The Dream of the Millennium

A Selective Bibliography

How to Cite

Lawton, H. (1999). The Dream of the Millennium: A Selective Bibliography. M/C Journal, 2(8).
Vol. 2 No. 8 (1999): End
Published 1999-12-01

As I write this it is late 1999, we are on the eve of the millennium, people are excited, anxious, scared, even paranoid, more so than usual. There is a sense of anticipation. Will there be a New Age or return to a past Golden Age? Will Christ come again to save the righteous and punish evil? Is the rise of antichrist just around the corner? Will the world fall into chaos and disorder because of the Y2K problem? Will the world be destroyed in some great apocalyptic cataclysm? Will life go on as usual? What will happen to us as we move ever closer to the great Millennium? What is it that we both long for and fear at the same time?

The hope for the Millennium -- the establishment of God's Kingdom on earth ushered in by the Second Coming of the Messiah -- is perhaps the most powerful historical group fantasy in human history. It is a fantasy that has inspired and helped shape the history and self definition of many cultures, as well as political, religious, and social movements, large and small. The fantasy that a perfect world on earth, where all wants are satisfied, where there is peace and happiness for all, is possible and obtainable may be found in the traditions of many cultures. But it may have seen ultimate expression in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which in turn has merged with indigenous beliefs of non Judeo-Christian cultures in a variety of ways. The fantasy inspires not only individuals but also groups of every size imaginable. It has been the honest hope for a better world, nightmare and everything in-between; it has, at various times, been a force for violence and evil as well as peace and love. Millennial fantasy began as an essentially religious phenomenon and still endures as such, but over the centuries it has also become totally secularised. Thus it serves a tremendously varied and complex array of emotional needs for individuals, groups, and cultures.

I have been interested in the millennium for the last 30 years, ever since I read Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium in my undergraduate days. It was my first experience with the history of what I later learned was shared group fantasy. I had never thought of feeling manifesting itself on the stage of history, thus it was a great revelation for me. This is one of a very small list of books that helped change my life. Thus my motives for offering this document for your consideration are both scholarly and emotional, perhaps it will help some of you who read this feel the same fascination and excitement of discovery that I have continued to feel with this material over the years.

It should be no surprise that since we are talking about a rich, profoundly complex subject, the literature, serious and popular, on the millennium is huge. In Western culture, even though the inspiration for the millennium comes essentially from the bible, much of the relevant scholarly literature is relatively new. We shall need to look not only at religious material, but sources from anthropology, history, sociology, political science, psychoanalysis, and psychohistory. My hope here is not to provide a comprehensive guide (I doubt that would even be possible). I want to try and focus on useful material and point out interesting areas that psychohistorians might want to pursue further. If any of you wish to suggest sources that I have missed, I would be pleased to hear from you. If I get enough response I will put out an addendum. Hopefully this document will acquaint you with a subject of profound importance, that because of its complexity is still not as clearly known as it deserves and needs to be. Let me then begin with what for me was the beginning.

Norman Cohn. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and Its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements. 2nd ed. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961. xvi, 481 pages.

This book almost singlehandedly inaugurated the field of millennial studies. It has gone through four editions, but I like the second edition because it most explicitly makes the link with modern totalitarianism. In the later editions, Cohn shied away, wrongly in my opinion, from what was essentially a psychohistorical interpretation. Norman Cohn is one of my intellectual heroes and has produced what is for me one of the great scholarly books of our age. He is, perhaps without quite realising it or wanting to be, a true historian of group fantasy. To provide a concept of his argument I am going to give some extended quotes. The book describes a process by which traditional beliefs about a future golden age or messianic kingdom became, in certain situations of mass disorientation and anxiety, the ideologies of popular movements of a particularly anarchic kind (v).

In each case it occurred under similar circumstances -- when population was increasing, industrialisation was getting under way, traditional social bonds were being weakened or shattered and the gap between rich and poor was becoming a chasm . . . a collective sense of impotence and anxiety and envy suddenly discharged itself in a frantic urge to smite the ungodly -- and by doing so to bring into being, out of suffering inflicted and suffering endured, that final Kingdom where the Saints, clustered around the great sheltering figure of the Messiah, were to enjoy ease and riches, security and power for all eternity. (32).

The figure of the messianic leader combines characteristics of both the good father and the good son. He has all the attributes of an ideal father: he is perfectly wise, he perfectly just, he protects the weak. But on the other hand, he is also the son whose task it is to transform the world, the Messiah who is to establish a new heaven and a new earth and who can say of himself: 'Behold, I make all things new!' And both as father and as son this figure is colossal, superhuman, omnipotent. This image bore no relation to the real nature and capacity of any human being who ever existed or could exist. It was nevertheless an image that could be projected onto a living man. ... Accounts of these messiahs of the poor commonly stress their eloquence, their commanding bearing and their personal magnetism. ... Even if some of these men may perhaps have been conscious impostors, most of them really saw themselves as incarnate gods or at least as vessels of divinity, they really believed that through their coming all things would be made new. ... They set themselves up as divinely appointed leaders in the Last Days ... even reincarnated Christs. No doubt some of these people were megalomaniacs and others were impostors and many were both at once -- but to all of them one thing is common: each claimed to be charged with the unique mission of bringing history to its preordained consummation. (69-70, 318)

