June 13, 2006


Is it the last trumpet or the doorbell? Folks have been wrong before.

This the third in a series of posts on America’s current fascination with end times religion and its historical background.

A recurring theme of the last 2000 years has been the failed prediction of the end of the world. The batting average of those who did so is 0.00.

Early Christians and many Jews felt that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans and related events in the first and second centuries were signs of the end. Apocalyptic expectations may even have led some Jewish groups to participate in those ill-fated revolts. Similarly, persecutions under Roman emperors and, ironically, even the later fall of Rome were seen by some Christians as the beginning of the end.

Many saw the plagues and warfare of the late middle ages as a sign of the coming end. In fact, if you think the 21st century is bad, check out the 14th in Barbara Tuchman’s classic history, A Distant Mirror. By the end of that book, El Cabrero was clicking his feet together like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" and saying “There’s no place like home.”

The Reformation gave Catholics and Protestants ample opportunity to accuse their respective leaders of being the Antichrist. In fact guessing the identity of the Antichrist (based on imagery from Revelation and Daniel) has been a pastime in some Christian circles for hundreds of years. Aside from the pope, a favorite target among early Protestants, other candidates have included people like Napoleon and Hitler. In the 1970s, El Cabrero remembers some people saying it was Henry Kissinger.

Apocalyptic religion flourished in America in the 19th century. One very influential figure was William Miller, who wrote a bestseller titled Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ About the year 1843. Miller reached thousands of people through his writings and oratory.

He was even bold enough to set an exact date (never a very good idea): March 21, 1844. There are stories of business people who liquidated their assets and farmers who neglected their crops in anticipation of the end. The non-event has been christened The Great Disappointment. One person who experienced this described the night later wrote, “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I hve never experienced before.”

Needless to say, Miller’s book had a pretty limited shelf life after that.

Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses initially predicted the second coming to occur in 1873. Later the date was revised to 1914 (he was almost right).

Anyone old enough to read this may recall the hype that surrounded Y2K. Some well known preachers now eagerly advocating war with Iran and Russia as a way to fulfill their interpretation of the Bible rode that wave for all it was worth (and are evidently incapable of embarrassment).

There have also been other, more marginal, apocalyptic cults which often had tragic endings. These include Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians, and the Heaven’s Gate cult, all of which ended in multiple deaths. Some white supremacist groups, such as the Christian Identity movement, have strong apocalyptic beliefs.

The last century has also supplied examples of secular apocalyptic movements which believed that the “solution of the riddle of history”—to use Marx’s phrase from the 1848 Communist Manifesto—was revolutionary upheaval which would bring about lasting justice and peace. Those haven’t worked out too well either.

It’s probably safe to say that excessive obsessing about the end of the world doesn’t bring out the best in religion, human behavior, or politics. It hasn’t yet anyway.

Next time: the little known English preacher whose novel interpretation of the Bible and last days became a contemporary multi-million dollar industry.


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