millennialism


millennialism
/mi len"ee euh liz'euhm/, n.
a belief in the millennium. Also called millenarianism /mil'euh nair"ee euh niz'euhm/.
[1905-10; MILLENNIAL + -ISM]

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Belief in the millennium of Christian prophecy (Revelation 20), the 1,000 years when Christ is to reign on earth, or any religious movement that foresees a coming age of peace and prosperity.

There are two expressions of millennialism. Premillennialism holds that the Second Coming of Christ will occur before the millennium and will initiate the final battle between good and evil, which will be followed by the establishment of the 1,000-year kingdom on earth or in heaven. Postmillennialism maintains that Jesus will return after the creation of the millennial kingdom of peace and righteousness, which prepares the way for the Second Coming. Throughout the Christian era, periods of social change or crisis have tended to lead to a resurgence in millennialism. The legend of the last emperor and the writings of Joachim of Fiore are important examples of medieval millennialism, and, during the Reformation, Anabaptists, Bohemian Brethren, and other groups held millennial beliefs. It is now associated especially with such Protestant denominations as the Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mormons. In a broader sense, many non-Christian traditions, including Pure Land Buddhism and the Ghost Dance religion, are understood as millennialist.

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Introduction
also called  millenarianism  or  chiliasm  
 the belief, expressed in the book of Revelation to John, the last book of the New Testament, that Christ will establish a 1,000-year reign of the saints on earth (the millennium) before the Last Judgment. More broadly defined, it is a cross-cultural concept grounded in the expectation of a time of supernatural peace and abundance on earth.

The nature of millennialism
      Millennialism offers a version of the fundamental eschatological belief that at the end of time (the “End,” or “Endtime”) God will judge the living and the resurrected dead. This belief in ultimate divine justice provides a rationale for theodicy, the reconciliation of God's goodness with the existence of evil in the world. In providing solace for the suffering of countless generations of believers—Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists—millennialism has had immense appeal in every age. Although its name comes from the 1,000-year period mentioned in the Revelation to John, millennialism is primarily concerned with the earthly nature of the coming “new world.” This radical transformation promises an end to existing institutions of power and, therefore, infuses millennial beliefs with a revolutionary quality that threatens those in authority.

      The key determinant of millennialism's impact on society is timing. As long as the day of redemption is yet to come, millennial hopes console the suffering and inspire patience and political quiescence. Driven by a sense of imminence, however, believers in apocalyptic (apocalypticism) millennialism can become disruptive and even revolt against the sociopolitical order in an attempt to bring about the promised kingdom of peace. Thus, apocalyptic millennialism has been a powerful and volatile catalyst throughout the ages. No matter how often apocalyptic beliefs have proved wrong and no matter how much chaos has been wrought by millennial efforts to establish God's kingdom on earth, apocalyptic expectations are repeatedly revived. From the Jewish revolt (Jewish Revolt, First)s against Rome in the 1st and 2nd centuries, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, to the Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century, which led to 20–35 million deaths, such movements tend to self-destruct in spectacular fashion. For all the costly failures, however, the appeal of millennialism remains, and generation after generation of devotees have sought the chimerical kingdom.

      Despite all its dangers, apocalyptic millennialism offers immense rewards: believers find themselves at the centre of the ultimate universal drama in which their every act has cosmic significance. Cosmic messages appear in the smallest incident and in every coincidence. Moreover, the approach of the Endtime and the promise of a new world liberates believers from all earthly inhibitions; fears of corporeal authority vanish, and a wide range of repressed feelings—sexual, emotional, and violent—burst forth. Such a combination proves irresistible for many.

      From their earliest manifestations, millennial beliefs have divided into two tendencies: (1) those based on a hierarchical imperial vision of a coming kingdom that will be overseen by a just, if authoritarian, ruler who will conquer the forces of chaos and (2) those linked by a popular vision of holy anarchy, in which man's domination of his fellow man will cease. Many aspiring world conquerors used millennial “saviour” imagery to bolster their rule, and, among Muslims and Christians in the Middle Ages, imperial uses of millennial imagery proliferated. The contrary millennial tendency, however, was marked by a profoundly anti-imperial, antiauthoritarian thrust. Indeed, one of the major strains of Hebrew messianic imagery foresaw a time when men would “beat” the instruments of war and domination into tools of peace and prosperity (Isaiah 2:1–4), each person sitting under his own tree, enjoying the fruits of honest labour undisturbed (Micah 4:1–4). This millennialism foresees the end of the rapacious aristocracy and the beginning of the peace of the commoner. Perhaps no idea offered a more subversive connotation in the ancient world, where aristocratic empires dominated almost every area of cultivated land.