What of those who followed such individuals? They saw themselves as a holy people -- and holy just because of their unqualified submission to the saviour and their unqualified devotion to the eschatological mission as defined by him. They were his good children and as a reward they shared in his supernatural power. It was not only that the leader deployed his power for their benefit -- they themselves so long as they clung to him, partook in that power and thereby became more than human, Saints who could neither fail nor fall. They were the bright armies, 'clothed in white linen, white and clean.' Their final triumph was decreed from all eternity; and meanwhile their every deed, though it were robbery or rape or massacre, not only was guiltless but a holy act. (71)

Opposite the forces of good, led by the messianic savior, there appears a host of demonic fathers and sons. The two opposing hosts, each the negative of the other, are held together in a strange asymmetrical pattern. As in the eschatological Messiah, so in the eschatological Enemy, Antichrist, the images of the son and the father are fused -- only here of course the images are those of the bad son and the bad father. Antichrist is in every way a demonic counterpart to the Son of God. It was his birth that was to usher in the Last Days. In his relation to human beings Antichrist is a father scarcely to be distinguished from Satan himself: a protecting father to his devilish brood, but to the Saints an atrocious father, deceitful, masking evil intentions with fair words, a cunning tyrant who when crossed becomes a cruel and murderous persecutor. Like the messianic leader, Antichrist is filled with supernatural power which enables him to work miracles; but this power comes from Satan. Like Satan he is a creature of darkness, he is the Beast who ascends out of the bottomless pit. Everything which was projected on to the imaginary figure of the Antichrist was also projected on to those 'outgroups' which were regarded as serving him. (71-2)

Such movements promised followers a sense of salvation that was at once terrestrial and collective. The Heavenly City is to appear on this earth; and its joys are to crown not the peregrinations of individual souls but the epic exploits of a 'chosen people.' And such a revolutionary movement is of a peculiar kind in that its aims and promises are boundless. A social struggle is imagined as uniquely important, different in kind from all struggles known to history, a cataclysm from which the world is to emerge totally transformed and redeemed. (308)

The New World is nothing less than the millennial Kingdom of God on earth. It will be ushered in by the triumph of the righteous against the forces of Antichrist in a great apocalyptic battle that will destroy most human beings, signal the end of history and the beginnings of Paradise on earth. Cohn shows how what was initially a religious/social group fantasy gradually became secularised in the English Revolution and went on to become a major animating fantasy in all modern totalitarian movements. Psychohistorians wishing to comprehend this complex area of study would do well to start with this book and branch out as interest dictates.

We might now ask about where such fantasies come from. Cohn shows that they arose in the Middle Ages often among those on the margins of society, most vulnerable to any sort of social upheaval or disaster. Certainly a good portion of the inspiration for such fantasies, at least in Western cultures, comes from the Bible, especially the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, but it also stems from traditions of considerable antiquity. And here, we must turn to another work by Norman Cohn.

Norman Cohn. Cosmos: Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993. x, 271 pages.

Cohn wrote this book because he increasingly wondered where the powerful beliefs/fantasies that he describes in The Pursuit of the Millennium came from. He goes back to look at the worldview of ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Indians and how they believed that once their Gods had created the world, the order of things was essentially immutable. But the natural order always seemed in danger, from disasters, plagues, defeats in war, deaths of leaders, etc., inflicted by demonic forces who revelled in the perpetuation of chaos. Various combat myths, evolving in many cultures, would tell how a divine warrior or group of warriors would emerge when needed to keep the world safe and preserve the order of things. They would keep the forces of chaos at bay so that the world as we know it could continue to survive. Around 1500 BC the Iranian prophet Zoroaster added a new innovation with his idea that the world was evolving toward an ultimately conflict-free (paradisiacal) state. There would be an ultimate battle sometime in the future where the forces of the supreme god would crush the forces of chaos, creating a perfect world. Cohn convincingly shows how these myths evolved into the shared fantasies he described in his first book. Thus the dream of the millennium is very ancient and has taken centuries to evolve into its present form. This is undoubtedly one on many reasons for the power it still enjoys in today's world.

In the years since Cohn wrote, scholars have increasingly realised the incredible diversity of millennial thinking throughout world history and in many very diverse cultures. One of the first books to call attention to this issue was published as the proceedings of a conference held at the University of Chicago in 1960, three years after the first edition of The Pursuit of the Millennium.

Millennial Dreams in Action: Studies in Revolutionary Religious Movements. Ed. Sylvia L. Thrupp. New York: Schocken, 1970. 228 pages.

The editor notes in her introduction that 'the idea of the millennium has been one of humanity's great inventions. In a sense every prophet and leader of a movement has reinvented it ... he has leaned ... on a tradition that takes us back into ... antiquity' (25).

The book lays out some of the varying schools of thought about why such movements occur and shows that they have emerged in a wide variety of cultures over the centuries. This book remains an excellent introductory text for this complex subject.

Another book that covers many aspects of the topic has recently been published and merits mention here.

The Year 2000: Essays on the End. Eds. Charles B. Strozier and Michael Flynn. New York: New York UP, 1997. ix, 342 pages.

An excellent and very diverse collection of articles. The focus is more contemporary and more on America than Thrupp's book (listed above). There are a number of strong articles on radical right-wing thinking, and how millennial hopes have permeated into many aspects of American life.

Catherine Keller. Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World. Boston: Beacon, 1996. xiv, 370 pages.

