“As a Thief in the Night”
by Dan Erickson

Chapter 9
The Decline of Millennialism

[p.213]When exactly did belief in the immediacy of a millennial deliverance expire in Mormon thought? Pinpointing a time frame, just as identifying a date for the “final” passing of polygamy, is problematic.1 Certainly expectation that “the End is not far off” persisted well into the 1890s, with natural disasters and calamities still viewed as signs that the Creator would soon “avenge the blood of the Prophets & Saints & fulfill the Testimony of the Prophets & Apostles upon this Nation.”2 Some held God was already fighting the Saints’ battles as witnessed by the [p.214]fact that “prosecutions on the marriage question are almost out of date and a thing of the past.”3

From the pulpit leaders continued to express chiliastic expectations.4 In 1892 President Wilford Woodruff counseled St. George, Utah, members that the dispensation “was to be cut short” with little time for preparation “before the coming of the Son of Man and the ushering in of the great millennium.”5 When he dedicated the Salt Lake temple the next year, Woodruff prophesied that the “millennium is near at hand” and that the temple would receive Christ at his return after the prepartion and perfection of the Saints.6 Upon its completion, members beheld “power and manifestations of the goodness of God,” George Q. Cannon announced, “such as they have never before experienced.”7 During the temple’s dedication, Woodruff reported that Isaiah of the Old Testament, numerous Book of Mormon prophets, deceased latter-day prophets Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, as well as Christ himself, all walked the temple halls. Leaders were told that “our enemies would never [again] have so much power over us as they have had” in the past.8

At local church conferences bishops and patriarchs persisted in saying that the Millennium was approaching, prophesying “that some [p.215]present would live to see the Son of Man come in His Glory.”9 Longtime member Charles Walker expected the final three years of the century to be more eventful than any previous decades, “for the time of His coming draws nigh.”10 Perhaps because the nation had not been destroyed in the Civil War, because the prophecies had not been entirely fulfilled in the generations up to the turn of the century, leaders felt they must be ever nearer to the final events. Thus they continued in their apocalyptic pronouncements.

Clinging to faith in the inevitability of events prophesied for so long, many Saints began to question their own worthiness. As in a previous era when members were told they had been expelled from Missouri because of their own unrighteousness, God’s law of plural marriage was now withdrawn and perhaps Christ’s return would have to await a more righteous generation.11 “There would have been no manifesto,” declared Apostle Matthias Cowley, “if we had obey[ed] … the command [of] God [for he] would fight our battles for us.”12

For many, Utah’s obtaining statehood through accommodation was a setback in their attempt to come out of Babylon. To those members, the Manifesto represented the surrender of a holy prin-[p.216]ciple merely to escape the consequences of the government’s anti-polygamy campaign.13 Although Woodruff had earlier said “it would seem proper for us to bend our faith” since “[s]tatehood seems to promise the readiest solution [to] … the great problem of the day,” the Manifesto’s “bending” became complete reversal, if not repudiation.14 With theocracy and polygamy intertwined, the decline in the idea of a separate religious kingdom led to a decrease in Mormon millennialism.15 The Woodruff Manifesto of 1890, followed by the political-theological accommodation necessary for statehood, forced the Saints to rethink their millennial timetable. The theocratic and separatist aspects of Mormonism were ncessarily postponed.16

Yet as the decade progressed, Wilford Woodruffs faith in his patriarchal blessing that he would see Christ’s return persisted. He now believed that the day had arrived for angels to descend “in their hands sharp Sicles … sent forth to Visit the Earth … to poor [sic] out the Judgements of God upon the wicked and will Continue untill the scene is wound up.”17 Well into the late 1890s, Woodruff maintained [p.217]that “many in the flesh at the time would see the savior,” although at times his sermons softened, predicting that “children [then] living would live to see the Saviour.”18

After Woodruffs death in 1898, new church president Lorenzo Snow carried belief in an imminent millennium into the twentieth century. In October 1900 he announced to the First Presidency and twelve apostles that “Christ will come before long,” and while blessing Apostle Rudger Clawson’s son, Snow petitioned God that the child “may live until Thy Son shall come in His glory among the children of men.”19

