The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   121

Messianic Revolution

Radical Religious Politics to the End of the Second Millennium

by David S. Katz and Richard H. Popkin

New York: Hill and Wang, 1999

The Future Is Certain, Give Us Time to Work It Out

The history of any really important idea stretches back indefinitely into the past; all versions of its story must begin in media res. Following the thread of messianic and millenarian movements and ideas takes you back to Zoroaster or Zarathustra (if he existed) and the Hebrew prophets (if they did), and even then you find strands in your hand going back to combat myths and ``wisdom literature'' and all manner of relics of Egypt and Mesopotamia... The point where our authors start their history of these movements in Europe and North America in modern times --- the writings of a twelfth century Italian abbot --- is as good a place as any, and better than some.

The abbot --- known to history as Joachim of Fiore --- put forth an elaborate interpretation of the Book of Revelation and the prophetic passages of the Old Testament. In very rough outline, he divided the history of the world in to three eras, each presided over by a different Person of the Trinity. The first era, that of the Father, was also that of the Law, as received by Moses. The second era, of the Son, was that of the Church, beginning with Jesus, and continuing to Joachim's own day. The Age of the Holy Spirit will be a period of peace, spirituality and freedom, where everyone will be directly inspired by the Spirit, and the hierarchy and constraint of earlier times will disappear.

Joachim's novelty was not just his elaborate scheme of ages, sub-ages, preparatory stages, and consummations, of which I have given the merest hint above. It was also that he presumed to calculate when these epochs had begun and would begin, by extracting a detailed chronology from the Bible and postulating certain analogies between the various ages. On this basis he calculated that the Third Age would begin in the year 1260, give or take, and would be preceded by certain definite signs, including two Antichrists (one already alive in Joachim's day: Saladin), an ``angelic'' Pope, and the conversion of the Jews.

Now, in Joachim's time, western Europe was just barely becoming reacquainted with intellectual life above the level of peeling radishes by aping its more advanced neighbors to the south and east. It wasn't very good at thinking and wasn't terribly comfortable with it. It is tempting to dismiss the stream of thought which flows from Joachim as a muddy creek lost in one of the more dismal swamps of the early modern period. This would be a mistake; not only was it actually influential during his own life, Joachim enjoying Papal patronage, but afterwards it was a leading ideology among various European elites (such as the founders of the Catalan and Spanish empires), and it inspired numerous heretical movements, especially as the deadline of 1260 approached, which thought they, and not the Church, were destined to usher in the Age of the Holy Spirit. Even more, Joachim's scheme set a pattern for prophecy and millenarian interpretation of the scripture which has persisted to this day; to revert to the metaphor, the stream flowing from his work inundates this country to a respectable depth, driving presidential campaigns (two of them successful), any number of ministries and best-selling novels, and the occasional truck-bomb. (In lower and distorted form, the stream also drives popular futurology, e.g. Alvin Toffler's ``Third Wave'' ideology.) Even if one doesn't buy into these ideas (and I think they're one of the biggest loads of rubbish ever dumped on a long-suffering humanity), and even if one doesn't find this sort of story fascinating in itself (which admittedly I do), understanding what they are and where they come from is simply prudent.

What Katz and Popkin --- respected intellectual historians both --- have written is a fairly brief, accurate and readable history of selected Christian millenarian and messianic movements in western Europe and the United States since Joachim; mostly since the Reformation. It's well-referenced to reputable sources, and while I caught some errors (see below), they're small and inconsequential.

After Joachim, our authors proceed rapidly through the Renaissance, a period when, as in the present, the rapid development of a new medium of communication led to a gaudy and exuberant flourishing of all manner of strange ideas, including attempts to correlate all the known mystical and religious systems, perhaps the most extravagant of which was that of Pico della Mirandola, who introduced the Kabbalah to Latin Europe. From there they go on to the Reformation, focusing on Luther, Calvin, and various ``wild Reformers'' (not their phrase), such as the Anabaptists who took over the German city of Münster and tried to inaugurate the rule of the saints there, and were only put down after sundry atrocities on all sides.

