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Apocalypse Not Now

Looks like the Mayan doomsayers were wrong. They're hardly the first.

 

If you're reading this, then the worst fears/hopes of the doomsday "preppers" so ably chronicled by Larry Lightner in three articles last year have failed to materialize — yet. Although it's certainly possible the world will end any day now, the most popular recent prediction was that apocalypse would arrive when the Mayan calendar ran out last month.

Never mind that the Mayans themselves insisted this wasn't what was intended by their calendar, that the reality was no more apocalyptic than having to visit the stationery store and buy a new "World's Cutest Puppies" calendar. Even if the Mayans really did predict the end of the world would arrive in December 2012, why should we have believed them? They were wrong about a whole bunch of stuff, including the advisability of blood-letting sacrifice by piercing the tongue, ear or foreskin. Their civilization pretty much collapsed. Why should they be right about doomsday? What special power did they possess to gaze into the future — and if so, why didn't they foresee the demise of their civilization and maybe do something about it?

Just in case, though, I've held off pointing this out in print until after Doomsday 2012 had safely come and gone. True, I'm actually writing this in early December, before the big day. But if the world ends between now and the day we deliver the January issue, readers will never know how cocky and wrong I was. Thank goodness, though, I postponed my dental checkup until after Doomsday. Why get your teeth cleaned and flossed if the world's about to end? (I guess some people might want to greet the end with a nice smile.)

If you are indeed reading this, however, then I can safely say: Ha-ha. The joke's on you, believers in the Mayan apocalypse! If only you'd had enough faith in December's doomsday to sell all your worldly possessions and, preferably, give the proceeds to me.

It turns out, though, that this isn't exactly the first time we've been told The End Is Near when, well, it wasn't. And, indeed, some of those doomsday believers did cash out, though none had the wisdom to set that money aside for me.

 

Besides such professional prognosticators as Nostradamus, who forecast that Armageddon would arrive in July 1999 (oops!), amateur doomsayers ranging from physicist Isaac Newton to preacher Jonathan Edwards have tried their hand at predicting The End. (Newton calculated that we have until sometime after 2060, so that jury's still out.)

Early Christians, of course, thought the apocalyptic return of Jesus was right around the corner, likely in their own lifetimes. But Christians didn't have a monopoly on apocalypse. In 448, Moses of Crete, a rabbi, claimed to be the Messiah as predicted by Talmudic calculations and led his followers to the sea, which was supposed to part so they could reach Palestine. Having given away all their possessions, the rabbi's followers cast themselves into the Mediterranean. As the rabbi saw his followers crash on the rocks or drown, however, he declined to do likewise and "suddenly disappeared," leading some to conclude he had been "some malignant fiend" in human form.

Much later, based on his interpretation of the Kabbalah, Rabbi Sabati Zevi of Smyrna predicted spectacular miracles in 1648, when he would be revealed as the Messiah. Zevi later updated his prediction to 1666, then converted to Islam.

My own Norse ancestors foretold Ragnarök, a battle in which the gods would perish, after which the world would be flooded. Although these oral traditions were written down in the Eddas of the 13th century, the Norse were canny enough not to specify a date for Ragnarök.

 

Surprisingly, given our own recent Y2K craziness, the Western world didn't go off the deep end over the year 1000. Most accounts of millennial madness, in fact, were probably exaggerated by later scribes. But the new millennium did soon see a parade of predictions of impending doom.

In 1179, for example, an astrologer named John of Toledo predicted the world would end when all the planets assembled in the constellation Libra, in September 1186. The Archbishop of Canterbury proclaimed a day of atonement, just in case, and the Byzantine emperor walled up his windows in Constantinople. But it turned out that the only future John of Toledo could see was the similarly mistaken 20th century warnings about planetary alignment and the "Jupiter effect."

Astrologers tried again in 1523, predicting that a planetary alignment in Pisces would produce an apocalyptic deluge the following year. People in Germany built boats, including a three-story ark constructed by a Count von Iggleheim, and residents of port cities took refuge afloat. When doomsday arrived with only a light drizzle, angry crowds outside the ark stampeded, trampling hundreds, and stoned the count to death.