As the latter-day prophet, Snow continued to preach that the redemption of Zion was at hand and church members would soon return to Missouri. In November 1900 he told the Saints, “There are many here now under the sound of my voice, probably a majority who will have to go back to Jackson county and assist in building the temple.”20 At a reception for missionaries, Snow testified: “I know that Jesus lives. Many of you who are here tonight will see him, … When you return to Jackson County and engage in building the temple there, you will see Jesus and be associated with him.”21 He told another group the hour was fast approaching when a large number of them would return to Jackson County. He reported setting aside church monies to assist in constructing the temple in Missouri, believing the “time [p.218]has come to commence to redeem the Land of Zion.”22 Snow viewed tithing as a precursor to carrying the gospel to the world for the last time and as a step toward the Millennium. The funds would allow the Saints to redeem Zion and purchase the Jackson County temple site.23 He promised church leaders in 1899: “If you live 10 or 15 yrs more or less perhaps Less, we are going back to Jackson Co.’24 Apostles Brigham Young, Jr., and Matthias Cowley also emphasized the nearness of Zion’s redemption. Cowley declared that “the day is not far distant when the Lord will clean out Jackson County,” and advised fellow leaders to prepare to build up the center stake.25

But following Snow’s death in 1901, his successor, Joseph F. Smith, instituted a policy of assimilation rather than separation. One explanation may be the “changing of the guard.” The church hierarchy now consisted primarily of younger general authorities, men who had no personal association with Joseph Smith and the millennial world view so profound and so often professed in the early church. Between 1897 and 1907, the church replaced eleven new apostles, two members of the First Council of the Seventy, and four new members of the Presiding Bishopric. Thus out of the new general [p.219]authorities, only Charles W. Penrose was born before the Saints’ arrival in Utah.26

In 1903 Benjamin F. Johnson, a friend of Joseph Smith, expressed his disappointment in the delay of the Millennium. “We were,” he said, “over seventy years ago taught by our leaders to believe that the coming of Christ and the millennial reign was much nearer than we believe it to be now.”27 Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow were the last of the first generation of Mormon leaders. With Snow’s death, the church found itself with a prophet who had not known Joseph Smith as an adult.28

Church leaders became more indefinite in their millennial rhetoric, speaking generally of the redemption of Zion but only after the Saints first learned to keep the commandments.29 Some began to speak of Christ’s advent as a private return with the Savior making himself known to church leaders to provide instruction.30 While millennialism remained a doctrine, leaders and members no longer showed the emotional outbursts characteristic of the nineteenth-century church. Rather their preaching was characterized by a calm, expectant mood, anticipating Christ’s coming but not emphasizing its immediacy.31

In moving to the Great Basin, the Saints had attempted to create a literal kingdom of God, a sacred place for God’s chosen people. [p.220]With their intense belief in the immediacy of the Millennium, they planned to usher in the end of time. Social, economic, and political institutions (including polygamy) were expected to remain until the world’s end. But by the end of the nineteenth century, American society had made it clear there was no place for a separate, anti-pluralistic Mormon kingdom within the larger structure of American pluralism.32

With the 1890 Manifesto and its aftermath, Mormonism was forced to pass through a “psychic watershed,” announcing that the old system would pass away to a new order, thereby allowing for the survival of the institutional church.33 A shared apocalyptic vision had isolated Mormons from the outside community, millennial expectations giving members the fortitude to persevere. Urgently engaged in the Lord’s work, they had been counseled to watch for the “signs of the times,” anticipating the Bridegroom’s return.34 But when the church was no longer able to shield members from political subordination and cultural disintegration, a resynthesis of beliefs and values was necessary.35 With the realization that the Millennium had been delayed, the Saints would have to find a way to accommodate the world while continuing to await its inevitable end.36

[p.221]In many respects the church was faced with having to search for a new way to understand reality, a new paradigm. Such paradigm shifts “are seldom completed by a single man and never ovenight.”37 The previous world view had allowed Mormonism to maintain a non-pluralistic community with the integration of politics, economy, and religion, including polygamy, separate from the gentile world. A new Mormon paradigm was now necessary to allow for assimilation into American culture, saving the institutional structure of the church while maintaining the essential religious characteristics that allowed the Latter-day Saints to consider themselves God’s chosen people. Polygamy, church control over state and economic institutions, and the immediacy of a millennial peace were all casualties of assimilation.38

Some view the early 1890s as the watershed years of Mormon history. In hindsight one can see in the late 1880s and early 1890s a convergence of numerous events, culminating in the 1890 Manifesto and its aftermath, that changed the direction of the church forever. These changes, if not all immediate and planned, have become enduring, carrying Mormonism into the twentieth century and beyond.39

One hundred years ago, apocalyptic hope filled the air. Millennialism, so fixed in the minds of Mormonism’s first generation, played a major role in shaping the Mormon psyche, heightening tensions that alienated the Saints from the larger community. Only when they realized that Christ’s return would not deliver them from their enemies did accommodation gain acceptance; and even then, a generation of Saints had to pass away before the expectation of an immediate apocalyptic solution finally subsided.



