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, ...

About this episode

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]. 

This episode has not been transcribed yet. 

Consider a donation to pay for the cost of editing a transcript?

Related Resources

Double Trouble: Some Reflections on (En)gendering the Study of Religion

Response

Engaging gender as an important category of analysis in the study of religion is to interrogate, destabilise, and interrupt the ‘business-as-usual’ of the conceptual and organisational assumptions often employed in our highly dynamic yet historically and oft-times structurally androcentric discipline.
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology

Podcast

By claiming the invisible not simply as a materialist term but a metaphysical one as well, Harriss contends that despite—or even because of—his status as a thoroughly “ secular” novelist and critic, Ellison’s writing reflects important theological trends and issues that mark his age and the cultural inheritances of his literary production.
Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Resonance of Vestigial States

Response

During our "summer break", various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors' Picks, if you will. These aren't necessarily 'favourites', but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason.

Responses to this episode

Prophecy and American Millennialism

"RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans..." J. Gorton Melton is a leading academic specialist on new religious movements, a scholar of occultists, Scientologists, Rosicrucianists, Neopagans, ...

Other EPISODES YOU MIGHT ENJOY

Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion: A Roundtable Discussion (Video and Audio!)

Podcast

The idea for this roundtable was that it would follow on directly from this week's interview on religion and literature, but expand the discussion to cover a variety of points relating to narrative, autobiography and (auto)ethnography in the study of religion. Featuring Dr Wendy Dossett, Prof. Elaine Graham, Dr Dawn Llewellyn, Ethan Quillen, and Dr Alana Vincent.
Ritual, Religion, and the Evolutionary Foundations of Human Culture

Podcast

Cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald discusses the role of ritual in human evolution, and its continued importance in all forms of society and culture. In this interview, Professor Donald outlines his perspective on the evolution of human cognition, and the importance of both embodied communication and mind-sharing networks.
Religious Literacy is Social Justice

Podcast

Is Religious Literacy social justice? In this week's podcast with Professor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, she discusses the University of Vermont’s new “Religious Literacy for Professionals” certificate and why religious studies does vital work for the academy.
Religion and Feminism

Podcast

'Religion' and 'Feminism' are two concepts that have a complex relationship in the popular imaginary. But what do academics mean by these two concepts? And how can we study their interrelationship? What can we say about 'religion and feminism', about the academic study of 'religion and feminism', ...
Discourse! June 2020

Podcast

Amid mass protests against police brutality and systemic racism ongoing in the United States, RSP contributor Ben Marcus speaks with Andre Willis and Carleigh Beriont about race and religion in this month's Discourse episode.
The secularization of discourse in contemporary Latin American neoconservatism

Podcast

In this week’s podcast, Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera explains how Latin American conservatism became neoconservatism. Though Latin America is diverse, conservatism has been a widespread in the region shaping not only the political power plays of religious institutions but the people's daily experience of the world. Recently, however, neoconservatism has managed to develop a language of its own that blends science and philosophy with historical analysis of the contemporary world political landscape to become an significant religio-cultural force.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The views expressed in podcasts, features and responses are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Religious Studies Project or our sponsors. The Religious Studies Project is produced by the Religious Studies Project Association (SCIO), a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (charity number SC047750).