I’m reading Bedlam London and Its Mad by Catherine Arnold. It tells the story of the notorious madhouse, rightly called Our Lady of Bethlehem Hospital, from the time of its foundation in the year 1247. It is a wonderful book and filled with hundreds of fascinating stories. Always on the lookout for a good lunatic, I loved the story of a Swiss Life Guardsman who predicted the end of the world in 1750 and caused a panic that started a mass evacuation of London and ended with him being locked away in Bedlam.
Jane Shaw in Miracles in Enlightenment England gives this prophet the name of Mitchell and the London Today website names him as William Bell. Catherine Arnold doesn’t name him at all but quotes the Whitehall Evening Post of 31 March 1750 which stated that he was Swiss and heir to a fortune. Any way, he was certainly a Life Guardsman (a member of the Household Cavalry).
In 1750, London was rocked by two earthquakes. The first was on 8 February, the second on the 8 March. Their being exactly one calendar month apart got the religious men talking. They were sure that the quakes were God’s punishment for the depravity of life in London. The Bishop of London, Thomas Sherlock, issued a pastoral letter and Charles Wesley preached about God’s displeasure. Upon hearing a sermon, poor William (let’s call him William because I want him to have a Christian name), became convinced that he had in fact caused the earthquake by a “ball of fire in his body and a sword that will cut demons in two.” He believed that a third earthquake would strike on the evening of the 4th or the morning of 5th April and that this one would swallow London whole. (Why he didn’t go for the obvious 8th, is beyond me. Perhaps his obscurity gave credence to the prophecy.) So many people believed the trustworthy Life Guardsman, that thousands fled London in the run-up to the 4th. The clergy urged Londoners not to panic, but they did. Horace Walpole noted that in the 3 days preceding the appointed hour, he counted 730 coaches passing Hyde Park.
William was locked up in Bedlam, poor thing. Conditions were beyond awful. The patients were chained and beaten and burnt as part of their treatment. It was freezing and they slept on straw. The only lit fire was in the kitchen and the inmates were forbidden to go there. (They were generally chained to the floor, so realistically, they couldn’t go anywhere). And while William must have thought he’d woken up in hell, he hadn’t died and the world hadn’t ended. The 4th and the 5th and the 252 years between then and now have passed without incident.
It’s always been the end of the world. From our beginning, we have seen portents in the stars; imagined gods and their punishments. We’ve always been corrupt, violent and debauched and truthfully and scientifically, there are several ways everyday that it could all end for us. A meteor strike could take us out dinosaur-style. Climates change. Poles shift. That super volcano under Yellowstone could blow tomorrow, plunging us all into a nuclear winter. We could plunge ourselves into a nuclear winter. We could run out of space and food. There are too many cows and not enough hovercrafts. And even if we managed to hang on for a few billion years more, one day, our sun will exhaust its energy and collapse into a brown dwarf, after a fairly spectacular expansion that would fry us before we had the chance to freeze. The world will end and somebody’s prophecy will one day be right and true. Sadly though, for that person, history will not remember them. We remember William though, because he was wrong. So were a few others.
In the late second century, The Montanists were convinced the end of the world was just around the corner. Montanus, the founder of the movement, was born in Phrygia in Asia Minor (in today’s Turkey). He foresaw the new Jerusalem in a town called Pepuza in Phrygia and predicted the Second Coming in his lifetime. Montanus and his two female oracles, Prisca and Maximilla, channeled the words of God in an ecstatic frenzy. In the second century, prophets and visions were a dime a dozen, so the Montanists weren’t uniformly reviled by the orthodox church, although they had many opponents. The trouble was not that they had visions but that in those visions, they claimed to be speaking in God’s voice.
On and off throughout the first millennium, the world was ending. Hilary of Poitiers, St Martin of Tours, Hippolytus the antipope, Sextus Julius Africanus, Saint Clement I, all saw the end of time approaching. In May of the year 1000 on the orders of Otto III, Emperor Charlemagne’s body was dug up on Pentecost to act as the Emperor warrior who would fight the Antichrist. He might also just have been dug up in order for his crown to be given to the Hungarians. I like the idea of Charlemagne, uncorrupted, sitting on his throne with his crown on his head and a sceptre in his 200 year-dead hand, waiting for the last battle.
During the Renaissance, when astrology became the main science of predictive futures, many dates were bandied about. The Papal Schism of the late 1300s and early 1400s, which saw two popes fighting for the heart of the Roman Catholic Church, led to a rush of end-of-the-world fervour. In order to calm the public down, a French cardinal and gifted astrologer Pierre D’Ailly, used an intersection of three major astrological cycles to predict the end of the world in the late 1700s. Writing in the first decades of the 1400s, his work influenced astrologers for hundreds of years. Nostradamus based many of his predictions on D’Ailly’s work. Nostradamus’ prophecies run from 1555 to the year 3797. “There will be time…”
In 1822, a one-time Baptist minister, William Miller, published his findings, based on an exhaustive search of the Bible, that the Second Coming would take place sometime between 21 March 1833 and 21 March 1844. What started out as a small group of followers grew to tens of thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands) by 1840, thanks to the work of publisher/ publicist Joshua Himes. William Miller’s followers became known as Millerites. The Seventh Day Adventists are direct descendents from Miller’s original church.
When 21 March 1833 passed without incident, Miller was not overly perturbed. A year later though, when the world kept turning, it was time for a re-calculation. Using a different Jewish Calendar, a new date of 18 April 1844 was set. Again the date passed. Miller expressed great disappointment but remained convinced that the Second Coming was around the corner. A last-ditch attempt to predict the end of time was made by one of Miller’s followers at a meeting in August 1844. A man called Snow calculated that the new date was 22 October 1844. The morning of 23 October 1844 became known to the Millerites as The Great Disappointment. “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before… We wept, and wept, till the day dawn.”
After The Great Disappointment, most of Miller’s followers joined other churches. Until his death in December 1849, Miller maintained his belief that the Second Coming was imminent. I am pleased, for my sake, that he was wrong, but this whole story makes my heart ache somehow.
It’s always the end of the world: Halley’s Comet, eclipses, Jim Jones, Joseph Smith, comet Hale-Bop, Harold Camping, Shoko Ashahara. All of these prophets and their signs have been just plain wrong. Imagining tomorrow is a tricky business, doomed to failure and deep disappointment.
It’s better, I think, to laugh and love today, and follow the advice of Winston Churchill,
”It is a mistake to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.”