End-Time Prophesy and the New Millennium

Jeffrey K. Hadden

Department of Sociology

University of Virginia

 

 

Common sense would suggest that the worst thing that could possibly happen to a religious group would be for their leader to prophesy a specific date for the occurrence of an event of cataclysmic proportions–like the end of the world–and then stand by while the event fails to come to fruition. Imagine the humiliation and ridicule that members must suffer when the date passes and nothing happens. It seems reasonable to assume that members make exit in droves and, in the future, deny their affiliation with the group.In fact, a mounting body of empirical evidence suggests quite the opposite occurs. A very large proportion of groups that experience a failed eschatological prophecy do quite well. So well, in fact, that we might suggest that end-time prophecy can be a critical strategy for both retaining and recruiting members to a new religious group.

If this be so, why don’t we have a dazzling array of highly visible religious groups counting down to the end of the millennium? The fact of the matter is, scholars are not aware of a single group that is predicting the end of the world with the dawning of the new millennium.

So here we have two apparently contradictory observations. First, empirical evidence points to the conclusion that failed end-time prophecies are generally good for the health of religious movements. And second, we are coming down on the end of the millennium and there are not any preachers out there proclaiming that the countdown to the new millennium and the end of time are co-terminus events. In the few minutes I have to speak to those of you who have come to see the wonderful new Millennium exhibit here at Alderman Library, I want to try and account for these apparent anomalous observations. As background for explaining this apparent anomaly, let me frame the high expectations of religiously grounded millennial madness in the context of secular expectations.

First, the FBI is prepared. If you go to their web site, you’ll find a document entitled The Megiddo Report. Megiddo, if you recall your scriptures, or have visited in the north of Israel, is a small mountain overlooking the Yizreel Valley where the great Battle of Armageddon will be fought. The Megiddo Report does not provide a blue print of FBI preparedness, but it does provide considerable insight into their thinking about how to deal with possible religious and militia radicals and terrorists.

The government of Israel is also prepared. Earlier this year they said they expected some 40,000 persons to appear in Jerusalem and proclaim themselves to be Jesus or Moses or Mohammed or some other religious figure from yesteryear. But these are just the religious nuts and they are not generally considered dangerous. The Israeli government has called in the FBI to help them identify and deal with the dangerous ones who will likely attempt to commit acts of terrorism.

So far it has been a pretty quiet year in Israel. It appeared to begin ominously enough when fourteen members of a group called Concerned Christians, that had mysteriously disappeared from Denver in late 1998, were found to be living in two Jerusalem suburbs. Six of the fourteen were children; either blood or marriage related nine. Only two were adult single males.

The government, learning of their presence, declared them to be a security risk. Under the shroud of "Operation Walk on Water," the members were arrested and, without any legal proceedings, swiftly deported back to the U.S. Since then it has been pretty quiet except last month a small group, from several European countries, attempted to enter the country illegally in a small boat near Haifa.

After the Concerned Christians were deported from Israel there was a rumor that Monte Kim Miller, the group’s leader, was secretly residing in London. This led Scotland Yard to recommend the allocation of an additional 10 million pounds for security at the new Millennium Dome near London. So I guess we can also say that the U.K. is in a state of preparedness.

The mass media has had a lot of fun this year with the Y2K story, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the prelude hype was the big story. The mass media has recently turned to the religious dimension of the new millennium story. No one in the mass media expects January 1 to be the moment when life on planet earth will come to a cataclysmic conclusion, but they are hoping for something a little more interesting than reporting that the technological glitches of Y2K were not very serious.

Let me give you one idea of the kind of story they are looking for. Two weeks ago I was in Boston for a meetings of religious scholars. In the discussion period of a session dealing with new religious movements, a Swiss scholar mentioned that he had recently been contacted by a French television reporter who wanted to interview him about millennial groups that were prophesizing the end of the work on January 1.

Further, the reporter wanted the scholar to introduce him to a group so he could get acquainted, establish rapport, and film the group at precisely the moment when they had prophesized the end of the world. When Jean-Francios Mayer told the reporter that he knew of no such group, the reporter initially assumed Mayer was hiding the identity of one or more such groups. Later the reporter became frustrated and effectively said that if he didn’t know a single group, then is must not be a very good scholar.

