If, At First, You Don't Succeed, Fail, Fail, Again
The explosion of apocalypticism in our "modern" 20th & 21st centuries
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Samuel Beckett Quote

1901 CE - The new century got off to a flying start by giving a great, big thumbs down to Reverend Baxter's millennium.

1908 CE - Lacking that future fixture of the check-out line, the tabloid rag display, Pennsylvania grocer Lee T. Spangler began filling his idle hours at the cash register by telling his customers about his spiffy end of the world vision. Pretty soon, the local papers were printing his fire and brimstone babblings and in no time, the prophetic produce peddler found himself with quite a following. Certain that the world would come to a spectacular fiery finish in October, Spangler and his fans were quite put-out when the month came and went without so much as a heat wave.

1910 CE - Only backward, primitive people who lived in the Dark Ages feared the appearance of Halley's Comet, right? Well, best two out of three. The regularly scheduled passing of the famous planetesimal sent people all over the world into a tizzy. Mystic minded folk were bewailing it as a sign of imminent doom, while the more modern, "scientific" crowd were popping "comet pills" to ward off the dangers should Earth pass through the object's "toxic" tail.

  It was over this event that Oklahoma began to assert itself as a bastion of American "rationality" with the appearance of a religious sect calling themselves the Select Followers. The SF determined that the only way to save the planet was to appease the angry ice chunk by giving it what it had clearly come for... a virgin sacrifice. Fortunately, the police got wind of the scheme and rescued the poor girl in time. The comet apparently decided not to take the slight too personally.

1914 CE - Probably the single most important and hyped-to-hades date in the history of the Jehovah's Witnesses, 1914 became the target for Charles T. Russell's Armageddon almost immediately after the 1881 date went up in smoke... or rather, didn't. Dropping pyramidology like a big, chiseled rock, Charlie fell back on the old End-Timer's standby; he picked out odd quotes from the Book of Daniel, assigned them random numerical values, totaled them up and spat them back out again as the "definitive" date for the Big Good-bye. It was during this period that the JW's really got themselves organized and their shiny, new Doomsdate helped them to win over oodles of followers.

  Probably the single best advertisement the sect ever got was the outbreak of World War I. Truly, nothing cheers the heart of an apocalypse fan more than hearing that millions of their fellow human beings are about to be slaughtered like pigs in an abattoir, and the JWs were simply twirling in ecstasy at the news. Unfortunately, 1914 insisted on turning over into 1915, then 1916, etc. Still, the war was coming along swimmingly. The death rate was just (if you'll excuse the expression) rapturously high, and the atrocities, what with the trenches and the mustard gas and the attacks on civilians and all, were very nearly Biblical. Fortified by all this devastation, Charlie Russell gave one last try for a definitive cosmic kaboom.

1918 CE - It was a date poor Charlie Russell never did get to see. Despite his bolted-to-the-baseboard belief that he would never, ever die,... die he most certainly did on October 31, (Halloween! Another holiday the JWs don't celebrate) 1916. Before he went the way of all things, though, Charlie reset his apocalypse clock for 1918 and his followers dutifully fell in behind the re-drawn line. Hard as Charlie's supposedly impossible death hit them, the reality of the times gave the flock reason to hold out hope.

  Besides the protracted nightmare of the war, 1917 also brought the Spanish Flu, a hideous disease that seemed to have come out of nowhere and perversely struck down those who were the most strong and vital. As the pandemic tore its fatal swath across the globe, killing some 30,000,000 people, the JWs took heart. It seemed they had good reason. I mean,... did all that calamity look like the signature blood-drenched, poxied hand of God, or what? Yet, before 1917 ran out, the flu ran its course and disappeared, and the only thing that came to an end in 1918 was the war. As the rest of the world celebrated the new peace, these became dark days indeed for the Doomsday deprived Witnesses...

