The end of the world (Latter-day Saint style), with Christopher James Blythe [MIPodcast #119]
Blythe goes back to the beginning of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to find out how early church members thought about the apocalypse—the cataclysmic end of the world which would usher in a new peaceful era under the reign of Jesus Christ. The more tension Latter-day Saints felt with the United States where the church began, the more intense their ideas about how it would all turn out became. But Blythe says violent visions of end times destruction began to fade as the church became more mainstream in American culture.
Christopher James Blythe is a Research Associate at the Maxwell Institute’s Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies. In 2019 he was named co-editor of the Journal of Mormon History. He also is co-president of the Folklore Society of Utah. His new book is Terrible Revolution: Latter Day Saints and the American Apocalypse. He has coedited two volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers Documents series.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
Christopher Blythe’s new book focuses on Latter-day Saint views of the end of the world—which might seem like it’s a little on the nose right now, but here we are. Blythe goes back to the beginning of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to find out how early church members thought about the apocalypse—the cataclysmic end of the world which would usher in a new peaceful era under the reign of Jesus Christ. The more tension Latter-day Saints felt with the United States, where the church began, the more intense their ideas about how it would all turn out became. But Blythe says violent visions of end-times destruction began to fade as the church became more mainstream in American culture.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HODGES: I’m sitting right here with Christopher Blythe and I want to set the scene a little bit for listeners, because this is the first interview we’ve ever done in the new Maxwell Institute building at Brigham Young University—the West View Building. So, Chris, you are the very first one to join me here.
CHRISTOPHER BLYTHE: Exciting times.
HODGES: We’re sitting in the new Maxwell Institute library, it might sound a little cavernous. I won’t typically be doing interviews in here, and it’s empty in here right now—the books are not on the shelves. I can’t wait until the place is finished. We’ve got art up on the walls throughout the hallways, though, the office is getting put together, it’s an exciting time at the Maxwell Institute.
And Chris, how have you spent your summer? How has it been with COVID going on?
BLYTHE: I’ve done a lot of childcare.
HODGES: I’m there.
BLYTHE: Mhmm. I did some interviews, some blog writing, and a lot of childcare.
HODGES: And you had a book come out. Ironically and maybe perfectly enough, a book about Latter-day Saints and the American apocalypse. At a time when it perhaps seems more apocalyptic than ever, at least in our lifetimes.
HODGES: Have you thought much about that? Have people joked with you about that?
BLYTHE: Yeah, absolutely. “Did I plan this?” and so on. It definitely, really fits with the things going on at this moment.
HODGES: Terrible Revolution is a book about Latter-day Saint views of the end of the world, in effect. It focuses on how ideas about the apocalypse took shape within what’s historically been called “Mormonism.”
Let’s start with that term, apocalyptic—apocalypse—and unpack what it means at a basic level, because I don’t think Latter-day Saints often use that term. I don’t hear much about, “the apocalypse” or anything. I hear about the “the Second Coming,” for example.
BLYTHE: Sure, I think we talk about “the last days,” or “the Millennium,” and so on. I chose the word “apocalypse” for a few reasons. The major book about the apocalyptic before mine came out was one by Grand Underwood, and the term that he prefers is “millenarian.” Millenarian is sort of a theological term; it differentiates what Latter-day Saints believe about the Second Coming and those events. I really wanted to stick with the destructions that Latter-day Saints expect to occur in the last days. And so on a popular level apocalyptic refers to destructions, a sort of mass change in the world.
HODGES: Zombie apocalypse?
BLYTHE: Sure, zombie apocalypse is a great example. You go to bed one morning and the world is completely changed when you wake up the next day. Apocalyptic is also a literary tradition. The Book of Revelation is one of our most popular examples of apocalyptic texts.
I wanted people when they read this book to also think about the literary tradition. So, I’m going to try to bring readers into actual textual examples of how the apocalypse plays out in Latter-day Saint thought.
HODGES: The word itself is sort of about an uncovering, is that right?
HODGES: The apocalypse is for something to be uncovered—
HODGES: And what’s revealed? Is it catastrophe?
BLYTHE: Catastrophe and then a better world, right. You’re going to go through this catastrophe and then everything is better, if you can get through this however many years.
HODGES: Different religious traditions within Christianity have different views about how the apocalypse will look. They have different terms for what they call it. They have different ideas about the timeline of it. And Latter-day Saints have unique views within that spectrum of belief. And your book’s first chapter introduces readers to the “overall master narrative,” is what you call it, about the apocalypse for Latter-day Saints. And you talk about how these ideas developed over time.
So, your book actually begins back in the bedroom of Joseph Smith on an evening when an angel visited him in September of 1823. I think a lot of books about Latter-day Saint history might begin in the grove where Joseph prayed and saw a vision of God and Jesus Christ in 1820, or something like that—or the pioneer’s crossing the plains. You chose Moroni coming to the bedroom during the night, bringing an announcement. Why begin the book there?
BLYTHE: That’s a great question, and I wrestled with it. I wondered, “Should I start with the introduction of the church itself, or the Book of Mormon?” But I think this moment with Moroni really gets to the heart of Joseph Smith’s understanding of his own personal mission.
I think it’s well known at this point that Joseph rarely shared his experience of the First Vision. It’s not until 1838 that it seems like he’s woven his experience of the First Vision into the history of the church. However, the story about Moroni, the experience of meeting an angel who is going to lead him to the Book of Mormon plates, has been a standard of his testimony and his personal history ever since. And as I hope I show in the book, this moment is completely apocalyptic. Here, as we see in other apocalyptic texts, an angel appears and guides a visionary through the events that are expected to occur.
HODGES: There’s even a text involved, right? You talk about how in the Hebrew scripture apocalyptic there’s an angel that brings a book, I think to Isaiah?
BLYTHE: Yes, Isaiah, John the Revelator, and Ezekiel. Several visionaries including an extra-canonical text. Or receiving a book from an angel that’s going to guide them this way.
I just imagine that scene. Joseph, a teenage boy, just lying in his room and then an angel appears, and what does he do? He doesn’t have a normal conversation with Joseph, at least so far as we can read the text, he really recites scripture. Joseph is sitting there and listening to this angelic being read to him kind of scary things that are going to happen in the last days, and some positive ones about visions—
HODGES: Malachi, right?
BLYTHE: Yeah, Malachi, the idea that young men will see visions and old men will have dreams or vice versa. Ideas about the kingdom being built. But also things about the moon turning to blood and the stars falling from the sky.
HODGES: And Malachi, where something needing to happen or else the earth would be smitten with a curse.
BLYTHE: Absolutely, that’s Malachi. With Elijah, the priesthood needs to come before this moment. So, Joseph—this is his real beginning of his prophethood. He has this message that, by the time he is writing this account, has already begun to think of it in terms of the Book of Revelation. Angels speaking about the last days, that shows up in that text. Latter-day Saints often remember Revelation chapter 14 about this other angel. Joseph is already kind of placing those things together that he is hearing, about that last-days message from that apocalyptic messenger.
HODGES: Right, and you suggest Joseph would have had some ideas about how this all works, being somewhat familiar with the Bible even as young man. As Latter-day Saints develop ideas about the end times and as Joseph Smith developed ideas, he wasn’t operating in a vacuum, this was a hot topic in the nineteenth century. You say that America had a long history of apocalypticists dating back to its European discovery. What is a snapshot of how that developed and how Americans over time thought about end times, leading up to Joseph Smith?
