The American Apocalypse

The end of the world is a pretty dramatic scene.  Perhaps it is because of that drama that the idea has captured the imagination of human beings for thousands of years and continues to do so today.  It is not an uncommon topic of conversation among Latter-day Saints that I have known, including the occasional discussion of dreams or visions about the End Times.  These types of discussions interested Christopher Blythe, who has “always had a deep interest in apocalypticism” and felt that “much of the scholarship on Latter-day Saint last days beliefs seem to focus on official doctrine rather than the conversations occurring among lay Latter-day Saints.”  His recently-published book Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse (Oxford University Press, 2020) focuses on “how lay Latter-day Saint beliefs intersect with the official doctrine of the faith” by examining the full span of apocalypticism among Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century.  He recently had an interview with Kurt Manwaring to discuss his research and book.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a short discussion with quotes from the interview), but the full interview is available here.

As Blythe put it, an apocalypse is “literally an unveiling—a revelation. It’s also a genre of scriptural literature, which is best represented in the Bible with the Book of Revelation. … In popular usage, the apocalypse is the end of the world.”  The genre of literature is, first and foremost, “the story of a visionary being brought into otherworldly realms often with the aid of an angelic guide,” and not necessarily a discussion of the end of the world.  But, in the case of his book title, Blythe was invoking both the genre and eschatology, though he focuses “more on prophecies predicting the downfall of the United States and less on the millennium that comes after” while discussing “a lot of Latter-day Saint visionary accounts.”

Latter-day Saints have been apocalyptic in outlook from the start.  Joseph Smith portrayed his visit from Moroni as an experience of being lectured by an angel about the Last Days, and, as Blythe put it: “The Book of Mormon is filled with apocalyptic material and details the destructions of several civilizations.”  While we “spend much less time talking about apocalyptic events in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than we did in the nineteenth,” it is still a part of our thought today.  For example, the Restoration Proclamation is “a great example of how millenarian thought remains a key part of Latter-day Saint identity in the twenty-first century,” though it displays a less apocalyptic outlook than the 1845 Proclamation of the Twelve with the latter document’s “greater detail about how the Saints are to fulfill their last days assignment and how the last days will proceed.”

Still, there are some notable examples of visionary Latter-day Saints who have published apocalypses, even in recent history.  A couple discussed in the interview included John Pontius and Julie Rowe.  Pontius published a book in 2012 entitled Visions of Glory: One Man’s Astonishing Account of the Last Days, in which he tells the story of a man he refers to as “Spencer,” an anonymous Latter-day Saint visionary from Salt Lake City.  As summarized by Blythe:

“Spencer” had had a series of near-death experiences and visions detailing parts of the afterlife and most importantly he had seen his own future as it led from great destructions in Salt Lake City to the establishment of the New Jerusalem in Jackson County, Missouri. Those who are familiar with the apocalyptic ideas common to nineteenth century Latter-day Saints would not be surprised by his visions. Pontius even printed some popular visionary literature as an appendix to Visions of Glory to show continuity between the scenarios presented by Spencer and those of his religious predecessors.

Blythe stated that he suspects that “Visions of Glory is the best-selling Latter-day Saint apocalyptic text of the past hundred years. … No other modern apocalypse has drawn as much attention.”  Part of the reason for that success seems to be due to the fact that the visions are generally presented in ways that “support the established rules on sharing revelatory experiences in the Church,” specifically as personal messages to an anonymous individual.

Rowe, on the other hand, is a visionary has taken a more controversial approach.  While Rowe “may very well be the most popular female visionary in Latter-day Saint history,” she is different from “Spencer” because she went on to establish a movement.  “She wrote a series of books, conducted a speaking tour, and started a YouTube channel.  She claimed prophetic gifts which gave her special status within the Latter-day Saint public.”  She also was not shy in expressing theological ideas that run contrary to the official doctrine of the Church and was ultimately excommunicated.  Blythe stated that:

In Terrible Revolution, I compared Julie Rowe to “Spencer” and attempt to make sense of why “Spencer” has received more support and less criticism. Some have tried to explain this disparity as solely the result of sexism and that might play a role but I suspect it has more to do with Julie’s ongoing presence in the public eye.

 

For the full interview, head on over to Kurt Manwaring’s site here.  There is a lot of interesting material that I wasn’t able to cover, including some discussion about Chad Daybell and his apocalyptic literature (including a brief exchange about parallels between Daybell’s zombies and Brigham Young’s idea of blood atonement), how Hiram Page’s visionary experiences with a seer stone helped set the paradigm for acceptable (and unacceptable) ways to share visions in the Church, and how the perception of the US government in Latter-day Saint apocalyptic revelations has evolved.  It’s well worth a read.

For those who wish to stay around for discussion, I’d be interested to hear: What are your thoughts about apocalyptic literature?  Have you heard about John Pontius or Julie Rowe before?  If so, do you believe that the experiences the visions they have shared may be authentic?  Why or why not?

4 comments for “The American Apocalypse

  1. Every day is someone’s last day, and with that in mind I’m more mindful of building relationships in my family than in being prepared for disaster. I have a 41 year old can of wheat in my garage, my mother died with a room full of food store. Both the room and the food would have made our lives together richer and kinder. My husband and I bought the can of wheat for our first Christmas together rather than presents, an affectionate memory would now be of more value to me.
    All this stuff has taken the energy of so many people for so long, I’m now much more interested in using my cash for the food bank and making the world a little less alarmed, I grew up and based my life on this and it now looks a little over invested in fear and horror inflicted on those other than ourselves. Honestly, when it happens will be soon enough.

  2. I’d never heard of Rowe or Pontius. There’s an article on the Meridian Magazine website that picks apart Visions of Glory, talking about where it runs contrary to established LDS practice.
    Wayfarer – maybe there’s a way to have both good relationships and a bit of food storage?

  3. Based just on the interview, it looks like Christopher Blythe has uncovered a lot of interesting aspects of LDS apocalypticism, including some unfamiliar strands of contemporary visionary apocalypticism.

    It’s important to keep in mind that visionary writing, apocalyptic writing, and visionary apocalypticism are all different things (and apocalypticism itself is a very broad category), and noting the difference between official discourse and lived experience doesn’t let you collapse those categories. I’m not saying Christopher does that, of course. But even in terms of lived experience, the four standard works, General Conference addresses, and the Deseret Book catalog are going to be more central to the apocalypticism of most church members than Rowe or Pontius (one I had barely heard of, the other I’d never heard of).

  4. I’m a librarian in Utah. Books by Rowe and Pontius are less popular now that we have passed the destruction date they foresaw, but prior to that we had HUGE demand for them. I spent my teens in Rexburg, ID. My high school class formed a Facebook group specifically designed to help everyone prepare for the end times prophesied by Spencer in Pontius’ book. So while you may not be familiar with these authors, my experience has been that they are broadly known and quite influential.

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