The following is part of John Gorenfeld’s article “‘End of the World Prophet Found in Error, Not Insane': A Failed Prophet’s Survival Handbook,” one of over 40 articles in the Disinformation anthology, Everything You Know About God Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Religion, edited by Russ Kick. For more on John Gorenfeld, check out www.gorenfeld.net.
Thought about becoming an end-of-the-world prophet? It’s not the make-or-break enterprise you might think, as much as your gut feeling may be that mobs of angry parishioners await the fortune-teller who talks them into making room on the calendar for the final trumpets, the Rapture, World War III, the return of Jesus, global computer meltdowns, or post-game shows on life hosted by great messiahs stepping out of the pages of history — only for the poor dupes to find themselves paying bills the next week.
Time and again, it hasn’t worked that way. The beauty of blown prophecies is that failure is the beginning of success. That is, if you adopt the techniques of history’s most successful faulty prophets. Through time-tested rebranding methods, they’ve reinvented failure as proof that they were righter than anyone could have imagined.
The very glue holding your congregation together can be a mistaken prediction and what you’ve invested in it. Thousands of apostles of Shaini Goodwin of Tacoma, Washington, known to admirers as the “Dove of Oneness” and to the Tacoma News Tribune as a “cybercult queen,” hold out for a Judgment Day that will justify all of her bad guesses.
Every year is supposed to be the year it happens: the revelation of NESARA (the National Economic Security and Reformation Act), a secret bill purportedly signed by President Bill Clinton. We are just a hair’s breadth away. When the gag order is lifted, NESARA will free the world from debt, stop the Iraq War, and — according to one Utah group of adherents, filmed in the documentary Waiting for NESARA — unmask Republicans as space aliens masquerading as fiscal conservatives.
For other bad prophets, it turns out it’s the thought that counts. Maybe the seer was on the right track but just jumped the gun, the sense is, and interest heightens in the original questions he raised. Just consider theologian William Miller. His followers believed his prediction — based on calculations he derived from the Book of Daniel — that Jesus would return between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. This misfire was soon followed by the Great Disappointment of 1844, when a crowd of 100,000 people, many of them sober, respectable reformers and abolitionists, assembled to see the end-times that Samuel S. Snow, a Millerite (that is, a follower of Miller), had marked down for the 22nd of October. Supposedly using a more precise version of Miller’s formula, Snow had worked out the exact day, and after some initial hesitancy Miller enthusiastically endorsed this specific prediction. As the clock ticked and everyone waited awkwardly for Christ, someone pointed out that the Holy Land had a seven-hour time difference. The sting of failure was worse for all the mockery they took from the townspeople: “What, not gone up yet?”
No, they were still here. For now. And yet Miller’s bad guesses, far from leaving a foul taste in everyone’s mouth, made them newly anxious about the great return they’d prepared themselves for. It even inspired the creation of new denominations, including the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a church that has since slated Jesus’ return for 1874, 1914, 1918, 1941, 1954, and 1975. And Miller awakened the fascination with the Rapture that today drives sales of Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind books, which sell in the tens of millions, several years after the year 2000 failed to deliver on the millennial holocaust of non-Christians wished for by many Americans.
How can your sect rebound from failed prophecy in better shape than ever? According to one school of science, the answer starts with understanding the principle of cognitive dissonance.
Read the entire article and many others in the Disinformation anthology Everything You Know About God Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Religion, edited by Russ Kick, available on Amazon and in all good bookstores.
About The Author: John Gorenfeld is a writer living in San Francisco. His work has appeared on Salon.com, the Guardian and other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News and CSPAN. In 2004 Gorenfeld made national news after exposing a secret Capitol Hill party for a cult leader, and then wrote a book about it.