Radical Religious Politics to the End of the Second Millennium
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A sweeping yet nuanced intellectual history of the rise of millennialism in Protestant Christianity. Popkin (Philosophy and Religion/Univ. of Calif., Los Angeles) and Katz (History/Tel Aviv Univ.) begin their story in an unusual place. Rather than tracing millennialism from its most popular 19th-century manifestations (William Miller’s followers tarrying for the return of Christ, for example), Katz and Popkin begin with the European Renaissance, finding apocalyptic themes in 15th-century hermeticism and alchemy. They carefully wend their tale through the Reformation, discussing how millennialist fervor spawned the English Civil War and the creation of the Fifth Monarchy, which they call “the first organized millenarian political movement.” The Enlightenment period favored empirical truth and scientific rationalism, but as the authors show, millennialism did not fall by the wayside; championed by esteemed philosophers such as Isaac Newton, it only grew more vigorous. The Enlightenment did shift millennialism’s focus away from personal piety, toward a quest for verifiable knowledge about precisely when Christ might arrive and what an apocalypse would entail. This obsession with dates and other specifics carried over into the 19th and 20th centuries, most obviously in the Millerite movement, but also among its descendants (Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, as well as the descendants of the latter, the Branch Davidians). The authors weave their way expertly through intricate terminology, such as “Darbyite dispensational premillennialism,” defining terms by example. One surprising thread among these millenarian groups, stretching across seven centuries, is their fascination with the Jews’ role in bringing about the apocalypse (though, as the authors show, philo-Semitism can easily morph into its ugly opposite, as it has in the Christian Identity movement). The book is well written and, for an intellectual history, fairly straightforward, but the historical connections are sometimes tentatively drawn (e.g., “possibly Columbus knew something” of the views of one apocalyptic contemporary). In all, a superior attempt at a broader view of millennialism, uncovering some intriguing recurrent motifs.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-8090-6885-0
Page count: 287pp
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1999