BLYTHE: Often we talk about how end times were often perceived very optimistically in early America. The Second Coming was going to happen, and it really wasn’t about a difficult period that was going to happen first. The hard period was actually the Reformation, many Protestant Americans thought Catholicism and those “dark ages” were that tough period that was going to happen.
HODGES: That was like the “great beast” or whatever, the Pope and all of this.
BLYTHE: Right, so they had a historical trajectory of how these events would happen. But the major events that I think are so interesting—here Europeans come to the Americas and immediately they think it’s the fulfillment of prophecy.
Others are having questions about how native peoples relate to last days ideas, particularly believing that there are Jewish peoples that need to obtain the gospel, learn the gospel. All sorts of ideas about this new place and how it relates to biblical events.
As I think about the story of the Latter-day Saint tradition, I think it immediately picks up with those same questions. What is special about this new land? And how does it relate to how we expect the history of the world to go when we read the Bible?
HODGES: Let’s dig into some of those main themes that Latter-day Saints picked up on from this broader view of the end of the world. First, you mention that it’s something that’s closely tied to the Hebrew Bible, and this is the people of Israel. So, the end times will relate to people in real places. Talk about that geography for a moment.
BLYTHE: We’ve been so focused in Christian history, of course, on the Biblical events occurring in the old world, initially in the Near East and Jerusalem and surrounding environments. Certainly, prophets and others speak about the land of Jerusalem as the place of fulfillment, where they expect the Battle of Armageddon to be fought, where a sort of messianic figure or Christianity’s Jesus will appear. And also, they’ll speak of things like the “North Countries,” which Christians will pick up on and relate to modern day Europe.
But when we get to the New World, the Americas, people wonder how these events are going to be positioned there. So, Joseph Smith immediately is going to want to find the city of New Jerusalem. This is one of the Book of Mormon’s central messages, that in the Americas, the city of the New Jerusalem will be built. And this is the place where a temple is going to be constructed, where individuals who have lost their identities—whether they are Europeans or natives peoples here—will unite together and build a temple, and there they will have a sort of Armageddon experience in the new world while preparing by building a utopia for Jesus to appear in the flesh once again.
HODGES: And that leads to the next theme, which is this idea of fleeing Babylon.
BLYTHE: Fleeing Babylon is the central missionary point of the nineteenth century. Missionaries would go out and they would warn people that God had prepared a place of safety, but events were going to happen that made their current places unsafe. That might be because the righteous will be persecuted, it might be because God’s judgement will be poured out on the earth. But the key is the gathering—that people need to flee where they are currently at.
So when we think about Latter-day Saint history I often think about this beautiful idea of pioneers. This sort of ruggedness of the West—conquering the west. They were fulfilling prophecy. There’s going to be a great place, but they’re in a hurry for a reason, the rest of the world is not safe.
HODGES: Did you see people being kind of gleeful about that? “Hooray flee Babylon! Because people are going to—they’ll really get theirs!” Or was it more like, “Oh, we’ve got to get out of here, this is really scary!”
BLYTHE: Yeah, that’s the question about schadenfreude, right? Are people taking joy in the idea that their enemies will be punished. I think there is some of that.
Section 109 of the Doctrine & Covenants is a dedicatory prayer from Joseph Smith for the Kirkland temple, and in it Joseph actually says, “God we don’t rejoice in the destruction of our enemies. However, we understand that this has to happen because it’s thy will.” And so, I think Joseph is always trying to encourage the Saints not to have that attitude. But that also tells us that that attitude was actually there.
HODGES: Because the revelation spoke to it.
BLYTHE: Absolutely. But for the most part, I think people wanted to bring their families to Zion. You didn’t just flee to Zion, you prepared to go back on a mission. You raised your kids up and you sent them back on missions, and the goal was to bring all the righteous in.
There’s also an idea that you construct this sort of perfect society out in the west, and this was a society of complete pacifism. A great scripture, I think it’s Section 45, discusses how in Zion there will be peace. So, if you don’t desire to draw the sword you’ll have to flee to Zion. It’s not that the Saints are great warriors or something, the idea is that anyone whether they are believers or not should come to wherever the Saints are and there they can have safety.
So, a lot of the apocalyptic things I discuss in this book talk about how once these destructions happen, Zion will just be full of refugees. I think it’s an important idea.
HODGES: And another thing was the actual return of Jesus Christ, the Second Coming of Christ. Which you say is central to the Latter-day Saint master narrative. How did Latter-day Saint views differ from other Christians when it came to Jesus returning?
BLYTHE: Some people think that the Second Coming is not essential to Latter-day Saint views of the last days, because it doesn’t come up. This sort of mass appearing, the “Parousia,” where the clouds are rolled up, Jesus is there and everyone can see him.
But Latter-day Saints actually believed there would be a variety of initial appearances that were more important to them than that moment. Jesus was expected to appear at the building of the New Jerusalem. Jesus was expected to appear at the Battle of Armageddon, at the conversion of the Jews. And Jesus was also expected to appear at this very important council, the council of Adam-ondi-Ahman in which the biblical Adam was to appear with Jesus and sort of set up a last-days government.
HODGES: Did it take on a political hue at all for Latter-day Saints? Were there political views intertwined with their views of the apocalypse?
BLYTHE: I think absolutely there were. Latter-day Saints don’t have a stark contrast from where their spiritual beliefs begin and end and where their political sort of efforts are being placed. And so, they hoped to—particularly when they are not functioning as just members of American citizens—they’re hoping to build a society that can function independently. Where all those ideals of justice and so on can be established.
HODGES: So as this master narrative is taking shape, you say that regular members of the church were participating in their own ways in what you call the church’s “apocalyptic project.” What kind of things were regular church members doing to participate in that project?
BLYTHE: Well I think partly it’s the lens that Latter-day Saints had. You would go out on missions, you would gather, all of that is done in a certain imagination. But part of this project was that you would also have visions, you would also have dreams, you would also preach sermons and prophesy about local destructions that might occur. And people literally—they discussed Isaiah, they discussed Revelation, and they didn’t just discuss it for a faraway land, they discussed it for right wherever they happened to be.
HODGES: Did they expect it to happen pretty soon then? The name of the church is “Latter-day Saints,” so—
BLYTHE: I think in the early Later-day Saint tradition the Second Coming, these last days events, were very imminent. So much so that I see church leadership often playing the role instead of sort of—I mean often saying these events are near, but an equally important role of saying, “They’re not that near. Expect it in two generations, don’t expect it tomorrow.”
HODGES: Didn’t someone say, “plant your trees, plant some fruit trees,” or something like that?
BLYTHE: Yes, eventually this is going to be a really important rhetoric we see. Joseph Smith is going to say, “It can’t happen till 1890,” so you know sixty years.
HODGES: But early on, do you think a lot of church members in the early couple of decades were thinking it was right on the horizon?
BLYTHE: I think they are always thinking that. I think there are always—and church leaders are pointing backwards. Joseph Smith is expecting things that happen in the 1830s. And all along, I don’t think Latter-day Saints—I think they think they are living in the apocalypse, right? This is a thing that is occurring all around them.
HODGES: They’re looking for the signs of the times.
BLYTHE: The signs of the times are everywhere. I think about that moment where Joseph Smith wakes up in 1833 with the Leonid meteor shower, just this incredible experience in early America where stars appear to them to be falling from the sky, it’s this amazing meteor shower and Joseph says, “Here it is, this is the fulfillment of the prophecy.” And I think about that as part of this group project in that Joseph saw that, but also there were visionaries that predicted this thing to happen, it wasn’t just Joseph’s experience with it.
