There are three types of millennialism in Christendom today: pre-millennialism, post-millennialism, and a-millennialism. Pre-millennialism is the belief that Christ will return after a period of destructive tribulation and bring with Him 1,000 years of peace. Post-millennialism is the belief that mankind will grow into the millennium through works and righteousness and that Christ will later come to accept it. A-millennialism is a Catholic version, which interprets the millennium as the symbolic reign of the Catholic church since Christ’s resurrection, which will later be followed by a return of Christ. The differences between pre and post-millennial beliefs can largely be drawn along political and theological lines. Pre-Millennialists are “graced” with the Millennium by Christ Himself, and this reflects a more conservative, grace-based approach to the gospel. Post-Millennialists believe that mankind will build the millennium through works, reflecting a more “social gospel” of liberal faiths.
At first blush, Mormonism seems clearly pre-millennialist. Scriptures in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants elaborate upon Second Coming prophesies from the Bible describing apocalyptic tribulations. But we also share some similarities with post-Millennialists. Our emphasis on building Zion, living the Law of Consecration, and gathering Israel are similar to post-Milliennial belief that the millennium will be built through righteous works. Thus Mormonism can be interpreted as a peculiar hybrid of both kinds of Millennialism.
Early LDS Swing from Pre- to Post-Millennialism
When I visited the Temple Lot in Jackson County Missouri, I was struck how small it was. Did early Mormons really think that this tiny parish-size church lot would usher in Christ’s reign in the New Jerusalem? Perhaps these Mormons felt Christ’s Second Coming was so imminent that there would be no time to build a great Cathedral worthy of His coming. This sense of immanency was bombastically expressed by Martin Harris in 1833, but it was nevertheless a sentiment shared by many Mormons of the day:
“I DO HEREBY ASSERT and declare that in four years from the date hereof, every sectarian and religious denomination in the United States, shall be broken down, and every Christian shall be gathered unto the Mormonites, and the rest of the human race shall perish. If these things do not take place, I will hereby consent to have my hand separated from my body.”
Attitudes shifted after crossing the plains. With the New Jerusalem far away, their prophet martyred, the Second Coming was no longer considered imminent. The Salt Lake Temple was built on a whole new standard, taking 40 years to build and representing a huge leap in vision and artistic achievement. Brigham taught that Zion was something we build ourselves, which starts in our hearts and spreads from there. In the end, the New Jerusalem would only be as beautiful as we ourselves design it. After Brigham Young’s death, pre-Millennialist fervor flared up as Mormons prepared for a final apocalyptic showdown over polygamy. But this fizzled out after the Manifesto. Since then, Mormons have ceased the literal gathering and building of Zion, embracing a more mainstream set of religious attitudes, albeit with many of the original millennialist hopes bubbling just beneath the surface. Deseret Book’s current most popular title is Robert Millet’s Living in the Millennium. It is clear that Mormons still very much see themselves as living in the “latter-days.”
Pre-Millennialist Attitudes Today
As a liberal, I prefer post-millennial utopian visions to pre-millennial apocalyptic fear-mongering. But nevertheless, I still view pre-millennialism as an important part of LDS doctrine and scripture. I value the doctrine of tribulation and apocalypse. The world can be a dangerous and unstable place. Our planet has already experienced two apocalyptic meteor collisions in its distant past that have wiped out almost all life on earth. There are many doomsday scenarios could easily overtake us. Being prepared for an unexpected demise is a fundamental principle of the gospel, whether it is on a global or personal scale. For this reason, I support the principles of financial preparedness, food storage, and standing in Holy Places. In any case, death is a universalapocalypse that we all face.
Even though I embrace potential apocalyptic scenarios, I am suspicious of the common interpretation that the world is growing more and more wicked in a continual crescendo of evil to culminate in a great apocalypse. This idea comes from an interpretation of the scriptures about “signs of the times,” the “wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes in diverse places, the love of men waxing cold,” etc. But nothing in these scriptures leads one to believe that these signs must necessarily continue to grow in frequency. In fact, this interpretation contradicts the scripture that the Second Coming will happen unexpectedly, “as a thief in the night.” These “signs of the times” have existed as long as man has been upon the earth. Natural disasters and war are routine and always have been. Christ told us to heed the signs of the times because they are symbols of uncertainty and mortality, reminders that we must always be prepared to meet our maker. Robert Millet, in his book Living in the Eleventh Hour, notes that the Second Coming has always been prophesied to be a symbolic “tomorrow.” If we knew an exact date, we would put off our preparations until the last minute. Instead, God wants us to live every day as if the Second Coming were tomorrow.
