MILLENARIANISM (Religious Movement)

Millenarianism originally referred to a prophecy about the end of times, derived from the apocalyptic literature of Judaism and from the Book of Revelation. It expressed the belief that a saviour (messiah) would come (or return) to Earth to establish a one-thousand-year-long messianic kingdom, before the Final Judgement of all humanity. The millennium thus installed has been called The Golden Age or the Earthly Heaven. In the history of Christianity it has been the object of diverse interpretations. The dangers of an Anti-Christ, the early resurrection of the Christian martyrs, the characteristics proposed for the Golden Age are different elements of concurrent interpretations. The time of the occurrence of the millennium—in a distant or near future—and the criteria for the salvation of the chosen ones have been the two main points by which these interpretations can be distinguished from one another.

Since 1891, when J.Mooney wrote on the Ghost Dance of the Sioux, the word millenarianism has been used by social scientists and historians as a conceptual tool with which to interpret a particular type of salvationism.

Basing himself on his own thorough analysis of European medieval millenarianisms, Norman Cohn formulated a typology which is still largely used to identify the phenomenon. According to Cohn, millenarians see salvation as

(a) collective, in the sense that it is to be enjoyed by the faithful as a collectivity;

(b) terrestrial, in the sense that it is to be realized on this earth and not in some otherworldly heaven;

(c) imminent, in the sense that it is to come both soon and suddenly;

(d) total, in the sense that is utterly to transform life on earth, so that the new dispensation will be no mere improvement of the present but perfection itself;

(e) miraculous, in the sense that it is to be accomplished by, or with the help of, supernatural agencies (Cohn, 1974:15).

Although this typology has its source in Christianity, it is broad enough to encompass creeds and movements of other cultural traditions, in or from Africa, Melanesia, North and South America, Asia, in historic and contemporary times (see Rastafarian Movement, Sekai Kyusei Kyo, Mucker Movement, Rajneesh Movement, Unification Church/ Moonies).

When millenarian beliefs concur with the arrival of a saviour (a cultural hero, an incarnation of a deity, a sacred persona, etc.) who activates the millenarian hope by revealing the message of salvation and by inaugurating the construction of the Earthly Heaven, we are in the presence of messianism. Prophetism is a millenarian movement led by a prophet who announces the coming of the messiah and the millennium and whose role is to mediate between the sacred and profane.

The emergence of millenarian movements may occur where there is the experience and consciousness of a crisis, a consequent questioning of the established truths, and a cultural background of millenarian cosmology. As the product of collective action such movements structure social relations.

The type and course of millenarian movements relate inextricably to the socio-historic context in which they rise. Creatively, the selective appropriations/ interpretations of cultural elements produce a coherent world view. Myth and ritual strengthen specific forms of social/ hierarchical organization and set paths to be followed. Millenarian movements can take the form of a nativistic, a revitalization or an ethnic movement; a revolutionary, or an anti-colonial movement or a liberation struggle; a cargo-cult or a particular combination of all of these.

As processes with goals set and pursued millenarian movements can have profound (and often radical) consequences for those involved. They may be effective instruments of social change, even though many of the known cases have either been suffocated or have had a different social effect from the original one intended. The kind of change these movements actually propose is constantly being reformulated in the course of the movement’s history. Thus typologies must be complemented by a processual analysis.

The importance of cultural factors to the motivation and action in pursuit of social change, to conceive of millenarian movements as concrete utopias. Different from the classic utopias, millenarian movements not only express the possibility, but are projects conceived and constructed by social groups (dispossessed, oppressed, colonized, troubled in any way) who believe in the real possibility of an earthly paradise.

In urban societies of post-modern times millenarian beliefs can provide individuals with an alternative world view and a structured environment which gives meaning to their existence, in place of their experience of the world as fragmented and individualistic. They also define programatic paths to salvation, in a spectrum that ranges from Christian derived churches of a conservative tradition (Neo-Pentecostalisms) to the early twenty-first century Raelian Church whose salvation doctrine relies on the cutting edge technology of cloning (see New Age Movement). For individuals, conversion to a millen-arian movement can lead to self-empowerment. The case of Neo-Pente-costalisms in Latin America is an example in which the direct relevance of a religious work ethic and of moral teaching come close to giving rise to Utopian communities in which individuals develop a new conception of the self.

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