What with all the scary things going on these days–AIDS, global warming, Michael Jackson–you don’t need to invent problems to raise your blood pressure high enough to power a fire hose. Yet polls show five to ten million Americans aren’t satisfied with the varied menu of real disasters the world so generously offers them. So they’re waiting for the end of the world.
On Chicago’s west side, members of the Bethel Apostolic Church began a vigil March 23 in anticipation of the Rapture. The Rapture is a relatively modern fundamentalist Christian concept in which the faithful expect to be lifted into the sky to meet the returning Jesus Christ, just before a disaster like nuclear war kicks off the reign of the Antichrist.
According to April news reports, Bethel members believed an Israeli-PLO peace treaty would herald the Rapture, but Bishop David McCollough says, “No, that’s just part of it. What we’re waiting for is world peace. . . . The final is when the man of sin, who’s a Jew, will sign with Israel for seven years. And that’s when the Lord is going to pull out his wrath full power.” He’s referring to biblical interpretations that say the Antichrist will sign a peace pact with Israel and reign for seven years.
Meanwhile, Sun-Times readers were recently treated to an ad run by a retired downstate couple, Werner and Lee Goers, that announced, “Christ’s Return Is Near, Don’t Miss It for the World.” The Sun-Times ad was part of the Goers’ national campaign to alert people that recent earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters aren’t simply being caused by shifting continental plates, low-pressure areas in which air convergence is accelerated by latent heat from precipitation, and other physical processes.
Bethel members and the Goers seem harmless and well-meaning. “I been on TV 15 years and never asked for any money,” says Bishop McCollough. “We’re not Jim Jones, we’re the true church. You can see we’re still here–nobody’s been killed,” he chuckles. But as Jim Jones and David Koresh (among others) have proven, some followers can go much farther than selling a few possessions to settle debts before the end, as some Bethel members have reportedly done. Or spending their retirement nest egg on newspaper ads, as the Goers are doing. When a South Korean fundamentalist church predicted the Rapture for October 28, 1992, one woman reportedly had an abortion–because the fetus’s extra weight might have weighed her down during the expected ascension to heaven.
As a graphic reminder that the world’s end comes and goes with alarming frequency, we’ve assembled a Doomsday Time Line. Entries are limited to those brash prophets who set a specific date or year. The scenarios are varied indeed, but the predictions all have at least one thing in common: as J. Gordon Melton, director of the California-based Institute for the Study of American Religion, puts it, “They’ve all been wrong.”
Doomsday: December 31, 999
Prophet: Everybody in Europe and His Uncle
Divine prediction: The Apocrypha predicted the Last Judgment for 1,000 years after Christ’s birth. Historians debate the exact level of hysteria this caused, but accounts by monks describe the sky raining blood and rocks that day–and monks were the educated ones.
Divine hindsight: None recorded.
What did happen: Everyone went back to their short, brutish medieval lives.
Doomsday: February 20, 1524
Prophet: Johannes Stoeffler
Divine prediction: This German mathematician and astrologer foresaw the world’s end under a giant flood, spurring a boom in the nascent shipbuilding industry. A certain Count von Iggleheim ordered a three-story ark.
Divine hindsight: Stoeffler and Iggleheim had little chance to explain. When it rained that day, the unfortunate count was crushed under a presumably general-admission mob intent on boarding his ark. When the rain failed to engulf the world, Stoeffler was allegedly tossed in a pond by a disappointed rabble.
What did happen: Pope Clement VII made it through another day, too busy having his ring kissed to notice the imminent Reformation.
Doomsday: October 22, 1844
Prophet: William Miller
Divine prediction: Former New York farmer William Miller scared up an estimated 50,000 followers with prolific writings and tent revivals. His deadline was based on Bible interpretations and some creative math. Millerites donned white “ascension robes” on the big day and climbed trees and hills to facilitate rising to heaven.
Divine hindsight: None recorded. October 22 became “the Disappointment,” and the Millerites became the Seventh-Day Adventists.
What did happen: Friedrich Engels put the spellbinding finishing touches on his soon-to-be best-seller, Situation of the Working Classes in England.
Doomsday: October 2, 1914
Prophet: Jehovah’s Witnesses
Divine prediction: Pennsylvania haberdasher and Jehovah’s Witnesses founder Charles Taze Russell expected the “Gentile nations” (a reference to the “times of the Gentiles” in Luke 21:24) to be destroyed on this day. Russell also expected chosen Witnesses to be taken to heaven, while Christ began his millennial reign on earth.
