Spring 2012, Vol. 14, No. 1

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Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog
on religion and politics 

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
    It's Baaack...

Religion and the Awakening

Repaving the Arab Street

Bishops in the Dock

Faithless Ireland

No Love for

The New Dominionist Politics


Without Benefit of Clergy

Cirque d'OCA

No Standing for It







by Matthew Sutton

Last May 21, thousands of Christians expected to be raptured to heaven. As they prepared to leave this world, millions of Americans followed their story. Some pitied the faithful while others playfully mocked them with Rapture parties, apocalyptic playlists, and humorous tweets. Some of the more creative inflated blow-up dolls with helium and released them to the heavens.

At the center of the drama was Harold Camping, an elderly radio preacher from Oakland, California, whose apocalyptic pronouncements—along with his and his followers’ media savvy—helped make a failed Rapture one of the most intriguing religion news stories of the year.  

Born in Southern California in 1921, Camping went to U.C. Berkeley, where he received a degree in civil engineering. After World War II, he began a successful construction business while belonging to a congregation of the Christian Reformed Church—the small evangelical denomination with roots in Dutch Calvinism.

In 1958, Camping and a couple of friends formed an evangelistic radio ministry, which they called Family Radio. Eventually he sold his construction business and went to work at the ministry as a full-time volunteer. (To this day he has never taken a salary.) In 1961, he began “Open Forum,” a live weeknight call-in show where he discussed questions about Christianity and the Bible.

Family Radio now owns 140 radio stations in the U.S. and translates Camping’s show into dozens of foreign languages. Open Forum is broadcast internationally via shortwave and fans can also follow it live on the Family Radio web site ( 

Camping’s career as a predictor of the Rapture began in 1992, when he announced to his radio audience that after a lifetime of intense study he had decoded secret numerical messages hidden throughout the King James Bible. The messages indicated that the Rapture would happen on September 6, 1994, and that shortly thereafter God would judge the world. Camping laid out his argument in a volume entitled 1994? The book became a brief media sensation, earning him an appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live.

When the 1994 date came and went, Camping explained that he had made a slight miscalculation, and he spent the next few years working out new numbers. In due course, he settled on May 21, 2011 as the Rapture’s correct date, with the Last Judgment to follow on October 21.

On New Year’s Day 2010, one of the first substantial articles to discuss Camping’s predictions, by Justin Berton of the San Francisco Chronicle, took a stab at explaining the calculations behind the dates, although as historian Paul Boyer later told the Washington Post’s Michael S. Rosenwald, Camping “seems to be the only one who understands the equation.”

Initially, the story gained little traction. But things changed when some of Camping’s followers decided to get the message out themselves.

That summer, a young Army veteran, Marie Exley of Colorado Springs, bought advertising space on 10 bus benches in her community to announce the Rapture date. Then she took Camping’s message on the road with a group of like-minded evangelists. Neither Family Radio nor Camping himself had anything to do with the initiative.

As more and more of Camping’s followers found novel ways of announcing the coming End Times, journalists began to take note. In November 2010, Larry Mitchell of the Chico (Ca) Enterprise-Record reported that five “colorfully painted” RVs were parked at a local mall. Each bore the words: “Have you heard the awesome news? The end of the world is almost here. The Bible guarantees it. It begins on May 21, 2011.” The RVs had been caravanning throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The following month, religion reporter Bob Smietana informed readers of the Tennessean of the appearance of Rapture billboards in Nashville, paid for by “fans” of Family Radio. Then the AP picked up the story, reporting on billboards in a handful of other American cities. It was about that time that I stumbled upon some of Camping’s followers as they were distributing literature in a subway terminal in Manhattan. Later, I saw one of their billboards in rural northern Idaho where I was camping (not “Camping”) with my family.

Christians throughout history have regularly grown obsessed with the End Times and the Second Coming of Jesus. Only rarely, however, do they set a precise date and dedicate themselves to preparing for it. The most famous example of a failed End Times prophecy in U.S. history occurred when a self-educated farmer named William Miller came to believe that Jesus would return sometime in 1843.

Like Camping, Miller had innovative followers who spread his views throughout the country. When nothing happened, Miller’s followers recalculated, determining that October 2, 1844 was the correct date. Jesus’ failure to return then was dubbed by these “Adventists” as the “Great Disappointment.” Some of them went on to found the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Although most journalists focused exclusively on the contemporary scenario, a few did try to put the story into historical context by comparing Camping to Miller. In fact, the Oakland preacher’s predictions tapped into an interest in the imminent return of Christ that has been more or less constant feature of American evangelicalism since the 1880s.

Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham, and Jerry Falwell (to name just a few of the most prominent evangelical leaders) have all predicted that the Rapture was soon to come. The success of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth in the 1970s and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series in the 1990s testifies to the power of apocalyptic evangelicalism. In 2010, a Pew Research Center poll found that 41 percent of Americans believed that Jesus would return by 2040.

But Camping differs from mainstream evangelicalism in important ways. He severed his membership with the Christian Reformed Church in 1988 and has long since abandoned traditional evangelical theology. His interpretations of Scripture are novel; his predictions, controversial.

In fact, most of the coverage accurately noted that although Camping was rooted in American evangelicalism, he did not represent the movement. Jill Mahoney of the Toronto Globe and Mail used the strongest language, describing Family Radio as “a fringe group” and an “extremist” organization. Nevertheless, evangelical blogs repeatedly complained that journalists were using Camping to embarrass all conservative Christians. Tim LaHaye himself told the Washington Post’s Rosenwald that Camping was lucky he was not living in Old Testament times, where the punishment for false prophecy was stoning.