Early Christian millennialism
      Apostolic Christianity demonstrated many of the traits of the second, popular tendency of apocalyptic millennialism: the rhetoric of the meek overcoming the powerful and arrogant, the imminence of the Lord's day of wrath and the coming kingdom of heaven, a leader with a following among common people, rituals of initiation into a group preparing for the Endtime, fervent spirituality and radical restructuring of community bonds, large crowds, the prominence of women visionaries, and the shift from a disappointed messianic hope (the Crucifixion) to a revised expectation (the Second Coming, or Parousia).

      The only missing element (which is prominent in some contemporary strains of Jewish millennialism), is violence, apparently subsumed under the passion for martyrdom. Violence did, however, become a notable part of Christian millennialism well after the apostolic age, appearing first among the Circumcellions, a revolutionary nationalist group in 4th-century North Africa.

      The fundamental problem for early Christianity, as for all apocalyptic movements, was the passage of time, which brought with it the profound disappointment of unfulfilled expectations. Those who did not abandon the movement responded to the delay of the Parousia by organizing communities and rituals that created a foretaste of the coming world. Above all, the passing of time called for a new temporal horizon. The End would come not immediately, not even soon, but rather in the fullness of time, once the tasks assigned by God—especially the work of evangelism—were completed.

      As Christianity evolved from a charismatic cult on the fringes of society into an institution eager to live in harmony with that society, the hopes of apocalyptic millenarianism embarrassed church leaders, who emphasized that Jesus' kingdom was "not of this world." Whereas almost every prominent Christian writer of the 1st century posited a literal millennialism, by late in the 2nd century ecclesiastical writers had begun an assault on millenarian texts (especially the Revelation to John, the only New Testament text to explicitly address an earthly kingdom). Origen, an early 3rd-century theologian, argued that the millennium should be interpreted allegorically; others attempted to eliminate Revelation from the canon altogether (the Eastern church succeeded). When Christianity became the official state religion, 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. Paradoxically, antimillenarian writings, like St. Jerome (Jerome, Saint)'s commentary on The Book of Daniel (Daniel, The Book of), provided the basis for new forms of millennialism, such as belief in the “Refreshment of the Saints” (a 45-day period of respite during which the saints who had survived the tribulations of the Endtime would enjoy peace on earth). Above all, charismatic prophets used apocalyptic calculations drawn from Revelation and The Book of Daniel to excite the faithful. Perhaps in recognition of this appeal, church leaders compromised when dealing with those who remained deeply attached to hopes for a real millennium. Consequently, as early as the 2nd century, two of the principal themes of medieval millennialism emerged: the use of an antiapocalyptic chronology to postpone the End, thus encouraging patience, and the transformation of the Roman Empire (Roman Republic and Empire) into a positive eschatological force.

      To delay the End and reap the benefits of nonapocalyptic millennialism, theologians placed great weight on the idea of a “sabbatical” millennium. Combining Genesis 1 (six days of travail, then one of sabbath, or rest) with Psalm 90 (1,000 years equals a day in the sight of the Lord), this concept promised the advent of the 1,000-year kingdom after 6,000 years. About AD 200 the first Christian chronology placed the Incarnation (God's assumption of the flesh in the person of Jesus) in anno mundi 5500, the anno mundi [AM; Latin: "in the year of the world"] chronology beginning at the creation of the world according to the Hebrew scriptures. As a result, the year 6000 AM was still 300 years in the future, in what would become AD 500. When apocalyptic prophets announced the imminent End, conservative clerics countered that centuries remained until the millennium. Documentary evidence of this chronological argument suggests the presence of popular apocalyptic rumours at this time, because contemporary theologians would have used the argument to calm the anxiety such rumours incited. Of course, such chronological temporizing merely postponed the millennium (eventually the 6,000 years would pass); it also fostered apocalyptic millennialism as the prescribed Endtime approached.

