History Matters: The Apocalypse

History Matters: The Apocalypse

Innovations and trends that shaped your ancestors' lives. In this issue: A history of the end of the world.

It’s disconcerting, but many of our ancestors didn’t expect us to be around by now. The hullabaloo about the Mayan calendar’s end in December 2012 is only the latest in a parade of end-of-the-world predictions throughout history (happily, all false so far). In addition to well-known prognosticators such as Nostradamus, who forecast Armageddon to arrive in July 1999, many amateur doomsayers have tried to predict The End, pegging the date to comets, planet alignments and half-cooked calculations.

The word apocalypse originally referred to any revelation of divine will; only in the modern era did it come to mean the end of the world as we know it. For many early believers in apocalypticism, as with later “millennialists,” the end of this world would herald a heavenly new era, albeit with tribulations.

In 448, Moses of Crete, a rabbi, claimed to be the Messiah and led his followers to the sea, which he said would part so they could reach Palestine. Having given away all their possessions, Moses, followers cast themselves into the Mediterranean. Seeing his adherents crash on the rocks and drown’the rabbi declined to follow and “suddenly disappeared,” leading some to conclude he had been “some malignant fiend” in human form.

The world approached the year 1000 calmly — in the Middle Ages, most commoners didn’t have much use for dates, and only parts of the world influenced by the Romans used the Julian calendar. Most accounts of millennial madness were probably exaggerated by later scribes. But doomsayers were just getting warmed up. In 1179, astrologer John of Toledo foretold disaster when all the planets assembled in the constellation Libra in September 1186. The Archbishop of Canterbury proclaimed a day of atonement, just in case, and the Byzantine emperor walled up his windows in Constantinople.

The Norse foresaw Ragnarök, a battle in which the gods would perish, after which the world would be flooded. Although these oral traditions were written down in the Eddas of the 13th century, the Norse were canny enough not to specify a date for Ragnarök.

German mathematician Johannes Stöffler predicted in 1499 that an alignment in Pisces would produce an apocalyptic flood in February 1524. People in Germany built boats, including, according to legend, a three-story ark constructed by a count. When doomsday arrived with only a light drizzle, angry crowds outside the ark stampeded, trampling hundreds, and stoned the count to death.

In the early 16th century, Anabaptists came to believe the world would end on Easter Sunday 1534. One sect, led by Jan Matthys, seized control of the German city of Münster, proclaiming it the “New Jerusalem.” They expelled or forcibly baptized all Catholics and Lutherans and waited for Judgment Day. It was indeed the end for Matthys, who led a small band of believers against a besieging army: He and his troops were hacked to death. Münster fell in 1535 and the remaining Anabaptist leaders were tortured, executed and displayed in cages, which still hang outside the Church of St. Lambert.

The Reformation continued to mix doomsday prophecies and politics. Following the 17th-century English Civil Wars that put Oliver Cromwell in power, the Fifth Monarchists preached that Christ would soon return. In the coming year 1666, they saw the Biblical “number of the beast.” Far from being out of the mainstream, these doomsayers played key roles in the trial and execution of Charles I. After the Restoration in 1660, Fifth Monarchists were among the first to be hanged, drawn and quartered for treason.

Other doomsayers drew on different Biblical math. Most famously, Irish Bishop James Ussher calculated in 1654 that the first day of Creation began at nightfall preceding Sunday, Oct. 23, 4004 BC. Since it was commonly believed the world would last only 6,000 years (taking into account the six days of creation and “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years”), this put The End in 1996.

Not everyone thought we had so much time. Another interpretation of the Bible led Johann Jacob Zimmermann, a German nonconformist theologian and astronomer, to predict the apocalypse would arrive “on the edge of the wilderness” in 1694. He planned to lead 11 families to await the end in North America, and got land near Wissahickon Creek from Pennsylvanian Gov. William Penn. Zimmerman died on the day the group was to depart Rotterdam, but the rest of “the Hamburg Group” founded a short-lived community in Pennsylvania.

They might’ve been the first, but they certainly weren’t the last millennialists in America. Forerunners of today’s Seventh-day Adventists, Millerites followed Baptist preacher William Miller, who said Christ would return in 1843 or 1844. Another Millerite pegged it more precisely as Oct. 22, 1844, a day that became known as “the Great Disappointment.” Thousands of followers gave away their possessions and awaited the end. When Jesus didn’t appear, one wrote, “I lay prostrate for two days without any pain — sick with disappointment.” The group split into factions; the Second Great Awakening gave Millerites many options of denominations to switch to.

Another new group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, made repeated predictions of Christ’s return and the subsequent “day of wrath.” When the world didn’t end in 1914, Armageddon was moved to 1925 and 1975.

The 20th century brought believers of another kind. A Chicago woman who claimed to channel “guardians” from the planet Clarion predicted an apocalyptic flood on Dec. 21, 1954. Though of little impact at the time, the woman and her devotees made history of a different sort when they were infiltrated by academics. Publishing their observations in a book, When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger and colleagues helped lay the foundation for modern social psychology.

Doomsday cults seemed to flourish in the late 20th century — Branch Davidian leader David Koresh predicted the world would end in 1995, and the Heaven’s Gate cult believed the Earth would be “recycled” with the coming of the comet Hale-Bopp. Most folks today can remember feeling a bit uneasy when Y2K came around, but the predicted global financial collapse never happened. (You can panic like it’s 1999 with this old issue of Weekly World News.)

According to the Mayan calendar and director Roland Emmerich, The End is still to come on Dec. 21, 2012. Our days might well be numbered, but we’d wager that nobody’s done the counting right.

Fun Facts

  • In 1880, Russian Mennonite followers of Claas Epp trekked 1,000 miles to Uzbekistan to meet the returned Christ on March 8, 1889.
  • Reading the future in the Great Pyramids of Egypt, various “pyramidologists” have claimed the world would end in 1881, 1936, 1953 and 1960.
  • In 1809, fortuneteller Mary Bateman produced eggs bearing apocalyptic messages. She was later caught “priming” the chicken with a prepared egg and was hanged for poisoning a client.

1000: World doesn’t end
1524: Despite predictions of floods, the year is “distinguished by drought”
1828: Edward Irving writes in The Last Days that the end is already five years overdue
1844: Millerites suffer the “Great Disappointment”
1908: Meteor explodes over Siberia in the largest recorded “impact event”
1973: Comet Kohoutek inspires doomsday cults
1988: 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988 is released (reprinted in 1989, 1993 and 1994)
1996: James Ussher’s 6,000 years of creation run out
1999: Fears of computer crashes spur runs on bottled water

2012: 13th cycle of the Mayan calendar ends

From the September 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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