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J. E. McReynolds: End times always on tap somewhere

Published: January 2, 2013

It's 5 o'clock somewhere, says the fellow who wants a head start on cocktail hour. It's always Armageddon somewhere, says Reason magazine's Jesse Walker, writing on man's fascination with mankind's demise.

Some people took seriously the alleged Mayan calendar prediction of the end of the world on Dec. 21. Some just used it as an excuse to start cocktail hour early. The rest of us made jokes. But Armageddon scenarios have been taken quite seriously through the years, often mixed with religious fervor or politicized blame-gaming.

“The closer you look at American history,” Walker writes for Reason's January issue, “the more it seems that someone somewhere is always in apocalyptic time. Sometimes the whole country seems to plunge in together, as in such convulsive periods as the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the aftermath of 9/11. Other times a distinct subculture detects an eschaton invisible to everyone else.”

Author Hilary Mantel picked up on this theme in “Wolf Hall,” her novel set in the Tudor era of England: “Some said the world would end in 1533. Last year had its adherents too. Why not this year? There is always somebody ready to claim that these are end times, and nominate his neighbor as the Antichrist.”

The Mayan myth boosted tourism in Central America, spawned a million jokes and left the world unchanged. Other end-time beliefs led to profound — and deadly — change. Walker notes the effects of such beliefs on the settlement of the New World. America was seen as the refuge from an Old World apocalypse. “God hath provided this place to be a refuge,” declared Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop, “for many whome he meanes to save out of the generall calamity.”

In the 19th century, the “Millerites” abandoned their New England homes and gathered to greet the end of the world. To quote Mark Twain's account, they “put on their ascension robes, took a tearful leave of their friends, and made ready to fly up to heaven at the first blast of the trumpet. But the angel did not blow it.'”

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