Apocalypse Now. No, Really. Now!

A coast-to-coast guide to America's millennial Chicken Littles.

New York Times Magazine/December 27, 1998
By Alex Heard and Peter Klebnikov


The Brethren
Chen Tao
Church Universal and Triumphant
Concerned Christians
House of Yahweh
Kabbalah Centre
Meade Ministries
UFO Believers

With 1999 almost on us and the year 2000 starting to awaken, growl and plod fatefully toward the camera lens, you can count on 12 months of panicky millennial excitements. The personnel are certainly out there, ready to go. According to a 1997 Associated Press poll, nearly 1 in 4 adult Christians—upward of 26 million people—expect Christ to return in their lifetimes, fulfilling the complicated End Times scenario that many people glean from prophetic Bible texts like Revelation and Daniel. The Christians are joined by lesser but impressive numbers of apocalyptic others, with their own scripts of doom and redemption. Ted Daniels, a folklorist in Philadelphia whose Millennium Watch Institute has monitored millennial activity for years, says that his database alone holds the names of more than 1,200 self-proclaimed prophets.

In light of disasters like Heaven's Gate, that sounds alarming, and millennialism can be troublesome, as some people in the pages that follow vividly demonstrate. But despite their extraordinary flash and strangeness, apocalyptic movements have a long, relatively peaceful history in American life. The meaning of the Greek word apokalypsis is "to uncover," and the motive force for believers has usually been a hunger for the fulfillment of revelatory knowledge—a conviction that through the willed application of belief, the flaws of this world will be swept away, with the faithful ushered to a brighter place. None of it is very logical, but so what? Religion often isn't. The Judeo-Christian belief that disaster must precede salvation has radiated outward from the events described in the Book of Revelation—home to the Four Horsemen, the Battle of Armageddon—but the Bible doesn't say anything about when these calamities will start. Jesus even warns his disciples against trying to figure it out, saying, "of that day and of that hour knoweth no man."

Contemporary millennialists know all this, but the date still gets people worked up, whether they specifically believe 2000 is the magic number or (more often) see it as a flash point, a symbol of what someday might be. As an excited prophecy commentator named David Allen Lewis wrote, "2000!…You see it everywhere, like a universal logo!"

Alex Heard, an editor at Wired magazine, is the author of " Apocalypse Pretty Soon," to be published in February by W. W. Norton. Peter Klebnikov, a New York writer, is at work on a book about American doomsday groups.

Unarius Academy of Science, El Cajon, California. Founded in 1954 by Ernest and Ruth Norman, Unarius is housed in a lovingly decorated old Post Office, where a few dozen regulars study a complicated mix of flying saucer theology and past-lives therapy, the idea being that Earth is a "kindergarten" for spiritually debased souls. While the students work out negative karma earned in ancient civilizations like Atlantis, they await a mass landing in the year 2001 by wise Space Brothers from 32 other planets; they will join the Academy and usher in a new age of enlightenment.

Morningland, Long Beach, California. Housed in a fortified compound and led by an aging priestess, Sri Patricia, Morningland teaches that Christ will someday descend to Long Beach in a UFO the size of Texas, piloted by Patricia's deceased husband. It currently recruits members through yard sales. Morningland is a multiservice sect dispensing tarot readings, Zen meditation classes and Ufology. As a special feature, it charges people to cure them of AIDS—Sri Patricia, a self-proclaimed messiah, claims she can change people's DNA with a wave of a hand. The group's 40 or so members are taught that humans are responsible for the coming destruction because of their irresponsible stewardship of the earth's resources.

Ted Hall, McKenna, Washington. Hall is the author of "Beat the Beast," described as "the only upbeat Y2K preparedness book.' Hall and other believers in Y2K survivalism—arguably the hottest area of contemporary millennialism— fear that the world's computers will fail at midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, leading to anarchy blackouts and global chaos. He also contends that the feared computer shutdown fulfills Bible prophecies of the End Times arrival of a beast whose "number is 666." The good news: You can win out over "cyber-beast 666." The book is mainly about practical tips for surviving. Step 1: Create cooperative farms. "Mother Earth is one big free lunch," says Hall.