      While trying to postpone millennial hopes, theologians also attempted to eliminate Christian millennial hostility toward the Roman Empire. Central to these attempts was a new interpretation of St. Paul (Paul, the Apostle, Saint)'s discussion of the timing of the End and his reference to an “obstacle” to the advent of the “man of iniquity” in 2 Thessalonians (Thessalonians, letters of Paul to the). According to this interpretation, the Roman Empire provided the obstacle for this Antichrist. After Christianity became imperial, this pro-Roman eschatology would produce the myth of the Last Emperor, a superhuman figure who would unite all of Christendom, rule in peace and justice for 120 years, and abdicate his throne prior to the brief rule of the Antichrist. Imperial millennialism probably influenced Constantine I—the first “Last Emperor”—and offered a powerful antidote to the subversive elements of popular millennialism. Its cosmic struggle was not earlier Christianity's contest between holy anarchy and an evil human empire but a contest between an authoritarian holy empire and anarchic chaos. Not surprisingly, this “top-down” form of millennialism found much favour among later Christian theologians.

Patristic and medieval millennialism
      However creative or successful with theologians these approaches were, they merely delayed the problem. Despite pagan and Christian belief in Roma aeterna (“eternal Rome”), the empire would fall. No matter how far away 6000 AM (AD 500) seemed from 5700 (200), it did not seem so far away in the 5900s (400s). Indeed, the Western Roman Empire faltered just as the year 6000 approached, turning the antiapocalyptic sabbatical chronology and imperial “obstacle” to Antichrist exegeses into profoundly apocalyptic ones. At the beginning of the 5th century AD (c. 5900 AM), Jerome and Augustine (Augustine, Saint), perceiving the danger of apocalyptic millennialism, developed new and more stringent ways to oppose to it. Jerome introduced a new set of calculations (AM II) that placed the Incarnation roughly 300 years earlier, thus allowing Latin chronographers to ignore the advent of the year 6000 AM I. At the same time, he heaped ridicule and contempt on millennialists, the believers in foolish tales of earthly delights, gluttony, and sexual promiscuity.

      Augustine went still further, arguing that neither history nor chronology can be interpreted apocalyptically and that the millennium was not a future event but one that already had been set in motion by Christ. To explain the continued existence of war, hatred, injustice, and poverty, Augustine used the notion of the “Two Cities.” There was a “heavenly city,” the celestial Jerusalem where the millennium was already manifest, and an “earthly city,” the terrestrial Babylon where the millennium was not visible. These two cities would coexist as a corpus permixtum (“mixed body”) in every man and in every society until the end of time. Thus the empire and the earthly 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 interpretation radically reoriented Christian eschatology and eliminated from Christian theology the belief in a coming kingdom of God on earth.

      This ban on millennial thought so dominated the “official” theological writings of the early Middle Ages that most modern historians think that it had disappeared entirely from Latin Christendom. Certainly, standard treatments of millennialism tend to jump from Augustine in the 5th century AD to Joachim Of Fiore in the 12th century AD, when the first formal theology that anticipated the millennium reemerged. There also were signs of millennialism, however, in the activity of antiecclesiastical prophets such as the "False Christ” of Bourges, described by Gregory of Tours (Gregory of Tours, Saint) in Ten Books of Histories, and in the antiapocalyptic chronology used to oppose them. Gregory, for example, published his chronology for "those who despair at the coming end of the world." Writing in the late 5700s AM II (6th century AD), he and his colleagues repudiated the legitimacy of the “saints” who emerged after the assassination of the “False Christ” by arguing that the millennium was still more than two centuries away. Of course, even this more remote date eventually drew near, and in the 8th century AD (the 5900s AM II) the English monk Bede (Bede the Venerable, Saint) and his Carolingian followers did for AM II what Jerome had done for AM I: they shifted the dating system again, this time to anno Domini (AD; “in the year of the Lord”). Consequently, millennial implications were once again shrouded by a new dating system; the year 6000 AM II became AD 800.

 However, the relative silence in extant documentation does not mean that there was no further discussion of the approaching year 6000. Indeed, as with 6000 AM I (AD 500), the approach of 6000 AM II brought an acute political crisis—the “obstacle” of 2 Thessalonians had been removed, because the Byzantine (Roman) throne was occupied by a woman, Irene, and thus was technically vacant. Charlemagne's response, to hold his imperial coronation on Christmas Day, the first day of the new year 801, of the year 6000 AM II (AD 800, according to the modern calendar, which starts the new year on January 1), 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 AM II equivalent of the date, but no chronicler mentioned it. Ignorant of this significance, modern historians have analyzed this pivotal moment in Western history without any awareness of its millennial background.

