As it became clear that May 21, 2011 was going to pass without the predicted “Rapture of the Faithful,” I began to think quite a bit—with a sense of sadness—about Hiram Edson. He was a member of a 19th century Christian sect headed up by William Miller. The group had prophesied that Christ would return on October 22, 1844, and most members of the sect prepared for that day by giving away all of their possessions.
Hiram Edson was one of them, and he later recorded his testimony about what it was like to see October 22 come and go. I find his words very poignant, describing what it was like for the group when midnight passed: “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.”
Along with many others, I had a bit of fun during the weeks leading up to the day of Harold Camping’s recent prophecy. And all of that was fine as long as all the attention focused on him. I do find him hard to take. But he had followers, and I wonder about them. My guess is that some of them also experienced a devastating “spirit of weeping,” with their “fondest hopes and expectations… blasted.” I hope they are finding some healthy—and theologically sound—pastoral counseling.
The Millerites of the 19th century responded in different ways to what they came to call The Great Disappointment. Some of them left the movement, but others began to teach that they had simply misinterpreted the prophecy. Of the re-interpreters, the majority decided that what they had thought would be the purging of the earth was actually a “cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary” as a preparation for the Judgment that was yet to come.
The same reinterpreting pattern shows up in what has become a classic social scientific study published in 1956, When Prophecy Fails. It tells the true story of a flying saucer cult, led by a Chicago woman who received communications from an alien species through “automatic writing.” They informed her that the earth would be destroyed on December 21, 1954, and that she and her followers would be rescued by a visiting spacecraft before midnight on the 20th.
The group gathered that day at the appointed place, but they waited in vain. Then the leader received yet another message from the aliens, thanking the group for its witness, and announcing that because the band of earthlings had been faithful in getting the word out, the inhabitants of the planet Clarion had decided to spare the human race.
Harold Camping has also now re-interpreted his prophecy. October 21 of this year is the new date, and this time what will happen, he says, will be a combined Rapture and Final Judgment.
Twice before this most recent failure, Harold Camping wrongly predicted the Rapture. I hope his followers abide by the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule. Indeed, I pray that when midnight strikes on October 21, Harold Camping alone will weep “until the day dawn.”