An excerpt from a 1946 Popular Science article on the Hayden Planetarium's exhibit "The End of the World."

Apocalypse Now & Then

A History of End-Times

December 21st, 2012 marks the end of the “Mayan Long Count” calendar, and has triggered another round of prophesies about the end of the world. So we figured we’d spend this particular period of end-times looking back on all the good times we had… worrying about end-times.

On this episode: moments when we thought the game was about to be all over. From Indian prophets to bunker builders, the Backstory hosts try to figure out why apocalyptic visions gain traction when they do, and ask what they tell us about American hopes and fears through the centuries.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Full Episode Transcript

ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. I hate to break it to you, but the Mayan Long Count calendar is set to end on December 21st. There are some who think that the world will end with it. It’s hardly the first time Americans have seen signs of apocalypse. In the 1930s, one of those signs was FDR.

MATTHEW AVERY SUTTON: Here was a guy, who, at the Democratic National Convention of 1932 got 666 votes. And, of course, 666 was traditionally the sign of the Antichrist.

ED: So let’s say in the end of the world does come, how do you prepare for it?

BRIAN CAMDEN: Well, a tsunami, what you generally do is you calculate the elevation of the land versus the size that the clients think that the tsunami will be.

ED: And for those making the predictions, how have they felt when they’ve gotten it wrong?

JOHN GRIBBIN: I’m really pleased that, you know, a million people didn’t die in 1982, because we were right.

ED: A history of doomsday in America, today on the BackStory. But first, some history in the making.

PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and by the University of Virginia.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy and I’m here with Ed Ayers–

ED: 19th Century Guy.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf is with us.

PETER: 18th Century Guy.

BROADCAST ANNOUNCER: Let us face, without panic, the reality of our times. The fact that atom bombs may someday be dropped on our cities. And let us prepare for survival, understanding the weapon that threatens us.

PETER: In 1951, the United States Office of Civil Defense produced a video explaining the dangers of an atomic bomb. It was called “Survival Under Atomic Attack.” It talked about radiation and heat.

BROADCAST ANNOUNCER: People caught in the open as far as two miles away suffered flash burns.

PETER: It talked about the dangers of falling buildings. And then, it told people how to protect themselves.

BROADCAST ANNOUNCER: The first job is to look over your own home for shelter possibilities. If you live in a private home that is well built, the cellar is the safest place to be.

ED: Lots of people built their own shelters. The end of the world could happen at any minute, and people wanted to be prepared. Well, as it turns out, for the doomsday minded, it’s time to hunker down again.

BRIAN CAMDEN: In probably 2005 to 2010, the Mayan calendar 2012, shelter was probably the most predominant product we did.

BRIAN: This is Brian Camden. He’s the owner of a company in Virginia Beach called Hardened Structures. They build a lot of intense fortifications for the military, you know, things like bomb-resistant airplane hangers and stuff like that. But they also get requests from regular people here in America who want to build their own shelters or fortify their own homes for an apocalyptic scenario.

PETER: And now there’s this new scenario, the one Camden mentioned. It’s the thought that when the Mayan Long Count calendar ends on December 21, 2012, it will usher in the end of the world. When people caught wind of it, well, Brian Camden was the guy who was going to keep them safe. Problem was–

BRIAN CAMDEN: No two clients really agreed, or had the same understanding of what 2012 would entail. Even the experts themselves argued about what would happen. Some were the methane gas exploding. Other ones would be massive solar flares. Other ones firmly believed that a tsunami would wipe over the United States.

BRIAN: A tsunami. Now are you prepared to protect against a tsunami?

BRIAN CAMDEN: Oh, yes. A tsunami is fairly straightforward.

BRIAN: I’m sorry. So you see how naive I am about fortified structures.

BRIAN CAMDEN: Well, a tsunami, what you generally do is you calculate the elevation of the land versus the size that the clients think the tsunami will be. Let’s say it’s about 1,000 foot tsunami and the elevation of the land is already at 500 feet, so you would design it for a 500 foot load.

But even with that, you must assume that the water will never recede. So you have to have self rescue supplies within the shelter itself. And any shelter that’s the designed for submersion has to have a CO2 scrubber and an oxygen machine in it.

BRIAN: Camden has fortified homes for all kinds of “end of the world” scenarios, homes with sniper positions and non-lethal gas systems meant to fend off human threats. Shelters designed to operate off grid in cases there’s a contamination in the water supply, or power plants go down. And I asked Camden, how bad can things really get? What is the most apocalyptic vision that any client has been concerned about in your 20 years of work? And again, we’re talking about the home building, retail side of things, the non-governmental.

BRIAN CAMDEN: I would have to say it’s the belief that the 2012 Mayan scenario will release the methane gas within the Earth’s crust and cause the entire earth to suffer severe fire for any given length of time. That was probably the hardest to try to mitigate, there.

BRIAN: I can imagine. Did you succeed in that, in your opinion?

BRIAN CAMDEN: No we did not. Only because the design solution for it, which required a deep earth bunker with separate air and all that, was beyond the budget of the client.

