Millennialism Research Paper

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Millennialism is the belief in an imminent transition to a collective salvation, either earthly or heavenly, accomplished according to a superhuman or supernatural plan. The term (based on millennium, meaning “one thousand years”) is drawn from the New Testament book of Revelation (Apocalypse), which predicts a thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth.

Religious and political movements inspired by millennialism, the belief that collective salvation (either earthly or heavenly) is imminent—and based on and carried out by a superhuman or supernatural plan—have had a major impact on world history; these include the theological revolutions associated with Christianity, Islam, and Chinese combinations of Daoism and Buddhism, and secular movements such as Communism and Nazism. The human hope for a perfect world has been perennial, at least since the founding of the Zoroastrian religion, which possibly dates from as early as about 1000 BCE. Millennial groups oriented toward a heavenly salvation have occasionally startled the world by opting to leave earthly life via group suicide, as was seen in the 1990s with the Solar Temple in Switzerland, Quebec, and France, and Heaven’s Gate in the United States. If earthly salvation for an elect group of people in a millennial kingdom is demonstrated to be impossible, then believers can shift easily to expecting a heavenly salvation, which may have been the case as early Christianity was institutionalized and became more accommodated to mainstream culture in the Roman Empire.

The millennial belief in an imminent transition to a new realm of existence has had a great impact on world history in many times and places, and has been associated with a range of behaviors. Millennial beliefs can motivate people to convert to entirely new religions, as with early Christianity and Islam, or strengthen their existing faith as they await divine intervention to destroy the old order and create the new. Millennialism can motivate people to engage in social action to improve the world and in spiritual disciplines to transform themselves, but it can also motivate them to commit revolutionary violence in attempts to eradicate an evil society and create the millennial kingdom. Millennialism does not necessarily have to result in violence, and when millennialists are caught up in violent episodes, they are not necessarily the ones who initiate the violence. Numerous millennial prophets and messiahs and their followers have been assaulted or executed because of the threat they pose to the established order.

Millennial Leaders

Millennial movements are often stimulated by someone claiming to have received a new revelation. In the study of religions, the term charisma refers to the belief that an individual has access to an unseen, superhuman source of authority. It is impossible objectively to validate the person’s claim: people either accept it on faith or reject it. If others do not believe the individual’s claim to revelation or empowerment, then the person does not have this kind of socially constructed charisma.

Both prophets and messiahs have charisma in this sense. A prophet is someone who is believed to receive revelations, perhaps about the imminent transition to the millennial kingdom. Although also a prophet, a messiah is, in addition, believed to have the superhuman power to create the millennial kingdom. There can be religious apocalyptic prophets, such as Muhammad, and religious messiahs, such as Jesus Christ, who according to the gospels was also an apocalyptic prophet. There can also be secular messiahs, such as Adolf Hitler, who claimed to be empowered by “nature” to create the Third Reich as the millennial kingdom for the German volk (folk).

Millennial movements do not necessarily have to have prophets and messiahs. They may arise from the widespread anticipation and/or fears of a number of people, such as the diffuse Euro-American (white supremacist) movement in the United States at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, which includes Identity Christians, racist Neopagans, neo-Nazis, and secular survivalists and warriors expecting an apocalyptic conflict with the federal government.

Main Patterns of Millennialism

Scholars now use the term millennialism (or millenarianism) to refer to two common patterns, which are not mutually exclusive; millennialists may shift from one pattern to another in reaction to different circumstances. Both types of movements may or may not have prophets and/or messiahs.

Catastrophic Millennialism

Catastrophic millennialism, often termed apocalypticism, anticipates a catastrophic transition to the millennial kingdom, either earthly or heavenly. Human nature and society are so evil that society has to be destroyed and created anew. Christians who have these expectations are often categorized by scholars as “pre-millennialists,” because they expect Jesus Christ to return first, defeat evil powers, destroy the current world, resurrect the dead, judge all people, and then create the millennial kingdom (either earthly or heavenly).

Most catastrophic millennialists wait for divine intervention to carry out the catastrophic events. Some, such as the Branch Davidians and some Identity Christian communities, may arm themselves for self-protection during the tribulation period believed to lead to the end-time events; if they are attacked they will fight back. Some, such as a succession of violent movements in Christian medieval Europe, become actively revolutionary. If the revolutionaries do not have a critical mass they become terrorists.