This tale brought a good laugh. Then one by one, no less than six other scholars–each from a different country–offered quite similar stories. As it turned out, not a single person in the room could identify a single religious movement that is prophesizing the new millennium will coincide with the end.

In last Friday’s Washington Post syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer sounded a note that is almost certain to be heard again and again over the next few weeks. Wrote Krauthammer:

Where is the panic? Where is the hysteria? Where are the men in robes and placards warning of the imminent end of the world? There are just six weeks left before the turn of the millennium, and things are so quiet and sober that one hardly senses a fin-de-siecle atmosphere, let along millennial trepidation.

 

So what can we say as to why this event, that is suppose to be of such tremendous importance to the whole world of conservative Christendom, has not brought forth prophecies about the end of the world?

To state the matter in the simplest terms, the year 2000 is not a fateful eschatological date in the interpretation of any faith tradition’s holy writings. There are, to be sure, theologically untrained preachers who listen to the mass media more than they read their good book.

For a while is seemed that Y2K, understood as a secular prophecy of the technological collapse of civilization, might become entwined with ungrounded Christian eschatology. But that has not happened.

The evangelical Christian marketplace has reaped bountifully from Y2Kingdom products. And a few evangelical preachers have profited significantly from books and television programming that cries out that the end is near. But preachers of any stature have shied away from calling the date.

Sometimes relatively simple explanations are perfectly satisfactory to account for seemingly complex issues. The absence of correspondence between scriptural grounded prophecies of the end of time and the millennial calendar substantially accounts for the absence of millennial madness in Christendom and other faith traditions as well. We might add to this another simple observation, namely that modern communications technology has made religious leaders aware that many before them have called the date only to embarrassed by the failed prophecy. And, being unaware of social science studies, which indicate that failed prophecies can be good for business, they have come to shy away calling dates. Let’s turn then to the second issue of failed end-time prophecies.

Religions offer explanations and meaning in response to questions that are not readily available by empirical methods. What is the meaning of life? How did we get here? How could a good God allow human suffering, etc.? The key to religious explanations is that they are substantially anchored in the non-empirical world. Religious explanations that are subject to disconfirmation are precarious and, thus, constitute a potential threat to the stability of a belief system.

Why would a religious leader take this risk? What do we know about those who make eschatological prophecies? And, more importantly, how could it be those there errant eschatological calls could bolster their group rather than send it plummeting into the abyss of dead religions?

The answer to these questions becomes more apparent when we look a bit more closely at the groups who engage in end-time prophecies. Date setting is an old tradition in Jewish mysticism and Christendom. I want to focus on more-or-less recent date setters, roughly from the mid-nineteenth century forward.

We can begin with the observation that the vast majority of all religious groups do not engage in the activity of eschatological prophecy. This, is so in spite of the fact that both Judaism and Christianity are anchored in eschatology. The Messiah will come; Jesus will return.

Among those groups with theologies that focus on the end, we can differentiate between those with explicit prophecies that offer specific dates and generalized prophecies.

Generalized prophecies are characteristic of a much larger group that are descendents of a tradition known as Dispensational Premillennialism, first articulated by John Darby in the mid-nineteenth century England. [ and then transported to the U.S. by a group of laissez-faire evangelists. Dispensations are periods of history and we live in the last period before the Rapture, the Great Tribulation and the return of Christ trigger the end of the world. This tradition looks at contemporary history and then searches the scriptures for evidence that these events are signs of the end].

Billy Graham has remained the most highly visible proponent of this theology for nearly half-a-century. While the dispensationalists insist the hour is at hand, they also teach that no one knows the hour. As Graham has repeated so many thousands of times over the years, the Second Coming of Jesus will be "sudden, unexpected and dramatic."

The generalized prophecy tradition has obviously benefited from the proclamation that the end is near. By prophesizing that the Second Coming is imminent, they have sustained a high level of energy for most of the twentieth century. By pointing to evidence of end-time in the Bible, they can titillate believers with evidence that this world is about over, but not step over the line and call the date.