1. On the continuance of polygamy after the Manifesto, see B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 167-335; D. Michael Quinn, “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon History 18 (Spring 1985): 49-105; Kenneth L. Cannon II, “After the Manifesto: Mormon Polygamy 1890-1906,” Sunstone 8 (Jan.-Apr. 1983): 27-35; Victor W. Jorgensen and B. Carmon Hardy, “The Taylor-Cowley Affair and the Watershed of Mormon History,” Utah Historical Quarterly 48 (Winter 1980): 4-36; and Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 143-76.

2. A. Karl Larson and Katharine Miles Larson, eds., Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, 2 vols. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1980), 2:801, 27 Sept. 1895; 2:821, 13 July 1896; Scott G. Kenney, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1833-1898, 9 vols. (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1983-85), 9:300, 1 May 1894. See also Larson and Larson, Diary of Charles Walker, 2:835, 26 Feb. 1897; 2:842, 30 Apr. 1897.

3. Levi Mathers Savage Family History Journal, mimeographed copy, Special Collections, Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 48, 1 Jan. 1895. See also Larson and Larson, Diary of Charles Walker, 2:815, 13 Apr. 1896.

4. Ambrose B. Carlton, The Wonderlands of the Wild West, with Sketches of the Mormons (N.p.: n.p., 1891), 321.

5. Larson and Larson, Diary of Charles Walker, 2:742, 13 June 1892.

6. Brian H. Stuy, ed., Collected Discourses, 5 vols. (Sandy, UT: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987-92), 3:275.

7. In Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, “A Time of Dedication: How history records the unique events of the temple’s dedication,” This People 14 (Spring 1993): 25.

8. Abraham Hoagland Cannon Diaries, photocopy of MS, Special Collections, Lee Library, 18 May 1893; Stuy, Collected Discourses, 3:274-75; Cheri Loveless, “The House of the Lord,” This People 14 (Spring 1993): 22.

9. Anthony Woodward Ivins Diaries, Utah State Historical Society, Salt Lake City, “Diary, Feb. 2, 1902-April 7, 1902,” 9 Mar. 1902; David Fisk Stout Diaries, LDS church archives, Salt Lake City, Utah, 13:41, 9 Feb. 1902.

10. Larson and Larson, Diary of Charles Walker, 2:831, 30 Dec. 1896.

11. John Mills Whitaker Diaries, 3 vols., TS, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, 1:281, 9 Apr. 1893: Stuy, Collected Discourses, 3:280; “Remarks Made by President George Q. Cannon,” Deseret News, 14 Nov. 1891; Brigham Young, in F. D. Richards, Journal of Discourses, Pearson’s Magazine 24 (Oct. 1910): 451; B. Carmon Hardy, “Self-Blame and the Manifesto,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 24 (Fall 1991): 43-57; Kimball Young, Isn’t One Wife Enough? (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1954), 411.

12. Matthias S. Cowley, 28 Jun. 1901, quoted in Proceeding Before The Committee on Privileges And Elections Of The United States Senate In The Matter Of The Protests Against The Right Of Hon. Reed Smoot A Senator From The State Of Utah, To Hold His Seat, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1906), 1:8.

13. David M. Reay and Londa Lee Skousen Reay, comps., Selected Manifestations… , (Oakland, CA: Published by the Authors, 1985), 131; William E. Berrett and Alma P. Burton, Readings in L.D.S. Church History, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1955), 3:108; Gustive O. Larson, The “Americanization” of Utah for Statehood (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1971), 272.

14. Wilford Woodruff to William Atkin, 18 Mar. 1889, Special Collections, Merrill Library, Utah State University, Logan, Utah.

15. Klaus J. Hansen, Quest for Empire: The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History (Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1970), 23; Klaus J. Hansen, Mormonism and the American Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 19SI), 145.

16. Richard D. Poll, “The Americanism of Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly 44 (Winter 1976): 86-89; Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 171, 117.