BRIAN: They could have done it if they had the resources.

BRIAN CAMDEN: Oh, well, yes.

BRIAN: You’re a can-do guy, Mr. Camden.

BRIAN CAMDEN: Oh, yes, yes. The level of protection is only governed by the size of the budget. It doesn’t matter to us, the Mayan calendar, WMDs, terrorism, economic collapse. One we can figure out what the threat of that scenario is, what are the assets to be protected, and the threat levels, from that point on it’s engineering and physics.

ED: So in this episode of BackStory, what we hope won’t be our final episode, we are toasting the end of the world. We’re looking back at Americans throughout history who have predicted doomsday.

PETER: From religious zeal to scientific miscalculation, fears about the apocalypse seem to ebb and flow throughout history. We want to figure out when they spiked, and why. Some of these predictions fall flat on their faces, but others, well, they’re a little more complicated.


PETER: Starting in the 1740S, end times thinking became fairly common among American Indians in the East. And by the end of the 19th century, doomsday prophecy had spread to the Indians of the West. The Buffalo had all but disappeared, Indian land had been taken, and the Indians, themselves, were forced to live on reservations. The end of the world didn’t seen so far fetched. It was at this time of intense hardship, that in 1889, a Paiute Indian profit named Wovoka began prophesying about the coming of a new world.

JEFFREY OSTLER: This is where the apocalyptic event comes in.

PETER: Jeff Ostler is an historian at the University of Oregon. And he’s written extensively about Wovoka’s prophecies.

JEFFREY OSTLER: We don’t know exactly how he imagined that the new world would occur. But it’s clear that he taught that it would occur through some kind of cataclysmic event.

PETER: Maybe it would occur through fire.

JEFFREY OSTLER: Maybe through a kind of earthquake.

PETER: Maybe through a flood.

JEFFREY OSTLER: Some sources suggest a great snow.

PETER: Wovoka didn’t know what it would be, but he did know that it was going to happen soon.

JEFFREY OSTLER: And it would destroy, or remove, European Americans. And then after that, there would be a renewed world where game would return, ancestors who had died would return to life, and Indian people would be able to live well again.

PETER: Wovoka’s followers prepared for this renewed world with a dance known as the Ghost Dance.

JEFFREY OSTLER: It was a round dance where people would hold hands and they would dance in a circle. And then, after a period of time, some of the dancers would lose consciousness.

PETER: While they were unconscious, dancers would have visions of the new world to come after the apocalypse.

JEFFREY OSTLER: You can read some of these visions, they’re quite remarkable, where somebody says, well, I died, or I lost consciousness, and I was on horseback. And the world was green and not like this dead world that I’m now living in. And then I walked up, I rode up over a hill, and I saw a figure on horseback coming toward me and it was my sister who had died recently. And buffalo were grazing. And so people would have these visions. And then they would awake. And then they would relate them, they would tell them.

PETER: Word started to spread into Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana. But the Ghost Dance had the most profound effect on a tribe from the Dakota’s, the Lakota Sioux.

JEFFREY OSTLER: Somehow or another, we don’t know exactly how, they get wind of this. That Wovoka, somebody out in the West is teaching this wonderful thing.

PETER: Like other plains tribes, the Lakota had relied heavily on the now decimated buffalo. And they had just recently been confined to reservations. Wovoka’s prophecies struck a chord. So the Lakota tribal leaders gathered together and decided to send a formal delegation to see him in Nevada.

JEFFREY OSTLER: You have to realize there’s a railroad network. And there they are, going out there. They’re going to reject this whole world, but they’re going to get out there on trains.

PETER: The Lakota emissaries brought Wovoka’s teachings back to the reservations. And many of the Lakota started doing the Ghost Dance in preparation for the new world. But the dance was illegal on reservations. Practicing native tradition was seen as uncivilized and barbarous. Government officials tried to stop it. They arrested the leaders, and then hoped it would just go away. That’s when things screeched to a halt at Wounded Knee Creek.

JEFFREY OSTLER: By the fall of 1890, the military decided to send troops to suppress the ghost dance among the Lakotas. It was only the Lakotas they sent troops against.

PETER: In late December, the 7th Cavalry came across a band of about 400 ghost dancers led by an Indian named Big Foot. The soldiers surrounded Big Foot’s camp at Wounded Knee Creek.

JEFFREY OSTLER: In the course of disarming Big Foot’s people, a shot rang out. And then it was the 7th Calvary opened fire. And at the end of several hours, there was a death toll of probably 240 to 270 of Big Foot’s people. A horrific slaughter.

BLACK ELK: I did not know then how much was ended.

PETER: Years later, a Lakota Indian named Black Elk reflected on what he saw that day.

BLACK ELK: When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud and was buried in the blizzard.

PETER: So we might even say the ghost dancers predicted a new world and they got one.


