Apocalypse Now


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Harold Camping expected a spectacular death. He thought he would see horses and towering flames. Instead Harold Camping fell down at home last month at the age of 92 and never got up again.

Judgment Day is upon us, the radio evangelist proclaimed a few years ago, setting May 21, 2011 as the date. All across America, billboards became Camping advertisements for Apocalypse. “Cry mightily unto GOD for HIS Mercy” was one suggestion, “Joy to the World” claimed another. All across the nation, there were Americans who laughed, and those who readied themselves. Camping’s believers stopped paying their credit cards, quit their jobs, said farewell to friends. Some spent their life’s savings in preparation for the End — some spent it on the Rapture campaign itself.

When Judgment Day did not come, Camping tried to assuage believers. “Please forgive me, America!” a new billboard read. “I was terribly wrong about … May 21, 2011. There is forgiveness in those who trust in Jesus Christ.” Then he said that he had gotten the timing wrong and that the End would, in fact, happen in October. But October passed the same as ever and then Harold Camping had a stroke. By that time, accounts of thousands who had mistakenly given up their Earthly existence came pouring through the news. “Yet though we were wrong,” wrote Camping in a letter to his Family Radio Family, “God is still using the May 21 warning in a very mighty way.” Look at the millions and billions of people who heard the message of Christ’s imminent return, Harold Camping wrote. And he would still come, Camping assured us.

Reporters and Average Joes expressed outrage at Camping’s Rapture campaign. Camping’s followers were treated in the media as ridiculous and occasionally as tragic, Camping as a fraud and a heretic. The whole thing is an anomaly, the American media told the world, America is not like this.

But America is like this, and it always has been.

America is a nation rooted in Apocalypse. The very foundation of the nation is tied to the End Times. Apocalypse is in America’s DNA. When the Puritans stepped out into the bitter wilds of New England they brought with them the forecast of annihilation. These exiles came to America not to delight in religious freedom but to ring in the last of days. “The Judge draws nigh, exalted high upon a lofty Throne,” wrote Puritan poet Michael Wigglesworth.

Amidst the throng of Angels strong,
lo, Israel’s Holy One!
The excellence of whose presence
and awful Majesty,
Amazeth Nature, and every Creature,
doth more than terrify. …
Before his Throne a Trump is blown,
Proclaiming th’ Day of Doom:
Forthwith he cries, Ye Dead arise,
and unto Judgment come.
No sooner said, but ’tis obey’d;
Sepulchers open’d are:
Dead Bodies all rise at his call,
and’s mighty power declare.

In the mid-19th century, William Miller’s obscure Millennialist movement became a national campaign. His prophecy that Christ would return to Earth around 1843 or 1844 came to be known as the Great Disappointment. Some of Miller’s followers went to live with the Shakers (who didn’t need to wait for the new Millennium as they believed it had already come) and the rest formed an entirely new religion and called themselves Adventists. David Berg told us the End would come in 1973 and Pat Robertson guaranteed that 1982 would bring “a judgment on the world”. Reverend Bill Maupin from Tuscon, Arizona preached of a rapture that would happen on June 28, 1981. 50 Arizonians gathered at Maupin’s house to be “spirited aloft like helium balloons.”

There is one thing that unites all of these Apocalyptic Americans. They do not see America as a place to create a new civilization. They see America as a place to settle into a wilderness of the soul.

In 1693, Magister Johannes Kelpius got on a boat to the New World. Kelpius was not going to America to make a new life for himself. He was going to watch life end.

