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A dozen or more books on NRMs, apocalyptic, and violence

[ by Charles Cameron — biblio post #2 in preparation for the Boston conference – background on new religious movements and violence ]

Assuming I’m right that Islamic eschatology is now swinging into focus, and since my interest in the topic was sparked by David Cook at a 1997 Millennial Studies conference, I first recommended monitoring scenarios with global impact involving Bin Laden in an October ’98 job application, and have been more or less doing that myself ever since, most recently via Zenpundit posts, I think it might be helpful to follow up my list of books on Islamic eschatology with one on eschatological movements across the continents and centuries.

Eschatologically driven movements are by no means all violent — think of the Quakers and Shakers, and more recently the Chen Tao group, eg — but when violent or faced with violence, they can be peculiarly explosive, hence Tim Furnish‘s often quoted and and perhaps only somewhat over-emphatic remark:

Muslim messianic movements are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones: triggered by the same detonating agents, but far more powerful in scope and effect.


General introductions:

  • Robert Jay Lifton, Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World
  • Richard Landes, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience
  • Robert Jay Lifton’s book is short and powerful, published in 2003, and opens with the following claim:

    The apocalyptic imagination has spawned a new kind of violence at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We can, in fact, speak of a worldwide epidemic of violence aimed at massive destruction in the service of various visions of purification and renewal. In particular, we are experiencing what could be called an apocalyptic face-off between Islamist forces, overtly visionary in their willingness to kill and die for their religion, and American forces claiming to be restrained and reasonable but no less visionary in their projection of a cleansing warmaking and military power. Both sides are energized by versions of intense idealism; both see themselves as embarked on a mission of combating evil in order to redeem and renew the world; and both are ready to release untold levels of violence to achieve that purpose.

    Richard Landes’ book, longer, richer in detail, and more recent than Lifton’s, explores numerous millennarian movements with an extraordinary breadth of scholarship. The unrivalled best introduction to the topic, but a weighty tome in at least two senses, you have been warned.


    The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism

    Editor Cathy Wessinger writes:

    The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism (2011) has chapters on the wide range of millennial phenomena in numerous locations in the world. These include discussions of millennial groups and movements that become involved in violence in different ways.

    Jean Rosenfeld is author of the chapter on “Nativist Millennialism”; Melissa Wilcox wrote “Gender Roles, Sexuality, and Children in Millennial Movements”; John Walliss wrote the chapter on “Fragile Millennial Communities and Violence”; David Cook wrote the chapter on “Early Islamic and Classical Sunni and Shi’ite Apocalyptic Movements”; Rebecca Moore is author of the chapter on “European Millennialism”; Scott Lowe wrote the chapter of “Chinese Millennial Movement”; Rosalind Hacket is author of “Millennial and Apocalyptic Movements in Africa”; Garry Trompf wrote “Pacific Millennial Movements”; Michelene Pesantubbee is author of “Native American and Geopolitical, Georestorative Movements”; Jon R. Stone wrote “Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century American Millennialisms”; David Redles wrote “National Socialist Millennialism”; Robin Globus and Bron Taylor wrote “Environmental Millennialism”; Michael Barkun wrote “Millennialism on the Radical Right in America”; Yaakov Ariel is author of “Radical Millennial Movements in Contemporary Judaism in Israel”; and Jeffrey Kenney wrote “Millennialism and Radical Islamist Movements,” and there are many other chapters ..

    The Table of Contents is available at The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism – Catherine Wessinger – Oxford University Press

    Much appreciated, Cathy!


    Specific treatment of violence:

  • Jeffrey Kaplan, ed, Millennial Violence: Past, Present and Future
  • Cathy Wessinger, ed, Millennialism, Persecution and Violence: Historical Cases

  • Michael Barkun, ed, Millennialism and Violence
  • Robbins & Palmer, ed, Millennium, Messiahs and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements
  • Kaplan’s book is notable for its presentation of the FBI, Canadian CSIS and Israeli official documentation on the violent possibilities associated with the turnover from 1999 to 1000 CE.



  • Charles Strozier, Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America
  • Damian Thompson, Waiting for Antichrist: Charisma and Apocalypse in a Pentecostal Church
  • Hall, Schulyer & Trinh, Apocalypse Observed: Religious Movements and Violence in North America, Europe and Japan
  • John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia
  • Particularly important to my understanding of end times thinking is Damian Thompson’s book on a London church, which describes in detail the ways in which parishioners’ world views may incorpoorate disparate elements not present in the church’s official teaching — but available in the church bookstore — and the dg=egree to which congregants ca n affirm the “soon coming” with their lips, while behaving in day to day life as though their grandchildren’s grandchildren will still have the same supermarkets available from which to obtain their milk and groceries.



  • Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages
  • Stephen O’Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetori
  • Cohn’s is the brilliant book that introduced the theme of millenarian thinking to western scholarship, showing plausible links between the medieval eschatology of Abbot Joachim of Fiore and both Marxist and Nazi ideologies. O’Leary’s is the foundational work on apocalyptic rhetoric.


