October 15, 2012

J. Gordon Melton on American Millennialism

Why is it that millennialism – the belief in an immanent return of Christ to Earth – has had such a particular fascination for the American people? Millennial prophecy is often analysed with relation to violence and minority “cults”, but it is also infused into everyday discourse, in the rhetoric of politicians and the “rolling prophecy” of talk radio hosts. In this wide-ranging interview, David asks Gordon Melton about the history and reasons behind the fascination. Discussion moves from the Millerites and the Great Disappointment of 1844, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas. We discuss the strategies used by these groups when their prophecies fail, which often involves a  shift from premillennialism to postmillennialism.

“When you look at all the groups who have given prophecies at various times, they have one thing in common: they all failed. For most of us, this is a history of successive groups with failed prophecies. But for the groups themselves, prophecy never fails…”

Finally, we come right up to the present day, talking about Harold Camping and other Christian millennialism, and the 2012 narrative so prevalent today in popular spirituality and the media. While these share similarities with 19th century millennialism, but considerable differences also, in particular in relation to media. In closing Melton prophecies about the future of millennialism; as the population continues to grow, and there continues to be a need to fill news shows, then prophecy will continue to fail.

(By the way, the chap who’s name we couldn’t remember is David Spangler.)

Dr. Melton is Distinguished Professor of American Religious History of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies in Religion, as of March, 2011. In 1968 he founded the Institute for the Study of American Religion and has remained it’s director for the last 44 years. The institute is devoted to organizing, motivating, and producing research-based studies and educational material on North American Religion, and has been responsible for the publication of more than 400 reference and scholarly texts, including multiple editions of the Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions (8th edition, 2009). He sits on the international board of the Center for Studies in New Religions (CESNUR) based in Turin, Italy, the primary academic association focusing studies of new and minority religions.

Dr. Melton recently completed the editing of the second edition of the award-winning Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Belief and Practice, which appeared in 2010, and is currently working on a multi-volume Chronological History of the World’s Religions. Melton has publish extensively, but of particular relevance to this interview are Cults, Religion and Violence (With David G. Bromley. Cambridge University Press, 2002.) The Family/The Children of God (Signature Books, 2004.) “Beyond Millennialism: The New Age Transformed.” In Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis, eds. Handbook of New Age (Brill 2007, pp. 77-97), and “Spiritualization and Reaffirmation: What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails.” (American Studies 26:2, 1985, pp. 17-29) [Jstor link]. 

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