Latin America and Native North AmericaOld World Origins
In the area stretching from Asia Minor through Europe and into regions colonized by political and religious powers emanating from these areas—such as the New World—these desires have often been linked to the Judeo-Christian tradition. These beliefs and desires and the movements they have generated have become popularly known as millenarianism or chiliasm (a word of Greek origin). However, as one of the most noted scholars of the subject, Norman Cohn, has pointed out, "These movements have varied in tone from the most violent aggressiveness to the mildest pacifism and in aim from the most ethereal spirituality to the most earthbound materialism; there is no counting the possible ways of imagining the Millennium and the route to it" (p. xiv).
The term millenarianism comes from the belief by some Christians that Christ will return to earth and establish a kingdom in which he will reign over a society that is blessed spiritually and materially and in which the enemies of this Christian fold will be defeated. This rule, it is believed, will last for a thousand years—a millennium—before the faithful or Saints will ascend to heaven while those who are seen as evildoers will suffer eternal damnation. Hence the belief in the coming millennial earthly paradise of Christ became known as millenarianism. The actual concept of millenarianism, however, predates Christ. Long before Christians separated from Jews, the idea of a prophet or Messiah—a powerful, wise, and just ruler of the faith—was a part of Jewish belief in the coming of a world where the longed-for order was restored.
While a belief in the coming of the Messiah alone is not necessarily millenarian, when it is attached to persecution or the desire to attain a proper and just order, it can become millenarian. Hence during the centuries and decades before and after the birth of Christ, when Jews were suffering persecutions, were not self-governing, or were divided by class and other interests, numerous millenarian movements and leaders emerged. For instance, in the second century B.C.E., a time of crisis for Jews, the Book of Daniel was written in which Daniel dreams that the enemies of the Jews are destroyed and an everlasting kingdom is established with dominion over all.
While millenarian movements enjoyed some popularity within the early Christian Church in the first three or four centuries C.E., these movements, in both the Greek and Western churches, were eventually considered heretical. This was especially true after the official church became more tied to the state. In the early Christian world, many people led difficult lives and were strongly influenced by accounts such as those in the New Testament Book of Revelation, in which an angel descends to earth, seizes the Devil, and binds him for a thousand years: "Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or its image.… They came to life again, and reigned with Christ a thousand years" (Rev. 20:4).
From the late eleventh century to the sixteenth century, millenarianism became a more common phenomenon in certain regions of Europe that were experiencing change in the traditional order. Norman Cohn argues, "The areas in which the age-old prophecies about the Last Days took on a new, revolutionary meaning and a new, explosive force were the areas of rapid social change—and not simply change but expansion: areas where trade and industry were developing and where the population was rapidly increasing" (p. 22). In this world of growing disorder, complexity, and insecurity, millenarian ideas were often blended with antagonisms of class, religion, and identity that imbued these movements with a revolutionary character that could appear threatening or hopeful, depending on one's position in society and relationship to the movement.
Movements such as the People's Crusade and the Shepherd's Crusade witnessed the rising of poor and marginalized people against elites and Jews. The Calabrian abbot Joachim de Fiore used biblical study, especially of the Book of Revelation, to develop a model for understanding history and for creating a vision of the final period of life on earth. These Judgment Days, or Last Days, involved a world where social classes had been leveled, governing structures and church did not exist, and people led a "spiritual" existence that freed them from work because in this spiritual form they did not require food. Surprisingly, the church did not repress this movement even though Christ was not at the center of this new interpretation. Hence from at least the thirteenth century on, even in the Christian tradition, millennial views existed without Christ.
It is in this tradition that scholars in the modern period have increasingly used millenarianism as a tool to study and explain movements that seek to redeem societies and rescue them from rapid social change, colonial incursions, and loss of traditional meaning; this tool also helps in understanding millenarian movements such as the Anabaptists, the Ranters, and others in Europe. While in the modern period Norman Cohn saw certain medieval and early modern millennial movements in Europe as the deep roots of modern communism and Nazism through movements such as that of Thomas Müntzer and the Shepherd's Crusade, studies of the New World have focused on millenarian movements of the poor and oppressed seeking a measure of control, hope, and dignity in their lives and cultures.
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