Monday, August 29, 2011

5 Ends of the World that Came and Went

5 Ends of the World that Came and Went

The Apocalypse is always already upon us.
Every year, it seems, a new crop of doom is brought forth. Consider all the swords of Damocles that dangled above us in just the last couple of decades. In 1997, the extraordinarily bright appearance of the passing Hale-Bopp comet convinced 39 Heaven’s Gate cultists to nosh on applesauce laced with phenobarbital in order to escape a planet about to be ‘recycled.’ Ten years ago, Y2K was going to drop planes out of the sky, zero all bank accounts, and spontaneously empty the world’s nuclear silos into everyone’s back yard. And in 2008, the public trembled at the thought of the Large Hadron Collider tearing a miniature black hole in the space-time continuum and feeding the Earth to it. The LHC even brought some grade-A crazy out of otherwise estimable physicists, two of whom volunteered a theory that its launch was being sabotaged by God from the future, because God hates Higgs bosons. Having dodged all these potential calamities, the world now stands endangered by the infamous “Mayan prophecy” of 2012, – an innocuous feature of the vigesimal Mesoamerican “Long Count” calendar which was first re-cast into apocalyptic terms by the American archaeologist Michael D. Coe in 1966.
Let us therefore calm our nerves and cast our eyes into the past. Here are some other times when the world failed to end.

70 CE: The Essenes

“‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” – so goes the Book of Isaiah. And that is just what a small Jewish community called the Essenes did – they moved out into the wilderness. Admittedly, they did not have very far to move: in their days, terrain turned harsh and inhospitable only about 13 miles east of Jerusalem. This area stretched to the Dead Sea cliffs, where the main artifact of this apocalyptic sect was found in 1947:

the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Contemporary historical accounts describe the Essenes as kooky but friendly types who kept celibate, held all their property in common, did not own slaves, rejected animal sacrifice, and wrote extensively and secretively about various Angels in their holy books. In 66 CE, when Jews revolted against the Roman rule, the Essenes took it as a sign that their pious efforts had made the desert highway of the Lord sufficiently straight, and that the End Times were now upon them. In a sense, they were absolutely right. Buoyed by their anticipation of deliverance, the Essenes marched out triumphantly against the Romans, counting on celestial back-up. But the expected hosts of angels failed to materialize, and most of the sect met its long-awaited doom.

In 1492, if the World doesn’t end, just blame the Jews!
The year 1492 is famous for bringing Columbus to the New World. It is rather less famous for failing to bring Armageddon to Russia. That was the last year for which the Eastern Orthodox Church had calculated the paschal date, i.e. the day on which Easter fell in a given year. Their number-crunchers reckoned 1491 to be the 7000th anniversary of world’s creation, and the Church judged that it would be pointless for the world to carry on past such a momentous date. Convinced by the Church that the Second Coming was imminent, many Russian peasants decided not to bother sowing any crops in 1491. A year later, their earthly time did not run out, but their bread did, and a famine ensued. A scapegoat was urgently required to explain away this fiasco of scheduling, and everyone happily heaped the guilt for the absence of both bread and Christ on the Jews, who, being understandably skeptical of the whole thing, had sown their fields the same as ever.

In the 14th and 15th century, many Jews living in Spain and Portugal were urged at sword-point to convert to Christianity. Some did convert, though a few continued to observe their old holidays in secret. In the 17th century, however, a different sort of conversion shook the Jewish world. A young Kabbalist and mystic from the Turkish city of Smyrna by the name of Shabbethai Zebi proclaimed himself the Messiah to a small group of followers in 1648 – the year that some Kabbalistic computations, not altogether coincidentally, held to be the year of Israel’s redemption by the Messiah. What he lacked in sanity, Shabbethai made up for in charm, and the revelation was received tolerably well. Unsurprisingly, authorities soon expelled him from Smyrna. In the following decades, Shabbethai wandered around Middle East and Europe, gathering supporters, fame and money wherever he went. Europe was already gripped with Messianic fervor in anticipation of the apocalyptic and beastly-numbered year 1666; Shabbethai’s appearance seemed timely, and his preaching fell on many a ready ear. In 1666, now wildly popular throughout most of the Old World, Shabbethai set out for Constantinople, where he hoped the coming struggle of Light and Dark would land him in prime position to score the sultan’s crown. Turkish authorities sent an under-pasha out to meet him on the ship; the man welcomed the half-baked Messiah with a box on the ear and had him thrown into prison. It was then advised to Shabbethai that the only way for him to save his life was to embrace Islam. And, in a rare flash of good sense, he did exactly that, leaving thousands of stunned and demoralized followers all over the world high and dry. The Jewish businesswoman and diarist Glueckel of Hamelin likened the entire experience to “enduring nine months of pregnancy and birth pains, only to break wind.”

