Mulling Over the Millennium

Charles Cross and William Hewitt

There are events so momentous that they become personalized. Many Americans still remember vividly where they were when the bombing of Pearl Harbor was announced, when a public leader—President Kennedy or Martin Luther King—was assassinated, or when Neil Armstong took his first step on the moon. Another kind of momentous event occurs in years we think of as historical benchmarks: the turn from decade to decade, century to century, or—that one in a thousand—millennium to millennium. The last may be so hard to grasp that we try breaking it down into smaller parts. Most of the current books and television productions dealing with “the millennium” in fact concentrate on the past century and focus on the United States.

Some people see the turn of the millennium as an occasion for merry-making. Others await the first day of the next thousand years with emotions ranging from indifference to some degree of foreboding. The millennium may be seen variously as a historical reference point, a secular milestone, a sociological phenomenon, or a religious time of reckoning. But it is only the last that partakes of the meaning of “millennium” in Christian theology.

The word “millennium” originally referred to predictions in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The New Testament’s Book of Revelations described a thousand year epoch of goodness, justice, and happiness prevailing on earth—but only after a time of troubles during the Apocalypse. The era of peace would be ushered in by the Second Coming of Christ and his defeat of the forces of evil at the Battle of Armageddon. Sometime in the indefinite future, the earthly paradise itself would end with the Last Judgment and the establishment of an eternal paradise.

The century after the first millennium brought neither the Kingdom of God nor Armageddon to Christian Europe, although these events were widely feared or anticipated. People looked for the person who would embody the Second Coming, and discovered him in one or another historical figure—including Charlemagne (seen as not dead but merely sleeping) and various leaders of the successive Crusades of the 11th through 13th centuries.1

The century that began at the turn of the millennium can be seen as a historical benchmark in the history of Europe. On sites that had been nothing but villages for centuries, towns and cities were springing up. Technological innovations in agriculture supported the growth of population and prompted the movement of excess farm workers into towns to take up new occupations as traders or artisans. The Roman Catholic church systematized its practice throughout Europe. And, the papal call to the Crusades at the end of the 11th century opened Asia and Europe to a great exchange of cultural achievements in medicine, science, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, and warfare—with most of the advances, of course, flowing from East to West.

Apocalyptic expectations, never absent in medieval Europe, again loomed large with the approach of the mid-millennium year of 1500. A century or so later, early Puritan migrants to the New World expected that their settlement of New England would mark the beginning of the millennium. The Puritan vision of a godly paradise on earth was embodied in the “city on a hil#148; described by John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A hopeful vision of America was also embodied in the mystical depictions of the New Albion by William Blake at the end of the 18th century.2 At the end of the 19th century, however, the Western triumphalism of Kipling’s Recessional was more than counter-balanced by Yeats’ picture of the “rough beast…slouching toward Bethlehem.”

As is clear, the expected date for the coming of the millennium has not always coincided with the thousand year mark on the Western calendar. When William Miller of upstate New York preached to his followers that the Second Coming of Christ would occur on October 22, 1844, the congregation gathered on rooftops to witness the event. When it did not take place, Miller (like many before and after him) declared the day of reckoning to be indefinite and, in the process, created the Church of the Seventh-Day Adventists.

As we approach the beginning of the third millennium, assessments of the past and speculations about the future—both secular and sectarian—are commonplace. The futurists among us are having a field day. Travis Charbeneau for one views humanity as grappling with a vision of the future that fluctuates between the utopian and the apocalyptic.3 He sees the collapse of communism and the waning fear of possible nuclear catastrophe as opening the way to the age-old utopian ideal of achieving a better life on earth. He warns, however, that the great challenge of what he terms “apocutopia” will be to achieve a global balance between the human appetite for more and more material goods and the understanding that enough is enough. As the relative size of our planet continues to shrink, whether or not we attain this global equilibrium could become the hallmark of humanity’s success or failure during the next millennium.

