Apocalypse Now

J. F. C. Harrison. The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism, 1780-1850. Routledge Kegan Paul. 1979. (Repr. 2012)
It is now generally recognised that contemporary belief systems have deep historical and cultural roots; therefore J F C Harrison 's study of industrial revolution millenarian cults offers valuable insights into current beliefs - as well as being a fascinating historical study.

Broadly, Harrison distinguishes between 'Intellectual' millenarians, who speculated about the date of the Second Coming of Christ, or who believed in the coming of the Kingdom by gradual evolution, and the 'folk' millenarians, who were adventists who went out to proclaim the imminent physical coming of Christ and the rule of the saints. This belief in the imminent transformation of the human condition and the inauguration of a 'post-historical', paradisical era, is the hallmark of milleniarists in a wide variety of cultures.

The author centres his study around two eighteenth century figures, Richard Brothers and Joanna Southcott. Brothers was a former naval officer, who on conversion to a Quaker belief system, declared his pacifism and refused to swear an oath which would have allowed him to draw his naval pension and suffered much hardship as a result. Soon he was having ecstatic visions and proclaimed himself a direct descendant of James, brother of Jesus, and hence Nephew of the Almighty and King of the Hebrews. He wrote for trials of radicals and agitators to end. For his pains he was locked up in a lunatic asylum.

Joanna Southcott was a country woman with a local reputation as a 'wise woman ' and seeress, who in 1792 seems to have begun what we now term automatic writing. Soon she was on the way to becoming the expectant mother of the new redeemer. Harrison does not see in these people and their followers examples of individual psycho-pathology but aspects of a broad social tradition. This millenarian tradition grew out of a working class culture in which omens, signs and prophecies abounded, and radical religious ideas were fairly widespread. Millenarianism arose as a response to rapid social change, providing an ideology by which people could interpret the bewildering events around them.

There are clear parallels between the call of the prophet and that of the shaman. One of Joanna Southcott's successors, John Wroe , was "visited with ... trances or visions, at the commencement of most of which he was struck blind and dumb, his eyelids firmly united as if they had naturally come together, and his tongue fastened in his mouth ...” Sometimes these fits would last for three or four days.

Here we can see echoes of the shaman's initiatory illness. What separates the prophet from the shaman is that while the shaman preserves the cultural universe of a largely static society, the prophet proclaims a fundamental change in society. Of course if the existing society begins to change rapidly, the shaman may be forced into a prophetic role. This seems to have held true for Joanna Southcott and Mormon leader Joseph Smith.

Harrison compares the English millenarians with American cults such as the Shakers and the Hillerites, although the treatment of the American scene is of necessity somewhat superficial, and rounds the book off with an examination of the cultural bases of madness and sanity. He points out that the condemnation of the prophets as insane by the 'respectable classes' made little impact on folk culture to which the dividing line between madness and inspiration was very thin.

Though the author ends his work at 1850 the phenomena he discusses is still very much alive. Prophets are still inspired to automatic writing, speaking in tongues , delivering messages to the world and warning of doom. Some of these may be in a more secular setting, interpreted as warnings from ' space brothers' f or instance, but the essential phenomenological character remains remarkably unchanged. – Peter Rogerson. Magonia 1, Autumn 1979.

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