As the sun rose on May 22nd, it was setting, so to speak, on Harold Camping, the Prophet of Solo Radio. In his previous prediction of the end of the world, he left himself a little wiggle room by placing a question mark after the predicted end of time, 1994. Not so this time, as he flatly predicted the Lord’s return around 6 PM on May 21. In-credibly, when the event he guaranteed would happen didn’t, he was back on the radio the following Monday with a new end-of-the-world date, and to no one’s surprise, not a hint of shame.
While proving a huge embarrassment to all things Christian, sadly this is only the latest in a long line of apocalyptic shamans, self-deluded “prophets,” madmen and garden-variety hucksters who have, with numbing regularity, preyed upon the church.
We admit it. We’re just a little grumpy about all the attention these phony prophets get as they turn genuine biblical Christianity into a media caricature. And so, lest any of us get too comfortable in our particular denominational pew, we thought it would be a good idea to take a short trip down memory lane.
Sadly, there are few denominations which have been spared from their own version of Harold Camping, who left the Christian Reformed Church in 1988. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists and non-denominational Evangelicals have all had their share of Doomsayers, some of whom launched denominations or religions of their own after their prophecies proved wrong, proving that the Unitarian P.T. Barnum was right about at least one thing….
Baptist layman William Miller was, as they usually say, a student of history and the Bible. In 1833 he predicted that the Lord would return ten years later, most likely in 1843, but possibly as late as 1844. A newspaper entitled “Signs of the William MillerTimes” carried a series of arguments he wrote explaining his dating method. When the earliest date he had given passed without incident, the Millerite faithful at first seemed content to wait until the latest date arrived, but when a Millerite preacher began to publish his own calculations predicting another date, the leadership of the movement was caught by surprise. The new date, October 22, 1844, was immediately seized upon by the rank-and-file as “the day” and thousands began to prepare, selling their possessions. October 22nd would henceforth be known as the “Great Disappointment.” It did not, however, bring an end to the movement which continues in the modern era as the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
Claas Epp, Jr. knew he had to leave Russia, since the Tsar announced plans to rescind exception from military service for the German immigrants who had been invited to settle there by the German-born Catherine the Great. As pacifists, all the Mennonites were preparing to go, but most had set their sights westward, or even across the Atlantic to America. But Claas had the advantage of a special revelation that told him the Lord would be returning shortly in Central Asia. So, along with a group of sixty families who either believed his prophecy or thought the east looked more inviting that the west, he set out for Uzbekistan. The local Khan turned them away, having had quite enough Russians who had taken the neighboring city of Khiva by force in 1873. It was at Khiva that the Mennonites finally found a home for what they thought would be the short wait until “The End.”
Once the locals realized that the Mennonites would not resist, they became increasingly bold, entering their homes and making off with whatever they could lay their hands on. Claas became increasingly un-hinged, eventually deciding that he was Christ’s son. Although he would die in the borderland between Turkestan and Uzbekistan, one son would emmigrate to Nebraska where many of Epps’ descendants can be found today.
Oh, where to begin. Although Christ himself says in the Scriptures that “no man knoweth” when He will return, “not even the Son,” that hasn’t kept flocks of televangelists from tickling the ears of listeners (and donors) for years. While there have been plenty of Presbyterians, Baptists and other Protestants who have succumbed to “rapture fever,” our Pentecostal neighbors over at Trinity Broadcast Network have virtually turned it into a cottage industry. We’ll only mention two ofBenny Hinn the most recognizable, Edgar Whisenant and the irrepressible Benny Hinn.
Edgar Whisenant, who died in 2001, was nothing if not confident. When he published his “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988” he assured his readers that “only if the Bible is in error am I wrong.” The book sold millions, although subsequent books didn’t sell nearly as well, predicting the Rapture in 1989, then in 1993, then in 1994 … well, one gets the idea. How could it not be true, Whisenant had worked for NASA?
During the 1990’s, Benny Hinn’s failed predictions that the world’s end was imminent apparently did little to dampen enthusiasm for Hinn’s increasingly bizarre prophecies, including his 1999 pronouncement that people would be lining up rows of caskets in front of television sets all over the world. Why? Because the TBN broadcast was literally going to raise them from the dead.
