Often I sing in the shower. And I frequently surprise myself at what I sing, and I try to figure out where the song came from in my psyche.
Recently it was a song that went like this: “Lord, I’m trampin’, trampin’/ wanna make heaven my home/ Hallelujah, Lord, I’m trampin’, trampin’/ wanna make heaven my home.” That one came from an event that I had long forgotten. I was barely a teenager when I sang those words as a member of a large choir that sang during a multi-night evangelistic crusade in Albany, New York, in the early 1950s. The evangelist was Hyman Appleman, a Messianic Jew whom I remember to be a fiery preacher.
After my shower I googled Appleman and found out quite a bit about his life. Born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Russia, the Applemans settled in America in 1914. He did his undergraduate study at Northwestern University, and received a law degree from DePaul University, graduating near the top of his class. He then became a successful Chicago trial lawyer. The story of his subsequent religious pilgrimage is fascinating. The short of it is that he had a dramatic Christian conversion, was rejected by his family—and his fiance—and eventually became an evangelist, one of the pioneers in the “city crusade” movement.
Our local congregation was one of the supporting churches for the Albany crusade, which is how I ended up singing in the choir for many nights in a row. I remember only two things about those services. One is the “Lord, I’m trampin’” song. The other is that Hyman Appleman proclaimed one night that Jesus would definitely return by the year 1960. All the signs pointed in that direction, he said.
I don’t remember what those specific signs were, but I can well imagine what some of the details might have been. The “Bible prophecy” preachers in those days were making much of the references to Gog, Magog, and Meschek in Ezekiel 38 and Revelation 20 as prophecies about Russia (“Meschek” was “Moscow” on this reading). My guess is that Hyman Appleman had figured all of that out, and was pretty sure he knew what would be happening on the world stage in the next few years.
I wonder how he felt after 1960, when the scenario had not played out as he had so boldly prophesied. I wonder if he ever publicly apologized for saying things with such certainty that turned out to be so wrong. It is too late to ask him about these things, since he died in 1983, but I do hope that he at least told God he was sorry for misleading people about things he had preached with such bravado.
I have to admit, though, that I have mixed feelings about the Bible prophecy scenarios that were so much a part of my youth, and are still a part of the evangelical landscape today. John Hagee got into hot water recently for saying things that came out of the same kind of speculation about what the Bible says about the flow of history. Those of us who are familiar with that pattern of thought find nothing surprising in the kinds of things that have come to haunt Hagee (and John McCain, who has previously sought Hagee’s endorsement). We know a lot about bold assertions that the Catholic Church is “the great whore,” that the Pope is the anti-Christ, and that Hitler contributed to God’s unfolding plan for the Jewish people. That is terrible stuff. Hagee and people like him are rightly called to account for such preachments.
But I wonder whether Hyman Appleman’s prediction that Christ would return by the year 1960 is of the same magnitude of error. Lest the more liberal types take delight in examples of this sort, let them remember that they too have regrettable stories of this sort in their past. Christian Century, still an important journalistic organ, was so-named in the 1890s because the emerging social gospel advocates were convinced that the 20th century would be a time when great social progress would visit the human race. They predicted that the influence of Christian ethical teachings would spread so dramatically that humankind would enjoy an unprecedented reign of peace and justice. These prophecies also flowed from an eschatological vision, namely, the post-millenial conviction that the Kingdom of God was progressively being realized in human history. The fact is, of course, that the 20th century, with its major world wars, and particularly with the horrors of the Nazi curse, was anything but a “Christian century.”
I am not inclined, however, to be quite as negative toward Hyman Appleman and the founders of Christian Century as I am toward those who wrote the Pope and Hitler into their prophetic scripts. Truth be told, I’m glad I sang in Hyman Appleton’s choir. And if he was wrong about the exact date of the Second Coming, I’m not sure it did me a lot of harm to live in the expectation that Jesus might appear at any time during the 1950s. Indeed it was probably a good reminder that I should be living in a way that my Lord would approve of if he should suddenly appear visibly in the clouds. And my guess is that the conviction about Christ’s return was a pretty strong motivating factor for Hyman Appleton in his tireless evangelistic efforts.
I can say pretty much the same about “the Christian century” prophecy. The expectation of an increase of peace and justice in the world was actually a spur to action on the part of those who believed in the truth of that prediction. They wanted to be on the right side of where they saw history going, so they actually acted on behalf of peace and justice.
Maybe we can use some of that eschatological motivation in the early years of this century. It could be that Jesus is coming soon. Or it could be that he will delay his coming, and we will instead see an increase of peace and justice in the coming decades. Or maybe not, on both counts. But it would not hurt us to hold out for the truth of either one of those prophecies, and then get on with the work that they mandate!