December 17, 1919 CE - Oh, those portentous planetary alignments! If the Earth had really been cosmically whomped on each and every time one of these babies occurred, there'd be nothing left of the old home planet by now but a pitiful little trail of space debris circling around the sun like litter 'round a cat box. This small detail somehow escaped the attention of Albert Porta, respected seismologist/meteorologist who publicly announced one day, that the conjunction of six planets would "cause a magnetic current that would pierce the sun, cause great explosions of flaming gas and eventually engulf the Earth." This info-gem resulted in a world-wide panic, isolated outbreaks of mob violence and even a few suicides. When the conjunction junctured and the Earth wound up no worse for wear, Porta's career as a respected anything was over. Instead, he spent the remainder of his working life banished to writing the weather column for a local newsrag.

1920 CE - Out with the old and in with the new. With the shy-of-immortal Charles Russell gone from the picture, J.F. Rutherford stepped in to take the Witness wheel. Assuming rightly that cult followers are long on trust and short on attention span, J.F. casually tossed out Russell's timeline and had all the JW publications re-edited. The old 1874 date for the return of invisible Jesus was erased from all the literature and in its place, 1914 was dropped in.

  In the new and improved doctrine, the important thing to keep in mind was that the 1914 generation would not (entirely) pass without seeing the world's End. This point was emphasized in J.F.'s modestly titled tome, "Millions Now Living Will Never Die". So thrilled was J.F. at the brilliance of his logical contortion act that he made the mistake of jumping right in with his own apocalyptic deadline; one that was far too premature to be effective: 1920. He almost immediately started back-peddling, though, and upped the date a still-overly-optimistic tad.

1921 CE - Noted literary scholar, historian, philosopher and all-around curmudgeon Henry Adams was determined to get human history to make some sort of sense... even if he had to put a stop to it all to do it. Henry was a true Victorian at heart, whose desire for order in the face of chaos guided his life. He finally attempted to put reality into nice, neat and orderly ages that built to a comprehensible climax in two notable tomes: 1909's "Rule of Phase Applied to History" and the 1910 opus "Letter to American Teachers of History". Both of these promoted the idea of history separated into four distinct ages: Religious, mechanical, electrical, and ethereal. His description of "ethereal" was somewhat vague, but his Doomsdate was not. He set it at 1921 with an air of authority that can only come from a man who knows he's never going to be around long enough to have to live the mistake down. Sure enough, Henry died in 1918, and his literary fans have since preferred to see his End Times prophecy as a comfortably metaphoric one.

1925 CE - This was J.F. Rutherford's prophetic "tad". But, even by the dawning of January 1st, J.F. and his closest cronies were already starting to waffle, sermonizing to the faithful that this was, indeedy-dee, the big year... unless, of course, it wasn't. By the time the annum was halfway through, The Watchtower (the JW's main mag) was warning its members that the leadership had never, never, never suggested 1925 as the End Time and that anyone who said as much was a deluded tool of Satan. So there. Already becoming used to the game of musical chiliasms, the JW rank and file mostly just "bahh-ed" and went on glassy-eyed, god-peddling door-to-door.

Friday, Feb. 13, 1925 CE 12:00 AM PT - Meanwhile, out in La-La Land, a young girl named Margaret Rowan announced to the world in general that she had a vision courtesy of the angel Gabriel. Along with being one mean trumpet player, Gabe was a bearer of final tidings. At precisely midnight on February 13th, which, not coincidentally fell on a Friday, the world would be going out on a high note. It was a brief message, but for numerous people, a powerful one. One of the overpowered was Long Island house painter Robert Reidt who wasted no time in depleting every last dime of his life savings to buy billboard space advertising an eleventh-hour hilltop get-together of the faithful.

  On the appointed eve, people swarmed to the hillside, all dressed up like escaped extras from a bad Bible movie. At the stroke of midnight, they lifted their arms skyward and shrieked "Gabriel! Gabriel!" as if they expected the busy seraph to stop and sign autographs for them. By the time 12:05 came around and nothing happened, the crowds got a might restless. Reidt calmed them down with the suggestion that little Margaret (being out in the wilds of Los Angeles) must have been referring to midnight Pacific Time, and that they simply needed to wait another three hours for the final mo'. When the extra wait time produced nothing more than a lot of soggy, dew-drenched shoes, the disillusioned throng finally dispersed, leaving Robbie behind to yell at the few reporters who'd shown up. He insisted rather pathetically that they'd scared Gabriel away with their Satanic flashbulbs. Apparently, even the angels are wary of red-eye.