Progressive Millennialism

Progressive millennialists believe very strongly in progress, and are typically concerned with creating a millennial kingdom on Earth. They believe that humans acting according to a divine or superhuman plan can progressively create the millennial kingdom. Christian progressive millennialists are often termed “post-millennialists” by scholars to indicate that they believe they must do God’s will by creating the conditions for God’s kingdom on Earth, and then Christ will return.

Progressive millennialists include Protestants working peacefully to improve society by carrying out the Social Gospel, as well as post–Vatican II Catholics with a “special option for the poor” working for social justice. Logically, however, progressive millennialists could arm themselves if they felt their community was threatened and fight back if attacked, but this possibility has not received much study. And some progressive millennialists, wishing to speed progress up “to an apocalyptic rate” (Ellwood 2000, 253), become revolutionaries. They are willing to kill others and to carry out massive violence to accomplish their vision of the millennial kingdom. Scholars have identified Nazism, the Marxist Khmer Rouge regime, and Mao Zedong’s Communist Revolution and Great Leap Forward as examples of revolutionary progressive millennialism.

On the revolutionary end of the spectrum, there appears to be little difference between catastrophic and progressive millennialists, other than the latter having a strong belief in progress. Both types possess a rigid dualistic outlook, seeing situations and people in terms of good versus evil, us versus them, and they kill to accomplish their millennial dreams.

Nativist Millennial Movements

Nativist millennial movements, sometimes called “revitalization movements,” result when a people feels colonized and oppressed by a dominant power and its accompanying bureaucracy. Their traditional way of life is being destroyed and they often are losing their land and means of livelihood. They wish for a return to an idealized earlier time for their people, which they imagine to have been perfect. They are millennialists in that they expect an imminent transition to a collective salvation, which will eliminate their oppressors. These movements have been found in every part of the world in response to colonialism.

In the United States nativist millennialism can be seen in the nineteenth-century Ghost Dance movement, a response by Native Americans to removal from their lands and destruction of their traditional way of life. Beginning in the late twentieth century, nativist millennialism could be discerned also among certain white people in the United States, who imagined themselves to be the “natives” of America. Living in the countryside and towns, and also in cities, they felt oppressed by federal agencies, and believed that their traditional way of life was being destroyed by increasing ethnic diversity, changing gender roles, and greater acceptance of diversity in sexual lifestyles. This unnamed but influential movement could be called the Euro-American nativist movement.

Some nativist millennialists, like the Native American Ghost Dancers, may expect divine intervention to remove the hated oppressors in response to a magic or sacrificial ritual such as the Ghost Dance, which was intended to bring the return of the ancestors. Some, like the Pai Marire movements among the Maori in nineteenth-century New Zealand, may alternate between expecting divine intervention, committing active revolutionary violence, and progressively building their own separate communities. Nativists’ actions depend on a variety of factors, including whether they are left alone to build their perfect societies or they are attacked.

Millennialism in the Twenty-First Century

Millennialism will remain an important factor in world history. It might be stimulated by significant dates, such as 2000, but the hope for the collective salvation has existed for thousands of years and will not disappear. In the new temporal millennium, Christian Dispensationalists, for instance, interpret events in the Middle East as fulfilling prophecies leading to Christ’s Second Coming; they expect that the faithful will be “raptured” into heaven and thus escape the catastrophic end-time events. With the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda became the most visible segment of a diffuse and widespread revolutionary Islamist movement that aims to destroy what is seen as a confederation of “unbeliever” nations, including the United States and “hypocrite” Muslim nations aligned with the West, to create the perfect Islamic state enforcing sharia (Islamic law)—a Muslim vision of the collective earthly salvation. Those revolutionary Islamists who die for the cause are assured that they will receive immediate rewards in heaven —a very dangerous combination of expectations concerning earthly and heavenly salvations.

While people in all parts of the world continue to interpret catastrophic tragedies and oppression through an apocalyptic lens, many progressive millennialists, from Jews, Christians, and Muslims to Hindus, Buddhists, and New Agers, still hope and work for a peaceful world.


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