Millennialism in America Term Paper

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Millennialism in America

Charismatic prophets and millennial philosophy has played a major role in the social fabric of American society. The early Puritanical movements that blossomed in England and spread to the New World were the beginning signs of what would later be called the First and Second Great Awakenings. These Christian underpinnings of American religious discourse have at times hid underground and at other times bubble to the surface like scum on a pond. Even when prophetic, millennial movements distance themselves far from Christianity they share certain elements in common that make them uniquely American phenomenon. The term millennialism is used to refer to the notion that "Christ will establish a one-thousand year reign of the saints on earth before the Last Judgment," (Landes 1999). There are numerous interpretations of millennial ideology: some pessimistic in nature and others optimistic. A pessimistic view can be called "catastrophic," corresponding to the belief that hellfire and brimstone will engulf all of humanity at the end of the said millennium (Wells n.d.). This period of trauma will be like the purging of a sinful race of beings, and will be possibly followed by an era of heaven on earth. A more optimistic viewpoint posits that the millennium of Christ will be one of human evolution and progress toward a more mature spiritual nature. First arising in the 19th century in America, the progressive view of millennialism is not uncommon among new religious movements including those that would otherwise fall under the rubric of New Age.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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Rather than bifurcate the millennial movements into optimistic and pessimistic, catastrophic and progressive, Landes (1999) claims that one end of the millennial spectrum represents "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." Another millennial view presents "a demotic vision of a world of holy anarchy, where dominion of man over man ceased from the world," (Landes 1999). Millennialism is nothing new and is not at all unique to America; however, the philosophy has pervaded American history, culture, and religious consciousness.

There is a reason why millennialism in America has assumed Christian overtones. Most of the founders of the nation were Christian Europeans whose worldview encompassed Biblical dogma. From the Christian standpoint, a Second Coming of Christ was inevitable and would take place at a certain time and space. Jewish messianic lore also posits a sort of millennialism. Yet millennialism in America never became syncretic or even very eclectic. Even the movements that are more New Age in nature tend to draw more from Christianity than from any other religious tradition. Even the Seneca Prophet of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century named Handsome Lake was heavily influenced by contact with European conquerors and their Christian religious traditions. "The rise of Handsome Lake's religion was more successful than most religions during that time, apparently because his code combined traditional Iroquois religion with white Christian values," ("Handsome Lake and Cornplanter," n.d.). Handsome Lake went so far as to support witch hunting and may have thus endeared himself with puritanical morons of the time. Parker (1913) notes that "Handsome Lake believed the world would end (by fire) in the year 2100; he predicted the destruction of the environment, famines, and war." The 2100 date appears unique among new religious movements, messianic movements, and millennialism in America. Handsome Lake would continue to craft a unique syncretic Christian-Iroquois identity that characterizes multiculturalism in America. There are several important features of Handsome Lake's legacy that set the stage for subsequent millennial movements from John Smith's Mormonism to Elisabeth Claire Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant. These core features of millennialism in America include (a) the presence of a charismatic prophetic figure that helps lead the blinded sheep into the light before, during, and after the End Times period; (b) a mythos of collective persecution, and the use of an external scapegoat of political, social, and/or religious oppression; (c) the use of fear to cultivate psychological submission; (d) the promotion of a doctrine of purity vs. sin.

With these four main features in mind, it is easy to see why Christian followers are particularly seduced by millennialism. In fact, Christianity is a millennial movement that has become codified into a social and political movement. The New Testament is based on the story of a charismatic prophetic figure who ushers in a radical spiritual revolution in which a Judgment Day will take place. Such a myth is by no means a Christian creation; thousands of years before Christ similar visions had perpetuated in human societies from the Zoroastrians to the Egyptians. What made Christianity unique was the strength of Jesus Christ's figure and the stranglehold he would have over the people of the Middle East and later, Europe.

