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Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages Hardcover – May 10, 1999

4.0 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Plagues, fires from heaven, worldwide computer failure--apocalyptic visions are nothing new. Indeed, they may well be a necessary part of life. As historian Eugen Weber points out, "apocalyptic prophesies are attempts to interpret the times, console and guide, and suggest the future." In Apocalypses: Prophesies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages, Weber presents a history of end-of-the-worldisms, such as the panics during the sack of Rome in A.D. 410, multiple medieval Second Comings, Yeats's prediction of a "Celtic Armageddon" in 1899, and late-20th-century fears. This is no mere laundry list, however; Weber analyzes each of these beliefs and uses their historical contexts to make them more understandable. Weber's witty prose is tempered by an obvious respect for those with "alternative rationalities." Most readers, however, will enjoy watching these millennial beliefs recur throughout history--and perhaps breathe a sigh of relief. As Weber argues, St. Augustine's advice continues to ring true today: rather than trying to reckon the years before the end of the world, "relax your fingers and give them a little rest."

From Publishers Weekly

From the hellfire and brimstone prophecies of John of Patmos to Marilyn Manson's album Antichrist Superstar, apocalyptic currents have nourished the cultural imagination. Surveying the field of millenarian beliefs, Weber (France: Fin de Si?cle, etc.), professor of history at UCLA, contends that the apocalyptic "lunatic fringe" deserves more than the condescension typically doled out by scholars. Indeed, he explains, "endism" has often played an important historical role, motivating Columbus's voyage to the Americas, inflecting debates over anti-Semitism, even figuring in the 1870 birth of the Canadian province of Manitoba. Writing with curiosity and empathy about such varied topics as the eschatological fallout from Halley's comet and Y2K survivalism, Weber turns up a few intriguing facts. By 1992, for instance, more than half of adult Americans expected the imminent cataclysmic return of Jesus Christ. What accounts for the persistence of such beliefs? Sifting through the historical record, Weber examines the utopian intent of much millennial thought. The Second Coming, after all, promises heaven on earth; even Engels noted the revolutionary potential of revivalist Christianity. On the other hand, more combative strains of millennialism have led to the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide and the release of deadly nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system. Reluctant to interpret these acts in any depth, Weber fittingly describes his work as a travel book, recording a journey through the ages. Still, gifted is the writer who can nimbly span the distant cultural poles of Nostradamus and Bill Gates.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 302 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (May 10, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674040805
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674040809
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 5.6 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #156,157 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Weber acknowledges that he is no expert in the field, and offers APOCALYPSES as a subjective "travel guide" through the subject, based on his reading of "hundreds of the thousands of books" on the subject. APOCALYPSES does show off the virtuosic breadth of Weber's reading, but unfortunately, like many travel guides written by mere passers-through, it betrays haste and superficiality. In fact, the book is almost unreadable, as you can divine from the reviews of even those who claim to like it. It reads like a catalogue of dates and names and quotations from the author's notecards, stitched together not by insight that would serve to order the phenomena in some kind of conceptual framework, but by "urbane and witty" (as reviewers say) commentary. Even the commentary itself sometimes sinks to banality. How many ways are there to say "Yet once again, the end did not come on time"?

In his introduction, Weber promises "more narrative than interpretation." But for the most part we get neither narrative nor interpretation. For example, the transition of rural Christian America from a radical-left populist activism to radical-right reactionary fatalism over the course of a single generation early in the twentieth century is a fascinating phenomenon, one that cries out for some kind of explanation. Why did progressive political campaigners end up shunning politics and "declar[ing] the secular state demonic"? Weber lists his answers: the Scopes trial, Prohibition ("divided and criminalized the nation"), and the reform efforts of one Anthony Cornstock ("gave Christian altruism a bad name"). That's not an explanation, only a sketch of an outline of an explanation. It's about as informative and as entertaining as reading power-point slides.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is an introduction to Western European and American apocalypticism. It jumps around pretty freely, although it is roughly organized into time periods.

What I'll say about this book is, if you've read a bit of history already, it will be enjoyable to you. But if you want a serious, careful and scholarly history of apocalypticism, this will disappoint you, as it did one reviewer. No phenomenon is explored in any depth, but the narrative moves quickly through a lot of fascinating history. I did appreciate the author's care with dates, since that made it easier to keep up with the narrative's jumping around.

My field is religious studies, although not exactly what is covered here. Nevertheless, I learned enough from this book to begin doubting some "conventional wisdom" about apocalypticism: for instance, that around the year 1000 there was a wild outbreak of enthusiasm. On the contrary, most people didn't know what year it was. But I also learned that apocalypticism has gone on pretty much constantly in Western Christianity, often despite the official churches' attempts to control it.

Depending on your situation, you of course will find something else in it.

I also want to add that, as I read this book, I continually wondered why this fascinating material is rarely covered in more general histories of Western Christianity. Whatever the reason, I strongly recommend this book to students of Western Christian history. I don't think enough people are famliar with this part of Christian history.

But let me recommend a couple other books for you to consider before you pick this up.
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Format: Hardcover
Review by Marianne Luban:
When the Year 1000 was drawing near, people took it as an omen when Halley's Comet streaked across the heavens. Did this portend Doomsday or the advent of the Messiah? Was Man marching inexorably into the dusk or the dawn? Another thousand years later, we still don't positively know the answer to that question.
The eminent historian, Eugen Weber, delivers his latest work, "Apocalypses", just in time to ponder our status on the brink of the new millennium and to give us insight into the hopes and fears of previous generations who found themselves hesitating before the looming gateway of a new era, weighing prophecies or confronted with phenomena consisting of "lamps of fire, angels, plagues, lightenings, thunderings, earthquakes, falling stars, fire, blood, hail, black sun and bloody moon". Weber writes: "When the world ends, it could be argued that all that ends is the world we know. The end of the world was really only the end of one world, not the end of time but of our time, not the annihilation of mankind but the end of a way of life and its replacement by another."
While some contemplated finales, optimists dreamed and wrote of their hopes for an enlightened, repentant world and the regeneration of the human race: "They speak, earth, ocean, air; I hear them say 'Awake, repent, 'ere we dissolve away!" Yet others faced the unknown and dire forebodings armed with their wit. According to Weber, when Pope Benedict XIV was informed that the AntiChrist had come and was now three years old, the pontiff quipped, "Then I shall leave the problem to my successor."
Eugen Weber must be the world's most fascinating conversationalist.
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