1843/1844: The Great Disappointment

In 1818 William Miller, the future spiritual father of Seventh-Day Adventists and Advent Christians, sat down to the table to calculate the exact date of Christ’s Second Coming. Miller had lapsed into Deism in his youth and was now trying to regain his Baptist roots through intense Bible study. A verse in the Book of Daniel caught his eyes: “And he said unto me, Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller took this “cleansing” to stand for the Last Judgement, and, like many theologians before him, followed the “day-year” principle of prophecy interpretation. Following the vague hints of another Daniel verse, Miller started the countdown not from the moment of creation but from 457 B.C., when Artaxerxes I of Persia ordered the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Adding 2300 years to 457 B.C. yielded the date 1843 – specifically, sometime between March 21st, 1843 and March 21st, 1844. By 1831 he was actively preaching his apocalyptic algorithms to the public.
As the years passed and the Judgment Day drew nearer, Miller steadily gained followers, until by 1840 the United States was in the firm grip of Millerism. When March 21st of 1844 came and went anti-climactically, Miller revised the date to April 18th, 1844. The world survived April 18th unscathed. Miller confessed his error but declared that the end of the world was nevertheless nigh – he was just no longer sure exactly how nigh. A Millerite preacher by the name of Samuel S. Snow declared that he double-checked the numbers and got a different date: it was not March or April but October 22nd of 1844 that was going to see Christ’s triumphant return! For six months, the excitement built up once again to a fever pitch. When the fateful day came and went without any supernatural incident, October 22nd became known as “The Great Disappointment of 1844.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses: Apocalypse Now! …no wait, now! … Now! delayed indefinitely

It would take a hefty monograph to tally up all the prophesied and discarded Doomsdays littering the eschatology of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, or Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Society’s founder Charles Taze Russell, who had only several years of schooling but a great deal of business sense, at first affiliated himself with a group that expected the world to end in 1873. When that did not happen, the date was moved to 1874. When nothing happened in 1874, the group decided that the Second Coming had actually taken place as planned, and that Christ was here in the world, only he was invisible. It was then decided that the actual visible and palpable end of the world would come in 1914. This gave Russell and his colleagues a full forty years to proceed with their mission of saving lost souls without being undermined by their own predictions. The year 1914 saw the Great War break out in Europe, but the world still refused to end. This was highly inconvenient, because Russell had promised eternal life to “millions” who witnessed the events of 1914. And so after his death in 1916, Watch Tower publications continued to push back the fateful day as became necessary. First it was moved to October 1, 1917. Then to 1925. From the mid-1930s to early 1940s, pamphlets said it was “months away.” Later another delay was effected until September 5, 1975. All the while, the generation of 1914 continued to die off at normal pace, which was making some people antsy. By 1995, Russell’s teaching about its elect immortal millions had to be discarded. These days, a Watchtower tract is likely to talk about Armageddon being seen by the “anointed” whose lives overlap with the lives of those who saw 1914, effectively pushing the end of things many vague decades into the future
Apocalyptic fervor is a game with few rules and ever-moving goal-posts. Those who get Doomsday balls rolling usually count on the fact that for many people, it takes surprisingly little to trigger ecstatic cravings of annihilation. There is seemingly nothing that those who are less susceptible to the hysteria can do about it. So sit back, relax, pop some popcorn, and get ready for the next wave of Armageddonism. Humanity is unlikely to disappoint: according to a poll taken in early March of 2010, 14% of all Americans think Barack Obama may be the Antichrist. Plus ├ža change, plus c’est la meme chose. The End of the World is always on the horizon – an illusive, elusive line separating Heaven from Earth which moves away from us as we try to approach it.

Author: A.M. Lorenz — Copyrighted ©

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