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
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
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 (http://www.familyradio.com/).
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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?