Previous | Next

Spring 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 1 · pp. 138–139 

Book Review

Apocalyptic Fever: End-Time Prophecies in Modern America

Richard G. Kyle. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012. 372 pages.

Reviewed by Brian Froese

Richard Kyle has written an important book on the place of apocalypticism in American culture. Unlike some other serious studies of end-time movements, his thoroughly researched and expansive survey goes well beyond the often-covered evangelical subculture and examines comparable beliefs in Catholicism, mainline Protestantism, the occult, Islam, the Mayan calendar, and even in science. In this way he shows us that dispensational premillennialism is but one manifestation, albeit an influential one, of a broader apocalypticism permeating American culture.

Kyle classifies his study as “intellectual history,” thus reducing his vulnerability to charges of advocating for or making value judgments against apocalyptic ideas. Yet his book is no mere catalogue of apocalyptic beliefs. Kyle argues that end-times thinking relates intimately to societal trends and forces. Borrowing Peter Stearn’s analogy of the “dormant virus,” Kyle describes apocalyptic thought as something that “breaks out” and on occasion “infects the wider culture” (xi–xii). Perhaps that is all the value judgment apocalypticism needs—apocalyptic beliefs may sometimes be harmless but they may also infect.

In the first two chapters, Kyle traces the history of apocalypticism up to the founding of America as a millennial nation. Kyle takes us on an exciting tour from the early church, through the mediaeval era, the Reformation and early modern period, showing us the myriad forms in which apocalypticism and its Antichrists and Millennia have appeared. For Kyle, this much is clear: the West has long embraced an understanding of history as moving inexorably to a catastrophic end.

As he traces apocalyptic thinking from Puritans to the twentieth century, Kyle rounds up the usual suspects: Millerites, Shakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Oneida Community, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists. He also begins to graft lesser known groups like the Rappites, Christadelphians, and Native American millennialists into the apocalyptic tale. Larger events and movements also play their part: the Lisbon earthquake, the political upheavals of the American and French revolutions and the American Civil War, spiritual revivals and religious awakenings, and movements like Pietism, Romanticism, Darwinism, and Fundamentalism all contributed ingredients for a potent chiliastic cocktail. Apocalyptic belief found renewed life with the World Wars, the Cold War, and the credible threat of nuclear annihilation. There followed an explosion of evangelical eschatological speculation, its major proponents including Billy Graham, Hal Lindsey, Jack van Impe, and the Left Behind juggernaut of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. For most Americans these figures exemplified {139} apocalyptic belief—a peculiar mix of vague date setting, pessimism, and evangelistic enthusiasm.

Kyle uses his final chapters to explore the “godless apocalypse” or secularized endism. In the secular end-time, fears of atomic destruction, anxiety over disease, and environmental worry dominate. While Kyle could have unpacked more fully the popular apocalypticism of such environmental doomsayers as Al Gore, this book improves on many apocalyptic studies by bringing various “secular” variants into the story.

In the last chapter Kyle attempts to explain why apocalypticism has not reached a terminal state despite its defeats. Citing the elasticity and adaptability of apocalyptic belief—religious or secular—Kyle suggests that it owes its durability to the social and political marginalization of its adherents, their belief in a redemptive future, and the consoling interpretations of large and fearsome global events it supplies. In the end, Kyle affirms the importance of apocalyptic belief. But having convinced us of its pervasiveness and astonishing multiplicity he asks that we neither long for the world to end nor seek escape from what seems inevitable disaster, but rather tackle our problems with clarity of mind.

This reviewer has just a few quibbles with the book. First, Kyle’s explanation of the persistence of apocalyptic belief could have benefited from engaging the Festinger Thesis, which posits that the greater the personal investment in a prophesied event, the firmer the conviction of its truth after it fails to occur. Second, Kyle’s otherwise fine survey of the plurality of early Christian eschatological views might have been stronger had it included Origen’s metaphoric reading of the Apocalypse. But in an introductory section, looking at Augustine may be quite enough.

These minor criticisms aside, Kyle has done us a critical service by placing apocalyptic belief firmly in modern American history and attending to its multiple incarnations. Kyle covers a wide swath of American culture and finds apocalyptic belief in virtually every corner, religious or not. And he does so with sympathy, kindness, and the critical eye of the scholar. I recommend this book to anyone interested in American religious history, cultural transformations, and the perennial lure of apocalyptic belief.

Brian Froese
Assistant Professor of History
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Previous | Next