Sponsored by BYU Studies | Christopher Blythe is the author of Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse (Oxford University Press, 2020).
How did Christopher Blythe come up with the idea for Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse?
Christopher Blythe: I wanted to write about how lay Latter-day Saint beliefs intersect with the official doctrine of the faith (that which is promoted in Church manuals and preached at general conferences). My interests probably had a lot to do with my adoration for the religious studies scholarship of Robert Orsi on Roman Catholicism and David D. Hall on Puritans, but was initially stoked by the brilliant Latter-day Saint folklorist Bert Wilson who, as an undergraduate, I saw lecture on the crucial place of folklore in Latter-day Saint studies.
I’ve always had a deep interest in apocalypticism. However, much of the scholarship on Latter-day Saint last days beliefs seem to focus on official doctrine rather than the conversations occurring among lay Latter-day Saints. So, I hoped my book would offer valuable insight into an important, although largely neglected, space in Mormon Studies
What is the apocalypse?
Christopher Blythe: An apocalypse is literally an unveiling—a revelation. It’s also a genre of scriptural literature, which is best represented in the Bible with the Book of Revelation. That these works might discuss the end of the world is less important than that they are the story of a visionary being brought into otherworldly realms often with the aid of an angelic guide.
In popular usage, the apocalypse is the end of the world.
So, I used the term “apocalypse” and specifically “American apocalypse” to invoke the literary tradition because I introduce a lot of Latter-day Saint visionary accounts, but also because of its popular meaning. I focus more on prophecies predicting the downfall of the United States and less on the millennium that comes after.
How long have Latter-day Saints been talking about apocalyptic events?
Christopher Blythe: Latter-day Saints have been talking about apocalyptic events since before the organization of the Church in 1830. I opened Terrible Revolution with the story of angel Moroni’s appearance and recital of scripture at the bedside of Joseph Smith in 1823 as depicting one of the earliest last days sermons in Latter-day Saint history.
The Book of Mormon is filled with apocalyptic material and details the destructions of several civilizations in the Promised Land (the Americas). We spend much less time talking about apocalyptic events in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than we did in the nineteenth, but it ebbs and flows.
How (and why) has the perception of the US government in Latter-day Saint apocalyptic revelations evolved?
Christopher Blythe: Latter-day Saints came to see the federal government as their persecutors. This, after Joseph Smith visited Washington D.C. in 1839 and found President Martin Van Buren unreceptive to his pleas for assistance against Missouri.
After Smith’s assassination it was commonly believed the nation was doomed to be destroyed as a result of their complicity in his death. The Saints believed that they were responsible for preserving the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution in the American West.
For four decades, the federal government and the military were the villains in Mormon apocalyptic literature. This made sense in a nineteenth century Latter-day Saint worldview responding to Congress’s rejection of the Saints petition for self-rule, the establishment of a territorial government in Utah, and the occupation of the territory by federal troops.
Latter-day Saints reimagined their relationship with the nation after Utah obtained statehood in 1896. It wasn’t an automatic switch, and there were definitely holdouts, but by then the vast majority of Saints were eager to see themselves as fully American now that the nation offered them that privilege.
Actually, I was surprised to find that at times prophetic writers, during World War I, for example, came to see the United States as synonymous with the prophesied last days Zion. You see this sentiment, although muted, endure through the Cold War. That’s a drastic shift from the way 19th century predecessors viewed the U.S.
How did Hiram Page influence the way we view prophets today?
Christopher Blythe: Hiram Page was an early Latter-day Saint, who has become well known for having dictated revelations by looking through a seer stone. This was a more common practice than we often appreciate. In fact, the folk tradition continued even as Saints migrated into Utah Territory. (Jonathan Stapley wrote an excellent chapter on these practices in his Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology (Oxford, 2018).
Page is important because his revelations revealed things that the Lord had already promised to reveal to Joseph Smith: namely the location of Zion. Oliver Cowdery brought word of the revelations to Joseph Smith and Joseph pronounced them from the devil.
It was at this point that Joseph received the revelation currently published as Doctrine and Covenants Section 28, which explained that only Joseph Smith could dictate revelations for the Church.
I first understood the importance of this revelation reading Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, where Bushman argues that it was with this revelation that Joseph Smith transformed from being a prophet of the Church to being the prophet of the Church.
The revelation didn’t state that God wouldn’t reveal revelation to individual members of the Church, but it declared that it was wrong for that individual to pronounce any such revelation to the body of the church. In fact, revelations received by Joseph Smith throughout his life explicitly confirm that lay members would receive gifts of the spirit, visions, and revelations.
Referring back to Section 28, however, the revelation not only transformed how we understood the prophetic mantle, it also changed how we understood one another—the revelation being the first time that Latter-day Saints were encouraged to be suspicious of the unofficial visionary. Ultimately, this revelation taught Latter-day Saints to keep private more dramatic personal revelations.
As I discuss throughout my book, those who publish their revelations widely often come under criticism from the Church and their Latter-day Saint peers.
How does the Restoration Proclamation fit within the context of Terrible Revolution?
Christopher Blythe: I consider the Restoration Proclamation a great example of how millenarian thought remains a key part of Latter-day Saint identity in the twenty-first century. Most poignantly, the proclamation concludes by reaffirming that the Restoration’s purpose is “to prepare the world for the promised Second Coming of our Lord and Savior.”
That being said, if you were to compare this proclamation with a much older proclamation: the 1845 Proclamation of the Twelve, you would see how, we as a people, have come to deemphasize the apocalyptic.
While both proclamations share much in common, the nineteenth century proclamation provides greater detail about how the Saints are to fulfill their last days assignment and how the last days will proceed. It includes the mass conversation of Native Americans, for example, and a prophecy predicting the downfall of corrupt governments, which included that of the United States.
