History Book Club
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
“The End of the World” –History of Doomsday Forecasts
Goldwag, Arthur, Cults, Conspiracies and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, the Illuminati, Skull and Bones, and more; Vintage Books, New York, NY: Vintage Books; 2009. 384 pp. Kindle Edition.
Wilson, Colin, with Damon and Rowan Wilson, World Famous Cults and Fanatics, London, UK: Magpie Books, 1992. Kindle Edition.
Introduction: Reading these books about cults, conspiracies, secret societies and fanatics was a trip through a world of upside down facts, crazy connections and horrible aberrations of human behavior.
If you spend enough time on line these days, you will become exposed to “Breaking News” stories, most from unfamiliar and suspicious news sources, that connect up public figures with an un-ending string of conspiracies.
If you believed half of the stuff that gets poured out on the internet, you’d be ready to go off to join the Branch Davidians in Waco, or the Rev. Jim Jones’ Peoples’ Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. In 1843 you might have been the guy who climbed a tree, wearing turkey wings, to help get to heaven when the big day arrived.
Millerites: The 1843 episode was originated by Rev. William Miller, who prophesied that the Second Coming of Christ would be between two dates in 1843 and 1844. A publisher took interest in this, and then more publishers, and soon there were people all over the United States excited about the Second Coming. The books and papers telling about this Second Coming made it to Europe and Canada, and cults formed all over, all looking for the Second Coming.
Wilson tells a story in his book about a Millerite encountering Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker on a street, and telling them about the Second Coming. Parker, who was an intellectual opponent of Emerson, replied: “That doesn’t affect me—I live in Boston.”
Finally, the Second Coming was nailed down to October 22, 1843, and thousands came to a hilltop in central Massachusetts for the arrival. Miller did some calculations and came up with another date. And another. It all turned out to be a great disappointment.
From the beginning of recorded history, there have been Messiahs, preachers, charlatans of all shapes and sizes, demanding your attention, ready to lead you to the promised land, or lead you to the next life, or gather you up in a commune, away from the rest of society.
Many of these men and women quite surely were sincere, even if it usually turned out that they were disconnected from reality. Many, many were simply out to make a lot of money, and perhaps have their way with sexual partners, or mutilate or kill their willing followers.
Can you imagine a person running for president of the United States using the fear of foreigners, or fear that a black President is going to send men from “the Government” to take away your firearms?
In the years right after the Civil War the suggestion that freed slaves would rape wives and kill white men was enough to gather up a powerful force that became the Ku Klux Klan.
Perhaps if we were to know enough about some of these bizarre events we might be more capable of resisting any temptation to fall for some similar scheme that may come along in the future.
These two books take the reader on a twisted trip through history. In 1172 an unnamed man who claimed to be the Messiah was brought before the Caliph in Yemen. The Caliph asked him, “How can you prove you are the Messiah?” “That’s easy,” the man replied, “cut off my head and I shall return to life.”
“That sounds right,” agreed the Caliph. He had his headsman come in and cut off the Messiah’s head. He didn’t appear to be the Messiah.
There were the Assassins of the 11th and 12th centuries, operating in what is now Iraq and Persia. These pot-smoking fanatics were from the Ismaili offshoot of the Shia. They managed to make inroads into Syria. They killed Conrad of Montferrat, King of Jerusalem, sending terror into the heart of Europe.
In modern times we’ve had the Heaven’s Gate cult of Marshall Applewhite, when 39 followers and Marshall “returned” to their home planet near the star Sirius (1997). And then there were the murders of Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring and more by Charles Manson’s zombielike “Family”, starting in 1969.
There was Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Japanese Red Army, Brigatta Rossa (Red Brigade) and the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Some of 900+ dead in Jonestown
Jonestown Massacre. Reverend James W. Jones (1931-1978) established the Peoples’ Temple in Indianapolis, IN in 1954. Sometime later he got to know Father Jealous Devine, who convinced him that he was God.
Father Devine ran the International Peace Mission Movement, which was connected with communism, among other things.
Now that he believed he was God, Jim Jones stepped up his activities, and gained converts. In 1965, convinced that a nuclear apocalypse was soon to take place, he moved his group of some 150 followers to Ukiah, CA. He started a lot of programs, many were genuinely helpful. He gained a political following that soon brought him into favor with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who named him head of the San Francisco Housing Commission.
Complaints started to come in about Rev. Jones from ex-members of his community, about sexual, physical and financial abuse. He was caught “curing” cancer in a parishioner when the “cancer” turned out to be a chicken gizzard.
This time (1977) Rev. Jones relocated with his whole group, to Guyana, to a colony he had built, which he named Jonestown.
In May 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan, who had gained a reputation for his tracking down crimes in the Scientology church, the Unification Church and others, flew with his staff to Jonestown to investigate complaints he’d received.
Jones cooked up a Potemkin village for him to inspect, but some of Jones’ followers slipped him urgent notes, and Ryan gathered up several defectors and the party left for their planes. Jones’ security force ambushed them, killing Ryan, three journalists and one defector.
San Francisco Chronicle report of Jonestown Massacre
Shortly afterward, Jones ordered parents and nurses to give babies and toddlers potassium cyanide and potassium chloride poison. Then adults and children sipped Kool-Aid with poison out of paper cups. Soon over 900 people, including Rev. Jones, were dead.
Then came the conspiracy theories. Someone said that Jones was a CIA agent and the CIA killed all those people so they could use their bodies to ship drugs into the U.S.
Mayor Moscone and his assistant, Harvey Milk were assassinated two weeks later, and the conspiracy theorists tried to spin that into a CIA coverup as well.
