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Characteristics of millenarian movements

Dimensions of differentiation

Conditions of development

Functional analysis of millenarism

Religious and secular revolutionism


The Latin term millennium and its Greek equivalent, chilias, literally mean a period of a thousand years. According to the millenarian tradition, which is based on Jewish apocalyptic literature and the Revelations of St. John, Christ will reappear in the guise of a warrior, vanquish the devil, and hold him prisoner. He will then build the Kingdom of God and reign in person for a thousand years. Those saints who remained steadfast and gave their lives for their faith shall be raised from the dead and serve as his royal priesthood. At the end of this period Satan will be let loose again for a short while and will be finally destroyed. The victory will be followed by the general resurrection of the dead, the last judgment, and final redemption.

The term “millenarian” (or “chiliastic”) is now used not in its specific and limited historical sense but typologically, to characterize religious movements that expect imminent, total, ultimate, this-worldly, collective salvation. Used thus, the term applies to a wide range of movements.

The millenarian tradition developed originally in Persian Zoroastrianism, and above all in Judaism, whence it was transmitted to Christianity and Islam (Mowinckel 1951). Millenarism has its roots in the messianic hopes and visions of the later days of prophetic Judaism (Klausner 1909). Belief in final redemption and expectation of the Messiah became firmly established tenets of Judaism. Messianism was a living force in Jewish history and gave rise to numerous popular movements. Many of these movements were of only local and passing importance, yet some of them had a very widespread appeal and left a lasting imprint. The most noteworthy of these movements are the Judean Desert Sect, which is a crucial link between Judaism and Christianity (The Scroll of the War...) and the seventeenth-century Sabbatean movement, which spread in most countries of the Diaspora and continued to exert considerable influence on Jewish communities even after its downfall (Scholem 1957).

Christianity derived its initial élan from radical millenarism. It is by its very name a form of messianism: the term Christos, or Christ, is a Greek translation of the Hebrew term mashiah. The most important aspects of the development of the messianic doctrine in Christianity are mythologization of the figure of the Messiah, universalization of the concept of redemption, and elaboration of the “suffering servant” motif. Jesus is conceived to be the incarnation of God and not just a God-ordained representative of the divine. In Christianity the conception of the golden age becomes transnational and metapolitical. The image of the Messiah as a king, warrior, or judge does not disappear, but it is overshadowed by the image of the suffering Messiah who redeems humanity by his tribulations and cruel death.

Millenarism was preserved in the Western church and was part of orthodoxy till the end of the fourth century. The change in the political position of the church, the penetration of Greek ideas, and the influence of Augustine led to its downfall. In the Concilium of Ephesus in 431 millenarism was denounced as error and fantasy and barred from official theology. The most important among the numerous heretical millenarian movements which developed within the aegis of the Catholic church during the Middle Ages are the movements which emerged during the crusades, the movements inspired by the ideas of Joachim de Fioris, who lived in the twelfth century, and the Cathari, or Universalists, who were prevalent in the south of France and went by the name of Albigenses and Waldenses (Cohn 1957).

Among the movements of the Reformation we find the Taborites, who were the extreme wing of the Hussites (Werner 1960), the Adamites, the Moravians, the followers of Munzer who joined the revolt of the German peasants against their landlords and made an attempt to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, and most important of all, the Anabaptists (Smithson 1935). In England we find the Fifth Monarchy Men, who during the days of Cromwell established the Parliament of Saints. The development in the Protestant church parallels that of the Greek Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic church. The German and Swiss reformers believed at first that final redemption was imminent, but this millenarian expectation was abandoned. Nevertheless, millenarism found its way into the churches of the Reformation through the influence of apocalyptic mysticism and Anabaptism. This influence is most noticeable in the reformed sects and in Pietism, but it left its mark on the Lutheran church as well. [SeeChristianity.]

In Islam the millenarian tradition has developed under the name of Mahdism. The idea of final redemption was alien to Muhammad and his original followers. It was conceived only under Jewish and Christian influences during the civil wars and religious controversies attending the rise of the dynasty of the Ommaiades during the second half of the seventh century. The subsequent development of the caliphate and the decline of Muslim piety and power evoked a belief in the golden age of Islam and a longing for its restitution. A belief emerged that when injustice reached its acme the Mahdi (i.e., the rightly directed one), who was identified as a descendant of the prophet or as Isa (i.e., Jesus), would restore ancient glory and open a reign of abundance and justice. The theory of Mahdism has not been generally accepted in the Sunna and is not a fundamental dogma of orthodox Islam. It has, however, become a central idea of the Shi’ites, who have remained faithful to Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, and his descendants (Donaldson 1933). Millenarian Shi’ite sects were often constituted according to the belief in a particular descendant of Ali who was expected to emerge out of hiding as the deliverer. The most important Mahdi movements were those started by al-Mahdi Ubaidallah, who founded the dynasty of the Fatimites, Mohammed ibn-Tumart, a Berber of north Africa, and Mohammed Ahmed ibn Seyyid Abdullah, the Mahdi of Sudan (Holt 1958). [SeeIslam.]

The contact between primitive and modern societies and the processes of cultural interpenetration and assimilation have given rise to many millenarian movements in all developing countries. Prominent among these movements are the Ghost Dance movement of the North American Indians (Mooney 1896), the messianic movements of South America (Métraux 1941; Ribeiro 1962), the “cargo” cults of the South Pacific (Worsley 1957; Burridge 1961; Lawrence 1964), and the numerous millenarian movements in Africa (Sundkler 1948; Balandier 1955; Price & Shepperson 1958).

