Doomsday—Yet Again!

August 2, 2012

As we approach the proclaimed end of the world—actually, just the end of the Mayan calendar, December 21—many credulous people are in distress. But I am reminded of a folk song (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”), whose refrain asks sadly, “Oh when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”

There have been numerous end-of-the-world scares throughout history. In ancient times various events could be held to portend dire—even Apocalyptic—occurrences. For example, the New Testament Book of Revelation provides a vision of the end of the world. Millennialism, the belief that after a thousand-year period the world would end, was prevalent among early Christians. In the late seventeenth century, episodes of contagious “madness” and unusual phenomena occurred among the oppressed Protestant minority of France’s Cevennes region, including ecstatic convulsions, precocious preaching, and apocalyptic visions. More modernly, in 1910 the advent of Halley’s Comet provoked numerous all-night prayer services by those who feared the end of the world was imminent. These examples are repeated many times throughout history.

Still more recently, as the year 2000 on the western calendar approached, there was renewed interest in millennialism, but it quieted when the new millennium began just as rational people expected. As recently as 2011, we saw another Doomsday claim, this time by a “prophet” named Harold Camping, who said the end would begin with a “worldwide earthquake.” However—yawn—May 21 came and went, pretty much like any other day.

The quintessential millennial movement was Millerism, which began in New York in 1840. Baptist preacher William Miller (1782–1849) convinced first himself, then others, that the end of the world was at hand. Miller based his conviction on a study of the Bible, concluding that the end of the sixth millennium following Creation would soon occur. By 1843 the movement was under way with many adherents, two publications, and camp meetings. Although Miller first gave the time of Advent (Christ’s second coming, on Judgment Day) as “about 1843,” he later stated it would occur between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. When nothing happened during that time, Miller recalculated and gave a precise date of October 22, 1844. Many adherents sold their belongings and prepared for the world to end.

On the expected day, small groups of Millerites (or Millerite Adventists as they came to be known) gathered across New England and elsewhere—including a limestone outcropping near Miller’s farm known as Ascension Rock. There they waited in vain for Jesus to appear in the sky. Even today, Seventh Day Adventists (who evolved from the Millerites, reinterpreting his speculative prophecy) refer to the day the world did not end as “The Great Disappointment.”

I could well imagine the expectation and letdown when I stood on Ascension Rock in 2002 (see photo), taken there by Robert Bartholomew who lived in the area. A sociologist and expert on collective behavior, Bartholomew has since written about Millerism in his book Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior (2009, co-authored with Hilary Evans), which I highly recommend. Outbreak! catalogues many additional end of-the-world scares—sufficient for me to predict that more will surely come, be believed, and pass with little consequence, other than embarrassment to the credulous and some increased revenue acquired by hucksters. Please keep this prediction in mind when December 22 dawns.