History’s biggest doomsday duds (after the Mayan apocalypse)

As the world waits for the alleged Mayan apocalypse on Friday, Constitution Daily looks back at some doomsday predictions that fell flat in the course of American history.

Halley's Comet on the Bayeux Tapestry

If you haven’t been the following this developing story from home, some people think that based on interpretations of the ancient Mayan calendar, the world could be coming to an end, as we know it, on December 21, 2012.

While the prediction has been met with skepticism, the concept of a Mayan apocalypse has been a marketing godsend for businesses trying to capitalize on “Maya Mania.”

Reality TV networks have been bombarding viewers with all types of Mayan-themed shows, such as a special edition of Doomsday Preppers. And yes, History Channel is running a special apocalypse countdown on its History 2 channel on Thursday night! (Obviously, History Channel is hedging its bets by running a program on doomsday prophecies on its main channel.)

Scientists discount the stories as nothing more than an Internet-based hoax.

“It’s clear to me that most of the messages are based on what people are seeing on the Internet, and they’re seeing hoaxes,” said David Morrison, a planetary NASA astronomer, told ABC News.

And one scientist says he found Mayan calendar markings in Guatemala this year that clearly indicate the ancient Maya extended their calendars out 7,000 years from the year we know as 2012.

No one but the ancient Maya themselves probably really understood the intricacies of their calendar system. The descents of the Maya living in Guatemala are among the skeptics, and they are also upset that the doomsday folks are profiting from the prediction.

“We are speaking out against deceit, lies and twisting of the truth, and turning us into folklore-for-profit. They are not telling the truth about time cycles,” said Felipe Gomez, a Maya activist in Guatemala, in an October interview.

More than 100,000 tourists were expected to come to the impoverished nation in advance of December 21.

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But recent survey data show that 15 percent of Americans believe in some type of doomsday prophecy, and a look back at American history shows some widespread movements that firmly believed in the end of the world, as we know it.

For starters, some religions do believe in the concept of the end of days, or the Rapture, but most don’t believe they’ll be a lot of warning if or when that event happens.

In 1723, the theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote about the apocalypse, at the age of 19.  He said the events would start about 7,000 years after the creation of the world.

He was echoing predictions from Cotton Mather, another preacher who said the world would end in 1716. Mather updated his predictions until his death in 1728.

Edwards was a key figure in the First Great Awakening, which had ties to the growth of the revolutionary philosophy in America, which in turn led to the young nation’s breakaway from England. (As a footnote, Edwards’ grandson was Aaron Burr, the vice president who later killed Alexander Hamilton.)

A century later during the era of the Second Awakening, self-ordained prophet William Miller said that Jesus would return to Earth in March 1843. Miller spent 12 years prior to 1843 speaking about his prophecy, which he based on Biblical calculations.

Miller had about 100,000 followers, and after some adjustments, the date was shifted to October 22, 1844.

The day came and went, and was called the “Great Disappointment” by Miller’s followers. The current Seventh-day Adventist Church has roots tied to the “Millerites” who disbanded after the Great Disappointment.

There was also another major doomsday prophecy tied to Halley’s Comet in 1910. French astronomer Camille Flammarion was among those who believed the comet’s tail contained poison gases that would kill all life on Earth.

Believers bought gas masks and “comet pills,” and held their collective breaths as the comet came and passed. Others stayed home from work or stayed inside churches during the event.

But not all doomsday prophecies are grounded in religion. Two recent events have roots in some types of science.

The “Y2K” scare of 1999 was based on predictions that programming errors, which never accounted for the year 2000 in millions of computer-based programs, would wreak global havoc at the end of that year.

The dire consequences, believers said, were unknown. But little happened to the global computing system as the world entered the 21st century, after companies spent millions of dollars rewriting software.

And then there was the black hole scare related to the supercollider near Switzerland. Some people believed the Large Hadron Collider would create a huge black hole that would engulf the Earth. As of late 2012, the Collider was running without incident.

If you are reading this story on December 22, it’s highly likely that the Mayan apocalypse was a dud. How it ranks with the other scares listed above remains to be seen.

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