May 29, 1928 - September 16, 1936 CE - Yet another early fan of pyramidology, the noted Giza gazer, Basil Stewart went looking for mystic meaning in the old rock pile and came up with the usual. Besides finding creative ways to make random measurements look like they presaged important world events of the past, Basil went on to show how they could also predict events in the future; however little there might be left of it. According to Bas, the world's days were numbered... in cubits, to be specific, and the above noted dates were going to be filled with all the trials and tribulations of, well, the Tribulation. In truth, 1928 turned out a rather good year. It wasn't until October of '29 that things got a bit grim. Bad as the Great Depression was, though, it couldn't hold a candle to World War II; an event the pyramid was strangely silent about... along with all the other events that have followed since.

1934 CE - End Times aficionados par excellence, The Los Angeles Free Tract Society were fond of publishing pamphlets asserting that the Second Coming would be coming any second. One of these merry hand-outs contained a wild-eyed screed by Chicago preacher Nathan Cohen Beskin who painted elaborate paranoid pictures of the evil godless world sending its Satanic forces against a tiny band of saintly Christians in the Last Days. (circa. 1934) This "wagons-in-a-circle" fairy tale naturally climaxed with the Lord's Wrath being visited upon anybody outside Beskin's club, followed by a thousand-year opportunity to say, "Nya-nya! Told'ja so!". It seems his followers have had more time to work on those kindergarten taunting techniques than they planned on.

September, 1935 CE - In an Associated Press story of August 16, 1931 (must have been a really slow newsweek) professional doomwallower Wilbur Glen Voliva went off on a Gog/Magog = Russia rant and insisted that the communist monster would soon attack the Holy Land and cause the whole wide world "to go 'puff' and disappear". Of course, the only thing that went "puff" and disappeared was Willy's prophecy.

1936 CE - Marching in goose step with the rise of Fascism and white supremacy movements that were all the rage in the '30's, Herbert W. Armstrong founded The Worldwide Church Of God. With a doctrine that included such delightful attributes as racism, anti-Semitism and Anglo-Israelism, (The latter being the bright idea that when the Bible refers to the "Jews", it doesn't really mean the Jews. 'Cause those aren't really the Jews. It really means the "real" Jews... the Christians!) it should come as no surprise that millenarianism came with the package, as well. Although better known for their later, much-hyped 1975 Doomsday, Armstrong got the cult off to a brisk start right from the get-go with a quote in "Plain Truth", the church's official rag. Citing the Depression and the looming threat of war, Armstrong wrote of the year 1936, "We may expect to see heavenly signs of the sun and the moon becoming dark... which shall be followed by the 'Day of the Lord'." When no such day arrived, Herbie just did some Bible math and re-set his Armageddon alarm for 1975.

September 6, 1936 CE - Some people are just slow on the uptake. That's the only explanation that can be given for George Riffert and his inability to learn from ol' Basil Stewart's mistakes. He didn't even wait for Basil's full Trib term to run out, either, before jumping in with his own silly pyramid-prompted prophecy. Of course, '36 did have its ups and downs. It was decidedly not a good time to be a Jew in Germany or anybody at all in Spain. Still, as the old newsreels used to say, "Time marches on".

Halloween, 1938 CE - Panic erupted amongst some of America's slower radio listeners when Orson Welles's broadcast his Mercury Theatre production of H.G. Wells's The War Of The Worlds. The story was presented in a newsy style, "interrupting" the broadcast of another show for a slew of increasingly frantic bulletins. It was pulled off with such an air of authenticity, that it convinced thousands of people the Earth (or, at least, New Jersey) was being invaded by Martians bent on global conquest. Numerous disclaimers were run during the course of the show saying that this was only a dramatization by an acting troop, but that just didn't seem to stick to a lot of people's gray matter. Hysterics jammed up the roadways in a mad panic to flee from the evil aliens and pinheads galore called or stampeded the radio station and their local police. It got so bad that the next day, Welles was compelled to make a public apology for scaring the public witless... Though, arguably, that would have been a redundancy.

