Millenarian Movement

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William Miller
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The Millenarian movement is best characterized as a series of movements whose belief systems and societal engagement are structured around the end of the world and the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ.

It emerged in the mid-1800s, when William Miller predicted the return of Jesus Christ on October 22, 1844. Despite his failed prediction, it eventually led to the rise of the Adventist denominations, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses whose founder, Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916) taught that Christ had come back to earth in spiritual form in 1874.

The 20th century saw a continued fascination with the second coming. The Azusa Street Revival (1906-1915), which established Pentecostalism, interpreted the massive outpouring of the Holy Spirit as an imminent sign of Christ’s return. The suicide "cults" of Jonestown (1978) and Heaven’s Gate (1997) also had millennial orientations.

Through a variety of religious expressions, millennial thought remains a significant feature of American religion.
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Social Movements and Religion in American History
The Millenarian movement is best characterized as a series of movements whose belief systems and societal engagement are structured around the end of the world and the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ. Although they tend to rise in prominence during periods of rapid change and wane during periods of relative stability, they have been a significant feature of American religion since the mid-1800s.

Antebellum (1812-1860)

This fertile period in American religion was characterized by massive social change brought on by the rapid expansion of United States territory and the processes of urbanization and industrialization. The most prominent millennial movement of the period organized around the teachings of William Miller, who on the basis of biblical interpretation argued that Jesus would return on October 22, 1844, a date that has since become known as "The Great Disappointment." Miller’s influence continued, however, through the various Adventist denominations that grew out of his teachings. Millenarian beliefs remain central to Adventists’ teachings into the present.

Gilded Age (1870-1900)

In the 1870s, Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), a former Adventist and founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, began teaching that Christ had come back to earth in spiritual form in 1874, inaugurating the so-called "harvest of the Gospel age" which would culminate in the full establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. He founded the Zion Watch Tower and Tract society in 1881, and by the early 1900s was one of the most widely read Christian figures in the country. His movement, originally known as the Bible Students or Russellites, was renamed "Jehovah’s Witnesses" in 1931.

Progressive Era (1900-1917)

As the country coped with the social challenges of rapid economic expansion of the Gilded Age, the West Coast emerged as a center of religious innovation and experimentation. The Pentecostal movement spawned by the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles (1906–1915) would grow into a worldwide expression of Christianity with a strong millenarian bent. Pentecostals interpreted the Azusa revival as the beginnings of the massive outpouring of the Holy Spirit immediately preceding the return of Jesus Christ. The massive success of Pentecostal evangelist and Foursquare Church founder Aimee Semple McPherson during the Interwar Period (1917-1941) demonstrates just how quickly Pentecostalism and its millenarian outlook gained mainstream recognition. Similarly, the popularity of the premillennial dispensationalist Scofield Reference Bible attests to growing millenarian sensibilities among fundamentalists.

Cold War and Beyond (1947-Present)

As the possibility of nuclear annihilation loomed, movements emphasizing the apocalyptic dimension of millenarian thought rose to prominence. Many evangelical Christian groups touted the 1948 formation of the state of Israel as a major milestone in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, a sense that deepened with Israel’s rapid victory in the 1967 war. This apocalyptic millenarianism found its way into popular culture with touchstones such as Larry Norman’s single "I Wish We’d All Been Ready," (1969) and Hal Lindsey’s novel, The Late Great Planet Earth (1970). The overwhelming popularity of the Left Behind series of books authored by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins showcases the widespread cultural receptivity to millenarian themes that characterized the 1990s and 2000s.

Millennial Cults

Certain prominent cult groups of the latter half of the 20th century also were explicitly millennial in orientation. These include the suicide cults of Jonestown (1978) and Heaven’s Gate (1997), as well as the Branch Davidians, an Adventist splinter group destroyed in a confrontation with ATF agents in 1993. While these cult groups push Millenarianism to extremes, they attest to how deeply Millenarian sensibilities are embedded in U.S. religious experience.
Religious Groups
Timeline Entries for the same religious group Adventist Family
Adventist Family: Other ARDA Links

Russell, Charles Taze
Miller, William
Ellen White Helps Found Seventh-day Adventists
William Seymour and Azusa Street Revival

Millerite 1843 prophetic chart- Hathi Trust- from The Midnight Cry by Francis D. Nichol

William Miller portrait- Internet Archive- from Memoirs of William Miller by Sylvester Bliss

The Advent Herald, 1845, first page- Internet Archive

Charles Russell preaching- Hathi Trust- from The Overland monthly, vol 60 (1912)

Aerial view of Jonestown mass suicide- National Archives and Records Administration
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
Jeremy L. Sabella

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