The first CenSAMM conference took place on 27th and 28th June 2019 at the campus of the University of Bedfordshire in Bedford. More than 50 individuals attended, with 38 giving papers on a range of topics in the critical and interdisciplinary study of apocalyptic and millenarian movements. The conference had an international makeup, with attenders from institutions based in at least 10 different countries.
The opening keynote was given by Prof. John Collins (Yale Divinity School) who spoke on the theme of “Modalities of Millenarianism in Ancient Judaism” which provided an excellent framing, not only for sessions with a scriptural focus but also for studies of more recent movements and topics. Papers with a grounding in biblical studies and the context of early Christianity provided interdisciplinary frameworks linking contemporary and ancient tropes. Lynne Moss Bahr (Fordham University), for example, approached the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 through the perspective of the themes of time and temporality, relating the early Christian material to the uses of the messianic in modern philosophy. Scott Robertson (St Mary’s University Twickenham) presented an analysis of elements of apocalypticism in the Epistle to Titus – noting in particular the matrix of apocalyptic and non-apocalyptic elements. And Robert Kashow (Brown University) applied a photography criticism framework and ethnographic methods to examine the effects of images of violence in order to inform understanding of apocalyptic images of violence in ancient Judean contexts.
Papers examining early modern understandings of apocalyptic and millenarian themes were led by Prof. Vanessa Harding (Birkbeck College, University of London) who gave a plenary paper on responses to plague in early modern London. Verônica Calsoni (University of São Paulo) examined the pamphlets of radical clandestine printers to understand millenarian tropes in 17th century England. Martin Pjecha’s (Central European University) study of the Taborite Hussites in the early-15th century examined the influence of neo-Platonic thought on their leadership, to evaluate the group’s transition from apocalyptic pacifism to activism. Hugo Martins (University of Lisbon) unpacked the layers of mystical and millenarian expression in the work of Jacob Rosales (1593-1662). And Dr. Andrew Crome’s (Manchester Metropolitan University) application of fan studies to Richard Brothers (1757-1824) and Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) suggested the ways in which critically applied fan studies approaches can offer useful perspectives for historians and religious studies scholars.
In his plenary paper, Dr. Paul-Francois Tremlett (Open University) discussed the relationship between the human and the non-human in the physical landscape, the built environment, and religion and prophecy – with a focus on case studies in the Philippines from 16th century evangelisation to the present day Catholic charismatic El Shaddai movement. The study of contemporary movements in various conference sessions included Matt Rosen (Warburg Institute) who offered a study of “The Divine City of Guru Maharaj Ji” as a reference point for a discussion of “the Cosmic Architecture of New Religious Movements”. And Dr. Alastair Lockhart (University of Cambridge and CenSAMM Academic Director) analysed the relationship between eschatology and the constitution of sacred territory in 20th century movements including the Panacea Society, Rastafari and Theosophy. Damian Cyrocki (St Mary's University Twickenham) presented an account of the emergence, development, function and nature of “mystical marriages” within the Mariavite movement in Poland, with particular reference to the group’s understanding of the “Kingdom of God”. Minna Kulmala (University of Helsinki) discussed contemporary religion/spirituality as an arena for rethinking and redefining identity and community in an account of ethnographic work on the Last Testament Church in the Southern Siberian taiga. And Dr. Tihomir Lazić (Newbold College) provided a critical analysis of the key hermeneutical assumptions shaping the eschatological outlook of Seventh Day Adventism in his paper on “The Curious Creature Called Adventism”.
The keynote paper at the end of the first day, delivered by Prof. Bill McGuire (University College London), offered an enervating “Guide to the End of the World: Everything You Never Wanted to Know” – bringing an Earth Sciences perspective to the conference. Held with a reception at the Panacea Museum, Prof. McGuire’s talk provided an energising point of reflection before the conference dinner.
A number of papers placed apocalyptic and millenarian studies within a psychological framework. Samuel Gentry (King’s College, London) analysed the millenarian themes in the Prologue to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra to uncover a shift from “messianic” violence within a group perspective to an individual psychological dynamic. Prof. Fraser Watts (University of Lincoln) applied William Meissner’s study of millenarian thought to develop a psychological understanding of the role of “hoped-for” future events. In an account of self-deceptive speech in relation to apocalyptic and millenarian believers, Dr. Benjamin Wood (Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) proposed that individuals use self-deception in order to adhere to apocalyptic and millenarian belief systems when faced with contradictory information. Prof. Jesper Høgenhaven and Melissa Sayyad Bach (both Københavns Universitet) provided a panel session on their research project at the Biblical Studies Section at the University of Copenhagen using the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran to examine the ways in which apocalypticism can be understood to create authority – with reference to human cognitive mechanisms and applying a Cognitive Science of Religion framework.
