Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1974
Eugen Weber is a prolific scholar whose many wide-ranging publications include studies of the history and culture of modern France, such as My France: Politics, Culture, Myth (1991) and The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s (1994). An earlier book, France, Fin de Siècle (1986), is, perhaps, an inspiration for this book on apocalypses. As Weber explains in his introduction, an invitation to speak about fins de siècles inevitably led his thoughts from the significance of the end of centuries, in general, and of the end of the twentieth century, in particular, to visions of apocalypse, the end of the world.
Apocalypses is not a popularist compendium of futuristic predictions and biblical prophecies like the best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), by Hal Lindsey and C. C. Carlson. Rather, Weber’s book is a more scholarly reflection on the transition from the second to the third millennium, like Stephen Jay Gould’s Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown (1997). Gould approaches the topic with a scientist’s eye. He questions the accuracy of calendars and focuses on the transformation of the word “millennium” from a religious belief into a temporal period of one thousand years. In chapter 2 of Apocalypses, Weber deals with Gould’s issues of time in the context of apocalypse. For instance, he explores numerology; beginnings and endings; sacred numbers, such as 666; round numbers, such as 1,000; and special dates, such as the anniversary of Christ’s birth and/or death or the sighting of a comet. As a social historian, however, Weber devotes most of his attention to the impact of apocalyptic associations of millennium on Western history and culture. Whereas Gould examines the word “millennium” itself, Weber is more concerned with “millennialism,” “millenarianism,” and “chiliasm,” all synonyms for a belief in a thousand-year period of peace, prosperity, and joy under the reign of Christ either preceded or followed by an inevitable devastation of the entire world.
While his subject matter looks ahead to the future and to endings, Weber offers a glance backward at Western beliefs in an impending new world order or end of the world. As he follows these apocalyptic beliefs from antiquity to the close of the twentieth century, Weber assumes a broad historical knowledge and a solid foundation in religious studies from his readers. The many bibliographic references scattered throughout his endnotes provide evidence of the breadth of Weber’s own reading.
The author begins his sweeping historical overview of apocalypses in chapter 3 by identifying the origins of such beliefs not only in the visions and warnings of the Judaeo-Christian tradition but also in world myths of destruction and renewal. A few examples include flood myths, Zoroastrian cycles of destruction, and the Nordic Ragnarok. Weber shows how recurring Western expressions of doomsday, Armageddon, the Second Coming of Christ, the coming of a new millennium, the arrival of an Antichrist, the resurrection of the dead, and Last Judgment are all associated with a complex blend of Jewish and Christian hopes and fears about the end of the world. The ancient Jews’ expectation of a world’s end brought about by a vengeful God, whose coming would destroy the evil and reward the righteous, was linked with hope in the coming of a Messiah to restore King David’s kingdom in Jerusalem. Christians based their vision on the coming of a God of love. The concept of apocalypse, Weber notes, is a paradoxical anticipation of the final days as a time of joyful redemption, freedom, and utopia but also of dreaded vengeance and retribution.
From these contradictory foundations Weber moves forward chronologically in chapter 4 to the “dark and bloody times” of late antiquity and the medieval period and to efforts by early church fathers, such as Saint Augustine (354-430), to redirect belief in impending apocalypse into a concern about personal salvation. Although the Council of Ephesus declared in 431 that the founding of the church had marked the beginning of the millennium, Gregory of Tours (538-594), Hildegard von Bingen (1098- 1179), Vincent Ferrer (1357-1419), Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), and others still anticipated the end of the world. Events such as an appearance of Halley’s comet in 989, the Muslim destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 1009, and even the Norman Invasion of Britain in 1066 encouraged such fears.
In chapter 5 Weber examines the sense of renewal shared by the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation; the apocalyptic revivalism of Martin Luther (1483-1546), artist and theorist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Anabaptists, and others; and visions of the Antichrist embodied in the form of invading Turks, Saracens, and, even, for Protestants, the Papacy. In the following chapter, Weber turns to the apocalyptic views of scientists, such as Paracelsus (1493-1541), Robert Boyle (1627-1691), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who combined sound scientific principles with religious devotion and an expectation of the last days. In this period, Weber notes, astrology was an accepted tool for understanding the universe and predicting the future, especially the timing of apocalypse.
Despite the Enlightenment movement’s emphasis on reason and rejection of religion and astrology as magic and superstition, Weber lists in chapter 7 a series of eighteenth century events, illustrating that apocalyptic fears did not decline. Wars, revolutions in America and then in France, and natural disasters, especially the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon, suggested to the neo- Gnostic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), scientist Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), French Jansenists, and others that the end was near. Revolutionary France, in particular, was filled with prophets and visionaries who were convinced that catastrophic political events were harbingers of either the millennium or Armageddon. To aristocrats throughout Europe, French revolutionaries, in general, and Napoleon, in particular, were the Antichrist or his agents.