Divine hindsight: According to a Witnesses leader, Russell came down to breakfast on October 2, “briskly clapped his hands and happily announced: ‘The Gentile times have ended.'” Russell explained that Christ had battled Satan successfully and set up his millennial kingdom, but had done so in heaven where no one else could see it.
What did happen: Russian soldiers camped on the estate of Prussia’s emperor William. They ordered fancy meals from the emperor’s cooks and taught his parrots to swear in Russian.
Doomsday: December 17, 1919
Prophet: Albert Porta
Divine prediction: All the planets except earth were scheduled to form a loose line with the sun on December 17. Porta, a San Francisco meteorologist venturing far beyond his already doubtful area of expertise, said the world would end when the planets’ gravitational pull caused solar disturbances to “produce a huge sunspot which would in turn cause cataclysm.”
Divine hindsight: Porta surmised that the killer sunspot had not formed because the sun’s rotation kept the planets’ gravitational pull from sufficiently affecting any one area of the sun’s surface.
What did happen: The world’s biggest cheese was parceled out to retailers at the Chicago Cold Storage company warehouse. The cheese, weighing 31,964 pounds, contained the makings of 1,022,848 sandwiches.
Prophet: Jehovah’s Witnesses
Divine prediction: The Witnesses’ second president, Judge Joseph Rutherford, touted 1925 as the start of the millennium in his “Millions Now Living Will Never Die” publicity campaign. He also expected Old Testament saints and prophets to be resurrected, and considerately built them a mansion in San Diego.
Divine hindsight: In a 1975 speech, the Witnesses’ fourth president, Frederick W. Franz, said that Judge Rutherford had admitted “that he had made an ass of himself over 1925.” Today, though, the Witnesses seem strangely unaware of their own history. “There was some speculation in ’25, yes,” says Witnesses spokesman Robert Johnson. But as for why, he replies, “I really don’t know, ha ha ha.”
What did happen: On April 22 Mussolini denied rumors in New York that he was writing a two-act romantic drama for Broadway.
Doomsday: February 6, 1925, 12 AM eastern standard time
Prophet: Margaret Rowen and Robert Reidt
Divine prediction: Rowen and Reidt, two Reformed Seventh-Day Adventists (Reidt went by the moniker “Apostle of Doom”), warned that the entire population of the earth would be killed except for 144,000 chosen people, who would ascend to heaven. Reidt said the trip to heaven would take seven days and the travelers would rest on Jupiter.
Divine hindsight: At five minutes to midnight, Reidt scanned the uneventful sky and announced, “Well, it doesn’t look as if anything is going to happen tonight.”
What did happen: Taking advantage of a recently passed amnesty bill, a French army deserter turned himself in. Popular socialite Suzanne Langlard, aka Paul Grappe, said he was happy about the amnesty since he was tired of wearing women’s clothes.
Prophet: Jehovah’s Witnesses
Divine prediction: Still smarting over his failed 1925 deadline, Jehovah’s Witnesses president Joseph Rutherford took World War II as a sign and predicted the end for 1941.
Divine hindsight: Witnesses spokesman Robert Johnson says 1941 “wasn’t our [official] position at all, but that was around the time that [Rutherford] died, and [some Jehovah’s Witnesses] might have thought the end was associated with this servant of God no longer being active.”
What did happen: On August 2 a Royal Air Force plane flew over Germany with a black cat named Captain Midnight, hoping to cross the path of Adolph Hitler somewhere on the ground.
Doomsday: December 20, 1954
Prophet: Dr. Charles Laughead
Divine prediction: Laughead, a Michigan State College physician who claimed he was reporting information from certain people who were receiving communications from outer space, said the end would come via earthquakes and tidal waves.
Divine hindsight: On December 21, Laughead told the media that an outer-space reprieve had saved Chicago from a monster tidal wave, but insisted that a California earthquake that did take place that day supported his overall theory.
What did happen: Thieves stole 23,616 diapers from the Germ Proof Diaper Service at 4518 N. Kedzie in Chicago.
Doomsday: December 31, 1970
Prophet: True Light Church of Christ
Divine prediction: This church in Charlotte, North Carolina, subscribed to the fairly popular fundamentalist theory that the end will come 6,000 years after the earth’s creation. Throwing carbon dating to the wind, the church dated creation at 4,000 BC and also decided that 30 years were somehow lost from the calendar during the first century AD.
Divine hindsight: “I can’t give you no satisfactory explanation,” church elder H. Flake Braswell told the press.
What did happen: Friendless president Richard Nixon had nothing better to do on New Year’s Eve than to invite some straggling White House reporters to his office for drinks.
