Apocalyptic Anxiety: Religion, Science, and America's Obsession with the End of the World

Apocalyptic Anxiety: Religion, Science, and America's Obsession with the End of the World

by Anthony Aveni

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Apocalyptic Anxiety traces the sources of American culture’s obsession with predicting and preparing for the apocalypse. Author Anthony Aveni explores why Americans take millennial claims seriously, where and how end-of-the-world predictions emerge, how they develop within a broader historical framework, and what we can learn from doomsday predictions of the past.

The book begins with the Millerites, the nineteenth-century religious sect of Pastor William Miller, who used biblical calculations to predict October 22, 1844 as the date for the Second Advent of Christ. Aveni also examines several other religious and philosophical movements that have centered on apocalyptic themes—Christian millennialism, the New Age movement and the Age of Aquarius, and various other nineteenth- and early twentieth-century religious sects, concluding with a focus on the Maya mystery of 2012 and the contemporary prophets who connected the end of the world as we know it with the overturning of the Maya calendar.

Apocalyptic Anxiety places these seemingly never-ending stories of the world’s end in the context of American history. This fascinating exploration of the deep historical and cultural roots of America’s voracious appetite for apocalypse will appeal to students of American history and the histories of religion and science, as well as lay readers interested in American culture and doomsday prophecies.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607324713
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 05/02/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 268
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Anthony Aveni is the Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy, Anthropology, and Native American Studies at Colgate University. He has researched and written about Maya astronomy for more than four decades. He was named a US National Professor of the year and has been awarded the H. B. Nicholson Medal for Excellence in Research in Mesoamerican Studies by Harvard's Peabody Museum.

Read an Excerpt

Apocalyptic Anxiety

Religion, Science, and America's Obsession with the End of the World

By Anthony Aveni

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2016 Anthony Aveni
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-471-3


Millerites and the Biblical End of the World

A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.

Psychologist Leon Festinger

It began in the "Burned-over District," a funnel-shaped conduit of turf between New York's Adirondack and Catskill Mountains that opens into the Great Lakes and connects the Midwest to New England and colonial America's eastern coastal cities. Early in the nineteenth century, during a period of intense religious revivalism known as the Second Great Awakening, religious dissenters, along with adventurers and opportunists, trekked their way out of the established territory of the Northeast toward the open frontier via the newly constructed Erie Canal. The fervor of unorthodox Yankee social and religious practices that swept over the area like fire in a dry cornfield would bestow the char on the territorial label this region would come to acquire. Here Adventism, a belief in the imminent Second Coming of Christ, would become the birth child of Pastor William Miller (figure 1.1).

Miller was born at the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1782. Typical of the New England "Yorkers," his pioneer family, like that of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, had migrated across the wilderness line from settled communities in western New England. By modern standards, you could call the Miller family middle class. William's frugal parents held a mortgage on a small farm in upstate Yates County, New York. The Millers were well read, politically involved, and deeply religious — the mother pious, the father descended from a long line of preachers.

Young William was bookish and he kept a diary. An early entry reads: "I was early educated and taught to pray the lord." He was fifteen at the time. Miller later married, served a stint in the militia, then fought in the War of 1812. Once discharged, he worked his way up in county government, became established financially, and settled into the life of a gentleman farmer. It is worth noting that before he became an interpreter of biblical passages, Miller was a deist, one who believes that, though a supreme being created the world, reason and the observation of nature alone can be used to determine the relationship between people and God. Skeptical of ideas tied to his Baptist upbringing, Miller became immersed in his own study of the Scriptures. He also developed into a devout apostle of apocalyptic eschatology, the belief that God has disclosed, in the Scriptures and other forms of revelation, secret knowledge of a particular kind about the end of the world — the "mysteries of heaven and earth." Young Miller managed to convince himself not only that the word of the Bible was absolutely pure revelation, but also that its prophetic messages pointed to an imminent event of world-shaking proportions. Far from appearing a religious fanatic, Miller was characterized by his contemporaries not so much as an inspired prophet but rather as a humble logician driven to conduct patient research, a man with a resourceful and imaginative mind and a literal-minded soul.

His principal early biographer, the Adventist historian Francis Nichol, traces Miller's first specification of a date for the end of the world as we know it back to 1818, when he recorded in his diary that in about twenty-five years "our present state would be wound up." Four years later Miller wrote out his detailed justification for timing the event as well as the method for arriving at it, though initially he refused to go public.

Precisely what biblical passages pointed to a premillennial Advent circa 1843? Miller displays his number-crunching logic in a famous numerological chart frequently used to illustrate his lectures (figure 1.2). He based his argument on prophecies in the Old Testament book of Daniel and in New Testament Revelation, together with the long-held key assumption that numbers specified in Scripture as days are to be interpreted instead as years; for example, Numbers 14:34 tells us: "According to the number of the days ... each day you shall bear your guilt, namely forty years." Miller started with the decree of Artaxerxes, given in the seventh year of his reign, to rebuild Jerusalem, written in Daniel 8:14: "For two thousand and three hundred evenings and mornings; then shall the sanctuary be restored to its rightful state." He took this to mean that 2,300 years after 457 BCE, the date he assigned to the commandment issued to the prophet Daniel by the angel Gabriel, the sanctuary will be cleansed of all sin by the Second Coming of Christ.