As the predicted day approached, Camping’s followers spent vast sums of money on tracts, billboards, benches, and RVs to advertise their message. By May, they had printed over 100 million pamphlets in 61 languages and raised 5,500 billboards in the U.S. and abroad.

Journalists responded in turn with increased coverage—mostly brief explanations of Camping’s views juxtaposed with responses from skeptics. Little space was devoted to the Camping ministry or the history that gave rise to it.

There were exceptions. As the Rapture date approached, the Washington Post ran pieces by Rosenwald and Kimberly Winston that, with the help of leading scholars, put Camping into a larger historical and sociological context. New York magazine also provided thorough coverage, running Dan Amira’s interview with Camping in May and a long, thoughtful analytical story by Dan P. Lee in October.

But no one spent a lot of time on Camping’s followers. Although many articles included brief profiles of one or two of the faithful, they provided little overall sense of exactly who these men and women were.

In the most extensive report on the followers, in the New York Times May 19, Ashley Parker focused on the economic and emotional costs to families preparing for the Rapture. Parker also documented the risky financial decisions made by those who had budgeted all of their money to last until exactly May 21. In a post-“Rapture” report on NPR May 23, Barbara Bradley-Hagerty summarized his followers as “a pretty eclectic group”—teachers, authors, military people, federal workers, and businessmen.

Skeptics did wonder if Camping was playing on the fears of his followers for personal financial gain, but there was no evidence of this. In 2009, he had actually loaned the ministry $175,516, according to an IRS document obtained by the New York Times. Journalists consistently concluded that Camping was a sincere man living a humble life, even if he was sincerely wrong.

In every interview with reporters as well as on his radio program, Camping expressed no doubts whatsoever about what was going to happen. He explained that Christians would experience a rolling Rapture that would start near 6 p.m. in the South Pacific and then move west around the globe. That meant that his followers in California would be able to watch the event on their televisions as it approached them from earlier time zones.

On May 21, cable news as well as print and Internet media followed the story closely. Camping stories shot to the top of the “most read” and “most e-mailed” lists on some of the nation’s largest news websites.

The New Republic’s Tiffany Stanley, trying to make sense of the intense interest, insightfully concluded that “many of us are intrigued voyeurs, gleeful in knowing the exact day when these people will experience their life’s greatest disappointment. We feel superior, knowing that even though they told us we were heading for death and destruction, now, they get theirs.” But then she turned the table on her readers. “We might ask ourselves not what is wrong with this sad group of apocalyptic believers, but rather what is wrong with a society that takes such pleasure in their dysfunction.”

In the aftermath, a lot of critics complained that the media had given an obscure group living on the religious margins too much attention. But NPR’s Bradley-Hagerty wisely explained, “There are billboards everywhere, there are caravans everywhere, people are handing out pamphlets. It’s a news story. It’s a religion news story, and I think I would not be doing my job if I wasn’t reporting on this.”

Although the Rapture did not take place, Camping stuck by his calculations. He admitted that it had been a “tough” weekend and that he had been partially mistaken. He had expected the Rapture to be physical; instead, a spiritual judgment had occurred.

In June, he suffered a stroke. As he recovered, he reiterated his commitment to October 21 as the date the world would end—but to the surprise of New York magazine’s Dan P. Lee, now used the world “probably.”

Come the fall, lightning did not strike twice. No followers put up billboards or benches, or toured the country in RVs. And the predictions received far less media attention.

When the apocalypse once again failed to materialize, Camping apologized in a five-minute recording posted on his website. He also vowed to continue studying the Bible in order to work out the correct numbers. He still believes that he will get the math—and the Rapture date—right.  

Only after the second failed Apocalypse and the apology did a major paper finally run an opinion piece that made full historical sense of Camping’s movement. In a smart op-ed in the November 6 Los Angeles Times, medieval historian Jay Rubenstein showed how it fit into 1,000 years of millenarian expectations. “Hope for doomsday,” Rubenstein wryly noted, “springs eternal.”

Not for Camping himself, however, In his ministry’s “March 2012” letter, Camping announced that his previous prediction was an “incorrect and sinful statement,” and, amidst a bevy of profound apologies, said that he would be refraining from making any further predictions. “We have learned the very painful lesson that all of creation is in God’s hands and he will end time in his time, not ours!”

Yet only a few of those who hope for doomsday have been willing to accept Rapture dates, quit their jobs, and disburse their worldly possessions. End Times 2011 was one of only a few such episodes in Western history. How to explain it?The global economic recession—to say nothing of the decade-long U.S. “war on terror” and a series of natural disasters—had perhaps convinced many Christians that they were living in the Last Days. And while we do not have any data on the politics of Camping’s followers, his own social and moral outlook is conventionally conservative.

On the evangelical fringe, President Obama has been regarded as a forerunner of the Antichrist if not the Antichrist himself. It is not improbable that, for at least some of the Camping faithful, the predicted Rapture fit into an End Times scenario that had the nation’s first black leader—and suspected foreign-born Muslim—at its center. 

We may hope that students of new religious movements are even now at work interviewing Camping’s followers to understand how they came to be convinced by an old man’s math to buy the billboards and drive the RVs and prepare themselves for Armageddon. And we will want to know how they are doing now—now that they have experienced their own Great Disappointment.

Will they fade quickly into the great American mainstream? Or will these Campingites, like the Millerites of yore, gather together and form themselves into a new denomination of Adventists?


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