Predicting the end of the world is nothing new for Christians. Indeed, the earliest Christian writers seemed to be of the opinion that the world was going to end in their lifetimes--which would date such apocalyptic predictions as early as the first century A.D. That two thousand years have since passed without any signs of cosmic cataclysm has not significantly deterred would-be prophets from claiming that the end is near, however; the most famous of these is perhaps the unfortunate William Miller (1782 - 1849), who announced with grave confidence that the world would end in a period between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844--though this latter date was later revised to October 22nd by Samuel S. Snow. His followers became known as Millerites. Initially a little-known movement, Millerism quickly rose to public prominence in the 1840s, and thousands of people began preparing for the end--some of them by getting rid of all their earthly possessions.
It was more than a little disappointing for Miller and his followers, then, when nothing happened on October 22nd.
People waited until the sky became black and the gas-lamps flared on. The world seemed hushed, except for the indignant children who were pointing their fingers at the astonished Millerites. Indeed, kids and adults alike would ridicule them in the days to follow, laughing at their sickly expressions and the sudden poverty of those who had given away their possessions. Laughing was the best of public response. Less fortunate Millerites were tarred and feathered, physically assaulted, and threatened. Millerite churches were burnt to the ground. Some revised the date to the next year, 1845; others locked themselves into their studies to figure out what had gone wrong. William Miller himself fell into a deep depression, but he nonetheless clung, right up to his death in 1849, to his belief that Jesus would return in the years to come.
On the other hand, some believed the world had ended on October 22nd. It was just such a silent, surreptitious end that no one noticed.
The word "probably" is significant, since it gives him the chance to weasel out of his latest failure. But it does not give his supporters--a group that may have been as much as 200 million strong--that same chance. After all, there were people who, as with Miller's followers, gave away their earthly possessions. Camping himself received considerable donation money, and he said he would not return it after May 21st's fiasco. 'We’re not at the end," he, in fact, said with some indignation. "Why would we return it?" The same, of course, applies to what his poor--quite literally--followers gave away.
It may not be Camping's responsibility, of course, since those who gave away their possessions usually did not give them to Camping himself. The fanatics who acted so rashly must be held accountable. But it is unquestionable that Camping himself should face legal warfare for his pernicious influence on these fanatics. Ignorant though they may have been, they would not have acted so ignorant had it not been for Camping--or whatever other fanatic would have come around in his place. As absurd and baseless as it may seem, I think Camping should be held partly accountable for his followers' foolishness--just as the Vatican must be held accountable for the results of their inane stance on condom use in Africa.
Nonetheless, what disappoints me the most in these situations is that I do not see people reexamining what "world" means. It's one thing to say "the world is going to end"; but what does that even mean? The Earth will "end?" End how? What about the solar system? The Milky Way? Our local cluster? The rest of the universe, of which we are a near-negligible part? If you're going to predict the end of it all, at least have a specific referent in mind. What does "world" mean in this context? Only a fraction of our planet is even inhabitable by humans, anyway; will all the creatures of the oceans and deserts and tundras have to suffer, too? Why would an infinitesimal planet like ours be worthy of any kind of "ending," anyway? And what the devil does "end" mean?
But I am perhaps ascribing too much critical thought to such doomsday prophets. After all, if you think ancient texts hold the key to all of our astonishingly complex universe--a universe almost entirely unknown at the time such texts were composed--then I shouldn't be surprised if you don't look too deeply into the definitions of words.
Rapturous October 22nd!