Things Getting Better, Not Worse
The world today is arguably less violent and wicked than at almost any time in human history. This might seem an outrageous statement given the current situations in Ukraine, Iraq, and Gaza. However Stephen Pinker in his book Angels of our Better Nature: Why Violence Has Declined presents a compelling case that we are actually living at the most peaceful and prosperous time in humanity’s existence. The media gives us a false sense of insecurity with continual coverage of far-flung bad news. But when we step back and look at trends in per-capita security and prosperity, we get a different picture. The picture is so positive that we might wonder if the millennium isn’t already here! According to Pinker, World War I and II represented aberrations in a world that has overthe centuries become steadily more empathetic, less prejudiced, less violent, and less waring (per-capita). There has never been a case of war between two truly democratic nations, and more and more nations are graduating to democratic, 1st world status. Pockets of warfare in our day happen only in places where democratic, free-capitalist attitudes have yet to take hold, but broader trends favor the triumph of democracy and capitalism.
Another problem with the “growing wickedness” interpretation is that it forces us to look upon the world’s problems pessimistically. We might do nothing to bring about reconciliation between Jews and Muslims because our pre-millennialist outlook tells us it’s a lost cause. On the domestic front, we might dismiss political solutions which could improve society because we know that things will get worse, not better. We might become pessimistic about the government and the secular world, which is supposedly being swallowed up in a growing tide of evil. While government certainly has its limitations, our pessimism towards it could easily lead to attitudes of contempt and dismissiveness, which are antithetical to LDS values. Worse, we could slip into judgmental attitudes towards people who hold progressive ideals, prematurely setting them on the left hand of God, as Jon McNaughton does in his audacious painting One Nation Under God. While collectivist or utopian ideas can often be misguided, the proponents of these ideas are often good, moral people, acting according to the best light and knowledge they have been given.
Seeing our day as routinely the “worst of times” is also a bit ungrateful, considering the sacrifices that have been made in order that we can live in a safe land of freedom, prosperity and opportunity. Every step we take was bought with the blood and sweat of millions who fought and died so that we could live in a better world than they did. How would our ancestors feel if they knew we constantly complained about the world they bequeathed us, a world so much better than the one they had to live in? Our negative view blinds us to the miracle of the modern world. We become unappreciative of the sacrifices it took to build that world, including the sacrifices of progressives, abolitionists, civil rights socialists, and secular humanists, all who have shaped the world in profoundly positive ways.
Rethinking the “Growing Wickedness” Scenario
We need not interpret the modern world as growing in wickedness to retain a pre-millennialist outlook. When Geoff B. at Millennial Star presented evidence of crime and promiscuity rates falling in recent decades, Michael Towns, a staunch conservative, declared: “There is no reason why humanity can’t experience a moral renaissance.” I was impressed that someone as conservative as Michael was able to embrace the idea that there could be a moral renaissance in society at large, that things might get better before they get worse. Even if we prescribe to the “growing wickedness” scenario, we need not automatically interpret our day as growing in wickedness. We can look at a long-term scenario which might include progress in the short-term. Indeed, we could hope and pray for it.
While LDS doctrine clearly has pre-millennial elements, we need not abandon Brigham Young’s post-millennial vision for building Zion before the Second Coming. But it will have to be a different kind of vision than the one Brigham Young gave the saints. By abandoning a central Zion in America for stakes around the world, the orientation changes somewhat. The world is now our Zion, and that Zion includes everyone in it, Mormons and Gentiles. Building Zion is now an ecumenical effort because we live in diverse, multi-cultural societies. We may not share all of our beliefs in common with the Gentiles, but most of us agree that trying to eradicate malaria would be a good thing. We can all work to combat hunger and and ignorance. We can set aside our distracting feelings about hot button social issues like gay marriage and agree to disagree. Gay marriage advocates are also good, moral people, with visions and a hunger to help and change the world. In my opinion, what unites us is greater than what divides us. Alliances between humanists, scientists, educators, socialists, capitalists and religions will continue help the world become a better, more prosperous and empathetic place. I think we should join them. Indeed it is our calling to do so.
- Do you see LDS doctrine as more pre- or post-millennialist?
- Is the world becoming more wicked or less wicked?
- Do you think that our doctrine of latter-day signs of the times must necessarily include growing wickedness?
- Could there be a moral renaissance before the Second Coming?
- Should we put aside our differences on hot-button moral issues for the sake of working together on the values we share?