Anne Applebaum’s recent piece in The Atlantic, “The MyPillow Guy Really Could Destroy Democracy,” lays out, at least partially, the argument that predicting the second coming of Donald Trump seems to have replaced millennialism among right wing true believers.
And when discussions of millennialism get underway, the historian’s mind almost naturally moves right to the Millerites of 19th Century America.
Cultism is, in fact, about as American as you can get. And that, of course, includes the present day. One of the most modern enduring cults is that of the runaway inflation predictors. Nowadays, they’re led by economist Larry Summers, but their dire, never fulfilled predictions, date back quite a ways.
Back in 2014, for instance, economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote on his blog that voices, mostly on the right of the political spectrum, who kept wrongly predicting runaway inflation because of this or that government policy mostly resembled end-of-the-world religious cults.
And every once in a while, members of such religious cults do pop up in the news in this day and age. Besides the political cult of the Trump worshipers, one of the most recent religious cults (I’m leaving QAnon out of the religious equation here, although maybe I shouldn’t) that popped up predicting the end of the world as we know it, and which got a lot of coverage was when religious broadcaster Harold Camping decided that Jesus Christ would return to Earth on Saturday, May 21, 2011. The day came and went with nothing unusual, such as the end of the world, happening. That fazed Camping but it didn’t seriously deter him. In fact, Camping went back to his calculator. Or maybe it was his abacus. After all, he had already been unsuccessful in predicting the end of the world in 1994, but but previous failures didn’t seem to deter his followers much.
And, in fact, Camping himself wasn’t much deterred, either. He regrouped, refigured, and announced the real day Jesus Christ would return and the world—plus the rest of the universe—would end was Friday, Oct. 21, 2011. The day came and went without much end-of-the-world stuff happening, or anything else either—except for the usual, ongoing run-of-the-mill global mayhem. In fact, Oct. 21, 2011 was remarkable for exactly how little happened that day.
After that, Camping’s ministry announced that he’d finally decided nobody could determine when the end of the world would arrive, which seemed sensible from his own point of view, because that’s exactly what the Bible reports Jesus warned his followers not to do.
As noted, Camping was far from unique. End-of-the-worlders are a historical tradition that extends back all the way to Biblical times when whoever it was who wrote the Book of Revelation recounted, with ill-disguised relish and in painful detail, what would happen to non-believers—defined as anyone who did not believe whatever the author believed—on Judgment Day.
By the 19th Century, predicting the end of the world was becoming almost a cottage industry, especially here in the United States, and so when our own, homegrown end-of-the-worlder, William Miller, predicted that 1843 was the year and April was the month the world would end, a lot of people took notice.
Miller was a Massachusetts man who volunteered to fight in the War of 1812, serving as a captain in the U.S. Army. A near-death experience in combat led to Miller’s fascination with death and the afterlife, not to mention his conversion from deism to evangelical Christianity.
Joining the Baptist Church, he closely studied the Bible, developing his own interpretations of the book. He eventually decided there were hidden facts to be excavated from the text.
In September 1822, he formally and publicly announced his findings: “I believe that the second coming of Jesus Christ is near, even at the door, even within twenty-one years,—on or before 1843.”
The deadlines Miller and his followers set for the end of the world, March and April of 1843, came and went, and were followed by what became known as “The Great Disappointment,” as thousands of his followers left their beliefs behind and tried to get back to their regular lives.
In Kendall County, there seem to have been quite a few Millerites, but they apparently mostly kept to themselves and were apparently not nearly as obnoxious as modern end-of-the-worlders seem to be.
The Rev. E.W. Hicks, one of Miller’s fellow Baptists, was not impressed by the Millerite craze. In his 1877 history of Kendall County, Hicks wrote: “During the early part of 1843 the Miller excitement in regard to the end of the world was at its height. William Miller had fixed on April, 1843, as the time of the end, and there were many believers in his arithmetic in this county. It is no doubt a fact that some of them had their white robes ready made for the occasion, from a wrong interpretation of Rev. 7:9. The clothing of heaven is holiness, spiritual in texture, and not cloth from the Georgia cotton fields. Christ is coming again, ‘in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven;’ but he, himself, was careful to teach us that ‘of that day and hour knoweth no man, no not the angels of heaven.’ And if still we are curious to know, we have his rebuke, that ‘it is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in His own power.’ ‘Watch, for ye know not when the Master cometh.’”
George M. Hollenback, who was one of the first two White children born in Kendall County (his twin sister was the other) and so was a young eyewitness to the Millerite craze, wrote in the 1914 history of Kendall County that: “During the winter of 1843, the Millerites created excitement over the whole country and had much influence among the weak and superstitious and even extended far among the apparently well informed people. There was a good deal of anxiety until the time set for the great catastrophe of the end of the world had come and had happily passed. A few of the neighbors procured their ‘ascension robes’ in expectation of the day when the heavens were to open ‘and melt with fervent heat.’ As the weather was cold, the material from which the robes were constructed was white flannel. It is said of one woman that she gave out publicly that she would not believe in the Bible if the Savior did not appear. He did not appear, so the ascension robes of herself and husband were not used for the purpose for which they were constructed.”
Miller died in 1849, still eagerly looking towards Christ’s second coming. His legacy includes the Advent Christian Church with 61,000 members, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church with over 19 million members, both denominations having a direct historical connection to the Millerites and the Great Disappointment of 1844.
The craze William Miller started passed, but his ideas were not forgotten. Through the years, others have attempted to predict the end of the world, some based on supposed truths hidden in the Bible, others based on other ideas up to and including UFOs, with no notable success thus far. Some of these folks were true believers, like Harold Camping, who seemed genuinely perplexed why the world didn’t end when he was sure it was going to. And we can’t forget the Heaven’s Gate cult, 39 of whose members committed suicide in 1997 as they awaited the UFO that was supposed to carry them away. Others have proven to be pure charlatans, some who proved to be much worse than grifters aiming to separate the gullible believers from their cash.
As Applebaum noted in her piece in The Atlantic, “The apocalypse has been variously predicted for the year 500, based on the dimensions of Noah’s Ark; the year 1033, on the 1,000th anniversary of Jesus’s birth; and the year 1600, by Martin Luther no less; as well as variously by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Nostradamus, and Aum Shinrikyo, among many others. When nothing happened—the world did not end; the messiah did not arrive—did any of them throw in the towel and stop believing? Of course not.”
Like their religious cousins, the political and economic end-of-the-worlders aren’t fazed by facts proving their views wrong. Although unsuccessfully (but enthusiastically) predicting runaway inflation and devaluation of the dollar since 2008, they continue to do so, despite the actual data proving them to be in error. As Krugman continues to note, their continued popularity and hold on positions of authority is one of the mysteries of the 21st Century.
And likewise the My Pillow Guy and his accomplices continue to confidently predict Donald Trump’s second coming as President despite its legal and political impossibility—there’s simply no constitutional provision for a Presidential election do-over. That so many either believe or say they believe (which I suspect includes many complicit Republican Senators and House members) it will happen, though, illustrates that fervent wishes, no matter how outlandish and crazed, exert as powerful an effect on modern people as they did nearly 180 years ago. In fact, with crackpot ideas now being reinforced 24 hours a day, seven days a week by complicit, ubiquitous electronic media, the effects of those ideas on society as a whole may well be far more serious.