Neo-Fundamentalism Part 2 – Historical Millennialism*

Peter Brown Mormon 5 Comments

Last time I discussed a sub-culture of the LDS church that is increasing as an influential force, especially given the current state of unease in America—that of neo-Fundamentalism.  Semantically this is my term, because I want to peel it apart from what we typically think of as Fundamentalist LDS (those stuck in the pre 1890 church).  A large part of NFLDS thought process is an eschatology of end-times.  This conception is critical if you want to understand the intellectual underpinnings of NFLDS.  NFLDS are betting on the end of faith—the vindication a realization of mystical actuality through a fulfillment of end-times prophecies—which is rooted in millennialism. 

What I want to do today is to take the reader on a journey of Christian millennialism.  In my next post I will discuss LDS millennialism, which is a hybrid of Christian pre-millennialism and Owenite socialism and has had its own ebbs and flows. 

Christian millennialism has its roots in four to five main scriptural areas: Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Matthew 24, and Revelations.  You have Joel, Zecheriah, Hosea, and Malachi also, but they are minor players.  Each zenith of millennialism has brought with it a corresponding societal apologetic for the fervor—in the manner of some sort of actualization of promised utopia—but has never been able to quash the idea that a literal millennium will someday take place.

Premillenialism is the first incarnation of millennialism.  Its roots are messianic Judaism and it extends through to the early Christian epoch.  Simply put, premillenialism views the current age as prior to the millennium, where Christ will return as he had ascended and reign for 1,000 literal years.  The time frame is uncertain, but an early writer, Hippolytus of Rome, exclaimed that it would be after the end of the 6,000 years, although according to Matthew 24, the interpretation of “generation” indicated that the premillenial epoch would be ending within 100 years of Jesus death, which is where the confusion begins.

Persecution of Christians helped to foster premillenialism and a sense of messianic rescue similar to that of Judaism.  As creedal Christianity comes on board, with Constantine, and eventually Justinian, premillenialism was cast aside in favor of a preterist view (all of Revelations is now fulfilled) of the millennium—that it had politically been accomplished by the Kingdom of God—the Catholic Church.  The millennium was alas, symbolic.

Preterism lasted until the Reformation, when the concepts of amillennialism< and utopianism evolved to replace it.  The idea was that the Church would accomplish through economic and political means, either a symbolic millennium, through dialectic of changing, align the world more with Christian principles. The fundamental takeaway from preterism, and amillenialism is that they were establishment philosophical thought processes to explain transitions to utopia.  The Calvinists, Puritans, Quakers, etc. were all proponents of idealizing the millennium on earth prior to the advent of Christ.  I believe this idea eventually under girded Hegel and Marx albeit through secular and economic means.

In the 19th century brings us to the Second Great Awakening.  Finally the masses were studying the Bible and it was no longer for monks, priests and scholars, and you have for the first time since the Nicean creed, a resurrecting of premillennialism. Revelations was seen as a futurist interpretation, not a symbolic or already realized text.  Differences in premillenialism exist—wide differences, all based on numerology.  Daniel talks about 1,490 times (be that years or weeks or day) it all depends on the type of premillenialist you are as how you interpret the numbers.  You also see 69 weeks, 3 days, 7 years, etc. as repetitive times that premillennialists try to divine the future (or past) from.  In the 19th Century, the eschatology was fervent and imminent, all built around Daniel and Revelations, pinned to Catholic domination as the “tribulation” period as part of a dispensation.  The years 1844 and 1846 were big years.  Adventists waited in 1844 for Christ to appear—which then spawned the Jehovah’s Witnesses—who have in turn re-applied the numbers to get other years such as 1918.

The biggest problem with 19th Century premillenialism was the inability to divine the numerology—where do you link the initial number too, and what does the number represent—all questions in the dark.  It also ignores other end-times prophecies that are outside of the numerology, such as Israel being established as a political kingdom prior to the advent, and the issue of the 6,000 years and Apocalyptic literature that coincides with the numerology.

Thanks to John Darby, Evangelical Christianity has been able to solve this by front-loading all of Revelations, Daniel, and Ezekiel with pre-tribulational dispensational millennialism (I know it’s very long).  Our world rolls quietly by until the church is “raptured” and Revelations begins.  This is the “Left Behind” group and it is fairly recent as a cultural force (50+ years).  In this version of premillenialism, all of these scriptural predictions start the clock after the rapture.  The numerology is very specific and in terms of 7 short years of tribulation and then Christ comes.  The benefit to this eschatology is that it doesn’t have to have egg on its face with poor predictions of imminent doom, and can’t rely on a yet certain date to begin the countdown.  The downside is that these Christians are being promised by their leaders that they’re going to be spared the Apocalypse by a rapture—thus no need to prepare food storage or bunker down.  So if some sort of Apocalype comes, be it divine or man-made, and there is no rapture, pre-tribulational dispensational millennialism may have a short shelf life.

