Scholars & Saints: The University of Virginia Mormon Studies Podcast

Terrible Revolution: Mormon Apocalypticism w/ Christopher James Blythe

August 21, 2020 Stephen Betts Season 1 Episode 101
Scholars & Saints: The University of Virginia Mormon Studies Podcast
Terrible Revolution: Mormon Apocalypticism w/ Christopher James Blythe
Scholars & Saints: The University of Virginia Mormon Studies Podcast
Terrible Revolution: Mormon Apocalypticism w/ Christopher James Blythe
Aug 21, 2020 Season 1 Episode 101
Stephen Betts

We explore Mormon ideas about the end of the world. In his recent book, Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse, Christopher James Blythe argues that Latter-day Saint apocalyptic prophecy has changed over time. What began as the expectation of an imminent apocalypse in early Mormonism changed in the early 20th century as Latter-day Saints in the United States returned from isolation in the Rocky Mountains to become culturally American again. Dr. Blythe reveals how change and adaptation have been driven by tensions between lay and official prophecy and the relationship between church and nation.

Show Notes Transcript

We explore Mormon ideas about the end of the world. In his recent book, Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse, Christopher James Blythe argues that Latter-day Saint apocalyptic prophecy has changed over time. What began as the expectation of an imminent apocalypse in early Mormonism changed in the early 20th century as Latter-day Saints in the United States returned from isolation in the Rocky Mountains to become culturally American again. Dr. Blythe reveals how change and adaptation have been driven by tensions between lay and official prophecy and the relationship between church and nation.

STEPHEN BETTS: Christopher James Blythe joins us today to talk about his new book, Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse, recently published with Oxford University Press. Dr. Blythe received his PhD in Religious Studies from Florida State University and current serves as a Research Associate at Brigham Young University’s Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He also serves as the co-editor of the Journal of Mormon History. Thanks for joining us today Chris. 

CHRISTOPHER JAMES BLYTHE: Oh, thanks so much, Stephen. I really appreciate it. 

SB: So Chris, one of the contributions that Terrible Revolution makes to Mormon Studies is in its use of a method called lived religion, which is a method in religious studies that really becomes popular in the 1990s under great scholars like David Hall and Robert Orsi and it makes use of social science tools like participant observation and ethnography from the disciplines of anthropology and sociology and the like. And really the idea behind this is getting at how people actually practice and make meaning with religious symbols instead of how institutions might represent themselves. And as we know, for at least much of its history, Mormon Studies has been dominated by what we might call traditional archival history. But you shake this up a bit and you use folklore studies to really nuance the ways we hear historical narratives. Tell us more about that.  

CJB: I think Latter-day Saint scholars have often been attracted to the official narratives and stories of major figures. You know we have these great biographies of church leaders that are very popular. You have moments like the practice of polygamy, the end of polygamy, Mormons and politics. All of these ideas gained a great deal of popularity, and also the life of Joseph Smith. If someone was going to buy a one book on Mormonism, chances are they’re buying a book on Joseph Smith. And so, that sort of official narrative or that story of leaders is what has been so crucial in that first half-century of Mormon Studies. I think Mormonism itself polices official doctrine, and has a, of course, like all institutions, really wants to focus on how they tell their own historical story. So historians have to do a little more work, perhaps, in a sense. Really what we have to do is dig into more sources. We have to be willing to do ethnography, and to look into sources, and some sources that have been considered strange. Or you know there’s all sorts of ways that Latter-day Saints have policed what is orthodox, what’s bizarre, what’s folklore, what’s a rumor. What I try to do in this book is to go into items that were once very mainstream—not that they were widely accepted among church leaders—but were widely distributed ideas that were very popular among the laity. I try to track those down by reading a ton of diaries, many that we don’t see quoted that often. I also read against the grain of official sources so if I had, you know, a great talk from a church leader that said “stop teaching this idea,” then I didn’t read that talk to say, look, Latter-day Saints stopped teaching this idea, I read that talk to say, here was a major idea that was prevalent and church leaders had to respond to it. And so I think reading against the grain is one of the key ways to bring out lay voices in the church. Also, there’s just an amazing, untapped series of diaries and correspondence that we need to read, and we need to go beyond family histories and biographies as we study these things. I’m not the only person to attempt lived religion in Latter-day Saint studies, but I do hope that this book introduces that approach to more scholars. 