Branch Davidians. This group was an outgrowth of The Shepherd’s Rod, a breakaway sect of the Seventh Day Adventists. Formed in Fullerton, CA in 1929, they moved to Waco in 1935, occupying land called “Mount Carmel” east of the city. They maintained a quiet compound there, printing and mailing out pamphlets all over the world. In the 1950s they announced that the Judgement Day would take place April 22, 1959, which attracted a lot of attention to the sect. The faithful came from everywhere; a tent city of some 900 people sprung up at the compound.
However, when nothing happened on that day, interest in the sect began to drop off. The sect continued to exist, changing leaders. Then in 1978 along came David Wayne Howell, a 20-something former rock guitar player, who found his way into the bed of the leader of the cult, Lois Roden, an elderly woman who had succeeded her husband in the post.
Howell managed to win the old lady’s heart, but then left with a teen-age bride for a trip to Israel. It was there that he discovered that he was the Messiah, and destined for great things. He changed his name to David Koresh (the Hebrew name for “Cyrus”), and returned to Texas, where he established his own church in Palestine, TX, about 70 miles from Waco.
Then Lois died, and David returned to take command of the Branch Davidians from Lois’ son. David called for a contest to see which of them could bring a corpse back from the dead. They dug up a body from the sect cemetery. That ended in a squabble and a gunfight, and Koresh was arrested, accused of attempted murder. Later, however, his rival killed one of the followers with an axe, and was sent to a mental hospital.
David Koresh was an unlikely Messiah. Born illegitimately of a 14-year-old girl, he was slight, spindly, with low self-esteem.
The Davidians made money by selling firearms and military memorabilia at gun shows. Koresh stirred up followers, and gained more followers by prophesying Armageddon, which would begin by an attack, probably by the government.
Just like some politicians know very well, if you tell people in a culture that is excited about guns that there is a threat that “the government wants to take your guns from you” you can find lots of eager followers.
Koresh had also discovered that in his role as Messiah it was his duty to impregnate all the young girls in the compound. He told other males that, while it wore him out to spread his seed like this, it was necessary.
It was well known that the compound was loaded with guns and ammunition, and there were reports that children were being molested. On February 28, 1993 the Department of Justice sent agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to serve a search warrant. The Davidians opposed the agents with gunfire: four ATF agents were killed, and six Davidians as well.
That began a siege of the compound, with Department of Justice and FBI personnel surrounding the compound, trying various methods to get the Davidians to surrender. Finally, on April 19, 1993, FBI tanks advanced, tearing off pieces of the building housing the Davidians, and firing CS tear gas grenades inside. Fire broke out, probably accelerated by the cyanocarbon dust from the tear gas, and some 80 Davidians, including 22 children, were burned to death.
Both books I read made ample suggestions that the U.S. Government, under Attorney General Janet Reno and President Bill Clinton, was greatly responsible for allowing this encounter to escalate to the point that so many lives, including those of innocent children, were lost. Subsequent congressional investigation cleared the Federal government, but the criticism and suspicion of the U.S. Government in this case continues today.
Reading these two books reassured me that nutty things have been going on for a long time, and there are strange people who will pop up where you least expect them, and attract followers, sometimes in the millions. “Reasonableness” and “Common sense” do not appear to be a part of these schemes.
Future History Book Club Topics
Here are the topics for 2016. Feel free to comment on these topics, and to suggest additional or substitute topics.
Wednesday, March 30, 2016: “The End of the World” –History of Doomsday Forecasts. Arrival of the Antichrist, Swedenborg and the Last Judgment, the Millerites of 1844, the End Times, Marshall Applewhite and the Heaven’s Gate Cult, Armageddon, more.
Wednesday, April 27, 2016: History of Journalism and the Media. Benjamin Franklin, Horace Greeley, Yellow Press, “Acta Diurna” in Ancient Rome; “Notizie Scritta in Venice; The Manchester Guardian; Jonathan Swift; more.
Wednesday, May 25, 2016: Modern Life in the Middle East and the Islamic State. Iraq from its formation after WWI, Syria, the Caliphate, Origins of conflict, Sunni vs. Shii vs. Kurds vs. Alewhites Vs. Wahabi vs. ? Modern technology with Seventh-century ideas, Impact of USSR and U.S. in Afghanistan, U.S. combat in Iraq; Arab Spring; Turkey and Islam, Jordan, The Gulf States, Egypt, much more.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016: Africa since 1900. Colonization by Belgium, France, Britain, Germany and Portugal; End of Colonialism; Democracy and Dictatorship; Rwanda; Jomo Kenyatta; Apartheid and South Africa; Congo; Angola; more….
Wednesday, July 27, 2016: American Foreign Policy from the Barbara Pirates to today. Civil War alliances by both Union and Confederacy; Gunboat Diplomacy; Spanish-American War; “He Kept Us out of War!”; Britain and the U.S. in WWII; The Cold War; more.
Wednesday, August, 31, 2016: Germs and Plagues: A history of epidemics in the world. Plague of Athens (429 BC), Plague of Justinian (541 AD), “Black Death” in 1346, Cocoliztli Epidemic in Mexico (1528), Wampanoag Smallpox in 1616, 1918 Flu Pandemic, more.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016: Scaremongering and Witch Hunts in America. Salem Witch Trials, House Un-American Activities Committee; McCarthy Investigations; more.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016: Political Parties in America. Whigs, Know-Nothings, Federalists, Copperheads; Communists, Socialists, Republicans, Democrats, more.
Wednesday, November 30, 2016: Colonization in America. Jamestown, Plymouth, Gloucester, St. Augustine, Junipero Serra, Roger Williams, Quebec, Nieuw Amsterdam, more.
December: No Meeting