There have been a number of important millenarian movements in modern societies as well. Most prominent among them are the sectlike Christadelphians (Wilson 1961), who expect a world-wide theocracy with Jerusalem at its center, the radical and proselytizing Jehovah’s Witnesses (Stroup 1945; Pike 1954), and the Seventh Day Adventists (Froom 1946–1954). There is a strong millenarian element in Mormonism (O’Dea 1957). The extremist millenarian Black Muslim movement, which has developed among the American Negroes, views itself as anchored in the tradition of Islam (Essien-Udom 1962).

Each of the movements listed above has its unique, irreducible particularity and distinctiveness, yet they all manifest a set of common characteristics. Although the major recurrent themes appear in different constellations and there is considerable intratype variation, the basic pattern is reproduced in each of them.

Characteristics of millenarian movements

We have defined millenarism as the quest for total, imminent, ultimate, this-worldly, collective salvation. The terms of this definition require elucidation (see Miihlmann 1961; Sierksma 1961; Y. Talmon 1962; Thrupp 1962; Lanternari 1960).

The millenarian conception of salvation is total in the sense that the new dispensation will bring about not mere improvement but a complete transformation and perfection itself. Millenarian movements also view the impending redemption as ultimate and irrevocable. Time is conceived of as a process that leads to a final future. Millenarism is a merger between a historical and a nonhistorical conception of time. Salvation is viewed as imminent. The millennium is close at hand, and the believers live in tense expectation and preparation for it. Millenarism assumes that history has its predetermined, underlying plan, which is being carried to its completion, and that this predestined denouement is due in the near future. The millennial view of salvation is, in addition, revolutionary and catastrophic. Millenarism is dominated by a sense of deepening crisis that can be resolved only by ultimate salvation.

Another important element of millenarism is its terrestrial, this-worldly orientation. Its view of the divine is transcendent and imminent at the same time. The heavenly city is to appear on earth. Thus, the notion of perfect time is accompanied by the notion of perfect space.

Yet another major characteristic of millenarism is its collective orientation. Salvation is to be enjoyed by the faithful as a group. The aim of millenarism is not only the salvation of individual souls but the erection of a heavenly city for the chosen people, or the elect. The millenarian message may be directed to an already existing group, or it may call for the formation of a new group. Directly related to the collective orientation is the basic dualism of millenarism. A fundamental division separates the followers from nonfollowers. History is viewed as a struggle between saints and satans or, to use the terms coined by the millenarian Judean Desert Sect, as the “war between the sons of light and the sons of darkness.”

Millenarian movements tend to be ecstatic. In most movements the ritual involves wild and often frenzied emotional display. We encounter in many millenarian movements cases of hysterical and paranoid phenomena, mass possession, trances, fantasies, and in others ecstatic dance figures prominently. Closely related to these phenomena are the antinomian tendencies, which appear in many guises. In some movements the antinomian element is moderate and mild, in others explicit and radical. Many millenarian movements deliberately break accepted taboos and overthrow hallowed norms. Sexual aberrations and excesses and unbridled expressions of aggression are very common. Sometimes aggression is turned inward; the members may destroy their own property and even commit mass suicide. The clearest example of the antinomian element inherent in millenarism is the doctrine of the “holiness of sin” developed by the Sabbatean movement after the apostasy of the Messiah (Scholem 1957).

The majority of millenarian movements are messianic (see Kroef 1952; Métraux 1941; Banton 1963). Salvation is brought about by a redeemer, who is a mediator between the human and the divine. Another important mediator between the divine and the movement is the leader. Leadership tends to be charismatic. The intense and total commitment required by millenarism is summoned forth by leaders who are considered to be set apart from ordinary men and endowed with supernatural power. Often there is also not just one charismatic leader but a multiple leadership. First, we find in a number of instances a division of leadership between the inspired prophet and the organizer who is concerned with practical matters. A second less prevalent line of bifurcation is the differentiation between the internal leader, who operates within the movement, and the external leader, who represents it in its relations with the outside world.

Organizationally, millenarian movements vary from the amorphous and ephemeral movement, with a cohesive core of leaders and ardent believers and a large ill-defined body of followers, to the fairly stable, segregated, and exclusive sectlike group. The organizational form of a more or less ephemeral movement is, however, more typical. This is no doubt closely related to the nature of the millenarian message. The promise of an imminent and total redemption awakes grandiose hopes and sweeps a large number of followers into the movement. However, its source of strength is also its source of weakness: by promising an imminent delivery and often even fixing a definite date, it brings about its own downfall. When the appointed day or period passes without any spectacular happenings or without the right apocalyptic events, the movement faces a serious crisis that often disrupts it or even breaks it up completely.

The crisis of nonmaterialization of the millennium is a severe one, but it need not always lead to disruption. In some cases the failures of prophecy have not caused disaffection or immediate disintegration (Festinger et al. 1956). Indeed, there are many cases of persistent recrudescence in spite of repeated failure. Radical millenarism became an ever-present though periodically dormant force in Andalusia for more than seventy years during the nineteenth century (Hobsbawm 1959). It suffered reversal after reversal, yet flared up repeatedly. The recurrent revival of the movement follows an almost cyclical pattern; the millennial outbursts follow one another at approximately ten-year intervals. Similar, though not as cyclical, patterns of disruption and revival can be found in studies of the medieval period, as well as in the literature on Melanesia and Africa. Sometimes there is a hidden continuity between the different phases of the movement. When the millenarian movement suffers a reverse, it goes under cover. It remains underground until it sees a better chance for its struggle, repeatedly hiding or going out into the open, but retaining its radical millenarism. It should be stressed, however, that often there is hardly any direct connection between what may seem to be recurrent phases of the self-same movement. Continuation of similar conditions often breeds similar yet independent reactions. In many cases there is no direct influence or any continuity of either tradition or personnel between successive movements (Guiart & Worsley 1958).

