Cover image for Apocalypses : prophecies, cults, and millennial beliefs through the ages
Apocalypses : prophecies, cults, and millennial beliefs through the ages
Weber, Eugen, 1925-2007.
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Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1999.
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294 pages ; 23 cm
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BL503 .W43 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
BL503 .W43 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Non circulating

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Apocalyptic visions and prophecies from Zarathustra to yesterday form the luxuriant panorama in Eugen Weber's profound and elegant book. Beginning with the ancients of the West and the Orient and, especially, with those from whom we received our religions, the Jews and earliest Christians, Weber finds that an absolute belief in the end of time, when good would do final battle with evil, was omnipresent. Within centuries, apocalyptic beliefs inspired Crusades, scientific discoveries, works of art, voyages such as those of Columbus, rebellions and reforms. In the new world, American abolitionists, who were so critical to the movement to end slavery, believed in a final reckoning. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries' apocalyptic movements veered toward a lunatic fringe, and Weber rescues them from obloquy. From this more than two millennia history, he redresses the historical and religious amnesia that has consigned the study of apocalypses and millennial thought to the ash heap of thought and belief. Weber, a master storyteller, turns detective in this latest book as he finds these alternative rationalities in the West, Asia, Africa, and South America. He writes with profound respect for the millennial pulse in history while never losing his urbane and witty style of writing. As we approach our second millennium beset by a host of apocalyptic predictions and cults, this book offers a map of understanding of the creeds we ignore at our peril.

Author Notes

Eugen Weber is Joan Palevsky Professor of Modern European History, Emeritus, at the University of California, Los Angeles. Among his many publications is France, Fin de Siecle (Harvard).

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Scholar and historian Weber traces millennial beliefs as professed through the ages. From ancient and pre-Christian times to the present day, humankind has had an unshakable belief that the end is at hand. Through time, each belief system has maintained through its prophets and scriptures that there are signs pointing not only to the inevitability of the end but to its imminent arrival as well. Since the Ascension of Christ into heaven, groups of faithful periodically wait for mispredicted occurrences. When the end doesn't arrive, the event is postponed and eventually forgotten with something like a "religious amnesia." The current flurry of emotion centered around the coming of the year 2000 is merely the most recent example of a longstanding tradition. Weber has an excellent grasp of his subject, an accessible style, and an understated sense of humor. Though reading this requires some effort, a careful reader is rewarded with an unraveling of the mysteries and patterns of millennial thought. It is likely to be provocative; it is certainly timely. --Danise Hoover