The young Transylvanian was just 22. Behind him, Kelpius left a comfortable life of academic excellence and a prominent clerical family. With him, Kelpius took a profound faith and a small band of fellow believers. Johannes Kelpius boarded in London and headed to the new Province of Pennsylvania across the sea. In his Diarium, Johannes Kelpius recorded details of the journey. Like most ocean voyages back then, the experience was hell: lost anchors, devouring winds, a battle with a French vessel.
Upon the open seas, Johannes Kelpius thought about home, and about exile. Earlier that year, the young scholar had fallen under the spell of Johann Jacob Zimmerman, a prominent astronomer and scholar. Zimmerman had lost his position as Lutheran minister in 1685 due to his habit of criticizing the state church and, moreover, his insistence that the Apocalypse would occur in the autumn of 1694. His radical Chapter of Perfection sect read sacred scripture alongside works of astrology and numerology, the Kabbalah and the writings of Jakob Böhme, a German shoemaker and mystic. After working out the numbers, Zimmerman thought that America — in particular the city of Philadelphia, a sparsely settled refuge at the edge of the forest — would be the best place to experience the Apocalypse. Indeed, the whole American project seemed to Zimmerman a practical invitation to the End Times. In the secluded woods surrounding Philadelphia, Zimmerman’s Pietists would live in celibate simplicity, anxiously waiting for “that happy day,” wrote follower Johann Gottfried Seelig, “which when its new Earth swallows all that forementioned Floud and where its glorious Sun causeth all other Stars and Phoenomena to disappear, no Night succeeds it, but that the Night is swallowed up in ye Day, Darkness into Light, Death into Life, Judgment into Victory, Justice into Mercy, all imperfect Metals into Gold, and Gold itself is refined seven times, and all Churches and Virgins comprised into the one Dove …. the Sons of God will shout for joy as they did in the Beginning, when God was all in all, as he will be all in all, when again the Earth hath found its beginning.”

In the New World these Philadelphia mystics would become known alternately as The Hermits of the Wissahickon, The Hermits of the Ridge, The Mystic Brotherhood, The Society of the Woman in the Wilderness.

Just before they were about to set sail from Rotterdam, Johann Jacob Zimmerman died, leaving Johannes Kelpius leader of the Society. Johannes Kelpius gathered his followers about him and said goodbye to his European home forever. A few weeks later, floating between future and past, Kelpius quoted a passage from Seneca in his diary:

I cannot go beyond my country; it is the one of all; no one can be banished outside of this. My country is not forbidden to me, but only a locality. Into whatever land I come, I come into my own: none is exile, but only another country. My country is wherever it is well; for if one is wise he is a traveler; if foolish an exile. The great principle of virtue is, as he said, a mind gradually trained first to barter visible and transitory things, that it may afterwards be able to give them up. He is delicate to whom his country is sweet; but he is strong to whom every single thing is his country; indeed he is perfect to whom the world is exile.

Johannes Kelpius was never looking for a home in America; he was looking to make himself homeless in the world, and in doing so, ready himself for heaven.

We are taught that America began as a home for exiles — but what does that really mean? The words “home” and “exile” are as seemingly opposed as two words could be. For Johannes Kelpius, those coming to America to make it into their home were missing the point. Kelpius saw America as temporary and transitory, a mere pit stop between the world and a more eternal Home.

Kelpius’ Apocalyptic approach to life does not seem conducive to building monuments or governments or making sure credit card debts are paid. And yet, it is interesting to note that the first mission of Kelpius and his monks when they came to Philadelphia was to build an Hermitage of stone. Though they intended to live there in solitude, the monks — respected scholars in Europe with training in medicine, science and music — found their lives immediately entangled with the small community of settlers around them. In the great hall of the Hermitage, they held public nondenominational religious services twice a day. The monks built a schoolhouse for the children of settlers and were consulted for medicinal cures. They offered all of their services for free and refused to trade for profit. In the evenings, the Monks of the Wissahickon would meditate and look through the telescope they had erected on the roof of the Hermitage. They followed the stars and waited patiently for all their efforts to be destroyed.

The impulse behind the building of Johannes Kelpius’ Hermitage is the same impulse that compelled Camping’s Family Radio to spend one hundred million dollars on billboards. Both are temporary monuments that hold inside them the tension between Earthly works and oblivion. That tension is always present for Americans who live life in the shadow of the Apocalypse, reminiscent of something the poet Issa once wrote, that the world is a world of dew “and yet, and yet…” No matter how developed America gets, for Apocalypticists she will always be a wilderness.• 21 January, 2014


Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany's selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.