As turn of the century nears, cults dig in for 'The End' 'Apocalyptic dread' encompasses New Age, religious true believers

March 15, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

Far beyond the bullet-spattered walls of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, true believers of everything from New Age theory to New Testament prophecy are digging in for "The End" as the year 2000 approaches, say academics and others who track cults.

The millennial calendar alone would be enough to trigger extra edginess among such groups, but ill portents of everything from environmental disaster to rising lawlessness also are prompting some to contemplate the coming of the apocalypse or the end of time.

Even though it's doubtful that many groups will display the firepower or violence of David Koresh and his Branch Davidians, the authorities say it is probable that more will begin hunkering down within compounds and isolated communities.

"They're getting more intense," says Ted Daniels, who tracks the activities of such groups in his publication, Millennium News, "and there are hints more people are getting ready to do what Koresh has done, though not necessarily with arms, just by moving into compounds and withdrawing from the world at large, taking the attitude of, 'We're sitting it out until The End.' "

One group that has already attracted attention is the Church Universal and Triumphant, a New Age movement that was settled on a ranch in the hills of Montana by its appropriately named leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet. The group had stockpiled weapons and built a giant bomb shelter in anticipation of a nuclear holocaust in the spring of 1990, and it remains settled down for the long haul after that date passed without incident.

On Oct. 28, thousands of South Korean members of the Dami Missionary Church gathered for doomsday, only to be disappointed. Some members emerged from their churches in tears after the appointed hour passed, proclaiming that God had deceived them.

As the next seven years tick by, "I think we're going to see more and more of that," says Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Cult Awareness Network, a national organization that monitors groups such as the Davidians.

Predictions of apocalypse are hardly new. Just about every age has its doomsayers, and there have been hundreds of episodes in which prophets have gathered their flocks to await the apocalypse, only to be greeted by the embarrassment of another sunrise.

But the recent increase in such notions is noteworthy, scholars and researchers say, and it can be explained simply by looking at the calendar. Many groups, religious or not, view the countdown to the millennium as the winding down of a cosmic clock, with all sorts of calamities likely to be triggered right up to the finish.

"I believe that we can detect within Western culture a strong apocalyptic dread going back for at least the last 10 or 15 years," says Richard Dowhower, a Lutheran minister in Bowie who sits on the advisory board of the Cult Awareness Network.

Similar fears occurred as the first millennium neared its end, historians say.

"From about the year 950 to 1000, there was a real closing down of cultural activities in the monasteries, which is where most of the cultural activity was then," says Charles Strozier, a history professor at John Jay College, City University of New York, who is writing a book, "The Apocalyptic Imagination."

This time around, there is more reason for belief in the apocalypse if one is already inclined that way.

"In the nuclear age, it doesn't take an act of imagination to envision the end," Mr. Strozier says. "It's scientifically possible, and that makes it more real for ordinary people. Environmentalists warning of global warming and ozone depletion also contribute to the fears, he says.

Little wonder, then, that the dread began to peak in the 1970s, while the Cold War was chilly enough to convince people that somebody in either the Soviet Union or the United States might push "the button." How else to explain the popularity then of the book "The Late Great Planet Earth," which the New York Times called the best-selling nonfiction book of the decade, even though author Hal Lindsey blew it on his prediction of an Armageddon by the mid-1980s.

Mr. Lindsey has since updated his predictions, and another author's book, "Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis," sold a million copies months before and during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

Polls consistently show that many fundamentalist Christians believe such predictions are on the right track. And, given the Christian notions of Armageddon and "the rapture" -- the moment when believers are supposed to be called suddenly to heaven -- are at "the heart and soul of fundamentalism," Mr. Strozier says, "then you're more likely to have eruptions of fanaticism at the extreme wing" as 2000 draws near.

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