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?