Monday, 31 October 2011

Popular Millenarnanism 1780-1850

The focus of this blogpost is J. F. C. Harrisson's book  The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism 1780-1850. For those of you not familliar with Millenarnianism I will first start out with a short explanation of what it entails. 

Millenarianism, as the name already makes clear, is the belief in the resurrection of Christ and the coming of the new Millenium on earth. According to the bible, Christ would return to earth and would resurrect the dead. There was quite some debate if this resurrection of the dead would take place before or after the establishment of the new millenium; the 1000 years within which man lived together with Christ on the earth. During those 1000 years the sinners (be it those who had not yet died before the second coming or those who were resurrected from the dead) would be punished for their sins, whereas the true believers would remain unharmed as they would receive the seal of Christ as proof of their loyalty. At the end of the millenium heaven and earth would be destroyed and a new earth and heaven would be created. The Final Judgment would then take place; the sinners would be doomed to live in Ghenna (hell) and the saved would go to a new heaven, which was known as the New Jerusalem.  

In his The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism 1780-1850 J. F. C. Harrisson sets out to research millenarianism from 1780 to 1850 in order to explore some aspects of popular thought and culture at the time. Before delving into the realm of millenarianism of the late eighteenth till the middle of the nineteenth century Harrisson begins by making a distinction between ‘millenialists’, the more respectable and intellectual believers, and ‘millenarianists’, ‘the enthusiasts, the fanatics, the come-outers’ (6).
Harrisson then goes on to place millenarianism in a wider context, namely that of the supernatural. In his chapter ‘Signs and Wonders’ he argues that
the enemies of millenarianism linked it with popular culture [...]. For it was often observed that followers of millenarian prophets and prophetesses were drawn from people who were already prone to belief in signs and wonders and who had a deep respect for the supernatural. Folk culture provided a matrix in which millenarian yearnings could be nourished (39).
Especially two types of believe in the supernatural can be traced in some variants of millenarianism. Firstly, there is the ‘doctrine of correspondences’, which holds ‘that every part of the physical world corresponds to some aspect of the spiritual’ (40). This doctrine especially played a large role in the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist and mystic. Secondly, there is the ‘doctrine of signatures’ which closely ties in with the doctrine of correspondences. This doctrine holds that the ‘resemblance in the shape of the root, leaf or fruit of any plant to a particular part of the human body was taken to indicate its possessing some beneficial or hurtful power of the corresponding part’ (40). This correspondence was supposedly created by providence to provide for mankind. In millenarianism, the doctrine of signs gained a more symbolic value; a tree, would for example, stand for life and an apple, for example, for seduction.
However, the most convincing parallel that is drawn by Harrison between the belief in the supernatural and millenarianism is the resemblance between prophets and wise men or women, white witches and black witches. In the millenarian tradition the interpretation of dreams became very important, for that was the way in which God often communicated with the prophet or prophetess. However, Harrisson explains that dreams played quite a large role in popular culture in general, as it ‘was believed that dreams must serve some special purpose, and that as a rule they predicted the future’ (44). People often visited wise men or women, white witches or black witches to ask them to interpret their dreams. These people were also known for their skills as fortunetellers. Similarly, prophets and prophetesses also practiced a type of divination, for not only did they try to predict when the Last Judgement would take place, but they frequently also tried to foretell when famines or even wars were to breakout.
In the subsequent chapters Harrisson bespeaks different prophets and prophetesses, such as Richard Brothers and Joanna Southcott, and their followers. Richard Brothers was born in Placentia, Newfoundland in 1757 (60). He believed that he was the nephew of Christ, the Prince of the Hebrews. Although he did enjoy some popularity and eventually published two books (A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times. Book the First, published in 1794, which was shortly followed shortly by Book the Second) Brothers never set out into the country in search for support (60). Joanna Southcott, however, did seek recognition. She was born in 1750 and started her career as a prophetess in 1792. From the start of her career onwards she was very productive; ‘she produced sixty-five pamphlets, containing some 4,500 pages, and perhaps twice as much again in unpublished manuscripts’ (88). Joanna had a lot more followers than Brothers, presumably, because she, along with some of her most ardent followers, actively looked for people to sign her petition to overthrow Satan and to the establish Christ’s Kingdom on earth. Those who signed the petition
were given a seal with their name at the top and Joanna’s signature below. The seal was a piece of paper on which was a circle and the inscription: “The Sealed of the Lord, the Elect precious. Man’s Redemption to inherit the Three of Life. To be made Heirs of God and Joint-Heirs with Jesus Christ”. It was then folded up and sealed with a seal which carried the letters I.C. (construed to stand for Jesus Christ) between two stars (93).
By the year of Joanna’s death in 1815 20.000 people had received a seal (109).
            In a subsequent chapter Harrisson compares American millenarianism to British millenarianism. When looking at the Shakers (a sect that started out in Britain, but moved to New York in 1774) and the Mormons, Harrisson is able to show some important differences. The most striking difference is that in America the movements seem to have been much more organized; both the Shakers and the Mormons established quite a large community for themselves, something which was not accomplished on such a large scale in England. Moreover, especially the Mormons immediately set up their own journals in order to gain recognition. This was definitely something that the British millenarian sects lacked. Perhaps the best explanation for this, however, would be that the British millenarian sects revolved around one prophet or prophetess. The Mormons, on the other hand, based their beliefs on the bible as well as three golden plates with an abridged version of the bible which the founder of the Mormons, Joseph Smith, had found, or rather which had been bestowed upon him by the Lord.
In June 1837 the Mormons embarked on a mission to convert Britain. ‘A peak membership of nearly 33,000 was reached in 1851. Thereafter the numbers declined, as emigration outpaced recruitment, and the rate of conversions declined’ (189). The Mormons believed that America was the Promised Land, that it was there that the New Jerusalem would appear. It was this idea which lay the basis for the massive immigration to America by the British Mormons. By 1890, fifty years after the mission had started, a massive amount of 55,000 British converts had emigrated.
            In his final chapter, ‘Through a Glass, Darkly’, Harrisson poses himself the question how it was possible that the British people believed these prophets and prophetesses, whereas some of them had been placed in asylums before they started to prophesize. He explains that this was only possible because the masses still held a more traditional believe of madness. For, had the previous prophets not been declared to be mad as well? Precisely because of this history of religious madness, the claims that the prophets were mad only strengthened their position.
            The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism 1780-1850 is definitely a very interesting account of Millenarianism from the late eighteenth until the middle of the nineteenth century. It provides the reader with a handy overview of the most important prophets and prophetesses and their followers. Although it has not been discussed in this summary for the sake of brevity, Harrison also adequately portrays the impact that it had on the lives of some of the most fanatic believers and on the masses. In his exploration of the relation between popular culture and millenarianism, Harrison exposes some very interesting links which would otherwise have been overlooked, such as the fascination with the supernatural. As such the book serves as a real eye opener. The only real shame is that both Harrisson and his reader are often left to speculation and guess work as the majority of the millenarians have remained anonymous due to the lack of documentation and information.