Chuck Missler, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Christian millennialists aren't usually interested in UFOs—that stuff is for New Agers—but Missler is different A former C.E.O. who heads a large media ministry called Koinonia House, he believes extraterrestrials are real, but they're not from other worlds. "They pose as aliens," he says in a taped lecture, abut what are they really?" Missler says they're beings called Nephilim, the lingering spirits of "supernatural monstrosities created eons ago when fallen angels mated with human women. Their existence inspired God to cleanse the earth with the flood, but now they're coming back—as ET's, reseeding earth women for dark purposes that predicate the imminent final battles. Missler has sponsored "Israel Cruises," tours of the Holy Land with a focus on apocalyptic ports of call. The 1998 edition included stops at the Isle of Patmos (where the Book of Revelation was written in the first century AD); the Mount of Olives (where Jesus thrilled and chilled his disciples with doomsday discussions); and the Valley of Armageddon," where Christ is to defeat the forces of Satan once and for all". There was also a spot of cruise-ship boogying, including a Saturday night "Biblical Character Masquerade Party."

Church Universal and Triumphant, Corwin Springs, Montana. Led by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, this New Age church gained fame in 1990 when Prophet predicted an imminent nuclear holocaust. The sect assembled a cache of weapons, and disciples hunkered down into a network of bomb shelters. When the planet survived, many became disillusioned and moved away, ushering in a rocky period for the church. Prophet has acknowledged that she has Alzheimer's, and the church is selling much of its land. (Shelters are on Special sale" at $5,000 each.) The world will end anytime soon, Prophet still maintains.

The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days, Manti, Utah. James Harmston, 58, a former real-estate agent claims he was ordained by Moses and is, according to his followers, the reincarnation of Joseph Smith, the long-dead 19th century founder of the Mormon Church. Harmston predicts that a period of violent, apocalyptic turmoil will start within five years. in preparation, he started a Mormon survivalist community in the town of Manti, where some 300 armed, food-storing polygamist followers plan to ride it out (Harmston denies there are arms and food.) Several former members of the sect are suing Harmston, alleging that he duped them for $250,000, and the church has been excommunicated by Mormon authorities in Salt Lake City for undue preoccupation with Armageddon." Harmston says he is planning a counter-suit.

Concerned Christians, current location unknown. Monte Kim Miller, 44, is a Colorado-based cult leader who has told followers he is one of the two witnesses who is fated to announce the destruction of the earth and coming of the Lord -- an then be slain by Satan in the streets of Jerusalem. Earlier this year, he predicted that Denver would be ground zero for the apocalypse this fall. Taking 78 people with him, he later disappeared in the middle of the night, leaving behind abandoned houses and hundreds of frightened relatives. Several of the members have since appeared in Jerusalem, generating official worry that the group is gathering there for a climatic moment.

High 54 Ranch, near Concho Lake, Arizona. High 54 is an in-the-works Y2K survivalism community. The rural retreat is still under construction, but soon hopes to offer amenities like underground living quarters, 24-hour armed security, perimeter guards, wind- and solar-power sources and a barter economy. Potential members are required to arrive with at least a one-year supply of food and at least one rifle and one handgun per family, preferably with 1,000 rounds of ammo per weapon. Gas masks, though not required, are highly recommended.

Lord Adaile Toye, Payson, Arizona. Toye channels information from New Age "ascended masters" who have laid out the future geography of the planet after an already-in-progress period of tribulation that will last a thousand years. Called "Freedom Star," the new earth wins a few and loses a few. Much of the Western U.S. will sink underwater after a giant asteroid strikes Nevada. On the plus side, an entirely new continent called New Lemuria will form west of South America, and the world will be graced by golden cities with names like Wahanee, Gandawan and Mesotamp. Sad news for New York: The city disappears underwater, too, but the Statue of Liberty survives as "the Island of Vision."

