American Apocalypse

Never-ending predictions that the world is about to end


In his 1702 opus Magnalia Christi Americana, the prominent Puritan Cotton Mather related a story about Francis Higginson, the first minister to serve the citizens of Salem, Massachusetts. Before Higginson sailed to New England in 1629, Mather wrote, he preached one last sermon to his old congregation in Leicester. The Lord, it seemed, was preparing a punishment for England. A war was coming, and Leicester in particular was going to suffer. So Higginson was heading across the sea to seek shelter in a place where God's people could build a more holy commonwealth, a place safe from the destruction to come. The colonists, he concluded, were following the advice of Christ: "When you see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then flee to the mountains."

Mather wrote those words long after the English civil war that saw Leicester besieged and sacked. Skeptics might suspect him of inventing or exaggerating a story that made a fellow Puritan look prophetic. But the idea that America could serve as refuge from an Old World apocalypse was not limited to the perhaps-apocryphal story of Higginson's final preachment. 

John Winthrop, an early governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, declared that "God hath provided this place to be a refuge for many whome he meanes to save out of the generall callamity." William Bradford, an early governor of Plymouth, cited "the divine proverb, that a wise man seeth the plague when it cometh, and hideth himself." After that civil war did break out in England, the Puritan poet and minister Michael Wigglesworth described the New World as a "hiding place, which thou / Jehovah, didst provide…When th' overflowing scourge did pass / Through Europe, like a flood." City upon a hill, schmitty upon a hill: America was a fallout shelter.

It wasn't long before the settlers started spotting signs of Armageddon on this side of the Atlantic too. Wigglesworth described America as a place with "no enemyes" and with "such peace / As none enjoyd before," but for Mather it was "a World in every Nook whereof, the devil is encamped." When the Puritans weren't fighting actual wars with French Catholic settlers and Native Americans, they were imagining conspiracies of Catholics, Indians, and invisible spirits all around them. Sometimes those alleged plots combined into a single cabal. At "their Cheef Witch-meetings," Mather warned, "there has been present some French canadians, and some Indian Sagamores, to concert the methods of ruining New England." Such anxieties would prove durable.

In Heaven on Earth, the Boston University historian Richard Landes presents a cross-cultural survey of millennialism—the conviction that we're approaching either the end of the world or a sudden, radical global transformation. One theme of the book is the experience of "apocalyptic time," that moment when men and women become convinced that the change they have anticipated is about to arrive. "Many things come to people who believe themselves in the midst of apocalyptic time; many things become possible," Landes writes. "Such people bring us saintly men wandering through Europe preaching peace, and warriors with crosses wading in blood up to their horses' bridles, both believing that this was the Day our Lord promised, to rejoice therein." 

The closer you look at American history, the more it seems that someone somewhere is always in apocalyptic time. Sometimes the whole country seems to plunge in together, as in such convulsive periods as the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the aftermath of 9/11. Other times a distinct subculture detects an eschaton invisible to everyone else. On October 22, 1844, the followers of William Miller abandoned their homes and fields and gathered to greet the end of the world; to quote Mark Twain's account, they "put on their ascension robes, took a tearful leave of their friends, and made ready to fly up to heaven at the first blast of the trumpet. But the angel did not blow it."

The Millerites came and went without hurting much more than the believers' pride. But other millennial movements attracted a reputation for violence, for taking up arms to hasten or weather the oncoming collapse.

In the 1980s, for example, a far-right sect called the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord convinced itself that the last days were at hand. "It will get so bad that parents will eat their children," church leader James Ellison predicted. "Death in the major cities will cause rampant diseases and plagues. Maggot-infested bodies will lie everywhere. Earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanoes, and other natural disasters will grow to gigantic proportions. Witches and satanic Jews will offer people up as sacrifices to their gods, openly and proudly; blacks will rape and kill white women and will torture and kill white men; homosexuals will sodomize whoever they can. Our new government will be a part of the one-world Zionist Communist government. All but the elect will have the mark of the Beast." Ellison's followers started conducting military maneuvers and plotting terrorist attacks. Their career concluded in a 1985 standoff with the feds, a siege that lasted for four days before the militants surrendered.

Sometimes the story is inverted: A millennial movement inspires apocalyptic fears in the mainstream, and believers become the targets of violence rather than its perpetrators. The classic example is the Ghost Dance, a 19th-century messianic movement centered around a Northern Paiute Indian called Wovoka. There would come a day, Wovoka preached, when the familiar world would end and a new age would begin, when the living would become immortal and the ghosts of the dead would return. To hasten this day, Indians must set aside their differences, give up guns and alcohol and idleness, dance the Ghost Dance, and spread the good news.