PETER: Ostler says there’s a bit of a postscript to this story. Clearly, things went terribly for the plains Indians for a long time. Much of their world was destroyed. But if they were hoping for some sort of renewal, well, it might be creeping in, in bits pieces.

JEFFREY OSTLER: Some of the things that the ghost dancers were talking about are occurring. There are more buffalo on the Great Plains than there once were. There’s more Indians. And by many measures, conditions for Indian people are much better than they were in the time of the Ghost Dance and after Wounded Knee. There are serious problems, but when we think of all that is happening in Indian country, in terms of cultural revitalization and language, it’s quite extraordinary, really.

PETER: Special thanks to Jeff Ostler from the University of Oregon for helping us tell this story.


BRIAN: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, what do you do if you think the end is near? Do you jump from buildings? Or do you try to make the world a better place? Maybe a little bit of both.

ED: Your listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

BRIAN: This is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century Guy.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century Guy. Our show today is all about the history of doomsday in America– prophecies and proclamations about what comes next, if anything.

ED: It’s hard to separate talk of the apocalypse from talk of religion. The very term apocalypse is most often associated with the New Testament book of Revelation. It means an uncovering or a revealing. Back in the 1830s and 1840s, America was experiencing a wave of religious fervor.

The Second Great Awakening, as it’s come to be known, was a time when many Americans thought the Second Coming of Christ was eminent. And so they threw themselves into reformed movements like temperance and abolition. They wanted to make America a fitting place for the coming kingdom of God, scrubbing out the sins of this world to pave the way for the next. It’s in this context that one particular end times prophecy caught fire and became remarkably mainstream. Jess Engebretson tells the story.

VOICE-OVER FOR WILLIAM MILLER: I’m fully convinced that sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844 Christ will come and bring all His saints with him.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: This particular prophecy was the work of a small town Vermont farmer named William Miller. Miller had become convinced of Christ’s imminent return back in the 18 teens, after applying some complicated arithmetic to the book of Daniel. But he was a cautious man, and didn’t want to spread the extraordinary news until he was quite sure he’d gotten it right.

He had dashed off a couple newspaper articles in the 1830s, but they didn’t get much attention outside New England. If he was really going to spread the good news, he needed someone a little more media savvy on board. Enter Joshua Hines, a Boston pastor who met Miller in 1840.

Hines started publishing a paper called Signs of the Times that extolled Miller’s predictions. He sent pamphlets to post offices in one of America’s earliest direct mail campaigns. Here’s a response from one Ohio postmaster.

VOICE-OVER FOR POSTMASTER: The papers which you forwarded came to hand last evening. In half an hour they were distributed in every part of this town. A general rush was made to the office to obtain the papers. Can you not send me another such roll?

JESS ENGEBRETSON: Other Millerite papers popped up in New York, Philadelphia, Rochester, Cleveland, Montreal. Nearly 50 different papers, all told. In the early 1840s, some five million pieces of Millerite literature were distributed, one for every four people in the US. And people responded.

Around 100,000 Americans joined the movement. In some Northeastern cities, Millerite groups became so large that they couldn’t find buildings big enough to hold their meetings.

VOICE-OVER FOR LC COLLINS: The midnight cry must yet be made to ring and ring through every valley, and over every hilltop.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: This is LC Collins, one of many Millerites who left home to travel the country and spread the good news.

VOICE-OVER FOR LC COLLINS: A crisis must come before the door of mercy is everlastingly shut against them. They must be made to feel that it is now or never.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: That sense of now or never got an unexpected boost in February 1843. A huge comet appeared in the sky, so bright it could be seen in broad daylight. Sure, Miller’s prediction hadn’t said anything about a comet, but people managed to work it into the prophecy, anyway.

Remember, Miller had said Christ would return between March ’43 and March ’44. The comet’s timing was spot on. The beginning of that window was just a few weeks away. March 1843 arrived and nothing happened. But the Millerites were unphased. They kept up with their proselytizing, Miller worked his way through the East Coast cities on a last lecture tour.

In December, he called in one more burst of publishing might, a million new tracks to be distributed in the final months. The year wound down and the window was about to close. After all the work, anticipation had reached a fever pitch.

Finally, March of 1844 rolled around. The New York Herald reported that a few of the more extreme believers jumped off roofs and tree branches, hoping to time their leaps to coincide with Christ’s return. But Christ didn’t return and some fell to their deaths. Newspapers had a field day teasing the disappointed Millerites. Here’s one Boston headline.

VOICE-OVER READING HEADLINES: What? Not gone up yet? We thought you’d gone up. Aren’t you going up soon? Wife didn’t go up and leave you behind to burn, did she?

JESS ENGEBRETSON: A couple weeks later, Miller publicly acknowledged his mistake. One follower did some quick calculations and found an error in Miller’s math. The movement recalibrated and seized upon a new date, October 22 of that year. Once again, many believers left their homes and professions letting their crops rot in the fields. A young woman named Olive Rice was one of many who crisscrossed the country, preaching to the unconvinced.