HODGES: Did he have to regulate very much? If there were regular members of the church having their own visions and dreams, what kind of regulation happened within the church in terms of who gets to say what revelation is right? My neighbor could say, “Yeah I had this vision that it’s going to be next week.” How might someone like Joseph Smith handle that kind of a thing?
BLYTHE: One of the most memorable and important moments of regulation in early church history is with Hiram Page in 1830. Hiram Page is a seer, he has a seer stone, there are other Latter-day Saints with seer stones. Joseph Smith does not have a problem with the idea that someone might be seer and not be him.
However, Hiram is seeking revelations about where the church should gather and build Zion. And this is the problem. So, Joseph Smith comes out and says Hyrum Page’s revelations are fraudulent; they’re from an evil source. That’s when he creates a theology of who can speak for God in an official capacity for the church.
Some scholars like Richard Bushman would say before this moment Joseph Smith was a prophet in the early tradition, and he became the prophet. Because he would stress that only the prophet could receive revelation for the whole church, and particularly for church agenda. Where should Zion be built is a great example.
Other moments Joseph is really—he just discourages the sharing of prophecy at times. Latter-day Saints expected Native American uprisings as an important part of last days events, but Joseph Smith also knew that when missionaries preached about Native American violence towards Euro-Americans, the result was that people didn’t much care for Mormons.
HODGES: There was fear of American Indian uprisings.
HODGES: Latter-day Saints were seen to be encouraging that?
BLYTHE: Yes, absolutely. And that’s the case. So, Joseph responds and says, “Stop doing it. It’s true, we certainly believe in it, but stop talking about it.” That sort of regulation is the most common for Joseph. Meanwhile, he’ll think that privately individuals can have all sorts of beliefs about the last days. And he’ll just say big comments like, “It’s not going to happen until this point.” And he’ll re-preach that several times, but the idea that there would be sort of initial destructions or great miraculous events, if anyone predicted any of this as a member of the early church, Joseph Smith would have been fine with it most likely. And he was on many occasions.
HODGES: And Joseph was aware of other prophetic claims around the United States, there were visionaries that claimed that they knew when the end would be. William Miller was, I think, one of these. And Joseph Smith kind of criticized those. But as you point out, even Joseph couldn’t fully escape wanting to get some kind of timeline. So, he did have a revelation that pointed to a particular date, but it was ambiguous.
BLYTHE: Yeah, that’s right. 1844—William Miller is expecting something between 1843 and 1844 and Joseph really—when we think about early American apocalypticism, the Millerites become almost a mainstream movement, hundreds of thousands of these believers who come to think there’s going to an apocalyptic timeline, that destructions will happen and then Jesus will appear, then paradise on earth, which was a different timeline than most Americans had, but it become popular at that time. Some early Latter-day Saints such as Joseph Fielding would say he first learned about Second Coming events from the Millerites and then he found the gospel, but he saw these as connected.
Joseph would frequently address the Millerites as he would other early leaders, and that’s what leads him to get this revelation about when the Second Coming could be, is it possible that 1844 is the date? I think ambiguity is really important, so Joseph has this revelation, and initially he’s telling people that maybe 1890 is the “winding up scene.”
HODGES: Doesn’t it say, “Joseph and if thou livest until you are 85—” or something like that?
HODGES: “—that you’ll see the face of Son of Man.”
HODGES: What does that mean exactly?
BLYTHE: So, in early 1835 he’s pronouncing that. Forty-five years, is that the right math? Fifty-five years will be the winding up scene.
HODGES: It would have been his eighty-fifth year of life if the calculation is correct.
BLYTHE: 1890, 1891, and then by the time it gets to 1843 when he writes this other revelation he says, “Well this is the experience I really had.” And the experience said, “I’m going to see God by the time I’m 85,” but what does that really mean? Is he going to be dead? Is it going to be some sort of preliminary Second Coming? There is that ambiguity.
So, when 1890 rolls around the church has to ask that question, what is really at stake here. And of course, most church leaders take that second perspective of Joseph, that we don’t really know.
HODGES: Because Joseph died young, he died in 1844.
We’re talking today with Christopher Blythe, he’s a research scholar here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. We’re talking about the new book Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse.
So, Joseph is killed, he’s assassinated by a mob. In your second chapter you cover martyrdom and apocalypse and you write, “In death, Joseph Smith entered the cosmology that he’d outlined during his life.” How did that look?
BLYTHE: There’s a couple points. Both of them lead me to ideas that Samuel Brown has introduced in his wonderful book In Heaven as It Is on Earth. He makes two points about Joseph.
One is that Joseph is the final martyr in Latter-day Saints ideas. In the book of Revelation there’s the scene where John sees the martyrs who are under the alter in the throne room of God. And these martyrs are praying and lighting incense and they’re in mourning saying, “When are you going to avenge us, our deaths?” And they’re told that they need to be patient, that they need to wait until all the martyrs have come and then God can act.
So early Latter-day Saints read that and really believed that martyrdom was part of their last-days mission, that they would have to die for their faith and that would prepare for these events to occur. And what Samuel Brown notes is that Joseph is that last prophet, people expect with his death that these events will kick off. And where Brown kind of ends with that idea, I try to begin with it and say, “What did they really see,” and how that looked.
HODGES: Because today we’re two hundred years later now and we’re still here.
BLYTHE: Right, and that’s the question, right? If we were to incorporate that into modern Latter-day Saint thought, what would that look like? And I think we do in a sense.
The other side is that Joseph, in Sam’s language, is the “secondary savior.” He plays a role in early ideas of Latter-day Saint cosmology, where he is greeting the dead when they appear. He’s certainly leading—there’s these great quotes that I draw in Terrible Revolution about Joseph Smith leading the destructions. So, Joseph becomes this really active agent there.
At the same time Joseph is trying to help the faithful, and so when you die the person that you expect to see is Joseph Smith who will guide you over to the other side and give you your mission, introduce you to everybody.
HODGES: I think you would be hard-pressed to meet a Latter-day Saint today who believes that. But this is something that was talked about back then, that they kind of expected him to kind of play this millennial role, even with the resurrection?
BLYTHE: Yes. And that’s the very fascinating idea where Joseph doesn’t take over Jesus’s role, but Jesus commissions Joseph to sort of resurrect people in a sort of ordinance.
HODGES: Do you think this is the product of members trying to make sense of Joseph’s death? So many people didn’t expect it, I think it was a shock. And it did shake a lot of people, and they needed to make sense of it. Do you see them trying to do that using these apocalyptic narratives or do you think it’s something else?
BLYTHE: I think that’s absolutely right. Joseph has been killed right when he’s in the middle of doing so many things. He’s maybe going to lead the Saints to a new location, he’s started the Council of Fifty—this political movement within the church, and he’s running for president of the United States. He’s building a temple. I mean this is a shock, people are not expecting this to happen.
In retrospect, people look back and they see statements from Joseph Smith, and these aren’t hard to find, where Joseph actually says, “I don’t feel safe. You’re not going to have me here long.” And they begin to think about what those comments mean. It seems to them from the perspective of July 1844 that Joseph knew all along that those events were going to happen.