Just what it says, offering some new ways to look at the subject. Certainly this is worth a look. There are a number of areas that we need to consider in attempting to study millennial movements (1). How has the idea of the millennium evolved over time? The ideas that Cohn describes seem relatively straightforward, but in the ensuing centuries they have become more elaborate and complex (2). If we accept the notion that modern totalitarianism is essentially a secularised millennial movement, we need to have some understanding of how this process might have occurred. Thus we have to have some comprehension of the historical evolution of these fantasies (3). Also it would help to have some comprehension of the various schools of thought about why these movements occur (4). I want to consider the emergence of millennial movements in diverse cultures (e.g., South Africa, China, Brazil, the south Pacific, etc) (5). Lastly, I want to offer material on the millennial dream in American culture, where it has become quite diverse and almost all pervasive. America is perhaps the great millennial experiment of world history.

Historical Evolution of Millennialism into a Secularised Doctrine

One can make a case for the idea that in Western culture the fantasy of the millennium started out as a religious idea that often animated movements of social protest and/or revolution. Between the period of the Puritan Revolution and the French Revolution, we see the rise of secular religion (i.e. religion without the trappings of religion). This has a lot to do with what allows for men like Hitler, and Mao to be perceived as messiahs who will, via revolution, usher in a new world, what amounts to God's Kingdom on earth known by other names. I should be clear that this is my interpretation, the sources I offer for your consideration do not particularly advance this view but might offer support for it. In addition, we also need to remember that while a secularising process was going on that the religious hope also remained alive and well, so that in today's world both exist side by side in a complex, often confusing, relationship.

David S. Katz and Richard H. Popkin. Messianic Revolution: Radical Religious Politics to the End of the Second Millennium. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998. xxv, 303 pages. Eva Shaw. Eve of Destruction: Prophecies, Theories and Preparing for the End of the World. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1995. xvi, 238 pages.

Here we have two general histories that unite a lot of diverse trends together, showing the evolution of these fantasies over the centuries. Katz & Popkin are definitely worth a look.

Melvin J. Lasky. Utopia and Revolution: On the Origins of a Metaphor or Some Illustrations of the Problem of Political Temperament and Intellectual Climate and How Ideas, Ideals, and Ideologies Have Been Historically Related. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976. xiii, 726 pages.

This is a vast tome on a vast subject, which offers extensive discussion, throughout the text, on the millennial underpinning of many revolutionary movements. Of the Puritans (discussed below), Lasky notes that 'the English revolutionaries who were to usher in the New Jerusalem would be worthy: their souls would have to be free of self-love and warring lusts, of pride, envy, wrath, and bitterness. The future state of better times required guardians of sterling, if not saintly, character (422). Lasky is definitely worthy of study.

Bernard McGinn. Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Tradition in the Middle Ages. New York: Columbia UP, 1998. xxvii, 390 pages.

This book presents excerpts of varying lengths from a large number of medieval texts strung together with authoritative discussion/commentary by the McGinn. This is a useful source, especially for its material on Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202), who was certainly the major apocalyptic thinker of his time and who has inspired countless others ever since (126-141, 158-167).

Michael Walzer. The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics. New York: Athenum, 1968. xi, 334 pages. Charles Webster. The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform, 1626-1660. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1975. xvi, 630 pages.

These books clearly show that the Puritan revolution and its goals of creating not only a new world, but new men, were importantly inspired by belief in the coming millennium. An underlying goal of the Puritan effort was clearly the creation of God's Kingdom on earth. Despite their intense religiosity Puritans were men of the world, they were not in some ivory tower but very much into changing the real world in accordance with their religious principles. It is in this period that we begin to see religion becoming secularised, thus allowing religious ideas to guide or influence all aspects of the secular, e.g. politics, science, education, etc. These sources are important for understanding the beginnings of this secularisation process of religion, hence they merit close study.

Theories of Explanation

Aside from the ideas of Norman Cohn, discussed above, there are a number of other theories about how millennial movements evolve. I want to offer material by some of the key thinkers on the subject for your consideration. Also, I am going to include some material on biblical prophecy beliefs to provide an idea of how the whole idea is put together in the minds of believers.


Weston La Barre. The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970. xvi, 677 pages.

Weston La Barre was certainly one of the great psychoanalytic anthropologists. This book is his grand synthesis on the origin of religion. It appears to me truly encyclopedic in scope. Much of it is truly brilliant, but parts of it are, in my opinion, totally incomprehensible. Though he is not writing about millennialism, I include this source because he gives extensive information about legions of messianic figures from many cultures throughout history

Weston La Barre. "Materials for a History of Studies of Crisis Cults: A Bibliographic Essay." Current Anthropology 12.1 (Feb. 1971): 3-44.

La Barre offers concise discussions on millennial movements in many cultures as well as a nicely written section on the various theories of causation. There are seven pages of bibliographic references plus discussions of La Barre's by a wide array of anthropologists. Despite its age this remains a very useful article.

Anthony F.C. Wallace. "Revitalization Movements." American Anthropologist 58 (Apr. 1956): 264-81. ---. "Mazeway Resynthesis: A Biocultural Theory of Religious Inspiration." Transactions: The New York Academy of Sciences Series 2, 18.7 (May 1956): 626-38. ---. "Mazeway Disintegration: The Individual's Perception of Socio-Cultural Disorganization." Human Organization 16.2 (Summer 1957): 23-7.

Wallace presents a schema that, while perhaps unduly broad in focus for our purposes, is still useful for comprehending the dynamics and purposes of millennial movements. These ideas inform his important study of the Senaca Indians cited below. This material deserves close study.


