Apoc­a­lyp­tic Anx­i­ety: Re­li­gion, Science, and Amer­ica’s Ob­ses­sion with the End of the World

An­thony Aveni

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews - KRIS­TEN RABE

Uni­ver­sity Press of Colorado Soft­cover $28.95 (268pp) 978-1-60732-470-6 An­thony Aveni’s Apoc­a­lyp­tic Anx­i­ety is an as­tute and en­gag­ing guide to the many themes and vari­a­tions of apoc­a­lyp­tic think­ing in Amer­i­can his­tory.

Whether the end is en­vi­sioned as a re­li­gious sec­ond com­ing or the re­al­iza­tion of a utopian Age of Aquarius, the roots of apoc­a­lyp­tic think­ing run deep in the Amer­i­can char­ac­ter, as An­thony Aveni shows in Apoc­a­lyp­tic Anx­i­ety.

Aveni’s re­view of Amer­i­can his­tory comes through the lens of an ever-ex­pected apoca­lypse, and is en­gross­ing and en­ter­tain­ing. A pro­fes­sor of as­tron­omy, an­thro­pol­ogy, and Na­tive Amer­i­can stud­ies at Col­gate Uni­ver­sity, Aveni shows a mas­ter­ful com­mand of this ma­te­rial.

He be­gins with a de­tailed ac­count of the Mil­lerites, the nine­teenth-cen­tury re­li­gious sect of Pas­tor Wil­liam Miller, who used com­plex bib­li­cal cal­cu­la­tions to pre­dict the sec­ond ad­vent of Je­sus on Oc­to­ber 22, 1844. A se­ries of ex­tra­or­di­nary as­tro­nom­i­cal events and ter­res­trial dis­as­ters fu­eled the Mil­lerite move­ment, and Miller gained tens of thou­sands of fol­low­ers. Even with the failed pre­dic­tion, many be­liev­ers ad­justed their cal­cu­la­tions or even­tu­ally shifted their be­liefs to fo­cus on a spiritual rather than a lit­eral, phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. Ex­am­in­ing Miller and his fol­low­ers in a broader his­tor­i­cal, eco­nomic, and cul­tural con­text, Aveni ar­gues that rather than be­ing a fringe el­e­ment, they re­flect an em­pha­sis on mil­len­nial think­ing that has been a per­sis­tent and cen­tral theme through­out United States his­tory.

He notes two ma­jor strains in apoc­a­lyp­tic thinkers: those who en­vi­sion a cat­a­strophic end to life as we know it, lead­ing to a new age for be­liev­ers; and those who en­vi­sion an evo­lu­tion­ary tran­si­tion to a utopia on Earth. Both strains are strong in the United States, ev­i­dent from the

dooms­day prophe­cies of the colo­nial preacher Cot­ton Mather, to nine­teenth-cen­tury utopian ex­per­i­ments, to the New Age philoso­phies of the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury. One way or an­other, Amer­i­cans con­sis­tently want to be­lieve that a “New World” will usher in bet­ter cir­cum­stances.

An­thony Aveni’s Apoc­a­lyp­tic Anx­i­ety is an as­tute and en­gag­ing guide to the many themes and vari­a­tions of apoc­a­lyp­tic think­ing in Amer­i­can his­tory, and he ef­fec­tively out­lines the ba­sic be­liefs at the core of most of th­ese move­ments. The lessons and par­al­lels he draws are in­struc­tive and pro­vide a unique per­spec­tive on the hopes and chal­lenges of our day.

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