Why it’s time for a new book on Latter-day Saint views of the Apocalypse

06.01.2020 | The Maxwell Institute

Twenty years ago, I read a book review that really stuck with me. It was Latter-day Saint historian Grant Underwood’s response to the book As a Thief In the Night: The Mormon Quest for Deliverance, published in the Journal of Mormon History. Underwood had some skin in the game—he’d already published his now-classic book on the same subject, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism. One line in particular stands out. Underwood wrote:

“Since other historians, myself included, have already noted these tendencies [how the Church’s relationship with American society was influenced by millennialism] and since my study of eschatological themes in the pre-Utah period was published only six years ago, I searched for the new evidence or interpretation that are the usual justification for a book on a familiar topic.”

Underwood concluded that 148 of the total 229 pages of Thief in the Night were devoted to the “well-plowed pre-Utah period,” suggesting that Erickson’s work had failed in the undertaking. It’s the kind of review that would keep a writer up at night.

So years later, when I decided to write a dissertation and then a book on Mormon apocalypticism, I frequently asked myself whether I was making a novel contribution to the field. Did my work justify a new book on the subject? This is after all the point of what should always be a persistent question: Do we really need another book on any given subject?

Here are seven ways that I believe my book, Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse, differs from earlier studies on Latter-day Saint apocalypticism.

  • The Laity. Terrible Revolution emphasizes the Church’s laity, rather than looking exclusively at Church leaders and other elites. Indeed, some of the most revealing commentaries on the apocalypse come from largely forgotten lay Latter-day Saints such as Lerona Wilson, Amanda Wilcox, and Edwin Rushton.
  • Visionary Culture. Terrible Revolution emphasizes visions, prophecies, and dreams. Some of these are well-known, such as the White Horse Prophecy, George Washington’s Vision, or the Horseshoe Prophecy. Many are obscure. However, none of them have been integrated into scholarship on the Latter-day Saint people.
  • New Sources. Terrible Revolution draws on 100s of manuscripts that have yet to appear in previous scholarship. It also benefits from the Church History Department’s release of the Joseph Smith Papers, the journal of George Q. Cannon, and the Council of Fifty Minutes.
  • Terrible Revolution covers the entire history of Latter-day Saint apocalypticism. While Millenarian World covered only up to 1844 and Thief in the Night only went to the turn of the twentieth century, Terrible Revolution covers the span of Latter-day Saint history. As John Turner noted in his blurb for the book, “Terrible Revolution takes readers from early expectations of an imminent Second Coming, to the White Horse Prophecy, to contemporary preppers.”
  • Latter-day Saint Theology. Many intellectual histories of the Church of Jesus Christ present a coherent theology. “Latter-day Saints believed X, Y.” In Terrible Revolution, I focus on major themes—what I call a “master narrative”—related to the last days and how it evolved (often through debate) in different settings across time.
  • The Latter Day Saint tradition. The backbone of Terrible Revolution is the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; however, I also bring in dissident movements and schismatic churches. Readers will learn something of Lyman Wight, Alpheus Cutler, the Morrisites, early Fundamentalists, and contemporary churches such as the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days.
  • Civil War Prophecy. There have been some great articles that narrow in on Joseph Smith’s 1832 Civil War Prophecy and how it became important for the Saints during the Civil War. Yet, I think that Terrible Revolution represents the first time this prophecy has been emphasized in a larger historical study of the faith.

I didn’t expect the book to appear during such tumultuous times, but the study of apocalypticism seems as timely as ever.

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Christopher James Blythe is a Research Associate at the Maxwell Institute’s Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies. Learn more about his research here.