Behind the secularism of the nineteenth century, Weber finds recurring apocalyptic themes. In chapter 8 he notes that the yearnings for rejuvenation and revival of Romantic poets, such as the German Novalis (1772-1801) and the French Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855), often presume a preliminary period of apocalyptic darkness and struggle. Artists such as William Blake (1757-1827) and Romantic painter J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) showed a preference for natural catastrophes or apocalyptic visions. Polish and Lithuanian ex-patriots and Jews in the European Diaspora looked upon the reestablishment of their independent homelands in millennial terms. Indeed, many Christians considered the restoration of the Jewish homeland in Palestine, as well as the conversion of the Jews to Christianity, as a critical preliminary to the Second Coming. Weber suggests seeds of anti-Semitism as well as Zionism sprang from apocalyptic vision.
Late in the nineteenth century, discontent and expectation of a new order can also be found in the works of authors such as Émile Zola (1840-1902) in France, Gerhart Hauptmann (1862- 1946) in Germany, and Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) in Britain. The austere fanaticism of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and his Plymouth brethren and the bizarre behavior of William II, whose entrance into Jerusalem in 1898 suggested his self-identification with the returning Messiah, were also apocalyptic.
In chapter 9 Weber examines more closely the role of millennialism in Christianity, which, from its foundation, felt a tension between spiritual ideals and worldly reality and between a belief that the millennium of peace under the reign of Christ had already begun and the realization that sin and oppression still existed. Fifteenth and sixteenth century Anabaptists, especially Hutterites, and populist priests such as Thomas Müntzer (before 1490-1525) awaited a Christian utopia and even advocated radical ideas, such as ownership of property in common. Such a new millennium offered both hope to the oppressed and fear to their oppressors, who were destined to be overthrown by the new order. In the nineteenth century many European socialists used such apocalyptic language as they struggled for radical social reform. Some, such as Robert Owen (1771-1858), who subsidized a failed communal experiment in New Harmony, Indiana, even tried to create such a socialist utopia. Others in the nineteenth century sought a more spiritual form of deliverance by turning to the cult of the Virgin Mary, honored as the source of divine redemption and compassion for the oppressed.
From the beginning the European presence in the New World was marked by millennialism. In chapter 10 Weber argues that Columbus sailed west in 1492 as part of a vision that conversion of the Indies would advance the Second Coming. European missionaries shared such ideas as they evangelized Native Americans. European colonists such as John Cotton (1584-1652) and Roger Williams (1603- 1683) believed they were founding a millennial communion of saints in God’s Promised Land. Such postmillenarians believed that the millennium needed to be established on earth by humankind for the Second Coming to take place. For postmillenarians the responsibility for reforming and renewal was in human, not divine, hands. Premillenarians, such as the Shakers of the United States, were more pessimistic and believed that the Second Coming would precede establishment of the millennium. For them, things would only get worse. The postmillenarian followers of Joseph Smith (1805-1844) and Brigham Young (1801-1877) journeyed west to establish a Zion for the Latter-day Saints in preparation for Christ’s Coming. Abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) believed that the scourge of slavery needed to be wiped away before the kingdom of God could return.
In chapter 10 Weber also deals with the vain efforts of nineteenth century apocalyptic prophets, such as Louis Riel, Jr. (1844-1885), martyred champion of the Native American Metis and French Canadians in Manitoba, and Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), a forerunner of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to predict and advance the time of the Second Coming. The Scopes trial of 1925, which Weber describes as a Pyrrhic victory for fundamentalist Christians, was a turning point. Teacher John Scopes may have been found guilty, but public ridicule of fundamentalist tenets encouraged believers to disengage from efforts to reform society. Whereas Russell had worked on behalf of the labor movement, his successor Joseph Franklin Rutherford (1869-1942) moved the Jehovah’s Witnesses toward separation from a sinful society.
The millennialism of the twentieth century described by Weber in chapter 11 is, in most ways, no different from its predecessors. The appearance of Halley’s comet in 1910 caused the same sort of terror as the 989 sighting. Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), the British champion of women’s rights, cautioned that atomic energy would be a tool of the Antichrist. Later in the century marine biologist and expositor Rachel Carson (1907-1964) warned of a more secular apocalypse as the result of careless use of chemicals.
Weber ends his historical survey of millenarian beliefs with late-twentieth century apocalyptic prophets, such as the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, and the Heaven’s Gate cult. In describing these events, Weber’s point of view is that of an impartial historical observer. He takes no stand, for example, on the controversies surrounding the fifty-one-day siege of the Branch Davidians compound in Waco in 1993 and makes no mention of the role played in those events by U.S. government agents. Weber is more interested in providing the historical context for the Branch Davidians movement and its beliefs in Armageddon and tracing the links to other apocalyptic visionaries, from early twentieth century Seventh-day Adventists to nineteenth century followers of William Miller (1782-1849), who predicted the end of the world in 1843-1844, and, ultimately, to early Christianity and Judaism.
Apocalypse, then, is an appropriate theme for a scholar writing not only at a fin de siècle but also at a fin de millennium. In Apocalypses Weber shows how millenarianism links past and future, creates a strong sense of temporal purpose, and provides an eschatological focus for understanding European history. An awareness of this apocalyptic tradition not only explains past events but also provides a context for understanding human actions in the trimillennium.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (April 15, 1999): 1488.
The Economist 351 (April 10, 1999): 5.
History: Review of New Books 27 (Summer, 1999): 185.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (August 8, 1999): 23.
Publishers Weekly 246 (March 22, 1999): 78.
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