SB:  So as you’ve mentioned, the tension between lay voices and official voices among Latter-day Saints is central to your book. Do you find the same sorts of institutional resistance to lay apocalyptic and lay prophecy in other Mormon movements like the Community of Christ?

CJB: Yeah, you know I actually think you do. In Community of Christ, Joseph Smith III, who founds, or takes over the movement in the mid and late nineteenth century is going to police all sorts of ideas. He’s going to police ideas like “the Gathering.” Here’s an idea that was very prevalent in even official and the broader Mormon movement, but he’s policing those ideas among his laity. What’s the place of the temple in the last days, the building of Zion? Well Joseph Smith III is policing that really strictly even at the same time that there are certain settings, just like the LDS church in the nineteenth century, that people are able to share prophecy and vision. However those ideas are going to get regulated by church leaders. And that’s true even in Mormon fundamentalist communities, where, I argue, that apocalypticists have found refuge. Those movements have emerged from apocalyptic movements just as much as they’ve emerged from the continued practice of polygamy. Even in those communities, leaders often police at least the details of how the apocalyptic is supposed to occur, and those debates are really common. I was doing ethnography in one polygamous community a decade ago, and in their meetings there was a debate, as people talked about different places they wanted to locate, building little settlements. They’d talk about, I remember I young man getting up and saying, “Some people debate whether this is just a place we’re living, or whether it’s a place of refuge, and I think it’s a place of refuge.” So the debate, and the place of leadership in it is pretty universal, because the Latter Day Saint tradition is in almost varieties I can think of, is based on hierarchy. It’s always a present factor, so even though lay members are encouraged to have prophetic gifts, they’re often told that these gifts are for their personal lives. They are to confirm as sort of cooperative vision that the entire movement has. They are not to offer a new vision that hasn’t been shared by the leadership.

SB: It seems like one of the main consequences of your lived religion approach is that your fracture the kinds of cohesive narratives that historians have told in the past about Mormon intellectual history. In the book you talk about how over time Mormons changed the ways they used apocalyptic based on personal and institutional needs and that these changes reveal conflicting, but common themes. You call these themes the “apocalyptic master narrative,” which is fancy way of saying that these themes are the sites of tension between the laypeople and the church or between the church and the nation. Sketch out the apocalyptic master narrative for us. 

CJB: This is exactly what I hoped people would take from the book, so I really appreciate that. “Fracturing these sorts of cohesive narratives:” that’s a great way to put it. When I turn to master narrative, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m saying, if somebody wanted to say, Latter-day Saints believed this, and they list eight facts. I would say, well, those are eight themes, but in actuality, you can’t say that these facts are accepted by everyone. They’re debating these ideas. They’re ideas in contest. So when I think about the ideas that are in contest, I often, you know, we would start and say that the Latter-day Saint tradition, and their master narrative takes themes from the Bible, and roots them on a New World context, right? An Americas context. And then from that the master narrative pulls a variety of themes, so I would say major parts of the master narrative include the place of persecution leading to judgments from God, the idea that missionaries are being sent out to warn the world of an impending destruction and judgment, the idea that there is a racial component to the apocalypse. So the idea that Native Americans will be participating in this is part of that master narrative. The idea that the Saints will gather to one location where they will be protected. The idea that there will be a last days city, Adam-ondi-Ahman, these sort of major events. Now, all of the details of these events are debated. You can see a variety of different appearances. The idea of an invasion on the Saints, and the Saints responding to protect the United States whether militarily or politically. I use the concept of political messianism to describe early Latter-day Saints. This is an example of where it gets fuzzy because there are so many different voices trying to talk about the Latter-day Saint past and particularly Latter-day Saints and politics. So there’s been some missed data out there, and one is, you know, did Latter-day Saints think the Constitution was going to “hang by a thread”? Absolutely they did. I would say that’s one of the key moments of this master narrative, that Latter-day Saints are going to be a savior to the nation. Then, at the end of all this, after all these destructions, which include plagues, and earthquakes, and diseases, and fighting, and race wars, and eventually people fleeing to the Rocky Mountains, all sorts of different moments. At the very end of this, there is a restructuring of power, where Latter-day Saints who once saw themselves as oppressed, including actually Native Americans in some of this, will rise to be the governing class in a new society. Others who want to participate in this will have fled from their violent environments and found peace among the Saints. Gradually this millennial event will come along, and there will be peace on earth and all the events that you read in Isaiah or Ezekiel, this is a new world. And that, in short, is the master narrative. I set that up just in the first chapter, and then in the other chapters, I try to go with how that master narrative can shift when new events in everyday life call for adaptation.