How does the coming generation envision the millennium that lies ahead? The importance of their trying to do so is well summed up by William Wager’s observation that “no student will live anywhere else but in the future.”4 The turn of the millennium /century constitutes a historical benchmark that can and should engage students more fully in the changing world in which they live. Some suggested activities for helping them do this follow.


Teaching about the Millennium

1. Students might compare attitudes toward the turn of the millennium/century to what has occurred in previous historical periods. For example, students could research and discuss whether the passing of the first millennium or some more recent century was accompanied by:

> consciousness of the event as a historical benchmark or “defining moment”

> visions of a future utopia

> the hearkening back to a “golden” past

> visions of decay and disaster

> significant changes that reflected attitudes toward this passage in time

What do they think accounts for the varying attitudes they discover?

2. Students may gain insight into the attitudes of Americans at the turn of the last century by researching old newspapers and journals. For example, the prominent cultural journal Harper’s Weekly ran a series called the “Century of Achievement” which featured articles on literature, music, theater, education, painting, religion, gymnastics, transportation, and shipbuilding. On a more local level, the Pittsburg Press in December 1900 carried articles the titles of which themselves are indicative of attitudes toward the century’s ending and beginning: “Pittsburg’s Industrial Progress...Development During the Nineteenth Century,” “Dying Century Sees Witchcraft Trial,” “Fifty Greatest Men...of Nineteenth Century,” “United States in the Twentieth Century...Lessons Taught in History’s Pages,” and “What the New Century... Should Do for Humanity.” Teachers could ask students to research prominent journals of the time, or search their local newspaper morgue for articles that reveal attitudes about this historical benchmark.

3. Students could consider the turn of the century in terms of the graduating Class of 2001. Looking backward: What were the lives of young people in the United States like a hundred years ago? Who graduated from high school? What were the future prospects for most young Americans? How did the lives of young people then compare with today? Looking Forward: How do students anticipate their own lives will be viewed by students at the end of the 21st century? What would they like to tell the graduating Class of 2101 about being young in America today?

4. Students might examine the religious underpinnings of the millennium and the expectations surrounding it in the past and/or present. According to Cohn, the turn of the second millennium aroused expectations that were rooted as much in socioeconomic conditions and related political movements as they were in religious beliefs. Are there ways in which current societal conditions and political attitudes are related to the millennium today—for example, the renewed debate over the teaching of scientific evolution vs creationism? Teachers should keep in mind the need for sensitivity in any class discussions that may involve personal beliefs.

5. Gaining a more personalized understanding of the 20th century could provide students with greater insight into how particular events have shaped their world. Many current books, magazine series, and television programs are focusing on the 20th century (a smaller number have ventured to try to encompass the millennium). Students could use these resources as background for an oral history project in which they interview a family member or neighbor about some important historical event in which this person took part.

6. Students might compare and contrast American foreign policy at the end of the 19th century and today. One good springboard for discussing the emergence of the United States as a global power is the article on the annexation of Hawaii in this issue of Social Education (pp. 402-408). How did the United States role in world affairs develop and change during the 20th century? What are the major issues in our foreign policy today? Students might reflect on the meaning of the term “the American Century,” which was originated by Time and Life publisher Henry Luce. Can a century belong to one nation? To whom do students think the next century or millennium will “belong”?

7. Students could consider the relationship of the computer/Internet to both optimistic and pessimistic feelings about the turn of the millennium. Considering the short run, students might have fun discussing whether they think public concern over the “Y2K bug” is more (1) grounded in reality, or (2) reflective of any generalized unease over the advent of the new millennium. Students might then consider what they expect the long-range impact of the computer/Internet to be on their lives. For example, many see the computer as ushering in an era of knowledge (and implied progress) unparalled in history. Others see the effects of the computer/Internet as more complex and not always tantamount to progress.