Prophet: Jehovah’s Witnesses
Divine prediction: The oft-disappointed Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also subscribe to the 6,000-years-after-creation theory, pinpointed it as 1975.
Divine hindsight: “Do you know why nothing happened in 1975? It was because you expected something to happen,” Witnesses president Frederick Franz told an audience in 1976. According to Franz, because Christ stated that no one can know the day or hour of his coming, the Witnesses’ expectations had blown it. Today spokesman Robert Johnson says, “Well, we never said the end was going to come then, but we did focus a lot of attention on the time leading up to it and we said well, it could come then.” So what happened? “We were wrong.”
What did happen: On January 21, then Wisconsin representative Les Aspin accused then general Alexander Haig of illegally ordering his French poodle picked up in Stuttgart, Germany, and taken to a Frankfurt airport in an Army staff car.
Doomsday: April 29, 1980, 7:55 PM eastern standard time
Prophet: Leland Jensen
Divine prediction: Missoula, Montana, chiropractor Leland Jensen, who had served a term in state prison for sexually molesting a child, expected a Russian nuclear strike to start the reign of the Anti-christ, basing his prediction on biblical interpretation and measurements of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Jensen’s homemade basement bomb shelter spilled over into his living room, where he stacked newspapers and logs and spread plastic, mud, and rocks across the floor.
Divine hindsight: Today Jensen hotly denies that he expected the bombs to drop in 1980. “No, no, of course not!” he barks. “No! I said it was a dry run. What happens is some reporter writes we said the world is going to come to an end and we never said no such damnable thing. It’ll be around here for billions of years yet.” He insists he did not spend April 29 in his shelter. “I spent it home here in bed. I knew there wasn’t going to be a war. So I spent it home in bed.” When does he expect the end now? “Not this year, but possibly next year. This isn’t just me, you know. It’s scriptural.”
What did happen: Japanese emperor Hirohito celebrated his 79th birthday. His wife gave him an electric razor.
Prophet: Southwest Radio Church
Divine prediction: The owners of Southwest Radio Church were prominent among fundamentalists who suddenly got science when pseudoastronomers John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann wrote The Jupiter Effect, claiming that a planetary alignment in 1982 would basically tip over the solar system. Just in time to cash in on the end, Southwest Radio Church issued the booklet “Apocalyptic Signs in the Heavens.”
Divine hindsight: “Heh-heh-heh, that goes a long way back,” retired Southwest Radio Church president David Webber chuckles these days about the Jupiter Effect. “Well, sometimes it takes several years . . . and you know, we have had some tremendous earthquakes in the past decade, and we may have, you know, more tremendous earthquakes, perhaps this year or next year. So the effect of the alignment may yet come in the future,” he says hopefully.
What did happen: On November 1 the 100th episode of Diff’rent Strokes aired, with guest star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a very tall tyrannical teacher.
Doomsday: October 2, 1984
Prophet: Jehovah’s Witnesses
Divine prediction: When the world didn’t end in 1914 as Witnesses founder Charles Taze Russell first predicted, he decreed that the generation alive that year would see the real end. The Witnesses considered 70 years a generation, which made 1984 the outside deadline. According to Heather and Gary Botting, authors of The Orwellian World of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Witnesses’ 1975 debacle made the church’s leadership especially cagey about actively promoting 1984, so the church only used the possible deadline quietly to keep wavering Witnesses in line.
Divine hindsight: “No, we never said anything about ’84. I don’t know where you got that from,” says Witnesses spokesman Robert Johnson. Johnson admits the Witnesses still expect the end within a generation of 1914, but “we haven’t placed a length of time for a generation. You see, in Bible times people lived quite long.” We asked expert J. Gordon Melton whether the Witnesses really had not predicted 1984, as they claim. “I suspect that in ’84 they may have [predicted] verbally but not in writing,” said Melton. Robert Johnson says a generation can be more than 70 years, because people in the Bible lived a really long time, we told Melton. “Ha ha ha ha,” he said. “They’re in a bind, and they know it.”
What did happen: Oprah Winfrey began her assault on the American public by taking over the Chicago morning talk show AM Chicago.
Doomsday: September 11-13, 1988
Prophet: Edgar Whisenant
Divine prediction: Former NASA rocket engineer Edgar Whisenant predicted the Rapture and start of the Antichrist’s reign in his booklet, “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988,” which reportedly sold three million copies. Whisenant dissected the Bible mathematically, locating 23,000 “clues” that eventually led him to his 1988 deadline. He says he spent September 11-13 at a friend’s house with a group of believers. “More or less it’s a lot like waitin’ for the Superbowl to start,” he observes.