HODGES: We also see some violent imagery here. A lot of apocalyptic texts include violence, John’s revelation does, some of Joseph Smith’s revelations do. When it comes to the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith you talked in the book about how some of that violent imagery gets incorporated into how people dealt with the martyrdoms here.
BLYTHE: I think vengeance becomes really important after the death of Joseph and Hyrum and I actually argue that the apocalyptic rhetoric was meant to appease some of that drive for vengeance after Joseph and Hyrum’s murder. While we might be able to point out specific quotes of people who sort of fantasized about taking vengeance on these persecutors, for the most part, church leaders would say, “You have to hold off and don’t worry, God’s going to take care of it.”
HODGES: And it’s not that Latter-day Saint weren’t positioned to do anything, right? There was the Nauvoo Legion, they had a strong tradition of gun ownership and marshal experience. Some of them were direct relatives of people who fought in the Revolutionary War. So, when Joseph is killed you might expect Nauvoo to try to take action here.
BLYTHE: And they’re training in the Nauvoo legion, I mean these guys are real militia men. You know, I think it’s such a fascinating thing that in Carthage Joseph and Hyrum are murdered and the next morning all the people in Carthage fled. It’s a ghost town because they are so worried that the Nauvoo legion is going to come in and they’re going to have to fight a battle. And they know they can’t win that battle.
I mean, the population in Nauvoo is either the first or second largest city in Illinois and this portion of the trained militia of Illinois, the Nauvoo Legion, this the largest segment of the state militia. It’s not a small thing. Even to kill Joseph Smith you had to separate him from his people to do this. So, I think people expected reprisals, as I try to show in the book, they expected this violence from Latter-day Saints to avenge Joseph Smith, for decades. This keeps coming up in in American folklore—
HODGES: Because the trial of his killers goes wrong, right? They try some people and no one is punished at all for the extrajudicial killing of Joseph Smith, and once again you would think that would be a time for Latter-day Saints to take arms and get some of their own vigilante justice, and they don’t. What they do instead is bring in this apocalyptic imagery.
Listeners might be familiar with something I first encountered on my mission, which is a book called Fate of the Persecutors of the Prophet Joseph Smith, this is a very apocalyptic book.
BLYTHE: Yes. This is a key to early Latter-day Saint folklore, these expectations. What’s going to happen to these men that escaped justice? Brigham Young gives a talk that I think is so important, he says “You don’t want to kill these men. Because it’s worse for them to stay alive, they have to deal with this sort of guilt, this just absolute fear of what’s going to happen when they die and have to see Joseph Smith.”
Both Orson Hyde and Brigham Young talk about this moment that Joseph Smith’s bloody ghost, or in Brigham’s terms that “he’s going to find someone else to be the bloody ghost.” [laughs] But a bloody ghost will appear before these persecutors on their deathbeds to face this.
Other people talked about the “Mormon curse,” and certainly Latter-day Saints cursed these individuals through prayer and ceremonially, their persecutors they wanted God to avenge them. They talked about the “Mormon curse,” this idea that people would be—really, it’s a specific physical curse that an individual will happen where they would rot while being alive.
HODGES: Like, “Oh, I was going through Nauvoo on my way to my mission and I saw this old man on the side of the road and I asked him his name and he said, ‘No, don’t talk to me Mormon.’ And his arm rotted off—”
BLYTHE: Yes. This is scary stuff.
HODGES: “—I was in the mob that shot Joseph Smith.” This is what this book is about.
BLYTHE: There’s a worm in their eye when they are still alive. I mean they are walking zombies, it’s very scary material. I try to relate that—we talk about the idea that Latter-day Saints have of Cain. This individual that is often portrayed as still alive just wishing he could die but can’t. Scared to death about the judgment.
HODGES: He’s also Bigfoot by the way—
BLYTHE: He’s also Bigfoot, just wanting to die. That’s the same thing they portray, to have these people that have this emotional anguish and physical torment and this disease.
And then also they can never settle down, they just wander through their lives. Again, you’ll see them on the side of the road, and you’ll see them on the trek west. These people often, they’ve gone out to the west to seek gold, and unlike Latter-day Saints who have found this great home and learned how to work the land, they’re beggars. And they’re usually living on the outskirts of Latter-day Saint communities, and Latter-day Saints bring them food not realizing who they are, just a little. They’re not trying to be vindictive; they’re keeping these guys alive to suffer further. One of the most unsettling parts of the book, I think.
HODGES: Definitely. But like I said, I’d been introduced to that a little bit before by seeing that old book.
BLYTHE: I mean really important, first we had The Martyrs by Lyman Littlefield, which was published and very popular in the early nineteen hundreds. And then you have, in the 1950s, this Fate of the Persecutors of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
HODGES: And it collected of the lore about all these—
HODGES: Because Joseph had shot someone in the jail, and I think that—
BLYTHE: This guy is Townsend, who we don’t hear about any time otherwise but shows up in one of them—
HODGES: And he’s one of these people that—they’re drawing on some of this biblical imaginary. You talk in the book about this idea of “the feast of the birds,” or something. Remind me what it is?
BLYTHE: Yes. It’s called, “the feast of the living God,” is often what it’s called. It’s this moment in Revelation and also in Ezekiel where after the Battle of Armageddon, you imagine the battlefield is just full of dead bodies. Well, how do you envision the earth is going to be cleansed? Well the angels—you hear this voice, this trumpet, and you hear, “beasts and animals come to the feast of the living God.” And they go out and eat the remains of this battle, so then the earth is purified. Also very unsettling.
HODGES: And you don’t hear about it on Sunday in regular meetings! It’s unusual to read about some of these things that don’t really play a part much in average Latter-day Saint religious experience.
BLYTHE: Something has changed about our religion; something has happened in the past hundred years.
HODGES: And we’ll get to that as well. We’re talking with Christopher Blythe today about his book Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse.
You say in chapter three, Chris, that for Latter-day Saints the apocalypse was as much about place as it was about time. You’ve mentioned a little bit already about location, but how did geography play a part in Latter-day Saint apocalypticism?
BLYTHE: I think geography is always this important thing for Latter-day Saints, starting from the Book of Mormon. One of its major purposes is to take a scene that we expect to play out in the Old World with Jewish people, now we’re bringing it forward to the New World with Native peoples here playing a significant role, occurring right in the Americas.
But when I think about the importance of place over time in Latter-day Saint thought, I think of an insight of Grant Underwood, that I still think is just an ingenious understanding. He compares Latter-day Saints to Evangelicals. Evangelicals are expecting the rapture. This is how God can judge the earth while preserving his faithful.
HODGES: The Rapture is the idea that people will get taken up into the sky and then all these destructions will happen to all the evil people left behind.
BLYTHE: Yes. And then they can come back and its heaven on earth. Latter-day Saints have something similar, Grant Underwood says, but it’s about place. So, God is going to pull people from Babylon, Babylon is where those events are going to happen, Babylon is everywhere that Zion is not, right? It’s the world. He’s going to create this place, Zion, where the faithful can be preserved and protected. And that’s why it’s all about place. It’s not so much, is it going to happen tomorrow? It’s, you need to get to this great place.
HODGES: And the place moves. So, Jackson County was supposed to be sort of that center place, but then the church itself is displaced from there, but even when they were out in the Utah territory, they still were thinking about that place being the locus. Perhaps even a return there was part of Latter-day Saint apocalypticism.
