The Colorado Springs Gazette reported last July that a local woman had placed ads on ten bus-stop benches alerting passersby that Jesus Christ will return to earth on May 21, 2011. The woman is a believer in the eschatological calculations of one Harold Camping, the 89-year-old preacher behind “worldwide Christian ministry” Family Radio, whose analysis of the Bible further proposes that the end of the world will follow five months after Christ’s return, on October 21, 2011—one year from [yesterday].
Camping is hardly the first Christian to fixate on predicting the end of time, but his designation of precise dates in the near future does put him in a special class. Countless Christian figures beginning with Jesus have said that the world as we know it would end “soon.” Some have given vague predictions in the more or less distant future, such as Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of Mormonism, recorded in his thirties that a seemingly annoyed God had told him that the end would not come before his 85th year and so to quit asking. But only a brave few have called out specific dates in the near term. In the American context, the most well-known of these is William Miller, who in the spring of 1832 began spreading the word that Christ would return around 1843. Intrigued audiences pushed Miller to be more specific, and he eventually pinpointed the year between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When March of 1844 passed without incident, a follower of Miller’s went back to the drawing board and came up with October 22, 1844, the date that became famous as the “Day of Disappointment.”
Stephen O’Leary insists in his Arguing the Apocalypse that while the logic of apocalyptic rhetoric might be hard to follow, there is a logic to it. Camping’s method is no exception, on both counts. He cuts a caper across the bible and the human history of its interpretation, gleaning data points from archaeology and philology and inserting them into dizzying numerological and typological formulas. For instance, combining the year of Solomon’s death calculated by Old Testament scholar Edwin R. Thiele with his own reading of the generations of biblical kings and patriarchs, Camping dates the flood to 4,990 B.C., 7,000 years ago next year. Camping settles on 2011 as the end of time because in Gen 7:4, God warns Noah that the flood will begin in seven days, and he posits that this warning applies to the beginning of The End as well as to the beginning of the flood, and further that a day is a thousand years to God,.
Camping’s methods share some features with those of the Millerites, accounting for the shared fixation on the twenty-first day of the month. Also like the Millerites, public-relations innovators in the early 1840s, Camping’s followers are using the latest communications strategies to get the word out. Websites have sprung up to promote Camping’s predictions, offering streaming media content, a Twitter feed, and a downloadable browser toolbar which keeps the countdown to Christ’s return. The convinced can order free bumper stickers to warn the ungodly, although these come with an admonition about their use somewhat out of sync with the urgency of the task: “Bumper stickers are only offered for their intended purpose. In most cases it is illegal to put these stickers anywhere but on your own property. Please respect the laws and rights of others while warning about May 21, 2011 Judgment Day!”
Those unconvinced by Camping’s math must presume that, come next year, his predictions will share another feature with Miller’s: they will be proven wrong. However, having attracted even a small number of committed followers, Camping’s work is unlikely to be completely forgotten. While date-setting is obviously a high-risk enterprise, history shows that disappointment is rarely, if ever, absolute. Groups given a specific date on which to fixate have shown deep reluctance to let go of it even as it passes like any other day.
A remnant of Miller’s followers coalesced into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, developing an eschatology that maintains that momentous events began in heaven when Miller said they would, regardless of our ability to perceive them. Camping himself has already been off once—in 1992 he published a book titled 1994? That eyebrow-arch of a question mark may have served him well, but so will his definitive stand on May 21, 2011. Turning a mere date into Doomsday changes that day by forcing an event most of us imagine as theoretical onto the calendar. The bus ads feature clip art of a hand marking May 21 in a date book, emphasizing just this mundane quality; it is written in right there, we imagine, with doctor’s appointments and soccer practices. In part because of that presence on the calendar, Doomsday becomes as inexorable as any other scheduled event, and so if we all wake up on May 22 as usual, at least some of Camping’s followers will not be wondering why nothing happened, but rather trying to understand what must have happened.
by Seth Perry
Seth Perry is a PhD candidate in History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Originally published in Sightings, from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Used with permission.
Mark Barna, “The end is not just nigh, it’s in May 2011: Springs woman touts Armageddon’s date ,” Colorado Springs Gazette, July 26, 2010.
Stephen D. O’Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric (Oxford University Press, 1998).
Ronald L. Numbers and Jonathan M. Butler, eds., The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century (University of Tennessee Press, 1993).
[For more on Harold Camping’s false prophecies and dangerous teaching, see Should We Leave Our Churches?]