The Universal Notebook: No end in sight

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When I drove through midtown Manhattan last week on my way to Queens, I noticed a lot of demonstrators on street corners with signs warning New Yorkers that the world was coming to an end on May 21. It reminded me of those cliched cartoons of false prophets walking around in sack cloth and ashes with signs that read “Repent! The End Is Near!”

Someone has been prophesying the end of the world since time immemorial and, so far, they have all been wrong. You want to be tolerant of a person’s religious beliefs, but these poor followers of radio evangelist Harold Camping are surely wrong as well.

The sheer human arrogance of one man to claim to know the mind of God and to be able to work out that Judgment Day will be May 21, 2011, is only surpassed in its misguided sadness by the fact that some unfortunate souls actually believe him.

I wanted to reassure some of the doomsayers by offering to take their phone numbers and call them on May 22, but I’m glad I didn’t. When I read a bit more into the pathology of their millennial state of mind, I realized that when May 22 does come, as it surely will, Camping’s followers will convince themselves that the world did come to an end and that they are now in hell. Sick.

Of course, Camping will probably have any number of other excuses for his error. After all, he first predicted the end of the world would occur in 1994. When that didn’t happen, he recalculated, came up with 2011, and acquired another big following of vulnerable, gullible individuals. As we have seen on the political front, the facts don’t count anymore (if they ever did).

Back in the fall of 1844, during another time of great anxious revivalism and social upheaval in the United States, a farmer named William Miller convinced thousands of Americans that he, too, knew exactly when the end would occur.

Here in Maine, there were a lot of Millerites. When the appointed day, March 21, came and went, Miller and one of his acolytes quickly redid the biblical math and came up with Oct. 22. True believers climbed up onto rooftops, into trees, and up mountains in anticipation of being taken up. What followed became known as the Great Disappointment.

Boston minister Joshua Himes, a Millerite apologist, defended Miller by asking, “If we were mistaken about the time, what harm can result to the church or the world?” In his view, converting souls and preparing them to meet their Maker was a good thing whether or not the Rapture occurred on a specified day.

On Oct. 26, 1844, however, the Portland Transcript explained exactly what was wrong with the Millerite folly – and by extension all other pretentious End Time prophecy:

“We have observed with great regret, that by means of heedless publications, and otherwise, a panic has been produced in many families, and in cases where there was no pre-existing tendency to enthusiastic delusions, yet the general agitation of such a subject has created painful alarms and distress. Even in our schools, the agitation has been very mischievous, and little children have gone home to their parents in agonies of apprehension from frightful matters so commonly talked about.”

To prey upon the hopes and fears of weak-minded, impressionable individuals by promising a trip to heaven come Saturday is a very disturbed and disturbing thing to do. I’ve never really understood why some people get so focused on sin, judgment, and damnation, because it’s pretty clear to me that Christianity is all about peace, love, compassion and forgiveness.

Sometimes it seems that religion does as much harm as good.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.