Finally, let’s talk about historical premillenialism, which is where Mormons and some Christians fall.  Historical premillennialism takes history into context and sees Revelations and Daniel as a history of premillennialism where each age, each epoch, each 1,000 years has its time to shine in Revelations.  Where Mormons and Christian historicists disagree is in the timing of the Kingdom of God.  Christians of this stripe believe that President Hinckley’s “rock that rolls forth to fill the whole earth,” hits the statue after the advent, whereas Mormons believe that it was formed in 1830 and will smash the statue prior to the advent.  Both are restorationists, Evangelicals are more symbolic, have more of a believers Priesthood, with a new political kingdom (Israel) after the second coming.  Mormons believe the new spiritual Israel that will rule prior and during the Millennium and is embodied in Mormon Priesthood.  Both Christian and Mormon historicists make numerology incidental and just look at fulfilled prophecy as indicators of the imminence of the Millennium.

The point of this post is to help the reader understand, other than symbolic and utopian millennialism, end-times eschatology and premillennialism has been fairly recent (albeit broad)—relegated the past 200 years, and really to the last 30-50 years since Israel and the 1948 UN Charter.  The proximity to the historical conceptions of the Apocalypse (as defined by the wars of Armageddon, Gog and Magog) are closer to an interpretive fruition than they have been in the recent centuries (probably since the Crusades).  Add to that the rise of natural disasters, global warming, and man-made disasters (nuclear/biological holocaust) and you a have a pretty good recipe for premillennialism.

In my next post on Neo-Fundamentalim, I will outline the historical LDS/Christian transitions and peculiarities of premillennialism among the mainstream and fundamentalist LDS.  I will also do my best to outline its historical progression from 1830 until now.  (Since you are all scholars, you can correct me where I may go wrong).

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Comments 5

  1. Peter,

    Great summary. Do you know where the various Christian groups come down today in the categories you’ve outlined? I think of Catholics, for instance, as generally falling into the preterist camp, but I know there are many (like Mel Gibson) who are probably premillenialists.

    I know the Jehovah’s Witnesses make this a big piece of their message. Have the Seventh-day Adventists toned down their millenialism, although that’s arguably their origin?

    Finally, is there a link between restorationist groups like the New Apostolic Church (fairly big in Europe) and millenialism? That is, are the concepts of restoration and the millennium nearly always linked in such a way that restoration is seen as the precursor to a millennium?

  2. Catholircs are still pretrists. Some are post-millenialists, kind of a blend of preterism, the final judgement after an Apocalyse.
    Mainline prostestants are mainly still amillenialists
    Evangelicals are Darbyists – Post-tribulational premillenialim, “Left Behind” In case of Rapture, this care will be unmanned, 700 Club type Christians.
    Adventists are historical millenialists but they have Millerite beginnings. They were very numerologically based until their founder had it wrong in 1844. An offshoot from them are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who guessed in the 1870’s, got it wrong, then guessed again in 1918. I think both Adventists and Witnesses could be appropriately characterized as historical pre-millenialists, as Mormons are, although they believe in a set sort of tribulation, and that it has already occurred. Mainstream Mormons don’t believe in a sort of tribulation, or that’s its hidden or macro-ized, so its really not recognized. NFLDS however, believe in a Mormon verson of the tribulation, and that its imminent.

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  4. Wow, what fascinating stuff! You may be aware that journalist/historian Dave MacPherson has for 40 years (!) focused on the long hidden origins of the popular, evangelical “pre-tribulation rapture” fly-away which for 179 years has always had “any moment” possibilities. MacPherson has spent 25 of those 40 years as a resident of Monticello, Utah. His many Google articles include “Famous Rapture Watchers,” “Pretrib Rapture Diehards,” and “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty.” I found his 300-page classic on pretrib rapture history (THE RAPTURE PLOT) in the BYU Library; it easily has more documentation on it than all other known sources put together and is totally shocking to diehard dispensationalists who noisily regard MacPherson as someone akin to a terrorist! Thanks for your comments. Walter

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