Floyd (Looks for Buffalo) Hand, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota. Hand, 59, a healer from the Oglala Sioux tribe, points to ancient Sioux and Hopi prophecies that speak of the imminent arrival of "Star People," wise extraterrestrials who will remove Indians and chosen others from a planet that will soon be deviled by a 1999 drought, followed by floods and earthquakes. "The reason is that humans have not been taking care of the land, have been chopping trees and polluting the air," says Hand. A further warning: "Get the hell out of New York in seven years! That's when the earth plates will shift and tall building will sway."

House of Yahweh, Abilene, Texas Yisrayl Hawkins, the assumed name of a former rockabilly singer named Bill Hawkins has convinced some 3,000 followers that he is the "witness" who will announce Christ's Second Coming before being murdered by Satan. From an armed compound in scrublands near Abilene, Hawkins and his followers are building a ragtag "holy city," where followers are to wait for the return of Christ in the year 2000. "Thankfully, we only have a year left of this madness," he says.

Outer Dimensional Forces, Welaco, Texas. Based in a weedy, fenced-off compound near the Mexican border, O.D.F. is a secretive doomsday sect whose members believe that the U.S. is heading for heaven-sent punishment that was set in motion when the CIA allegedly "attacked" O.D.F. two decades ago. In a TV interview broadcast after the Heaven's Gate suicides, a bearded, intense O.D.F. spokesman named Daniel Hoverson said the Creator will soon rattle and flood the U.S., with the O.D.F. surviving by being spirited to safety in flying saucers. Orville T. Gordon -- better known as "Nodrog" -- a 90-something man who is rarely seen in public, founded the group.

Elohim City, Muldrow, Oklahoma. Elohim City is an armed compound guided by Robert Millar, 73, a former Mennonite who based his revelations on an electric mix of fundamentalist Christianity, racism, pyramidology and astrology. Millar teachers his followers that the Great Tribulation is upon us and that "worse is to come" when "Asiatics" invade America. "I abhor war," Millar says, "but it is a foregone conclusion." He says he believes that Jesus has been revealing himself for 2,000 years and that disasters will strike, possibly by 2006, at which time the "wicked will be removed" and Elohim City will enjoy an age of peace.

Bob Rutz, Kingston, Arkansas Rutz, 67, an engineer and entrepreneur, is another "builder" on the Y2K suvivalism scene. Rutz and his wife, Joan, are constructing Prayer Lake, a 700-acre Christian community in the hills of northwest Arkansas. Rutz hopes 100 families buy three-acre plots and get back to simple ways of living: plowing with mules, reading by kerosene lamps, drinking from springs and wells. "I look at this as Judgement Day," he says.

Kenna E. Farris, Savannah, Missouri. In 1967 Farris, then a restaurateur, received what he describes as a direct call from God to serve as "the Forerunner Prophet of the Apocalypse," designated to spread the word that Christ will return in the year 3000, not 2000. Great things must happen before then, though: for starters, a "prophet President" must arise soon to create a 24-nation "barter-banking" trade center that promotes "Horse Sense Economics" and world unity. Now 73, Farris spreads his ideas via large, insistent, hand-lettered signs and self-published books like "The Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of All Times of Biblical Prophecy Wisdom."

Dolores Cannon, Huntsville, Arkansas. Cannon is a cheerful, elderly "reporter of lost knowledge" who has used hypnotized human intermediaries to travel back in time and speak directly to Nostradamus, the 16th -century French seer who supposedly predicted violent upheavals in our day. The results, contained in her three-volume "Conversations With Nostradamus," are gloomy" Nostradamus calls the 1990's "the Time of Troubles" and says the Antichrist, identity unknown, is in hiding now in the Middle East. Luckily, the dire prophecies can be staved off if mankind radiates enough good will. "Nostradamus thought that if people knew what was going to happen," Cannon explains, "we could keep it from happening."