SB: Yeah, one of the critical changes that occurs particularly toward the end of the 19th century is that this concept of gathering is no longer localized to the West, to the Rocky Mountains, right? The diffusion, and I guess you could call it the Latter-day Saint diaspora, they start building temples outside of Utah, people start relocating to Eastern cities again, which you point out, had been previously thought to be the first sites of destruction in the apocalypse. So this requires a rethinking of what the apocalypse will entail. If we’re no longer physically protected, how do we think about the end times? 

CJB: That’s right. I think that that is one of the major key moments. What I argue is that things become a lot more vague. The second we view ourselves as good Americans, I argue that Latter-day Saints left the nation—even though there were long quests for statehood and things like that—they deliberately wanted to leave the eastern United States. They saw themselves as true Americans, for sure, but they were abandoning the nation because they thought it was so dangerous, that these were their persecutors. Whether they were going to be persecuted themselves, or whether God was going to vanquish their persecutors, in either case they did not want to be there to see that come about. So, I think yeah, at those moments you have to rethink this. You’re a good American, you don’t want to view other Americans as your persecutors, at least in the same sense. And you don’t want the good people you’re sending to Boston and to New York City to think that any day now they are going to need to flee for Rocky Mountains again. 

So you see, instead of church leaders just specifically unwriting what they once taught, I argue that they point toward folk visions. The folk visions that were once so popular, even though church leaders [at the time] were saying the same thing, they were pointing to folk visions and saying, “this one’s not true.” In doing that, it sort of undercuts some of those apocalyptic expectations, the imminence and the specific ideas. Our becoming intellectually and culturally American, and geographically diverse changes everything. 

SB: One of the other consequences of early 20th century adaptation was the diminished role of Native Americans in Mormon apocalyptic prophecy. In the book, you talk about how early Mormons believed that Native Americans would play a crucial role in the apocalypse, including building the New Jerusalem in America, and punishing the Whites. As Mormons become mainstreamed into American culture, though, this goes away. Tell us about the role of Native Americans in nineteenth century prophecy, and how that’s changed over time. 

CJB: That’s great. You know, Hickman’s fantastic article,[1] which I’m not going to attempt to remember the title of right now, but maybe you can put it in a show note, is brilliant, and leads us to rethink the Book of Mormon and its place in telling the story of native Americans. Early Latter-day Saints were thinking of Native Americans in a few ways. One, they thought of Native Americans playing a role in building the New Jerusalem. And they also believed that Native Americans would have uprisings, that they would turn against Gentile peoples, the United States government, different states, and through violence would punish them for the things that had done against both Native Americans and also against Mormons. Hickman invites us to think more about different elements of that as it shows up in the Book of Mormon. He relates it to nativist prophets of the time who are predicting a better world for Native peoples, and include some of those elements, even sometimes of violence, as it might relate to that turning of the tide. So whether Mormons understand it or not, they are actually tying into a larger apocalyptic lens that’s been playing out on American soil at the time, and would continue even after their founding. So this becomes very important especially to early Latter-day Saints. I think its important that in Kirtland in the 1830s, as people convert they speak in the gift of tongues, and they believe they’re speaking Native languages, and they enact parts of the Book of Mormon. And one of the things that one reporter says that people are enacting in these sort of revival meetings is, they are doing a stereotype mimicking of Native American attacks as if they have a tomahawk and things like that. Because this event of Native American uprising was important to them. In 1832 or 1833, Joseph [Smith Jr.] writes a letter in which he tells the Saints to stop talking so much about it, that this is exactly the kind of emphasis on the apocalypse that is going to make people not trust us, that’s going to scare our neighbors, and this is not what we need in Jackson County in the 1830s at the time [Missouri]. 

