Millennialism has been around for a long time. It doesn’t just arise at the turn of a millennium: in European history it peaked in two waves in the 1100s and 1800s. Ronald Reagan used its imagery to political advantage in the 1980s, with his 'Evil Empire' rhetoric, and George Bush Jr followed with his 'Axis of Evil'.
Millennialist movements have played an important role in history. Some preachers have sincerely exhorted people to wake up and change their ways for perfectly good reasons, while others have been mad orators with convincing gifts of persuasion.
Mani the Prophet of Iran was not the first millennialist, though we don’t know when millennialism truly started. Being (usually) counter-cultural and thus marginalised, millennialist groups are under-chronicled and forgotten. Yet they have played a large part in the unofficial evolution of our beliefs.
Jesus and particularly John the Baptist were millennialists of a sort. They were Essenes, members of a radical Hebrew order whose beliefs came from ancient times and were influenced by wide contacts. Jesus and John warned people that they would reap what they sowed and the Kingdom of God was at hand.
Millennialist prophets stood outside the status quo, forecasting disaster for the world and redemption for the clean-handed. They appealed to the poor, the oppressed and dispossessed: their skills as orators made them forerunners of today’s politicians – they had to earn an audience. They also addressed valid real-life issues: rulers and priests usually did not.
Medieval Europe had several messiahs who saw the Church as the Antichrist. Aldebert (700s Belgium), three 1100s characters called Eon (Brittany), Henry (France) and Tanchelm of Antwerp attracted great multitudes before the Church disposed of them. The Jewish messiah Shabtai Zvi also caused a stir in the Ottoman world in the 1650s.
There were heretical (free-thinking) sects and groupings aplenty. Their suppression marked a bottling up of free-spiritedness, pluralism and nonconformity in Europe.
The Cathars had lasted 900 years, in Germany, Italy and SW France, until a Church crusade ruthlessly eliminated them in the 1210s. The Cathars, believers in reincarnation and carriers of a direct ‘transmission’ from Mani, the Essenes and Christ, worked on the basis that each individual took responsibility for their spiritual salvation, and that priesthoods and the established Church obstructed the unfoldment of the will of God. The Bosnian Bogomils were similar.
Voluntary poverty, purity and personalised spiritual experience were common ideas amongst heretics, who reacted against the immoralities of the age and the wealthy, authoritarian centralism of the Church.
Some groups, such as the Free Spirits of 1200s Germany, were permissive and hedonist, rebelling against religious hypocrisy. The Waldensians, believers in holy poverty, morality and spiritual perfection, who circulated in France and Italy, were ancestors of the later Protestants.
The earliest Protestants of the 1500s were lively dissidents. Notable amongst them were the Bohemian Hussites, who sparked a European war by refusing to desist from their beliefs and collectivist social experiments. The Anabaptists were evangelical and communalist, pooling their properties and taking over a few German towns to start a new society.
Eventually, many radical Protestant groups were suppressed or emigrated to America – groups such as Mennonites, Quakers, Baptists and Moravian Brethren.
Religious and political, these movements offered Europe new options – which vested interests made sure were not adopted. Their suppression during the Counter-Reformation meant that double standards, suppression and indifference became more firmly rooted in the European psyche.
Protestants proposed new ideas and social formulae which were anathema to centralising, controlling influences like the Roman Church. Unfortunately, Protestants later joined in persecutions against non-Christians with a vengeance – the witch-burnings.
Millennialism has jumped races too: the native American Ghost Dance movement, the Zulu messianic movement and the Chinese T'ai P'ing Rebellion, all of the late 1800s, connected Christian ideas with indigenous myths, holy warriorship and nationalist sentiments.
Millennialist groups exist today across the modern world – some with extraterrestrials as saviours – seeing in our crazy times the symptoms of the End Time.
Such movements offer straightforward answers in a complex, bewildered world, restoring to their followers a sense of power and belonging.
They represent truth-struggles within collective consciousness too, ideas and social energies breaking free of monotony, tradition and constraint. Their viewpoints reflect the extremity of mainstream society. They oblige society to look at itself. Their suppression, reducing cultural diversity, charges its price.
The millennialist vision, though anathema to the ‘business as usual’ mainstream school of Western belief, feeds off society’s secret doubts, operating in the background of public awareness. Though ridiculed, it’s there, introducing qualms and expectations which leap out into foreground awareness when disasters happen, when authority dissolves – or when a millennium ends.
"...That madman (Antichrist) will lead an army and beseige the mountain where the righteous have taken refuge. They will call loudly to God for help, and God shall hear them, and shall send them a liberator. Then the heavens shall be opened in a tempest, and Christ shall descend with great power; and a fiery brightness shall go before him, and a countless host of angels; and all that multitude of the godless shall be annihilated, and torrents of blood shall flow. When peace has been brought about and every evil suppressed, that righteous and victorious King will carry out a great judgement on the earth of the living and the dead, and will hand over all heathen peoples to servitude under the righteous who are alive, and will raise the (righteous) dead to eternal life, and will himself reign with them on earth, and will found the Holy City, and this kingdom of the righteous shall last a thousand years. Throughout that time the stars shall be brighter, and the brightness of the sun shall be increased, and the moon shall not wane. Then the rain of blessing shall descend from God morning and evening, and the earth shall bear all fruits without man’s labour. Honey in abundance shall drip from the rocks, fountains of milk and wine shall burst forth. The beasts of the forest shall put away their wildness and become tame. For God shall supply all with abundant and guiltless food." - Lactantius, +300s (Norman Cohn, Pursuit of the Millennium, 1957).
The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium
© Copyright Palden Jenkins 1998, 2012.
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The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium was partially written in 1997-98 and never published.