Publisher's Weekly Review

From the hellfire and brimstone prophecies of John of Patmos to Marilyn Manson's album Antichrist Superstar, apocalyptic currents have nourished the cultural imagination. Surveying the field of millenarian beliefs, Weber (France: Fin de SiŠcle, etc.), professor of history at UCLA, contends that the apocalyptic "lunatic fringe" deserves more than the condescension typically doled out by scholars. Indeed, he explains, "endism" has often played an important historical role, motivating Columbus's voyage to the Americas, inflecting debates over anti-Semitism, even figuring in the 1870 birth of the Canadian province of Manitoba. Writing with curiosity and empathy about such varied topics as the eschatological fallout from Halley's comet and Y2K survivalism, Weber turns up a few intriguing facts. By 1992, for instance, more than half of adult Americans expected the imminent cataclysmic return of Jesus Christ. What accounts for the persistence of such beliefs? Sifting through the historical record, Weber examines the utopian intent of much millennial thought. The Second Coming, after all, promises heaven on earth; even Engels noted the revolutionary potential of revivalist Christianity. On the other hand, more combative strains of millennialism have led to the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide and the release of deadly nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system. Reluctant to interpret these acts in any depth, Weber fittingly describes his work as a travel book, recording a journey through the ages. Still, gifted is the writer who can nimbly span the distant cultural poles of Nostradamus and Bill Gates. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Apocalyptic and millenarian discourses are about final conflictual aspects of life and, hopefully, new beginnings. Weber (modern European history, emeritus, UCLA) provides a social history of the major insecurities leading to key events over two millennia. As in nature, life cycles occur, things do not last forever, and decay can lead to rebirth. The same is true in the apocalyptic myths of ancient and modern times. In the present, the Y2K problem is taking on an apocalyptic aspect. People can be led to believe human interpretations of biblical events; American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe's belief in the second coming of Christ was a factor in her crusade against slavery. Weber presents a narrative history of the prophecies of apocalyptics and millenarians that have occurred and been forgotten in human history. A collection on social change for large libraries.ÄLeo Kriz, West Des Moines Lib., IA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One INTRODUCTION That day, when sent in glory by the Father, The Prince of Life his best elect shall gather; Millions of angels round about him flying, While all the kindreds of the earth are crying, And he, enthroned above the clouds, shall give His last just sentence, who must die, who live. -- HENRY VAUGHN     When the University of Toronto invited me to deliver the 1999 Barbara Frum Lecture, I was asked, appropriately enough, to talk about fins de siècle . The more I worried that particular bone, however, the less meat I found on it. Centuries, in our calendric sense, appear to be an esoteric sixteenth-century invention, a hesitant usage of the seventeenth century. The special attention focused on a century's end, with the halo of references that we associate with the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, was a one-shot affair. Like our own century's tail end, that of the eighteenth century, and of every other, attracted no endist label; anyone tackling fins de siècle in the plural would have gathered a very sparse harvest.     Yet ends and beginnings played a large part in humanity's experience of itself, not least in that Judeo-Christian tradition that forms the backbone of Western history from Asia Minor to the Pacific's shores. Hebrew history plunges its roots in the Pentateuch; the history of Christendom is irrigated by the New Testament, which culminates in the book of Revelation. Apocalypse--the revelation or unveiling of the world's destiny and of mankind's--has fascinated Jews and their Christian offspring at least for the last 2200 years.     Christians and Jews knew, or thought they knew, how the world began, and had a fair idea how it was supposed to end, though precise circumstances remained debatable. Knowledge of the end affects the terms and manner of progression to it. For a long time, Christian history developed in the concurrence of prophecy and interpretation within a destiny that had been foretold. Apocalypse and the thousand-year millennium that would precede Christ's Second Coming (or in some versions follow it) were major parts of this process, and loomed incommensurably larger than calendric dates. Indeed, the measuring of worldly time was mainly relevant insofar as it served divine timing.     The Christian year began with Advent: the weeks that lead up to the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ. Liturgically, it does so still. Now, as ever, the first familiar act celebrated at Christmas and at Easter is only an introduction to the climactic conclusion, when the long struggle between satanic darkness and divine light is at last resolved in the triumph of good over evil. Advent may lead up to the birth of Christ, but it culminates in his Second Coming. And that is what the rite, the lessons, and the sermons of the rite are about: the judgment to come, and before it the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great power and glory, and the terrors that precede his coming, and the magic interlude between his preliminary and his final victory over Satan.     That is what people were exposed to, one generation after another during hundreds of years; that is what they grew up and grew old regarding as history, and as premonitory history, as real as the seasons were real and as sure. This whole scenario entered the language, the mindset, the store of common references, and aroused great passion and controversy. When, gradually, after the seventeenth century, it began to seep out of educated consciousness, it did so only partially and incompletely. That being so, one may well wonder why a motif and motivating agency so strong and so pervasive was for so long ignored in modern times, especially by historians.     Just thirty years ago, Christopher Hill began his Riddell Lectures of 1969 with a similar remark that sheds light on my question. Historians--Hill calls them intellectual snobs--"have ignored the lunatic fringe that believed in the imminence of the end and the necessary preliminary of Antichrist," paying no heed to Milton, Cromwell, Newton, and so many others who shared a belief in the imminent end of the world. Great historian of seventeenth-century England that he is, Hill saw the need to look with attention on beliefs of that time because beliefs influence and inflect action--as they encouraged Cromwell, for instance, to readmit Jews to England in hope of advancing the time of the Lord's return. Yet Hill's scholarship characterized, and hence intellectually marginalized, the believers he studied as a lunatic fringe. That was not so until the seventeenth or even the eighteenth century, and many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reformers would have to be counted among the lunatic fringe: Lord Shaftesbury and his friends, the supporters of Jewish emancipation and of Zionism, and abolitionists who, in England and North America, eventually brought the slave trade to an end.     