their every act has cosmic significance. Apocalyptic believers become semiotically aroused (if not semiotically promiscuous), finding cosmic messages in the smallest incident, in every coincidence. Moreover, they can almost taste the fulfillment of their burning desire to see justice done — the good lavishly rewarded, the evil savagely punished. Finally the approach of the endtimes and the promise of a new world liberates believers from all earthly inhibitions: the fear of future punishment by those who now hold power vanishes, and a wide range of repressed feelings — sexual, emotional, violent — burst forth. Such a combination proves irresistible to many: millennial hope possesses believers.

From its earliest manifestations, millennial beliefs bifurcated between imperial, hierarchical visions of the world to come, a kingdom ruled over by a just if authoritarian imperial figure who would conquer the forces of chaos and establish the true order of society (Cohn, 1993) and a demotic vision of a world of holy anarchy, where dominion of man over man ceased from the world. Many world conquerors used millennial "savior" imagery to bolster their rule (Cyrus, Alexander, Augustus, Constantine), and especially in the Muslim and Christian Middle Ages these imperial uses of millennial imagery proliferated. The contrary millennial tendency, however, was marked by a profoundly anti-imperial, even anti-authoritarian thrust. Indeed, one of the major strains of Hebrew messianic imagery foresaw a time when men shall beat the instruments of war and domination into instruments of peace and prosperity; each one sitting under his own tree, enjoying the fruits of honest labor undisturbed (Isaiah 2:1-3, Micah 4:1-4). This millennialism foresees the end of the rapacious aristocracy (lion and wolf will lie down with the lamb) and the peace of the commoner, the manual laborer (lamb gets up the next morning). Perhaps no idea in the ancient world, where the dominion of aristocratic empires spread to almost every area of cultivated land, held more subversive connotations (Baumgarten).

Apostolic Christianity demonstrates many of the key traits of apocalyptic millenarian groups of this second, demotic, type:

The only missing element, at that time prominent in several other strains of Jewish millennialism (the Zealots), is violence, subsumed, apparently, in the passion for martyrdom (Gager, Collins). Not for centuries would violence became a notable part of Christian millennialism (e.g., the Circumcelliones of 4th century North Africa).

The fundamental problem for early Christianity, as for all apocalyptic movements, was the passage of time, which brought with it profound disappointment and humiliation (II Peter). Those who did not abandon the movement (e.g. by returning to observant Judaism), handled the delay of the Parousia by organizing communities and rituals which brought, proleptically, a foretaste of the coming world — the eucharist, the reading of Revelation. But above all, the passing of time called for a new temporal horizon. The End would come, but not now, not even soon, rather in the fullness of time, once the tasks assigned by God — especially the spreading of the Gospels to the four corners of the world — were completed.

As Christianity evolved from a charismatic cult on the fringes of the society into a self-perpetuating institution eager to live in harmony with Rome, the hopes of apocalyptic millenarianism embarrassed Church leaders who emphasized to Roman authorities that Jesus' kingdom was "not of this world." Whereas almost every prominent Christian writer from the movement’s first century assumed a literal millennialism, by the later second century ecclesiastical writers, striving to eliminate subversive millennialism from Church doctrine, began an assault on millenarian texts (especially Revelation, the only text in the New Testament to explicitly speak of an earthly kingdom). Origen, an early 3rd century theologian, argued the millennium was to be interpreted allegorically, not carnally; others attempted (successfully in the Eastern Church) to eliminate Revelation from the canon altogether. With the advent of imperial Christianity, millenarianism was pushed to the very margins of acceptable Christian thought.

Despite these efforts by the Church hierarchy to remove millennialism from formal theology, apocalyptic fears and millennial hopes remained powerful among Christians high and low. Indeed, the very texts that anti-millenarian writers like Jerome wrote, served as the basis for new forms of millennialism such as the "Refreshment of Saints" (Lerner). Above all, charismatic prophets using apocalyptic calculations drawn from Daniel and Revelation continued to excite the faithful. Perhaps in recognition of this perennial appeal, Church leaders compromised when dealing with the simpler faithful who remained deeply attached to hopes for a real millennium. As a result, as early as the 2nd century, two of the principle themes of medieval millennialism emerged: 1) the use of an anti-apocalyptic chronology to postpone the End, thus encouraging patience; and 2) the transformation of the Roman Empire into a positive eschatological force.