      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 and the idea that the Carolingians were the new “obstacle” to the Antichrist. Numerous European kings claimed this messianic status, but the German emperors—particularly Otto III, Frederick I (Frederick Barbarossa), and Frederick II—proved especially fascinated by the idea of the Last Emperor. Second, the Carolingians shifted chronological hopes for the apocalypse from 6000 AM II (AD 800) to 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 begun by the Incarnation). Unlike with previous revisions of millennial dates, chronographers were unable to shift the chronology without mentioning the apocalyptic date.

      Germany and France in the year AD 1000 illustrate the two tendencies of millennialism: the former manifested the “top-down” imperial version, while the latter displayed a remarkable array of “bottom-up” populist expressions. In Germany, Emperor Otto III, who manipulated every aspect of the imperial variety, proclaimed the renewal of the Roman Empire and revived the “obstacle” to the Antichrist. Moreover, on Pentecost of 1000, he opened Charlemagne's tomb and urged rulers throughout eastern Europe to convert to Christianity. In France, King Robert II, the second ruler of the dynasty that replaced the Carolingian “obstacle,” presided over a kingdom beset by the anathema of social turmoil in the form of an uncontrollable castellan revolution. French apocalyptic and millennial symbols were generated from below, especially in the earliest popular religious movement of the Middle Ages, the Peace of God (God, Peace of). This conciliar movement, which began south of the Loire River and spread throughout France, appeared in two waves, one in the decade before the millennium of the Incarnation (1000) and the other in the decade before the millennium of the Passion, the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross (1033). Mobilizing huge crowds at open-air revivalist gatherings in the pursuit of God's peace on earth, this millenarian movement may have been the earliest to bring together all levels of society. It thus displayed two key aspects of subsequent millennialism in the West: vast revivalist gatherings and the sense of a social covenant.

      Of course, the years 1000 and 1033 passed, and, despite all-encompassing covenants followed by years of peace and abundance, there was still no Parousia, still no millennium. A failure as a popular movement with millennial overtones, the Peace of God became institutionalized as the “king's peace.” Yet apocalyptic expectations did not disappear in medieval Europe; on the contrary, there was a sea change in millennial hopes. Instead of the predominantly passive expectation of the earlier period, the passing of 1000 seems to have introduced, via the peace movement, a new and more aggressive form of millennialism, postmillennialism. This notion, that Christ would come after a millennial kingdom was wrought by the saints, challenged believers to work toward that kingdom. While popular "messiahs" continued to emerge, the period after the year 1000 gave rise to much larger movements that were often initially approved by ecclesiastical authorities. Among these were the Crusade (Crusades)s and the Franciscan and flagellant movements. Some of these movements had popular support and were militant and extremely hostile to ecclesiastical authority, the wealthy, Jews, and intellectuals. They also displayed the anger, paranoia, and violence that would dominate one strain of antimodern Christian millennialism found in the pogroms of the Crusaders to the genocidal persecutions of the Nazis.

      But the better-documented, and in some ways more surprising, aspect of medieval millennialism was its use by lay and ecclesiastical elites to support their own authority. Starting with the Gregorian Reform in the 11th century, papal reformers employed apocalyptic imagery both to brand their enemies as Antichrists and to wrap their own efforts in messianic promises. Similarly, royal and even comitial courts used eschatological prophecy as propaganda. William the Conqueror (William I) consciously used themes from Revelation, including his crown and Domesday Book, to buttress his conquest of England. Supporters of Thierry of Alsace (Thierry), the count of Flanders, spread prophecies claiming that his (Carolingian) dynasty was the last barrier to the Antichrist. At the time of the Second Crusade, a French prophet evoked the Tiburtine Sibyl (Sibylline Oracles) to predict that Louis VII would conquer the Orient in the fashion of the great Persian king Cyrus II.

      Millennial hopes and ambitions reached new heights in the late 12th century as a result of the work of Joachim Of Fiore, who identified three great ages of history: (1) the age of the Law, which had been characterized by the vesting of righteousness in married persons, (2) the age of the Gospel, during which an order of unmarried clerics served as the guardians of righteousness, and (3) the age of the Holy Spirit—i.e., the period of the Refreshment of the Saints to follow the reign of the Antichrist—during 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 believed that Joachim was the first millennial thinker since Augustine's ban of such ideas. He now appears to be the first formal thinker whose millennialism survived in writing. Instead of being a lone millenarian presence, Joachim's work stands as written expression of an oral discourse that had never ceased, despite its sudden ups and long downs, since well before Augustine. The spectacular success of the movements inspired by Joachite “age of the Spirit” rhetoric illustrates the broad social and religious appeal of this postmillennial discourse.

