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End of the world? Loyola professor researches millennialism and impact on cultures

November 16, 2012

As the purported end of the Mayan calendar approaches on Dec. 21—the day some are expecting varying degrees of spiritual and world change—Loyola University New Orleans professor Catherine Wessinger, Ph.D., still plans to go in to work like she does every day, and continue her research on millennialism. Wessinger focuses on the cross-cultural and comparative study of millennialism, including the relationship of some millennial movements to violence, especially situations where there is conflict between believers and the authorities.

When it comes to the Dec. 21 date, Wessinger says the Mayan calendar has been misrepresented by individuals in the New Age movement. Until the movie “2012,” most Mayans were unaware of any particular significance attached to that date.

According to Wessinger, when people believe a catastrophic or progressive change to the world is near, they are likely to behave differently based on those beliefs, and this makes the different types of millennialism important to understand.

“Millennial beliefs play a role in most cases of religious violence,” she said.

Wessinger, the Rev. H. James Yamauchi, S.J., Professor of the History of Religions at Loyola, will speak Nov. 17 in Chicago on that very subject of millennialism and violence. She will present her paper, “The Interactionist School of Religion and Violence: Interdisciplinary Approaches in New Religions Studies,” at the American Academy of Religion meeting.

Wessinger also published her third and last Branch Davidian book. The book wraps up her oral history project with three survivors of the 1993 assaults on the Branch Davidians’ residence near Waco, Texas, by federal law enforcement agents. The conflict killed 59 Branch Davidian adults and 23 children, and four U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents. “A Journey to Waco: Autobiography of a Branch Davidian,” by Clive Doyle with Wessinger and Matthew D. Wittmer, presents Doyle’s personal account of what the Branch Davidians believed, his experiences in the 1993 conflict and introduces the community’s members, including David Koresh. The book, available on Amazon.com, is published by Rowman & Littlefield.

April 19, 2013 is the 20th anniversary of the Branch Davidian fire near Waco—the culmination of a six-hour FBI tank and tear gas assault. On April 18, Wessinger will speak about her oral history research with survivors during a daylong symposium on the Branch Davidian case at Baylor University.

This year, Wessinger also published three chapters in edited books: Charismatic Leaders in New Religions in “The Cambridge Companion to New Religious Movements,” ‘Cults’ in America: Discourse and Outcomes in “The Cambridge History of Religions in America” and The Second Generation Leaders of the Theosophical Society (Adyar) in the “Brill Handbook of the Theosophical Current.”

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