Waiting for the End

April 9, 2004 | 27 comments
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I heard Dallin Oaks’s conference talk last Saturday while waiting to take my husband’s parents to breakfast. I was interested in the way he talked about the second coming—what would you do if you knew Christ was returning tomorrow? I’ve been wondering since then how people in the church typically talk about the End now that we have lived beyond the end of the twentieth century. I still have a very vivid memory of a talk I heard in church when I was probably about ten (I grew up in a very small farming village in southeastern Idaho in the fifties). I remember the talk because it frightened me. This person was talking about the second coming and making it very clear that the End would come by the year 2000. And the events before the End wouldn’t be pleasant. Certainly it is because this apocalyptic talk was atypical that it stands out against the blur of countless mundane hours spent in church as a child. And I remember at the time that some adults thought the talk a bit extreme and inappropriate. But it did leave me with a sense that I could well live through the end of time—and before I was very old.

In the ninth grade, I had a remarkable seminary teacher, who spoke in this same kind of heightened language about the dramatic possibilities of religion. I was mesmerized by him. The end was near. Terrible things would happen. But even now, you can come close to Christ. If you are righteous and believe, he can actually appear to you, speak to you, bring you precious, even secret, knowledge. By my tenth grade, this teacher had been moved on to another town because of complaints and concerns voiced by concerned parents. (Eventually this teacher took one of my BYU roommates as his second wife, and therein lies another tale.) But he had built on this sense I had that religion really was about intense, important things. And that I was living at the end of time.

Of course, there is a time-honored tradition of waiting for the end that goes back in Christianity to the early church. And Mormonism has its own intense nineteenth-century version of the end stories. I have recently been thinking about the texts that Joseph Smith dictated in 1830. As bookends of sorts to the texts of 1830, you have Joseph’s meditations on the beginning in June (Moses being called to write the Bible, the revisions to the creation and garden stories in Genesis) and his meditation on the end in September (now D & C 29) given at the second conference of the new church. Compare Joseph’s language (quoting God) to that of Dallin Oaks’s at this year’s conference: “Wherefore, I the Lord God will send forth flies upon the face of the earth, which shall take hold of the inhabitants thereof, and shall eat their flesh, and shall cause maggots to com in upon them; And their tongues shall be stayed that they shall not utter against me; and their flesh shall fall from off their bones, and their eyes from their sockets . . . . . .” Joseph himself made predictions about the end that left believers in the new church waiting patiently for the end to come in the nineteenth century.

Wilford Woodruff was one whose patient wait for the end for engendered by Joseph’s words. I called the selections of Wilford’s journal that I edited, “Waiting for World’s End” because of the extent this wait was a sustaining theme in his life. In the intro to those selections I quoted from a talk he gave in 1868 to primary children about how the world would look in 1898: “That visit was before the destruction of the City of New York By the Sea Heaving itself beyond its bounds & washing the inhabitants into the Sea & they were drowned. It was Before Albany was utterly Destroyed by fire. It was before Boston was sunk with an Earthquake. It was before Chicago was struck with lightning & burned with fire & Brimstone for their Abominations. It was before the many Millions of the People of the United States & other Nations of the Earth were destroyed with their Cities By the Great Judgments of God Because of their great sins & wickedness in the sight of Heaven & Earth.” (I guess I was not the first child to be frightened by my elders in church!) Wilford did live to 1898, but, of course, saw none of these dramatic events happen. Thirty years to the day after he gave this talk he was in San Francisco, where he died a few days later.

Wilford had to make his peace with the end that didn’t come as he predicted. It’s interesting to read the various explanations and accommodations as the various dates suggested by Joseph and others came and went. And now the date that frightened me so as a young child has come and gone. Was there discussion about the year 2000 in church communities as it approached? We obviously still live in a very extreme and dangerous world. A world where extreme, heightened versions of the various religions still have a great deal of power. Where does the church stand these days on the End?

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27 Responses to Waiting for the End

  1. nate on April 9, 2004 at 1:40 pm

    fix bug…

  2. Russell Arben Fox on April 9, 2004 at 1:53 pm

    Susan, just to let you know, I have long considered your Sunstone essay on Wilford Woodruff and David Koresh, “Waiting for the World’s End,” which I assume was adapted from your introduction to the Woodruff volume, to be one of the very best things I’ve ever read in that magazine. It was thoughtful, serious, challenging, and humane. Thank you for having written it.