      Joachim revitalized every aspect of medieval millennialism. Within decades of his death in 1201/02, prophecies attributed to him circulated that were identified (in profoundly un-Augustinian fashion) with current events: Franciscans and Dominicans, Holy Roman emperors, and popes all figured in grand, ever-shifting predictions of imminent apocalypse. Chronological calculations fixed 1250, then 1260, as the beginning of the new age, producing new and fearsome forms of spirituality. The Franciscan order split over interpretations of Joachite prophecy, one branch becoming inquisitors, the other becoming revolutionary millenarians. Angelic popes and messianic emperors (some to return from death) were seen by lay and clerical constituencies as part of Joachim's plan. By the end of the 13th century, millennialism had reached a fevered pitch, especially among the Spiritual Franciscans and their lay counterparts, the Apostolic Brethren, as well as among the more mystical elements of the Beguines and Beghards. The execution in 1300 of the founder of the Apostolic Brethren, Gerard Segarelli, by Pope Boniface VIII set the stage for a particularly violent round of 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, and the catastrophes of the 14th century renewed fervour for the final, divine intervention. The Franciscan John of Roquetaillade (Rupescissa), writing immediately after the humiliating rout of the French knighthood and the capture of the French king John II at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, 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 observer, Villehardouin, seems to have thought that Roquetaillade's prophecies inspired the Jacquerie, a French peasants' revolt in 1358. However, according to Roquetaillade, 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 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 in the late 14th and 15th centuries, respectively, as well as to England's Charles II while in exile in France in the 17th century.

      Despite such fundamentally conservative applications of millennial prophecies, the hopes and expectations of the Christian Apocalypse still offered the peasants and the urban poor of France in the latter Middle Ages the outline of a powerful, if ultimately impractical, ideology of social revolution. The Pastoureaux, thousands of shepherds who swept across the French countryside in 1251 and again in 1320, believed that they were God's chosen instrument to free the Holy Land and thus bring about the Parousia. While none ever reached the Holy Land, they traveled in bands throughout France, amazing some with their piety but slaughtering clerics, Jews, and academics. Other popular insurrections were motivated by similar apocalyptic ideas regarding the election of the poor to usher in God's kingdom, either by participating in a Crusade or by rescuing a king in his hour of need.

      Modern historians tend to emphasize the "political" or imperial millennialism that found significant expression in the sources. The presence and strength of popular, revolutionary millennialism, rarely reported except by hostile clerical sources, are more difficult to assess. Consequently, modern scholars have downplayed the extent of millennialist thought and activity in the Middle Ages.

Millennialism from the Renaissance to the modern world
      The Taborites were perhaps the most important millennial group of the late Middle Ages and represent a transition to the new age of millennial movements in the Renaissance and the Reformation. Borrowing themes from the English Reformer John Wycliffe (Wycliffe, John), Czech preachers advocated a radical, antipapal reform. Jan Hus (Hus, Jan), the most prominent of these men, was burned at the stake at the Council of Constance in 1415, which strengthened the hand of the most radical and millennial Taborites, who targeted 1420 as the date of the End. For two decades the region was plagued with wars that inspired the social and revolutionary elements of millennialism and that led to the establishment of a national church centred in Prague.

      The approach of the year 7000 AM I (AD 1500) brought with it a number of millennial currents. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 not only removed the last remnant of the Roman Empire but also introduced the West to the secret knowledge of works such as the Hermetic writings, which reinvigorated the Joachite tradition with Gnostic (Gnosticism) elements concerning the transformation of the world. Among the enthusiasts of the proliferation of prophecy and knowledge was the explorer Christopher Columbus (Columbus, Christopher). At this point, aided by the newly invented printing press, various millennial prophecies spread throughout Europe. These new strains, linked to the Gnostic search for knowledge that could change nature, had important implications for the emergence of modern science. The Renaissance, with its belief in a new world in the making and its eagerness to embrace any new form of thinking, may represent the first “New Age” movement—i.e., the first secular millennial movement on record.

