Neo-Fundamentalism Part 3: LDS Premillennialism

Peter Brown catholicism, Culture, eschatoloty, history, Mormon, orthodox 19 Comments

Mormons in 1830 were in league with a slew of millennialist faiths (Shakers, Campellites, and Adventists) on the brink of actualized utopia after the resurgence of premillennialism. The Second Great Awakening was typically seen as symbolic of the “refreshing of times” as spoke by Peter and a rejection of the philosophical polemics of the religious aspects of the Age of Reason. The only thing to do was to wait for Jesus to put His capstone on the Romantic Age.

According to Bushman, early Mormon converts were imminent millennialists. Even Joseph himself was sure of its coming. The establishment of the Church of Christ and the gathering to Kirtland was seen as an event that would insulate them from the calamities that would come in a very short. In fact, many other charismatic millennial sects were doomed in this time period. Mormons were a bit different. The imminent feeling abated with the construction of the temple and Joseph’s and the Church’s feeling that a sort of second coming occurred with that seminal event and the visions that took place thereafter. This didn’t satisfy some converts such as Ezra Booth as many apostatized after the promised Second Coming didn’t take place after the construction of the temple and the failure of Jackson County.

Now the focus became work, missionary efforts, Priesthood organization, and sanctification of the Saints etc. that was essential to take place to prepare for the political inevitability of the Church of Christ. The Church entered into an era of a more protracted imminence. Some of the doctrine issued through D&C balance protracted imminence and historical futurist necessity. Some of these doctrines are:

  • The necessity of mass Jewish return to the Holy Land prior to the Second Coming
  • A New Jerusalem must be built—attempted but never accomplished
  • Great calamities – earth tremble, moon blood, stars fall, etc. macro level
  • Poor and meek shall have the gospel preached to them, gospel in every nation (completed or not, experts argue)
  • Jacob shall flourish in the wilderness, Lamanites blossom as the rose
  • Economic consecration enacted – yes, that means the Church will not be practicing the holy and sacred American capitalist system.
  • The concept of 1,000 year seals, the 7,000th seal to start at the end of the 6,000 year, roughly around 2000 AD.
  • Joseph has a strange revelation where 1890 is the magic year, his 85th birthday, which he interprets as it won’t come before that time. Others following him weren’t so ambiguous.

Space is limited to the Doctrine and Covenants, yet ideas such as the Church filling North and South America prior to the Second Coming and it filling up the Rocky Mountains were other ideas espoused by Joseph Smith. It is clear that for most, imminent premillennialist fervor took a back seat for decades while a more utopian growth and survive phase was implemented. The saints looked to God to protect the work from a wicked Missouri/Illinois, and then American government than they looked to God for his imminent arrival.

In the 1870’s and 1880’s you see a shift. First, the key date of 1890 was fast approaching. Second, with the passage of the anti-polygamy laws and no where else to run, Mormons saw themselves as making their last stand—with the necessity of God intervening. Orson Pratt, Charles C. Rich, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and others of the Priesthood began making dire predictions, having dreams, giving “morning of the first resurrection” blessings, and forecasting doom and gloom. That all ended with the Manifesto. The Church was now back in balance with a protracted imminence, albeit with a Faustian bargain of sorts—missionary work being more important than standing by the nature of the fundamental doctrine of plural marriage. That didn’t settle so well with many of the fundamentalists that were IN the church at the time. Soon, they went OUT of the Church over these very issues.

So mainstream LDS culture transitioned to a missionary church—with little controversy—into a banal Utah/western monoculture—into an adjusting international Church. Premillenialism has sat where it is sitting now, with protracted imminence. The Church has been hedge-betting for more than 100 years—straddling a Mormon version of amillennialism with premillenialism from a cultural standpoint. In essence, they believe premillennialism but they practice amillennialism.