Christian Missionary Alliance
David BergAt least the CMA had the good sense to expel David Berg from their ministry before he went completely ga-ga. Older readers may remember Berg as the fellow who predicted the world was going to be destroyed by the comet Kahoutek in 1973 (about the same time his “Children of God” cult was sweeping across the country). Had the comet arrived as planned, it might have saved Berg from all those nasty pedophile allegations. If only more church bodies were as diligent as the CMA was in the case of Berg.
The Ghost Dancers
Hollywood has given us many treatments of this cathartic movement among Native Americans in the late Nineteenth Century, but few identify its Christian connection. The founder of the Ghost Dance was a Paiute who went by the name Jack Wilson, the surname taken from the Christian couple who had helped raise him. The “Ghost Dance” set the army and settlers on edge and no doubt contributed to the tense atmosphere Jack Wilson “Wovoka”that resulted in Wounded Knee. While Wilson (whose Indian name was “Wovoka”) preached a pacifistic wait-for-it patience, the movement he began soon harbored those with more marshal sentiments. Wovoka would write to his followers,
“Do not tell the white people about this. Jesus is now upon the earth. He appears like a cloud. The dead are still alive again. I do not know when they will be here; maybe this fall or in the spring. When the time comes there will be no more sickness and everyone will be young again.”
Oh, how we would like to sweep the Christian origins of this monstrous cult under the rug, but the fact is that Christians have been far too timorous in standing up to what are often exceedingly dangerous false prophets within the pale of the church. While most of these delusional folks have the decency to set up shop outside of the local church, the increasingly doctrine-free environment in today’s churches offers little protection, even from those as dangerous as the Heaven’s Gate crowd.
When Marshall Applewhite awoke from surgery, he promptly pronounced that he and his nurse, Bonnie Nettles, were the “two witnesses” of Revelation. Fast-forward to 1997 and the bright fiery zenith of the Hale-Bopp comet (what is it with these people and comets?) and we find Applewhite and thirty-eight of his followers committing mass suicide in a Rancho Santa Fe, California mansion. The theory was they would be able to board the UFO trailing in the comet’s wake.
We have a Methodist superintendent to thank for inviting Jim Jones to study for the Methodist ministry (the superintendent apparently fully aware that Jones considered himself a communist, not a Christian). Fortunately for the Methodists, Jim Joneshe soon left that venerable body to found his own “full gospel” church, selling miniature monkeys door-to-door to raise the start-up capital. Seriously.
That proved to be remarkably entrepreneurial for Jones, an avowed communist whose People’s Temple would become a haven for vehemently pro-Soviet activists. After moving to the San Francisco Bay area, he moderated his public image while becoming privately more and more disengaged from reality. Politicians and celebrities from Jimmy and Rosslyn Carter to Jerry Brown to Jane Fonda to Walter Mondale made pilgrimages to raise money from his followers or bask in his reflected glory.
When stories of abuse began to surface, Jones fled with a thousand of his followers to Guyana. Increasingly paranoid, Jones’ journey would end with the worst murder/suicide in U.S. history, until the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Following the martyrdom of Jan Hus, a number of regional wars erupted in protest, none more fiercely pursued than in the gold-mining town of Tabor. Here elements of Hussite theology careened off into socio-political extremism, complete with abolition of servant-master relationships and adoption of a communist-type civil polity. Their military leader was a far better person than their system. Jan Zizka is remembered as a warrior who was compassionate to his foes and once ordered his army to pray for forgiveness after unnecessarily slaughtering some of their enemies. After defeating the imperial troops, the united Hussite armies of Bohemia ended up in fratricidal conflicts that doomed Tabor as a military power, although some trace from this rocky soil the movement that would become the Moravian Brethren.Harold Camping, Photo courtesy of Jennifer Waits
To paraphrase Andy Warhol, perhaps everyone also gets their fifteen minutes of infamy. After paddling around in the backwaters of religious radio, Camping’s absolute guarantee that May 21, 2011 would be Judgment Day catapulted the once-orthodox broadcaster onto the front pages of newspapers across the globe. Tens of thousands of news stories were written about the Oakland preacher, as secularists and atheists had a field day ridiculing Christianity. Proclaiming that new truth was “pouring out of the Bible” every day in these last times, when his May 21st guarantee proved to be a colossal bust, he simply picked a new date—Oct 21st, 2011. Among the “new truths” Camping has revealed is that Christ did not pay for anyone’s sins by dying on the cross and that all Christian churches are the temples of Satan.
As he peeked out the door of his house on the morning of March 22nd, 2011, perhaps he should have been asked why he still had a house while his followers had sold theirs?