Upstate New York in the nineteenth century was an unsettled place. The opening of the Erie Canal had brought an economic boom, but also unsettling changes, as the Canal unlocked the west and brought about the first major population migration in the United States towards the wilds of the Northwest Territories. There were other influences keeping things roiling as well; the Erie area was known as "the burnt district" for the number of revivals that took place there during the Second Great Awakening. John Humphrey Noyes founded Oneida, a Christian utopian commune in which the men and women were all considered married to one another. The hints of sexual license around Matthias the Prophet‘s Mount Zion community had become a major scandal. And just outside Palmyra, New York, Joseph Smith received his first angelic visitations that would eventually lead him to form the Mormon church. Against this backdrop, the religious proclomations of a farmer named William Miller might not have seemed all that noteworthy, were it not for one thing: William Miller had been told by God that the world was in its end days, and he was willing to say exactly when we would all be summoned home. The Christian millenialist tradition had been around for centuries; some historians place the beginnings in 1033 (Christ’s thirty-three years of life plus the thousand years that gave millenialism its name). The Bible is a book written as though it is very near the end of days (nowhere more so than in the apocalyptic visions of St. John the Divine), and almost continually from 1033 onward, someone, somewhere, has been predicting the end of the world. In 1260, the Joachites read the prophecies of Joachim of Fiore (and awaited the rise and fall of the Antichrist). In 1290, they tried again. Thomas Müntzer saw the world ending in 1525, and urged his followers forward into a peasant’s rebellion (endearing him to future East German Communists). In 1648, Rabbi Sabbatai Zevi consulted the Kabbalic text, the Zohar, and determined that the Messiah was soon to return. He came to the logical conclusion, announced his Messiahdom, and began gathering followers. In Palestine, he became the leader of the largest messianic Jewish movement since the birth of the Christians before he was exiled by the Turks. No less a personage than the scientist, philosopher, and mystic Emmanuel Swedenbourg was willing to venture a prediction about the exact date of the end of the world: 1757. (His prediction’s failure did little to prevent the spread of his ideas and New Church after his death in 1772.)
Walter Miller’s prediction was, inevitably, a bust. He tried again, announcing that his calculations had been based on the Jewish calendar and that the proper date in the Gregorian calendar was October 22, 1844. Despite much mockery from the popular press, Miller’s preaching had swept through America. Tens of thousands of people made their peace with God and wrapped up their worldly affairs for the last day. The world again resolutely failed to end. The experience was a bitter awakening for many:
Our expectations were raised high, and thus we looked for our coming Lord until the clock tolled 12, at midnight. The day had then passed and our disappointment became a certainty. Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. It seemed that the loss of all earthly friends could have been no comparison. We wept, and wept, till the day dawn. I mused in my own heart, saying, My advent experience has been the richest and brightest of all my Christian experience. If this had proved a failure, what was the rest of my Christian experience worth? Has the Bible proved a failure? Is there no God, no heaven, 4 no golden home city, no paradise? Is all this but a cunningly devised fable?
The "Great Disappointment" may have opened room for John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren to introduce their doctrine of pre-millenialist Rapture, which now dominates millenialist Protestant beliefs. Miller and his followers who founded the Seventh-Day Adventists were never again to put a date on his predictions (following the path of Matthew 24, in which Jesus asserts that "of that day and hour, knoweth no man"), although that hasn’t kept others from trying. Those millenialists who went on to form the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, tried again and again: 1874, 1914, 1918, 1925, and then a great leap forward to 1975. The world continues to not end.
Even people with secular beliefs like to get in on the game. Planet X did not arrive in 2003 to cause the magnetic poles to reverse, plunging the world into chaos and destruction (although some people will surely calculate the day the chaos and destruction arrive based on the slow fading of the magnetic poles). The ice age that began in 1960 has not been confirmed by temperature readings or a dearth of sunspots. People keep spinning their orreries, but the planet has not been struck by a great comet, triggering a global winter and causing the human race to go extinct. (We can wait for the arrival of Asteroid 1997XF11 in 2028, but that won’t destroy the world either.)
Scientific predictions tend not to have the novelty value that might attract devoted followers, nor do scientists usually predict an The sun will run out of hydrogen in five billion years. Hopefully the answers will have been determined before then. If not, the latest work in physics suggests some truly remarkable scenarios:
After that the apocalypse speeds up. About 900 million years later, about 60 million years before the end, our own Milky Way galaxy will be torn apart. Three months before the rip, the solar system will fly apart. The Earth will explode when there is half an hour left on the cosmic clock. The last item on Dr. Caldwell’s doomsday agenda is the dissolution of atoms, 10-19, a tenth of a billionth of a billionth of a second before the Big Rip ends everything. "After the rip is like before the Big Bang," Dr. Caldwell said. "General relativity says: ‘The end.’ Time can’t evolve."
And thus the world will end, not with a bang but a whimper. Mark your calendars now.