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Henningsen: The Great Disappointment

05/23/11 5:55PM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST)  In case you missed it, the world was supposed to end last Saturday. Apparently that didn't happen.  Teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen takes a look at an earlier doomsday scenario centered here in Vermont.

(HENNINGSEN)  If the sight of the Chicago Cubs playing in Fenway Park wasn't omen enough, the fact that my house was struck by lightning Friday night definitely suggested the end was near.  It certainly felt like it.

And hundreds of thousands of people were ready, thanks to widely heralded claims that May 21st marked Judgment Day, claims put forth by millionaire and self-taught bible scholar Harold Camping through his 200 plus station Family Radio Network.  During a worldwide earthquake believers would ascend to heaven in a process known as "the Rapture."  Everyone else would endure various torments - plagues, famine, war - before total world destruction in October.  

But here we are.  No apocalypse; just another ordinary Monday.  

This sort of thing happens every so often in American life.   Historians view it as an extreme reaction to rapid and unsettling social, economic, and political change - a desire that God will intervene and bring order out of chaos by rescuing the faithful and condemning others to oblivion.    One of the most notable examples occurred in the 1840's, much of it in Vermont.  

At the center of things was William Miller, a prosperous farmer and lay preacher from Poultney, whose calculation that the world would end in 1843 or 44 touched a nerve among Methodists and Baptists in New England and upstate New York.   This was a time of bewildering change in American life:  political tensions that would ultimately split the nation were on the rise; strange and vaguely threatening immigrants filled American cities; the country was mired in a major depression - made worse in Vermont by the collapse of the wool market on which most farmers depended.

Miller was vague about dates, and his followers advanced several different possibilities, but attention settled on October 22nd, 1844 as Judgment Day.   As it neared, some fifty thousand people quit their jobs, sold their farms and businesses, and left their crops unharvested.   On the fateful day, it's said that Boston Common trees sagged from the weight of believers eager to ascend quickly.   In Vermont, Millerites climbed local hills and rooftops to await the summons.  A Rutland man made wings out of barn wood and shingles, prepared to launch at the first blast of the last trumpet.  In Calais, hundreds gathered in the Old West Church, while a clock on the pulpit ticked down to midnight.   As the hour struck, men shouted, women screamed and . . . nothing.  Ten minutes later the church was deserted.

With some understatement, October 22nd became known to the faithful as "The Great Disappointment."  Sadly, the records are silent on what happened that winter to the tens of thousands who had abandoned their worldly goods.  

Like the Millerites, today's Rapture believers were convinced that divine intervention would deliver them from the trials of a world riven by social and economic upheaval.
But Saturday's version of the "Great Disappointment" demonstrated once again that there's no short cut to salvation.
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