VOICE-OVER FOR OLIVE RICE: I could not conscientiously return to my studies in North Wilberham to prepare for future usefulness when a few months, at the longest, must close not only my labors in this world, but those are all mankind. I was compelled by a solemn sense of duty to go and warn my fellow men to prepare for Christ’s second coming and the solemn scenes of judgment.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: Shopkeepers shuttered their windows and hung polite notices from their doors.

VOICE-OVER FOR SHOPOWNER: This shop is closed in honor of the King of Kings who will appear about the 20th of October.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: But on October 22, again, Christ did not return to Earth. The blow was devastating to followers. It became known as the Great Disappointment.

VOICE-OVER FOR MILLERITE: I waited all Tuesday and dear Jesus did not come. I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint.

VOICE-OVER FOR MILLERITE: You have no idea the feeling that seized me. If the earth could have swallowed me up, it would have been sweetness compared to the distress I felt.

VOICE-OVER FOR MILLERITE: Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted. And such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. It seemed that the loss of all earthly friends could have been no comparison. We wept and wept till the day dawned.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: People regrouped as best they could. Some slunk back to their old churches. Those who remained faithful to Miller’s teaching splintered into smaller sects, depending on how they made sense of the Great Disappointment. The belief that Christ’s return was eminent slipped out of mainstream thinking. And the great hopeful this at the 1830s and ’40s began to wane.

As debates over slavery tipped into open violence, the idea that America had been on the verge of ushering in the kingdom of God looked naive, even delusional. For many Americans, optimism had become outdated.

ED: Jess Engebretson is one of our producers.


PETER: hosts, what impresses me about Jess’s story about the Millerites is the way that news spreads. The instant community that emerges with this focus on the end of the world and that particular date, gives it this wonderful focus. And, you know, this tells us something about the emergence of mass culture in America, and the importance of technology to that. I mean, what drives this is the religious press.

ED: Yeah, that’s exactly right, Peter. We don’t think about the press being so religious, but America was saturated in religion the 1820s and ’30s and ’40s. You can just hear the steam presses rolling, turning out this material to be mailed all over the country, over the new post roads, and the new mechanism of the post office. You can just hear the telegraph keys clattering, spreading the news. It really does tap into a moment that would have been impossible to have imagined, really, just a couple of decades earlier.

PETER: It’s the great paradox of the antebellum period, the period before the American Civil War. Americans are flying apart, all across this great landscape, but they’re finding new ways to connect with each other. And it’s through print that they’re doing it. It’s through the news. And you know, the news about end times is the most urgent and important news you can imagine.

ED: If you’re just tuning in, this is BackStory. And today, we’re talking about visions of into the end of the world in America. a couple of decades after the Civil War, in the 1880s and 1890s, a new version of apocalyptic thinking started taking root among a small group of conservative Protestants. They weren’t limited to a specific denomination or social class. But while there were pockets of them around the country, they were concentrated in the cities of the North.

BRIAN: That’s where society was in the midst of some of the most profound changes. The influx of Catholics and Jews was radically altering the balance of local politics. And the growing power of universities was giving rise to the social sciences and Darwinian theory, things that challenged a strictly biblical interpretation of the world.

MATTHEW AVERY SUTTON: So all these things really concern them, trouble them, push them back to biblical text. And so they begin to read it with new eyes.

BRIAN: This is Matthew Avery Sutton, a scholar of early Christian Fundamentalism.

MATTHEW AVERY SUTTON: And what they begin to see is that there’s another message, a different message. And it was a much darker, ominous message.

ED: Much more ominous than what? Well, up until that point, the basic understanding among Protestants had been that through their good works they could help usher in 1,000 year Millennium of paradise on earth, at which point Christ would return.

But according to this ominous new reading of the Bible, there would be a period of terrible, cataclysmic, apocalyptic suffering before the Millennium. Now fortunately for them, good Christians would be spared that suffering. They would be raptured up to heaven first.

MATTHEW AVERY SUTTON: And with Christians out of the way, a new world leader is going to emerge offering peace and security to the world, which is now in chaos. And this leader will, in fact, be the Antichrist.

BRIAN: The Antichrist would ultimately be vanquished by Christ and his followers in the Battle of Armageddon, ushering in those thousand years of paradise on earth. This made the vision premillenial since the Second Coming would occur before the Millennium.

ED: And so, rather than work to bring on the golden age themselves, these premillennialists looked for a series of signs that the end times were near. And over the first few decades of the 20th century, they found those signs almost everywhere they looked. Portents, like the rise of Hollywood, more open sexuality, women working outside the home, women voting, even women advocating publicly for access to birth control. All of these were instances of the moral degeneracy that this group of Christians associated with the end times.

BRIAN: But Matthew Sutton told me that there was also a complex set of geopolitical signs, signs that were also borne out in the 19 teens and 1920s.

MATTHEW AVERY SUTTON: The major ones, or among the major ones was World War I, because they believed that in the last days there would “wars and rumors of wars,” quoting Jesus’s prediction on that. They saw the capture of Jerusalem by the British and the establishment of Palestine as a homeland for Jews as another major sign, because they had been predicting that for 20 or 30 years.