The Rev. Clyde Lott, Canton, Mississippi. Lott, a Pentecostal minister, interprets passages of the Bible to say that a third Jewish temple must rise in Jerusalem before the Second Coming can happen. Some messianic Jews think the Messiah won't come (for the first time) until the temple is restored. In an improbable partnership with a Jerusalem-based rabbi named Chaim Richman, Lott is producing perfect red heifers, virginal cows "without spot" that could be sacrificed to produce ashes for ritual use in the future temple. For that to happen, Muslim shrines like the Dome of the Rock would have to be knocked down. Neither Lott nor Richman advocates destructive violence, but both men are convinced that God will attend to this impediment in due time.

Wake Up America Seminars, Bellbrook, Ohio. Founded by Larry Wilson, a Vietnam veteran and prophecy student, the Wake Up America ministry has a particular fascination with asteroids. Wilson's reading of Scripture (like Revelation 8:7, which speaks of "hail and fire mixed with blood") has him convinced that two giant rocks will bash the earth during period of Tribulation and Wrath that precede the Last Judgement. Rejecting the popular millennialist notion of a rapture, a grace-giving moment when the faithful are whisked safely into heaven, he believes people will have to tough out calamities that he identifies with eerie labels like "Volcanoes Cause Darkness" and "Devil Appears." When? "As best as I can tell, " Wilson says, "the Tribulation starts somewhere between 1999 and 2017."

Chen Tao, near Buffalo. Previously based in Garland, Texas, Chen Tao entered the national spotlight last winter, when its leader, a Taiwanese émigré named Chen Hon Ming, predicted that God would appear on March 25. Overcoming this setback, he has since moved 80 of his Taiwanese followers to a place just outside Buffalo. Dressed in regulation white smocks and cowboy hats, Chen Tao faithful expect Armageddon to start next month, when China invades Taiwan and precipitates a nuclear holocaust. Eventually a third of the world's population will die, but God will arrive in a "Godplane" to deliver the sect's believers from doom.

Gordon-Michael Scallion, Chesterfield, New Hampshire. Scallion is a psychic and booster of "Earth Changes," a New Age prophecy belief that predicts violent planetary shakings in the years ahead, marked by escalating earthquakes, hurricanes, rising oceans, ubiquitous volcanoes and other unpleasantries. Some Earth Changes believers think the planet itself is willing these punishments; Scallion sees them as part of a "natural" astrophysical cycle worsened by man's sloppy environmental caretaking. His "Future Map of the World" shows major portions of ail the continents underwater, including much of the American West. For 1999 he predicts "calamitous melt-offs at the poles" and a regional conflict in Turkey that will later lead to World War III.

The Brethren, Boston. This nomadic, Old and New Testament doomsday group maintains a temporary clandestine base near Boston University. From there, some 100 college-age followers of "Brother Evangelist" Jim Roberts roam the country in robes meant to hide the human form, preaching that Americans are doomed by their materialism and fated to perish in the Great Tribulation. Targeting disaffected kids, the Brethren requires joiners to abandon all material goods and prior family connections. For years, the sect was called "The Garbage Eaters" for its member's habit of eating out of dumpsters.

Twelve Tribes of Israel, New York. A separatist group with UFO themes, with branches in half a dozen cities, Twelve Tribes is led by a mysterious, disciplinarian-prophet named Rawhab (in dark shirt). Its goal is to "prepare" followers for the End Times, in which chosen blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans will survive earthquakes, floods and a huge race war that commences sometime in the near future. Followers believe that black space brothers are now circling earth in spaceships that will rescue their human counterparts in a "marvelous miracle," levitating them to a world where persecution and white people will be no more.