An alternative reaction to nonactualization is the switch from a short-range, radical millenarism to a long-range and more or less attenuated version of it. When the future becomes past and there is no fulfillment, the Endzeit is moved into the past and integrated into the present as a new Urzeit. Final redemption is either postponed to a more distant future or spiritualized. Thus, the millenarian dynamism solidifies into a new institutionalized religion. The histories of Zoroastrianism and of Christianity provide the best examples of this developmental pattern. The institutionalization of the Bahai movement and the gradual attenuation of its initial millenarism is another case in point (Berger 1957).

Dimensions of differentiation

So far we have underlined the main common characteristics of millenarian movements and only hinted at internal differentiation. Comparative analysis of millenarian movements is at its inception, and attempts to construct a systematic typology are partial and not very satisfactory (for example, see Mair 1959; Smith et al. 1959; Köbben 1960; Shepperson 1962; Wilson 1963). The following seem to be the major dimensions of intra-type differentiation from the religious and sociological points of view.

(1)Millenarism combines a historical and a mythical time conception. The consciousness of time as a linear process of change, as a sequence of once-and-for-all events of unique character and particularity, is intertwined with the consciousness of time as cyclical and endlessly repetitive. Millenarism is in most cases posthistorical, in the sense that it is an outcome of a breakdown of historical consciousness, a flight from history to a mythical Endzeit. The historical perspective does not disappear. It is usually retained in an elaborate temporal scheme, in which a semihistorical or historical epoch ranges between the Urzeit and Endzeit. It should be noted, however, that in quite a number of cases the millennial conception is post-mythical rather than posthistorical. The breakdown of the world view anchored in the metahistorical beginning leads to the displacement of the Urzeit and to its projection into the metahistorical future. There is in this type of millenarism a vague notion of time as duration and change, as well as recognition of a short semihistorical interim period, but the cyclical paradigmatic time conception of myth predominates.

(2)Millenarism combines the notion of perfect time with the notion of perfect space. The major emphasis may be on the notion of perfect time, in which case location in a specific place is subsidiary or in certain cases even nonexistent. The spatial element may, however, be crucial. The Jewish conception of redemption is clearly localized: the return to the Promised Land and the rebuilding of Zion are an integral part of it.

(3)The millenarian process is two-phased: redemption is preceded by a premillennial catastrophe. The major emphasis may be on the preparatory struggle; in this case the tribulations of the period of breakdown are described in elaborate detail, and the fear of doom and hatred of the adversary are more prominent than hope and love. On the other hand, the dominant emphasis may be on redemption, and the catastrophe may be viewed as just a short prelude to eternal bliss. While the majority of millenarian movements combine catastrophe and redemption, in a number of cases one appears without the other.

(4)Millenarism usually involves messianism, but the two do not necessarily coincide. Expectation of a human–divine savior is not always accompanied by expectation of total and final redemption. Conversely, expectation of the millennium does not always involve the mediation of a messiah. Redemption is in certain cases brought about directly by the divine.

(5)Millenarism involves both inclusion and exclusion: there are always God’s people within and the ungodly without. The divinely appointed group may be singled out on an ascriptive and particularist basis. Only those who belong—to the race, the ethnic group, the nation—will be redeemed and enjoy the new, happy life. The basis of selection may also be elective and universalist. The message is directed to the whole of mankind; everyone who will repent and who qualifies religiously and morally will be saved. The main emphasis may be either exclusive or inclusive.

(6)While expectation of imminent redemption is a constitutive element in millenarism, there is a certain range of variation in this respect. There are movements that are swept by a very strong sense of the immediacy and urgency of redemption. They set a very close date for the coming of the millennium or expect it any day. Other movements view the millennium as approaching and close at hand, yet not immediate.

(7)Millenarism is a future-oriented religious ideology. However, while its attitude to the present is outrightly and radically negative, there is considerable variation with respect to its orientation to the past. There are millenarian movements that are predominantly restorative. Their aim is a revival and revitalization of the indigenous culture, and their view of the future is largely traditional.

Far more common, however, are predominantly innovative movements (Linton 1943). There is a strong antitraditional component in millenarism. Essentially millenarism is a bridge between past and future. There are many antitraditional elements in predominantly restorative movements. Some of the traditional myths and practices become symbols of the old order and acquire a new meaning and an exaggerated significance that they never enjoyed before. There is an ongoing process of selection and reinterpretation. To turn to the other pole, even the most antitraditional version of millenarism is, in fact, a synthesis of the external and the indigenous, of the new and the old. The strong antipast orientation of the innovative movements is mitigated when the millennium is envisaged as a return to a mythical golden age. Inasmuch as the millennium is regarded as “paradise regained,” those elements of tradition that are viewed as embedded in it become also components of the new order. By establishing a connection between the metahistorical Urzeit and the metahistorical Endzeit, the millenarian movement can be radically change-oriented yet incorporate traditional elements in its view of the final future. Millenarian movements are thus both restorative and innovative. Classification of a given movement from the point of view of this dimension involves careful weighing of traditional versus nontraditional elements.

(8)Millenarism usually evokes extreme dedication and fervor. In the majority of cases this fervor is accompanied by abandonment of self-control and expressed in enthusiastic ritual, violent motion, and antinomian acts. However, in a minority of cases we encounter the direct opposite: religious fervor manifests itself in excessive self-discipline, stringent observation of rules, and extreme asceticism, The Black Muslims, for instance, insist on strict order and decorum; they prohibit any excess and any expression of religious enthusiasm.