  3. Susan on April 9, 2004 at 2:27 pm

    Thanks for the kind words. I did adapt the Wilford/Koresh essay from part of the intro. In the intro I also got to talk about other things I found interesting in Wilford–like his horticulture, camping, his love of visiting medical operations (and sometimes describing in rather gory detail what he saw). Wilford also did things like record measurements of the famous buildings in England he visited, and list signs of the time (awful events in the world) he read about in the newspaper in his journal. It’s a good thing he was a bit of an obsessive compulsive–who else could have written such an amazingly consistent, ongoing journal, 60 years of writing or explaining why he didn’t write. He even writes about his final illness until he no longer can. By the way, I have been told by Signature and also by Kurt Bench that they have heard a number of complaints about my intro–not faith promoting enough I guess. I honestly tried to be honest and fair with Wilford all along. Often thought about how he’d have felt about me as his editor. Probably not an obvious choice.

  4. Nate Oman on April 9, 2004 at 2:35 pm

    It is an interesting question. I can honestly say that there was no talk of the end of the world in my Arlington Virginia ward when 2000 rolled around. Of course, they may have decided not to talk about it in front of me an the assumption that I was fated for the flies and maggots.

  5. wendy on April 9, 2004 at 2:51 pm

    Bob Bennett went around freaking people out about Y2K. He gave a fireside about it to our stake. I wondered to what extent, if any, end times fears were fueling his fervor.

  6. Matt J on April 9, 2004 at 2:56 pm

    I lived in Orem at the time, and there wasn’t much said publicly in my ward. However, I’m not the most social of people so I can’t say what people said in private. Among the few things I heard were fears that the Y2K computer bug would lead to some of the catastrophes prophesied; we should not have made a bid for the 2002 Olympics knowing that the end is so near; or, alternatively, nothing too bad can happen because the Olympics will be coming to Salt Lake in 2002. Then there’s always the fact that nothing can really start happening until the Church is established in every country on earth. All of these thoughts seemed more like fanciful speculation than guiding beliefs.

    I can attest to the brisk business that emergency preparedness establishments did during that time. It’s easier to believe that this had more to do with the y2k issue than any apocolypse. A lot of these businesses had a hard time of it after 1/1/2000 and my family benefited from several fire sales.

  7. Nate Oman on April 9, 2004 at 3:05 pm

    I have it on good authority, that Bob Bennett’s Y2K facination had nothing to do with anxiety about the end of the world in 2000.

  8. Ivan Wolfe on April 9, 2004 at 3:36 pm

    Most end times lessons/talks I heard in Utah from 1998 to just before 2000 were generally self-serving.

    For example, I had an Elder’s Quorm president who was a salesman for Emergency Essentials. He managed to mention that every time he gave a lesson (though he made no explicit sales pitches – he just “casually” mentioned it) and then gave talks on either the end times or preparedness.

    Most of the Ward didn’t buy into it, and in fact as far as I could tell most of the members felt that the second coming was not going to happen in 2000 and that Y2K was more hype than reality.

    I also recall a Book Of Mormon class that I took at BYU where the teacher, while we were discussing some apocalyptic verses in the BoM, mentioned that we shouldn’t be worried about exactly when it was going to happen, but always be spiritually prepared as though it would happen in the next hour or sooner.

    At which point one student loudly proclaimed that it was obvious, with the Y2K bug that the 2nd coming was going to be in 2000.

    The Teacher than asked if any one else in our (rather large) class, thought the same way. No one else did (or at least admitted to it) and several computer science students made comments debunking the whole idea.

    FWIW.

  9. gst on April 9, 2004 at 3:45 pm

    “Eventually this teacher took one of my BYU roommates as his second wife, and therein lies another tale.”

    Susan, by second wife do you mean his second serial wife or second, like additional, wife, in the Mormon sense? Doesn’t the CES frown on that?

    About the End: I gather that we Mormons are supposed to be attuned to the signs, but not preoccupied about it. Every now again we get conference talks with instructions like: “Hey, enough with hoarding ammo!” Our preparation should be spiritual. But surely our eschatology allows that righteous people will have a rough time of it, and even die in numbers, just incidental to the general upheaval of the times. I understand that its better to die spiritually prepared, but all things equal, I’d rather be spiritually prepared and live, so can I go ahead and build my bomb shelter?

    I watched the Omega Man with Charlton Heston the other day. Will it be anything like that?

  10. Susan on April 9, 2004 at 4:11 pm

    I mean second wife as in second additional wife followed by third additional wife, etc. And yes CES does frown, as does the church. No need to say that he is no longer in CES–and that he was excommunicated. He had eight children, and his first wife did not follow him into the brave new world of polygamy.

  11. Susan on April 9, 2004 at 4:22 pm

    Which I guess means that my ex-roommate became the new first wife. To be followed fairly quickly by others. . . .

  12. Frank on April 9, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    Susan: Do you have any insight as to when (if ever) Signature will print another edition of Woodruff’s complete journals?

