Eight years before the new millennium, the Rev. Ralph Moats led a portion of his flourishing California church to Montana to prepare for the end of the world.
Now that 2000 is at hand, he still is reaching out with his End Times Harvest Church Inc., but with less immediacy than when the great trek began.
“There are a lot of people concerned about what is going to happen at the end of the year,” said Mr. Moats in a phone interview. “But the Bible clearly says, No one knows the hour.’ ”
In a nation where Bible prophecy, the round numbers of centuries, dramatic events in nature and conspiracy theories long have evoked hopes and fears, Mr. Moats is not the only American ambivalent about the arrival of 2000.
Two in ten Americans told a recent Newsweek poll that they expect the world to end in their lifetimes, destroyed by a dramatic clash portrayed in the book of Revelation. The Greek word for revelation is “apocalypse,” which also means an “unveiling” of a better time.
In the same poll, 6 percent of Americans or about 15 million people expect to see this apocalypse around 2000.
Even so, secular and religious millennium watchers have backed away from the more dramatic scenarios they anticipated in the early 1990s.
At Mr. Moats church, anticipation of the end has waned, said Jamie Nelson, a member until 1996. “They never said the end was coming in 2000, but there was a definite concern, the way government was going, and with more natural disasters, we should prepare to live without modern comforts,” she said.
In early America, the apocalyptic belief in a “new world” or “end of time” had moved people to form new religions, open frontiers and even fight foreign empires. But today interest in the apocalypse has become a hobby or topic of media consumption, millennium watchers say.
“There are a lot of people who believe in 2000, but in public they are not going to admit it,” Richard Landes, founder of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, said last month at its fourth annual conference. “Where they will admit it is on the Web.”
The potential for a year-2000 computer problem has fueled much of religious interpretation of the apocalyptic timetable, said Carl Stokes, spokesman for the National Religious Broadcasters.
“Year-2000 rhetoric has not been in terms of prophecy and the apocalypse, but the computer crash,” he said.
The burst in high-technology and electronic banking also has prompted millennium watchers to speak of the first “techno-apocalypse” and the “apocalypse of capital.” Jesus’ prediction of “wars and rumors of wars” can be seen on 24-hour cable news.
To be prepared for any social mayhem, the FBI has sent 20,000 police chiefs a report alerting them of possible connections between apocalyptic beliefs and violence.
Critics have called the FBI document “analytically weak,” conservative Christians and New Age groups have protested it and scholars groaned at the title, “Project Megiddo” a prophesied battle where blood flows “high as a horse’s bridle.”
Toning down predictions
After all this buildup, however, the backpedaling has begun.
“There has been a major downshifting in [religious] apocalyptic predicting,” Stephen O’Leary, author of “Arguing the Apocalypse,” told the Millennial Studies conference. Religious prognosticators, he said, “are now working on a prophecy scenario of why Y2K was not a problem.”
Last year, the Rev. Jerry Falwell marketed a video of sermons on “A Christian’s Guide to the Millennium Bug.” In March he ended sales, saying: “I do not expect it to be as serious … as I first feared.”
The Joseph Project, a Christian group in Atlanta, never was alarmed at 2000, but is airing radio spots “urging Christians to be responsible citizens” in their 2000 plans.
For scholars, the millennium has become a cottage industry of the 1990s though with some disappointments.
“The millennial cults have not materialized,” said Damian Thompson, author of the 1996 book “The End of Time.” “ is a big deal, but a different kind of big deal than I had thought. The approach of the date makes supernatural interpretations harder to sustain.”
Opening the Millennial Studies conference in Boston, Mr. Landes said that despite current backpedaling, a “millennial moment” has latent energy that could gather quickly into a social upheaval. The Center for Millennial Studies was founded, in fact, to document such a groundswell if it finally takes place.
“No one has ever tried to archive the passing of a millennial debate,” said Mr. Landes, who teaches medieval history at Boston University.
Looking at Revelation
Mr. Landes of Boston University argues that Europeans, despite primitive methods of marking time’s passage, knew when 1000 had arrived and made it a time of cultural ferment. Proof that they knew, he said, is sketchy because the church “cleaned up the records” to hide embarrassments.