(9)Another important dimension of differentiation is the definition of the role of the movement in bringing about the advent. There are many variations in this respect. Movements range from the fairly passive and nonviolent, on the one hand, to the extremely activist and aggressive, on the other. There are certain elements in the millenarian ideology that work against an outrightly active definition of the role of the follower. Salvation is preordained and inevitable. Thus, the followers are not makers of the revolution; they expect it to be brought about miraculously from above. Ultimately, initiative and actual power to bring about change rest with divine powers. All millenarian movements share a fundamental vagueness about the actual way in which the new order will be brought about, expecting it to happen somehow by divine intervention.

It should be noted, however, that there is a strong militant ingredient in the millenarian ideology that more often than not outweighs the passive and pacifist elements in it. The assurance of operating in accordance with the predetermined divine plan and the passionate confidence in ultimate triumph may encourage heightened activity rather than passivity. Since the millennial view of redemption is both transcendent and terrestrial, paving the way for this redemption is usually not confined to the employment of ritual measures. Joining the movements affects participation and activity in the secular sphere as well. Total rejection of the social order leads in many cases to radical withdrawal and noncooperation. Cessation of economic activity, political nonparticipation, conscientious objection with regard to service in the army, strict segregation, and wholesale migration are frequent concomitants of millenarism.

An alternative and equally prevalent reaction is active revolt. Radical negation of the social order engenders, in many cases, open aggression and violence. Preparation for the future struggle often entails the introduction of military training for all members or the setting up of a selective secret military organization. Münzer’s Elect, Joseph Smith’s Apostolic Corps, and The Fruit of Islam organized by the Black Muslims are cases in point. There are numerous cases of eruption of violence: members of millenarian movements have swept over the country, devastating, burning, and massacring on their way. We also encounter many cases of planned and concerted assaults on the established authorities. Movements that have an essentially ritual and passive conception of their role are often pushed to active revolt by the inner dynamics of their millenarian position and as a result of persecution by the authorities.

Conditions of development

What are the conditions that account for the emergence and continuance of millenarian movements, and in which social groups are they anchored? By and large the data support the hypothesis that millenarism is the religion of deprived groups—the lower social strata and oppressed and persecuted minorities (Mannheim 1929–1931). It is usually engendered by severe and protracted suffering. At the root of it we often find multiple deprivation, that is, the combined effect of poverty, low status, and powerlessness. The effect of multiple deprivation accounts for the prominence of members of pariah groups and pariah people among the promulgators and followers of millenarism (Weber 1920–1921; Troeltsch 1912; Muhlmann 1961). The low status of such groups derives from their despised ethnic origin and cultural tradition and from their limitation to menial and degrading occupations. Being at the bottom on so many counts, they are attracted to the myth of the elect and to the fantasy of reversal of roles, which are important elements in the millenarian ideology.

Millenarism flares up, in many cases, as a reaction to cumulative deterioration of life conditions and as a result of awareness of prospects for further decline in the future. We note also the precipitating effect of sudden and dramatic crises that aggravate endemic deprivation and at the same time symbolize and highlight it. Many of the out-bursts of millenarism have taken place against a background of disaster: plagues, devastating fires, recurrent long droughts, economic slumps that caused widespread unemployment and poverty, and calamitous wars.

Deprivation, frustration, and isolation

The hypothesis of acute multiple deprivation provides an important clue. Yet, as it stands, it does not fully account for the emergence and development of millenarism and requires considerable modification and amplification.

First, it should be noted that the predisposing factor is, in quite a number of cases, not severe hardship but a markedly uneven relation between expectations and the means of their satisfaction (Aberle 1962). In many cases it is predominantly the inability to fulfill traditional expectations. In medieval Europe millenarism affected mainly people who were cut off from the traditional order and were unable to satisfy wants instilled in them by it. The insidious onslaught of the developing capitalistic order on a backward and isolated peasant economy created the same basic difficulty in Spain and Italy centuries later, although there it affected not only people who were cut off from the rural community but also the rural community itself (Hobsbawm 1959). We encounter the same type of frustration in primitive societies as well, but there it increasingly becomes not so much a problem of the lack of means to supply traditional wants as the development of a set of new expectations. The encounter with modern societies engenders enormously inflated expectations, without a concomitant and adequate development of institutional means for their fulfillment. This discrepancy creates a void that is often bridged by millenarian hope. That frustration may be much more important than actual hardship becomes evident when we consider the fact that millenarian unrest in certain parts of New Guinea was not caused by any direct contact with the white men. Although there were hardly any changes in the status quo, indirect contacts and impact by hearsay brought about changed expectations and acute frustration. It should be stressed that in many cases millenarian outbursts were caused not by a deterioration of conditions but by a limited amelioration that raised new hopes and new expectations but left them largely unfulfilled.

The incongruity between ends and means is not the only source of frustration. Much of the deep dissatisfaction stems from incongruities and difficulties in the realm of regulation of ends. Rapid social change and encounters with radically different systems of values result in more or less severe cultural disintegration and disorientation. The impinging cultural influences penetrate into the traditional setting and undermine the effectiveness of traditional norms as guides of action. Even central traditional values cease to be self-evident and sacred. Inasmuch as these traditional values are internalized and are an integral part of personal identity, the disintegration of the traditional system results in serious self-alienation. When the alien culture is that of a more prestigious upper class or that of a colonial ruling class, it is often—willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously—acknowledged as superior. This engenders a nagging feeling of inferiority and even self-hatred.

