round two: Is there a particular American fascination with apocalypticism?  And, if so, why?
apocalypticism explained
the book of revelation
the antichrist
pictorial chronology
a roundtable
primary sources
join the discussion
Catherine Wessinger

Wessinger is a professor of the History of Religions and Women's Studies at Loyola University.

(more about Wessinger)

Americans tend to study American history as if the U.S. is the only place in the world. If we look at other places in the world, I suspect we will find millennialism rampant there also. But millennialism has played a special role in the discovery of this continent (Christopher Columbus believed God had chosen him to find the new heaven and new earth predicted in the Book of Revelation), and in the founding of the American colonies and the United States. Daniel Wojcik's book, The End of the World As We Know It, provides a good summary of how millennialism has influenced the United States, and still does. The United States has been predominantly a Christian country, and millennialism is part of Christian scripture and tradition. The freedom of religion in the U.S. provides plenty of scope for millennial experiments.


Landes teaches history at Boston University and is a Director and co-founder of the Center for Millennial Studies.

(more about Landes)

As the medievalist of this bunch, I'll leave the detailed explanations to the others on this question. I will, however offer an image: the French comic strip "Asterix" tells the story of a small Gallic village that alone resists the Romans because their druid makes a magic potion that makes them supernaturally powerful and invulnerable. (This is, incidentally, a classic example of nativist millennialism, what La Barre calls, generically "ghost dance" crisis cults, in which the beleaguered natives are protected with magic shirts that stop bullets, etc.)

In the story, there is a character named Obelix who does not need to drink the potion, and who does not get the effect periodically, but is permanently invulnerable, because he fell in the vat when he was a baby.

From the perspective of the millennial historian, America fell in the millennial vat at birth, and, despite many efforts, has yet to get out of it.

Is this a good or bad thing? There we can have some disagreement. That depends on how you feel about everything from neo-nazis to the 60s to cults to religious creativity, to...

michael barkun

Barkun is a professor of political science at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and and serves on the board of directors of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University.

(more about Barkun)

As far as the new question is concerned, permit me to waffle a bit. The answer, it seems to me, is "yes and no." No -- because the more deeply we dig, the more apocalyptic motifs we discover in other cultures, albeit often in the hard to discover areas of popular religion and orally transmitted beliefs. There is scarcely a region where such ideas cannot be found. But, yes -- because millenarian expectations were linked to America from the moment Europeans laid eyes on it. From Columbus, to the Puritans,to the process of westward expansion, America was often portrayed (to Native Americans' hurt) as empty, virgin, malleable, uncorrupted -- hence made available by the deity or by the forces of history for a new start. That image, present from the 15th century and confirmed in subsequent eras, invited an American self-understanding in millennial terms.

The result has been twofold: First, a persistent millennial undercurrent. Second, peaks of millenarian activity, every 40-60 years, usually in response to some perceived crisis situation. One needn't buy into the specifics of William McLoughlin's cyclical theory of American "awakenings" to recognize that American history can be read as an alternation of millenarian peaks and valleys.

puritan settlement in northampton, massachusetts

puritan settlement in northampton, massachusetts


Boyer is the Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

(more about Boyer)

One can offer several speculative reasons why Americans seem to have such an affinity for apocalypticism. One would relate to images of America as a specially favored nation, with a special divine destiny, that go back to the very beginnings of European settlement. The Puritan leaders of New England speculated freely that America might in fact be the New Zion, offering an example to the world of a redeemed, purified, God-fearing social order. This belief emerged strongly in the millennial strand of the great revival movements of the 18th and early 19th centuries, in early Mormonism, in the expansionism that comes at the end of the 19th century, and in the reform-minded Social Gospel theology of the Progressive era.

In more secularlized form one can see it in President Woodrow Wilson's soaring rhetoric of the World War I era, in which America becomes the instrument for spreading democracy, freedom, and peace around the world. This kind of thinking provided a fertile seedbed for millennialist and apocalyptic ideas. When historical developments made it seem increasingly implausible that the millennium would arrive in the present age, the apocalyptic strand in American religious life turned more toward a "premillennial" rather than a "postmillennial" eschatology, foreseeing increasing wickedness, war, and the demonic rule of the Antichrist before Christ's millennial kingdom arrives--through divine intervention rather than human reform effort.

