With this election, a lot people are predicting violence and the end of the world. It’s not a new phenomen. Mormons have been predicting a violent apocalypse for almost 200 years, and it is precisiely why we are called “Latter-day Saints.” In our interview Dr. Christopher Blythe, we discuss the history of apocalyptic thought in his book, “Terrible Revolution.” Dr. Blythe works at the Maxwell Institute at BYU. I’ve wondered how it works being an employee there. What is the Maxwell Institute exactly?
Christopher: I am the author of Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse that just came out. I’m also a research associate at the Maxwell Institute here.
GT: Do you do any teaching at BYU here, or…
Christopher: No, just if I want to. So I taught a class in 2019 for the Religion Department–what did they call it? [It was] sort of, Church History/Doctrine and Covenants merged together, I forget the name. [It was] Gospel Foundations. So I like teaching, but I also love having this time to write. So this is a great spot to research and write and they hook you up with great student researchers to help you with your projects and fund you to go visit different sites and different archives.
GT: Sounds like a dream job!
Christopher: It is a dream job, there’s no question.
GT: So can we think of this as kind of a think tank? We have political think tanks. Is this a religious think tank?
Christopher: Yes. I think that’s probably right. We all have our own different projects. Then we meet together, brainstorm together on–read each other’s writings. Sometimes, there’s a project that comes from above that those that actually work here might be part of or might not be. So, right now, brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon have been the big thing. One of us wrote a volume for it. These are these wonderful little 30,000 word books, each on a different book in the Book of Mormon.
We will also find out more about their collaborative relationship with the Interpreter group.
Apocalyptism has been important to Latter-day Saint theology and is why we’re called Latter-day Saints. We’ll get an overview of his book, Terrible Revolution, and learn more about LDS thoughts over the past two centuries about apocalypse, and how it differs from Millenarinism.
Christopher: Yes. There’s a great book by Grant Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism. [It’s a] brilliant book, and one of the things it did was talk about Latter-day Saint last days thoughts in context of Christian theology. Grant will walk us through and say, “Post millennialism is different than millenarianism, or what we call premillennialism.” When you’re a post millennialist, you think things are going great, that society is going to get better and better and better, and then the Savior will appear, perhaps, and you’ll be in the millennium. It’ll be a wonderful–and sometimes it’s seen more symbolically, so the Savior doesn’t necessarily appear in the same way. But it’s human invention, a human turning towards Christ, it just perfects the world. Premillennialists or millenarians have a perspective that–it’s what we’re more used to seeing–the world is going to get worse and worse and worse, then Jesus shows up, destructions happen, the righteous are selected, and then the Millennium happens. So, Grant Underwood makes a point to say that Latter-day Saints, even though we have utopian ideas like building Zion as an essential part before the Savior comes, really, we’re millenarians, that we expect society to kind of crumble before the Millennium happens. So, it’s not by human invention.
Jan Shipps, or Philip Barlow, or Terrell Givens, or Grant Underwood are trying to position Mormonism into this evangelical frame. I’m less interested in that. So I wanted to jump in and say, “Yes, we’re millenarian, don’t worry about it. But what I want to talk about is apocalypticism.” That is the sort of on-the-ground disasters that Latter-day Saints are expecting and participating in. I use a term that a great scholar, Catherine Wessinger, uses to describe this. Instead of millenarianism, I talk about catastrophic apocalypticism. So we are waiting around and we are–we’re not waiting around. We’re participant in all these wonderful, building Zion ideas, doing missionary work, work for the dead, that we believe prepares the world for the Second Coming. But, also, there’s a sort of emphasis, which is what I looked at, of destructions. The world is going to erupt. These corrupt governments, which from an early Latter-day Saint view is all governments, will collapse. So, we’re waiting for that to occur.
Of course, there is a reason we are called “Latter-day Saints.” What are your thoughts about LDS apocalypticism? Do you learn more towards millenarianism?
On the one hand, Mormons today and in the past adopt “catastrophic apocalypticism” as a doctrine, just like some Christians do from a reading of Revelation, but Mormons have a whole slew of passages in the D&C that expand on biblical passages. So Mormons highlight every earthquake, epidemic, volcanic eruption, or war and cry, “See! Latter-days! End of the world! Jesus is coming!”
