We are all familiar with the “Jesus is coming” meme, and many of us are aware that Jesus isn’t the only savior on the way. Some religions are given to hopes of saviors in the future. It’s no surprise that many people hope to be saved, like a slumbering beauty longs for her Prince Charming, though that salvation may mean the destruction of the world. This desire has been expressed among Christians and Muslims for as long as Christians and Muslims have walked the earth.
In the 13th Century, the Joachamites announced the Antichrist would appear in 1260, and Christ himself soon thereafter. Around 1750, one of the founders of the Shaker movement made the following announcement:
Repent. For the kingdom of God is at hand. The new heaven and new earth prophesied of old is about to come. The marriage of the Lamb, the first resurrection, the new Jerusalem descended from above, these are even now at the door. And when Christ appears again, and the true church rises in full and transcendent glory, then all anti-Christian denominations—the priests, the church, the pope—will be swept away.
History is littered with such millenarian outbursts. We need not enumerate them all here.
One such revival, commonly called the Second Great Awakening, featured characters like Joseph Smith and William Miller. Miller was a Baptist preacher who got out his notepad and his Bible and calculated the ETA of end of the world. Smith, the self-styled American Muhammad, brought his own Kingdom of Heaven down to Earth.
Pioneers in Persia
A surge of missionary activity seems to have accompanied this revival, and for Protestant Christians, the mission almost always involves the distribution of Bibles. This generally means printing Bibles in the local vernacular, so translation is a prerequisite.
Iran in 1808
The New Testament and Psalms were first translated into the Farsi (Persian) language in 1812. The task was completed in Shiraz, formerly the capital of Persia under Karim Khan and a city with an established Armenian Christian population, by an Anglican priest and a man from Shiraz. Not much later (1820), Shiraz was visited by the missionary Peter Gordon, who asserted that Shiraz was fertile ground for missionary work, and, of all cities in Persia, ought to be the focus of missionary attention. By 1825, the missionary Joseph Wolff established a Christian school for Armenian children in Shiraz.
These missionaries were not trying to convert Muslims, though they would have been happy to do so. Evangelizing to Muslims was a dangerous business, as it meant leading Muslims into apostasy, a capital offense. The missionaries were, rather, after Jews and Christians of wayward denominations. But their activities, and presumably much of their message, may have been familiar to the Muslims of cities that were targets of missionary action. The revival itself, thanks in part to the missionaries, was spreading among the native Christians of the Middle East, and quite predictably, some Christians were heard to be expecting the imminent return of Christ.
Things had not gone well for Persia since the death of Karim Khan in 1779. The rise of the Qajars in 1794 was a particularly barbaric affair. In 1813 and 1828, Persia suffered military defeats and lost much territory to Russia, then a Christian empire. The Shah attacked the British Empire (Afghanistan) in 1837-38, but he was rebuffed by the British. Western influence began to increase steadily across Persia. This, no doubt, emboldened Christian missionaries, just as it surely wounded Persian honor.
By 1822, William Miller had completed his calculations and began to preach about the nearness of the Second Coming. He began with general pronouncements, but eventually coughed up the details:
My principles in brief, are, that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.
As is well known, Christ missed his date with destiny. Miller then selected an alternative Jewish calendar that would permit Jesus to arrive by April 18 without the risk of being deemed rude. The revised deadline also passed without incident.
I can almost hear the missionaries declaring “the end is nigh” and Persians thinking, “what have we got to lose?” in reply. They could have used a messiah at least as much as any missionary, but a Persian messiah would have to be a Muslim messiah, a mahdi.
Sometime after 1826, a Persian named Sayyid Kazim turned his Shayki following in a distinctly millenarian direction . Kazim preached that the Muslim Mahdi, whom he identified as the Christian Messiah, was somewhere in the world, waiting to be discovered. Kazim stated quite clearly that he had not met this messiah. When Kazim died in 1843, he left his followers searching across the land for the Mahdi.
Sayyid Kazim had appointed a successor, Haji Karim Khan Kirmani, who would steer the Shaykhis away from Kazim’s millenarianism and back toward the movement’s less radical roots, but Persia was ripe for a savior, and the new Shayki leader couldn’t steer the ship of faith quickly enough to stop violence from breaking out across Persia.
Among Kazim’s disciples (and Karim Khan’s flock) was a young merchant from Shiraz whom Kazim had instructed at length and presumably sent back to Fars to seek the Messiah. Soon after Kazim died, and shortly after William Miller’s final calculations fell through, the young Shaykhi declared himself to be the Messiah. He was a little late to be Jesus (according to Miller’s reckoning), but better late than never. The young messiah inspired a jihad throughout Persia, and was duly executed in 1850. The rebellion raged on for years, but was put down. Ultimately, the movement renounced violence and was rebranded “the Baha’i Faith.” They continued to endure violent royal reprisals, and they are persecuted in Iran to this very day.
 It’s doubtful that the Shaykhis existed as a millenarian sect before Kazim took over, but even if it had, it wouldn’t have been so before about 1824.
© 2012 Dan Jensen