What else could the sanctuary be but the church? reasoned Miller. And surely the cleansing must refer to total redemption from sin in the aftermath of Christ's Second Coming. A second passage, also from Daniel (9:24–27), reads: "Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people ... to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most holy." Miller thought this prophesied that seventy weeks, or 490 days — equal to 490 years — were already cut off from the first part of the long period in Daniel 8:14. So the math is simple: 2,300 – 457 = 1843 CE.

But, notes historian Ruth Alden Doan, Miller didn't stop there. Dedicated to the principle that no portion of Scripture involving number coincidence should be overlooked, he interpreted the number 1,335 (Daniel 12:12) to be the number of days (again, years) between the establishment of papal supremacy (he sets that at 508 CE) and end-time: 508 + 1,335 = 1843 (see the bottom of the chart in figure 1.2). Later Miller reset the first date at 538 CE, added it to the 1,260 days (years) of the woman in the wilderness mentioned in Revelation 12:14, and landed on 1798, the date the papacy fell to Napoleon. In this case the last days made up the 45 years between 1798 and 1843. By subtracting the 70 weeks in Daniel (490 years) from 2,300 years and tacking on the 33-year life of Christ, the pastor again arrived at 1843 — another coincidence.

What would happen? How would it end? To address these questions Miller turned to the New Testament's last chapter, the Revelation according to John. Revelation 6:13–17 paints a frightening portent:

And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.

And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and her mountain and island were moved out of their places.

And the kinds of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;

And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:

For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?

Armageddon will be the place where God's and Satan's army will confront one another at the end of the world. All sin and sinners will perish and a New Jerusalem will rule for eternity.

Interestingly, some of Miller's detractors foresaw not the physical catastrophic conflagration — the doom of fiery judgment cast upon sinners — but rather the more blissful Advent of a moral regeneration for those who would redeem themselves. Rule by physical force and demonstration of power is surely not God's way, they reasoned. It sounded, as historian Michael Barkun characterizes it, too much like "a sad last resort inadequate for a God capable of triumph through nobler means."

Some viewed the Advent as gradual rather than sudden — the coming of an age of God's mercy. But everyone, theologian and prophet alike, agreed: something big — or at least the beginning of it — lay just over the horizon; biblical prophecies, however interpreted, were on the verge of being fulfilled.

If the end was near, then the world would need to know it — and Miller would be the one to tell it. And so in 1831 he made himself over from farmer to preacher, moving from pew to pulpit. Once the harvest was in Miller would mount the dais wherever and whenever he had the opportunity. "There was nothing halfway about Miller. He reminds one a little of the Apostle Paul," Francis Nichol describes him. "He thought and acted intensely. He used in abundance those hand maidens of the fervid — colorful adjectives and superlatives." However, Michael Barkun's less biased, more recent assessment tells us that Miller did not attract followers because of his oratorical skills. He pictures Miller as a rather bland individual who, though sincere in his personal commitment, was a colorless figure "utterly lacking in glamour and magnetism." Barkun attributes Miller's efficacy to his persistence at a time when his message seemed appetizing to those in the communities where he preached.

Miller's sphere of influence quickly began to expand well beyond remote rural towns as he acquired a band of followers from adjacent Massachusetts and even more distant Connecticut. The messenger became as important as the message. In 1835 he wrote to one disciple, the Reverend Truman Hendryx, "I now have four or five ministers to hear me in every place I lecture. I tell you it is making no small stir in these regions." The media fueled his fire: in 1832 a Vermont newspaper spread the word by publishing Miller's lectures. Evidently the preacher himself shared what he interpreted to be his audience's high opinion of his skills as a persuasive speaker. As Miller's diary reports: "As soon as I commenced speaking ... I felt impressed only with the greatness of the subject, which, by the providence of God, I was enabled to present."

Aggressive promotion by the organization that grew around Miller also had a profound effect on the movement's success. Pamphlets detailing the pastor's sermons published in lots of a thousand or more quickly sold out. His diary informs us that between October 1, 1834, and June 9, 1839, Miller delivered 800 lectures, some with as many as 1,800 in attendance, on the "Advent near" theme. In a span of eight weeks in 1836 he gave a total of 82 lectures, sold $300 worth of pamphlets, and received an undisclosed number of small financial donations. By his own estimate Miller preached more than 600 sermons in 1841 alone.

By the early 1840s Miller had acquired a cadre of fellow preachers who sowed his prophetic seeds all across the northeastern United States and Canada. They journeyed as far east as Bangor, Maine, and west to Oberlin, Ohio. Millerite sermonizing organizations even turned up in England and Australia.