On the other hand, Mormons do generally good deeds and are, on the whole, fairly optimistic about life today and life tomorrow. Mormons read a type of Enlightenment optimism into “the Restoration” that suggests God’s Spirit is hovering over the modern world and making it better.
So Mormon beliefs are all over the map on this, and Mormon practices are largely disconnected from any fixed set of beliefs on this topic, whether premillennial or postmillennial. Pragmatic Mormon optimism tends to overshadow dour apocalyptic warnings and beliefs.
Christian religions, including the COJCOLDS, are in the business of warning their members that the end is near and that the way to be prepared is to follow the institution. This is the case today (2020), it was the case when I was a teenager (1980s), it was the case when I was born (1960s), it was the case before I was born (pre 1965). In fact, Joseph Smith himself told some saints that the 2nd Coming would be in their lifetime (mid 1800s). So you see, the end is always right around the corner, except that it isn’t.
I think it’s a good idea to be prepared for the future. A little bit of food storage, emergency prep supplies, etc. isn’t the worst thing you can invest in. But the doom and gloom end-is-near mentality caters to fanatics who either really thrive on this stuff or religious fanatics who think every world event is a sign of the times. It’s good to look to the past and look forward to the future as long as you don’t fail to live for today.
@Dave B I appreciate that insight about the overall optimism of Mormons and that we keep doing good deeds. That’s good to remember. I have a somewhat more negative take because I see a lot of Mormons who don’t care about things like climate change because they think the world is going to end, and who have kind of a throw-our-hands-up-in-the-air attitude about a lot of other world problems because they think these are just inevitable signs of the times. I also see a lot of Mormons who interpret what I see as a gradual unfolding of God’s love on the earth (with greater acceptance towards historically marginalized populations like LGBT folks) as a negative sign of the time and proof of society’s moral decay. I don’t think that’s a healthy attitude.
But Dave B you’re right about the overall optimism and good works. As for me, I guess I’m a post-millennialist.
This isn’t something the missionaries teach, so unless you have contact with American members you don’t know about it. Nowadays most members read or follow American church sites of some sort.
I see no evidence of this thinking here. Though every now and then a member says something in a lesson.
I am surprised to find myself so emotional about this. It brings back such a mix of childhood horrors of the last days – fears of never seeing my children grow, let alone having grandchildren. The adolescent pride of being a general in the war in heaven. Young adult visions of Satan reigning with blood and horror. Being 25 with an office that overlooked MIT, realizing that it was ground zero: would I be the lone elder to go up to the roof and, as BRM said, raise my arm to the square to stay the inevitable fall of nuclear bombs? Hoping as a parent that BY was right and that there would be “enough and to spare” of the earth’s resources until the 2nd coming.
There may well be an apocalypse. But it will be one of our own making. If it doesn’t happen, it’s because human hearts and hands will have solved our problems. If there are enough resources, it will be because we hold our greed in check and demand accountability of those that burn through them with no thought of tomorrow.
The notion that the Devil is the root of all earth’s problems shifts the blame to the supernatural. The notion that Christ will come and bring a paradise removes responsibility from us.
Heaven on earth or hell on earth? That’s up to us.
I’m mindful that every day is the end of someone’s world on this small earth.
I’m curious if anyone has any stories about members of the church whose food storage supplies came in handy. The world hasn’t ended yet, but when your house burns or is flooded, or you’re forced to flee your country as a refugee, you could call it a micro-apocalypse—the end of the world as you knew it. Does the church do a good job at preparing members for crises other than the second coming?
Very much raised as a millenialist, but at some point I got that this was a miserable way to live and that it was my responsibility to make my life, and that of others, more sweet today than at some distant point that had not yet come.
So, less focus on food store, more on good food every day. I kept a good larder and grew what I could, and stored a little in the freezer.
Then, covid, and it became for a while quite an adventure to get supplies, particularly as we have family members who we needed to shield. That larder became important, and we lived from it substantially for a month until supplies settled down.
Now I hear wheat yields are down throughout the world, and our days of cheap food may be numbered. I think I will be more mindful of making sure the cupboards are full, but will resist the urge to believe the world is going to hell in a handcart, and store a few more dry goods. I try to steer a path of moderation and kindness.. I really don’t want to be part of the problem, but it’s hard to resist sometimes.
“Mormon beliefs are all over the map on this.”
Yeah, that works in a lot of different contexts.