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Apocalypses now? An unflinching look at the end of the world

Posted on Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm

By John Coffelt, Staff Writer

 Poet Robert Frost has the world’s end by passion’s fire rather than Dante’s ice, but when it comes to an exact date, some say that the Maya have pegged it to coincide with the end of their calendar cycle on Dec. 21.

As we count down the days until the (ominous?) date, let’s look more closely at doomsday and some of the predictions others have made in the past.

In 1966, Sociologist John Lofland gave the phenomena of dooms-daters a somewhat official title in his book “Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith,” during his study of members of the Unification Church (better known as Moonies) under the leadership of Sun Myung Moon, who died this past September.

Lofland figured there were seven common characteristics of his doomsday cults. They all seem to have acutely felt tension, a religious problem-solving perspective, religious seekership and experience a turning point. The members also develop affective bonds within the cult and while are neutralized of extra-cult attachments.

Lofland’s subject had the world’s end at the turn of the millennia.

The years following Loflans book were a busy time for apocalypse groups. In 1967 alone, two dates were set by would-be sages. One was announced for Aug. 20 by George Van Tassel, a UFO-ologist    who, according to “A Brief History of the Apocalypse,” claimed to have gotten the date from an alien named Ashtar.

Danish cult leader Knud Weiking disagreed, saying that Christmas of 1967 was the date, on the word of his extra-earthly source whom he named Orthon.

The two leaders, however, agreed (although they didn’t know each other) that nuclear war would be the cause.

In the months following August of 1969, the world learned of Helter Skelter and Charles Manson’s take the end by an impending race war.

Unbeknownst to Manson, George Williams, leader of the Morrisites, long before set his date as Aug. 9 (coincidentally the morning after the Sharon Tate murders), or so said Thomas Robbins, in his book “Millennium, Messiahs and Mayhem.”

Would-be prophet Jim Jones told his early followers that a nuclear holocaust would consume the world in 1967.

His self-fulfilled prophesy of the Peoples Temple’s end wouldn’t come to past for over a decade with the mass suicide of Nov. 18, 1978, in Guyana, South America.

The 20th century wasn’t the beginning for groups predicting the end of the world.   And not all who claim to know the date seem to have malicious intentions.

Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, famous for painting among other things “The Birth of Venus,” thought that he was living during the tribulation, back in the 16th century, according to Harvard historian Eugene Weber.

In an inscription on “The Mystical Nativity,” Botticelli wrote, “This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I Alessandro painted … during the fulfillment of the eleventh chapter of St. John in the second woe of the apocalypse.”

While pretty sure about Botticelli’s views, scholars are at odds about French Renaissance seer and faith healer Michel Nostradamus’ predictions about Armageddon.

Author William Ray, in “The 100 Most Entertaining Predictions about the 21st Century” claims the famed prophet pegged the date as occurring in 1999, while others extend the date out to the year 3797, but if you trust urban legends, he really meant 2012 (since the Y2K thing didn’t work out).

One of the more interesting footnotes in apocalyptic lore is Joanna Southcott, who lived in the village of Gittisham in Devon, England from 1750 to 1814.

Stephen Skinner in “Millennium Prophecies” explains that Southcott in 1792, believed she had supernatural powers, so she left her affiliation with the Church of England, to begin writing prophecies in rhyme.

According to Skinner, Southcott claimed to be the woman referred to in Revelation 12:1-6.

At age 64 and claiming to be a virgin, she announced she was pregnant with a new messiah that would rule the new millennia.

She died on the projected day of the birth, Dec. 25, 1814.  Postmortem examinations indicated that she had not been pregnant.

Even early-American puritan minister Coton Mather, who incidentally was an outspoken ally of the witch trials of Salem, Mass., had a thing or to say about the end of the world.

He saw the alleged witches as being possessed by the devil, an earthquake of 1663 and a passing comet of 1682 as signs foretold in Revelations.

Richard Abanes writes that Mather tried three times to nail the end of the world: once in 1697, again 1716 and a final time in 1736.

The United States government has officially chimed in on the apocalypse.

A story on, the U.S. government’s official web portal, brazenly tells the American public that the new year will arrive without any cataclysmic events.

“The world will not end on December 21, 2012, or any day in 2012,” the site says.

“False rumors,” it continues,” about the end of the world in 2012 have been commonplace on the Internet for some time. Many of these rumors involve the Mayan calendar ending in 2012 (it won’t), a comet causing catastrophic effects (definitely not), a hidden planet sneaking up and colliding with us (no and no), and many others.”

If the fed’s assurances don’t comfort you, take Manchester Times reader Rory Means’ light-hearted perspective, “[The] Maya can go to Coffee County Funeral Home and just get a new 2013 calendar. They[’re] giving [them] away for free.”

John Coffelt can be reached at