A Year After The Non-Apocalypse: Where Are Harold Camping's Believers Now?
For a while, their message was everywhere. They paid for billboards, took out full-page ads in newspapers, distributed thousands of tracts. They drove across the county in RVs emblazoned with verses from the books of Revelation and Daniel. They marched around Manhattan holding signs. They broadcasted day and night on their network of radio stations. They warned the world.
That warning turned out to be a false alarm. No giant earthquake rippled across the surface of the earth, nor were any believers caught up in the clouds. Harold Camping, the octogenarian whose nightly Bible call-in show fomented doomsday mania, suffered a stroke soon afterward and mostly disappeared from sight. The press coverage, which had been intense in the weeks leading up to May 21, 2011, dwindled to nothing. The story, as far as most people were concerned, was over.
But I wanted to know what happens next. If you’re absolutely sure the world is going to end on a specific day, and it doesn’t, what do you do? How do you explain it to yourself? What happens to your faith in God? Can you just scrape the bumper stickers off your car, throw away the t-shirts, and move on?
In order to find out, I got to know a dozen or so believers prior to the scheduled apocalypse. I sat at their kitchen tables, attended their meetings, tagged along on trips to Wal-Mart, ate pizza in their hotel rooms, spent hours with them on the phone. Then, after Jesus was a no-show, I stayed in contact with them—the ones who would talk to me, anyway—over the following days and months, checking back in to see how or if their thinking had changed.
I learned a lot about the seductive power of radical belief, the inscrutable vagaries of biblical interpretation, and how our minds can shape reality to fit a narrative. I also learned that you don’t have to be nuts to believe something crazy.
“I Can’t Afford to Doubt”
On the night of October 22, 1844, they huddled in a barn in Port Gibson, New York. They stood by the graves of their departed loved ones in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire. In Cincinnati, Ohio, 2,000 of them walked through downtown and climbed a hill to a park overlooking the city. Inside homes, on rooftops, in fields, alone or en masse, they waited for God.
These were devotees of William Miller, the prosperous farmer turned self-taught biblical scholar. It’s impossible to know for sure how many people he persuaded that the world was ending; estimates range from 50,000 to one million. Anyone who read a newspaper at the time would have been familiar with Miller’s prognostications. Along with those who identified publicly as Millerites, there must have been many more who privately took his warnings to heart.
More than a century later, a young social psychologist named Leon Festinger took an interest in the Millerites. What intrigued Festinger was why the failure of Miller’s multiple prophecies had done little to discourage the faithful. Miller had predicted the end of the world more than once. The end of the world hadn’t come. Shouldn’t that have been enough? Festinger wrote the following in his 1956 classic, When Prophecy Fails: “Although there is a limit beyond which belief will not withstand disconfirmation, it is clear that the introduction of contrary evidence can serve to increase the conviction and enthusiasm of a believer.”