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?