To delay the end and reap the calming benefits of non-apocalyptic millennialism, theologians placed great weight on the idea of a sabbatical millennium. This idea combined Genesis 1 (six days of travail, sabbath rest), with Psalm 90 (1000 years is a day in the sight of the Lord), promised the thousand-year kingdom after 6000 years. About 200 CE the first Christian chronology placed the Incarnation in 5500 Annus Mundi, thus marking the year 500 CE as the year 6000, and providing a buffer of some 300 years from the present. Thus when apocalyptic prophets announced the imminent End, conservative clerics could counter with the argument that centuries yet remained until the millennium. Documentary evidence for this chronological argument provides an indicator of the presence of popular apocalyptic rumors, countered by theologians trying to calm the enthused panics such rumors incited. From our modern perspective, of course, such chronological temporizing merely postponed, indeed aggravated, apocalyptic millennialism. From the early 3rd century, another 300 years probably seemed like an immensely long time, but eventually the 6000 years would be fulfilled.

At the same time as theologians tried to postpone millennial hopes, they also tried to remove Christian millennial hostility to the Roman empire. Thus, theologians took Paul’s discussion of the timing of the End (II Thess. 3:4) and interpreted his reference to an "obstacle" to the advent of the "man of iniquity" as meaning that as long as the Roman empire endured, the Antichrist could not come. This pro-Roman eschatology would, after Christianity became imperial, produce the myth of the Last Emperor, a superhuman figure who would unite all of Christendom, rule in peace and justice for 120 years, before abdicating his throne, thus removing the "obstacle" and bringing on the brief rule of Antichrist (Tiburtine Sybil, Pseudo-Methodius). This imperial millennialism, which probably already influenced Constantine — the first, "Last Emperor" — offered a powerful antidote to the subversive elements of popular millennialism. Its cosmic struggle was not the demotic holy anarchy opposing an evil empire of earliest Christianity, but the authoritarian holy empire fighting anarchic chaos; instead of the aniconic monotheistic political ideal of "no king but God," it offered the iconic one of "one God, one king." Not surprisingly, this form of "top-down" millennialism found much favor among subsequent Christian theologians.

But both these approaches, however creative and successful among theologians, merely delayed the problem. Despite pagan and Christian belief in Roma eterna, the empire (especially in the West) was vulnerable; and no matter how far away 6000 AM (500 CE) seemed from 5700 (200), it didn’t seem so far away in the 5900s (400s). Indeed, the western Roman empire faltered just as the year 6000 approached, turning both these anti-apocalyptic exegeses — the sabbatical chronology and the imperial "obstacle" to Antichrist — into profoundly apocalyptic ones. At the beginning of the fifth century (ca. 5900 AM), Jerome and Augustine, perceiving the danger posed by two such unstable eschatological "teachings," developed new and more stringent forms of opposition to millennialism. They reoriented Latin thought in two ways. Jerome introduced a new set of calculations that placed the Incarnation in 5199 AM (II), thus delaying the year 6000 another three centuries. He thereby made it possible for Latin chronographers to ignore the advent of the year 6000 AM I, since it was really only 5701 AM II). At the same time he heaped ridicule and contempt on millennialists, believers in foolish tales of earthly delights, gluttony and sexual promiscuity.

Augustine went still further, arguing that no historical event or chronology can be interpreted apocalyptically; and that the millennium was not a future event but already in progress, already set in motion by Christ. To explain why the evils of war, hatred, injustice and poverty continued unabated, Augustine used the notion of the Two Cities. There was a "heavenly city," the celestial Jerusalem, where the millennium was already manifest, and a terrestrial Babylon, the time-bound city of violence and oppression in which the millennium was not visible. These two cities would coexist as a corpus permixtum (a mixed body) in every man (even saints) and in every society (even the Church) until the Eschaton. Thus Christian Rome, even the earthy Church, could not represent the perfection of eschatological fulfillment, and their historical fate had nothing to do with God’s plans for human salvation. This teaching radically reoriented Christian eschatology: rather than awaiting the coming Kingdom on earth, one should await it at the very end of time. Augustine basically banned millennialism, or the belief in a coming kingdom of God on earth, from Christian theology (Fredriksen).

