Every day it was him and his Bible. Years bled into each other, with old listeners coming back into the fold, new ones dropping by the dial and staying. Camping continued beseeching God, calculating, promising his listeners he was getting closer. About six years ago, it all began coming together. He realized that 7,000 years needed to pass between the Great Flood—whose year he calculated as 4990 B.C.—and the end. Which led him to 2011. He then applied to his equations “special” numbers rife with symbolism—5=atonement; 10=completeness; 17=Heaven; 23=destruction—uncovering “marvelous proofs.”
The article departs, happily, from the standard “aren’t these people total nutcases” mode in which such profiles are often written—it’s more a straight accounting of the life and work of Camping, a civil engineer by training who, after making some money in construction, became more and more interested in teasing hidden meaning from the Bible. “He approached the Bible as an engineer, like it was one massive equation that needed to be worked,” Dr. Robert Godfrey, the president of a California seminary and formerly a teenage follower of Camping, told Lee. It’s what led him to his overconfident predictions. Following the May misfire—after which the preacher’s faith remained unaffected; he simply thought he’d calculated incorrectly—he suffered a stroke, which Lee describes in a passage that seems to come closest to mocking Camping but remains, anyway, artfully written:
As Camping was eating, God entered his body—for it would have to have been this way, there was no other possibility—coalescing several cells into a tiny clot of lipids that traveled through his bloodstream by the beating of his heart to a narrow bend in a tiny vessel in his brain. As Shirley stood by him in the dining room, the ambulance en route, inside his skull, God began suffocating Camping’s brain cells.
Lee does an effective job of explaining the charismatic appeal of people like Harold Camping; toward the end of the story he narrows in on one character who’s been an on-again, off-again follower for decades, a former motorcycle gangster who credits the preacher with helping him kick a drug habit. There’s also, of course, a political appeal to Camping's work, and his end-of-the-world prophesying was accompanied by the usual concerns: “A reborn Israel was celebrating 40 years of re-existence without accepting Jesus Christ. The Christian churches had descended into the so-called charismatic movement under Satan’s occupation, embracing Christian rock and personal salvation and the ordination of women. Society had condoned divorce, birth control, and abortion. Worst of all, there was the appalling ascendancy of gays.”
It’s worth noting that millennialist thought—the strains of Christian thinking that embrace the impending end—hasn’t always been so conservative and reactionary. One early American rapture document was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe following a visit to a Union battlefield encampment. It was published on the cover of the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862. Ward Howe borrows heavily from that most apocalyptic of texts, the Book of Revelation—it’s where the “grapes of wrath” bit comes from—but she’s convinced that the Civil War, and the eventual northern victory, marks the arrival of justice on earth, in the form of Jesus Christ.
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
She later explained the process of writing the song, which she did over the course of a single night:
I went to bed and slept as usual, but awoke the next morning in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain. I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, I shall lose this if I don't write it down immediately. I searched for an old sheet of paper and an old stub of a pen which I had had the night before, and began to scrawl the lines almost without looking, as I learned to do by often scratching down verses in the darkened room when my little children were sleeping. Having completed this, I lay down again and fell asleep, but not before feeling that something of importance had happened to me.