SB: So we can begin to see this tension between lay and official even with Joseph Smith?

CJB: Yeah, this is something important because I think its really indicative of a hundred years later too. Joseph Smith isn’t saying he doesn’t believe it, he’s the one that introduced these ideas. But, absolutely, he says, don’t share it. Don’t talk a lot about it. That’s not what this is about. Outsiders are going to be offended if you say, “Just you wait, lots of Native Americans are going to come [to destroy you].” And you see that throughout Joseph [Smith]’s lifetime and later on where lay Latter-day Saints will write letter to family members and say that they trust that Native people are being prepared for a sort of uprising against the Nation. Sometimes you’ll see rhetoric, as if, and Brigham uses this rhetoric, as if he’s controlling Native peoples, and he can use them at his disposal (I don’t think he really could). He made these claims to scare individuals, to scare government agents. 

Then relationships with native peoples become more tense and complex and we see a lot more [White Mormon] ethnocentrism than we ever saw [before]. I mean it’s always there, the stereotype that’s pushed onto [indigenous peoples], but things get more heated in Utah, and of course great historians are pulling that data apart. In 1890, you have the Ghost Dance. I think that’s a key moment. Quickly, the Ghost Dance is a nativist movement in which a Paiute visionary is sharing a message that a united Native American people from all different nations will come together and through performing this dance and other ceremonies attached to it, they would be able to bring about a sort of apocalyptic event or a utopian event, it’s not clear, which would usher in a new world. That world would either [be one in which] Whites and natives would exist without tension, as one people, or where Whites were wiped out. And I think Ghost Dance practitioners even debated on what was the case there. 

So Latter-day Saints heard about this movement, knowing that it was pointed against the American government, and they thought hey, maybe there’s something there. Ghost Dance adherents claimed to have seen the messiah. That’s a complicated claim they had, and there were some Christian elements through it, some Second Coming elements. And Mormons then got into a large conversation, I mean major newspaper articles written on the topic of whether the Ghost Dance was legitimate and what they were seeing. It turns out that most Mormons wanted to believe natives were [seeing the messiah], but they’re concerned that we not think that natives are the leaders. Natives [in their mind] are supposed to be under Mormons, which is something Hickman’s article asks us to reconsider, is that really the vision that the Book of Mormon gives. So they are going to say that it’s not possible, its probably a true movement, but its not possible that they saw Jesus. Jesus would come to us. They probably saw the Three Nephites.[2] So there’s that sort of, taking seriously the movement, but also that nervousness. They [are comfortable portraying natives] as a violent force at the end, but not as that workers to build a New Jerusalem, workers with their own prophets, and those sorts of ideas. So very complicated. In our day, the place of Native Americans in last days prophecy is definitely muted. Bruce R. McConkie, in 1982 wrote his book on the apocalypse, the last sort of full official-from-a-church-leader-interpretation of apocalyptic scriptures. And in that book, Millennial Messiah, he definitely downplays the role of Native Americans. He says “sure they’re important, but they’re going to be under the church, this isn’t an independent thing.” 

SB: We should note that around this time despite McConkie, the importance of Native Americans in Mormon apocalyptic is enjoying a bit of resurgence in various ways. Church president Spencer Kimball puts various institutional racial uplift or reculturation programs resembling what whites are doing in the sort of white man’s burden civilizing projects of the 19th century, but then you also have George P. Lee who is trying to craft a kind of liberation theology for Natives based on the Book of Mormon. Talk to us more about this period and its role in the trajectory of Mormon apocalyptic. 