This ban on millennial thought so dominated the official theological writings of the early Middle Ages, that most modern historians think it had disappeared entirely from Latin Christendom. Indeed, standard treatments of millennialism, unaware of the presence of the sabbatical millennium and the popular millennial discourse it opposed, tend to skip from Augustine (5th century) to Joachim (12th century) when the first formal theology that looked forward to the millennium re-emerged. There are signs of millennialism, however, both in the activity of anti-ecclesiastical prophets like the "False" Christ of Bourges described by Gregory of Tours (Historiae, 10.25), and in the anti-apocalyptic uses of chronology to oppose them. Gregory, for example, published his chronology for "those who despair at the coming end of the world." The implicit message was clear: Gregory wrote in the late 5700s, and when arguing with the "saints" who emerged after the assassination of the "False Christ" and "gained quite an influence over the common people", Gregory and his colleagues could argue there were more than 2 century to wait (History of the Franks, 1.1, 10.25). But, of course, even this more remote date eventually drew near, and in the eighth century -- again the 5900s — the English monk Bede and his Carolingian followers did for Annus Mundi II, what Jerome had done for AM I: they shifted the dating system again, this time to Anno Domini. Hence the year 6000 AM II, just as the year 6000 AM I, passed unnoted by sources which spoke instead of AD 801.

And yet, the relative silence in our documentation does not mean that there was no further discussion of the approaching 6000. Indeed, as in 6000 AM I (500), the approach of 6000 brought an acute political crisis with the occupation of the Byzantine throne by a woman (Irene): the "obstacle" of II Thess. had been removed. Charlemagne’s response, to hold his imperial coronation on the first day of the year 6000 AM II (AD 801) unquestionably held millennial significance despite the reluctance of the written sources to elaborate. The Coronation was, in this sense, like the "Emperor's New Clothes": everyone in the court knew of the date AM, but no chronicler mentioned it. Ignorant of this disparity, modern historians have analyzed this pivotal moment in Western history without any awareness of its millennial background, speaking only of the Coronation of the year 800.

Charlemagne's coronation contributed two essential elements to subsequent European millennialism. First, he "transferred" the Empire, with all its apocalyptic and millennial freight to the West, including the notion of the Last Emperor. Numerous European kings claimed this messianic status; but the German emperors above all proved fascinated by the "Last emperor" (e.g., Otto III, Frederick I, Frederick II). Second, the Carolingians shifted chronological hopes for the apocalypse from 6000 AM to the year AD 1000, a date at once millennial (the end of the sixth age, dawn of the Sabbatical era) and Augustinian (the end of the millennium since Christ). And unlike the previous cases of a millennial date’s advent, chronographers were unable to shift the chronlogy and avoid mentioning the apocalyptic date (Landes, 1988).

Germany and France of 1000 illustrate the two dynamics of millennial symbolism: Germany incarnates the "top-down" imperial version, while France displays a remarkable array of "bottom-up" populist expressions. Emperor Otto III manipulated every aspect of the imperial variety: he insisted on the renovatio imperii Romani (the affirmation of Rome, the "obstacle" to Antichrist), on Pentecost of 1000, he opened Charlemagne's tomb (emperor of 6000); he urged rulers throughout the Eastern regions to convert to Christianity (Poland, Hungary, Scandinavia). King Robert II of France, however, second ruler of a new and still uncertain dynasty and under anathema in 1000, presided over a kingdom marked by the social turmoil of a castellan revolution that neither the king, nor most of the high aristocracy were capable of controlling. Here apocalyptic and millennial symbols were generated from below, especially in the earliest popular religious movement of the Middle Ages -- the Peace of God. This conciliar movement, which mobilized huge crowds at open-air revivalist gatherings in the collective pursuit of God's peace on earth, may have been the earliest sustained millenarian movement that joined all levels of society together. It thus displays two key and consequential aspects of subsequent millennialism in the West: the vast revivalist gatherings and the sense of a social covenant. It appeared in two waves, each in the decade before the millennium of the Incarnation (1000) and the Passion (1033), first south of the Loire, then throughout France (Landes, 1995).

