It's an uncomfortable little secret known only to church historians: the frequency of religious believers being drawn into believing the end of the world is imminent. Selling all and cutting family ties, individuals gather to await the end. One person not absent from American history textbooks is William Miller who convinced many thousands that 1843 was the end. When that did not happen, the date was extended to 22 October 1844. Disappointed a second time, Miller and his adherents did not lose faith, only their willingness to predict. Millerites, or Adventists, continue today to carry on his teachings.
What I discovered is that Miller's ideas are only religious expressions of a basic human craving for apocalypticism. Take this dire prediction: "The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death." That was Paul Ehrlich in one of his best-selling books. Place that next to the Club of Rome in 1972 stating that "We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade." Today feeding double the then world's population and paying low prices at the gas pump makes Ehrlich and the Club of Rome modern day Millerites. Like the Millerites, being proved wrong only leads to other environmental scares--oil and apples, acid rain and carcinogenic chemicals, AIDS and the Ebola virus, mad cow disease and global warming.
What intrigues me is our human appetite for non-religious, as well as religious, apocalyptic scenarios, as is evidenced by movies such as Jaws, Jurassic Park and Titanic. Psychologically, peering into the open pit may be a way of tolerating our personal problems, in the same way that gossip makes one feel 'superior' to those who have moral failings.
Millerites--ancient and modern--persist, believing that being invariably wrong in the past makes them more likely to be right in the future. Jaws IV, when it appears, will point out a new crisis: not humans at risk, but sharks--because of the market for aphrodisiac shark bone.
Today, it is Washington politicians who are the most visible Millerites. Some predict the moral collapse of the country if President Clinton stays in office, while others paint a dismal portrait of a country gone mad if the President were to be found guilty by the Senate. H.L. Mencken wrote: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed--and hence clamorous to be led to safety--by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
My prediction for the new year--there will continue to be plenty of gloom, with Washington taking the lead. I prefer to cheerfully say: "Happy New Year."
--Robert H. Tucker
4 January 1999