Historical premillennialism has checked off most of what needs to be done, both from a Christian and Mormon perspective. The only thing left are the calamities and war (at the macro level), establishment of the New Jerusalem, and the Temple in Jerusalem. Some of the other ideas as outlined in my first post on neo-FLDS are based on dreams, visions, and questionable sources that are valid only in individualized spirituality by the reader. Someone with neo-FLDS tendencies would search for historical premillennialist holes to fill the narrative so that context to current events can give a generalized feeling of acceleration towards the Second Coming. While these things may not be official history or doctrine, they may still be useful. Fitting them together such that contradictions don’t ensue is one key to interpreting the truth of any vision or dream claim. And, like Star Wars novels are to George Lucas’s movies, you can’t overrule the Bible, Book of Mormon, or D&C with a found vision or dream from an ancestor’s journal. There must be harmony. This is a key for the true believer who is searching for last days prophecies.

Epilogue

Most of my family are mainstream Mormon. Like them, many mainstream Mormons are premillenialists in a general sense. They think it will happen but they don’t worry about it. They envision a sort of meshing of premillennialism with a general creeping utopian amillennialism from the point of view of Church progression. In other words, one day Mormons will watch all of the calamites happen on CNN, just as if it was the Gulf War—then fly off to Cold Stone for a family night treat. They think there will be some general mayhem, but that will be in Europe and Africa, and possibly New York City, but they see the calamities as being general and spread out and not disrupting of civilization. They are more concerned with their Calvinistic destiny of working hard, being prosperous, raising families, and seeing them on the other side. The latter-day premillennialist element of the Church is paid lip service, but in practice, it is largely symbolic. There really is no working toward Zion from an economic/political sense, even from a personal standpoint, which is what we’ve been commanded to do in the temple. Finally, although there is doctrinal mainstream belief for food storage, debt abatement, and general preparedness, the priority for these concepts culturally falls into the dark netherworld zone of practices such as searching Scottish microfiche for Middle Age ancestry—in essence it is done by hobbyists. One author noted in the Southern Utah area suggested on radio that perhaps less than 10% of active Mormons have their food storage as outlined by prophetic counsel. If that’s true, it would show how protractedly imminent mainstream Mormons think the Second Coming is.

Neo-Fundamentalists do not see a peaceful transition for the Church to the millennium. They see major disruption of our culture and economy that allows for a reinvention of the Church in the ways outlined politically in the Doctrine and Covenants. They see the realization of a Constitutional Theocracy known as Zion. For the traditional Mormon, calamities are viewed through a micro level. Tsunamis in Asia would therefore account for the “seas heaving themselves beyond their bounds.” A fundamentalist perspective would see a far greater catastrophe, one that would ruin the world economy and kill millions, not just thousands. Calamities are on a macro level are very personally felt. This is why they go to such lengths to be prepared for this inevitability.

My personal feeling is if in 10-15-25 years we see no trend towards events that signal the second coming, there will be a crossroads for the Church. The “Latter-day” thing may have to be dropped, and we may enter into a new form of neo-Catholicism in our concept of a millennial reign. Of course, my personal feeling is that the narcissistic nihilistic tendency of the wider culture, the Balkinzation of America, and the demographic Dark Age coming in 50 some odd years will help strengthen the premillennialist tendencies of the LDS culture. We actually may see the change visualized by NFLDS believers even without the utopian flavor.

Comments

comments

Comments 19

  1. Peter,

    Another great post! I grew up with this stuff in my ward so it’s always been of interest.

    As the Church has internationalized, do you think neo-fundamentalism has followed, to places like Mexico, Brazil, Chile, the Philippines, Tonga, Samoa, and other places of relative Church strength? Or is this an American, and maybe even western American, phenomenon?

  2. I don’t think we’ll ever have to “drop” the “Latter-day” thing. We believe that we are the “Saints” or followers of Christ. “Latter” doesn’t have to mean “last” it also means second or more advanced in time…as opposed to the “Former-day Saints”.

  3. My personal feeling is if in 10-15-25 years we see no trend towards events that signal the second coming, there will be a crossroads for the Church. The “Latter-day” thing may have to be dropped, and we may enter into a new form of neo-Catholicism in our concept of a millennial reign.

    This is the same sentiment that has been expressed by groups of Mormons since the beginning of the church. As Grant Underwood concluded in The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism, Mormons today “are free to pick and choose their way into modernity” precisely because of their belief in a living prophet and continual revelation (p. 142). Thus groups like the Neo-Fundamentalists can exist in relative harmony with mainstream Mormons less concerned with eschatology because both groups pick and choose which prophetic pronouncements and scriptural passages best fit their worldview.