BLYTHE: Yes. I think that’s key. So initially we’re having to change places every time Latter-day Saints migrate, and how that’s going to relate to the apocalypse. Jackson County is the city of Zion, then we move to Nauvoo, Illinois and Jackson County in a sense has been—it’s less discussed. But people still talk about the possibility of going back there eventually as the fulfillment of prophecy.
But it’s when Joseph dies in and the Saints scatter. The vast majority of the Saints end up in Iowa and then off to Utah. But there’s also other factions that end up in different locations. In all of these factions, people are pointing out the importance of going back to Jackson County. Some people actually won’t travel across the Rocky Mountains because they believe they have to get back to Jackson County and that will be a waste. “It must be within our lifetime, why would we go out there?” It’s pretty fascinating.
At one point, Brigham Young even says he expects we’ll be back there. He says in 1853, he says he thinks we’re going to be there within seven years. So, I mean there’s certainly that urge to get back.
So, what are these other spots, these temporary gathering places? They are still places where God will protect individuals for the short term, right? You see how prophecy morphs. So when we’re in Utah, it’s really focused on the Rocky Mountains. When we start moving south into Arizona and then we have colonies in Mexico, for these groups of people, people begin to talk about the importance of Mexico and the fulfillment of prophecy. When people migrate north to Canada all of the sudden you see lore of other legends in Canada.
HODGES: And part of this, too, is a revelation Joseph Smith recorded in 1832 that speaks of “one mighty and strong.” This idea of a strong prophetic figure. How did this come into play in Latter-day Saint views of the end times?
BLYTHE: Gradually, the idea of a Messianic figure, both as “one mighty and strong” and another figure Joseph talks about, “a man like Moses” who will lead people back to Jackson County, become what people are waiting for. They’re waiting for some sort of Messianic figure whether that be Brigham Young or someone else that will take charge of the church and vanquish our enemies, in a sense, and lead the Saints back to Missouri. This is a major theme in last days prophecy.
One of my favorite sources, I just mentioned it in terms of the seven-year prophecy about returning to Jackson County, but W. W. Phelps—a fascinating early Latter-day Saint—begins to preach that Brigham Young is this man, that he’s going to play this important role.
HODGES: And Phelps was an associate of Joseph Smith, right?
HODGES: He wrote “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” a well-known hymn.
BLYTHE: “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” and he helped with the book of Abraham.
HODGES: Was he an apostle at the time?
BLYTHE: No, he’s not an apostle, he’s more like an eccentric intellectual that the apostles are always drawing on. And he thinks Brigham is the guy. But then Brigham asks him, “What gives you the right to say this?” And Phelps says, “Of course, you’re the leader now, so wouldn’t you be the guy?” And Brigham says, “Well why can’t I die, and the next guy do it?”
HODGES: So, he’s just undecided, like, “I don’t know.”
BLYTHE: Brigham is really all about being—he says a few times that he’s “the great man that the scriptures mention nothing about.” He does not want people speculating on his identity. And he’s worried if people knew—and this is when he says, “I personally think, this isn’t church doctrine, this isn’t something I want to preach over the pulpit, I think we’re going to be back in Jackson County in seven years. We’re not even going to be able to finish this temple. We’re going to finish that temple first. But the important thing is that we keep that private, because if we start speculating about this stuff, the Saints don’t want to worry about building a temple here, they want to get back to Jackson County. They want to do all sorts of other things, but we need them to build a society.”
So, it’s really fascinating to see that come about. But we become kind of haunted by the idea of a messianic figure in our tradition.
HODGES: And this will lead to some splinter groups too, later on. Latter-day Saint Fundamentalism would sort of point to that verse to justify their splinter groups.
BLYTHE: Almost all schisms. Even when Joseph Smith III and the RLDS church people begin to talk about—calling him the one mighty and strong, and he’ll come out and say, “I’m not that guy.” They wonder if he is a figure called “Baneemy” that shows up in another prophecy, sort of last-days general figure. All sorts of different figures get associated with each of these different leaders. And yeah, it’s messianism. So eventually that church is going to think, “We need to crack down on this sort of messianic speculation.”
HODGES: And with all that going on the church had a very antagonistic relationship with the United States as you recount in chapter four. Latter-day Saint views of the apocalypse mapped on to the Civil War in particular ways. How did they generally see the Civil War in terms of the end times, did they think that was it?
BLYTHE: Yeah, so in 1832 Joseph Smith had this prophecy of division in the United States and he comes back to it, the same experience in the 1840s to discuss it, something he expects. But the Saints throughout that period, even though we have that 1832 document, the Saints have decided not to publish it. It doesn’t appear in the Doctrine & Covenants even as late as 1844, the last publication.
But then once we get established in Utah, 1852, the same year that polygamy’s announced, this time we announce this prophecy of the Civil War and our missionaries begin to focus on it as a major message.
It does two things, right? This definitely talks about the collapse of the American government and it also gives that last warning, “No you really—the gathering is for a purpose—you need to get across the Rocky Mountains for a reason because things aren’t safe.”
HODGES: And the Civil War ends but the world doesn’t end, so Latter-day Saints kind of need to account for that a little bit. And you see during this period, in the Utah territory, the rise of a new kind of Mormon apocalyptic thought and some new first-person accounts of visions, mostly from regular members of the church.
BLYTHE: There’s so many interesting ones. In the 1850s there’s one by a man named Steven Martindale Farnsworth, who talks about a vision he had in the 1840s in which he sees both the so-called Mormon Reformation, this tough period in the 50s where the Saints are trying to purify themselves and church leadership is being really strict. And also he sees the coming of American soldiers to Utah. This becomes very important. It’s still one of the most popular, well-circulated of what I call folk-visions or vernacular apocalypse. It’s even preached over the pulpit once. But like any of these, you can find dozens of circulated copies that are just slightly different from each other.
Other great examples are sometimes attributed to church leaders. There’s an 1877 one often attributed to John Taylor, but initially was anonymous and just credited to “a Seventy,” so very unlikely to be any church leader.
HODGES: And a Seventy back then was even different then—it was sort of like a high priest quorum type?
BLYTHE: He’s an elder that’s been a missionary, and hasn’t been, most likely, called to be a stake president or church leader like that.
HODGES: If I remember correctly, they talk about, “Oh these cities are going to have these calamites and Salt Lake City is going to have blood coming down the streets” and stuff like this.
BLYTHE: Yes, 1877 is where he, the visionary, is brought to a variety of different cities. And in Salt Lake he kind of sees a quarantined city. There’s a disease that has happened, the righteous have been quarantined.
HODGES: It was really creepy to read it right now, the empty streets and stuff. Because I just have been experiencing that.
BLYTHE: Right, isn’t that fascinating? I’ve seen a few people post that online, “It’s happening now, 1877 visions are being fulfilled.”
HODGES: So, they have pointed to that one?
BLYTHE: Yes. And this is everywhere. This 1877 vision is everywhere, and it’s still quoted today. Credited to Wilford Woodruff, who thought it was interesting, so he recorded it in his journal.
HODGES: So, he recorded it, right?
BLYTHE: Yes, he puts it in his journal.
HODGES: According to the best info you have, who do you think wrote it? You just think it was some anonymous Seventy?
BLYTHE: I do think it is an anonymous Seventy. There are some people who think it’s a certain astrologer—I don’t. I think we just don’t know who it is, and I think this astrologer just has a great copy. His name is Steel, Jonathon Steel, I think. I think more likely it’s just an anonymous figure and because people began to credit it to different church leaders it just spread everywhere.