  13. Susan on April 9, 2004 at 5:02 pm

    No, I have no insight. It would be a very expensive project. The journals, I believe, would need to be input again from scratch. I had to type all of the entries I used. One of the really wonderful things I received from my work on the journals was a copy of all of the journals. Lucky me.

  14. Clark Goble on April 9, 2004 at 5:04 pm

    *Way* back when I was a freshman I used to be fascinated by last days talk. I was at BYU and was actually reading a lot of those old 19th century statements about the last days. (The most haunting of all being the infamous prophecy found in the Temple and put in Woodruff’s journal) I also read veraciously McConkie’s books on the last days. Then friends would always bring weird things up like Mayan calendars and so forth. (Ah the carefree naive days of being young)

    I did always find it interesting that McConkie interpreted the “silence” in Revelation to be a period of peace before the last days. Further he and many others interpreted most of what we call “events of the last days” as happening well into the “seventh seal.” (i.e. after 2000) Of course my skepticism started popping in when I noticed that a “sign” of the last days was anything he or others tended to think important whether it was in scripture or not. (i.e. the printing press, the industrial revolution) Reading up on Woodruff’s own predictions and the various periods of fervor among the saints in the 19th century added to it. (I loved _Waiting for the End_ by the way)

    Now I still expect the last days. I must admit 9/11 brought a little fear from all those things I’d studied when 21. But that’s died down some, but perhaps not as much. I don’t think I could really go back to the pre-2001 days where I was able to just ignore it all.

  15. Clark Goble on April 9, 2004 at 5:07 pm

    Susan, I don’t understand why reprinting the journals would be expensive. Surely a photoreproduction would be possible. Why would they need to be re-entered for new typesetting?

  16. Nate Oman on April 9, 2004 at 5:10 pm

    Especially given that Signature publishes its “Classics in Mormon Thought” series without retypesetting anything. There is a huge market for the Journal of Discourse (what does a full set go for these days) without retypesetting it.

    Furthermore, I think that the journals already exist in electronic format. Aren’t they included on the New Mormon Studies CD put out by Signature?

  17. Susan on April 9, 2004 at 5:15 pm

    You could go that way certainly. Sorry. I’m so far into digital publishing (the focus of my current professional life) that I didn’t even think of photo-copying a typescript. What I would really like to see would be a clean digital version of the diary, however. That would be such a great tool for a researcher. I want to see all of these great diaries go digital. If money went into the project, I’d like to see the money spent toward that end. But that’s just me. I’m really not privy to any current discussions at Signature on the subject.

  18. Susan on April 9, 2004 at 5:20 pm

    I stand corrected. Isn’t Nate smart?

  19. Susan on April 9, 2004 at 5:22 pm

    I should learn to answer questions the simple way. No, I don’t know.

  20. Grasshopper on April 9, 2004 at 6:13 pm

    Just to confirm: Yes, the Woodruff journals are included on Signature Books’ “New Mormon Studies CD-ROM”.

  21. Nate Oman on April 9, 2004 at 6:22 pm

    Can I “borrow” your set of the journals Mom? ;->

  22. Ethesis on April 10, 2004 at 1:43 am

    New Mormon Studies CD-ROM .. hmm, got to find it some place at a discount (ok, I’m ruined by ebay and half.com and the rest).

    That, and I really like print.

  23. Ethesis on April 10, 2004 at 10:52 am

    Hmm, I always click “remember personal info” and it always forgets.

    Anyway, Christ comes thousands of times every day. Each time someone dies, for them it is the second coming. He comes within a hundred years or so, for everyone (refrain from the current song “only got a hundred years to live”). Some sooner, often as a thief in the night.

    I make that point sometimes when teaching adults, that Christ does come quickly. The final second coming might not happen for another millenia, but for everyone in the room it will happen sooner, probably by surprise.

    We are all in our own personal last days.

  24. John David Payne on April 10, 2004 at 1:29 pm

    Ethesis, maybe you’ve got cookies disabled on your browser.

  25. Ethesis on April 10, 2004 at 6:43 pm

    Nope, I’ve got cookies enabled — I rely on them to store passwords, identity, etc. in a number of places.

  26. Grasshopper on April 10, 2004 at 9:15 pm

    Ethesis, I got my New Mormon Studies CD through the BYU Bookstore during one of their 20% off sales; I ended up paying $120 for it or so, rather than the list price of $200. Quite a bargain compared to print. :-)

  27. Ethesis on April 11, 2004 at 9:32 pm

    Grasshopper,

    I’ll have to keep an eye out for a sale like that.

    Most stuff I buy through half.com, etc. when it hits 20% of list.

    I’m spoiled. So when I see a CD set for $200.00, I’m automatically thinking “I’ve got to be able to find that somewhere for $40.00.”

    :)

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