  4. Increasingly, there is reason to suppose that change, similar to that described in prophecies related to the Millennium, may occur in our lifetimes. Trends of accelerating change in biological, miniaturization and information technologies indicate that rapid and disruptive change (beyond what we’ve already experienced with the Internet) is around the corner. Radical life extension is no longer only the subject of science fiction. Super-abundance brought about by self-replicating molecular assemblers may occur within a few decades. If you’re thinking the world will change in coming years at about the same rate and to about the same degree that you’ve already experienced change throughout your life, you’re mistaken — drastically. Technology is changing our world at an exponential rate, which will result in a world quite different from common sense expectations based on linear projections. The Millennium may indeed be at hand, assuming we do not destroy ourselves first.

  5. I think more mainstream Mormons take the second coming seriously than you suggest.

    The food storage issue is tricky since for many people the issue is money and space. But the fact that so many do have a year’s storage is simply amazing. Further most preparedness is still viewed in millennial terms even if we talk about unemployment and local disasters like Katrina.

    One also can’t discount the upsurge in millennialist thinking with 9/11 in America. I think there had been a lull in the 90’s when the end of the cold war made nuclear apocalypse as an instantiation of prophecy much less likely. Now that we’ve gone so long without a serious Al Queda attack folks are getting complacent again. But I think Katrina helped keep the issue of a kind of practical eschatology in the background of Mormon thought.

  6. I’m in Kirtland, Ohio, at the Temple this week. As an example of the imminent millennial fervor you’re talking about especially in the first years of the early church, I love these prophecies made by Martin Harris here in Kirtland in September of 1832:

    I DO HEREBY ASSERT and declare that in four years from the date hereof, every sectarian and religious denomination in the United States, shall be broken down, and every Christian shall be gathered unto the Mormonites, and the rest of the human race shall perish. If these things do not take place, I will hereby consent to have my hand separated from my body.

    and

    WITHIN FOUR years from September 1832, there will not be one wicked person left in the United States; that the righteous will be gathered to Zion [Missouri] and that there will be no President over these United States after that time.

    It was going to happen quick! [Martin Harris’s Kirtland, by Ronald E. Romig (ed.), p. 29]

  7. Peter, this is interesting stuff. I kind of look at all this like prayer. “Pray as if everything depends on the Lord, but work as if everything depends on you.” By the same token, I trust that the Lord will protect me and my family from the Apocalypse if we live righteously, but I stock up on all the food, water, guns, ammo and ham radio equipment that I’ll need to take care of myself. (kidding)

    John H. (#6). Thanks for solving a mystery I’ve been trying to answer for years. So THAT’S why Martin Harris’ was also known as “Lefty” post-1836. I also like the reference to “Mormonites.” I hereby officially adopt it as my own.

  8. “The food storage issue is tricky since for many people the issue is money and space. But the fact that so many do have a year’s storage is simply amazing.”

    Actually, a pretty small percentage of the church has a year’s supply (>15%) and about 25% say they have any at all. I also have a feeling that the supply that is out there is pretty old. Our wheat, for example, is more than 26 years old. I helped a sister get rid of some that was over 50 years old at the time.

    I think we skirt around this issue and sometimes have a talk or two about being prepared for the millennium. But I think most members are busy worrying about the here and now.

  9. You see to me the fact 15% have a food storage for a year is incredible. Consider what percent of Mormons even have a temple recommend. That 1/4 of all self-declared Mormons have a food supply is incredibly high.

  10. RE: “The Millennium may indeed be at hand, assuming we do not destroy ourselves first.”

    I’m going to plant cherry trees. Until I see a temple go up in New Jerusalem and a temple go up in Old Jerusalem, I ain’t going to hold my breath.
    Perhaps mormon matters should do a poll of everyone whose patriarchal blessings tell them they will live into the millennium and their relative ages, and we could get some idea of the range it may be in. For example, it’s unlikely that most people would live more than 80 years old. If we have a group of people in their 50’s right now who were promised to live into the millenium in their PB’s then perhaps the likelyhood is that the timing of the second coming would be within 30-40 years from now. I know a number of people personally within the 30-40 year old range whose blessings do say indeed exactly that, but its hard to say whether these are flukes, or more representative of a bigger trend. And if there are just a few of them out there, then you could pass them off as really meaning that they will die and be resurrected to see the day. But if they are numerous, then I think we really have something.