CJB: I think there is much occurring in that moment. So yeah, we probably have a good fifty or sixty years when these ideas are completely in decline. If we’re looking for Native American apocalyptic ideas, most of those have retreated to, at the folk level, told as stories in families, or in Mormon fundamentalist groups where some of these ideas would still gain prominence into the 1950s. But yeah I think Spencer W. Kimball grew up in Mexico, has these ideas on his mind, and will focus on Native American peoples of the United States, especially Navajo, as he’s thinking how these prophecies will come about, [what he calls] “the Day of the Lamanite.” 

I think, George P. Lee, the first Native American General Authority, we need to do some research on the impact that he had. Certainly, he’s going to emphasize some of these ideas. There’s a special place, he’s going to emphasize that the Book of Mormon gives a special status to Native peoples. And I think people did push back on that, to a level. George P. Lee became a controversial figure for other reasons too, so I don’t know, was it George P. Lee’s ideas, or was it George P. Lee’s association with clergy abuse that played into a sort of de-emphasis on some of those ideas right then after Spencer Kimball’s death. I don’t know but it’s definitely important in the story we tell. 

Nowadays people have different perspectives on prophecy today as it relates to native peoples, and sometimes they’re really pretty tame, such as I think Spencer W. Kimball’s were. Sometimes there’s really ideas that I think are racist, based in a sort of conservative American idea against immigration that suggests that undocumented immigration has something to do with these [ideas about Native violence in the apocalypse]. So you can see people adapting these prophecies in a variety of ways. If Orson Pratt was alive today, I assume he would just say, expect it like you’ve always expected it. There’s going to be this remnant of people, and that idea does exist also including in some Latter-day Saint circles. I once a couple years ago, I saw a group, a conservative Latter-day Saint conference, and the speaker was a Navajo, and she got up and had everyone in the audience stand up who had “Native American blood,” and of course these were white individuals standing up that had stories of you know, a native ancestor, or maybe did, I don’t know, but they didn’t identify principally as Native people. And they all stood up, and she said, “this is the rise of the Native people,” that their blood had dispersed. And then she led them all in nineteenth century [Mormon] hymns about native people, the one about “Brother Laman” or “Cousin Laman” and so forth. I was shocked! This was a really surprising moment. But it just shows how people have tried to figure out how such a prominent part of the Book of Mormon about Native American apocalypticism could fit in this modern world where so much about our apocalyptic ideas have shifted. 

SB: Chris, with the sort of racial hierarchies that 19th century Mormons put in place, I’m wondering also if we see any lay apocalyptic or lay prophecy from Black Mormons. It seems like this would have been a potential outlet for religious expression particularly during the priesthood and temple ban was lifted in 1978. Do we know anything about that?

CJB: The short answer is I don’t know of a black Mormon who shared much of these ideas, with the exception of William McCary back in the 1840s where he’s certainly building apocalyptic ideas and inserting himself as a sort of messianic figure in those ideas. You know this figure “Black Pete” that we know very little about in the 1830s in Kirtland, some scholars believed introduced charismatic practices occurring in Kirtland at the time. If that’s true, then he had an impact on the apocalyptic fervor of the 1830s, particularly, you know I already mentioned sort of pantomiming Native American apocalypticism. That was a moment in which some people believe that “Black Pete” may have participated. I think we’d find more as we dig into more of those sources and we do oral histories and so on. I mean now would be a great time to do it. You know, not all end times prophecies are the sort of apocalyptic stuff I focus on. I think of the basic message of Latter-day Saints living in the last days and being an elect people coming out of a certain time is certainly a millenarian or millennial idea. So I think about Darius Gray’s revelation[3] which he brough to [LDS church] President [Gordon] Hinckley and he tells us that President Hinckley told him he could share it. This would be an example of a vernacular revelation. And the revelation that he said he had was that African peoples weren’t cursed, but that they had a calling. So here were people set apart with a special calling to the nation. That resonates—here’s a still living African-American man—that resonates with the nineteenth century to me. Pinpointing a racial group and saying they have a special mission, and sharing that particularly with that group to give them hope and meaning. I would think [Gray] is a great example of an older [apocalyptic] tradition, even though it’s not a story of destructions in the land. 