George E. Atwood. "On the Origins and Dynamics of Messianic Salvation Fantasies." International Review of Psycho-Analysis 5, Part 1 (1978): 85-96.

This is an important article. Read this one.

Michael Barkun. Disaster and the Millennium. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse UP, 1986. x, 246 pages.

Barkun suggests that millennial movements can be one of many psychological effects inherent in group responses to local disasters. In my view this is too narrow a view of causation, but Barkun is a first rate scholar and should not be ignored.

Millennarian Change: Movements of Total Transformation. Ed. Michael Barkun. American Behavioural Scientist 16.2 (Nov./Dec. 1972).

This is a special issue of this journal devoted to this subject edited by Barkun. Seven articles, mostly by sociologists and social psychologists, examine the many complexities of this important subject (perhaps the most powerful group fantasy in human history). Millennial thinking deserves much more attention from psychohistorians than it has so far received; it is my hope that bringing some of the relevant literature to greater attention might help to stimulate increased study of this fascinating topic. One article in the issue of special interest for psychohistorians would be George Rosen, "Social Change and Psychopathology in the Emotional Climate of Millennial Movements", 153-67.

Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post. Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred. New Haven, Conn.: Yale UP, 1997. x, 366 pages.

This looks at millennial movements in terms of Bion's basic assumption model, a useful idea that merits closer examination than the authors appear to provide.

Biblical Prophecy Belief

Here are some sources that shed light on the nature of beliefs about the millennium. I have chosen some written from the point of view of true believers in Christian biblical prophecy as well as by reputable scholars on aspects of the subject that I think might be of interest to psychohistorians. There is a huge literature in this area, but not much can be said in favor of the in-depth scholarship of true believers (this is understandable since we are dealing here with issues of faith). However the materials presented here seem to me lucid and clear presentations. As such, they can be useful in aiding our understanding of the meaning of complex beliefs and ideas over long periods of time.

Grant R. Jeffrey, Armageddon: Appointment with Destiny. Revised and enlarged editon. Toronto: Frontier Research Publications, 1997. 313 pages.

This is a clearly written overview, from a leading teacher of biblical prophecy.

David Haggith. End-Time Prophecies of the Bible. New York: Putnam's, 1999. 546 pages.

For anyone wishing a guide to all the texts in the Bible dealing with this subject this book seems a most helpful source, despite the author's religious orientation.

Rapture Watch. Archives on the World Wide Web at <>.

Here is a publication that purports to give indication of when the rapture and tribulation is coming. The items selected tend to be quite amazing and must be seen to be believed. The archive lists issues from June 1997 to April 1999. It is striking that the people who put this publication out do not identify themselves in any of the issues that I looked at. Check it out.

R.H. Charles. Eschatology -- The Doctrine of a Future Life in Israel: Judaism and Christianity: A Critical History. New York: Schocken, 1963. xxx, 482 pages.

Originally published in 1899, this remains on of the standard scholarly works on the subject. If we are to understand the underlying psychohistorical issues inherent in such beliefs, we need to understand their nature -- this book is most helpful in that sense.

E.R. Chamberlin. Antichrist and the Millennium. New York: Saturday Review Press/Dutton, 1975. xii, 244 pages. Robert Fuller. Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. vii, 232 pages.

The antichrist (in essence the evil double of Jesus, the son of Satan) is barely mentioned in the Bible, but has received an increasingly major role in contemporary thinking about the millennium and how it will occur. These books seem to be useful guides to understanding an important aspect of our subject. They are more scholarly in tone than we would expect from purveyors of prophetic beliefs/fantasy (but, of course, the focus is different).

Millennial Movements Across Cultures

We see such movements in a wide variety of cultures, and not just among tribal and Third World peoples. Before considering a number of specific cultures, I want to mention a general synthesis that was attempted a number of years ago.

Bryan R. Wilson. Magic and the Millennium: A Sociological Study of Religious Movements of Protest among Tribal and Third World Peoples. New York: Harper and Row, 1973. xi, 547 pages.

This is quite extensive in scope despite its age.

American Indians

The Indian population of America was, over a period of several centuries, driven by the whites from its ancestral lands, decimated and increasingly dispossessed. Thus it might be logical to assume that these cultures would be fertile ground for messianic movements aiming to magically restore what they believed themselves to have lost at the hands of the whites. Indeed this is the case...

James Mooney. The Ghost-Dance Religion and Wounded Knee. New York: Dover, 1973. 591 pages.

This book is an unabridged reprint of the Bureau of Ethnology Report XIV, part 2, originally entitled The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, published in 1896 by the US Government Printing Office. Pagination in the book (645-1136) is from the original edition. Since the 1896 edition is not readily available to scholars, Dover has done a real service by publishing this reprint. Wishing to discover the reasons behind the tragic massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, Mooney investigated and found that it had been inspired by the Ghost Dance religion. In essence, this was a messianic movement that believed the Indian dead would be resurrected and the Whites would be driven from the land. The Indians in their desperation hoped for the establishment of an earthly paradise. Mooney found that the Ghost Dance was the culmination of a number of similar movements among Indians in response to overwhelming oppression and hopelessness. He finds parallels to the Ghost Dance in the Shakers, and various radical sects of Puritans among others. This is an important source worth close study.

Anthony F.C. Wallace. The Death and Rebirth of the Senaca. New York: Vantage, 1972. xii, 384 pages.

