APOCALYPSES by Eugen Weber


Prophesies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages
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Yet another history of millennialism and prophecy belief, shallow but a cut slightly above its peers. One of the strangest claims in Weber’s usually on-target chronicle is that millennialism is understudied and “for so long ignored in modern times.” The recent onslaught of books on the topic, many of which Weber seems to have read, testify to the contrary. Weber’s book does stand out for a couple of reasons. First, since he is a historian of early modern Europe (UCLA), Weber’s analysis is heavy on continental sources and refreshingly constrained on American millennial groups, though he does briefly round up the usual suspects (Millerites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) The book is strongest when grounded in the author’s own apparent area of expertise: France in the 18th century. Weber’s study also begins in a memorable way, with an intriguing opening discussion of the very concept of a century. Weber notes that the idea of marking time in centuries dates only to the 17th century and didn’t become popular until the 18th, so the notion that belief in apocalypse has always been tied to a millennial year is anachronistic. Weber is a terrific writer for an academic, coining fun new words such as “billennium” for the year 2000 and “the enserfed” for the heathen masses. But such mellifluous prose seems wasted on this overhyped, tired topic. The book spreads itself too thin, attempting to function as a “travel guide” through 2,000 years of (mostly Christian) millennialism, from St. Paul to the Nation of Islam. In journalistic fashion, Weber skips lightly from one example to another without exploring the deeper histories of these movements. Certainly entertaining, but Weber’s obvious skill is squandered in this superficial treatment of a hackneyed subject.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-674-04080-5
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1999


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