Not only in politics does the person behind the scenes have as much to do with the success of the message as the one who delivers it. Joshua Himes, pastor of the Chardon St. Chapel in Boston, is credited with spreading Miller's word beyond the Burned-over District. Himes was a take-charge promotional genius who knew how to handle the media of his day. He employed camp meetings, a Presbyterian innovation. And he chose sites that were easily accessible by rail, thus urbanizing the effort. Himes set up outposts and staffed them with able and enthusiastic disciples; he founded newspapers and issued books and pamphlets along with periodicals. He raised funds. Religious historian David Arthur, who traces Himes's enthusiastic involvement in a number of contemporary social causes, including the antislavery movement, notes that without him, Miller "might have remained simply another obscure figure predicting the end of the world." It was Joshua Himes who added the ism to Miller's name, he who made Miller's ideas a movement. Though without a church, the fledging Millerites organized a commission, conducted meetings, and examined and passed judgment on the knowledge and skills of those who sought lectureships as a means of spreading the word.

As head of the movement, Miller welcomed not only those who would preach his 1843 day of doom doctrine but also those who believed the Advent was near without necessarily specifying an exact time. To keep followers up to date, detailed accounts of the whereabouts and content of meetings were published in Signs of the Times, a Boston newspaper dedicated exclusively to Millerite news. The vigorous Himes also expanded the publishing effort from semimonthly to weekly in 1838. The Midnight Cry, a publication out of New York City, also flourished. In the first half of 1843 an estimated 600,000 copies of Millerite publications were distributed in that city alone.

Of signs, Matthew (24:29) writes that after the tribulation the sun will go dark and the moon will cease to give light. Stars will fall from the sky. Religious historian David Rowe has traced the abundant literature said to link signs that an angry God was already beginning to sound the trumpets' apocalyptic blast. Millerites searched out past records of astronomical prophecy, for example, the darkening of the sky on May 19, 1780 (later attributed to smoke from forest fires), spectacular northern lights displays, especially in 1827 (a peak year in the solar magnetic cycle), and the June 16, 1806, total eclipse of the sun, visible throughout New England. Newspapers reported that wonders in the sky were becoming more common as the year of the end of the world loomed near. "Every meteor that flashes in the heavens is imagined to have some portentous meaning and seen to take some extraordinary form," read a commentary in the Kennebec Journal. The more the editors searched their files, the greater the number of spectacular phenomena they were able to discover; for example, the Leonid meteor shower, which occurs with unusual intensity every thirty-three years, had put on a spectacular sky show in October 1833, and 1837 witnessed an extraordinary display of the northern lights.

Then in February 1843 a great comet, the most brilliant of the nineteenth century, appeared in the evening sky (figure 1.3). By early March it was visible in broad daylight and sported a luminous tail that stretched nearly halfway across the heavens. Because of their unpredictable nature, comets have long been viewed as negative portents. Julius Caesar's assassination was attended by one such celestial phenomenon. Though the media teemed with descriptions of spectacular signs in the heavens, Miller himself was reluctant to attach apocalyptic connotations to them, only remarking that he patiently looked forward, unmoved, to the glorious appearance of the savior. Such things are not needed to confirm the word of God, he explained.

An extraordinary number of terrestrial disasters coincided with the Second Great Awakening, thus fueling the Millerite movement. There were climatic disturbances in the Northeast, such as the "year without a summer" (1816), when repeated frosts decimated crops; there were flash floods in 1811 and 1826. An outbreak of meningitis in 1810 killed 6,000 people; and cholera, originally carried by European immigrants, reached epidemic proportions in New England and New York in 1832. How to account for so much misery being visited upon a people devoted to their God? As Michael Barkun explains: "Disasters must not only be survived; they also need to be fitted into a picture of the world as an ordered place, where moral purpose informs even apparently arbitrary events." The more attention given to the problem of moral order, the greater the reception to alternative ways of framing it, including a tendency to question orthodoxy. Barkun reads this as a circular process: believing themselves to be punished for their sins, the deeply devout redoubled their efforts to rejuvenate themselves. In an atmosphere of religious enthusiasm their shared attitude of victimization by disaster led to more religious revivals.


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Table of Contents

Contents List of Figures Preface Acknowledgments Introduction: December 21, 2012—It Didn’t Happen Part I: Episode 1, October 22, 1844 1. Millerites and the Biblical End of the World 2. A Brief History of Apocalyptic Thinking in the West Part II: American Apocalypse 3. From Columbus to the Great Awakenings 4. Fin de Siècle Secular Perfectionism 5. Spiritualism and the Veiled Synthesis of Science and Religion Part III: New Age Religion and Science 6. The Age of Aquarius 7. Techno-Angels of the Alien Advent 8. Resurgent Christian Dispensationalism and the End of Time in Popular Media 9. Astronomical World Age Theories Resurrected Part IV: Episode 2, December 21, 2012 10. The Fathers of Y12 Prophecy 11. 2012 and the Perennial Philosophy 12. Ancient Galactic Wisdom and 2012 Mayanism Conclusion: Contrasting the Signs of the Times Notes About the Author Index

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