Another way to explain the prevalence of apocalypticism in American thought is to see it as simply one manifestation of evangelical, traditionalist religion in general, which remains much more prevalent and vital in America than in Western Europe, for example. This, in turn, probably can be explained at least partially in terms of the structure of American religious life. America has never had a state church or an established religion. We have had a competitive, free-market form of religious life, which encourages the rise of new religious groups, charismatic religious leaders, and the use of extra-denominational techniques to win a following, such as revivals, radio, television, mass-market paperbacks, etc. All this has encouraged high levels of religious activism in America in general, and a high level of interest in biblical prophetic and apocalytic writings in particular.


Gallagher is the Rosemary Park Professor of Religious Studies at Connecticut College.

(more about Gallagher)

I'd situate the apparent American fascination with apocalypticism in a broader context, the role that the Bible has played in American culture from the beginning. Paul Boyer rightly mentioned William Miller's "interpretive system" that addressed central concerns of his time and also referred to Hal Lindsey's "prophetic interpretation" of the Bible. In a culture soaked, to varying depths, with biblical imagery, it becomes important for an apocalyptic group or individual to address that common culture, at least tangentially, in order to elicit the attention and comprehension of possible converts. In brief, wherever the Bible is, there, potentially, is the apocalypse. Certain factors, such as those discussed in the previous round, may contribute to the activation of the biblical apocalyptic paradigm, but the paradigm is always there, waiting to be seized upon by an inspired interpreter and embraced by an eager audience as a way of establishing a proper moral order in society and the dignity and value of believers..

Stephen O'Leary

O'Leary He teaches at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, and is a Director and co-founder of the Center for Millennial Studies.

(more about O'Leary)

Are Americans uniquely apocalyptic (different in kind), or more apocalyptic (in degree) than other cultures?

My answer is yes to both these questions, for a variety of historical reasons. Other panelists have already commented on the sense of millennial destiny that originates with the Puritans, so I needn't stress that point here. But we need to recognize that there are many currents of dissident religion that have fed the American stream--the Puritans are only part of the story. In short, one of the global functions of the American experiment is to serve as a safety valve for the release of pressures that, in other times and places, might have produced millennial movements. Example: think of the Irish potato famine, a catastrophe by any measure, complete with all the ingredients for an explosive millennial uprising: millions of deaths, a colonial oppressor, a religion that promises future salvation....Why didn't these ingredients produce radically millennial Catholic resistance movements? In part, at least, because the Irish had somewhere to go to escape. My sister is married to a Frenchman, and I once asked him about the current state of millennial expectations in European society. His reply was: "We don't have these people in Europe, or not so many of them, because we sent them to America." (Of course, there is the odd case of the designer Paco Rabanne, whose predictions for the August 11, 1999 eclipse--based on Nostradamus and Revelation--may be the exception that prove the rule. Yet he seemed to have attracted more ridicule than he did followers.)

Imagine a cosmic hand reaching down and shaking the European continent, jarring loose all of the misfits and oddballs and folks who are dissatisfied with the religious/political status quo...so that they, or their children, drift westward, coming to America to work or to join religious groups and voluntary associations, sometimes to ponder the prophecies and invent new religions--such as Mormonism, a quintessentially American religious group. (The westward drift still holds; I live in California, which seems to be the last stop and end-of-the-line for many of these folks.) It seems to me that we have focused a lot on the notion of apocalyptic time in our study of millennialism, but that in understanding American movements of this ilk, we need to pay attention as well to apocalyptic space, or millennial geography...because of the simple fact that we, uniquely among Western cultures, had the room to expand (once the natives were killed off or subjugated) and places for these groups to set themselves up without disturbance.


home · apocalypticism · book of revelation · antichrist · chronology · roundtable · primary sources · discussion
readings · video · glossary · links · synopsis

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation



join the discussion primary sources a roundtable pictorial chronology the antichrist the book of revelation apocalypticism explained home