The term millenarianism, and its alternatives millennialism and chiliasm, are derived from the last book of the Christian Bible, Apocalypse (or Revelation), in which the prophet John recounts his vision of a thousand year godly kingdom, the return of Christ, and the end of time itself (20:1-7). In the social sciences, the term is applied to all movements and organizations that hold as a central belief the imminent arrival of a divinely inspired and this worldly society, whether a religious golden age, messianic kingdom, return to paradise, or egalitarian order. Such movements can take on an active or passive, violent or peaceful, even revolutionary role. They are found the world over and throughout recorded history. Some writers extend the term to deep seated beliefs in secular utopias such as revolutionary communism, certain environmental and scientistic technological movements such as eugenics and cryonics (Bozeman in Robbins & Palmer 1997), and racist movements such as white supremacy. Jewett and Lawrence (2003) argue for the existence of a contemporary form of millenarianism in the United States that reunites the secular and religious, calling it ”millennial civil religion.” They find it in popular culture, the politics of the New Right, Reaganism, Bushism, and the ”war on terror.”

The most documented cases occur within cultures significantly affected by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though there is a mainly historical and theological literature on millenarianism in Hinduism (the coming of Kalki), and most of the Buddhist and some Daoist traditions, e.g., the coming of Maitreya, the Bodhisattva, and the future messiah of the secret ”White Lotus” sects. From the 1950s, there was an accelerated interest in the subject, beginning with Worsley’s (1957) study of cargo cults, Cohn’s (1957) classic on medieval movements, and, later, Wilson’s (1973) reappraisal of tribal and third world millenarianism. These better known studies were accompanied by the work of many other sociologists, anthropologists, and historians on African, Asian, and Native and Latin American millenarianism. The approach of the second Christian millennium led to an increasing number of studies on US millenarianism (e.g., Robbins & Palmer 1997) and con temporary millenarian sects worldwide (e.g., Barkun 1996; Hunt 2001). Contemporary mass media have focused on Doomsday Cult massacres: the Jim Jones’s People’s Temple at Jonestown, Guyana (1978), Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin gas attack in the Tokyo metro (1993), David Koresh’s Branch Davidian sect at Waco, Texas (1993), and the Order of the Solar Temple in Canada and Switzerland (1994).

Millenarianism has its roots in the religion founded by Zarathustra, Zoroastrianism (900 BCE). From around 600 BCE, its believers sub scribed to a future this worldly savior, the Saoshyant, as well as to their founder prophet.

In Judaism, movements date back to the period 200 BCE-100 CE with the sects of the monastic style Essenes, the peasant driven and violent Zealots, and the very early Jewish Christians: all fervent believers in the imminent coming of a political religious messiah. Since then, mil lenarianism has appeared at varying times within Judaism, and especially in the Sabbatian movement of the 1660s (followers of messiah Sabbatai Zevi) that affected most Jews of the period, surviving today as an underground movement in both Judaism and Islam.

In christianity, the millenarian biblical reference in Apocalypse is partnered by earlier ones in Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians. High millennial points in christian history were the late medieval Taborites, who set up millennial and egalitarian communities outside the Czech city of Prague (1420-30). With the Protestant Reformation (from 1517), and freedom of access to the Bible, a spate of millenarian movements developed in the northern half of Europe, many from the Anabaptist sects. While followers of Menno Simons and Jakob Hutter were passive millenarians, those inspired by the anti Lutheran Thomas Miinzer (d. 1524) took up arms to set up the ”Kingdom of God” in the city of Munster, Germany (1534-5). In Britain, the Civil War (1641-9) between Crown and Parliament, particularly the execution of the monarch, led to a general state of millennial expectation among Puritans and to the appearance of the Diggers, Levelers, and, above all, the Fifth Monarchy Men, who vowed to install the millennial kingdom and came very close to doing so (St. Clair 1992).

The patterns of millenarianism were different in Islam. It is true that Christ appears in Qur’anic commentary as future slayer of the Antichrist and ruler of the Islamic community. However, Islamic chiliasm has developed mainly from the post Qur’anic hadith (”tradition”) writings concerned with the period of war and intrigue over Muhammad’s succession. The Shia movement (Iraq and Iran) has looked for its political religious messiah or Mahdi to the transfer of Muhammad’s divine charisma through the line of descent of Ali, Muham mad’s grandson in law. It believes that this person will be the self same descendant of Ali, Ibn al Hanafiyya, who disappeared in 700 CE without ever becoming ruler and who has been in concealment” ever since. But while Sunni and Shia share the belief in a Mahdi, Sunnis hold that its exact identity is still to be revealed, thus leaving the possibilities of millenarian movements among them more likely. Millenarianism played a significant role in the shaping of modern Iraq and Iran and, in particular, the Safavid movement (early seventeenth century -the Muslim followers of Sabbatai Zevi, above).

The explosive spread of millenarianism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was truly global. It grew out of clashes between modernity and imperialism on the one hand, and the more traditional beliefs of both western and non western societies on the other. Christian millenarianism even reached China in the T’aiping Rebellion (1851-64). In Islam, the millenarian movement of Baba’u’llah led to the founding of the Baha’i religion, and the most politically successful millenarian movement of Islam was the Sudanese Mahdi rebellion and the setting up of a Mahdi Caliphate (1882-98). In Judaism Chabad Lubavitch, a millenarian movement from Belarus, settled in the US after World War II and its seventh leader, Rebbe Schneerson (d. 1994), became the messiah for many of its members.

