This talk addresses the underlying cultural conditions for millennial misgivings in the United States. It is derived in part from his 1996 book Millennium III, Century XXI: A Retrospective on the Future.
As a new century and millennium approach, the world braces itself for a frenzied outpouring of popular excitement, tabloid predictions, and religious hysteria, all egged on by a strong dose of mass media attention. Historian Peter Stearns has supplied an antidote with this witty and insightful look at earlier millennial fevers and turn-of-the-century neuroses. By examining this past, he provides a useful perspective on the millennial hype coming in the nearly future. And even if you don't really expect the world to end, the question remains: Can we survive the media's millennium? To understand how we came to count and care about the passage of large units of time, it is crucial to consider not only the configuration of calendars but also Christian thinking about the millennium. Stearns outlines the biblical basis for millennial prophecies, describes later church doctrines, and explores the manifestations of religious millennial excitement, with an emphasis on the vigorous tradition still thriving in the United States, from the Millerites of the 1840s to the Branch Davidians. What actually happened the first time the world crossed the threshold of a new millennium? We're sure to hear some gripping stories about outbreaks of mass hysteria in the Dark Ages, but they aren't true, and it's important to understand where the myth originated and why it persists. Then there's the century to consider. The advent of the twentieth century, our most recent precedent, was marked by complex mixtures of optimism and despair. The book analyzes this odd coalescence of moods and then considers its relevance to present attitudes - which seem interestingly different from those experienced by our great-grandparents.