Ultimately this one would initially gain popularity as being Joseph F. Smith’s vision. Joseph F. Smith would have to preach against it in the 1880s and again in 1918 in his last general conference he would come out and say, “I didn’t write this thing.” Then it would be credited to Wilford Woodruff and right now is most often credited to John Taylor. Pretty fascinating
HODGES: How did the church leaders react to these?
BLYTHE: When they get credited to them there’s an issue, right? But for the most part when people are prophesying an attack by the American military on Utah, I mean we see this in 1857. They’re expecting it. Most of these prophecies are completely mainstream, they’re published in church newspapers sometimes preached over general conference pulpits. It really is a group project, people aren’t nervous about an individual who would prophecy, an individual who would talk about their dreams or visions, so long as it doesn’t set them up as a celebrity. So long as it doesn’t specifically tell the church what the church should do. And so long as it doesn’t predict anything too out of the ordinary.
HODGES: And you can make those distinctions, as people will find if they read your book, because you also talk about some splinter movements that did those things in their prophecies and as a result separated from the church. People can check that out in the book Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse.
Your next chapter talks about some pretty big changes for the church. So, at the turn of the century the church is going from a relationship of deep mistrust with the United States to becoming more of an acceptable part—that Utah is granted statehood, Latter-day Saints are moving more to the mainstream of American culture.
Looking at that history, what happened to Mormon apocalypticism? Because previously it was sort of this antagonistic relationship that the church had with America and the apocalyptic stories played out in that sphere. So, the church became more acceptable within America, what happens to those stories of apocalypse?
BLYTHE: This is so fascinating. Right during that period those prophecies begin to be read with America as the hero, when previously America was the enemy and the church was the hero preserving things. Gradually we began to think about the United States again as that central heroic figure. Scholars will sometimes call it the Redeemer Nation. We imagine that sort of Redeemer Nation and we are a part of it.
And of course, we still imagine we have a very essential role in it, there’s always been a vein of political messianism where Latter-day Saints are going to preserve the Constitution. Sometimes perhaps they’ll serve as politicians, Joseph was running for presidency and so—
HODGES: The Constitution will hang by a thread.
BLYTHE: Once the Manifesto ending polygamy is signed and statehood happens, George Q. Cannon for example says, ”Ah, this is how prophecy will be fulfilled. I wondered how we could preserve the Constitution out here. Well now we can preserve it within the nation.”
HODGES: By being part of it.
BLYTHE: By being part of it. You know we see James Talmage in World War I saying, “America cannot be beat because America is Zion.” And these prophecies are just really interesting.
HODGES: That’s a big change.
BLYTHE: It’s a huge change. And part of that is because initially Latter-day Saints understand apocalypticism as really steeped in pacifism. We’re not going to fight the battles directly except defensively. We’re certainly not going to fight foreign wars. And then as we have statehood and people begin to put America in these special scenes, we have an internal kind of fight among church leaders.
And you can see it happening in sermons and public discourse of how prophecy will happen and how Latter-day Saints will participate at events. Is it right for us to fight in World War I? Is it right for us to fight in the Spanish-American War and so on? Until we get into the deeper portion of World War I and World War II, where it’s then assumed that we’ve all reoriented ourselves with that prophecy.
Now gradually I think we’re out of that. This is a moment of time where the political entity of the United States fulfilled prophecy, and I think today we might actually be kind of closer to that nineteenth-century image of a Zion being built that’s thus based in the nation-state.
HODGES: Perhaps due to rising skepticism about political parties or governments, a rise of libertarianism perhaps would feed into, back into these more apocalyptic dualist views where Zion is not co-equal with the United States government, so on and so forth. You see a rise of that happening and you talk about that in the book.
There’s also at this time some people in the church who start to get really cynical and actually start accusing church leaders of what they call “unconditional surrender” of Mormonism. They see the church changing its narrative about end times and they accuse the church of selling out. What’s happening there?
BLYTHE: Yeah, I think, that’s right.
HODGES: People are like “church-lier than thou,” basically. [laughter]
BLYTHE: Right. I think Americanization was a really—it’s changing our identity, people had rooted themselves in an idea that the United States were our persecutors, that we were a sort of city on a hill. And that change or that re-orientation, that reimagination of how these prophecies should happen was really disorienting for people. So, we see the rise of sort of fundamentalist movements that preserve these older ideas of prophecy.
HODGES: The church had also changed on polygamy and things.
BLYTHE: Polygamy, exactly. We also see that there’s just a lot of these prophecies and rhetoric that goes underground. That people just preserve them in their households and amongst their friends and don’t really know what to make of what’s happening publicly, in the church’s face.
HODGES: Is the church taking action to tamp it down at this time? Because previously, as you said, they are pretty laisse-faire, they would let people have their visions and talk about them as long as they didn’t directly challenge the church. Does that change?
BLYTHE: Absolutely, when we talk about this movement of transition, we often just talk about things like the Manifesto and Statehood as if the church leaders could just do something and then the people, like automatons, just switch. And that’s not how it worked of course.
So, there’s a series of public statements warning individuals, “Don’t trust that neighborhood visionary.” Meanwhile, twenty years ago it would have been no issue, but “don’t trust that neighborhood visionary. Not only because we’ve had some scam artists in the church or that sort of thing but remember that God gives revelation to the induvial and you should look to church leaders. And if you have a special experience you should share it with your family or you should keep it to yourself, write it in your journal.”
And they also picked apart certain major prophecies. In particular one called the “White Horse Prophecy.” Nowadays it’s very common to say the White Horse Prophecy was not a historical event, meaning it wasn’t the prophecy it claimed to be. An 1843 prophecy and vision from Joseph Smith which talks about the Constitution hanging by a thread, but it also talks about, really, about race wars in the United States. Where there would be slave uprisings, Native American sort of invasions on locales. Where the United States, the Gentiles, will attack the “white horse”, in this vision, which is the Saints. And the Saints, the “white horse”, and the “red horse”, the Native Americans will work together to preserve the Constitution and build this New Jerusalem.
The prophecy really didn’t originate in one event in 1843, and that might be important, it’s really a composite of all of the visionary stuff that’s being discussed in this period. So, the White Horse Prophecy, you could say, “Oh that’s nonsense,” but every one of those ideas appears elsewhere, all put together in one place. So when the church begins to speak out about it, particularly in this American context, “Don’t trust this idea,” it’s a message to the ordinary Latter-day Saint to reorient their minds to say, “Hey America isn’t the bad guy anymore, so get it together.” And of course, the White Horse Prophecy was still popular until the 1950s and has a small presences nowadays in various places.
HODGES: The question that pops up is that the White Horse Prophecy as we have it was sort of cobbled together in a later recollection, decades after the death of Joseph Smith.
HODGES: Are you saying in the original records people can go back and see Joseph Smith saying similar things?
BLYTHE: Absolutely. The expectation—if you took the Civil War prophecy, section 87 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and you pulled out the expectation of slaves rising against their masters. And the remnant—what Jared Hickman refers to as, “Amerindian Apocalyptic ideas.” All of those are present in section 87 of the Doctrine & Covenants, as they are in the Book of Mormon, and now they are retold, as well as this conversation between the Gentiles and the believing Gentiles in the Book of Mormon, all that is retold in the White Horse Prophecy. And so, when church leaders speak out against that, they’re really speaking out against that entire mindset of apocalyptic that was so popular prior to Utah statehood.