Of course, the years 1000 passed and, despite vast social covenants followed by years of "Jubilee"-like abundance and peace (Glaber), there was still no Parousia, still no millennium. A failure as a messianic voluntary movement, the Peace of God became the enforced "King’s Peace," the social covenant became a contract. Yet apocalyptic expectations did not disappear in Western Europe; on the contrary, there was a sea-change in millennial hopes. Instead of the predominately passive expectation of the earlier period, the passing of 1000 seems to have introduced, via the Peace Movement, a new and more aggressive form which sought to prepare the world for the End. Here we see the earliest forms of what today Christian theologians call "post-millennialism," or the notion that the Christ comes after a millennial kingdom wrought and presided over by the saints, a kingdom towards which believers can and should work. While popular "Messiahs" continued to appear (e.g. Eon de l'Etoile and Tanchelm), the period after the year 1000 saw much vaster movements, often approved (at least initially) by ecclesiastical authorities — the popular crusades, the Capuciati, the Franciscans, the Flagellants. Some of these movements were popularly based, militant, and extremely hostile to ecclesiastical authority, the wealthy, Jews, intellectuals, etc., displaying the anger, paranoia, and violence, that would dominate an entire strain of anti-modern, Christian millennialism from the crusading pogroms to the Nazis.

But the more documentable, and in some ways more surprising, aspect of medieval millennialism was its use by lay and ecclesiastical elites to buttress their own authority. Starting with the "Gregorian Reform," papal reformers used apocalyptic imagery both to attack their enemies as Antichrist, and to wrap their own efforts in messianic promises. Similarly, royal and even comital courts used eschatological prophecy as propaganda. Dynastic publicists often painted their patrons in the imagery of the Last Emperor — the Norman William the Bastard consciously used themes from Revelation — his crown, his Doomsday book — to buttress his conquest of England. Supporters of Thierry of Alsace, count of Flanders, responding to the seemingly apocalyptic civil war of 1127-28, disseminated prophecies claiming that his (Carolingian) dynasty was the last barrier to Antichrist. At the time of the Second Crusade, a French prophet evoked the Tiburtine Sibyl to predict that Louis VII was to conquer the orient in the fashion of the great Persian King Cyrus.

Millennial hopes and ambitions reached new levels as a result of the work of Joachim of Fiore (late 12th). In analogy with the Trinity, Joachim postulated that there were to be three great states (status) of history: 1) that of the Law, which had been characterized by the vesting of righteousness in married persons; 2) that of the Gospel, during which an order of unmarried clerics served as the guardians of righteousness; and 3) that of the Holy Spirit, the period of the "Refreshment of the Saints" after Antichrist, in which the order of monks would bring an era of earthly peace and spiritual contemplation. Joachim was the first theologian to reject Augustine and return to a notion of a millennium to come, and his influence on subsequent millennial thought was immense.

The earliest historians of millennialism thought of Joachim as the first millennial thinker since the days when Augustine banned such ideas. He now appears to be the first formal thinker to articulate his millennialism in a way that could legitimately survive in writing. Had Augustine been present when the papal council declared Joachim’s works acceptable, he would have denounced the decision loudly. Instead of a lone millenarian presence, then, Joachim’s work stands as the literate articulation of a widespread oral discussion of millennialism at the turn of 1200, an oral discourse that had never ceased, despite its sudden ups and long downs, since well before Augustine. The spectacular success of the movements that could fuel themselves with Joachite "age of the spirit" rhetoric, illustrates the broad social stratum and the liveliness of the religiosity of this (post-)millennial discourse.

Joachim revitalized every aspect of medieval millennialism: within decades of his death in 1202, prophecies attributed to him began to circulate which people identified (in profoundly un-Augustinian fashion) with current events: mystical numerology, Franciscans and Dominicans, Holy Roman Emperors and Popes all became figures in vast and ever-shifting predictions of imminent apocalypse. Chronological calculations fixed on 1250, then 1260 as the beginning of the new Age, producing new and fearsome forms of spirituality like the Flagellants. The Franciscan order split over interpretations of Joachite prophecy, one branch becoming inquisitors, the other, revolutionary millenarians. Angelic popes and messianic emperors (some dead but returning), vied among lay and clerical constituencies for a following. By the end of the 13th century, millennialism had reached a fevered pitch, especially among Spiritual Franciscans and their lay spin-offs the Apostolic Brethren, as well as the more mystical elements of the Beguines (Margeret de la Porete) and the Beguins. The execution, in 1300, of the some Apostolic Brethren including their founder Gerard Segarelli, by Pope Boniface VIII set the stage for a particularly violent round of (justifiedly) paranoid millennialism under the leadership of Fra Dolcino in the early 14th century.

