May 21, 2011, came and went with a whimper, which must have been terribly disappointing to Harold Camping. The 89 year old civil engineer had, with much fanfare and media attention, predicted the end of the world at 6 p.m. Camping’s failure must have felt terribly familiar to his followers, who would remember a similar prediction of the Apocalypse in 1994. But Camping should not be too embarrassed, for he has good company as we shall soon see. Camping can also take comfort that his flock continues to support his $100 million ministry heard in 61 languages across the globe.
Before visiting with Camping’s historic cohort of doomsayers, let us not forget the corollary to predictions of the End Days: forecasts for God’s wrath here on earth, something like the opening act to the Camping’s main attraction later on. According to religious prognosticators, sinners will suffer the wrath of god in the form of earthquakes, floods, fire or disease as biblical punishment for their errant ways. The declarations and explanations of such divine calamities always come after the fact, but let us not have such annoying details get in our way. Nobody is more out front in decoding god’s will than Pat Robertson; he declared that the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti was a consequence of Haitians making a pact with the devil. Robertson also believed that Hurricane Katrina was god’s punishment for legalized abortion; and that Florida’s weather woes are due to the state’s support for Gay Days at Disneyland. Robertson interprets the opening act mid-way through the play, while Camping attempts to predicts the plot’s ending before the curtain falls by carefully reading and interpreting the Play Bill. But they are both reading from the same script.
Predictions of the Apocalypse have in fact been a common theme throughout history, as is true too for the End Day’s first cousin, reading god’s intent into natural disasters. Let us first dismiss outright any ex post facto explanation of an earthly calamity as an indication of god’s intent. That is like a Wall Street analyst “explaining” that the market moved up because unemployment figures were positive; of course if the market moved down he would simply say that traders had already anticipated the good news or “explained” that housing worries overwhelmed the good news on jobs. After the fact you can make any theory fit the facts. Uninteresting. But the record for accuracy for End Day predictions is not particularly pretty either. An error rate of 100% (after all, we are still here) should call into question the legitimacy of the enterprise, but alas that is not the case. “Apocalypse Not Right Now” does not disturb the faithful. Will Graham, Billy Grahams grandson, said that “Harold couldn’t be more right. The end of the world is coming. We just don’t know the time of it.” Well, yeah, sure we do. In a few billon years the sun will expand into a red giant and engulf the earth. Probably too hot for the Rapture, where people believe they’ll be going someplace notably cooler.
But putting aside for the moment the sun’s expansive demise, let’s see how our Doomsday predictors have fared over the past 150 years.
In South Africa, in 1856, a young Xhosa girl went to fetch water at a local stream. There, she claimed to meet strangers from the spirit world. Excited, she returned with her uncle, Umhlakaza, who spoke with the same spirit world reps. From this encounter, Uncle Umhlakaza came back with an important message. At the time of this ghostly meeting, the Xhosa tribe was battling the English. The spirits told Umhlakaza that to succeed in driving out the foreigners, his tribesman must kill every animal in their herds, and destroy every kernel of corn so carefully stored in their granaries. The spirits promised him that if his tribesman followed these instructions, heaven on earth would be theirs. Dead loved ones would return, fat cattle would rise from the earth, corn would sprout in abundance, sickness and troubles would be banished and the old would become young and beautiful again. With such great promise, backed by the authority of the spirit world, Umhlakaza’s orders were carried out, resulting in the slaughter of two thousand cattle and destruction of all grains. Instead of earthly paradise, the Xhosa experienced a famine so deadly that the tribe nearly ceased to exist.
In 1990, a Houston teenager by the name of Vernon Wayne Howell moved to the sleepy wind-swept town of Waco after dropping out of high school. There he changed his name to David Koresh, explaining blandly that he was the reincarnation of both King David and King Cyrus of Persia. David did not stop there, further claiming he was in fact the Messiah, appointed by god to rebuild the Temple and destroy Babylon. At least 131 of Howell’s Branch Davidians were convinced enough to ensconce themselves in his compound, yielding to him their daughters as young as 12 to be impregnated by the Messiah. That episode ended badly, as we all know.
In 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult took their own lives, dying in shifts over a few days in late March. Some members helped others take a deadly mix of Phenobarbital and vodka before consuming their own poisonous cocktail. Why did these people die? Members of the cult believed the prophecy of Marshall Applewhite, who claimed that the comet Hale-Bopp was the long-awaited sign to shed their earthly bodies, which they called “containers.” By leaving their containers behind, followers would be able to join a spacecraft traveling and hiding behind the comet, which would take them to a higher plane of existence. Everybody outside of that cult would agree that the guy had a screw loose. But in fact, Applewhite had good precedent in broadly accepted religious lore. Gnostic Christians believed that Jesus not only knew about, but encouraged, Judas to betray him so that Judas “could sacrifice the man that clothes me.” Jesus apparently wanted to shed his container. Either Jesus was crazy or Applewhite was not.