Wallace is an anthropologist and views messianic movements in terms of cultural revitalisation as opposed to explicit revolution being a main goal of what they try to achieve. Handsome Lake was a great prophet among the Senaca in the late 18th century, and created a religion still practiced today that helped revitalise a culture beset by defeat and disaster. Wallace is able to present an interdisciplinary thesis in favor of his argument, bolstered by history, psychoanalysis, anthropology, etc., that is very strong. This book is a model of what interdisciplinary scholarship should be, can be, and rarely is. All psychohistorians, irrespective of their interest in the subject, can learn much from Wallace's methods.

H.G. Barnett. Indian Shakers: A Messianic Cult in the Pacific Northwest. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois UP, 1972. 378 pages.

This cult was founded in 1881 and still persists among Indians of the Pacific Northwest. A useful study, worth consulting.


The longing for the true messiah is a well-known aspect of Jewish belief and culture, and has a long history. Certainly the Jews have, over the centuries, been subjected to more than their share of persecution. Thus it should not be surprising that various self-styled messiahs would come forward, especially in times of cultural chaos, pain and persecution.

Gershom S. Scholem. Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676. Trans. R.J. Zwi Werblowsky. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1973. xxvii, 1000 pages. Bollingen Series XCIII.

The Sabbatian movement was 'the most important movement in Judaism since the destruction of the Second Temple' (ix). This book is apparently the first major study of Sabbatai, what he was about, and why he was important. The movement he inspired swept through the entire Jewish Diaspora. When it had reached a fever pitch, Sabbatai suddenly recanted and became a Muslim to save his life. Most of his followers abandoned him, but a few continued to believe and developed a mystical heresy that persisted. Scholem is a pre-eminent scholar of Jewish history, especially Kabalistic and mystical traditions. He clearly shows that Sabbatai was a manic-depressive, and how his religious revelations were an expression of the manic aspect of his personality. The level of detail makes this a very complex book, but it merits close study.

W.W. Meissner. "Medieval Messianism and Sabbatianism." The Psychoanalytic Study of Society: Essays in Honor of George D. and Louise A. Spindler. Eds. L. Bruce Boyer and Ruth M. Boyer. V. 17. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic, 1992. 289-325.

For readers uncertain if they want to get into Scholem or who might lack the tenacity to grapple with such a formidable tome, this overview might be helpful. Also, Meissner has included some useful ideas on the emotional pathology of messianic figures that are of interest. It is important to remember that such movements are mutual, self-reinforcing processes between leaders and followers. Sabbatai's Messianic exaltation was the external expression of the grandiosity of the narcissistic introject that lay at the root of his manic pathology... Sabbatai's psychopathology was beautifully adapted to the extant cultural expectations and hopes that were embedded in the Messianic belief system. To some extent, the Messianic belief system served to salvage the torn and battered narcissism of the Jewish mind and soul. The fulfillment of Messianic hopes and the restitution of narcissistic woundedness requires not merely a wishful fantasy or a hope; it required a real Messiah, an actual figure in whom idealising fantasies could be invested (322). It was possible for such wholehearted belief in the man to occur because of a meshing and interaction between the narcissistic grandiosity of Sabbatai's psychosis and its Messianic delusions on the one hand, and the desperate need for narcissistic enhancement and the severe state of narcissistic depletion suffered in the souls of individual Jews throughout the Diaspora (323). Meissner has written a number of articles on various aspects of religious evolution and belief for this series, all of which merit close study.

Arnon Levy. "Messianism as a Psychohistorical Phenomenon: The Zionist Case Study, 1977-1983." Psychohistory Review 18.2 (Winter 1990): 189-206

This is an interesting and worthwhile study.

South Africa

By any measure that I can think of, South Africa has had a most extraordinary history. Its suppression of its native population would certainly rival America's violence against the Indians. Thus, it should not surprise us to see millennial movements in reaction to extreme and brutal repression arise in this country.

J.B. Peires. The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-7. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana UP, 1989. xvi, 348 pages.

Nongqawuse was a young Xhosa girl who prophesied that the regeneration of the living and the resurrection of the dead would bring about a paradise on earth. In hope of achieving this dream, 100,000 Xhosa killed their cattle and destroyed their crops. The tribe slowly starved to death and destroyed itself as a native power in 19th century South Africa. Though Peires does not speak of this movement in millennial terms that is what it is. This book tells a horrifying chapter in South African history, and if for no other reason than that merits our attention.


We certainly cannot ignore Hitler as a secular millennial/apocalyptic messiah.

Charles B. Strozier. "Christian Fundamentalism, Nazism and the Millennium." Psychohistorical Review 18.2 (Winter 1990): 207-17.

Strozier is always worthwhile on this material and this little article is no exception. This is definitely worth your attention.


It may not be well known to general readers that tremendous class difference and oppression of the poor have marked the history of Brazil. Unspeakable violence, as in many cultures, has been no stranger there.

Euclides da Cunna. Rebellion in the Backlands. Trans. Samuel Putnam. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970. xxx, 532 pages.

This book details the messianic revolt led in the 1890s by Antonio Conselheiro among the dispossessed poor of backwoods Brazil to achieve a better world. He attracted thousands of followers. During the mid-1890s the federal army ruthlessly annihilated them, men, women, and children. Conselheiro's corpse was decapitated and taken 'to the seaboard, where it was greeted by delirious multitudes with carnival joy' (476). Like so many of these movements, a horrifying and tragic event.