Divine hindsight: “Well, it took me 70 or 80 days to figure out what God was doin’ when it didn’t happen,” Whisenant recalls. He concluded that because there was no “year zero AD,” all his calculations were exactly one year off. Preparations began immediately for the 1989 Superbowl.
What did happen: Presidential candidate George Bush addressed a Republican breakfast meeting and wittily called his opponent, Michael Dukakis, the “governor of tax-achusetts,” getting a good laugh from the easily amused crowd.
Doomsday: October 2, 1989
Prophet: Elizabeth Clare Prophet
Divine prediction: News accounts had Prophet predicting nuclear war for October 2. But according to spokesman Murray Steinman, Prophet simply predicted “the return of 28,000 years of bad karma to the earth’s physical plane,” which could have resulted in nuclear war, economic collapse, etc. This information came to Prophet from “the ascended masters,” dead people who psychically dictate messages to her. At least 2,000 of her followers moved to her Montana ranch to finish building bomb shelters, paying up to $10,000 apiece for shelter space.
Divine hindsight: October 2 wasn’t really a deadline, Steinman stresses. Rather, an ascended master named El Morya told Prophet on October 2, 1987, that if the U.S. didn’t construct an antiballistic missile system there would be some kind of confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union within two years. Besides, says Steinman, “We think prophecy can be mitigated or changed, or entirely eliminated. She’s never set a specific date, and whenever she has said that something terrible might happen she has mobilized her worldwide movement to pray that these things might not happen.”
What did happen: Soviet psychic E. Frenkel unsuccessfully, and messily, attempted to stop a freight train with his mind.
Doomsday: December 31, 1989
Prophet: Elizabeth Clare Prophet
Divine prediction: Again, spokesman Murray Steinman insists that December 31 wasn’t a deadline, though Prophet told her followers that an ascended master had advised her that they better finish their bomb shelters by that date. “December 31 wasn’t a warning, even though it came out that way,” says Steinman. “In one of their dictations, one of the ascended masters said, in kind of a fatherly way if you want to look at it that way, ‘If I were you I’d have my shelter done by December 31.'”
Divine hindsight: Beginning April 23, 1990, the world entered a 12-year “dark cycle” of “accelerated return of mankind’s karma,” says Steinman. “Mrs. Prophet feels that the karma that is coming back on mankind at this time could manifest itself as economic debacle, earth changes, like earthquakes, that sort of thing, famine and plague. So I hate to paint a dire scenario.” In other words, Prophet doesn’t plan to retire before 2002.
What did happen: Alcohol shortages on New Year’s Eve provoked a revolt in Sverdlovsk, USSR, where irate citizens blocked traffic and demanded local leaders’ resignations.
Doomsday: October 28, 1992, midnight
Prophet: Lee Jan-rim
Divine prediction: Lee Jan-rim was the most prominent of the leaders of about 200 South Korean fundamentalist Christian churches that predicted the Rapture. Lee was arrested in early October for allegedly swindling his followers out of $4 million, including bonds that were presumably worthless since they matured well after the expected Rapture. Still, an estimated 20,000 South Koreans believed. Many spent the month busily quitting jobs, abandoning families, and shedding private property. At one particularly gung ho church, followers proved their faith by eating live eels and fish and stripping in front of each other.
Divine hindsight: At 12:15 AM, the Reverend Chang Man-ho told followers at the largest doomsday church, “Sorry; let’s go home.” Lee, speaking from jail, apologized for causing social unrest by “misinterpreting the Bible.”
What did happen: At the Big Ten men’s basketball tip-off luncheon, University of Illinois coach Lou Henson told a joke in which Saint Peter greets three new entrants to heaven and asks their IQs. When the last guy gives his IQ as 53, Saint Peter says, “How ’bout them Hawkeyes?”
Doomsday: May 5, 2000
Prophet: Richard Kieninger
Divine prediction: Kieninger predicts that a three-day worldwide earthquake will rearrange the earth’s poles. He and 50 followers are building a self-sufficient community in Garland, Texas, where they hope to survive the end. Kieninger says he bases his prediction on the advice of a mysterious “brotherhood of scientist-philosophers who claim responsibility for the Italian Renaissance.” He and his followers will ride out the quake in dirigibles, possibly outfitted with jet engines. “They’re still on the drafting board. You know, we haven’t actually constructed one yet because it’s not necessary yet,” he says. He expects the Second Coming to occur 1,000 years postquake.
Divine hindsight: He has six years to come up with a good excuse.
What might really happen: Business as usual–war, disease, pestilence, and the miniskirt back in style.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Slug Signorino.