    Case studies:

  • Tabor & Gallagher, Why Waco?
  • Jayne Seminaire Docherty, Learning Lessons from Waco
  • Stuart Wright, ed, Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict
  • Tabor and Gallagher show that events Waco could have turned out very differently had the FBI been willing to listen to eschatologically informed scholars who were in dialog with David Koresh. Docherty is excellent on the dialog necessary between law enforcement and religious scholarship for a peaceable resolution of future clashes with “true believers” in an end times ideology.

  • Robert Jay Lifton, Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism
  • Ian Reader, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo
  • Lifton’s is among the best narratives of the Aum Shinriku attempt to poison the Tokyo subway system. Reader’s is a scholarly tour-de-force on the religious roots of Aum’s violence.

  • Jonathan Spence, God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan
  • Vincent Shih, The Taiping Ideology: Its Sources, Interpretations, and Influences
  • Again, Spence offers the narrative, Shih investigates the details of Taiping ideology.

  • Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America
  • James Aho, This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy
  • Kerry Noble, Tabernacle of Hate: Seduction into Right-Wing Extremism
  • Contemporary American extremism. Two of various possible books from Barkun and Aho. Kerry Noble’s book is a classic inside view / case study of a violent movement, the Covenant, Sword & Arm of the Lord, and its complex prophet.


    I requested the help of a group of scholars of new religious movements as I was formulating this list, and will include some of their helpful comments and urther reading suggestions in a follow up post. I haven’t counted, but I may have exceeded two dozen recommendations in h]this post alone/. The topic is not only well-researched in NRM circles, but also IMO signally important at this time.

    8 Responses to “A dozen or more books on NRMs, apocalyptic, and violence”

    1. Tim Furnish Says:

      Well, perhaps my “only somewhat overemphatic” statement was just that–but you sure like to quote it!
      How about fiction books on the Mahdi? Not just Joel Rosenberg’s “The Twelfth Imam,” but N. Lee Wood, “Looking for the Mahdi;” Nick Carter, “Day of the Mahdi;” Margo Dockendorf, “The Mahdi;” and, best of all, AJ Quinnell, “The Mahdi.”
      Now, back to writing my paper for the BU conference! See you there!

    2. larrydunbar Says:

      “Well, perhaps my “only somewhat overemphatic” statement was just that–but you sure like to quote it!”
      But “Muslim messianic movements are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones:”, but they are both MAD, right?

    3. Charles Cameron Says:

      Hi Tim:
      I do indeed like the quote, even though on a literal level you’re comparing incomparables — it gets across the idea that the proclamation of a Mahdi would be a major accelerant / force multiplier like nothing else!
      And then there’s Dune!

    4. larrydunbar Says:

      “And then there’s Dune!”
      Really, dune?
      What the hell does that mean?
      You seemed to be based in logic, but I am now less sure.

    5. Charles Cameron Says:

      Tim had asked:

      How about fiction books on the Mahdi? Not just Joel Rosenberg’s “The Twelfth Imam,” but N. Lee Wood, “Looking for the Mahdi;” Nick Carter, “Day of the Mahdi;” Margo Dockendorf, “The Mahdi;” and, best of all, AJ Quinnell, “The Mahdi.”

      I was responding that Frank Herbert’s Dune has a Mahdi — Muad’dib is the Mahdi of the Fremen on Arrakis. And there’s also Muad-dib’s jihad (and also the unrelated “Butlerian Jihad”) for good measure.
      So it’s a very different genre, but in some respects (desert planet, ecology, hydrology, and many Islamic terms and references) astonishingly prescient in the topics he researched in 1965, when you look at current affairs today, half a century later.
      The Dune wikia reports of Muad’dib’s Jihad:

      The Jihad ended in 10206 AG. According to Muad’Dub, conservative estimates ranked the Jihad’s casualties as 61 billion lives, the sterilization of ninety planets, and the “demoralization” of five hundred additional worlds. Furthermore, 40 different religions were wiped out along with their followers.

      That’s pretty ferocious, way beyond Tim’s comment that I quoted above.

      The wikia also notes:

      It should be remembered also that in Dune, Jihad is not solely associated with Islam, or religion as a whole. As in the case of the Butlerian Jihad the use of the term Jihad was used to describe the plight of humanity as a whole.

    6. Tim Furnish Says:

      Yes, of course the Mahdi/messiah is a major component of the Duniverse. But it’s not specifically about Mahdism, as are the books I adduced.

    7. Tim Furnish Says:

      It’s also interesting in the “Dune” prequels written by Herbert’s son and that other chap (Anderson? I’m too lazy to walk downstairs and look at the bookshelves) the humans of the future fight a “jihad” against the robots/thinking machines trying to wipe them out, while the latter wage a “machine Crusade.”

    8. Charles Cameron Says:

      Yes, that’s the “Butlerian Jihad”: it’s mentioned in the first of the Frank Herbert series.
      FWIW, I’ve been warned off the non-FH books by a notable fan who is also an intel guy & prizewinning writer on info-war with field experience in the ME. In his view, the whole FH original series comprises a massive & excellent single treatise..

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