HODGES: And it’s interesting that none of that really ended up canonized. I mean we have the prophecy about the Civil War that war would eventually be poured out upon all nations as a result of that. But these other elements that get put together into what people today see as the White Horse Prophecy, didn’t end up canonized, didn’t end up part of the mainstream church’s narrative.
BLYTHE: I think they become definitely vaguer; I think there are folk elements. That sort of political messianism, that’s certainly not in the Doctrine and Covenants in the same way. The extent of how America will collapse isn’t spelled out in the same way, so yeah, it’s true.
HODGES: In your last chapter you say apocalypticism in the early church was sort of separatist, “come out of the world, flee to Babylon”—you say that it’s gradually been replaced over time by a moderate millennialism. And you detected a shift where church members went from almost happily anticipating the end of the world to maybe even fearing it and dreading it a little bit more.
BLYTHE: Moderate millennialism was an argument from Underwood. Where Grant Underwood argued that Latter-day Saint views of the apocalypse were actually really moderate. They weren’t radical ideas, particularly if you compare them to the Millerites and others. And I think they absolutely were. Throughout the 1800s Latter-day Saint separatist ideas were certainly radical; I mean they were revolutionary. They fueled our conflict with the government.
But once this changes, the church wants to moderate these ideas and modify them, and some of these ideas are, “Stop thinking the Second Coming is so imminent.” But the biggest change, which is what you point out there, is that we came to more fear. Fear of the Second Coming and these events doesn’t make sense from a nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint perspective because you come to the west, you’re protected here, everything’s going to be okay.
HODGES: And then Jesus comes back.
BLYTHE: And then Jesus comes back. This is all good stuff. You can worry about other people, they can go do missions and then get them back, they can motivate you. The idea that you would be afraid doesn’t make sense. Now, it changes because we no longer have a notion of the gathering like that. Latter-day Saints are all over the world, and when previously you were leaving that infrastructure of “Babylon,” and now people are part of it. And so I think there’s a little cognitive dissonance in how to read these apocalyptic visions in the modern world, which means Latter-day Saint leaders, particularly in the past twenty years, have focused really hard on trying to encourage people not to be afraid of the Second Coming.
Certainly, through the Cold War there were moments when the Second Coming rises up as a sort of potentially scary event, you know, but for the most part you see people making this shift. There are even professors at BYU’s campus who have publicly repented of having previously taught the apocalypse in a sort of scary light and now have that same message, “Don’t be afraid, this is all about good things.” But of course, how did you read that for that period, before that happened—it was an actually tough thing for Latter-day Saints to do, I think.
HODGES: And that happened over the course of decades—we’re looking at the seventies, eighties, nineties, and now we’re twenty years past the year 2000 and you say that there’s kind of a spectrum of last days zeal among church members today, how would you characterize that?
BLYTHE: Absolutely. I think the average Latter-day Saint has—I shouldn’t say average Latter-day Saint, I don’t have access to that. What I think is that the public discourse in the church is that we live in the last dispensation, and that we can expect these wonderful and trying experiences to occur within a general time period of the next several generations.
We’ve seen—Boyd K. Packer famously says, “Your grandchildren will have the opportunity to grow up and have grandchildren.” Or so on, there will be time. We have this sort of moderate idea that just understands “the last days,” and the last days means that we need to get on with the work. Preach the gospel, build Zion where you are, and so on.
BLYTHE: Temples, yeah. Be a good Latter-day Saint and a good citizen wherever you are in the world. Very different from what people are thinking in the nineteenth century.
You do have a sort of radical idea, which is preserved in fundamentalism, where the American government is still evil and where one should withdraw from society. So, where we are sitting right now in Provo there’s probably within an hour either way, there’s several communes where people have started United Orders, small groups for sure, that have preserved that sort of end times prophecy. Not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but members of other Latter-day Saint factions or Latter-day Saint denominations.
And then there’s where I see most of the interesting material happening among Latter-day Saints, which is, we’ve learned to keep certain ideas about apocalyptic specifics to ourselves.
So, Latter-day Saints still have visions, still have dreams about last days events, or say they do. And that there are different settings where these are discussed. They might occur, they might be shared in family gatherings, they might be shared at—“I heard these things,”—missionary companions talking in the middle of the night or on a long drive, you hear sort of vestiges of these ideas. Apocalyptic speculation. Although these missionaries know they would never share that with an investigator or talk about it over the pulpit, they could sort of, “I heard this—this person here heard this—my grandfather had this vision here.” Some of these ideas are preserved that way.
And then we’ve also found digital communities. We can see individuals so long as they don’t develop a sort of celebrity or become anti-church in their perspectives, as long as the church doesn’t become the bad guy, they are usually tolerated in modern Latter-day Saint life. So, you can see major digital communities, such as “LDS Avow” (Another Voice of Warning) which has ten thousand members where people discuss some of these ideas about the apocalypse in a more radical way than we would see from general authorities.
HODGES: And we see some of the most fringe, I think of the Daybell case, where they—I believe—for people who haven’t followed this, it’s a man called Chad Daybell who wrote fictional books and wrote some things about the last days, kind of built up a following. His wife mysteriously died, he ended up marrying one of his followers within weeks of that, and her children disappeared and now they’re both under arrest, they’re both accused of the murder there.
BLYTHE: And they’ve found the remains of the children.
HODGES: And he had an end times prophecy too, didn’t he?
BLYTHE: I’ve talked about the problem in early Latter-day Saint tradition, there’s sort of the idea that you’re not supposed to build up a celebrity as a visionary. The idea that one might have a vision or might have a dream, and they would share it with others, early on, even widely, wasn’t problematic. But as people built celebrity, there usually became a point where either they gave up their vision, they stopped talking about it or fracture occurred, other movements were started and so on. But Chad Daybell is one of an example of a line of celebrity visionaries since about 1990.
Near-death experiences were well known before this point for a couple decades. People talked about near-death experiences, but we hadn’t had book length narratives about them until Betty Edie published hers, Embraced by the Light. Not everyone knows this, but Betty Edie was a Latter-day Saint.
HODGES: She didn’t present herself as such in the book?
BLYTHE: She did initially when her book was published in Utah, where she talks about seeing the spirit world, she has all sorts of Latter-day Saint things in her book. And then she gets a better book deal to tell her near death experience and she removes those Latter-day Saint parts. So, you don’t talk about work for the dead, or any of that anymore. Then that’s published nationally.
So, the first great success was a Latter-day Saint near death experience visionary. Well that book-length, near death experience narrative gets picked up by others. So we begin to see—and really every three years you can point to a major one where a Latter-day Saint visionary has told a large, book-length experience of a near death experience which usually integrates a lot of these ideas about the last days. So, Betty Edie, then we have a woman named Gale Smith in the 1990s who became very popular over the radio in Utah area. We then we have Sara Meaney, several others—
HODGES: John Pontius —
BLYTHE: John Pontius, who writes The Narrative of Spencer, sold hundreds of thousands of his narrative, including in some major bookstores. And then after Spencer becomes important, Spencer does something interesting, Spencer is anonymous. Which is, people begin to trust him more because he’s not a celebrity, doesn’t seem like he’s trying to attract—
HODGES: Was he real? Or did John make him up?
BLYTHE: I’ve met Spencer, so he’s real, he really is anonymous. His bishop—
HODGES: Is he in the church?
BLYTHE: He’s in the church.
HODGES: Because John Pontius was, he not ex-communicated?