Who is John Pontius and how has the perception of “Spencer’s” story evolved?
Christopher Blythe: John Pontius was a Latter-day Saint author who passed away in 2012. That same year, he published what would become his most popular title, Visions of Glory: One Man’s Astonishing Account of the Last Days, in which he tells the story of a man he refers to as “Spencer,” an anonymous Latter-day Saint visionary from Salt Lake City.
“Spencer” had had a series of near-death experiences and visions detailing parts of the afterlife and most importantly he had seen his own future as it led from great destructions in Salt Lake City to the establishment of the New Jerusalem in Jackson County, Missouri. Those who are familiar with the apocalyptic ideas common to nineteenth century Latter-day Saints would not be surprised by his visions. Pontius even printed some popular visionary literature as an appendix to Visions of Glory to show continuity between the scenarios presented by Spencer and those of his religious predecessors.
I suspect Visions of Glory is the best-selling Latter-day Saint apocalyptic text of the past hundred years. Maybe Bruce R. McConkie’s Millennial Messiah or Gerald Lund’s Coming of the Lord sold as many but they were as much scriptural commentaries as they were accounts of the last days.
No other modern apocalypse has drawn as much attention. I think this is because “Spencer” avoids a lot of controversy associated with being a celebrity. He has always maintained anonymity with the exception of one public talk he did after the book was released. Pontius even makes a case for why “Spencer” is not pushing against the official voice of the Church.
Keeping in mind the 1830 revelation about Hiram Page, Pontius’s point that Visions of Glory simply recounts a personal message to “Spencer” and is not a message to the Church as a whole, seems to support the established rules on sharing revelatory experiences in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Of course, the book has its critics. For example, the apologetic group, FAIRMormon, ran a critical book review that warned Latter-day Saints not to place much stock in these sorts of accounts coming from outside the Church’s leadership and certainly not from anonymous sources that can’t be verified.
Who is Julie Rowe and what makes her story unique?
Christopher Blythe: Julie Rowe is a visionary. Like “Spencer,” she too had near-death experiences and received revelations about the fate of United States. However, unlike “Spencer,” Julie established a movement. She wrote a series of books, conducted a speaking tour, and started a YouTube channel. She claimed prophetic gifts which gave her special status within the Latter-day Saint public.
Julie was also bold in professing her own theological ideas. This included a belief in reincarnation (“multiple mortal probations”), an emphasis on energy healing, and the coming forth of a millennial church called the Church of the Firstborn.
Ultimately, she was excommunicated, and has since become increasingly critical of the Church. That being said, she continues to produce YouTube videos, lecture, and offer “energy healing classes.”
In Terrible Revolution, I compared Julie Rowe to “Spencer” and attempt to make sense of why “Spencer” has received more support and less criticism. Some have tried to explain this disparity as solely the result of sexism and that might play a role but I suspect it has more to do with Julie’s ongoing presence in the public eye.
However, Julie is significant. She may very well be the most popular female visionary in Latter-day Saint history.
Would Chad Daybell have made an appearance in Terrible Revolution if Christopher Blythe were writing it today?
Christopher Blythe: If I was writing the book today, Chad Daybell (and the events surrounding covid-19) would be a major focus of the final chapter. Of course, I could have included him in Terrible Revolution. I was familiar with Daybell’s novels but decided to narrow my purview and not focus on fictional apocalyptic writings.
While, in 2017, Chad Daybell announced that his fiction was inspired by his own near-death experiences, I saw greater value in juxtaposing Spencer and Julie Rowe as polarities of LDS visionaries. Daybell was also less popular.
I am working on a short follow-up to Terrible Revolution which will discuss Daybell and how he has negatively impacted public perceptions of Latter-day Saint apocalyptic beliefs.
Are there any similarities between Chad Daybell’s “zombies” and Brigham Young’s blood atonement?
Christopher Blythe: Sure, I think there are similarities. Both are religious justifications for taking someone’s life. They both seem to suggest that the killing was done out of a sense of mercy and duty.
However, the idea of a “zombie,” the belief that an individual is so possessed by an evil spirit that they cannot be exorcised, is a novel belief in Latter-day Saint thought. While there are religious justifications for homicide in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and within the teachings of Brigham Young, the Daybell’s theology seem to fall distinctly outside of the text and history of the church.
That being said, Lori Vallow, did, in a recently surfaced recording, discuss contemplating killing her ex-husband, Joseph Ryan, based on Nephi’s justification for the slaying of Laban in the Book of Mormon.
What’s a story that might have been included in Terrible Revolution if you had a larger word limit?
Christopher Blythe: As you might imagine, there is a lot of material that didn’t make it into the book. One that I sometimes wish I had included was the story of the Morrisites, a small sect of Latter-day Saints in the 1850s, who followed Joseph Morris. He was one of the most prolific visionaries of the era.
For those who are unfamiliar, the four horsemen were depicted in Revelation as riding red, white, black, and pale horses.
And the community was charged by Joseph Morris to locate matching steeds. Once they found them, they were to ride them around Salt Lake City square, believing that the Savior would appear to thwart their enemies—in this case, those who followed the Church led by Brigham Young. They ultimately ran into many problems trying to accomplish this task, not least of which was finding the right colored horses.
I do mention Morris briefly in the book, but the story I find so fascinating is the Morrisites’ preparations for the Second Coming in 1862. There was a theatrical or ritualistic element to the Morrisites efforts to conjure the culminating events that would lead into the apocalypse. Specifically, they were to find and gather the four horsemen of the apocalypse in Salt Lake City.