1940-1941 CE - Not to be entirely left out of the prophetic paranoia business, the folks down under managed to produce a Mr. Leonard Sale-Harrison. Lenny was a Bible teacher of otherwise little distinction, who managed to win himself fifteen spotlighted minutes of glory by declaring that the world would end on or about 1940-41. Of course, it can't be ignored that he did have to come Stateside to find a suitable audience for his announcement. So, the Yanks aren't entirely off the hook for this one, either.

1940-ish CE - Desperation and extremism go arm in arm like dance partners in the tacky Ballroom contest of Life. Neither seem to care which leads, but as soon as one really starts to cook, the other will swing in step to match it. For the Jehovah's Witnesses, nothing worked to drive up those desperation levels like five failed End Times prophecies and when World War II broke out, they simply could not contain their enthusiastic declaration of a sixth. Not that they intended it to be a failed prophecy, mind you. Why, if wishful thinking alone could bring on Armageddon, the JWs would have been able to give the cosmic zap to whole galaxies.

  That's where the extremism comes in. So great was the need to convince themselves that their latest prediction was true, that the leadership feverishly sermonized the flock day in and day out, warning them not to marry or have children, go to college or seek a job. If they had a job, they were encouraged to quit. If they had homes and property, they were encouraged to sell (and donate the proceeds to the JWs) or give them away (to the JWs). All because the End was coming any minute now, and it might look bad-ish to intimate that you doubted God by actually trying to have something like a life 'till then.

  As 1940 became '41, then '42, '43, '44, '45, etc. without the world graciously ending as it was supposed to, the leadership once again began the laborious process of covering up any and all references to their crumbling prophecy. This time around, however, quite a few of the now spouse-less, childless, jobless and even homeless flock were not so easily pacified and many fled the cult in disgust. This didn't provide much of an object lesson for TPTB, though. They knew full well that even if a failed prophecy scared people off, a new prophecy for a future date would rope still more people in. All they needed was the date.

November 1944 CE - Orson Welles's radio play of H.G. Wells's "The War Of The Worlds" was translated into Spanish and broadcast in Santiago Chile, resulting in a South of the border version of the same idiocy that took place on the US east coast in 1938.

1947 CE - Back in the nineteenth century, before there was a Jean Dixon or an Amazing Criswell, there was John Ballou Newbrough. A sometime gold miner, sometime dentist, sometime Mason and full-time spiritualist wackadoo, JB devoted most of his later years to creating his very own, personal religion, "Oahspe", featuring his very own, personal "Kosmon Bible". Paradoxically, though his Bible was saturated with Christian imagery, JB nurtured a deep loathing for established Christian doctrine and organized churches, and his scribblings (channeled to him by night owl-type spirit forces in the pre-dawn hours, don't'cha know) reflect this distaste. It's because of this, that JB's dubious literary endeavors continue to attract an unhealthily obsessive degree of attention from hyperventilating Fundamentalists even to the present day.

  Of course, no spiritualist worth his ectoplasm could have a career without making some flashy prophecies, and one can't get much flashier than predicting the end of the world. JB was more than happy to oblige. In 1889 he proudly proclaimed that the End would arrive in 1947. At which time, all the secular authorities and organizations would be overthrown, the American flag would be trampled underfoot, Europe dashed into chaos and hundreds of thousands of people killed by Newbrough's favorite personification of ultimate evil: Christianity.

  The interesting thing about JB's cult, is that it managed to survive not only him, but also his failed Doomsday prophecy and a host of other dubious, even vaguely criminal dealings. Oahspeians today merely distance the man from his writings by reaffirming that, though JB himself may have been a nutjob and a con artist, his magnum opus still stands, as it was written by the Heavenly Spirits acting through him ...The fact that they only have his word on it doesn't get mentioned much, for some odd reason.