The effect of the incongruity between the indigenous and external influences is aggravated by the discrepancies between the values and policies of different external agencies. In most colonial countries there is constant conflict between the government, the traders, and the missions, as well as open and often bitter rivalry between the different missions. There are, in addition, inner contradictions and inconsistencies between different elements of religious doctrine and a split between religious ideals and reality. Since conflicting claims tend to neutralize and annul each other, the impinging influences weaken and destroy the traditional system without substituting a new system of values. Millenarism is often born out of the search for a tolerably coherent system of values, a new cultural identity, and a regained sense of dignity and self-respect (see Werblowsky 1965; Burridge 1961).

Another important factor operative in the emergence of millenarism is social isolation brought about by the disruption of traditional group ties. Analysis of the medieval material indicates that millenarism did not appeal much to people who were firmly embedded in well-integrated kinship groupings and effectively organized and protected in cohesive local communities. The people most exposed to the new pressures and therefore more prone to millenarian heresy were the malintegrated and isolated who could find no assured and recognized place in cohesive primary groups. Comparative historical analysis has underlined the important contribution of migrant groups and itinerant workers to the development and spread of millenarism.

The strains of transition

It is significant that millenarism occurs mainly in periods of transition. Millenarian movements in primitive societies provide the clearest proof of this hypothesis. Millenarism usually does not appear in areas largely untouched by modernization, and it appears only rarely in areas in which modernization has reached an advanced stage. It occurs mainly during the intermediate stages. This has given rise to the hypothesis that millenarism in primitive societies is a “half-way” or “quarter-way” phenomenon. (Belshaw 1950). While it is difficult to specify exactly at which point along the line millenarism begins or ceases to be feasible, the basic hypothesis that views it as a concomitant of transition is corroborated in other settings as well. In modern societies we find that those who have undergone the double transition of intercountry and intracountry migration and are both new immigrants and new urbanites are particularly prone to millenarism. Millenarian movements have proliferated during the transition between premodern and the modern way of life in rural Spain and Italy. Millenarian outbursts abounded toward the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times. The Judaeo-Christian formulation of millenarism developed during the stormy period that preceded the destruction of the Second Temple. The frustration, disorientation, and disruption engendered by these upheavals are the crux of the matter.

Millenarism and political helplessness

Even the combination of such factors as deprivation, frustration, and isolation does not supply us with an adequate answer to our question. The most important contribution of recent studies of millenarism to this analysis lies in their insistence that millenarism is essentially a prepolitical, non-political and postpolitical phenomenon (Worsley 1957). Among primitive societies it appears mainly in so-called stateless segmentary societies, which have rudimentary political institutions or lack any specialized political institutions altogether [seeStateless society]. When it appears in societies with fairly developed or well-developed political institutions, it appeals mainly to strata that are politically passive and have no experience of political organization and no access to political power. Instances of such “nonpolitical” strata in societies with a more or less developed political structure are the peasants in feudal societies, the peasants in isolated and backward areas in modern societies, marginal and politically passive elements in the working class, recent immigrants, and malintegrated and politically inarticulate minority groups. Sometimes millenarism is “postpolitical,” appearing after the downfall of a fairly developed political system. The collapse of an entire political system by a crushing defeat and the shattering of tribal or national hopes have sometimes led to widespread millenarism. It is the sense of blockage—the lack of effective organization, the absence of regular institutionalized ways of voicing their grievances and pressing their claims—that pushes such groups to a millenarian solution. Not being able to cope with their difficulties through concerted political action, they turn to millenarism. Millenarism is born out of great distress coupled with political helplessness.

The effect of the various predisposing economic and social factors is further clarified when we examine more closely the sources of recruitment to millenarian movements. The hypothesis that millenarism is a religious ideology of lower strata is based on an assumption that it is a concomitant of social and economic differentiation and is a manifestation of class society. Examination of the data indicates that this is true in most but not all cases. Millenarism is not confined to stratified societies. In quite a number of cases, it is the reaction of a largely undifferentiated primitive society to the unsettling impact of social change. Primitive societies undergo only gradual, almost imperceptible, social change. The dominant time dimension is the mythical past; life in the present is experienced as a repetition of the paradigmatic events of the Urzeit. The idea of Endzeit is either nonexistent or marginal. Swift and radical change disrupts this repetitive rhythm and transforms life conditions. The cosmic and social orders can no longer be grounded in the mythical beginning, and so the major emphasis shifts to the mythical future. The image of the future age of bliss may be largely an extrapolated replica of the former image of a past golden age. It may, on the other hand, be change-oriented and partly independent of this image of the mythical past. The main predisposing factor in such cases is the loss of anchorage in the life-giving myth of the Urzeit, and this loss affects society as a whole. Millenarism of this type is rooted in the dilemma of stability and disruptive change and not so much in a polarization of underprivileged and overprivileged strata. This problem of breakdown of continuity is of central importance also in the emergence of “posthistorical” millenarism.

When we center our attention on stratified societies, we find that underprivileged groups predominate but do not have a complete monopoly. At one time or another millenarism has found support in all levels of society. There is, for instance, a distinctly middle-class element in British millenarism. It is true that such groups as those which built their hopes on Mother Ann Lee of Manchester were usually of humbler origin and that, from the days of Wesley through the initial period of the Salvation Army to the present-day frequenters of Kingdom Halls, the poor were in the majority. However, in most movements we find members, and especially leaders, of middle-class origin. There is even one distinctly middle-class movement: there were few, if any, underprivileged elements in the affluent “Irvingite” Catholic Apostolic church that developed in the middle of the nineteenth century in England (Shaw 1946; Taylor 1958).