Certainly no stranger to cultural upheaval and dislocation, especially in this century, it should not be surprising to find such movements here.

David E. Kaplan and Andrew Marshall. The Cult at the End of the World: The Terrifying Story of the Aum Doomsday Cult from the Subways of Tokyo to the Nuclear Arsenals of Russia. New York: Crown, 1996. x, 310 pages.

Some may remember an incident in the Tokyo subway where sarin nerve gas (used by the Nazis) killed 12 and injured 6000 people in 1995. This was engineered by the Aum Supreme Truth cult who had for a number of years been secretly preparing to achieve the apocalyptic vision of its messianic leader, Shoko Asahara. This man appears to have wanted to bring about the end of the world and might have been successful.

South Pacific

Cargo cults are well known throughout the South pacific in many societies. Such cults usually involve beliefs that ancestral spirits will bring relief and power in the form of unlimited amounts of trade goods/'cargo' to indigenous cultures who feel themselves increasingly unable to cope with the intrusions of whites into their cultural lives. With the unlimited supplies of 'cargo' a paradise on earth will be ushered in and the group will become safe from the generally unwanted intrusions of outsiders.

Kenelm Burridge. New Heaven, New Earth: A Study of Millenarian Activities. New York: Schocken, 1969. vii, 191 pages.

Basically an anthropological treatment but the author makes several points worthy of extended quotation.

Whether as fool, fraud, saint, respectable bourgeoisie, farmer or tycoon, the pain of the millennium belongs only to man. It is why he is man, why, when the time comes, he has to make a new man ... there is no human activity which cannot assume religious significance ... all religions are basically concerned with power ... particularly those seen as significantly beneficial or dangerous ... religious activities will change when the assumptions about the nature of power, and hence the rules which govern its use and control, can no longer guarantee the truth of things ... millenarian movements involve the adoption of new assumptions, a new redemptive process, a new politico-economic framework, a new mode of measuring the man, a new integrity, a new community: in short a new man. (3, 4, 5, 7, 13)

This book is definitely worth study.

Kenelm Burridge. Mambu: A Study of Melanesian Cargo Movements and Their Ideological Background. New York: Harper, 1970. xxiii, 296 pages.

He seeks to place the movements he examines strongly in the social context of the believer's lives.

Peter Worsley. The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of 'Cargo' Cults in Melanesia. New York: Schocken, 1970. lxix, 300 pages.

The author emphasises the importance of the prophet/messiah's charisma, but the message communicated to the believers is of the utmost importance.

The Dream of the Millennium in American Culture

Perhaps more than any other culture in the world, so many aspects of American life reflect belief in, interest in, or preoccupation with hope for the millennium. This is evident not only in our religious life, but also in our cultural and political life. Millennial dreams manifest themselves in both religious and secular forms, often with bewildering complexity.

Ira V. Brown. "Watchers for the Second Coming: The Millenarian Tradition in America." Mississippi Valley Historical Review 39.3 (Dec. 1952): 441-58.

Here we have a very early and nicely written general study that is still valid today. Brown dates the secularisation of millennial thinking from the French Revolution, rather than being essentially complete by that time. But the recognition of the secularisation is more the point. This is a good study and should be read.

Charles L. Sanford. The Quest for Paradise: Europe and the American Moral Imagination. Urbana, Ill.: U of Illinois P, 1961. x, 282 pages.

The longing to achieve an earthly paradise, God's Kingdom on Earth, is an integral part of the millennial fantasy. Sanford writes about the fantasy of America as a Garden of Eden, and only indirectly relates it to millennialism. Even so he offers much interesting material about the force of the millennial dream in American life. He shows that presidential rhetoric often reflects such ideas, and notes that Eisenhower was regarded by some as a messiah who would save us from godless communism. He notes that

The image of paradise ... helps to order on the physical plane of existence a desire for material ease without labor or hardship as opposed to the grinding poverty of previous existence; on the psychic plane, an infantile regression from the cares of adult life to the warm Nirvana of the womb or mother's breast; on the sexual plane, a yearning for the frank free affectionate life prescribed by one's inner nature as opposed to the emotional starvation often felt in an over rationalized civilization; on the moral plane, the wish to recapture the lost state of innocence which the adult abandons when he acquires a sense of guilt or shame; on the religious and aesthetic plane, an assertion of individual freedom and self-government against the constraints of parental and societal authority; on the plane of individual rhythms in temperament, a rebellion against established routine in behalf of new experience -- in short, assertion in behalf of all the fancied goods of life in a world which must remain forever restrictive and imperfect, therefore evil. (18)

While Sanford does not say so the points in the quote above are implicit, if not overt, in the revolutionary movements described by Cohn, indeed in all movements of this type. Though somewhat off base, this interesting book merits our study.

Ernest Lee Tuveson. Millennium and Utopia: A Study in the Background of the Idea of Progress. New York: Harper and Row, 1964. xiv, 249 pages. ---. Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America's Millennial Role. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1968. xii, 238 pages.

These are certainly worth study. Consider the following quote from John Adams in Redeemer Nation -- "'I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.' Here is a very early suggestion that the American settlements may be destined to be the nucleus not only of a holy but of a millennial people" (25).

Perry Miller. "The End of the World." Errand Into The Wilderness. New York: Harper and Row, 1964. 217-39.

This is a nice discussion on millennial thinking among colonial Puritans by an outstanding authority. Certainly worth a look.