BRIAN: And as I understand it, one of the indications was what, today, or even by the mid 20th century, we might call a super state, or a strong centralized government.

MATTHEW AVERY SUTTON: Right. There’s some obscure verses in the book of Daniel which talk about four kingdoms. One would be a great northern kingdom, which they identified as Russia. And they had also believed there would be a kingdom in the East. And that one, they were more vague on which actual nation that was. But, of course, as we moved towards World War II, they identified Japan with the Eastern kingdom.

The final kingdom is going to be the kingdom of the Antichrist, which is in literal, geographical Rome. And they talk about it as a super state that’s going to be defined– really, essentially, it begins with democracy and gives way to Totalitarianism. And then it’s going to consolidate power. And it’s going to bring other kingdoms under its rule.

BRIAN: So when Roosevelt was elected, democratically elected, what was the reaction initially? And how did that change?

MATTHEW AVERY SUTTON: Right. And by that time premillenialists were beginning to call themselves fundamentalists. And fundamentalists were very suspicious of Roosevelt. They were concerned that Roosevelt wanted to repeal prohibition. And they didn’t like his vision for the state, and for his plans for using the government to combat the Great Depression, which was well under way by 1932, and then 1933, when he takes office.

And here was a guy who, at the Democratic National Convention in 1932, on the first set of ballots, got 666 votes. And, of course, 666 was traditionally the number, or the sign of the Antichrist. And then in 1937, when Roosevelt tried to increase the size of the Supreme Court, what fundamentalists see happening there is, here’s a guy who’s already got the Executive Branch in his pocket. Congress is doing everything he wants to do, at least in their mind. And then he’s trying to pack the Supreme Court to make sure that the Judicial Branch is going to follow his lead. And so this is a guy who looks like he’s on a power trip.

BRIAN: And just to be clear, in the sequence you laid out originally, the rapture occurs before the appearance of the Antichrist.

MATTHEW AVERY SUTTON: Right. So all of this is just foreshadowing the coming Antichrist. So they didn’t actually believe Roosevelt was the Antichrist Now they weren’t so sure about Mussolini, because he was actually in Rome. They thought he might actually be the Antichrist. But Roosevelt was just the guy who was going to get the United States into line behind the Antichrist.

BRIAN: And Matt, if I could play the role of Antichrist advocate, if that’s a phrase. Is it truly their vision of end times and apocalypse that is informing their political views? Or aren’t these people just libertarians or conservatives who are using phrases from the Bible to justify what they fundamentally feel politically?

MATTHEW AVERY SUTTON: Right, and it’s a little bit of both. And I think if we ask that question about the generation in the 1930s and 1940s, it was truly driven by their fear of the state and what the state represented. I mean, there are some roots of it in the 1910s.

The Bolshevik Revolution is one turning point, and that kind of fear of Communism in the US in the 1920s. But it’s really with the rise of Roosevelt that we have the articulation of a clear fundamentalist anti-statism.

BRIAN: That is really driven by their religious beliefs.

MATTHEW AVERY SUTTON: Yes, I absolutely believe so. Yeah. And part of it is, there is no other common denominator to explain it. I mean, it’s not just class, it’s both poor and very, very wealthy, in some cases. It’s not just rural or urban, it’s both. But the common denominator is this premillenial apocalyptisism. And they explain it that way. That’s the language they use.

And it has a lot of benefits for them, because, if you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, if you feel like you’re powerless, if you feel like the nation is moving in the wrong direction, you have the last laugh. You’re the only one who knows what’s really happening.

BRIAN: Right.

MATTHEW AVERY SUTTON: You have the scoop on where history is going, who’s going to win, how it’s going to end. And so it gives you a sense of self-confidence, and a sense that you can endure the troubles and tribulations of your own generation of war, of depression. Because in the end, you’re going to be redeemed. You’re going to be sanctified. You’re going to be saved.

BRIAN: Can you give us a sense of how many people there are over the course of the 20th century, who actually subscribe to the views that you’ve just been describing? And some of the cycles, why this waxes, why this wanes.

MATTHEW AVERY SUTTON: You know, in The first half of the 20th century, it was a growing part of American Protestantism, but it was still a minority position, even among Protestants. When polls have been done in the last 30, 40, 50 years, it’s shockingly high numbers of Americans. I think not quite half. I think the most recent polls it’s around 40% that says they believe Jesus return by– I believe the way that poll was worded was 2040.

They may not be aware of the apocalyptic theology behind this idea of Jesus’s second coming, but they know the end results. And the end result is that all true Christians will be raptured and that Jesus is going to come back. However, in the last 10 or 15 years, they have really downplayed that idea, that it’s not nearly as prominent now as it was certainly in the 1930s, or even in the 1970s.

And what explains that, in part, I think, is the fact evangelicals have become so powerful. They have began to have so much influence in American life that it’s much harder for them to present themselves, or frame themselves, as this outsider despised, disinherited minority sort of denouncing American culture in the American mainstream.