It is also significant that adherents of millenarian movements are not always the worst off among the underprivileged. Those members of the deprived group who are somewhat better off are often better able to take stock of their situation, to react, and reorganize. The upper strata of a minority group or the indigenous aristocracy of a colonial country may identify with the dominant group in the society. They may, on the other hand, identify with their own membership group and want to share its destiny. An indiscriminate invidious evaluation of all members of the underprivileged group and the existence of an insurmountable barrier between it and the dominant group strengthen the solidarity of the underprivileged group and blur internal status differentiation. The tendency of members of the upper strata of deprived groups to join and lead millenarian protest movements is enhanced if their traditional status is threatened and bypassed.

Many studies underline the prominence of members of a frustrated secondary elite among the leaders of millenarian movements (see, for instance, Cohn 1957; Katz 1961). Many of the leaders of the medieval movements were members of the lower clergy who, for one reason or another, decided to turn their backs on the church; Thomas Münzer is the most famous example of such men.

Religious predispositions to millenarism

So far we have dealt mainly with the economic and social factors. That the combination of all the predisposing factors will actually lead to millenarism and not result in the development of other types of religious ideology is conditioned also by the type of religious beliefs that are prevalent in a society. The yearning for an earthly paradise and for final salvation is very widespread, and millenarian elements appear in most religions. It should be stressed, however, that certain types of religions are more conducive to millenarism than others. Clearly, religions in which history has no meaning whatsoever and religions which have a cyclical repetitive conception of time are not conducive to millenarism (Eliade 1949). Apocalyptic eschatology is essentially alien to religions of a philosophical and mystical cast that turn the eye of the believer toward eternity, where there is no movement and no process. This is certainly the case with some nature and cosmic religions that view the universe in terms of ever-recurring cycles of rise and decline. Another important factor operative in this sphere is a “this-worldly” emphasis. Religions with a radical, otherworldly orientation that put all the emphasis on the hereafter or on a purely spiritual and totally nonterrestrial salvation do not give rise to the vision of the Kingdom of God on earth. The myth of Kalki as an incarnation of Visnu in a period of abundance, as well as the doctrine of the future Buddha whose advent will bring a golden age, proves that even such basically nonmillenarian religions as Hinduism and Buddhism are not devoid of millenarian conceptions. It should be noted, however, that there is hardly any millenarian tradition in Hinduism and that it has not occupied an important place in Buddhism.

It is mainly world views that are based on a notion of divine will working through history toward a preordained end which provide an overall scheme conducive to millenarism. The majority of millenarian movements have appeared in countries that have had direct or indirect contact with the Judaeo–Christian messianic traditions. The Christian missions have been the most important agency for the worldwide diffusion ofmillenarism. Several fundamentalist sects and millenarian movements have played a particularly important role in this process. The Kitawala movement, which is an African offshoot of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, is a case in point (Cunnison 1958). It should be noted, however, that millenarism has also appeared in cases where the main contact was with less apocalyptic versions of Christianity. In such cases millenarism is reinstated to a central position by a process of selection and reinterpretation.

We should take into consideration the autochthonous religious concepts as well. Some primitive mythologies contain beliefs that are conducive to millenarism, such as the expectation of the future return of the culture hero or the idea of the return of all the dead as a prelude to a millennial era. It should be stressed, however, that these themes appeared in a rather embryonic form in primitive mythology and did not occupy a particularly important position. They were developed, reinterpreted, and elaborated into full-fledged millenarian conceptions only under the impact of new situations and after contact with Christianity or Islam.

The pre-existing primitive conceptions affected the development of millenarism in yet another way. The prevalence of millenarism in Melanesia and the importance of expectations of cargo in this view of the millennium are, it would seem, due to the almost exclusive emphasis that the indigenous religion puts on ritual activity oriented to the acquisition of material goods.

The most important ideological starting point of millenarism may be a new importation; it may be the native tradition that exists of old; and, in a number of cases, it seems to be predominantly a largely independent reaction to the pressure of circumstances. Availability of pre-existing millenarian precepts and patterns facilitates the development of a full-fledged millenarian ideology and the organization of a millenarian movement. Such millenarian precepts may be dormant for a long time until activated by suitable circumstances and by crisis. The readily found millenarian representations are invested with the particularity and immediacy necessary to convert them into an effective ideology that serves as a basis for collective action.

The Sabbatean movement

Comparative research underlines the close correspondence and interdependence between millenarism and economic and social conditions. At the same time, it indicates the potency and partial independence of the religious factor. The Sabbatean movement (so named after Sabbatai Zevi, a Jewish mystic of Smyrna, who in 1648 proclaimed himself Messiah) supplies us with clear proof of the inadequacy of a reductionist interpretation. In this respect the movement is a crucial case (Scholem 1941; 1957). It was preceded by two waves of unprecedented massacres and persecutions in Poland. Many thousands of Jews were slaughtered, and many more fled before the sword. Hundreds of communities were completely destroyed. Since the messianic movement erupted shortly after the massacres, it was assumed that it was a direct reaction to them. Examination of the differential appeal of messianism in different countries reveals, however, that the Sabbatean movement was not at its strongest in communities that bore the full brunt of the disaster and was just as powerful, and in certain cases more powerful, in countries in which the Jews lived in comparative peace. The calamity contributed to the emergence of the movement by emphasizing the fundamental precariousness of Jewish existence and by enhancing the consciousness of exile, yet in and by itself it cannot account for the development and differential impact of the movement. Moreover, it is significant that messianism spread in prosperous and expanding communities just as in destitute and declining ones. Intracommunity differentiation affected recruitment more than intercommunity differentiation. Part of the established elite distrusted and rejected Sabbatai Zevi as Messiah, and the secondary elite was more active than the primary one. It should be noted, however, that the majority of the elite and upper strata joined the movement and were as enthusiastic as the mass of the people. We find among the adherents members of all strata of society, ranging from wealthy merchants, who offered to donate their entire fortune to the Messiah, to the poorest of the poor.

