When discussing the impending doom of the end of the world, things like "2012," "rapture," and "Tim LaHaye" come into conversation. For us interested in American religious history, William Miller also comes to mind. Using his understanding of doomsday numerology, Miller rendered the symbols and metaphors in the apocalyptic books of the Bible incredibly meaningful. Having identified the day on which Jesus would return, Miller offered assurance in a time period of anxiety. Preaching in the 1840s, Miller was pre-Scofield Reference Bible and and preached before John Nelson Darby's ideas of premillennial dispensationalism would really take hold in America. Although contemporary popular notions of The End are often more in line with Darby than Miller (I'm thinking the Left Behind series here), Miller remains relevant.
A CNN reporting team recently spent time with a contemporary end-times group. In "Road trip to the end of the world," journalist Jessica Ravitz shares her journey following some members of "Project Caravan," the organization of mobile, proselytizing units of Family Radio. Family Radio was founded in 1958 by Harold Camping, and what began as a radio station has become a kind of national organization. For Camping and his listeners, the Bible, which contains no errors, is the religious authority. If you visit the Family Radio website, you cannot miss their end-times message. Judgment Day is May 21, 2011. "THE BIBLE GUARANTEES IT!" Ezekiel 33:3 appears in bold type, "...blow the trumpet ... warn the people." This is where Project Caravan comes in. Launched in October of last year, the volunteers of Project Caravan travel the country in decked-out RVs (a contemporary reinvention of the early 20th century gospel car, complete with light reflecting paint) to warn the American populace of the coming rapture. CNN caught up with a team trekking across the Florida panhandle. And watch out New Orleans Mardi Gras, you're next on their itinerary.
People often ostracize those preaching about the end of the world. Someone will call them "crazy" and continue walking by without taking a pamphlet. And just like preaching "the end is near," this reaction isn't new either. As if divining his own future reputation, Miller himself wrote, "If I have erred in my exposition of the prophecies, the time, being so near at hand, will soon expose my folly; but if I have the truth on the subjects treated on in these pages, how important the era in which we live!" My students are always fascinated to learn how "millerism" became another term for insane in the 1840s. The New York Herald told of a Mr. Shortridge who "had run mad with Millerism, and attempted to ascend to Heaven from an apple-tree, but found the attraction of gravitation too strong for his celestial aspirations, and came to the ground with such momentum as to cause his death." Millerites were the inspiration for jokes and cartoons.
After The Great Disappointment on October 22, 1844 (when Miller's prediction proved inaccurate), his followers left him. A sizable contingent followed Ellen White and founded Seventh-day Adventism. But, it begs the question: What do you do if your prophecy is wrong? Some of the members Family Radio and its Project Caravan team have wondered a similar question: What if I'm still here on May 22, 2011? One member told CNN, "If I'm here on May 22, it simply means I wasn't one of the elect." The CNN take on Family Radio is worth reading, though I can't help but wish our own Kelly Baker was the one asking the questions and taking notes.