Eugen Weber
Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages

"Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols." Thomas Mann The Magic Mountain

"The end of the World does not affect me; I can live without it." Ralph Waldo Emerson (as quoted on page 178)

"In 1095, Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade, an armed pilgrimage really, designed to help Christianity 'flourish again in these last times, so that when Antichrist begins his reign there--as he shortly must--he will find enough Christians to fight.'" -- p. 51

"By defining human suffering in cosmic terms, as part of a cosmic order that contains an issue, catastrophe is dignified, endowed with meaning, and hence made bearable." -- p. 235

Being on the verge of the year 2000, I figured I better squeeze out a reading of this book before it is too late. ;) Upon reading the contents, though, I now realize that it doesn't matter what year it is, apocalyptic fever is always in the air.

Several years ago, when I was still a believer that these were the "latter days", a CPA friend and I were discussing what kind of mortgages we were going to acquire for our first homes (which we both were in the process of purchasing). He told me that to get a 15 year mortgage was silly since the Second Coming was going to be here long before a 30 year mortgage would be paid off. (i.e. Get the longest mortgage term you can and the Lord will, in effect, be taking care of the final years.) I was stunned. Sure I believed Jesus was coming back at any moment, but I sure as hell didn't bank my finances on it! (Except that I paid in 10% of my gross income to the church to avoid being burned.) If I had known then what I know now after reading this book, I'd have given Apocalypses to him as a gift and at least have tried to save him tens of thousands of dollars over the life of his 30 year mortgage. But back to the review...

Weber begins by going over similar information found in Questioning the Millennium. Time and calendars are rather arbitrary. To think that because a human created device for measurement somehow causes events (like bad luck on a Friday the 13th or an apocalypse when a century* or millennium rolls over) is superstition at best. Although certain dates peak the interest of those ignorant of how the dates were created, the calendar is by no means the sole judge of when apocalyptic frenzies will be peaked. The 'signs of the times' are always with us. As Weber states on page 33

All ages are marked by perils, lawlessness, social disorders and upheavals, breakdown of morality and family, turbulence and troubles that can serve as signs and stimulate expectations. They are portents; and there are always portents, always apocalyptic apprehensions, always fears and hopes to suggest millennial themes. Joining pessimism and optimism together, the millenarian message is infinitely adaptable to the circumstances of every age.
The remainder of the book chronicles the thousands of years in which these ever-existent 'signs' cause predictions and preparations for an end which has failed to materialize over the millennia. Apocalyptic "visionaries" have existed in every generation for thousands of years.
Adversity is good for faith, and adversity is ever present. Ages of decadence always suggest an end; few ages have not struck contemporaries by their decadence, and recent centuries' switchback ride from hope to fear was no exception. Eustache Deschamps in the fourteenth century, wailing about the decadence of present times, every year worse than the last, echoed Ezra, the second-century scribe, and anteceded the numerous company of self-styled decadents and denouncers of decadence associated with the nineteenth-century and its tag end. -- p. 236
Some long for an imaginary past while they bemoan the "wickedness" and (generally useful) new ways of thinking. They cite such "evil" as evidence that these are the "last days". The more progress a society makes, the more you can expect doomsday prophets to raise their heads.

Weber demonstrates how the minds of many haven't changed all that much since the Medieval Era.

The imaginary rift between medieval and modern times was linked by many bridges; and one of the processions that marched freely from one side to the other was made up of enthusiastic believers in the imminent end of the world. -- p. 61
An earthquake, disease, comet, or other natural calamity or 'sign' has signaled the 'end' every few years--if not every year. The incredible part is that this has been happening for thousands of years, and believers haven't wised up to history enough to get past the perennial 'end of times' superstition.
The classic signs of imminent judgment are there at all times, Augustine told one of his correspondents [1600 years ago]; hence, they are hardly worth eschatological notice. -- p. 226
The contents of Apocalypses, taken in total, make it hard to comprehend that one
(myself included!) could have ever believed in eschatology. At the same time, acknowledging and understanding the beliefs are of vital importance. The concluding chapter includes the insight on page 239 that
If scores of eschatologists have proved mistaken, the answer is not that one of them will prove right one day, but that too many of them have proved too influential--destructive, constructive, inspiring, consoling--and that it is foolish for historians to dismiss or, worse, to ignore them.
So why does apocalyptic thinking persist? In addition to some of the answers in this review, circular reasoning and the ability to 'correct' past 'misinterpretations' of the ever present signs play key roles.
The millennial carrot dangled enticingly before a Christendom admonished in the same breath to ignore it and adore it. -- p. 227
Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages is an excellent book that will be appreciated by a wide variety of audiences. Those include, but are not limited to, historians, religionists, and skeptics who are curious to find out why people believe as they do.
"Hard times, defeat, persecution, and insecurity often generated compensatory fantasies [in the Bible] that brought comfort in distress and assurance of divine intervention." -- p. 41
"Belief in the Parousia is crucial to fundamentalist theology, if not to all fundamentalist thought. But such beliefs are flexible and ready to change in detail." -- p. 209
"...beneath the skeptical surface, apocalyptic thinking soldiered on..." - p. 194
* Weber frequently uses the French term "fin de siecle". It means "end of the century". He has also written a book by that title.

from the publisher:
Apocalyptic visions and prophecies from Zarathustra to yesterday form the luxuriant panorama in Eugen Weber's profound and elegant book. Beginning with the ancients of the West and the Orient and, especially, with those from whom we received our religions, the Jews and earliest Christians, Weber finds that an absolute belief in the end of time, when good would do final battle with evil, was omnipresent. Within centuries, apocalyptic beliefs inspired Crusades, scientific discoveries, works of art, voyages such as those of Columbus, rebellions and reforms. In the new world, American abolitionists, who were so critical to the movement to end slavery, believed in a final reckoning. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries' apocalyptic movements veered toward a lunatic fringe, and Weber rescues them from obloquy. From this more than two millennia history, he redresses the historical and religious amnesia that has consigned the study of apocalypses and millennial thought to the ash heap of thought and belief.

Weber, a master storyteller, turns detective in this latest book as he finds these alternative rationalities in the West, Asia, Africa, and South America. He writes with profound respect for the millennial pulse in history while never losing his urbane and witty style of writing. As we approach our second millennium beset by a host of apocalyptic predictions and cults, this book offers a map of understanding of the creeds we ignore at our peril.

Eugen Weber is Joan Palevsky Professor of Modern European History, Emeritus, at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"A compendium of greatest hits (or, more accurately, biggest flops) in the 'end is near' genre of philosophizing. The gist of this that at any point in recorded history you could find a significant number of people in the Western world planning for the end...Weber undeniably drives home the point that apocalypticism is nothing new, and he provides a useful service in outing doomsday believers like Isaac Newton and Christopher Columbus." --Robert David Sullivan, Boston Phoenix