The predominant predisposing factor that accounts for the deep and lasting impact and for the almost universal appeal of Sabbatai Zevi in all countries of the Diaspora was the very wide spread of the doctrines of Isaac Luria, the great Kabbalist teacher who died nearly a century before the Sabbatean movement reached its height. The aim of Luria and his followers was the restitution of cosmic harmony through the earthly medium of a spiritually elevated Judaism. Their doctrines laid far greater stress on the inner aspects of redemption than on its outward historical and political aspects; however, since they viewed liberation from the yoke of servitude and exile as a by-product of spiritual salvation and since they saw the coming of the Messiah as imminent, they engendered tense messianic expectations. To the large circles of Lurianic devotees, the coming of Sabbatai Zevi was an actualization of the promise and prediction of the Kabbala; indeed, Sabbatai chose to proclaim himself Messiah in the year that the Kabbalists had calculated as the year of salvation. The antinomian deviations of Sabbateanism were anchored in the nontraditional elements in the mystical conception of redemption. The inner dynamics of the movement, and especially its transformation during its later phases, are unintelligible without a detailed and full analysis of the precepts and symbols of the Lurianic Kabbala. [SeeJudaism.]

Causal analysis of millenarism

In concluding this causal analysis, it should be emphasized that the various predisposing factors are interrelated. There is a low correlation between any one of them and the emergence of millenarism. It is only if we examine their intricate interplay and their combined effect that the results are more satisfactory. Moreover, to suggest that most millenarian movements arise in situations that have certain identifiable features in common is not to suggest that wherever such situations exist millenarian movements must inevitably arise. Inherent openness and indeterminacy remain even after we have considered all the major determinants. Examination of cases of occurrence, near-occurrence, and nonoccurrence, under basically similar conditions as far as degree of strain and structural and cultural conduciveness are concerned, indicates the considerable importance of historical accidents. Availability or nonavailability of leaders with strong suggestive powers, as well as occurrence or nonoccurrence of precipitating crises, affects the chances of the movement to emerge and develop. The variation in the reaction of the authorities to the movement’s efforts to mobilize support is another important factor. Persistent and effective repression by the authorities may prevent the emergence of the movement or defeat and quench it soon after it appears. On the other hand, increased responsiveness and flexibility on the part of the authorities may open avenues of reform and thereby deflect the movement from its purpose. It is mainly when the authorities are not only unresponsive and inflexible but also somewhat ineffective, or at least permit some relaxation of control, that the millenarian movement has a chance to emerge and spread.

Functional analysis of millenarism

What are the consequences of millenarism? How does it serve the needs of the followers, and what does it contribute to the strata and societies in which it appears? We find two main, diametrically opposed, interpretations in the literature.

The first approach underlines the negative functions of millenarism and considers it as a dangerous collective madness (see, for instance, Cohn 1957). According to this viewpoint, millenarism is a paranoid fantasy, an outlet for extreme anxiety, and a delusion of despair. The megalomaniac view of oneself as wholly good and abominably persecuted, the attribution of demonic power to the adversary, the inability to accept the ineluctable limitations of human existence, as well as the excessive emotionality, the antinomian rituals, and the destructive activities, are all diagnosed as symptoms of mental illness. The millenarian ideology is considered as disruptive and destructive both from the point of view of the movement and from that of the over-all society.

The second approach rejects this negative evaluation of millenarism and underlines its positive functions (for the clearest expression of this view-point, see Worsley 1957). According to this view, the highly emotional and aggressive behavior is related to the revolutionary nature of the movement that strives to overthrow the old order and establish a new one. The severing of strong ties and the rejection of internalized norms demand an enormous effort and engender a deep sense of guilt, which causes much of the hysteria and the aggression. Many of the antinomian manifestations represent a deliberate overthrow of the accepted norms, not in order to throw morality over-board but in order to create a new brotherhood and a new morality. The “paranoid” manifestations are seen as stemming primarily from the contradictions inherent in the situation in which such movements appear and from the difficulties inherent in their revolutionary task rather than from the psychological aberrations of individual followers. If we take into consideration the social conditions and the cultural milieus that gave rise to these manifestations, they cease to be bizarre and fantastic and become fully understandable reactions. The promillenarian viewpoint emphasizes its underlying realism and its inherent, though hidden, rationality.

This viewpoint considers millenarism to be integrative on all levels. First, the millenarian ideology supplies the believers with invaluable safeguards and supports. The predominant element in millenarism is inner certainty and hope, not despair. Adherents are assured of “being in on history.” They are in the know and are working on the winning side. The movement fosters a new collective identity and engenders a feeling of belonging and a sense of purpose. The promise that many of the first shall be last and the last first (Matthew 19.30) transforms inferiority into superiority and fosters self-confidence and a sense of ethical righteousness. The division of humanity into saints and devils enables the followers to focus and express their aggression and affirm the solidarity and integrity of their group. Vibrant expectation, pride, and hope lift them out of their apathy and bring about inner regeneration and rehabilitation.

The positive functions of millenarism become even more evident on the social level. Millenarism is an emancipating, activating, and unifying force in hitherto stagnant, politically passive, and segregated groups. In recent and contemporary history it has served as a precursor of political awakening and as a forerunner of political organization. Millenarism has played an important role in overcoming divisions and in joining previously isolated or even hostile groups together.