Charismatic prophets vary in their gender and approach to millennial doctrine. Some, like Elisabeth Claire Prophet, draw heavily from Eastern religious traditions and synthesize those with millennial Christianity in a sort of New Age stew. Other charismatic leaders, like Yahweh ben Yahweh, have been criminal masterminds. Hulon Mitchel, aka Yahweh ben Yahweh, was convicted of murder. Yet his story reflects a tragic means of compensating for years of actual persecution.

The mythos of collective persecution is of course central to the Christian identity and is thoroughly embedded in the Christian Bible. Christian history in Europe is one of actual and imagined persecution. Imagined religious persecution during the time of the British Enlightenment led a group of religious conservative ideologues to colonize the New World, commit genocide, and destroy thousands of years of rich Native American culture. Ironically, Handsome Lake would come to appropriate the Christian rhetoric to use on and possibly against his own people. The figure of Handsome Lake is remarkable in that he built upon the notion of a collective oppressor within the framework of the oppressor's religion.

Yahweh ben Yahweh cultivated and perpetuated "a theory of the white man as devil," (Taylor 1992). This theory bore the same seeds of truth that Handsome Lake's theories did. Both Native Americans and African-Americans had been systematically persecuted, tortured, and killed and often in the name of Christianity. What Yahweh ben Yahweh did was to give a rally cry to underprivileged blacks in Miami and elsewhere in the nation to rise up against the oppressor. The uprising was framed in a religious context. A similar phenomenon took place during the American Revolution, when the Reverend Samuel Sherwood claimed that the British Crown represented an "anti-Christian tyranny" and the aggression shown by the British towards its colony was a "sin," (Hatch 1974:407). From this apocalyptic point-of-view, according to Hatch (1974), America's victory would initiate Christ's millennial kingdom" (1974: 407). Unlike Handsome Lake, Yahweh ben Yahweh distanced himself from the religion of the oppressor and instead embraced Jewish symbolism.

Fear is the primary tool of the charismatic prophet in millennial movements. Without fear, there would be no followers. The very basis of the Christian End Times story is one of fear: that God has willed a future Day of Judgment and all souls who pass the test shall ascend to heaven whereas those who do not shall descend into the depths of hell. Fear of judgment or alternatively, of missing the Rapture of Christ and subsequent ascent to Heaven, compels members or followers of millennial movements to believe the dogma and doctrine. The charismatic leader is established as one who has the potential to lead and guide lost souls toward salvation and away from sin. Ironically, several millennialism movement prophets have behaved in ways that are unequivocally sinful, such as by encouraging mass suicides. Jim Jones headed a group of believers collectively called the Peoples Temple. United in fear of the apocalypse, members of the Peoples Temple committed suicide in Guyana. David Koresh had been involved with the Seventh Day Adventist millennial movement before finding the Branch Davidian group in Waco, Texas. Koresh fostered fear of the millennium and God's Day of Judgment among Branch Davidian followers.

The notion of spiritual purity is also central to millennial movements. Cleansing the soul in preparation of the new millennium is the key to salvation. Linked with the fear doctrine, the notion of spiritual impurity and uncleanliness motivates followers to accept whatever rites, rituals, and religious traditions are spoon-fed them by the charismatic leader and his or her minions. Mormonism is one example of an American millennial movement concerned with spiritual impurity; sin, transgression, and atonement are central to Mormon doctrine (Harris 1911). The Seventh-Day Adventists are another Christian American group that is both millennial and obsessed with spiritual (as well as physical) purity and impurity. The Jehovah's Witness organization is also a millennial tradition concerned about purity and the need to atone for one's sins in time for the coming apocalypse.

Millennial groups share in common, by definition, a belief that a special spiritual era will mark the beginning of the End Times. The exact date and… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Millennialism in America.  (2011, November 23).  Retrieved September 18, 2020, from

MLA Format

"Millennialism in America."  23 November 2011.  Web.  18 September 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Millennialism in America."  November 23, 2011.  Accessed September 18, 2020.