Review: Christopher Blythe, Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse

Christopher James Blythe. Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. ISBN 978-019-7695159.

Terrible Revolution traces the central place of apocalypticism in LDS history and belief along multiple axes. Chronologically, the book traces the varieties of apocalypticism from the American religious context of Joseph Smith’s earliest activity through the Church’s Utah period and into the 21st century. In addition, Terrible Revolution examines contributions not only from the Church’s leadership, but also from lay members, fringe movements and splinter groups as well as interactions with the American public at large. Along the way, Blythe visits several of the most important episodes, visions and texts, creating an engaging narrative history that is also a valuable reference work.

Blythe clearly demonstrates the central role of apocalypticism in the foundational events of Church history. The Book of Mormon, Moroni’s visit and many others were apocalyptic in multiple ways: in the literal sense as unveilings of a supernatural reality; by being thoroughly imbued with motifs of the apocalyptic tradition stretching from the Old Testament to colonial America; and by being intensely concerned with the events of the Last Days.

Terrible Revolution ably documents how apocalyptic ideas have varied over the course of Church history, particularly in how attitudes towards the United States have shifted from expectations of nationwide destruction as divine vengeance for the Saints’ persecution, to identification of the United States as Zion, to the disappearance of the nation as a vehicle of apocalyptic expectation. Church members have also shifted away from imagining short time frames for the final events of the end times (for early members, the initial events were already unfolding around them). But Blythe also documents stability in expectations for end time events, which are so widely understood that detailed recounting is often unnecessary. Caution towards apocalypticism also goes back to earliest Church history, including the avoidance of predicting concrete dates, care to keep apocalyptic expectation from boiling over and persistent efforts to limit and channel visionary proclamations. As Terrible Revolution moves into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Blythe’s focus is particularly on the persistence of apocalyptic expectation in fringe and fundamentalist movements, while also noting how lay prophets continued to find mainstream audiences and prophecies continued to circulate despite direct denials of their authenticity.

A few of Blythe’s formulations seemed to overstate how much the Church discourages discussion of supernatural phenomena (such as p. 216, “a culture that claimed authority through charismatic events, but that simultaneously discredited the continuance of such events”); some things might make people shift nervously in the pews, but others would be unremarkable in a typical Sunday meeting. But his broader discussion of the regulation of “vernacular prophecy,” as Blythe calls it, is much more extensive and nuanced, and he skillfully uncovers the history of the modern tendency to shy away from openly discussing recent charismatic events, while those already publicly known or from past decades are more readily shared (see especially pp. 252-54).

Terrible Revolution is an excellent book that will help you to understand the past, and an important work that will help you to understand who we are today. Bump it to the top of your reading list.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.