The first really important messianic revolutionaries, however, were the ones who participated in the first of the great European revolutions; I mean of course the English. That notoriously turbulent and bloody-minded people (as they then were) did not wage a civil war, put God's anointed king on trial, lop off his head and establish a revolutionary republic just for the hell of it, or even just to advance capitalism and the power of property-owners, though undoubtedly that was a large part of what happened. Another large part of what happened was the great importance of radical Protestant groups whose apocalypse included the replacement of illegitimate earthly rule by divine law and the rule of the saints. There were many such groups, but our authors focus on just one, the Fifth Monarchy Men (named after one of the more incomprehensible passages in the Book of Daniel), who attempted to overthrow the revolutionary government, but failed.

There follows an excursus on the calendric and apocalyptic writings of Sir Isaac Newton. Its connection to what follows is obscure, but Popkin is an expert on this subject, and it's a fascinating look into just how strange Newton's thinking could be. (However, I suspect one has to have actually read the Principia to fully appreciate the contrast between his real science, and what he merely thought was his science.)

A chapter on the ``radical Enlightenment'' says relatively little about the Enlightenment's demimonde of Freemasons and political radicals. Instead it says a great deal about millenarian reactions to the French Revolution and Napoleon, which were profound, and very strange; they included a British prophet who declared himself the Nephew of God.

At this point, the scene essentially shifts to the United States. Chapter 6 traces one stream of apocalyptic beliefs from the followers of William Miller in upstate New York, who believed they would be carried off into Heaven in 1843, or 1844 at the latest, to the modern-day Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Branch Davidians. Chapter 7 follows the adventures of the idea that the Lost Ten Tribes wound up in the British Isles, and that Anglo-Saxons are therefore actually the Chosen People, or at least a branch of them. Originally a harmless piece of Victorian eccentricity, after crossing the Atlantic it mutated into the virulently racist and anti-Semitic doctrine known as Christian Identity, a substantial fraction of whose followers regard terrorism as a legitimate preparation for the imminent apocalyptic racial wars. The last chapter follows millenarian beliefs among Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestants, most prominently the notion that Armageddon will be an actual nuclear war sparked by a Russian or Arab attack on Israel. When Ronald Reagan was lucid enough to grasp such ideas, he found them at the very least plausible, and said as much before and during his presidency. Despite the end of the Cold War, such ideas continue to be popular among the religious right.

Messianic Revolution is neither so focused nor so encyclopedic as its title suggests. Many of the movements and people discussed are not revolutionary (Newton, for instance, or the Seventh Day Adventists). Movements which, like Nazism, have the look and feel of messianic revolutions are excluded if they happen not to be Christian, or even if they simply happen not to be big in the United States. Still, any attempt to tell the millenarian story within a brief compass will have to be drastically selective, and Katz and Popkin's selections are sensible, instructive ones. Their book is readable, intelligent, even sporadically witty. It gets the big points right, and manages to convey a sense of the continued vitality of strange ideas out of the deeps of the past. For anyone curious about millenarian ideas --- even believers who wonder about rival apocalypses --- this is a fine place to start.

PP. xii-xiii, ``many European languages share a common origin in Sanskrit'': for ``in'', read ``with''.
P. 42: ``On the other hand, his political theory was a charter for injustice, for it urged the church to tolerate, or at least not to oppose, almost any kind of social and economic injustice if it tended to threaten the established political structure'': insert ``opposition to'' between ``if'' and ``it''?
P. 137: ``There is some evidence that the first version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was written by an opponent of Napoleon in his police network, who tried to demonstrate that the Emperor was in league with diabolical Jews to destroy both France and Christianity'': This is a seriously mangled account of the true state of affairs. Large parts of the Protocols are plagarized from an 1864 book, Dialogue aux Enfers entre Montesquieu et Machiavel, by one Maurice Joly, a liberal satire on the despotism of Napoleon the third, not the first, and apparently adapted as an anti-Semitic and anti-Masonic tract by an officer of the Czar's secret police in Paris in the 1890s --- see Norman Cohn's definitive history of the matter, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, ch. 3, ``The Protocols and the Dialogue aux Enfers.'' Katz and Popkin actually footnote their erroneous claim to Cohn's book, but don't specify any locus therein, and I suspect they were working from memory.
P. 198, ``televison talk-show host'': for ``television'', read ``radio''.
xxvi + 303 pp., end-notes, no bibliography, index of names
Europe / Millenarianism / Modern History / North America
Currently in print as a hardback, ISBN 0-8090-6885-0, US$26, and as a paperback, ISBN 0-8090-6886-9, US$15, LoC BT240 K37
28 June 2000