But I think the presidency of George W Bush really represents another of another one of these turning points in which evangelicals realize that they do have power, that they, in fact, are the American state. And so I think there’s sort of a milder, softer form of evangelicalism that has developed that embraces this world, because it makes more sense to embrace this world if you actually can influence policy in the most powerful nation in the world.

ED: Matthew Avery Sutton is an Associate Professor of History at Washington State University. And he’s the author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America.


ED: We’re going to take a short break, but don’t go anywhere. I’m poised to push the (ECHOING) doomsday button.

PETER: Oh, ho, ho. You’re listening to BackStory. We might be back in a minute.


BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hey.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER: Hey, hey, hey. Yeah. All right.

BRIAN: Well today, in honor of what might be the end of the world on December 21st, we’re looking at past visions of doomsday in America. So, guys, what I love about the 20th century is the pace of change. And in the course of 20 years we moved through several apocalyptic visions.

The first one that we all remember is nuclear Armageddon. And that looks like perhaps bombers coming over and dropping nuclear bombs, or maybe someone’s going to bring a suitcase with an atomic device. But by the 1960s, machines are beginning to combine with atomic bombs, to create the ultimate apocalyptic vision.

And, of course, the classic caricature of that kind of machine was in Doctor Strangelove. I think that’s 1964. Peter Sellers, one push of button, in fact, no push of the button.

PETER: No push of the button, Brian.

BRIAN: Computers would set it off. What did that look like?

PETER: What it is, is a machine that is going to be set off without any pushing of buttons. Imagine the ultimate machine, a machine with a mind of its own, or no mind of its own.

DOCTOR STRANGELOVE: That is the whole idea of this machine, you know.

PETER: All you have to do is threaten it. If one side threatens the other, this bank of computers whirs into action and sets it off.

DOCTOR STRANGELOVE: A specific and clearly defined set of circumstances, under which the bombs are to be exploded, is programmed into a tape memory bank.

PETER: So here we have the ultimate end of the world scenario, mediated by machines and devices. And it’s all humans who have done this to themselves.

BRIAN: Ed, I’d be curious if you have a favorite doomsday device from these days?

ED: Well, I’m afraid I’m a more contemporary sort of guy. I like the film from the ’90s. Austin Powers, The Spy Who Shagged Me. And in that–


ED: Yes, it was a classic. And in that, Mike Myers portrays the imaginatively named Doctor Evil, who has the idea of the laser. And every time he says laser he has to air quotes, as if he had invented the laser.

BRIAN: Which are hard to do on radio.

ED: Yeah, exactly. People have to imagine the air quotes.

DOCTOR EVIL: This is the phase in which we put a giant “laser” on the moon. When the moon reaches its appropriate lunar alignment, it will destroy Washington DC. You see, I’ve turned the moon into what I like to call a Death Star.

ED: So he wanted $100 billion or it’s doomsday. Now what’s interesting about Austin Powers is that the movie begins in the ’90s, but they go through a time machine that takes them back to the ’60s. And so that’s significant in and of itself. Back to a time when they could imagine the end of the world.

But what Austin Powers, ironically, helps us remember, what Doctor Strangelove helps us remember, is that the very thing that seemed like such an innovation at the time, the pushbutton, which was a ubiquitous symbol of the ’60s,

I had a pushbutton transmission in my car. You buy a new appliance, it advertises it’s a blender or a dishwasher, whatever, it’s kind of pushbutton. When you combine the symbol to pushbutton, the very symbol of modern convenience, with the image and language of nuclear holocaust, which we’d actually glimpsed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we can see how it is that you can have this connection between modern convenience, modern technology, modern advance, and the very end of the world.


BRIAN: As part of this show, we wanted to talk to someone who would actually predicted the end of the world. So we call this guy.


BRIAN: SPOILER ALERT– he got it wrong.

JOHN GRIBBIN: Oh, hi. I’m John Gribbin. I’m a visiting fellow in astronomy at the University of Suffix these days. And I make my living writing books.

BRIAN: And his most controversial book–

JOHN GRIBBIN: Which I didn’t make a living from.

BRIAN: –came out in 1974. It was called The Jupiter Effect. It talked about a lot of astrophysical stuff, but there was one argument that really shook people up. In 1982, according to this book, planetary alignment would cause a massive earthquake that would devastate Los Angeles.

Now, we should say that this book didn’t literally predict the end of the world. It predicted events that other people decided were signs of the end of the world. But we’ll get to that later. John Gribbin was just 25 when he made this prediction, and he was working as an editor for the journal “Nature” at the time.

JOHN GRIBBIN: And I came across a paper in the American equivalent of “Nature,” “Science,” which was talking about changes in the length of the day. There are tiny changes which effect our time keeping. And in this paper, there was a bit about earthquakes and the length of day, because when the spin of the Earth changes, rather like an ice skater pulling their arms in and out, it makes the Earth wobble a little bit.

