Ive been trying to brush up on my minimal knowledge of the (British) Civil War and among other things have been reading Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution (Penguin, 1990). Its a reprint of articles from the 1950s and so by no means the latest thinking, but theres some very interesting material. One article gave me pause for thought, though. In John Mason and the End of the World Hill discusses the millennial beliefs of a late seventeenth century Buckinghamshire Anglican clergyman. He points out that there was a considerable seventeenth century tradition of belief that the end of the world was near. One wonderful example:
Thomas Beverly, rector of Lilley, Herts., predicted the end of the world for 1697. He was still alive in 1698 and wrote a book to prove that the world had come to an end without anyone noticing it.
Between 1535-1661, however, millenarianism was particularly associated with the Fifth Monarchists, a variety of left-wing groups preaching anarchic revolt against the state. Christopher Hills main point is that John Masons teaching and behaviour (he was able to draw large crowds of the poor to him) had some parallels with Fifth Monarchism and thirty years previously would have caused panic to the authorities. Now Mason was simply seen as mentally ill. For Hill:
The age of reason had arrived. The age of revolutionary Puritanism, with its heroes, its passions, its eccentricities, was over. For 150 years the proclamation of the millennium had roused the lower classes to revolt, had shaken the established foundations of society. Now, like John Mason, it was dead…Henceforth millenarianism became a harmless hobby for cranky country parsons.
In 1999 I heard the late lamented Tim Reuter talk on the historiography of the Year 1000. One point that struck me was his reckoning that differing views on the apocalyptic significance of the year 1000 (or 1033) had a lot to do with the prominence of contemporary millenarianism. For scholars in the UK, from a moderate religious background or none at all, there was a natural tendency to see apocalyptic concerns as a minority interest. For someone like Richard Landes, writing as an American just before the year 2000, it was far easier to accept that there might have been widespread belief and fear in the End Times, not reflected in official discourse and even hidden by it.
I dont know how to fit the current US craze for end-time beliefs into a historical context, not knowing much about its immediate background. It does seem to me historically unusual to have a seemingly widely-held belief that is not largely limited to the socially/economically disadvantaged. Anyone who knows more about US culture care to comment?