In Uganda, in March 2000, somewhere between 200 and 500 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments committed suicide by setting fire to their church. The congregation apparently forgot about the commandment concerning “thou shall not kill.” These people died because the sect anticipated the end of the world, expecting a visit by the Virgin Mary on the Friday they self-immolated. She never showed up. The prophet in this case was Credonia Mwerinde, a former prostitute.
In the early 1800s, in Palmyra, New York, a local boy claimed he could divine the location of ground water, as well as treasures buried by Indians. Persuasive as a snake-oil salesman, farmers paid him $3, a princely sum then, to find buried riches on their land. The boy, Joseph, used “magic stones” to discover the sites of this bounty. When he inevitably failed to find either water or treasure, he would leave town, often with “encouragement,” and move on to other fee-based treasure-hunting activities.
After a particularly large and humiliating failure in the Susquehanna Valley, near Damascus, New York, Smith stayed on to court a local gal, Emma Hale, in spite of community accusations that he was a “charlatan.” In the spring of 1826, a group of unhappy customers went further and brought formal charges against Joseph, claiming he was nothing but an imposter. He was subsequently convicted of “glass gazing,” an outlawed form of fortune telling. Emma’s dad, Isaac, was one of the duped treasure hunters who testified against Joseph, so he was not pleased by the courtship of his daughter by this convicted criminal. He considered Joseph to be arrogant, fraudulent and lazy. Those who knew Joseph best claimed, “He could utter the most palpable exaggeration or marvelous absurdity with the utmost apparent gravity.” Others said that Joseph was “in particular considered entirely destitute of moral character and addicted to vicious habits.” But Joseph was persuasive to some, and Emma eloped with him in January 1827. To reconcile with his estranged father-in-law, Joseph promised to lead a more honest and honorable life, and to help Isaac on his farm.
Instead of working in the field, however, Isaac found Joseph spending all his time indoors. When he finally investigated, he discovered his son-in-law muttering long phrases from the Bible, with Emma sitting behind a curtain writing down Joseph’s ramblings. Joseph explained that he had found two ancient golden plates by digging in a spot to which he had been led by an angel. He claimed the plates were written in “reformed Egyptian.” Fortunately, the two plates conveniently came with their own set of Rosetta stones, allowing him to translate the symbols to English, which explained his indoor activities. Joseph Smith was translating the ancient Book of Mormon. The “ancient” part might be in question, though, since the book agitated against such contemporary institutions as Freemasons, and even Catholicism. Sadly, the plates mysteriously disappeared before the dates could be authenticated. In fact, Joseph declared that instant death would be the result for anybody but him looking at the golden plates. Nobody but Joseph, the fraudulent diviner from Palmyra, ever saw the plates. Only through the tainted word of a convicted con man do people know of the existence and content of those disappeared golden tablets. So terribly odd that such a monumental discovery would be hidden and destroyed rather than proudly shown to the world to prove that god’s word had been found at last.
Are the claims of Joseph Smith any less bizarre than those of Marshall Applewhite or David Koresh? Without large numbers, Mormonism would be considered just another lunatic cult, with a foundation little or no different from Heaven’s Gate or the Branch Davidians. But the power of faith to overwhelm rational thought is not to be underestimated. Mormonism is now one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, with proselytizing missionaries pursuing their task with passion and zeal in every corner of the globe.
In 1831, or thereabouts, a minister by the name of William Miller began predicting the coming of Christ, based on his unique interpretation of the Bible. He started preaching his message of doom and redemption in New York (again!), but quickly made his way south and west. Some claim he gave over 3000 sermons on the advent of the end of the world. As a consequence of Miller’s sermons, fifty thousand so-called Adventists waited for the end, predicted to occur in the summer of 1843. Many sold all their worldly possessions in anticipation of the big day. When the world kept on trucking, leaving the still-alive followers destitute and homeless, Miller claimed he had miscalculated the date, leaving tens of thousands of Adventists waiting anxiously, as their descendents still do today.
In 1966, the Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted in Life Everlasting in the Freedom of the Sons of God, a book by the society’s vice president Frederick Franz, that the world “six thousand years from man’s creation will end in 1975…” That prognostication must have caused some chagrin in 1976 when Armageddon was again delayed, particularly because leadership had encouraged members to sell their homes and property in 1974. The failed prophecy of 1975 continued a long tradition started by Charles T. Russell, who founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 1879, he claimed that 1914 was the big year in which the world would be destroyed. When the year ended quietly, Russell changed the date to 1915. He died in 1916, when Joseph Franklin Rutherford took control of the organization. Upon taking the reins, Rutherford prophesized that in 1918 god would destroy churches and their members, and that by 1920 every “kingdom would be swallowed up in anarchy.” As December 31 rolled around, he reset the date to 1925. We are still here.
With such an embarrassing history of failed predictions and miscues from reading god’s intent from human experience, one would think Camping and his brethren too chagrined to keep up the tradition. But no, like Miller, or Franz or Applewhite before him, Camping believes he has a unique ability to interpret the word of god that gives him special insight. So we pause with bated breath to learn when the next End of Days will arrive. Until the next time. Or until the sun blows out.