James Reston Jr., author of “The Last Apocalypse,” argues that hardly anyone knew the year had arrived, so it stirred no great events. “There is absolutely no evidence of any hysteria in 1000,” he said.
Worries that the apocalypse was nigh began in the 16th century, he said, with the common practice of telling time. “The high anxiety began after the printing press gave us the first mass produced calendar,” he said. Mass production of clocks came soon after.
America’s founders brought from Europe the apocalyptic visions of a “new world” and an Antichrist, a role quickly conferred upon King George III.
The unique American approach to the apocalypse, historians argue, may be typified in religious pluralism, acceptance of the Jews, and unveiling of the atom bomb. The role of millennial movements and events here also illustrates how they can produce lasting, producing cultural institutions.
A classic example, according to Seventh-day Adventist scholar Charles Teel, is the “Millerites” who followed apocalyptic Baptist farmer William Miller and waited for the end in upstate New York in 1844.
The idea influenced 1 million people, and 50,000 made preparations. But the date’s uneventful passing led to the “Great Disappointment.”
“Where does one go when one’s cosmology has been proven wrong?” Mr. Teel said. In this case, he said, the product was Adventism, and the Seventh-day variety went on to build a vast school and hospital system.
The Protestant belief from colonial times that the Jews would take part in a glorious end-time scenario has much to do with a lack of anti-Semitism in America, argues historian Robert Whalen.
“America was to be the champion of Israel even before Israel was established,” he said. American believers “substituted the millennium for the crucifixion. America was to be the new beginning for the Christians and Jews.”
The founding of Israel in 1948, millennial scholars agree, put 2000 in the end-time range, and was a reason why Hal Lindsey’s 1970 “Late Great Planet Earth” which set the end in 1998 was the best-selling book of the 1970s.
The atomic bomb, however, may be an even more prevailing apocalyptic theme in America. Since the 1950s, the Eisenhower doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” kept America and the Soviet Union from risking an apocalyptic war.
This was the beginning of “apocalyptic management,” which continues today, said religion professor Ira Chernus of the University of Colorado. “Our leaders tell us that the world is not less dangerous, but more dangerous than before,” he said.
The bomb was portrayed in 700 movies from 1945 to 1999 but the average appearance of 13 bomb films a year has not filled Americans with apocalyptic paranoia, said Jerome Shapiro, who teaches cultural studies at Hiroshima University in Japan.
“The films are hopeful, positive narratives,” he said. “They encourage us to actualize [productive activity] in oppressed conditions.” The newest imagery of apocalypse in art and theater, scholars note, is an ecological disaster or a world epidemic.
Culture of prophecy
Americans, from the time of fighting the British, had held conspiracy theories that easily tied in with the Bible.
Now, said Michael Barkun, a scholar who advised the FBI in its peaceful resolution of the Montana Freemen standoff of 1996, conspiracy theories have grown in number and complexity, with no little help from the Internet.
“We now live in a time of mega-conspiracies,” Mr. Barkun said. “In the past, it was one group, not many.” This espousing of conspiracy may create paranoia in some, but frustration in people who try to disprove them.
Today’s conspiracies hold that nothing happens by accident, all is interconnected and “nothing is as it seems,” Mr. Barkun said.
While this aspect of the millennium may snare only a few Americans, about 656,000 people each week representing the combined sales of the spoofish Weekly World News and Sun tabloids indulge in a harmless “generic prophecy culture.”
“We see end time headlines every week at the checkout counter,” said Amelia Carr, an art historian at Allegheny College. “End time coverage has increased,” she said. “It’s a primary contributor to the 2000 hype.”
She said that in the past two years the two tabloids have featured 105 cover stories on prophecy, a crazy quilt of appearances by the Virgin Mary, Billy Graham, astrology, Nostradamus and Pope John Paul II.
“It sells,” she said.
What is not selling, laments Mr. Landes of the Millennial Studies center, is the call to make the “millennial moment” a time for social rejuvenation, a time to reflect and a period to heal historic wounds between groups.
The problem, he said, is millennial “roosters” who can be found almost any time crying about the end of the world, and millennial “owls” who say it comes at points in the future.
“What we need are responsible roosters and owls that listen to each other,” he said.