Anger, rather than relief, seemed to be a common reaction to missed prophecies of the end. In the early 16th century, groups of Anabaptists came to believe the world would end on Easter Sunday, 1534. One sect, led by Jan Matthys, seized control of the German city of Münster, proclaiming it the "New Jerusalem." They expelled or forcibly baptized all Catholics and Lutherans and then waited for Judgment Day. It was indeed the end for Matthys, who led a small band of believers against an army besieging the city: He and his troops were hacked to death. Münster fell in 1535 and the remaining Anabaptist leaders were tortured, executed and displayed in cages, which still hang outside the Church of St. Lambert there.

 

The Reformation continued to mix the apocalypse with politics. Following the English Civil Wars of the 17th century that put Oliver Cromwell in power, a group called the Fifth Monarchists preached that Christ would soon return. They cited the Book of Daniel's reference to four ancient monarchies preceding the Day of Judgment, and counted these as Assyria, Persia, Macedonia and Rome. In the approach of the year 1666, the Fifth Monarchists saw the Biblical "number of the Beast." Far from being out of the mainstream, however, these doomsayers played key roles in the trial and execution of Charles I and Cromwell's Protectorate. After the Restoration in 1660, the Fifth Monarchists were among the first to be hanged, drawn and quartered for treason.

Other doomsayers drew on a different Biblical math. Most famously, in 1654 Anglican Bishop James Ussher calculated that the first day of Creation began at nightfall preceding Sunday, Oct. 23, 4004 BC. Since it was commonly believed that the world would last only 6,000 years (as in the six days of creation, figuring "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years"), this meant our clock would run out in 1996.

There's a lesson there: If you're going to predict something, put it far enough off that you won't be around to be proven wrong.

Not everyone thought we had so much time, though. Another numerological interpretation of the Bible led Johann Jacob Zimmermann, a German nonconformist theologian and astronomer, to predict the apocalypse would arrive "on the edge of the wilderness" in 1694. He planned to lead 11 families to await the end in North America, and negotiated with Pennsylvania Governor William Penn to obtain land near Wissahickon Creek. Zimmerman died on the day the group was to depart Rotterdam, but his widow and the rest of "the Hamburg Group" went on to establish a religious community in the New World.

 

They would hardly be the last "millennialists" in America. Forerunners of today's Seventh Day Adventists, the Millerites followed Baptist preacher William Miller who, once again consulting the Book of Daniel, concluded Christ would return in 1844. Another Millerite pegged it more precisely as Oct. 22, 1844, a day that came to be known as "the Great Disappointment." Thousands of followers gave away their possessions and awaited the end. When Jesus didn't appear, one wrote, "I lay prostrate for two days without any pain — sick with disappointment." Even children in the streets would taunt the disappointed Millerites, "Have you not gone up [to heaven]?"

Another new denomination, the Jehovah's Witnesses, made repeated predictions of Christ's return and the subsequent "day of wrath." When the world didn't end in 1914, Armageddon was moved to 1918 and then 1925. As late as 1974, church publications praised believers who sold their homes and prepared to "finish out the rest of their days in this old system" by preaching until the end, reset for 1975.

The 20th century brought believers of another kind — in UFOs. Marion Keech, a Chicago woman who claimed to channel "Guardians" from the planet "Clarion," predicted an apocalyptic flood on Dec. 21, 1954. Though of little impact at the time, Keech and her devotees made history of a different sort when they were infiltrated by academics led by Leon Festinger. Publishing their observations in a book, When Prophecy Fails, Festinger and colleagues helped lay the foundation for modern social psychology.

So perhaps something good will come out of the early 21st century's apocalyptic fever. I'm thinking something along the lines of some believers donating their worldly goods to "the biggest little paper in the Southwest," but that's just me.

 

Desert Exposure editor David A. Fryxell awaits the end in Silver City.

 



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