Whitney R. Cross. The Burned Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850. New York: Harper and Row, 1965. xii, 383 pages.

During the first half of the 19th century, Western New York saw an extraordinary amount of religious ferment. It was here that the millennial movement of William Miller flourished in the early 1840's, and where perhaps the greatest millennial movement in American history, the Mormons, arose a few years earlier. Cross attempts a micro-study of the environment that spawned these and many other religious movements of similar character.

Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz. The Kingdom of Matthias. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. xiii, 222 pages.

It is well known that some self-styled messianic prophets were swindlers and criminals seeking to dupe gullible followers for their own gain. Here is an interesting case study of one of these types active in America during the 1830's.

Edward Deming Andrews. The People Called Shakers: A Search for the Perfect Society. New enlarged ed. New York: Dover, 1963. xvi, 351 pages.

An authoritative source on a major millennial movement of the early 19th century, which has virtually died out due to its emphasis on celibacy. Certainly this is worth a look.

Dan Erickson. As A Thief in the Night: The Mormon Quest for Millennial Deliverance. Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1998. 278 pages. Klaus Hansen. "The Metamorphosis of the Kingdom of God: Toward a Reinterpretation of Mormon History." The New Mormon History. Ed. D. Michael Quinn. Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1992. 221-46. Grant Underwood. The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993. 213 pages.

Today Mormonism is the fastest growing world religion. It has grown from a few embattled members in the 1830s led by Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. to a full-fledged denomination some 10,000,000 today. At its core (though some might disagree), Mormonism is still a full-fledged millennial movement devoted to having a religious government in place, up and running, so that when Christ comes again to establish the Kingdom of God on earth they will be waiting. They will join together and usher in the earthly paradise. The emphasis on the millennium is not as strong today as it was in the beginning, rather it may be more secular in character, but it is still alive and well in their beliefs. These sources clearly prove the role of the millennium in what may be the most successful movement of this kind in recent history.

Ernest R. Sandeen. The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970. xix, 328 pages.

This is an important and useful work that shows the relation of millennial and fundamentalist beliefs. Sandeen gives useful discussion of the ideas of John Darby, which shaped much of modern thought on this issue, and the evolution of the tradition of millennial belief. Here we see the beginnings of a millennialism that became culturally all-pervasive without the explicit revolutionary edge of old. Study this book.

Paul Boyer. When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1992. xiv, 468 pages. Charles B. Strozier, Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America. Boston: Beacon, 1994. 316 pages.

I put these together because they complement each other almost perfectly. Boyer writes from the view of an intellectual history and ably charts the convoluted history of prophetic/millennial thought in American culture. Strozier is psychohistorical in his approach and focusses on people, how and why they come to hold such beliefs. He succeeds admirably. My only distress with his work is that he does not consider the dimension of group fantasy, but it is minor because his focus is not that much on groups anyway. Both these books are first rate. They nicely show how much millennial thinking has permeated our culture and merit close study by all psychohistorians interested in this subject.

Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements. Eds. Thomas Robbins and Susan J. Palmer. New York: Routledge, 1997. ix, 334 pages.

An excellent collection of essays on a wide variety of issues pertinent to our subject. Their focus is primarily on North America. The contributions are uniformly well written and researched. This book is definitely useful.

Richard Abanes. End-Time Visions: The Doomsday Obsession. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman, 1998. xi, 424 pages.

Even though his discussion of the historical evolution of apocalyptic/millennial thought is weak and superficial, Abanes offers a lot of interesting material on current groups and cults that are into such beliefs. We normally think of such types as being out on the lunatic fringe somewhere, but there are more of them out there than we want to know and some of them, especially the militias, can be very dangerous.

Alex Heard. Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America. New York: Norton, 1999. 360 pages..

More interesting travels in the apocalyptic nether world.

A Doomsday Reader: Prophets, Predictors, and Hucksters of Salvation. Ed. Ted Daniels. New York: New York UP, 1999. ix, 253 pages.

A very diverse collection of readings, ranging from Marx to Heaven's Gate. Daniels has assembled some very obscure texts that shed useful light on the groups he presents for our consideration. He also gives a very nice introduction showing that millennial thought is inherent in most world religions in some form. This is a useful little book.

The Apocalyptic Vision in America. Ed. Lois P. Zamora. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green U Popular P, 1982. 264 pages.

An interesting collection of essays that show how apocalyptic ideas have penetrated almost every aspect of American culture and life. Though some of the contributors are not as convincing as I would have liked, this is still a useful source.

Mark Dery. The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink. New York: Grove, 1999. viii, 295 pages.

An interesting collection of essays on anxiety-ridden American culture at the edge of the millennium.

"Armageddon and the End Times: Prophecies of the Last Days Surface as a Campaign Issue." Time 5 Nov. 1984: 73.

This details consternation over Ronald Reagan's seeming acceptance of fundamentalist endtime scenarios during the 1984 election. Such articles are of interest because they show that information about such thinking is everywhere if you have the tenacity to look for it and notice what you are seeing.

A.G. Mojtabai. Blessed Assurance: At Home With the Bomb in Amarillo, Texas. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986. xvi, 255 pages.

An examination of millennial/apocalyptic fantasies around the bomb. This is a disturbing little book.

Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Dividian Conflict. Ed. Stuart A. Wright. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. xxvi, 394 pages.