Prophecies make little sense to rational modern scholars and they embarrass advocates of a Christianity that, in the past two hundred years, has learnt to present itself as rational too. Before the eighteenth century ended, The Holy Bible Adapted to the Use of Schools and Private Families (Birmingham, 1783) had omitted most of Paul's epistles and the whole book of Revelation as too incendiary. In the following century, textual criticism cleared most of the supernatural out of Christian beliefs, or explained it away. In 1925, Wilhelm Bousset, a great student of Antichrist, authoritatively declared that Antichrist's legend "is now to be found only among the lower classes of the Christian community, among sects, eccentric individualists, and fanatics." In 1957, another serious scholar, Norman Cohn, memorably assigned the apocalyptic tradition to the "obscure underworld of popular religion." Christianity was being recast. It has been through the ages, but now its supernatural foundations were being meddled with. Reconstruction can shore up or help to weaken structures. Subtract one aspect of the supernatural, and the edifice may crumble. Within a few years, a distinguished theologian like Karl Tillich dismissed belief even in the afterlife as "a corrupt form of theological expression, disseminated among the relatively poor and uneducated." If some people don't think as we, the educated, think, it must be because they are uneducated, poor, or crackpots.     They may, on the other hand, be sociologically all right and simply mistaken. Or they may not be mistaken at all. Condescension is not the right approach. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church arrived at that conclusion. Conceived before the Second World War, its first edition consigned millenarianism to the dustbin of history. Published in 1997, on the millennium's eve, the third edition reveals the luxuriant growth of millenarianism in Asia, Africa, and South America. History, Hill reminds us, is not an exclusively rational process and, in any case, one man's reason is another man's nonsense. I have always been interested in the reasons of unreason, or of what others denounce as unreason. So, when the University of Toronto suggested fins de siècle , I turned to apocalypses.     I had little apprehension of the topic before I looked into it, and no scholarly acquaintance with it. But if curiosity kills cats, it nourishes historians. I went back to the Bible, I read hundreds of the thousands of books bearing on the subject, and the more I read the more fascinating the topic looked. I hope that the following pages convey some of the excitement of the chase and of discovery.     They do not reflect, as my other books do, research in original sources; only curiosity and empathy, not uncritical, but aware of the limits both of my scholarship and of human understanding. The treatment is not exhaustive, the approach is subjective, and the coverage reflects not models or reductive theories but what caught my attention and answered some of my questions. My adventure, like most adventures, was generated by chance and curiosity. This book--an account of my journey through apocalypses, millenarianisms, their prophets and their believers--is like a travel book. It offers more narrative than interpretation, more description than explanation, and it is addressed not to specialists but to those curious to learn about beliefs and attitudes that have metastasized both throughout our culture and far beyond the Western world.     Apocalypse long furnished the key to human history. Even if today it provides only a plain folks' gloss on history, it deserves serious attention. It might be useful at this point to provide a precis of that contentious account of what the last times will be like.     Steeped in Old Testament imagery and terminology, John's revelations come in a series of eschatological visions. The first is of Jesus Christ, his head and hair white like wool, as white as snow, his eyes as a flame of fire, in his right hand seven stars, and out of his mouth a sharp two-edged sword. The Risen Lord commands John to write what he sees and send it to seven Asian churches: "I stand at the door and knock ... He that hath an ear, let him hear what the spirit saith unto the churches."     Handel explained that he wrote the Messiah after he "saw the heavens opened and God upon his great white throne." For John, too, a door opened in heaven before his second vision--of God seated on his throne in dazzling majesty amid a heavenly entourage, in his right hand a scroll (in our versions, a book) sealed with seven seals containing his secret plans for the universe. John weeps because no one, it seems, is fit to unseal the book, but he soon dries his tears. "The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David ... prevails to open the book and loose its seven seals." The Lion of Judah turns out to be a Lamb with seven horns (representing omnipotence), and seven eyes (representing omniscience), all perfect because the number seven is a symbol of perfection.     As the Lamb begins to open seals, he brings forth four horses and their riders, all agents of destruction; reveals the souls of those who had been slain for bearing witness to the word of God; and, with the sixth seal, shatters the universe as a token of the great day of God's wrath. Chapter 7 provide a respite, while 144,000 servants of God are sealed--their seal in this case the token of a divine pledge: for them there shall be neither hunger nor thirst, "and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes."     The opening of the seventh seal ushers in angels and trumpet blasts that amplify terror, torment and great woes presented in unnerving detail. The seventh and last trumpet calls forth great voices that proclaim the kingdom of God and of his Christ. One would think the matter settled, but there is much still to come. Two garish interludes evoke the perils of a woman clothed with the sun pursued by a great red dragon, the machinations of dreadful beasts, prototypes of Antichrist, penultimately a scenario of downfall and liquidation involving further beasts, doomed unbelievers, Babylon and its great whore, and war between diabolic swarms and the hosts of heavens. Satan, bound only to rise again after a thousand years, will be finally disposed of in a lake of fire, along with death and hell.     The closing chapters promise and describe a new heaven, a new earth, and the holy city of Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven, while God (once again) wipes tears from survivors' eyes, and John is enjoined to tell all of the things he has seen, and that must shortly take place. Copyright © 1999 Eugen Weber. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

1 Introductionp. 1
2 Chronologies and Fins de Sieclep. 7
3 Apocalypses and Millenarianismsp. 27
4 In Dark and Bloody Timesp. 41
5 Revivalists and Antichristsp. 61
6 Apocalypse and Sciencep. 83
7 Enlightenment?p. 99
8 Apocalypse in Worldly Timesp. 119
9 Pursuits of the Millenniump. 147
10 Time's Noblest Offspringp. 167
11 The Twentieth Centuryp. 193
12 Conclusionp. 223
Notesp. 241
Indexp. 269