And there was some discussion about how this affected earthquakes. And the people who wrote this summed up at the end and said, but of course, nobody would suggest that the sun causes earthquakes. And I thought, well, hang on. You could suggest that, because if the sun makes the atmosphere change, which we know it does– it changes the winds, it changes the Earth’s spin, the Earth shakes– then it could cause earthquakes.

BRIAN: John dashed off to write a response to the article.

JOHN GRIBBIN: And what happened after that was, I forgot about it. And a couple of months later– I left it from an American publisher, who probably ought to be nameless– and who suggested that there was money to be made out of this. And that if I wrote a suitably sensational book about the sun causing earthquakes, that it might be a best seller and we’d all get rich.

And I was very young and naive at the time, and I thought, wow, you know. Not so much for getting rich, but writing a book, because I’d never written a book. I thought, that’s exciting writing a book.

BRIAN: So he called up his friend, an earthquake guy named Stephen Plagemann, and they wrote up a manuscript. Something that seems like a thoughtful, sober account of how planetary alignment might cause an earthquake. Gribbin says, it was pretty academic.

JOHN GRIBBIN: And that was, to some extent, our downfall. Because we were too sober and scientific for the guy who had originally suggested the book. And he sort of washed his hands of it. And he said, well, there’s no point in writing that book, because that’s not going to make us all rich.

BRIAN: What did he say, exactly, do you remember?

JOHN GRIBBIN: He said, I think his phrase was, you picked up the ball and run off with it. To which my reply was, well, it was my ball in the first place. So, you know, I didn’t want to go down the sensational route that he was suggesting.

BRIAN: I thought you kicked balls over there, not pick them up.

JOHN GRIBBIN: I guess that’s it. That’s more like it.

BRIAN: That should have tipped you off to this guy right away.

JOHN GRIBBIN: So we did the book, anyway.

BRIAN: They found another publisher. And Gribbin admits, yeah, he took that first publisher’s criticism to heart. He sensationalized just a little bit. He got a little more specific than he should have.

JOHN GRIBBIN: So where we fell down was in pointing the finger specifically at Los Angeles, and trying to be too precise about the date. And if we had said, you know, there’s an enhanced probability of increase seismic activity in the period between 1980 and 1984, compared with 1976 to 1980, we would have been right. And nobody would have bought the book.

BRIAN: So did you get more specific, and get farther away from what you knew to be the case, because you were writing a book?

JOHN GRIBBIN: Yes, definitely.

BRIAN: The strategy worked. The book was noticed, not necessarily by readers. Gribbin says he made only about $3,000 since 1974. But it was noticed by another author. A really influential one, a guy named Hal Lindsey. Lindsey was already famous for his 1970 book, The Late Great Planet Earth, which looked to current events to predict the apocalypse.

In 1980, Lindsey published another book, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon. It cited The Jupiter Effect to support his prophecies. And it’s spent 20 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. It was at that point that Gribbin started getting a little bit uncomfortable.

JOHN GRIBBIN: I actually wrote another book, which is called The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered, which explained what had gone wrong, and what was right in the book. But it just sort of sank like a stone. It didn’t gain any attention or reviews, or anything like that.

And I remember once, somebody knocked at the door of my house. And I went to the door. And it was a group of Jehovah’s witnesses. And they started telling me about the forthcoming end of the world, you know? And I thought, it sounded familiar. So I said, hey, where did you get this from? And they started telling me about The Jupiter Effect. So I said, well, I wrote that book, you know, and it’s wrong. So the world isn’t coming to an end, do don’t worry, which rather nonplussed them.

BRIAN: What did they say to that?

JOHN GRIBBIN: They didn’t really say anything. They just sort of– the rug was pulled from under them– and we sort of politely said goodbye. And they went off to the next house, where, presumably they told them that the end of the world was coming.


JOHN GRIBBIN: We were absolutely sincere. We really thought that there was an increased risk of an earthquake in ’82. And secondly, there’s going to be a big earthquake in Los Angeles, sometime, anyway. So we felt, well, even if the year’s wrong, it does no harm to make people more aware of the problems of the fault zones, and so on, there.

So there was an element that that sort of, kind of thought sort of a naive sense of obligation, that, you know– if we’d not said anything and there had been a big earthquake in ’82, how would we have felt them? There would have been no point in saying, oh, yeah, we could have told you that was going to happen.

So we felt that if we do, if you like the word frighten people into doing things, the things that we frightened into would be good for them, anyway. Building earthquake proof buildings, and having road systems which are not running across fault lines with eight lane highways, and stuff like that, it’s a good thing to do, anyway. So we didn’t feel that we were saying, run to the hills, give up your job, get a gun and prepare to fight off the marauding tribes of hungry people. We were just saying sensible things that were worth doing.

BRIAN: Having written The Jupiter Effect, even when you were busy refuting it, because people were misinterpreting what you had meant to say, was there a very tiny part of you that kind of wanted to be right?