      From the Renaissance onward 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. Utopian and scientific traditions and radical democratic movements such as the French Revolution, radical socialism, and Marxism, as well as Nazism and, in a modified form, Zionism, can all be seen as secular millennial movements. In a sense, totalitarianism may have resulted from millennial movements that seized power, failed in their millennial hopes, and therefore “forced” the perfection of mankind.

      Popular millennial movements, however, returned in strength with the Protestant Reformation (Protestantism) in the 16th century. Although not a millennial thinker, Martin Luther (Luther, Martin) used powerful apocalyptic rhetoric and repeatedly called the pope the Antichrist. In so doing, he unleashed a wave of millennialism that ranged from the revolutionary German Peasants' Revolt, led by Thomas Müntzer (Müntzer, Thomas) in 1524–25, and the Anabaptists, who met a violent end in Münster (Germany) in 1535, to the peaceful Hutterite and Mennonite groups that grew out of the Anabaptist movement. But the period's most powerful form of millennialism emerged in the British Isles after Henry VIII introduced Protestantism as the official religion in 1534. Puritanism, in both England and Scotland, had strong millennial elements that eventually burst forth during the English Civil Wars (1642–51), unleashing a panoply of new millennial movements—the Levelers, Diggers, Ranters, Quakers, and Muggletonians. Nor was the 17th century limited to Christian millennialism: in 1666 the most widespread millennial movement in the history of Judaism climaxed with the career of Shabbetai Tzevi, whose messianic message ignited Jewish communities in both Muslim and Christian lands.

      The Puritan millennial strain came to North America with the Pilgrims and has, essentially, marked American religiousness ever since. The Great Awakening (c. 1720–1740s) and the Second Great Awakening (c. 1795–1835) were both inspired by millennial fervour sparked by the teachings of Jonathan Edwards (Edwards, Jonathan). Both the theological underpinnings of the Great Awakenings and their emphasis on collective penitence, public weeping, and hymn singing reflect the characteristics of earlier millennial movements. According to some historians, the enthusiasm of the Great Awakening was redirected into the militant patriotism of the American Revolution, whose religious rhetoric was steeped in millennial themes. In addition to its more mainstream manifestation in the Great Awakenings, American millennialism gave birth to a wide range of new religious movements, including those of the Mormons, the Seventh-day Adventists, and the Jehovah's Witnesses.

      American millennialism split into two traditions: premillennialism (the belief that Jesus will come before the millennium and inaugurate it) and postmillennialism (the belief that Jesus will come after the millennium inaugurated by an inspired mankind). The former tends to be catastrophic. According to premillennialism, the seven years before the advent of Jesus will be marked by the Rapture (the rescue of the living “saints” by the Lord), war, disease, famine, and the coming of the Antichrist. Postmillennialism, on the other hand, tends to be progressive and gradualist, suggesting that things are getting better all the time. Premillennialism also tends to be apolitical (only personal repentance and purification can prepare one for the End); postmillennialism is activist (through reform the kingdom can be created). In the late 19th century premillennialism gained the upper hand in much American millennial thinking, only to be overtaken by postmillennialist reformism in the early decades of the 20th century. The evangelical and fundamentalist reaction that developed c. 1910–30 was premillennial and grounded in dispensationalism (dispensation) (the notion that God has dealt differently with humanity during various dispensations, or periods when humankind is tested regarding specific revelations of God's will). Inspired by the work of John Darby and the Scofield Bible, dispensationalism was committed to reversing the secularizing tendencies of reformist postmillennialism.

      Premillennialism has remained extremely popular in Protestant circles in the United States. It reappeared in the 1970s with the publication of Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) and the Rapture film Thief in the Night (1972). Edgar Whisenant's pamphlet 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Happen in 1988 (1988) initiated a range of Rapture predictions that appeared throughout the 1990s. Also in the '90s the Y2K virus (a computer software problem that makes computers interpret the year 2000 as 1900) triggered a new wave of apocalyptic thinking among premillennial preachers such as Chuck Missler, Jack Van Impe, and Jerry Falwell and became the great ecumenical apocalyptic prophecy of the age.

Non-Christian millennialism
      Islam (Islām), a “religion of revelation” that began as an apocalyptic movement anticipating the “Day of Judgment,” retains apocalyptic and millennial elements to this day, especially in Shīʿite theology but also in many forms of popular religiousness. In particular, the mujaddid tradition, which foresees a “renewer” at the turn of every century of the Muslim calendar, is a form of apocalyptic messianism in its expectation of the coming of the mahdi (mahdī).