1948 CE - The establishment of the State of Israel takes place. Considered a key prophetic sign of the Second Coming, many Christians started setting their watches for the End, which they were certain would come within the next 40 to 100 years.

February 1949 CE - After not having learned a thing from the two earlier experiences with this problem play, a radio station in Quito, Ecuador decided to perform Welles's "The War Of The Worlds" for all their devoted listeners. This time, they didn't even bother to run any disclaimers and as a result, the nation went bedbug nutso. Even worse was the public's reaction when they learned they'd been had. A mob stormed the station, pelting it with rocks and finally setting it on fire. Twenty five people were killed in the melee, numerous rioters were arrested and the offending radio station was charged with inciting the riot. And I used to think it got bottomed-out ugly at a Howard Stern book signing.

August 1953 CE - Missing the pyramidologists so soon? Never fear, they're never silent for long and in the 1950's we even got them back-to-back! David Davidson, in his book, "The Great Pyramid, Its Divine Message" insisted that the world would come to a shrieking halt in this year's good old summertime. Meanwhile....

August 20, 1954 CE - ...George Riffert, citing who-knows-what hot and grimy tomb chambers and passageway lengths, touted the summer of '54 as a hopeful new date for the Second Coming. Instead, it just wound up as the Umpteenth Coming 'n Going for Pretty Much Nothing.

May 24, 1954 CE - Who knew that a few cracks in an old sports arena could precipitate a Doomsday scare? But, that's just what happened when engineers working on Rome's Coliseum discovered fissures in the stonework that made the ol' barn vulnerable to serious earthquake damage. Some wiggy would-be prophet announced it was a sign that the Last Judgment was at hand and suddenly, panicked crowds swarmed into St. Peter's Square pleading for Papal absolution before the End. The Pope's reply was something on the order of, "What'sa matta' you, eh? I'm a' da Pope! You think God, he's a' gonna end the world without a' telling me, first? Pazze! Get out'ta here!" ...Only in a somewhat more dignified, pontifical sort of way.

  Unconvinced that they were getting their full papal money's worth with this answer, the crowds dispersed, but were back again bright and early on the appointed final morning to whine some more. This time, the pontiff just let reality do the talking and when the day came and went sans flaming final coda, the disappointed mob finally gave up and moved on.

1954 CE - Aside from The War Of The Worlds mix-up, this year marked the very first time that Biblical Armageddon was set aside in favor of an apocalypse of the UFO variety. Dorothy Martin (who was known for years by the pseudonym, "Marian Keech" in Leon Festinger's seminal tome, "When Prophecy Fails") was the leader of her very own, home-grown saucer cult in the early '50's, the "Seekers". (It even sounds like an old R&B group, doesn't it?) Beginning what would remain a hallmark of UFO religious groupies, Dory combined bits and pieces of pulp 'zine science fiction with great, heaping spoonfuls of Christian mysticism, mixed well with a sprinkling of paranoia and marinated the brain cells in it until thoroughly saturated.

  In no time at all, Dory was cheerfully telling her followers that she was channeling messages from the friendly skies, and said followers were believing her. Over on Dorothy's side of the rainbow, the Earth would soon be destroyed in a Great Flood, (novelty is not a strong suit of UFO cultists) but her little band of believers would be whisked away to the planet of the space people if they only waited together at a specified rendezvous point. On the appointed day, the cultists came, but the space people didn't and poor Dor, who lacked the slick professionalism in such matters as the JW leaders possessed, was unable to keep her little group together in the wake of the letdown. Dorothy herself, though, never did stop trying to click her ruby heels together even to her dying day.