The faith was transmitted orally, so it mutated and adapted rapidly, absorbing different attributes in different places as different tribes encountered it. Among the recently defeated Sioux, licking their wounds in the Dakotas, the religion took on a militant flavor, introducing the ideas that the white race would be wiped out and that special shirts would make their wearers impervious to bullets. Even in this form, the Ghost Dance was an explicitly nonviolent religion. If anything, it may have tamped down the impulse to attack whites, since it allowed angry Indians to believe that the intruders would soon be removed by supernatural means.

Nonetheless, when the Hunkpapa Sioux leader Sitting Bull endorsed the Ghost Dance in 1890, he broke a peace pipe in public and announced that he was ready to fight and die for the faith. That was enough for Maj. James McLaughlin, Washington's representative in its interactions with the local Indians, to fire off a letter to the federal commissioner of Indian affairs. Sitting Bull, he warned, was "an adept in influencing his ignorant henchmen and followers, and there is no knowing what he may direct them to attempt."

The McLaughlin letter leaked to the newspapers. The Chicago Daily Tribune published it under the headline "TO WIPE OUT THE WHITES: What the Indians Expect of the Coming Messiah." The Philadelphia Telegraph fretted that "Army officers may be perfectly well informed of Sitting Bull's intrigues, but they can do nothing until he deliberately perfects his rascally plans and gets ready to start his young bucks on a raid." The New York Times announced that "the redskins are dancing in circles," then quoted a "half-breed" courier as to what such symbolism must mean: "The Sioux never dance that dance except for one purpose, and that is for war." At one point the Tribune reported that a battle with the Indians had already left 60 dead or wounded. In fact the clash had never occurred.

Nervous whites begged the government for greater protection. On December 15, 1890, a botched attempt to arrest Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock reservation ended in violence: The police killed Sitting Bull and some of his supporters, and his supporters killed several arresting officers. Fearing retaliation, hundreds of the Hunkpapa fled their homes, hoping to seek shelter with the Indians at Cheyenne River, but the Seventh Cavalry caught up with them and brought them to Wounded Knee Creek on December 28. 

What followed was one of the most notorious massacres in American history. Government troops ended up killing between 170 and 190 of the Indians, including at least 18 children. More than two dozen whites died too, largely from friendly fire. Fearing an apocalypse, the soldiers inflicted one instead.

There has been no shortage of millennial movements and moments since then, from the saucer cults that started to mushroom after World War II to Christian sects convinced that Christ's return was close. The 1960s and '70s saw a general fear of an onrushing cataclysm, an anxiety circulating in secular as well as religious circles. The environmentalists of the era were often prone to mistaking ecological problems for imminent planetary doom. (In 1969, Ramparts magazine warned on its cover that the oceans could be dead in just a decade.) In Christian America, Hal Lindsey, co-author with Carole Carlsson of the immensely popular The Late Great Planet Earth, interpreted world events through the lens of Biblical prophecy and argued that Armageddon was nigh. This was no fringe phenomenon: Since its release in 1970, Lindsey and Carlsson's book has sold more than 35 million copies.

Meanwhile, the rise of nuclear weaponry made the sudden destruction of the United States an actual possibility. And if the end of the Cold War diminished that particular anxiety, the September 11 attacks thrust the country into something even more intense: the possibility not that someone far away will fire a missile, but that anything around you might be a sign of a new terror plot. When people enter an apocalyptic frame of mind, Landes writes, "everything quickens, enlightens, coheres. They become semiotically aroused—everything has meaning, patterns." In the months following 9/11, that mentality was almost inescapable.

And then there is what may be the most persistent source of American apocalyptic fear: the country's physical terrain. Every natural disaster enacts the endtimes in miniature. As Hurricane Katrina crushed the Gulf Coast in 2005, there were enough signs of the last days to fill a thousand folk ballads: a drowning city, death and starvation, martial law, rumors of barbaric behavior. "It was kind of like the end of the world," one survivor told a reporter from KTRK-TV.

But 9/11 and Katrina also remind us that the last days never quite seem to arrive. We exit apocalyptic time. A city starts to rebuild. Normal life resumes. Many people's worlds come to an end, but the world itself persists.

And then the next disaster strikes from above, or the next millennial fever surges up from below. The endtimes never really end. It's always Armageddon somewhere.