In France, the imagery of millennialism continued to influence political discourse throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages. The terrible catastrophes of the fourteenth century -- the Hundred Years War and the Black Death -- renewed fervor for the final, divine intervention, including new and radical forms of Flagellants. Writing immediately after the humiliating rout of the French knighthood and the capture of the French king at Poitiers in 1356, the Franciscan John of Roquetaillade (Rupescisa) prophesied that plagues would cut down the populace like the harvest in the fields, the poor would rise up against tyrants and the rich, the Church would be stripped of its wealth, and Antichrists would arise in Rome and Jerusalem. At least one contemporary, Villehardouin, seems to think that his prophecies inspired the Jacquerie (1358). However, Roquetaillade prophesied, the agony of the world would end by 1367, for a great reforming pope would come to power and the king of France would again be elected as the Holy Roman Emperor. Fulfilling his glorious role as a second Charlemagne, this worthy king would conquer the entire world and establish a millennial reign of peace and prosperity. Indeed, French kings bearing the name Charles were the subjects of particularly intense millennial prophecies throughout the late Middle Ages. A prophecy of 1380 pertaining to Charles VI was subsequently applied to Charles VII and Charles VIII, and even to England's Charles II while in exile in France.

Despite such fundamentally conservative applications of millennial prophecies, the hopes and expectations of the Christian Apocalypse still offered the outlines of a powerful if ultimately impractical, and hence suicidal, ideology of social revolution to the peasants and the urban poor of France in the latter Middle Ages. The thousands of shepherds or Pastoreaux, who swept through the French countryside in 1251 and again in 1320, were convinced that they were God's chosen instrument to free the Holy Land thus bringing about the Parousia. While none ever reached the Holy Land, they traveled in bands about the kingdom of France, amazing some with their piety all the while slaughtering clerics, Jews and University intellectuals. Similar apocalyptic ideas regarding the election of the poor to usher in God's kingdom, either by participating in a crusade of the poor or by rescuing the king in his hour of need, motivated other popular insurrections.

Modern historians, limited by the nature of the documentation, tend to emphasize in their analyses the kinds of "political" or imperial millennialism that finds significant expression in the sources (Lerner, McGinn). The presence and strength of popular and revolutionary millennialism, rarely reported except by hostile clerical sources or by later spokesmen eager to downplay millenarian origins, are more difficult to assess. If one limits oneself only to explicitly millenarian groups, the numbers are few until the period of the printing press; if one identifies such groups by their patterns rather than their or others' claims about them, they are far more numerous (Cohn, Pursuit).

The Taborites were perhaps the most important millennial movement of the late Middle Ages, and represent a transition to the new age of millennial movements in the Renaissance and the Reformation. Taking themes from the English reformer Wycliffe, Czech preachers began to rally faithful to a program of radical, anti-papal reform. Jan Huss, the most prominent of these men was burned at the stake at the Council of Constance (1415), strengthening the hand of the most radical, indeed millennial, of the Taborites who targeted 1420 as the date of the End. For the two decades, the region was plagued with millennial wars that brought out the social and revolutionary elements of millennialism, and ended in a national Church centered in Prague.

The approach of the year 7000 AM I (AD 1492/1500) brought with it a number of millennial currents. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 not only put an end to the last remnant of the Roman Empire from antiquity, but brought a large number of books with "secret knowledge", like the Corpus Hermeticum to the West which reinvigorated the Joachite tradition with gnostic elements of an a-political elitism that sought, through knowledge, to transform the world. Among the enthusiasts of the proliferation of prophecy and knowledge was the explorer Christopher Columbus. At this point, especially with the assistance of the printing press, various strains of millennial prophecy proliferated throughout Europe (Prophecy). These new strains, linked to the gnostic search for the knowledge that can transform nature had important implications for the emergence of modern science (Yates). In a sense, the Renaissance, with its belief in a new world in the making and its eagerness to embrace any new form of thinking, religious and pagan, may represent the first "New Age" movement, the first secular millennial movement on record.

