Millennial movements, millenarianism (Anthropology)

Anthropologists, sociologists and historians have extended the term ‘millenarianism’ from the Christian tradition to categorize religious movements worldwide that predict an impending, supernatural transformation and perfection of human society. Jesus Christ’s Kingdom on Earth will last 1,000 years — a round and solid number — or so foretold the prophet John in the Book of Revelation:

I also saw the souls of those who had been slain for their testimony to Jesus and for God’s message, and of those who had not worshipped either the beast or his statue, nor had received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.

Theologians and eschatologists have much debated this revealed ‘millennium’ and its scheduling. The prediction also inspired numerous revolutionary agitations throughout the history of Christian Europe. These were campaigns and movements of disaffected people seeking a miraculous and imminent act of salvation that would completely ‘transform life on earth’ (Cohn 1957: 15).

Generalized from its Christian origins, the label ‘millennial’ describes a broad variety of social movements that have in common an aspiration to reform or to overturn the social order with supernatural assistance. Daniels (1992) included more than 5,900 different millennial movements in an international bibliographic compendium. Among these are the ghost dance and Peyote (Native American) Church of North America, the New Zealand Maori Hau Hau, South African Zulu zionism, Brazilian Umbanda, and Melanesian cargo cults (see also Wilson 1973).

The term ‘millenarianism’ encompasses, or overlaps, other labels that anthropologists have used to classify movements, including messianic, acculturation, nativistic, revitalization and cargo cult. (A conference in 1960, ‘Millennial Dreams in Action’, helped consolidate anthropological approaches to various forms of religious protest under the rubric of millenarianism — see Thrupp 1962.) Many have proposed to regularize anthropology’s terminology in this neighbourhood of religious protest, but no standard typology exists. Generally, however, the label ‘messianic’ describes movements that focus on the advent or the return of a saviour; acculturation movements respond to the disruptions of colonial domination; nativistic movements seek to revive or perpetuate endangered aspects of culture and so re-establish a golden age (Linton 1943); the label ‘revitalization’ highlights the reconstructive and socially therapeutic functions of movement belief and ritual (Wallace 1956); and cargo cults are a specific, Melanesian case in which the anticipated millennium will be a supermarket of Western commodities.

Millennial movements emerged as a significant anthropological problem principally after World War II in conjunction with pressing issues of social change, and of economic and political development in the postwar era. The term proved useful for anthropology’s attempts to theorize people’s reactions to colonial political orders (that had been shaken by the war) and to an expanding global economic system that promised development and ‘modernization’. The Cold War and the rise of communist states in Eastern Europe, China, Korea, Vietnam and Cuba also made revolution a conspicuous problem; anthropologists along with other scholars inspected millenarian and other sorts of social movements with the potential to unsettle the social order, seeking general theories that might explain political revolution or, if necessary, forestall this. The civil rights and youth movements of the 1960s in North American and Western Europe also gave issues of millenarianism a new urgency. Of note, here, were arguments between Marxists, who typically took millennial movements to be a primitive form of class struggle (e.g. Hobsbawm 1959; Lanternari 1963), and those who suggested that Marxism itself was millenarian.

Explanation of millenarianism begins with locating tension and disruption within a society. Famine, plague, price inflation, political oppression, colonial disruption of traditional lifeways or some other source of stress unsettles people’s lives. Increasingly desperate, they collectively pursue supernatural salvation from their problems in promises of a New Age. Prophets surface with messages that reveal an impending millennium of transformed or revitalized human sociability on earth, and they prescribe what people must do in order to sweep away the present, debased political and economic orders.

Theorists have approached movements from both psychological and sociological directions. Psychologically, the problem is to explain why people lose confidence in the present order, trusting instead in promises of glorious social transformation. Drawing on Aberle (1962), some have used the notion of relative deprivation to account for millenarian motivations. People who are used to being politically and economically deprived typically are not driven to escape their dismal, although familiar circumstances. It is only when everyday deprivation becomes conspicuous and measurable, relative to some other imagined or experienced state, that it can impel people to act in order to change their lives.

Others have approached movements sociologically, seeking commonalities in their organization and in their life-cycles, and in the broader social contexts that influence their emergence and relative success at obtaining their goals (Wallace 1956; Smelser 1963). A key element, here, is the failure of mechanisms of social control that ordinarily defuse or derail political action that challenges ruling social orders. These controls range from gross physical repression (such as the 1993 attack by US government forces on the Branch Davidian movement compound in Waco, Texas) to the more subtle operation of everyday discourses that maintain cultural boundaries between the normal and abnormal, ordinary religion and outre cult, sensible aspiration and crazed desire. Millenar-ian movements have their best chance of organizing, expanding and eventually unsettling ruling orders when ordinary policing mechanisms fail.

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