Millenarianism

See this page in the original 1992 publication.

Author: Underwood, Grant

While the word "Millennium" simply means a thousand years, the Millennium is usually understood as a thousand-year period during which Christ will reign on earth. Latter-day Saints from the beginning anticipated the return of Christ and worked to prepare the world for his coming. The Bible mentions the thousand-year period only in Revelation 20:2-7,though many interpreters believe that various Old Testament prophecies, such as Isaiah's vision of the lamb and lion lying down together (Isa. 11), describe that time. "Millenarianism" refers to belief in and the study of the Millennium-how near it is and what life then will be like.

Not surprisingly, Christians have differed on these matters throughout history. Those who take a literal approach to prophecy anticipate a millennial world fundamentally distinct from the present age, an actual return to the paradisiacal conditions that prevailed in the Garden of Eden. For others, the millennial prophecies are mere metaphors for the better times ahead as the world is gradually Christianized. In nineteenth-century America, the latter interpretation was dominant. Most people believed that religious revivals and foreign missions, not the personal return of Jesus Christ, would be the means of ushering in the Millennium. They defined the Millennium in terms of the spiritual rather than the spiritual and physical transformation of the earth.

The Latter-day Saints rejected this figurative vision of the future. They believed that only the miraculous, divine intervention of Christ could fully destroy wickedness and re-create the New Eden. Mormons then and now literally expect the earth to be "renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory" (A of F 10). The extraordinary biological, geological, and social changes that will make the earth a paradise include the abolishment of infant mortality, the herbivorization of carnivores; the unification of continental landmasses; and the cessation of all enmity, strife, and warfare.

As the revelations unfolded during the early years of the Church, it was learned that Christ and those raised in the first resurrection at the beginning of the Millennium "will not probably dwell upon the earth, but will visit it when they please, or when it is necessary to govern it" (TPJS, p. 268). The Saints also came to realize that the destruction of the wicked accompanying Christ's second coming will not remove all unbelievers from the earth. Thus, missionary work will be a major millennial activity. Once the role of temples in the redemption of living and dead became clear, temple work was added to the list of anticipated millennial pursuits.

Since the first century, some Christians have felt that the second coming of Christ was near. Given the numerous revelations to Joseph Smith and the other dramatic developments of early Church history, many early Latter-day Saints also expected the promised day in their lifetimes. That feeling has been strong at other periods during the subsequent History of the Church, though not as sustained or pervasive as in its earliest years. While affirming the significance of the Millennium, modern Church leaders regularly make calming and qualifying statements as a counterpoint to undue anxiety about its proximity.


Bibliography

Backman, Milton V., Jr. Review of The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism, by Grant Underwood. BYU Studies 35:2 (1995):161-164.

Clouse, Robert G., ed. The Meaning of the Millennium. New York, 1974.

Gaustad, Edwin S., ed. The Rise of Adventism. New York, 1974.

Underwood, Grant. "The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism." Ph.D. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1988.

GRANT UNDERWOOD


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