From the Renaissance onwards, European culture developed an ever-more secular strain of millennialism. In a sense, the longer God tarried, the more humans took over His job of bringing about the perfect kingdom. Here we find the utopian and scientific traditions (Manuel and Manuel, Noble), the radical democratic movements that give us the French Revolution (Talmon), radical socialism and Marxist communism, as well as Nazism and, in a modified form, Zionism (Mendel). In a sense, totalitarianism may be seen as the result of millennial movements that seize power and, in the failure of their millennial hopes, find themselves "forcing" the perfection of man.

Popular millennial movements, however, returned in strength with the Protestant Reformation. Luther, himself, was not a millennial thinker (he was, after all, trained as an Augustinian Canon), but he used powerful apocalyptic rhetoric, making the pope as Antichrist a staple of Protestant discourse. In so doing, he unleashed a wave of millennialism that covered the gamut from the revolutionary Peasants Revolt led by Thomas Muntzer to the Anabaptists who gathered in Munster in 1533 to see the heavenly Jerusalem descend to earth, to the Hutterites and Mennonites. But the most powerful form of millennialism to emerge came from the British Isles after Henry VIII introduced Protestantism as the official religion in 1534. Puritanism, in both England and Scotland had strong millennial elements which eventually burst forth during the English Civil War (1640-1660), unleashing a whole panoply of new millennial movements — Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Quakers, Muggletonians (Hill). Nor was the 17th century limited to Christian millennialism: 1666 saw the climax of the most widespread millennial movement in the history of Judaism, with the career of Shabbetai Zvi, whose messianic message ignited communities in both Muslim and Christian lands (Sholem).

This millennial strain came to America with the pilgrims and has, essentially, marked American religiosity ever since (O’Leary). The two Great Awakenings (1740s, 1820-40s) were both inspired by a form of millennial fervor derived from the teachings of Jonathan Edwards. In addition to the theological underpinnings, the emphasis on collective penitence, public weeping, and large crowds singing hymns reflects the characteristics of millennial moments from the times of the peace assemblies in Europe. According to some historians, the enthusiasm of the First Great Awakening was redirected into the militant patriotism of the American Revolution whose religious rhetoric was steeped in millennial themes (Juster, Block, Butler). In addition to the more mainstream millennialism of the Great Awakenings, American millennialism gave birth to a wide range of new religious movements like the Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. At present, these are some of the most active religions in the world.

American millennialism bifurcated along two streams: the pre-millennialists (who believe that Jesus will come before the millennium and inaugurate it), and the post-millennialists (who believe that Jesus will come after the millennium inaugurated by an inspired mankind). The former tends to be catastrophic (the seven years before the advent of Jesus, known as the Tribulation, preceded by the Rapture of the saints, are marked by terrible catastrophes and the coming of Antichrist), whereas the latter tends to be progressive and gradualists (things are getting better all the time). The former tends to be a-political (only personal repentance and purification can prepare); the latter, politically active (through reform we can bring about the kingdom). In the later 19th century pre-millennialism gained the upper hand in much American millennial thinking, only to cede to post-millennialism reformism in the early decades of the 20th. The evangelical and fundamentalist reaction that developed in the 1910s and 1920s was pre-millennial dispensationalist in nature, inspired by the work of John Darby (d. 1882) and the Scofield Bible (1909) and committed to reversing the secularizing tendencies of reformist post-millennialism.

This form of thinking has become extremely popular in Protestant circles in America, starting in the 1970s with the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and the "Rapture" film Thief in the Night (1972). In the 1980s, Edgar Whisenant published the pamphlet 88 Reasons Why the Rapture will Happen in 1988, starting off a range of Rapture predictions that have dotted the 1990s. The Y2K virus, set to go off on January 1, 2000, has triggered a whole new wave of apocalyptic thinking among pre-millennial preachers like Chuck Missler, Jack Van Impe, and Jerry Falwell. Y2K, the great ecumenical apocalyptic prophecy of the age, shows every sign of metastasizing date-setting at this end of the 2nd Christian millennium (Thompson, 1999).

