Millennialist Groups "Gearing Up" For End of The 20th Century

By Mara McGinnis

Release Date: October 30, 1998 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- As the 20th century comes to an end, a University at Buffalo anthropologist anticipates there will be increased activity among millennialist groups and a degree of hysteria as members of such cults prepare for the new millennium.

"The concept of the millennium as an end to the existing life and the rebirth of a better one has formed the basis for religious groups throughout history and throughout the world," notes Phillips Stevens, Jr., a UB associate professor of anthropology who has spent more than 25 years studying religion, cults and cultural change.

Millennialist groups, he suspects, are "quietly gearing up" for the Year 2000. He notes the recent and sudden disappearance from Colorado of the "Concerned Christians" group, whose members are believed to be bound for their defined "Holy Land," as an example of such a group.

Stevens explains that many Christians believe seriously that the Year 2000 will "mark the return of Jesus, the appearance of the Antichrist or a battle of Armageddon and have been seeing signs forewarning them of such events for the past 15 years.

"Some interpret recent floods, earthquakes and even el Niño as modern interpretations of the signs in the Book of Revelation and warnings of the coming end."

He adds that candidates for the Antichrist, which historically have included leaders such as Nero, Muhammad, Saladin, Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein, also may be sought by millennialists in the next 14 months.

Many Christians anticipate salvation or damnation in 1,000-year cycles, but, according to Stevens, thousands of cults characterized as millennialist groups have risen and fallen throughout history and may or may not correlate with the millennium change.

"These movements do coincide with periods of real or imagined social and economic stress, however," says Stevens. He cites the examples of the many 19th century religious movements in New York State and the peaceful "Ghost Dance' movement practiced by Native American tribes in the late 1800s to save themselves from the oppression of whites.

Stevens also notes that as the year 1000 A.D. approached, considerable unrest occurred in Europe, and when millennialist expectations were not met, many publicly criticized the church. Monumental historical events, such as the Christian Crusades and the several inquisitions, followed in an attempt to prepare for Jesus' return by eliminating heretics and infidels.

Stevens emphasizes that cults are not always violent and destructive, noting secular cults organized around popular figures such as Elvis Presley or Princess Diana. But, he says, due to a change in the word's popular meaning over the past few decades, cults are generally misunderstood by people today.

"Cults are absolutely universal and integral to society," says Stevens. "These groups are real, immediate and critical to our past, present and future. Many of the great religions of the world began with groups that could be labeled as 'cults,' as the word is used today."

He explains that in the 1930s, "cults" referred to religious groups with radically different beliefs and methods of practice compared to mainstream religious beliefs of that time.

"By the end of the 1970s, the word 'cult' had developed a sinister and even Satanic connotation due to the rise of groups which were often led by a single powerful, megalomaniac who used questionable recruitment tactics which were believed to include 'brainwashing,'" says Stevens.

He cites such groups as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and Jim Jones' People's Temple as precursors to the fears of imaginary Satanic cults that spread through the entire world from the 1980s through the mid-1990s.

He adds that the recent surfacing of violent cults that have tried to hasten the millennium through destructive means, such as the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan and Heaven's Gate in the United States, have reinforced society's association of cults with sinister and evil.

There are several traits that are common among destructive cults, including a single male dominating leader who controls the members physically, sexually and emotionally, says Stevens.

"The friendly members and an often charismatic leader also may satisfy basic fundamental social needs for some people," he notes, adding that such groups also attract people by offering some degree of interest and excitement to those who may simply be bored with their current lifestyle.

He explains that destructive millennialist groups are able to recruit members because, in general, they appeal to oppressed and victimized people with low self-esteem by taking advantage of their vulnerability with a promise of paradise or a better existence.