Saving the Earth: The History of a Middle-Class Millenarian Movement


Saving the Earth: The History of a Middle-Class Millenarian Movement


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Research into the phenomenon of "new religious movements" has become a major focus of attention for social scientists over the last twenty years. Sociologists in particular, but also historians and anthropologists, have been attracted to the unique quality of these groups—that of being both inside and outside the dominant culture.[1] Although, on the one hand, new religions are an expression of social trends and therefore a barometer of cultural values, on the other, by rejecting the established churches they place themselves beyond borders of mainstream society and its values. The emergence of new religions challenges traditional religions and thereby provides scholars with a special opportunity to examine the dynamics of religious belief and practice. So many new movements have emerged that scholarship about them has resulted in a body of work daunting in size and scope.[2]

Since new religious groups generally either do not keep archives or have been unwilling to make the papers they do have available to scholars, virtually all students of contemporary religious movements have been forced to obtain their data from interviews and/or participant-observation. These studies are, therefore, necessarily limited in their longitudinal analysis both of the leaders' lives and of the history of the movements. Confined to a several-year period at most, they tend to ignore change over time in favor of a detailed synchronic analysis of the groups as they exist during the period of field investigation.[3] As a result, the new religions are frequently perceived as static entities whose various qualities allow them to be fit into specific categories such as church or sect, charismatic or democratic, eastern or western, and so forth. As useful as such ahistorical categorization may be, it obscures the fact that religions are dynamic institutions that evolve over time in response to changes both in their external environment and in their internal relations. Due to our access to an unprecedented amount of historical documentation, this study can attempt to break through this fixed view of religious movements. We will specifically show how the complex mix of personalities, institutional needs, and social conditions interacted across time to move a religious group through several standard categories.

Much of this book is the story of the group's husband and wife leaders, especially the wife, Emilia Rathbun, who had all the qualities of a charismatic leader, yet refused to become a guru or prophet. At the same time, this book is also the study of a group of people who dramatically belie the facile assumption that new religious groups appeal to marginal people suffering from some sort of relative deprivation. Members of Creative Initiative were the epitome of successful mainstream Americans. Ethnically, financially, educationally, and socially, they would seem to have been the least likely of people to deviate from the religious norm, and in some very profound ways they did not. Although on the surface Creative Initiative appears to have been a major departure from mainline religion, in fact it was in some ways also a continuation and even a rejuvenation of traditional American religious values.

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University of California Press


History | New Religious Movements

Saving the Earth: The History of a Middle-Class Millenarian Movement