      Many indigenous movements, often anti-imperialist in nature, take on the full range of millennialist characteristics. In the Western Hemisphere, for example, native populations produced a wide variety of millennial movements, from the Gai'wiio of the prophet Handsome Lake (Handsome Lake cult) about 1800 to the Ghost Dance of the prophet Wovoka in the 1890s. Among some Pacific Islanders the arrival of cargo-laden airplanes during World War II led to the emergence of cargo cults and the belief that proper rituals would bring precious “cargo” from the great bird in the sky. Modern UFO cults, many of which have strong millennial elements, represent a kind of postmodern cargo cult.

 By far the most powerful non-Christian millennial tradition is found in Buddhism, with the Pure Land (Pure Land Buddhism) traditions and the expectation of the Maitreya Buddha, a messianic final incarnation of the Buddha. Especially strong in China but evident in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Myanmar (Burma), millennial strains of Buddhism have given birth to secret societies (including White Lotus). Powerful popular movements also arose in response to millennialist thought: one toppled the Mongol dynasty in the 14th century; another, the Taiping, almost ended the Qing dynasty in the mid-19th century. By the time this last movement, a mixture of Buddhist and 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.

      The academic field of millennial studies was launched by anthropologists who studied cargo cults in the post-World War II period. The field was developed further by medievalists such as Norman Cohn and Marjorie Reeves and theoretically refined by sociologists such as Leon Festinger. Because of the unusual dynamics of millennial manifestations—their brief intensity, seemingly irrational passions, and range of responses to apocalyptic disappointment—the study of millennialism often demands counterintuitive thinking and a multidisciplinary approach.

      The significance of millennialism as a historical factor is a matter of some debate. It unquestionably plays an important role in various forms of antimodern and anti-Western protests, but it also has contributed significantly to the spread of modernity. With its images of perfected mankind, its emphasis on social and political egalitarianism, and its undermining of established authority, millennialism has left, even in failure, a legacy of social transformation. Indeed, millennialism may have played an important role in the diffusion of new technology (e.g., Protestants and the printing press, new religious movements and the Internet).

      For all of its socially creative force, however, millennialism also has powerfully destructive tendencies. In some primarily antimodern forms, millennial movements can become highly authoritarian, suffused with conspiratorial thinking, implacably opposed to imagined enemies (e.g., Jews, independent women, denominational opponents), and capable of staggering acts of violence and self-destruction. The tausandjahriger Reich (thousand-year empire) of Nazi ideology represents the ultimate expression of this tendency. With its power to fire the imagination and elicit passionate emotions as well as to move many to extraordinary deeds of self-sacrifice, social creativity, and destructiveness, millennialism may be one of the most protean social and religious forces in the history of civilization.

Richard Landes

Additional Reading

General works
Valuable general studies of millennialism include Michael Barkun, Disaster and the Millennium (1974, reprinted 1986); Frederic J. Baumgartner, Longing for the End: A History of Millennialism in Western Civilization (1999); Kenelm Burridge, New Heaven, New Earth: A Study of Millenarian Activities (1969, reissued 1986); Mal Couch (ed.), Dictionary of Premillenial Theology (1996); Ted Daniels, Millennialism: An International Bibliography (1992); Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails (1956, reissued 1964); Stephen Jay Gould, Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown, rev. ed. (1999); Arthur P. Mendel, Vision and Violence (1992); Stephen D. O'Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric (1994, reissued 1998); Lee Quinby, Anti-Apocalypse: Exercises in Genealogical Criticism (1994); Michael J. St. Clair, Millenarian Movements in Historical Context (1992); Damian Thompson, The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium, rev. and updated ed. (1999); and Eugen Weber, Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages (1999).

Jewish and early Christian millennialism
Jewish and early Christian millenarian thought are discussed in Albert I. Baumgarten, The Flourishing of Jewish Sects in the Maccabean Era: An Interpretation (1997); Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (1993, reissued 1995); John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 2nd ed. (1998); Stephen L. Cook, Prophecy & Apocalypticism: The Postexilic Social Setting (1995); Paula Fredriksen, “Apocalypse and Redemption in Early Christianity: From John of Patmos to Augustine of Hippo,” Vigiliae Christianae, 45:151–183 (June 1991); and John G. Gager, Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity (1975).