The Davidians are of interest here because they were a messianic/apocalyptic movement. Their demise raises many important questions about how such groups are dealt with beyond the nature of their beliefs. Many books and articles have been published about them and their leader David Koresh; this one seemed to me a particularly judicious introduction to the issues involved. It is worth noting that Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building on the second anniversary of the end of the siege of the Dividian compound.

Richard Hofstadter. "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. New York: Vintage, 1967. 3-40.

This ground breaking essay is perhaps the first to clearly demonstrate the force of right-wing conspiracy thinking in American culture and how it goes hand-in-glove with millennial/apocalyptic thought. This clearly written essay is first rate and merits very close study by interested psychohistorians.

Mark Fenster. Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. Minneapolis, Minn.: U of Minnesota P, 1999. xxii, 282 pages.

Fenster notes that though conspiracy and millennial thinking come from different cultural places they are much alike. "Popular Christian apocalyptic or eschatology ... attempts to provide an accessible, comprehensible, and all-encompassing narrative frame that can explain the imminent return of Christ to a mass audience ... popular eschatology provides a call for believers to interpret current events in relation to Scripture in order to know and celebrate the rapture and Christ's return. Although overtly spiritual, popular eschatology is implicitly political in its strong linking of a coming millennium to conservative political dogma specifically opposed to a presumed 'secular humanist conspiracy.' It also offers ardent support for Zionism and a strong Jewish state of Israel, while holding anti-Semitic spiritual beliefs that characterize Jews who refuse to convert to true Christianity as being doomed to the Antichrist's seductive powers and the tribulation's apocalypse" (xix). He points out that believers in these ideas "certainly number in the millions" (145). He offers nicely concise discussions of the distinctions between post-millennialism and pre-millennialism (153-5). In sum, this book is a good discussion of the relationships between millennial thinking and political paranoia and merits close attention.

Michael Barkun. Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement. Rev. ed. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1997. xv, 330 pages.

This is an excellent account of one of the major movements of the radical right and clearly demonstrates its millennial/apocalyptic underpinnings. Indeed, most if not all radical right-wing groups show some amount of millennial orientation that is often violent in character. Barkun is a first rate scholar, hence his book deserves close study.

David H. Bennett. The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History. Rev. and updated ed. New York: Vintage, 1995. xviii, 587 pages. William Martin. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. New York: Broadway Books, 1996. xiii, 418 pages.

Here are a couple of good general histories of rightist thinking and activity in American culture for those of you who might want to become more conversant with this important subject.

Philip Lamay. Millennium Rage, Survivalists, White Supremacists, and the Doomsday Prophecy. New York: Plenum, 1996. xi, 295 pages.

A good general discussion linking such types with millennial beliefs that reminds us of the underlying rage involved with most groups of this sort. This is certainly worth study.

Robert Jay Lifton. Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999. 374 pages.

I end with this book because Lifton has taken the case of Aum Shinrikyo and made a number of very important general points about millennial/apocalyptic movements world-wide that are implicit in much of the preceding material but seldom explicitly stated. Aum is important because for the first time in history, end-time religious fanaticism allied itself with weapons capable of destroying the world ... Aum was part of a still-developing subculture of apocalyptic violence -- of violence conceived in sweeping terms as a purification and renewal of human kind through the total or near total destruction of the planet. One can observe these inclinations in varied groups on every continent. Their specific transformative projects may be conceived as religious or political, the violence to be employed either externally directed or suicidal or both at once... Increasingly widespread among ordinary people is the feeling of things going so wrong that only extreme measures can restore virtue and righteousness to society. When the world comes to be experienced as both hateful and dead or dying, a visionary guru can seize on such feelings while promising to replace them with equally absolute love and life-power (4-5). Lifton, more so than most writers, explicitly draws our attention to the death orientation inherent in these fantasies, which is very important. The book is also psychohistorical in focus. Definitely read this book.

Some Final Words

All of this material should be readily available if you have access to a decent library or interlibrary loan services. If you look for some of these sources in your local bookstore without success, try,, or for out of print

(The concluding comments which follow are my personal interpretation, offered solely for your consideration. Anyone assuming that I am attacking someone's faith or somehow ridiculing religion would be very mistaken.)

So what are we left with? The faith in such ideas sustains millions of people to some degree. Hope for a perfect world, a future golden age, is certainly a seductive fantasy for many of us, it seems to offer the hope of wondrous rebirth. The earthly paradise promised by millennial fantasy is one where no one wants for anything, all wishes and desires are gratified, universal peace and love reigns supreme, there is no inequality, and everyone is happy. It would also be a world where there is nothing to hope or strive for. There is no progress, indeed history shall be no more, and thus there would only be existence. There is no need for work or create, because everything is perfect and how can you improve on perfection? So what is it that the millennial dream really offers us? It seems to offer purification of the world, banishment of evil, but at the price of apocalyptic destruction of the world. History will end, God will come for the last judgment. Why? Because all will be dead! The millennium is not a rebirth as conventional wisdom might have us believe, it is essentially a dream/fantasy of hope for death to escape the horrors and travail of the world. I have come to believe that the paradise of the millennium is an illusion; in reality it is a paradise of death. In this sense such beliefs/fantasies can be very dangerous. They tell us it is not worth trying to improve our lives. Even though many of us may live in sorrow and pain of one kind or another, if we are alive we might be able to make it better, if we surrender to the seduction of death offered by millennial fantasies there is nothing. If we choose life in all its pain, chaos and uncertainty we still have a chance.

The choice seems obvious to me: Peace.

Author Biography

Henry Lawton