A number of papers analysed the relationship between apocalyptic and millenarian thinking and broader phases of social and cultural change. Louisa Hann (University of Manchester), for example, reviewed the apocalyptic rhetoric of the “crisis years” of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s to analyse the link between American neoliberalism, neo-conservatism and evangelical apocalypticism expressed in theatre. Ellie Fielding-Redpath (Lancaster University) critically uncovered the representation of apocalyptic tropes in the Far Cry 5 video game. Dr. John Lyons (University of Bristol) examined the work of Congregationalist postmillennialist, Thomas H. Gallaudet (1787-1851) – the founder of American Sign Language – with focus on his understanding of sign language as the universal language of the Millennium. And Hannah Nelson-Teutsch (Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg) analysed the ways in which the apocalyptic and landscape have been intertwined in the imagining of America, with special reference to Christopher Columbus. Three papers excavated the links between African American experience and apocalyptic themes. Dr. Margaret Cullen (Ohio Northern University) examined millenarian themes in the writings of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) in her account of “The Hibernation of African American Millenarian Dreams”. Dr. Michael Miller (Liverpool Hope University) presented an account of the African Hebrew Israelites, a movement that emerged from the black nationalist movement in the USA in the 1960s and now based in Israel, with a particular focus on the apocalyptic aspect of the movement’s spiritual leader Ben Ammi (1939-2014). And Aaron Pride (Kent State University) provided a study of the development of the African American civil rights movement in connection with the early-20th century civil rights campaigner and newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter’s (1872-1934) black neo-abolitionist Christian movement.
The relationship between apocalyptic and millenarian themes and recent political tropes was developed in a number of the papers. Dr. Fatima Tofighi (EUME, Berlin/University of Religions, Qom) gave a plenary paper examining the “construction of the Third-Worldist Messianic Body” in the period leading up to the 1979 revolution in Iran. Other papers included Prof. Marcin Skladanowski (John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin) who discussed the role of Russian Orthodoxy in Russian social and political life in his study of “The Historiosophy of Aleksandr Dugin as a Secular Radicalisation of the Eschatological Ideas of the Rus' Old Believers”. And Dr. Justin Meggitt (University of Cambridge and CenSAMM trustee) spoke on “The Problem of Apocalyptic Terrorism”, analysing the history, veracity and interpretative value of the label “apocalyptic terrorism” and apocalyptic tropes in the interpretation and perpetuation of terrorists acts. Looking back to a deeper political past, Prof. James Crossley (St Mary’s University Twickenham and CenSAMM Academic Director) examined the apocalyptic and millenarian tropes in the Peasants’ Revolt and the teaching of John Ball (c. 1340-1381) – and in particular the ways these have been muted or downplayed since the nineteenth century and into recent times. Two papers provided insight into the relevance of Christian Zionism in the contemporary political context. Aidan Cottrell Boyce (University of Cambridge) reviewed the 20th century history of British Israelism in Ulster and in the British Isles more broadly to explore the interaction of nationalism, Christian Zionism, and sectarianism. And, Dr. Sean Durbin (Macquarie University) analysed the “discursive construction of Donald Trump as God’s Instrument” within Christian Zionist discourse in the USA, situating this within the apocalyptic framing of contemporary American Evangelical culture. Today’s US politics was also addressed by Dr. Sarah Rollens (Rhodes College) who examined apocalyptic tropes in immigration discourse in the US. Dr. Rachel Wagner’s (Ithaca College) account of “The Cowboy Apocalypse” examined the imaginary of the Cowboy Apocalypse with reference to its role from purely imaginative reference point for some, to those who see themselves as expressions of the myth. A central African case study was provided by Dr. Aurélien Gampiot, (GSRL, Paris) who uncovered the legacy of Simon Kimbangu (1887-1951) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, discussing in particular the millenarian themes originating with Kimbangu encountered in the 2018 presidential elections. With the final keynote paper on “Anthropology and AI Apocalypticism”, by Dr. Beth Singler (University of Cambridge), the conference closed with a radically up-to-date look at apocalyptic and millenarian themes in the digital space.
Overall, we were delighted with the breadth and depth of the papers – all of which captured something of the dynamism and diversity of apocalyptic and millenarian studies today. Following the success of the conferenece, plans are in motion to hold a second conference next year, this is currently planned for late-June 2020 – a call for papers will be published on the CenSAMM website later this year.