I remember precisely where I was when the Rapture didn’t come. It was 6 o’clock last Saturday evening, right? I was in the Majestic Theater in lovely Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, smack in the middle of Erik Norlander’s set. Transcendent, but not in the way Rapture fans would expect. Imagine my surprise when absolutely nothing happened.
That should not have come as a shock to anybody, even the overly gullible. It’s not as if Harold Camping, the Biblical numerologist who pinpointed the time of the Rapture’s arrival, wasn’t a known quantity. He’d gotten it wrong in 1994, too. His excuse was that he hadn’t considered the Book of Jeremiah. Some Biblical scholar he is!
Camping, of course, is neither the first nor the last charlatan to drum up the fears of the faithful by incanting the precise moment when the Apocalypse will kick off. In fact, one of Camping’s forebears in that regard led to one of the best names in history for such an event.
In the early 19th Century, the United States played host to the Second Great Awakening, a religious movement that swept the nation. It was spawned mostly by revival preachers, travelling the land in what Kevin Gilbert would call a “rave up church gospel” event. The numbers of people joining these movements swelled the ranks of the faithful. As a result, many of the more peculiarly American religious sects came out of that movement.
One of the leading figures in the Great Awakening was a preacher named William Miller. Originally a Deist, Miller’s experiences during the War of 1812 led him to eventually become a Baptist. And an important one at that. While trying to reconcile his conversion to his old Deist buddies, Miller first came to conclude that the time of Christ’s return, the Second Coming, could be deduced from a careful analysis of scripture.
Analyze Miller did, until he concluded that the Second Coming would happen sometime in 1844 (about 25 years after he was working, although he kept the news to himself for a few years). He started lecturing publicly about it in 1831. A movement coalesced around him, Millerism, and he nailed down the particular date of the event: October 22, 1844.
Of course, October 22, 1844 came and went, with no surprise appearance by Jesus. The result is known to history as The Great Disappointment.
I shit you not.
To get a feel as for why, consider this reaction of one Millerite:
I waited all Tuesday [October 22] and dear Jesus did not come;– I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain– sick with disappointment.
Non-Millerites were a bit miffed, as well. Millerite churches were burned, one congregation was attacked, and one group of Canadian Millerites were tarred and feathered. One would think that would have killed Millerism right off, but of course not. In fact, theological descendents of Millerism include Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
So Camping, clear fraud that he is, at least is in good company. His legacy stretches back at least to Miller, if not before. And it would leave the rest of us just to point and laugh at those gullible enough to hitch their wagons to such hucksters. In reality, they are more entitled to pity:
Knowing the date of the end of the world changes all your future plans,' says 27-year-old Adrienne Martinez.
She thought she'd go to medical school, until she began tuning in to Family Radio. She and herhusband, Joel, lived and worked in New York City. But a year ago, they decided they wanted to spend their remaining time on Earth with their infant daughter.
'My mentality was, why are we going to work for more money? It just seemed kind of greedy to me. And unnecessary,' she says. And so, her husband adds, 'God just made it possible — he opened doors. He allowed us to quit our jobs, and we just moved, and here we are.'
I saw a similar story in the New York Times about a set of parents who blew through their teenage kids’ college funds to spread the word. The kids aren’t on board. And now, they’ll be shouldering the burden of college all on their own. It could have been worse. PZ Myers has a collection of Rapture madness stories, including a woman who tried to kill her children and herself and another man who succeeded in killing himself.
The world would be a better place if people like Camping would just be shrugged away as nuts. In reality, the only think nuttier about Camping that most other religious folks is the specificity that he finds in his doctrine. The ideas underlying it are just as irrational as those that are the foundation of most religions.
Also, a final note on what, exactly, was supposed to happen on Saturday. It was not the end of the world. It was only the Rapture, the first part of the process leading to the end of the world. Camping’s weird math had the world actually ending in October. At least he’s not wrong about that, yet.