Millenarianism in the United States has often been associated with a conspiratorial outlook. Narrowly defined, millenarianism is the belief in the thousand-year reign of the Messiah forecast by the Hebrew prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, or Christian Old Testament. The millennial rule of Jesus Christ, believed by Christians to be the Messiah, is also mentioned in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament.
More recently, the application of the term “millenarianism” has been expanded to include a variety of other groups who seek to establish, or if in the future to forecast and promote, an ideal or utopian community. These include some Eastern and Near Eastern religious movements, such as the Aum Shinrikyo, a derivative of Japanese Buddhism, and apocalyptic sects within Islam.
The term has also been applied to certain secular political movements, such as National Socialism and communism, but within the United States most millenarians have traditionally been Christians, and they often subscribe to a host of conspiracy theories.
Christian Millenarianism in American History
As early as the colonial era, Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony interpreted the perceived spiritual apathy, or “declension,” within their envisioned millennial community as the result of dark, unseen forces, a perspective exemplified by the notorious Salem Witch Trials in the seventeenth century.
Colonial religious leaders such as Cotton Mather and the revivalist Jonathan Edwards saw world events as marching toward the establishment of the Kingdom of God. In particular, Mather, who viewed the pope as the Antichrist in league with the French armies in Canada, saw the commencement of the French and Indian War in 1754 as an event of apocalyptic proportions.
During the years leading up to and including the American Revolution, many colonists saw the British, and King George III in particular, as emissaries of the devil, and they interpreted British actions as part of a great conspiracy that would fulfill the prophecies of the Book of Revelation.
Millenarian belief thrived in the early republic and throughout the nineteenth century, and it seemed to increase after the political and social turmoil of the Civil War. During the 1840s, the revivalist William Miller and his supporters eagerly awaited Christ’s return to establish a millennial kingdom, only to have their hopes crushed when their expectations failed.
Yet the widely publicized Millerite debacle failed to dissuade further converts to millenarianism. In fact, the intellectual pedigree of many contemporary Christian millenarians is rooted in the work of John Nelson Darby, a nineteenth-century Irish minister who developed a prophetic outline for interpreting events prior to the Second Coming of Christ.
Darby’s prophetic theories, which began to be widely circulated in the United States in the 1870s, became known as “premillennial dispensationalism.” Darby’s interpretations were later further popularized by Cyrus Scofield in his Scofield Reference Bible.
This work, which was first published in 1909, continues to be influential at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Central to Darby’s scenario was the belief in the literal thousand-year reign of Christ on the earth, an event that would be presaged by an escalating moral decline around the world.
Both Darby and Scofield also emphasized such End Time events as the release of Jerusalem from Gentile control, an event that Scofield suggested had been fulfilled with the British capture of the city in 1917, and the eventual rise of an evil representative of the devil, the Antichrist, who would terrorize the world in the days before Christ’s return.
Christian millenarians who support this interpretation that social, political, economic, and cultural conditions in the world will worsen before the Second Coming of Christ are generally classified as “premillenarian.” They maintain that Jesus will intervene in world affairs and establish the millennial reign.
Conversely, millenarians who believe that Jesus Christ does not have to return for the millennium to begin, or that humanity is capable of bringing it about through social and political reform, are known as “postmillenarian.”
Premillenarianism and Conspiracy Theory
Conspiracy theories are generally found among advocates of premillenarian beliefs. Some premillennialists are what certain scholars have termed “apocalyptic millenarians” and/or “revolutionary millenarians.” Apocalyptic millenarians believe that the millennium is imminent and that they will play an active role in bringing it about.
Revolutionary millenarians are currently actively involved in over-turning the structures of society in an attempt to bring the millennium to fruition. Many apocalyptic millenarians, and most revolutionary millenarians, promote conspiracy theories.
These often include belief in a New World Order, the view that the United States government is bent on removing individual freedoms, a belief in the sinister dimensions of modern technology such as computers or credit cards, or an interpretation that considers the planned economic and possible political unification of Europe dangerous.
These conspiracy theories are often well publicized. For instance, when former United States President George Bush proclaimed a New World Order in the post–cold war world, many conservative evangelical Christians interpreted his words as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
These included Pat Robertson, the primary host of the 700 Club, a television program popular in conservative Christian circles. Robertson is the son of a former United States senator, and was himself a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.
In his book The New World Order, Robertson suggested that a conspiratorial New World Order was a concerted plan by specific groups and organizations, including the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Federal Reserve Board, to establish a one-world government.
Robertson attributed many of these machinations to a supposed “invisible hand” that engineered U.S. domestic and foreign policies. Robertson left little doubt about the supposed wicked nature of these plans and warned Christians to be both aware and wary.
Robertson’s high-profile status notwithstanding, the most recognized distributor of Christian millenarianism in the last few decades has been Hal Lindsey, the author of a number of books, most notably The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which was the best-selling nonfiction work of the 1970s.
Only sales of the Bible outdistanced Lindsey’s sensational account of End Time prophecy, which was reissued in subsequent editions. Lindsey emphasized the rise of a European dictator who would dominate the world before the return of Christ. In developing his assertions, Lindsey relied heavily upon the formulations earlier devised by both Darby and Scofield.
Recently, however, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have popularized millenarian conspiracy theories in their best-selling Left Behind series. LaHaye and Jenkins outline a fictional scenario for End Time events, supposedly based on prophecies in the Book of Revelation, in which a conspiratorial world-ruling dictator, a villain capable of enormous evil, wages war on all true Christians and seeks to exterminate them from the earth.
The consistent popularity of the volumes in this series—these books have regularly been on the New York Times bestseller list—underscores the degree to which millenarian belief and its attendant conspiratorial fascination have invaded popular culture.
The Future of Millenarian Belief
It is unlikely that millenarian belief, and the conspiracy theories that arise from it, will recede. Although specific millenarian interpretations, such as the view of William Miller and his followers that Christ would return in 1843, can be disproved, the millenarian model for understanding the world cannot be so easily undermined.
Millenarian beliefs are persistent and can be made to rhetorically fit almost any social and cultural context. Contemporary advocates of millenarianism, premillenarians in particular, are unlikely to be convinced that their portrayal of the conspiratorial nature of current events is inaccurate.
In fact, the belief that one is instrumental in bringing the millennium to fruition, or at least that one is witnessing or about to witness the cataclysmic events that will lead to the end of the world, is seductive. Millenarians are often drawn into a fantasy realm to which their lives seem integral.
Although critics may argue that such belief is delusional, advocates of millenarianism are likely to experience a psychological sense of relief, and even a sense of eager anticipation, occasioned by their view that the course of world events is predetermined and that political, social, and cultural change is imminent. They will hence remain on the lookout for “signs” of the end, signs that are often found in the dark corners of U.S. conspiracy theories.