Millennialism in the Middle Ages
The role of the Antichrist, the book of Revelation to John, and millennial thought have received much attention by scholars of the Middle Ages. Among the more important treatments of these and related topics are Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, 3rd ed. (1970, reissued 1993); Richard K. Emmerson and Bernard McGinn (eds.), The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages (1992); Andrew Colin Gow, The Red Jews: Antisemitism in an Apocalyptic Age, 1200–1600 (1995); Richard Landes, “Lest the Millennium be Fulfilled: Apocalyptic Expectations and the Pattern of Western Chronography, 100–800 C.E.,” in Werner Verbeke, Daniel Verhelst, and Andries Welkenhuysen (eds.), The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages (1988), pp. 137–211; Richard Landes, Andrew Gow, and David C. Van Meter (eds.), The Apocalyptic Year 1000: Religious Expectation and Social Change, 950–1050 (2003); Michael Frassetto (ed.), The Year 1000: Religious and Social Response to the Turning of the First Millennium (2003); Robert E. Lerner, “Refreshment of the Saints: The Time After Antichrist as a Station for Earthly Progress in Medieval Thought,” Traditio, 32:99–144 (1967); Bernard McGinn, Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages (1979, reissued 1998), and Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil (1994, reissued 1996); Marjorie Reeves, Joachim of Fiore & the Prophetic Future, new rev. ed. (1999); and Ann Williams (ed.), Prophecy and Millenarianism: Essays in Honour of Marjorie Reeves (1980).

Millennialism in the early modern and modern world
The importance of millennialism for the early modern and modern world is discussed in Ruth H. Bloch, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756–1800 (1985, reissued 1988); Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (1990); Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (1993); David S. Katz and Richard H. Popkin, Messianic Revolution: Radical Religious Politics to the End of the Second Millennium (1999); Vittorio Lanternari, The Religions of the Oppressed: A Study of Modern Messianic Cults (1963, reissued 1965; originally published in Italian, 1960); David Noble, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention (1997, reissued 1999); Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626–1676 (1973, reissued with corrections 1975; originally published in Hebrew, 1957); Hillel Schwartz, Century's End: An Orientation Manual Toward the Year 2000, rev. and abridged ed. (1996); J.L. Talmon, The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy (also published as The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, 1952, reissued 1986); Daniel Wojcik, The End of the World as We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America (1997); and Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964, reissued 1991).

Non-Christian millennialism
For the influence of millennial thought on Islamic and non-Christian cultures, see Michael Adas, Prophets of Rebellion: Millenarian Protest Movements Against the European Colonial Order (1979, reissued 1987); David Cook, “Moral Apocalyptic in Islam,” Studia Islamica, 86(2):37–69 (August 1997); Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977, reissued 1980); Weston La Barre, The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion (1970, reissued 1990); Susan Naquin, Millenarian Rebellion in China: The Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813 (1976); and Jonathan D. Spence, God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (1996).

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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • MILLENNIALISM —    the BELIEF in a thousand year period (millennium) in which the KINGDOM OF GOD is to flourish and prosper. Millennialists tend to fall into two camps    l) those who believe that the millennium will follow the PAROUSIA or Second Coming of… …   Concise dictionary of Religion

  • millennialism —    This word (from the Latin mille, meaning thousand, and annus, meaning year ) refers to the expectation of a thousand year reign of Christ based on the Book of Revelation (see 20:2 7); because this passage has been interpreted in a wide variety …   Glossary of theological terms

  • millennialism — noun Date: 1906 millenarianism …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • millennialism — noun another term for millenarianism. Derivatives millennialist noun & adjective …   English new terms dictionary

  • millennialism — mil·len·ni·al·ism …   English syllables

  • millennialism —  Милленаризм …   Вестминстерский словарь теологических терминов

  • millennialism — mil•len•ni•al•ism [[t]mɪˈlɛn i əˌlɪz əm[/t]] n. rct rel a belief in the millennium. Also called mil•le•nar•i•an•ism [[t]ˌmɪl əˈnɛər i əˌnɪz əm[/t]] • Etymology: 1905–10 mil•len′ni•al•ist, n …   From formal English to slang

  • millennialism — mə̇ˈlenēəˌlizəm noun ( s) : a doctrine that the prophecy in the book of Revelation will be fulfilled with an earthly millennium of universal peace and the triumph of righteousness …   Useful english dictionary


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