BLYTHE: I don’t know John’s story. Spencer’s different, Spencer’s not ex-communicated, he’s fully active and you wouldn’t think anything unusual about him at church. Because he really hasn’t collected that sort of celebrity.
And then Julie Rowe shows up, and Julie Rowe is—I try to contrast her in the book. Some people think Julie Rowe has not been as successful as Spencer because she is a woman, and that might play into it. But I really think it’s this difference about appearances. One at least appears to not want celebrity, and Julie Rowe shows up and she writes four books. Now more.
HODGES: Has a YouTube channel.
BLYTHE: Has a YouTube channel, she appears in all sorts of radio shows doing interviews, and this doesn’t sit well with Latter-day Saints who expect that sort of public outreach to be done by general authorities. But she becomes very popular for a time.
HODGES: That negotiation between church authority and lay members, sort of directing the narrative of end times, it’s an ongoing dynamic.
BLYTHE: Yeah. So Julie eventually runs into that problem, and well initially the church in 2015, there were reminders that this was just her personal thing, seminary teachers please don’t quote this in class, stop handing out photo copies of her vision—that sort of thing. Julie loses the clout that she has with many members after she predicts an event an imminent earthquake in Salt Lake City that doesn’t happen.
HODGES: She’s just a little late then! [laughter]
BLYTHE: Yeah, it eventually happens.
HODGES: There will always eventually be an earthquake.
BLYTHE: Right, and she says this is not the one she was waiting for, so she didn’t take that opportunity. But Julie lost a lot of clout there. And that’s when Chad Daybell made his announcement that he was a visionary. Before, I wasn’t really interested in Chad Daybell because I kind of left out the fictional accounts of the last days in my research—
HODGES: And he had written some fiction.
BLYTHE: Yeah, he’s kind of a Left Behind author. Like a Timothy LaHaye for Latter-day Saints who are interested in that narrative.
HODGES: This is all while you are working on your apocalyptic book.
BLYTHE: Yeah, he announces it right when I’m finishing my final draft, so I think it’s kind of interesting that he claims to be a visionary. And I’ve thought about that interaction between fictional accounts and apocalyptic narrative, because you see, actually some of the famous apocalyptic visions that Latter-day Saints still circulate such as “Angel of the Prairies,” by Parley P. Pratt is actually a fictional account, right? It’s not meant to be a true vision; however, it tells a true expectation of the last days scenario.
So, Chad Daybell shows up at this time, and because Julie is on the way out, he’s able to show up and be the “end times” guy. So, he builds up clout, his public voice is just like everyone else, the basic last days scenario from them is that God is going to “call out,” the term he uses is “the callout.” He’s eventually going to tell the prophet, the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to tell the faithful to leave their homes, to grab tents and food storage and head up into the canyons and there they can be protected. That’s Chad’s major message, it’s not very different than anyone else’s. You have lots of little—all these individuals will point to different geo-political events and things, but that message is pretty basic.
And then Chad privately begins to teach other ideas, which he never publicizes. And some of these are about an emphasis on demonology and possession, eventually what he’s thinking of as zombies.
HODGES: That seems really unusual, I’m not seeing him drawing on Latter-day Saint stuff to kind of put some of that stuff together.
BLYTHE: I think that’s important. He has that Latter-day Saint basis in his ideas, but the idea that someone could become possessed and then be stuck that way, like your identity is completely gone and someone else has been sort of a body snatcher for you, isn’t in the Latter-day Saint vein at all. But apparently is an idea that led to the death of two children and perhaps others, really scary.
I was very disappointed in the Latter-day Saint prepper community, because the first reaction was to sort of close ranks and assume his innocence. I mean I get that, because they’ve embraced him as sort of an important voice and it wasn’t until the children’s bodies were found that that community quickly changed and said “We were wrong and we’re sorry.”
HODGES: You would say most of those people kind of see the writing on the wall?
BLYTHE: Absolutely. Once this happened, everyone shifted gears, but before that happened, it was all one great big conspiracy theory. They were being persecuted and the kids were somewhere safe just like they claimed. I think it’s really embarrassing to that community and really painful. I don’t think—I’m interested in this Latter-day Saint prepper community where these prophecies are important, where individuals also believe that they are mainstream Latter-day Saints. I think it’s so interesting.
It’s so different from the experience of Latter-day Saint culture that we see in public or at church. It’s a minority expression of the faith but I don’t think these are individuals that are unsafe, maybe eccentric, but I don’t think these people are mentally unbalanced or something like that. I think for the most part they’re trying to prepare for bad things they expect to come, and they are often more conspiratorially minded and that might lead to some of this susceptibility of people taking advantage of them such as Chad Daybell.
HODGES: That takes us to the last question I have. What use is this history to contemporary church members, people who are trying to think about views of the end times? What does history do for us when we’re thinking about the apocalypse?
BLYTHE: I think there are a lot of different takeaways I hope people have for this. I think one of the things we need to remember is that there is a core of Latter-day Saint experience particularly with the supernatural, which I hope my book shows, is still enduring. When someone might say, look the Latter-day Saint culture really just changed completely in 1900, well that’s not true. It has learned how to navigate the modern world by keeping some things private at a folk level. When it comes to last days prophecy, I hope people focus on the optimistic side of it.
There’s a message that early Latter-day Saints have that they’re trying to build a better world through community, through preparation, but also for better people. They’re building this better world not just for Latter-day Saints, they want to be a sort of Saviors on Mount Zion. They want to be a people that has their act together so they can embrace others, whether in their faith or not, that need them. I think that’s a beautiful image of the last days that they have there.
I think there’s some caution in there, that we see all around, these reminders all the way through the book, to be moderate in our beliefs. To understand that sometimes we’ve localized or interpreted our beliefs in a very specific context. And as we look for fulfillments of prophecy, I’m speaking to a very Latter-day Saint audience as I say this, the takeaway from that is, as we expect to see these fulfillment of these prophecies we don’t really have all the facts, so we need to have a very open, broad mind, on how things can be fulfilled, even as we have a testimony of the importance of preparing the world for Christ’s Second Coming.
HODGES: That’s Christopher Blythe, we’re talking about his book Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse from Oxford University Press. Chris thanks for talking to us today here on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
BLYTHE: So much fun, thanks Blair.
HODGES: You know, we’ve received some great reviews over the past few weeks. Here’s one from “Mom and dad have iPhones.” It says “the show opened my eyes to see how people from so many different disciplines can apply their knowledge to deepen their understanding of gospel principles.”
Another one here from Kbrady88, it says “I was recently introduced to this podcast by a friend and I love it.” See? Your recommendations make a difference, people! Tell your friends about the show. Finally, WORKHARDing says they found this show after finishing the SAINTS podcast. They say, “I love that I have years of past episodes to listen to and learn! The host gives us a ‘cliff notes’ version of the book with authors’ commentary. He’s does a great job of staying out of the way, but also helping us learn.”
Alright, well, that’s the goal, to stay out of the way and help you learn. So to the rest of you, get in there and leave a review.
I also heard from two more completists this month—people who’ve listened to the entire back catalog of the show—so congratulations and welcome to the completist club, Charity Molnar and Megan Armknecht. If other listeners would like a chance to have me probably mispronounce their name on the show they just need to email me, email@example.com, to let me know they’ve listened to the entire run of episodes and we’ll get a little reward sent your way soon, we’re still figuring out what that is.
See you next time on the Maxwell Institute Podcast!
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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