  11. George, you make me smile. Are you aware that patriarchal blessings of deceased individuals are available to their descendants? You will likely find that many patriarchal blessings of these deceased relatives (if you have relatives who had blessings from the 1800’s) include promises that they will not die but be twinkled when Christ comes again. Using revelation meant for an individual and taking it as authoritative for you smacks of idolatry.

  12. RE: #11
    “Using revelation meant for an individual and taking it as authoritative for you smacks of idolatry.”

    Well, you can smack it however you like. Sounds like you have no faith in any PB’s anyway. I have faith that PB’s end up meaning whatever the proper interpretation are for them, and whenever one PB says something that isn’t true on some surface/shallow interpretation, then it wasn’t interpreted right to begin with anyway. I have absolute faith that there are spirits living on the moon that need preaching to. I have absolute faith that the spirit speaks through all PBs and that somethimes the meaning isnt really what it says. Call me idealistic on this issue. Call me idolatrous. It doesn’t bother me, but its another cheap shot. I think that the meaning of everything is to be gleaned through revelation, not through a surface reading.

    That is why I said to begin with that you can pass all that off as misinterpretations when the true meaning was to rise in the resurrection to see it happen, and why there will be a certain number of them that really mean what they say, and a certain number that don’t mean what they say.

  13. (3) “This is the same sentiment that has been expressed by groups of Mormons since the beginning of the church.”

    Granted, but premillennialist facts were left out, such as the year 2000. This was always understood, but I think early Mormons tended to ignore it because they wanted to be the inheriters of the Second Coming.

    (4) Lincoln – you’re expressing traditional amillennialist though. To think that our culture and economy can’t change drastically, I think you’re wrong. We are so much more vulnerable then in past times. Global economies have ensured that we have very little on the grocery shelf. If we have a serious disruptions of transportation and trucks can’t get to grocery stores, we have starvation. If we have nuclear holocaust, again, everything you know and hold dear–gone. Of course, I may be wrong 😉

    (7) “By the same token, I trust that the Lord will protect me and my family from the Apocalypse if we live righteously, but I stock up on all the food, water, guns, ammo and ham radio equipment that I’ll need to take care of myself. (kidding)”

    I’m not. We have a little bit of shame if we are prepared because we don’t people to think we’re kooks, but I consider it no different than having health insurance or a retirement. If our society breaks down, even without any religious change in entropy, it would be wise if we could be prepred to reorganize in new societies.

    (10) “Until I see a temple go up in New Jerusalem and a temple go up in Old Jerusalem, I ain’t going to hold my breath.”

    Most serious studiers of Mormon eschatology believe that we will have serious economic disruption prior to that ocurring, but again, they may be wrong 😉 Again, even from a secular perspective, preparedness is smart.

    (13) Kent, I got the joke. George, Kent’s tongue was firmly in cheek.

  14. Kent, whether or not George was misguided when desiring to extrapolate information from a survey of patriarchal blessings, does not necessarily mean that your “smacks of idolatry” quip was an appropriate response. I also think that George may have a point when he implies that you are not sufficiently respectful of patriarchal blessings.

    That said, George, I think Kent’s suggestion that other PBs of deceased individuals may promise transfiguration is probably true to some extent, and worth pursuing.

  15. Hi Peter. I don’t understand your response to my post, and wonder whether perhaps you misunderstood my post. For example, I do think our culture can and almost certainly will change drastically. Will you please elaborate on your response? Thanks.

  16. “That said, George, I think Kent’s suggestion that other PBs of deceased individuals may promise transfiguration is probably true to some extent, and worth pursuing.”

    I know its true that they say that. Been there dun that a long time ago…
    That doesn’t mean I believe that they mean what they say, rather the interpretation is something other than the “surface reading.”

  17. (16) Lincoln, I misread your post. I thought you were saying that you didn’t think that things would change drastically. I guess I was reading that you thought technology would bring us into Star Trek territory, a 50’s-60’s space uptopia dream. You were saying things would change drastically. Sorry I misread.

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