Mormons have been looking forward to the Second Coming of Jesus and the accompanying end of the world since Joseph Smith founded the faith. Intermittently, the Church has to update its interpretations as deadlines pass without Armageddon, but the message is consistent: “Prepare yourselves… until I come. Behold, I will come quickly.”
Let’s take a look at some of the Church’s eschatological prophesies, in chronological order.
Winding up the scene
When Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon Witnesses called the church’s first Quorum of Twelve Apostles as missionaries to the world in 1835, Joseph prophesied:
It was the will of God that those who went to Zion, with a determination to lay down their lives, if necessary, should be ordained to the ministry, and go forth to prune the vineyard for the last time, [for] the coming of the Lord, which was nigh — even fifty-six years should wind up the scene.
This was taken at face value by early Church leaders, especially when the United States increased anti-polygamy pressure as Joseph’s prophesied date drew near. Historian B. Carmon Hardy explains,
Apostle Erastus Snow said in 1884 that the day was at hand when Joseph and Hyrum Smith would be resurrected and Christ would appear among his followers — all, he indicated, before the apocalyptic events associated with destruction of the wicked. When the House of Representatives approved the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887, Wilford Woodruff warned that Congress had “turned the last key that seals their condemnation and lays the foundation for the overthrow & final destruction of the United States Government.”
The completion of Utah’s first four temples between 1877 and 1893 (particularly the Salt Lake Temple) corresponded with hardships associated with the anti-polygamy crusade and contributed to Mormon expectations that special events were soon to occur… During a meeting of the apostles only four months before the Manifesto, Quorum President Lorenzo Snow told his brethren they would live to see the Savior and would participate in the great work of the world’s closing scenes.
Wilford Woodruff confirmed in 1888 that “we are not going to stop the practice of plural marriage until the Coming of the Son of Man.” Thus, when he publicly renounced polygamy in 1890, it was with the intent that the Church would fool the gentiles and privately continue to perform new plural marriages for the one remaining year until Jesus returned and unbelievers were burned as stubble.
The Literal Gathering of Israel
In 1836, Joseph told his followers that “Moses appeared before us, and committed unto us the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north.” This very literal interpretation of Jeremiah was canonized as D&C 110.
A few years later John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, wrote to Joseph Smith asking about the basic beliefs and history of his church. Joseph’s reply, known as the Wentworth letter, was edited into The Articles of Faith and canonized. Article 11 holds that
We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.
Early leaders including Oliver Cowdery, W. W. Phelps, Heber C. Kimball, and Orson Pratt taught the gathering-from-the-North to the Saints. Cowdery blessed Joseph Smith that “he will go forth toward the north, and by the power of his word shall the deep begin to give way: and the ice melt before the Sun. By the keys of the kingdom shall he lead Israel into the land of Zion.”
When twentieth century satellite imagery made the idea of hidden enclaves of Israelites near the North pole impossible to discuss with a straight face and DNA testing ruled out any known group as a serious candidate for a “lost tribe,” apologists claimed these prophecies were never meant to be taken seriously. Today, the Church primarily interprets this literal gathering metaphorically, as missionary work, although as recently as 1986 Apostle Neal A. Maxwell taught that 2 Ne 29:13 was to be taken at face value. (“The Nephites and the Jews shall have the words of the lost tribes of Israel.”)
The Rising Generation
Eight years after calling the Twelve, in the April 1843 general conference of the Church, Joseph further prophesied: “There are those of the rising generation who shall not taste death till Christ comes.”
Again, Church leaders took this very literally. When it became clear that the children alive in 1843 had gone to their graves with no Second Coming in sight, Bruce R. McConkie creatively redefined that to include polygamous half-siblings:
It is not unreasonable to suppose that many young men had babies at the time of this prophecy and also had other children as much as 50 or 75 years later, assuming for instance that they were married again to younger women. This very probable assumption would bring the date up to, say, the 2nd decade in the 20th century — and the children so born would be members of that same rising generation of which the Prophet spoke. Now if these children lived to the normal age of men generally they would be alive well past the year 2000 A.D.
Today, of course, children born in 1920 are themselves 95 years old and even this interpretation is increasingly untenable.
A patriarchal blessing is “inspired direction from the Lord” pronounced upon Mormons by a man called to act “[as] Jacob in giving [blessings] unto his sons.” They are considered personal revelation, as opposed to revelation for the entire church.
The earliest Church patriarch was Joseph Smith’s father. After his death, it was inherited by Joseph’s brother Hyrum, who was next in line to become Church president, and by Hyrum’s descendants thereafter. In 1979, the office of Patriarch to the Church was eliminated amid fears by the Quorum of Twelve Apostles that the Patriarch would challenge their authority. Today, patriarchal blessings are performed by stake patriarchs who are safely subordinate to the Twelve.
Hundreds of patriarchal blessings from the nineteenth century promised that their recipient would live to see the Second Coming — another sign that Joseph’s prophesies were taken very literally until 1891 passed without incident. In one study, over ten percent of all blessings promised this. The same study showed that this dropped to two percent in the twentieth century. (The actual dividing line was almost certainly 1891.)
We have seen that Mormon leaders have been predicting the end of the world for almost two hundred years. But how did they go from that to Julie Rowe-style prepping? The early Mormon church was an agrarian one, so calls to stockpile food and supplies in preparation for the breakdown of society prior to the Second Coming would have been superfluous.
The Church began to explicitly call for this kind of preparation in 1937. J. Reuben Clark taught in April General conference,
Let every head of every household see to it that he has on hand enough food and clothing, and, where possible, fuel also, for at least a year ahead. You of small means put your money in foodstuffs and wearing apparel, not in stocks and bonds; you of large means will think you know how to care for yourselves, but I may venture to suggest that you do not speculate. Let every head of every household aim to own his own home, free from mortgage. Let every man who has a garden spot, garden it; every man who owns a farm, farm it.
The Church increased its emphasis on preparing for doomsday as the cold war progressed. In 1980, Ezra Taft Benson taught in October General Conference that “The revelation to produce and store food may be as essential to our temporal welfare today as boarding the ark was to the people in the days of Noah.”
The encouragement for members to grow family gardens continues today. But the rhetoric around gardening and food storage has shifted from an apocalyptic tone to emphasis of the benefits of being prepared in the face of financial difficulties.
As initial, specific prophesies went unfulfilled, Mormonism coped exactly the way every other end-of-the-world group does: not by admitting failure and moving on, but by redefining the failed prophesies and moving the end of the world into the unspecified future.
But the message to the membership that the end is near is never far away. The Church still takes apocalyptic revelation from Isaiah and Revelation very literally, and builds on those in Joseph Smith’s additions to the scriptural canon. Most recently, the Church teaches that accelerated missionary participation is a sign that the Lord is “hastening the work” in the last days.
So when charismatics like Rowe and any number of those seeking to profit from the latest round of prepping appear to stoke the flames of apocalyptic fear, many Mormons are ready to listen.