17. Kenney, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9:307, 24 June 1894; “Discourse,” Deseret Evening News 31 (7 May 1898): 9. See also Kenney, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1:118-19, 3 Jan. 1837, where Woodruff was also promised that he would “return & stand upon Mount Zion in the flesh even in Jackson County Missouri at the Cumming of Christ.”

18. “Ninety Years of Age,” Deseret News Semi-weekly, 2 (Mar. 1897): 6; Larson and Larson, Diary of Charles Walker, 2:868, 9 Apr. 1898 (emphasis added); Stuy, Collected Discourses, 3:424.

19. Stan Larson, ed., A Ministry of Meetings: The Apostolic Diaries of Rudger Clawson (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1993), 217, 4 Oct. 1900, hereafter referred to as Rudger Clawson Diary. A copy of the blessing is found in ibid., 233-34, 2 Jan. 1901.

20. Lorenzo Snow, 7 Nov. 1900, in Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 288-89.

21. Larson, Rudger Clawson Diary, 286, 20 June 1901. See also Deseret News, 15 June 1901.

22. Larson, Rudger Clawson Diary, 215, 4 Oct. 1900; Journal History, 29 May and 15 Sept. 1900, in Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 289. See also the pledge of $100 to assist in the redemption of land in Jackson County, Missouri, in George C. Naegle to Anthony W. Ivins, 1 Sept. 1903, Ivins Collection, box 10, folder 5, Utah State Historical Society; Hardy, Solemn Covenant, 188-89.

23. Larson, Rudger Clawson Diary, 150, 7 Apr. 1900; 71-72, 2 July 1899; 216-17, 4 Oct. 1900; 153, 9 Apr. 1900; 269, 8 Apr. 1901; 270,11 Apr. 1901; Anthony Woodward Ivins Diaries, 2:68, 2 July 1899.

24. Donald G. Godfrey and Brigham Y. Card, eds.” The Diaries of Charles Ora Card: The Canadian Years, 1886-1903 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993), 504, 2 July 1899. See also ibid., 449, 6 Apr. 1898; ibid., 568, 7 Oct. 1900; Larson, Rudger Clawson Diary, 71-72, 2 July 1899.

25. Larson, Rudger Clawson Diary, 78, 11 July 1899; Winslow Farr Diary, TS, Special Collections, Lee Library, 242-43.

26. James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976), 436; Larson, The “Americanization” of Utah for Statehood, 272-73.

27. Benjamin F. Johnson to George S. Gibbs, 1903, in Hansen, Quest for Empire, 19; Benjamin F. Johnson’s Letter to Elder George F. Gibbs (Salt Lake City: Collier’s Publishing Co., 1992), 29.

28. Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 244.

29. Larson, Rudger Clawson Diary, 310, 22 Aug. 1901.

30. Ibid., 134, 11 Jan. 1900; 217, 4 Oct. 1900.

31. Louis G. Reinwand, “An Interpretive Study of Mormon Millennialism During the Nineteenth Century with Emphasis on Millennial Developments in Utah,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1971, 159.

32. Hansen, Mormonism and the American Experience, xvi; Jan Shipps, “Utah Comes of Age Politically: A Study of the State’s Politics in the Early Years of the Twentieth Century,” Utah Historical Quarterly 35 (Spring 1967): 95.

33. Thomas G. Alexander, “The Odyssey of a Latter-day Prophet: Wilford Woodruff and the Manifesto of 1890,” Journal of Mormon History 17 (1991): 71; Jan Shipps, “In the Presence of the Past: Continuity and Change in Twentieth-Century Mormonism,” in After 150 Years: The Latter-day Saints in Sesquicentennial Perspective, eds. Thomas G. Alexander and Jessie Embry (Provo, UT: Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, 1983), 11, 20-22.

34. Glen M. Leonard, “Early Saints and the Millennium,” Ensign 9 (Aug. 1979): 47; Susan Peterson, “The Great and Dreadful Day: Mormon Folklore of the Apocalypse,” Utah Historical Quarterly 44 (Fall 1976): 366-70.

35. Michael Barkun, Disaster and the Millennium (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974), 39.

36. Shipps, “In the Presence of the Past,” 26.

37. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 7.

38. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 14; Mark P. Leone, Roots of Modern Mormonism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 167.

39. Keith E. Norman, “How Long, O Lord? The Delay of the Parousia in Mormonism, Sunstone 8 Jan.-Apr. 1983): 54; Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 86.