Finally, millennialism has an important non-Western component. Islam, as a "religion of revelation", began as an apocalyptic movement anticipating the "Day of Judgment" (Crone and Cook); and retains apocalyptic and millennial elements to this day, especially in Shi’ite theology, but also in many forms of popular religiosity. In particular the Mujaddid tradition, that foresees a "renewer" at every century turn (AH), appears to constitute — before the century has turned — a form of apocalyptic messianic expectation in the coming of the hidden Mahdi (Cook, Bashear). Many indigenous movements, often anti-imperialist in nature, take on the full range of characteristics of millennialism (Lanternari, Adas). In the Western hemisphere, for example, native populations produced a wide range of millennial movements, from the Gaiwiio of Handsome Lake (ca, 1800) to the Ghost Dance of the prophet Wovoka in the 1890s (La Barre). In the Pacific southwest, the 20th century has seen the emergence of Cargo Cults which, responding to the arrival of cargo planes during World War II, believe that, by carrying out the proper rituals, they could bring the "cargo" from the great bird in the sky (Burridge). Modern UFO cults, many of which have strong millennial elements, represent a kind of post-modern cargo cult.

By far the most powerful non-western millennial tradition is found in Buddhism, with the Pure Land traditions and the expectation of the Matreya Buddha, a kind of messianic final incarnation of the Buddha. Especially strong in China, but evident in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Burma, millennial strains of Buddhism have given birth to secret societies (White Lotus), and some powerful popular movements, one of which toppled the Mongol dynasty in the 14th century, another of which, the Taiping, almost toppled the Qing dynasty in the mid-19th century (Spence, Naquin). By the time this last movement, itself a mixture of native Buddhist and imported Christian millennialism, had been suppressed, some 20-35 million people were dead. The Boxer rebellion of the late 19th century again demonstrated the power of millennial beliefs, especially the characteristic magical belief, shared by the Ghost Dancers of North America and the Kartelite Cults of Africa that certain incantations could render the believer invulnerable to bullets (Lanternari, La Barre).

Millennial studies is still a young field. First launched by the anthropologists who studied Cargo Cults in the post-WW II period, developed by medievalists like Norman Cohn and Marjorie Reeves, and theoretically refined by sociologists like Leon Festinger, it has, in the past generation, become an international field of research. Because of the unusual dynamics of millennial manifestations — its brief intensity, its seemingly irrational passions, its range of responses to apocalyptic disappointment — it often demands counter-intuitive thinking and calls for a multi-disciplinary approach that engages a wide range of fields and specialties. At the approach of the third millennium, however, the field not only proliferates among scholars, but also among policy makers (Jensen).

We are, however, not yet in a position to judge just how significant millennialism is as a historical factor. It unquestionably plays an important role in various forms of anti-modern and anti-western protests, but it also has played a key role in generating modernity. With its images of a perfected mankind, its emphasis on social egalitarianism and the dignity of manual labor, its undermining of monarchical authority, its spread of a sense of popular empowerment, millennialism has, even in failure, left a legacy of social transformation.. Indeed, millennialism may have played an important role in the diffusion of new technology. In their initial stages, millennial movements make widespread and innovative use of communications technology (Protestants and print, New Religious Movements and the WWW). And in later stages, they often integrate new technology into the life-style of the community as it adjusts to the return of "normal time" and finds more durable, and more economically viable forms. Ironically, some of the most anti-modern groups can, by the end of their apocalyptic journey, end up at the cutting edge of modernity.

For all its socially creative force, however, millennialism also has powerfully destructive tendencies. In some, primarily anti-modern forms, millennial movements can become highly authoritarian, suffused with conspiracist thinking, implacably opposed to imagined enemies (Jews, independent women, denominational opponents), capable of staggering acts of violence and self-destruction (Mendel, Quinby). The Nazis, with their racist tausandjahriger Reich represent the ultimate expression of this tendency in millennial dynamics. It is one of the main tasks of millennial studies to understand what factors indicate that, in the period of disappointment, a group will turn peaceful or violent. In the meantime, millennialism, with its power to fire the imagination and elicit passionate emotions, to move great numbers to extraordinary deeds of self-sacrifice, social creativity and destructiveness, may be one of the most protean social and religious forces in the history of civilization. As we approach the end of the 3rd millennium, it looks like we will have yet another demonstration of its range and power (Thompson, Wojcik).

[RICHARD LANDES, February 1, 1999]


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