The Seeker: Mormons don’t play the Judgment Day game

As reported in today’s Chicago Tribune, Harold Camping, an 89-year old Christian radio host in California, has popularized the idea that the Rapture will occur on May 21, 2011. Camping’s idea has gone viral; a Google search of the date turns up page after page of websites dedicated to this notion. My impression is that previous failures have pretty much cured Mormons from wanting to play this game.

The first thing I thought of when I saw this claim was William Miller, a New York farmer who taught that the Lord would return sometime between March 21, 1843 and that same date in 1844. When it didn’t happen, the date was revised to April 18, 1844, and when that didn’t happen, the date was revised further to October 22, 1844. The failure of any of these dates to pan out resulted in what scholars of American religious history have dubbed the “Great Disappointment.”

Mormons believe in the second coming, but not in the Rapture as such. The official position of the Church has always been grounded in Matthew 24:36: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” But that consistent official position hasn’t stopped individual Mormons from speculating on the question.

Joseph Smith, another farmer who cut his religious teeth on the Burned Over District of upstate New York, had a spiritual experience about this matter (almost certainly in the context of rejecting Millerism), which is recounted in Doctrine & Covenants 130:14-17.

“I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of the coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a voice repeat the following:

‘Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter.’

I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face.

I believe the coming of the Son of Man will not be any sooner than that time.”

Although the experience was completely ambiguous and Joseph himself was not really sure what it meant, many 19th century Mormons concluded that the second coming would occur in 1890 or 1891, for had Joseph lived his 85th birthday would have been December 23, 1890. That of course didn’t happen.

More recently, there was a common folk belief among many Mormons that the second coming would come in the year 2000, apparently on the theory that God has the same fascination with round numbers as we humans do (and the Y2K paranoia of the time didn’t help matters any). Of course, that didn’t pan out either. But there was no Great Disappointment in the Mormon tradition, since the people who drew these connections realized that they were not church teachings and that they were on their own in coming up with such beliefs.

My impression is that the failures of either 1890 or 2000 to materialize have made Mormons quite happy to return to the scriptural standard that “of that day and hour knoweth no man.”

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