End of the world May 21?! Don't panic – but don't ridicule Project Caravan, either.

Project Caravan is a bus convoy traversing America to warn that the world will be destroyed this Saturday, May 21. The media depict them as crazies, but 41 percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return by 2050. End-of-the-world prophecy is all around us, whether we know it or not.

Hey, check out all those crazies who think the world is about to end!

That’s been the theme of most media reporting about “Project Caravan,” the bus convoy traversing America to warn that the world will be destroyed this Saturday. The people expecting Judgment Day on May 21 are fools and simpletons, news stories imply, and the rest of us are free to sit in judgment of them.

But they’re not nearly as weird as you’ve been led to believe. According to a 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center, 41 percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return by 2050. And most of them think the world will end, too.

So while they may not agree with Project Caravan’s specific May 21 prediction, millions of Americans are fully aboard with the basic idea that doomsday is on the way. They’re not just the kooks who are derided on TV; they’re your friends, neighbors, teachers, and doctors. End-of-the-world prophecy is all around us, whether we know it or not.

A long tradition

And it’s been there for a long time, too. The idea has deep roots in American history, which was founded by people who thought they were carrying out God’s will. As the Puritan minister John Winthrop famously preached, America was a “City on the Hill”: As a righteous society, based strictly on Biblical law, it would provide a moral and spiritual example for the rest of the world.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that many Americans also believed the Bible’s passages about how the world would end: in fire and brimstone, ushering in the final battle between Satan and Christ. They simply disagreed about when and where.

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To some of the followers of William Miller, a New England-born farmer and lay preacher who made waves with his study of biblical prophecy, the correct date was April 23, 1843. When the appointed day arrived, a few “Millerites” dressed in white robes and waited on hillsides to receive their heavenly reward.

And the following day, many newspapers greeted them with the same kind of mockery that surrounds Project Caravan now. “Some of our readers may doubtless experience a little surprise at waking up this morning and finding themselves alive and kicking, instead of being as crisp and as shriveled as an old boot or a burnt corn-field,” a Philadelphia newspaper jibed. “The failure of the prediction ... proves the folly and conceit of the individual who made it.”

War is a boon for end-of-world beliefs

Miller’s companions later adjusted the final day to October 22, 1844; when that didn’t pan out, either, he faded into obscurity. But some of his remaining followers formed the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which continues to preach end-of-world doctrines today. So do the Jehovah’s Witnesses – founded after the Civil War – and the Assemblies of God, forged amid the oubreak of World War One.

The Great War was a boon for such beliefs. “War! War!! War!!!” proclaimed one journal in 1914. “The Nations of Europe Battle and Unconscously Prepare the Way for the Return of Lord Jesus.” The British capture of Palestine – and especially Britain’s Balfour Declaration, which promised “a national home for the Jewish people” – also sparked new excitement among prophecy believers, who pointed to Biblical passages suggesting that the Jews’ return to Israel would harken the last days.

Not surprisingly, then, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was welcomed as yet another sign that the end was near. Into the present, prophecy-minded Americans are among Israel’s strongest supporters; many Israelis have welcomed their aid, even though these same Americans often say that non-Christians will be destroyed upon Jesus’ arrival.

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Since World War Two, indeed, nearly every international development has triggered doomsday warnings. The rise of the Soviet Union during the cold war evoked Gog, the evil empire that threatens Israel in the Bible before Christ comes back; the United Nations conjured the “world government” established by the Anti-Christ, prior to his climactic battle with Jesus; and the threat of nuclear weapons foretold the fiery annihilation of the world itself.

Most recently, Hurricane Katrina and the Japanese earthquakes have both provoked end-of-days predictions. And anyone can issue such warnings, which also helps explain their recurrence. In a country without an established church, Americans can promulgate whatever doomsday theories they choose. May the best theory win.

Surely, that’s something to celebrate. No matter what you think about the end of time, we should all be glad we live in a place – and in a time – where we can say what we’d like about the subject. And everyone else is free to come along for the ride! This Saturday, then, don’t mock Project Caravan if the world keeps turning. Instead, think about your own good fortune in finding such a safe place within it.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author most recently of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”

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