December 20, 1954 CE - 1954 was, indeed, quite a year for the UFO fans. Even after Ms. Martin's embarrassing performance, the notion of flying saucers saving righteous Earthlings from death by Biblical Flooding would not go quietly into the good night. Instead, the torch was passed to Mr. Charles Laughead, who had only just previously been known to his horror-stricken family, friends and colleagues as a respected Michigan State College physician. A nervous breakdown is no respecter of professional credentials, though, and Charles was soon dithering about with psychic-mediums and convincing himself that he was holding conversations with chatty ETs.

  At least the aliens were nice enough to warn Charlie of an impending global water-logging, (set, inconveniently enough, smack in the middle of the holiday shopping season) and even arranged a saucer pick-up for him on the 20th. Cagier than Dorothy had been, when neither the global flood nor the interstellar taxi service made an appearance, Charlie simply praised God for showing His seasonal mercy and went babbling on. At wits end, his benighted family finally tried to have him committed to a nice, quiet home for the giddily confused. But, Chuckie got a lucky break. The judge somehow forgot that it was 1954 - when a person normally could've been quickly and efficiently committed for wearing socks that didn't match - and let Charlie go on the pretext that odd as all get-out was still not the same thing as clinically insane.

April 16-23, 1957 CE - Absolutely constitutionally incapable of keeping away from those apocalyptic prophecies, the JW's mag "The Watchtower" set space aside for California pastor Mihran Ask to ramble on about the world's imminent End. Tough as it must have been, they managed to restrain themselves from outright promoting his ravings of a refreshing Springtime scorching. As a result, when April, that cruelest month, turned out not to be the last one, the JWs simply whistled, looked the other way and went on as though nothing had been said in the first place.

1958 - 1998 CE - Glorified backwoods hick and snake-oil selling faith healer Edgar Cayce made a name for himself by curing people's maladies long distance via trance-state astral travel. In other words, he'd read some poor schnook's letter about whatever dread disease they had, banked their money and then took a nap. Hence, his title, "the Sleeping Prophet". Upon awakening he'd babble some nonsensical combination of prayer and Okie kitchen fixins and declare the missive writer "cured". The fact that on more than one occasion, the supplicants were already dead before he beauty rested for them, yet he pronounced them "cured" anyway, never detracted from his popularity one durn speck.

  But, Eddy was a man of many snoozes and didn't confine himself to healing the dead, alone. He also saw himself as a great psychic who could see into the future and foretell its mysteries. Apocalyptic imagery was always popular, so it was a theme he went back to, time and again. The first series of world disasters he foretold were to begin in '58 and continue worsening for the next three decades. Japan was slated to join Davey Jones's locker and northern Europe wasn't to fare much better. Earthquakes galore were a given, as were volcanic eruptions, magically rising islands and a catastrophic shifting of the poles. (Eddy loved this shifting poles business and he'd repeat it in almost every subsequent prophecy he made for any given time-span) He also showed the good sense to die in 1945, so when precisely none of these prophecies came to pass, it wasn't Ed, but his devoted fans who had to turn themselves in knots to explain why.

April 22, 1959 CE - For most people, the Branch Davidians were an unknown sect until their deadly standoff in Waco in 1993. Their roots go back a good deal further though, and their MO over the decades remained fairly consistent. (minus the surprise BBQ) An extreme offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists, the Davidians were founded by a Bulgarian washing machine salesman in the 1930's. Once founded, they almost immediately squirreled themselves away in the 77 acre Waco compound to dream sweet dreams of the fiery end of everything.

  By 1959 they had come up with the idea that the faithful were soon to be gloriously slaughtered, resurrected and carried up to heaven. At this point, they started talking Armageddon to anyone with a by-line, a microphone or a TV camera. By the April 22nd deadline, with thousands gathered on-sight and TV cameras poised to broadcast the potential gore-fest across the nation,... absolutely nothing occurred. It was a terrible letdown for the faithful, who were so looking forward to being divinely butchered and revived again. It was also a near-fatal blow to the cult as a whole. It would be years, in fact, before the bedraggled sect would get a breath of fresh and invigorating air, again... In the form of a semi-literate, failed rock guitarist who called himself David Koresh.

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