8. The last year of the 20th century might be dubbed the “year of lists,” as lists of the-greatest-just-about-everything in the last century (and, less often, millennium) have abounded in the media. For example, PBS recently aired a three-hour program on the central importance of photography in the 20th century, offering a great number of candidates for the most potent image of the century (see its website at Students could choose any significant area of human achievement—involving political, social, cultural, scientific/technological, or other developments—and prepare their own list of what was “greatest” in terms of its lasting impact. The value of this activity would be in having students perform research and defend their choices, in individual writing and in class discussion, of what belongs on the list.

9. Incorporating the turn of the millennium/century into the social studies classroom would not be complete without the opportunity for speculation. There are many options for doing this.

One option would be to have students look into the role of the futurist in society. Warren Wagar has examined this role using the example of H. G. Wells, and describes three major benefits of futurism: providing an “openness” to the future and an “inventory of human opportunities,” consciousness-raising and sounding alarms, and establishing a focus for educational reform since “no student will live anywhere but in the future.” Students could explore the concept of “futurism” and decide who they think meets the description of a futurist—past and present.

Another option would be to have students make their own predictions about the 21st century after exploring the ideas of specialists in various fields—for example, historians, literary writers, artists, educators, scientists, inventors, environmentalists, demographers, sociologists, urban planners, computer experts, economists, and businesspeople. This activity could take many forms, including the preparation of a time capsule to include their individual predictions, or class debate on the likelihood of various predictions coming true.

A third option would be to focus on the planet earth and examine issues of environmental concern. Environmentalists and demographers may be the real millenialists. Their prognostications about over-population and environmental destruction are dire predictions that see the end coming not as an apocalyptic battle, but as a gasp for clean air and thirst for potable water. Students might draw a fruitful comparison of the ecology of a region at two points in time, for example, Tenochtitlan under the Aztecs and Mexico City today. Or, students could choose one issue—for example, population growth, global warming, the genetic revolution, the disappearance of species, the distribution of wealth and poverty, or the conditions of childhood—to explore in terms of both the problem’s dimensions and the progress that humankind is making to deal with it on a global basis.


Teaching Resources

Cantor, Norman F. Varieties of Culture in Modern Times. New York: Harpercollins, 1998.

Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. Millennium: A History of the Last 1000 Years. Touchstone Books, 1995.

Gilbert, Martin. A History of the Twentieth Century, Vol. III 1951-1999. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1999. Also, Vol. I 1900-1933; Vol. II 1933-1951.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

Howard, Michael Eliot and William Roger Louis (eds.). The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Jennings, Peter and Todd Brewster. Century. New York: Doubleday, 1998.

Life Magazine (eds.). The Life Millennium: The 100 Most Important Events and People of the Past 1000 Years. Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1998.

Life Magazine. Our Century in Pictures. Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1999.

Library of Congress. American Treasures in the Library of Congress: Memory, Reason and Imagination. Washington, DC: Author, 1997.

McGrath, Charles (ed.). Books of the Century: A Hundred Years of Authors, Ideas and Literature. New York: Times Books, 1998.

Mercer, Derrick and Jerome Burns. Chronicle of the World: The Ultimate Record of World History. DK Publishing, 1996.

Moynahan, Brian. The Russian Century: A History of the Last Hundred Years. New York: Random House, 1995.

National Geographic Society. National Geographic Eyewitness to the 20th Century. Washington, DC: Author, 1999.

Public Broadcasting System. American Photography: A Century of Images Companion Book. PBS website:

Schlesinger, Arthur M. Chronicle of the 20th Century. DK Publishing, 1996.

Zinn, Howard. The Twentieth Century: A People’s History. New York: Harperperennial Library, 1998.



1. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), Chapters III, IV and V.

2. David V. Erdman, Blake: Prophet Against Empire (Dover, 1991.)

3. Travis Charbeneau, “Living in Apocutopia,” The Futurist 27 (January-February 1993): 60.

4. W. Warren Wager, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” Technology Review 96 (April 1993): 50-59.


Charles Cross teaches in the Educational Services Department at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in Edinboro. Bruce Hewitt teaches in the Department of History at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.