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Some Accumulated Signs of the End Times

In Chicago, an exhibition looks at art made to illustrate doomsday predictions. The signs of the apocalypse: locusts, seven-headed beasts and attack from the sky.

January 28, 2002|F.N. D'ALESSIO | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHICAGO — If recent world events make you wonder if The End is near, take heart. You have plenty of company.

But apocalyptic predictions are hardly new, and everyone who has made one has been wrong--at least so far. Remember Y2K?

An ominous painting on display at a local gallery is a case in point. The large oil by Henrietta Black shows the proud towers of an unidentified city crumbling in flames after an attack from the sky. A tombstone in a nearby graveyard bears the artist's name and the year of her death as 1933. But a companion painting by Black, showing four symbolic beasts from the biblical book of Daniel, is dated 1935--two years after her prophesied death.

In reality, Black lived until 1971, earning much of her income as a greeting card artist for Hallmark Cards Inc., in Kansas City, Mo. Her two paintings on display at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art were completed for the Rev. A.P. Ferrell, an itinerant prophet of doom who traveled the Midwest in the 1930s with eight such pictures, which he used as charts of the coming end times.

Black's paintings, as well as the other works at Intuit show, are from the Jenks Memorial Collection of Adventual Materials at Aurora University in suburban Aurora, Ill., a repository of art and documents left by some of the millennial movements that have arisen in America since the 1830s.

It is an exhibit heavy on falling stars, earthquakes, locusts with the heads of men and seven-headed beasts with 10 horns. Most of the works are frameless hangings, meant to be suspended on ropes at tent meetings. One, an undated piece by New Hampshire artist C.H. Locke, is 6 feet high and 38 feet long.

"I saw an article about the Aurora art in 1999, when all the newspapers were running millennial stories, and I thought it would be a natural for our gallery," said Intuit executive director Jeff Cory. "It's striking work, and most of the artists were completely self-trained."

The centerpiece of the exhibit, which runs through Feb. 23, is a large chart prepared in 1843 by followers of William Miller, whose obsession with the prophecies in the books of Daniel and Revelation led to the first great wave of American millennialism.

As a young man, the Massachusetts-born Miller was hardly a Bible-thumper. He was a political follower of Thomas Jefferson and considered himself--like Jefferson--a rationalist in religious outlook.

Miller became a prosperous farmer along the Vermont-New York border and held various minor political posts before going off, at age 30, to fight in the War of 1812.

Something in his war experiences led Miller to a religious crisis, and by 1816 he was a devout Baptist. He also began an intensive course of Bible study aimed at proving that the scriptures were consistent with themselves, despite apparent contradictions.

Miller later said he discovered timetables for the second coming of Christ in Daniel and Revelation. When he calibrated those timetables against various biblical and historic events, he determined that the Second Coming would occur in 1843 or 1844.

Miller made that momentous discovery in 1822 but kept it a secret until 1831--two years before he was licensed to preach at the Baptist church in Low Hampton, N.Y.

He made few converts until 1838, when an economic depression deepened throughout the nation. Suddenly, the "Millerite" movement began to snowball. An influential Boston clergyman, Elder Joshua V. Himes, joined the cause and used his knowledge of publicity techniques to flood the northern and western states with "Millerite" tracts, books and newspapers. Himes also commissioned artists and lithographers to create charts and pictures as visual aids for the movement's evangelists. Those works now form the core of the Aurora collection.

Miller had no intention of founding his own church and urged his followers to remain within their own denominations, so estimates of the number of Millerites are hazy. Most scholars believe there were from 50,000 to 100,000 people in the movement at its height.

In 1842, Miller announced that the end would come between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. When the latter date passed uneventfully, one of his followers went back to the prophecies, corrected a supposed error by Miller, and set a new date for the Second Coming as Oct. 22, 1844.

Miller and Himes accepted the new date only with reluctance and were reportedly not surprised when it, too, proved to be a false alarm. Although he still believed the end was near, Miller issued an apology and retired from the prophecy business.

"They called it 'The Great Disappointment,'" said Ken Mull, a retired professor of religion at Aurora. "Some of Miller's followers gave up religion completely, while more simply went back to their old churches with egg on their faces. Some, though, kept true to their end times beliefs. They split into at least a half dozen denominations with a variety of ways of interpreting the numbers in the prophecies."

Aurora University--then Aurora College--was founded by one of those groups, the Advent Christian Church, and remained affiliated with it until 1971.

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