millenarian movements: adaptation pains

Ghost dances and cargo cults, Martin Luther and Mao, the Mau Mau and Mohammed. In times of stress people look for the prophets of an earthly paradise and America is no exception. The United States may just be primed and ready for its own millennial cult, even in the Promised Land, the land of plenty…

Very few of the millenarian movements that have occurred around the globe have survived beyond the fourth step of stage four: adaptation. Usually, the movement is suppressed by people within its own ranks, as happened to many of the Jewish movements against the Romans, or it is crushed by the military intervention of the established powers such as the United States sending cavalry to end the Ghost Dance, or the execution of Black prophets in Africa by colonial powers. The Melanesian cargo cults have all been doomed to failure for the simple reason that no “secret” was being kept from them; however,out of this ferment new political movements emerged in places like Melanesia; movements attempting to correct deprivation more realistically, and thus more successfully.

— Recent examples of these new movements in America include the Heaven’s Gate (led by Marshall “Do” Applewhite), the Branch Davidians (led by David Koresh), and the People’s Temple (led by Reverend Jim Jones). All three movements failed to achieve their prophesized rewards and came to an abrupt end with mass suicide and murder.
There have been other similar religion focused millenarian movements that have not failed. Examples of these include the Jehovah’s Witnesses (founded by Charles Russell in the 1870′s), and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (founded by Joseph Smith in the 1830′s). Likewise, some indigenous millenarian movements elsewhere in the world have survived by changing and adopting methods that do not require magic and leaps of faith. For example, the Mau-Mau Movement in Kenya during the early 1950′s survived, after a bitter but successful war of independence against Britain, by evolving into a national political movement.—Read More:

Most of the millenarian movements in black Africa were ruthlessly suppressed by whites, but one that did succeed was the Mau Mau movement of the Kikuyu in Kenya; people who based their code largely on the Old Testament. Then there was the Peyote cult which spread widely and won the sympathy of professional anthropologists; but it barely escaped repressive measures by its own people and by the state and federal governments, and in the end, its prospects for transforming Indian society fell flat and the future, after passing through hippiedom, and Yuppiedom, is not really promising.

—Although an improvement over Vailala Madness, “cargo cult” also is problematic in several ways. People involved in such movements always aspired to many things beyond simple material goods. And the organizations of these movements were ill-described by the word “cult.” Moreover, people within the Pacific and beyond also quickly adopted the term as a form of political abuse: politicians today may belittle the plans and aspirations of their rivals by labeling these as “cargo cultist.”
Despite the popularization of cargo cult as a label for South Pacific movements, from the beginning anthropologists sought out alternative terms. These included nativistic movements, revitalization movements, messianic movements, millenarian movements, crisis cults, Holy Spirit movements, protonationalist movements, culture-contact movements, and the like. These broader labels appreciated cargo cult’s affinities with social movements elsewhere that also appeared to be sparked by the global spread of the colonialist and capitalist systems. Cargo Cults, thus, were in significant ways similar to the North American Ghost Dance, or China’s Boxer Rebellion, or the Mau Mau of East Africa. “Cargo Cult,” nonetheless, remains as the now standard label for the South Pacific version of global millenarian movements.

The defining aspect of cargo cult beliefs, or ideology, was of course cargo itself. Cultists, supposedly, strove for the arrival of planes and ships full of cargo: manufactured goods and tinned foods, vehicles, weapons, and money. However, lists of desired cargo, as reported, reflected both Pacific aspirations and European presumptions of what islanders should want. Refrigerators, for example, occupied a suspiciously prominent place in many such reported cargo lists.—Read More:

It appeared that during the later phase of Mao’s rule that the Chinese revolution against the Kuomintang was a successfully concluded millenarian movement, but it soon became apparent it was not so. Mao’s “cultural revolution” showed that it was really only able to reach the cultural transformation stage and that the victory against external and internal enemies was only later to attain an equilibrium, a “steady state” in F.C. Wallace’s analysis, through a routinization among the Chinese people themselves through an acceptance of what began as a new bureaucracy and the government policies it implemented that alleviated the deprivation that gave rise to the revolution and carefully evolved a new social order.

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