SB: So you discuss at length various permutations on what you call the “Constitution prophecy,” which as recently as Mitt Romney’s first presidential campaign—I don’t know if it makes the rounds during his second campaign or not, but certainly during his first campaign we saw it in the news. So first of all, talk a little bit about what the Constitution prophecy is, this makes the rounds all the time in Latter-day Saint apocalyptic. Talk a little bit about that, and then certainly within the last year, many people on the political left, and some on the right have increasingly worried about threats to American constitutional democracy. So have we seen this prophecy resurrected in Mormon apocalyptic currently?

CJB: Yeah, you know the reason I introduced this idea of the “Constitution prophecy” is because usually its called the “White Horse prophecy” and that confuses everything. The White Horse prophecy is a 1902 document from a man named Edwin Rushton that pulls together all sorts of apocalyptic ideas and throws it in one document. And the church came out and said, “Don’t trust this document, this White Horse prophecy.” And one of the things that the White Horse prophecy contains in it is the Constitution prophecy, the idea that the Constitution will hang by a thread, and Latter-day Saint people will defend it. The “Elders of Israel” will defend the Constitution. This is so interesting, so somehow in the popular media, instead of it being about the Constitution being protected, it becomes the story about one man protecting the Constitution. I think this is because earlier when we’re talking about the Constitution prophecy, we’re defending the Constitution by defending the ideals of America to the Rocky Mountains where they can be protected from the “corrupt nation.” And once you now see yourself as part of that nation, how do you protect it? Well, you do it through politics. And so, wouldn’t it be a Latter-day Saint politician that stands up and does this. A really interesting change. And you see that mid-twentieth century. The Constitution prophecy is being promoted all the way up to Ezra Taft Benson’s presidency [in the 1980s] and he’s telling people, “you want to fulfill this prophecy? Go out and vote. Support conservative causes” and so on where he thinks that there’s a place for it. I think Latter-day Saints took the Constitution prophecy much more seriously during the Cold War, where they played a role in defending American conservativism then they did under Romney’s presidential campaign. I’ve had friends who tell me I’m crazy when I say, I haven’t really seen an apocalyptic—you know in these preppers that I study, and the legends I collect, I don’t see a lot of evidence that the average Latter-day Saint was really excited about Mitt Romney fulfilling this prophecy. Now, I think there was a certain excitement in Mitt Romney, about having a Latter-day Saint out there, but mainly where I saw the White Horse prophecy invoked was in media looking for an interesting story. And they could have had a much more interesting story if they knew that the White Horse prophecy and the Constitution prophecy were different. They’d come to Romney and say, “do you believe in the White Horse prophecy?” and he’d say, “every prophet has spoken against the White Horse prophecy, it’s a folklore thing.” And if they’d said, do you believe that Latter-day Saints will protect the Constitution, the question would be really determined by whether he knows his history. If he was paying attention at church, you know, ten years before, he would know that yeah that is an idea. And it was an idea that was permitted all the way back. You know, we can show Joseph Smith teaching it in 1840. So, an old idea. 

Now, what I see in the modern era is that people use it as a meme. Latter-day Saints on the left or the right play with it as a meme, often humorously. You know, now that Mitt Romney has opposed Trump, you see people on the Left saying, “maybe he is going to fulfill this prophecy.” Now, they don’t really think he’s fulfilling this prophecy, they’re having fun with a discourse that’s been out there. And its fun, you know I like some of these memes where Harry Reid and Mitt Romney are fighting over the White Horse. Who’s going to be the Mormon that saves the day? It’s an interesting thing. But that idea of political messianism that’s undergirding all this, I think that we’d find out that that really is an important Latter-day Saint ideal that we could trace all the way up. And today, I see this ideal showing up among Latter-day Saint preppers, not in their excitement about Romney, but in their excitement, unfortunately in my opinion, in Trump. President Trump as this sort of, an individual who’s pushing against mainstream political parties, and responding to liberal ideals, they see a hero in that. And Romney is presented, strangely to me, as a villain in the story. And so, he’s a traitor. And you see that in the sort of far-right prepper groups. Of course, Latter-day Saints have all sorts of political ideals and political understandings, with an emphasis on conservativism, and any of those ideas could use the Constitution prophecy as fuel or as a way to reinforce that sense of mission. 