Because of the large number of European protest sects that settled there, the US experienced millennial movements since its inception. Their numbers grew in the nineteenth century, particular additions being the Mormons, the Millerites (the future Seventh Day Adventists), and Jehovah’s Witnesses, each of whom would develop into worldwide churches. Then in the twentieth century, the number of millennial Pentecostal churches grew significantly, many to merge into the Assemblies of God in the 1920s. Their missionaries and those of the Seventh Day Adventists were main sources for the spread of Christian derived millenarianism to Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, where they are now numbered in their millions and where local populations have incorporated local beliefs and values into their worship, such as spirit possession.

At the same time as white millenarianism was growing in the US, millenarianism arose first among the West Coast Native Americans in the 1870 Ghost Dance movement, and then in 1890 among the far more important Plains Indians, whose Ghost Dance offered them solidarity, however briefly, and the hope of a return to the old ways of plenty. Elsewhere in the world similar movements were being formed. These were the cargo cults of Southeast Asia and Oceania. Numbered in hundreds and spread over the other half of the globe, they too took place where tribes were disintegrating, as status and power through the ownership or access to animals or lands and the rituals of their cultural and religious heritage collapsed in front of western technology, capital, and military resources. Often combining tribal and Christian religious elements, prophets and messiahs arose almost spontaneously across this vast region to form both passive and aggressive movements, expecting to receive from above the wealth, knowledge, and technology typical of their white imperialists and, sometimes, a return to the ways of the past. In one such movement, the Maori Hau Hau (New Zealand 1864-6), the prophet Te Ua revealed that men from heaven would come down to teach them all the arts and sciences of the Europeans; all dead Maoris would rise again and share in their earthly paradise and a chant would protect them from the bullets of the local colonial regiment (Wilson 1973). The movement was shattered like others in the subsequent conflicts. Some of the more peaceful movements survived longer in the form of indigenous sects.

Theorizing Millenarianism

Generally speaking, millenarian movements and groups are socially significant primarily because such beliefs become active during periods of social uncertainty or unrest. They challenge oppressors and the current social and moral order of society or the religious establishment, promising reform – at least for the believers – or revolution. They are protest movements often ending in breakaway sects from parent bodies. Believers have expectations that divine intervention will favor them against their enemies. Marx and Engels integrated the movements into their general theory of social conflict and revolution. While they may be faulted for reducing the religious and cultural causes of the movements to a smokescreen hiding underlying class war fare, they were the first to recognize the dominant role of oppression in many of them.

Since then, other researchers have pointed to other elements affecting or constituting these movements. Imminent expectation of millennial events is as important to the movements as the millennial beliefs themselves. Key strategists are often required to maintain momentum. Also, such expectation requires states of high alertness accompanied with either great enthusiasm or deep depression. These elements are hard to sustain in the long term, leading to a loss of their vital potency. In fact, most active movements do not last and either implode or are suppressed. If believers retain their beliefs in the long run, it is because they have become institutionalized or more peaceful. Weber’s notion of charisma has considerable relevance here: millenarianism is unstable and prophecy may be intermittent or disappear. To retain some of the charisma, organization supported by rituals is necessary, particularly where the prophet has little organization of his own, lost his charisma, or died.

Millenarian movements may foster violence when certain conditions prevail: believers view the rest of society as evil, corrupt, and irredeemable; the movement is relatively small and isolated; the leader of the movement is messianic and has tight control of people’s minds and actions; believers are provoked by exploitation, dispossession, and sacrilege committed by outsiders. Of course, the violence may come instead from outside: non believers may fear the movement and suppress it.

Many movements have the additional belief of apocalypticism or catastrophic millenarianism: the conviction that cataclysmic events and the violent end of an evil world are imminent and precede the divine millennium. For the many Christians that believed this in the early nineteenth century, it was a dreadful thought. Hence the appearance in the 1830s of the doctrine of the Rapture: Jesus is going to take his faithful off to heaven before the “tribulation” begins. An alternative belief to apocalypticism is progressive millenarianism. Believers have a role to play in building the millennial society, whether it is preparation for a messiah or not (see Wessinger in Robbins & Palmer 1997). Some authors still use the terms premillenarianism (the messiah and the “tribulation” come at the beginning of the millennium) and postmillenarianism (the messiah comes at the end) as earlier alternatives to the above; but such terms are less inclusive, referring principally to Christian millenarianism.


  1. Barkun, M. (Ed.) (1996) Millennialism and Violence.
  2. Frank Cass, Portland, OR. Cohn, N. (1957) The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. Oxford University Press, New York.
  3. Hunt,   (Ed.)  (2001)  Christian Millenarianism.Hurst, London.
  4. Jewett, R. & Lawrence, J. S. (2003) Captain America and the Crusade against Evil: The Dilemma of Zeal ous Nationalism. William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.
  5. Landes, R. (2000) Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements. Routledge, New York.
  6. Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1981) Marx and Engels on Religion. Progress Publishers, Moscow.
  7. Robbins, T. & Palmer, S. J. (Eds.) (1997) Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements. Routledge, New York.
  8. Clair, M. J. (1992) Millenarian Movements in Historical Context. Garland, New York.
  9. Wilson, B. R. (1973) Magic and the Millennium: A Sociological Study of Movements of Protest among Tribal and Third World Peoples. Heinemann, London.
  10. Worsley, P. (1957) The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of Cargo Cults in Melanesia. McGibbon & Kee, London.

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