The revolutionary nature of millenarism makes it a very potent agent of change. It demands a fundamental transformation and not just improvement and reform. The radical versions of millenarism incite followers to active anticipation of the advent and even to active revolt. It invests their struggle with the aura of a final cosmic drama and interprets present difficulties as signs of the beginning of the end. Every small success is viewed as proof of invincibility and as a portent of future triumph. Millenarism arouses truly great hopes and therefore can make equally great demands on its followers. By promising complete salvation, it is able to liberate formerly untapped energies and generate a supreme effort without which no major break with the existing order can be achieved. Thus millenarism helps to bring about a breakthrough to the future, and its special efficacy lies in its power to bridge future and past (Wallace 1956).

Religion and politics

While bridging the gap between future and past, millenarism also connects religion and politics. Operating in societies or in strata completely dominated by religion, millenarism couches its political message in the familiar and powerful language and images of traditional religion, employing and revitalizing its age-old symbols. In such milieus recruitment to new political goals is often possible only when expressed in religious terms. In many cases it is also the only means of establishing cooperation between leaders and followers. Millenarism provides an important mechanism of recruitment of new leaders. It opens up new avenues of ascent and develops a set of new statuses. Although some of the new leaders derive their authority from their central or marginal position in the traditional order, more often than not their authority stems at least in part from their comparatively superior knowledge and greater experience in nontraditional spheres of activity and has no traditional legitimation. Millenarism helps these leaders to establish their authority. Millenarism is, according to this view, a connecting link between prepolitical and political movements; it facilitates the passage from premodern religious revolt to a full-fledged revolutionary movement.

The process of transition from the one kind of movement to the other can actually be traced in both primitive and recent premodern movements. There are two main distinct avenues of transition. In some cases the movements gradually change their nature, slowly becoming less ritualized and more secular in emphasis. They start to pay much more attention to purely political and economic goals, attach far more importance to strategy and tactics, and organize more effectively. Yet they do not sever their ties with their millenarian tradition, and they continue to derive much of their revolutionary zeal from its promise of final salvation.

Positive and negative evaluations

Assessment of the outcome of millenarism clearly reflects value premises. The two viewpoints on this matter stem at least in part from different ideological stands. The antimillenarian stream of research is gradualist and reformist, while the promillenarian stream is revolutionary and favors radical change. It should be noted, in addition, that the two viewpoints have emerged out of research in different historical and social settings. The positive evaluation grew mainly out of the research into those millenarian movements that were developed by rising groups at the upsurge of their efforts of emancipation. Such research deals mainly with movements that were precursors and concomitants of secular revolutionary action (see Tuveson 1949). These movements engender active change and leave their mark on the whole of society. Millenarism has, in fact, played an important role in all national and social liberation movements in premodern and modern Europe. It has also preceded and permeated many incipient nationalist and socialist movements in developing countries (Bastide 1961; Mühlmann 1961).

The negative evaluation of millenarism is based mainly on the study of movements developed by doomed or declining groups. Such movements have served as alternatives to, rather than as precursors or as concomitants of, secular collective action, and they have had few lasting social consequences. For example, most medieval millenarian movements were ephemeral outbursts. Since they had little chance to change the massive structure of medieval society, most of these revolutionary revivals “short-circuited” and disappeared. Material on the American Indians suggests that radical millenarism has played a limited and largely disruptive role in their history. Any movement with a revolutionary potential was quickly suppressed, leaving an aftermath of disillusion and disorganization. The task of rehabilitating and integrating the Indians was performed mainly by reformist cults oriented to peaceful accommodation to the white society (Voget 1956; Barnett 1957). Most millenarian movements in modern society are radically antipolitical. They conduct a violent campaign against secular movements and enjoin their members to keep away from them. In these cases religious and secular revolutionism are mutually exclusive, and they compete rather than mutually reinforce complementary solutions. [SeeNativism and revivalism.]

The outcome of any millenarian movement depends on the historical circumstances, on the type of society, and on the nature of the group in which it occurs. Of crucial importance are the degree of differentiation of the society, the characteristics of the religious and political spheres, the position of the millenarian group in the changing balance of power, and the group’s chances to promote its goals through political action.

Religious and secular revolutionism

The basic similarities and interconnections between religious and secular revolutionism is a major theme in most recent studies of millenarism, irrespective of their ideological position. First we note the typological affinity between these two kinds of movements. Secular revolutionary movements differ greatly from other types of secular political movements and have, in a certain sense, a semireligious character. Their world view is total and all-embracing. It purports to solve basic problems of meaning and to trace and interpret the unfolding of world history. The revolutionary ideology is a matter of ultimate concern and utmost seriousness; it demands from the followers unquestioning faith and unconditional loyalty. It is therefore all-pervasive and defines every aspect of life. Much like the great religious movements of the past, secular revolutionism has deeply stirred large masses of people, evoking intense fervor and dedication to its cause. Second, we find the similarity of predisposing factors. Like millenarism, secular revolutionism is brought about by a combination of deprivation, frustration, disorientation, and disintegration of primary groups. Last but not least are the dynamic interconnections between the two types of revolutionism. I have already mentioned that millenarism is often a precursor and concomitant of secular revolutionism.

The most important feature of millenarism seems to be its composite, “intermediate” nature. It combines components which are seemingly mutually exclusive: it is historical as well as mythical, religious as well as political, and, most significant, it is future-oriented as well as past-oriented. It is precisely this combination of a radical revolutionary position with traditionalism that accounts for the widespread appeal of millenarism and turns it into such a potent agent of change.

Yonina Talmon

[Directly related are the entries Nativism and revivalism; Sects and cults. Other relevant material may be found in Collective behavior; Mass phenomena; Religious organization; Revolution; Social movements; and in the biographies of Buber; Kluckhohn; Mannheim; Troeltsch; Weber, Max.]


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