Looking into the past for clues to the future Millennium: As the year 2000 approaches, some say the end of the world is near. But folks having been saying that every thousand years or so.

September 23, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Yes, The End Is Near, but maybe not quite as close as the year 2000.

"Irrelevant," says the Rev. Joseph Gallagher, who's writing a book on the Apocalypse, of the looming date.

"It's just another thousand years," says Gerard Wertkin, the director of New York's Museum of American Folk Art and an authority on the millennial expectations of Shakers and other true believers.

Gallagher and Wertkin teamed up yesterday to expound on their own visions of the millennium, the Apocalypse, belief and prophecy for a conference at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum. About 60 people paid $10 each to join in, then tour the current show called "The End is Near," about 250 works focusing on the "visionary's preoccupation with the Apocalypse."

Surrounded by mystical images of the final days, Gallagher, of Baltimore, a priest for 43 years with a reputation as an independent intellectual, discoursed on the last book of the New Testament, which Roman Catholics call Apocalypse; Protestants, Revelation; and millennialists, prophecy.

The apostle John, who was probably a Hebrew convert to Christianity, he says, wrote the Apocalypse about the year 100 while a religious exile, a protester, on the penal island of Patmos.

"He has this vision on Sunday," Gallagher says. "That's the first reference in all of literature to Sunday as the Holy Day, rather than the Jewish Sabbath. He's taken up to heaven and he sees what's going to happen soon."

John the Divine, as he is styled in the names of numerous churches and cathedrals, reported his heavenly visit in bad Greek and a labyrinth of symbols, which visionaries have been interpreting ever since.

"There's no reference to 'promise,' " Gallagher says. "There's no reference to 2000. It's a very interpretive state of mind to say the end is coming."

That doesn't trouble the visionary mind. To Gallagher's right, Frank Bruno's triptych of abstractions depicts the famous moment from Revelation when the Lamb opens the first of the seven seals, "Behold, the white horse," like a post-modern altarpiece.

In another gallery, he and Wertkin are photographed before the McKendree Robbins Long swirling painting of "Death Rides the White Horse," depicting one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with the legions of Hades following after.

"When you have these 144,000 people who are going to be signed with the sign of the Messiah and will be saved," Gallagher says, recalling the 14th verse of Revelation, "that's really a lot of people. Some people say, 'Oh, only 144,000?' Well, there were only 8,000 Christians [at the time]."

Gerard Wertkin's Shakers, the celibate sect whose gift to be simple inspired Aaron Copland and generations of furniture makers, certainly thought they were among the 144,000 saved.

"The Shakers called themselves the Millennial Church," Wertkin says. They started computing the arrival of the Apocalypse from the first "gathering" of Shakers in 1747.

"They were ready to create the Kingdom of God where women were equal to men here and now," he says. They were a church led to America from England in 1774 by "Mother" Ann Lee. "God is understood not simply in male terms, but God now can be fully understood as mother and father."

Wertkin, who is the author of "The Four Seasons of Shaker Life," says the religion that flourished in the first half of the 19th century has just seven followers today.

"Services are still held in a meeting house built in 1794. To me it's a kind of miracle," he says. "They still hold within themselves of the hope of the kind of redemption promised in the millennium."

But so far, millennialists have all suffered the fate of William Miller, who charted the end of the world in 1833, or 1834, from computations based on the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation.

"He died a disappointed man," Wertkin says.

Pub Date: 9/23/97

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