JOHN GRIBBIN: Of course, yeah. I mean, but I’m mostly glad we were wrong, obviously. I’m really pleased that a million people didn’t die in 1982 because we were right. But there is this sort of, slight sort of wishfulness, you know, that it would have been nice to have done something in science that people really noticed for being right, rather than for be wrong. But, never mind, I can live with things the way they are.

BRIAN: John, thanks so much for joining us on BackStory today. Truly eliminating.

JOHN GRIBBIN: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to have a chance to put the record straight.

JOHN GRIBBIN: Bye, bye. hosts, after talking to Gribbin, who was a Ph.D. at Cambridge, and hanging out with these astrophysicists, I began to ask myself, well, if he can get these predictions wrong, who exactly can we trust? And I’d be curious to know how people throughout American history have figured out who to trust with these life and death predictions.

PETER: Well, Gribbin’s story is fascinating, Brian, because in many ways it’s anticipated in the 17th and 18th century. And the class of people were talking about are the clergy, who have a monopoly on interpretation. And they’re also the first scientists, in a way. Or what they call in this period natural philosophers.

So the balancing act that they need to achieve is, on the one hand, what do portents tell us? Yet at the same time, they’re coming up with more rational explanations, because comets’ trajectories are being tracked over the decades and centuries. And these are the people who are on top of the new natural philosophy.

So this is the high wire act of interpretation that we have. And it becomes apart, I think, Ed, wouldn’t you say?

ED: Well, I was going to ask you a question. I’ve listen to the BackStory enough to know that following this period comes the American Revolution.

PETER: Yeah, exactly.

ED: I’ve heard that from you. And that the Revolution is sort of a part of the era of the Enlightenment. So was there a vision of the end of the world in the Enlightenment? And who would have had the authority to say that there was, or was not?

PETER: I think it’s really the end of the kind of authority that the intellectual, clerical elite would once have. And I think there’s a real democratization which is unleashed by the collapse of hierarchical authority.

ED: And, Peter, in many ways, the ultimate expression of this democratization of ownership of the apocalypse is Nat Turner, who led the largest slave revolt in American history in Virginia in 1831. And after he’s captured and imprisoned, he is questioned by an attorney who ends up making a lot of money by publishing Nat Turner’s confessions.

But Nat Turner tells him what’s in his mind. And what’s in his mind are these visions of the end of the world. Let’s listen to what he says.

VOICE-OVER FOR NAT TURNER: I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle. And the sun was darkened. The thunder rolled in the heavens and blood flowed in streams. And I heard a voice saying, such is your luck, such you are called to see. And let it come a rough or smooth, you must surely bear it. It was plain to me that the Savior was about to lay down the yoke He had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand.

ED: So here is an enslaved man, reading the Holy Scripture, and seeing signs of racial struggle, seeing the signs of Christ’s coming, and decided, especially after a second solar eclipse, possibly caused by ash from Mount St. Helens– it happened in August– and he takes that as the final sign and began his rebellion a week or so later.

BRIAN: So guys, what strikes me is this constant tension between the unleashing of every man who can interpret these signs for himself, this is unleashed by Peter’s Revolution. And in some ways, it reaches a high point with Nat Turner. Yet, I know, certainly by my century, there are real efforts to fold this back into the hands of safer experts, government authorities.

ED: Yeah, even in the time of Nat Turner, Brian, the white newspapers immediately seized the authority. And they said Turner was, quote, “misled by some hallucination of his imaginative spirit of prophecy.” So as soon as Nat Turner evokes the ultimate truth of the Bible as his inspiration, the white people of Virginia are seizing it back and saying he’s misled.

PETER: This is a great period of interpretation. But the authority to interpret is really up in the air, almost literally in the air. You’re reading it in the sky.

ED: It’s the reading that’s the key, Peter, because if he had not been allowed to read, if he had not been allowed to have direct access to the visions of the apocalypse in the Bible, then he would not have been able to see it in the world around him. So the very spirit of democratization, even unto enslaved people, sort of unleashes the authority for everybody to decide for themselves when the world’s going to end.


BRIAN: Well, folks, the end really is near. We’re out of time today. But you can get all sorts of firsthand sources and archival photos at our website, We’re also on Facebook and Tumblr. We Tweet at BackStoryRadio.

PETER: We’ll be back next week, we hope. And we hope you will be, too. Don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Jess Engebretson, Giochi Iansin, Eric Mennel, and Allison Quantz. Jamal Milner is our technical director. Alan Chin is our intern. Our Senior Producer is Tony Field. And back BackStory’s Executive Producer is Andrew Wyndham.

PETER: Special thanks today to Brenden Riley and to Daniel Wojcik, who’s book, The End of the World as We Know It helped us out with our bit on doomsday devices.

ED: Thanks also to our team of voice-over actors, Peter Hedlin, Brendan Wolf, Bill Kissel, John Meadows, Ben Prorock, Bettina Stevens, Paul Stevens, and Chris Waite.

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel, history made every day.


JESS ENGEBRETSON: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.