SB: Before we wrap up here, the biggest thing on all of our minds, right, is the pandemic. How has, if at all, how has the pandemic, affected the way that Latter-day Saints, especially Latter-day Saints who aren’t part of the official institution, how has that affected their apocalyptic?

CJB: Yeah, you know, as a historian I would say we gotta wait a few years to pull in all our sources, but we can see it right now with the use of the internet. My wife is the folklore archivist at [Brigham Young University] so she’s been interviewing missionaries and others every day since the pandemic has been under way to record their experiences. What I think is that the pandemic has made us be more open to ideas that we’ve considered folklore, right? Latter-day Saints always believe in a sort of last days mission. You know, usually the mainstream Latter-day Saint whether they were in 1850 or in 1950 usually thought that the Second Coming was around the corner, but not today. It’s gonna be twenty years from now or forty years from now. I think there’s a lot more emphasis on an imminent apocalypse, and what I see this in is in a series of YouTube videos, some put out by a man named Masayoshi Montebeor, a woman named Jodie Stoddard, and there are others, that have gotten hundreds of thousands of views, and they’re all predicting major events that are happening this year, and in just a few years. And they’re doing it not through visionary practices, but through sort of like biblical calculation and putting different quotes together, relating it to Evangelical prophecy conversation on the eclipses and “Blood Moons” and so on. So there’s an openness to this and certainly an interest in it. I have gotten dozens of phone calls from different Latter-day Saint members asking what I think of these videos and telling me how they’ve heard about these videos. A seminary teacher called me from Logan and said, “Chris, my golfing buddy just gave me this video, what do you think about this?” I have a friend in Salt Lake who’s a realtor, and I went through this whole hour video with her step-by-step to educate her about it. So there is a lay emphasis on these ideas now that we haven’t seen otherwise. And there’s some excitement, you know. I think home church is fascinating as a moment of our time, but also, if I was writing a novel on the apocalypse, home church is one of the things I would include in that novel, how are Latter-day Saints bringing things when they have to be away from society. So yeah, I think we’re open to it. We are getting a taste of how an apocalypse might be. So its pretty fascinating. 

SB: Chris, this has been a great discussion. Thanks for being here today. Before we go, what book recommendations do you have, and also, are you currently working on any projects that we can look forward to reading in the future?

CJB: Yeah, that’s a really great question. There’s several books that I’m really excited about. In Mormon Studies I’m really excited about Sara Patterson’s Pioneers in the Attic which takes seriously the story—you know it has a folklore base to it, sort of lived religion, material religion—where, what’s the sort of pioneer memory in Latter-day Saint culture, and she takes you to all of the sites, and the way that Latter-day Saints are constructing their past. Related to that, Scott Esplin’s book, which is entitled Return to the City of Joseph emphasizes that memory story as it occurs in Nauvoo. Two books I’m very excited about. I am also very excited to finally dig in to Peter Coviello’s Make Yourselves Gods. This is a book that I think is going to make waves in Mormon Studies, and the little bit that I’ve read so far takes a little while to read and process, but I think it’s going to be an exciting moment for us, so I hope we’re digging into those books. 

My own current projects, I’m working on a book on Emma Hale Smith and reception among Latter-day Saints. What has happened to this widow of Joseph Smith, and how did Latter-day Saints reinterpret here? There’re not a lot of sources on Emma and so I argue that creative people through art and sculpture and song and theater, movies, literature, have reimagined her in different ways for their own purposes, whether it’s a feminist or an orthodox church member and a variety of other ways. It’s been a lot of fun. Really fascinating. But lots of great Mormon Studies out there. I’m excited for this podcast bringing attention to a lot of it. 

SB: That’s Christopher James Blythe talking about his recent book, Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse. Thanks for joining us today, Chris. 

CJB: Thanks so much, Stephen, this has been fun. 

[1] Jared Hickman, "The Book of Mormon as Amerindian Apocalypse," American Literature  86, no.3 (2014): 429–61.