Kabbalah Learning Center, New York. Philip Berg is rabbi to the stars—he has long taught mystical texts like the Zohar to a celebrity clientele, including Madonna and Roseanne. He has also proclaimed, quite seriously, that the End might arrive on September 1999, when "a ball of fire will descend . . . destroying almost all of mankind, all vegetation, all forms of life." If mankind takes to "sharing more" and studying Kabalistic texts, the species will most likely be spared.

Thomas Chittum, Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey "America was born in blood, America suckled in blood…and America will drown in blood." So writes Thomas Chittum, author of Civil War Two, an influential far-right tract that says the U.S. is headed for an explosive crackup, as regional wars break out along racial lines. Chittum is notably fretful about the Southwest; he thinks that unchecked immigration will make it a de facto part of Mexico by 2020. Chittum says he plans to relocate someday to the northern reaches of New York State, where he figures Caucasians will still be in charge.

James Beau Seigneur, Rockville, Maryland. BeauSeigneur is a two-time Congressional candidate (he lost to Al Gore in 1980) who has written a lively three-part novel dramatizing the End Times events described in Revelation. Such novels are quite popular among prophecy-believing Christians, who often work out pent-up energies about Christ's imminent return through potboiler fiction that is heavy on horror and rapine. BeauSeigneur's "Christ Clone Trilogy" livens things up with a sci-fi premise: cells scraped from the Shroud of Turin are used to clone a new version of Christ And? "The clone," BeauSeigneur says ominously, "goes sour."

The Center for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Asheville, North Carolina. Dr. Steven M. Greer is an emergency-room doctor who, in his spare time, takes squads of UFO. buffs out for nighttime vigils, during which they wave flashlights and think positive thoughts in an utterly serious attempt to entice flying saucers to land. Greer, who has a sizable national following, believes extraterrestrials are here to share a new-paradigm millennial consciousness. He is also convinced the Federal Government wants to harm them. He once told Art Bell, host of a talk-radio show on the paranormal, that a "covert" and "extra-extra secret super secret" Government team has cold-bloodedly blasted flying saucers out of the sky.

Richard W. Noone, Ellijay, Georgia. Many apocalyptic theorizers shy away from precise date-setting, but not Noone, author of the book "5/5/2000," which states that on May 5, 2000, the earth's crust will "shift" horribly as part of a series of cataclysmic changes that usher in a new ice age. The mechanics are complicated— factors include an extraordinary alignment of the planets—but the results are clear enough. Three quarters of the human race will be killed. "The last shift like this occurred 9,000 years ago," Noone says grimly. "It turned the oceans into maelstroms of death." An ardent survivalist, he lives in the mountains of north Georgia.

Arthur Blessitt, North Fort Myers, Florida. Blessitt, a strapping Christian evangelist, has spent the last 29 years carrying a 12-foot cross-on-a-wheel through every nation. It started in 1969, when Blessitt—then the proprietor of a Sunset Strip coffeehouse-for-Jesus called His Place —decided to traverse America with a cross as a one-time faith statement. That led to more ambitious travels, and in 1988, the Lord officially told him to drag a cross through 277 nations, island groups and territories before 2000, for reasons relating to the Last Days. "I don't know what the time-date will be," he says. "I just know this is part of God's End Time plan." The deed is done: this year he knocked off his last two countries, Iraq and North Korea, having covered, by his count a whopping 32,762 miles.

Meade Ministries, Lake City, Florida. Years ago, Charles Meade was told by God that Lake City would be the only place on the planet to survive Armageddon, which the octogenarian Meade predicts will come in his lifetime. The world will soon be engulfed in a sticky white substance, Meade has said, leaving his church standing as a beacon of light. In recent years, some 2,000 followers have left their homes in at least 14 states and moved into a guarded subdivision. The Meade-ites have prospered in local businesses, and the church has built a stunning $10 million worship center shaped like an overturned Noah's ark— a design that is meant to attract new members.


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