Explicit prophecies are subject to disconfirmation. William Miller, a lay preacher in New England predicted the world would come to an end on March 21, 1843. Miller had developed quite a following, so when the event failed to materialize, he was resoundingly lampooned in the national press. After the failure of a recalculated date, Miller acknowledged that he was obviously wrong]. This did not stop the development of a significant branch of Protestantism known as Adventism. Two major groups, the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the fastest growing Christian traditions worldwide.

The Seventh-day Adventists early on abandoned prophesizing specific dates, but , the Jehovah’s Witnesses did not. The JWs have repeatedly prophesized specific dates and only the most recent, in 1975 had adverse effects on the group.

The one thing that all groups offering end-time prophecies have in common is that they are new religions. To survive, new religions must accomplish two goals: (1) attract new members and (2) achieve social acceptance. The path to gaining followers is achieved by offering a marginally differentiated product and novel ideas. All new religions are in varying degrees of tension with the larger society. Early social acceptance is not desirable because lowering tension amounts to becoming part of the vast undifferentiated religious economy.

One of the most common features differentiating new religions from established groups is the claim that the founding charismatic leader has a special mission to accomplish or relationship to God. Leaders typically proclaim this to be the case, but successful growth of a new group depends upon the confirmation of this claim. There are many ways this may occur.

The Reverend Sun Myung Moon early hinted that he was the Lord of the Second Advent, but held off formally making this proclamation until quite recently. There are many ways in which Moon’s role was legitimated, but clearly two important factors are the enormous wealth the Unification Church has accumulated and the appearance, at least, of global influence.

Unique prophecy is another way that attention can be channeled to a new religion and its leader. From the great plague of the Middle Ages forward, humankind has experienced an array of tragedies that afford prophets plenty of material that can be construed as evidence that the end of the world is near. And no small number has stepped forward with their message of impending paradise for believers and doom for those who reject the message.

The question, since all of the prophets so far have been wrong, is how is it possible that charismatic leaders and their often still nascent groups not only survive, but thrive as the result of the failed prophecy?

This phenomenon was first observed by a team of social psychologists led by Leon Festinger who studied a UFO cult called The Seekers in the 1950s. According to the prophecies of Mrs. Keech, the leader of the group who received her messages of an impending apocalypse from aliens aboard a space ship by telepathy, the group would be rescued by the aliens on the even of a world-ending event.

In their classic book, When Prophecy Fails, Festinger et. al. chronicle multiple disappointments and repeated redoubling of efforts to recruit new members to the group. Active proselytization reduces the dissonance between the reality and expectations, especially if the group is successful in attracting new members. By persuading others a group convinces itself of the truth of the prophecy and renew their hope that the apocalyptic event will yet come to past.

It was from this study that Festinger and his colleagues first developed their theory of cognitive dissonance. I’m sure that many of you participated in cognitive dissonance experiments in college psychology courses).

For a long time scholars examined groups with failed prophecies from the cognitive dissonance perspective with mixed results. More recently, it has become evident to scholars that new religious have a rather large tool kit of adaptive strategies than not only permit them to cope with failed prophecies, but to use the event to develop solidarity and advance their goal of gaining social acceptance.

In addition to proselytization as a mechanism to fight off defeat, new religions have at their disposal a rather substantial menu of mechanisms of rationalization to explain how why the prophecy did not come to past at this moment. As Lorne Dawson has recently noted, "…groups that surviv[e] the disconfirmation of their prophecies did so because they were able to promptly provide their followers with a sufficiently plausible reinterpretation of event" Among the adaptive strategies of rationalization are (1) the "spiritualization" of the event, (2) viewing the event as a test of faith, (3) acknowledging that there was human error, and (4) blaming others. In some instances, all of these mechanisms may be employed.

What all of these activities and interpretations achieve is a reaffirmation of the faith and renewed commitment. Thus, what appears to the outsider as disconfirmation is, to the insider, evidence of confirmation calling for rededication and commitment along with heightened levels of effort to bring about the group’s goals.

I think there is yet one further consequence of the failed prophecy. The failed prophecy is the critical event wherein the group leader’s teachings (novel ideas) are legitimated and sanctified. And for the member, the failed prophecy is the mechanism that permits teachings to become truth and internalized. In a peculiar way, we have a kind of radical transformation. "You have said, but now we know." Without this assurance, followers would not be motivated to take the faith to the world.

 

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