01/29/2014 04:57 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2014

End-Times in 1844

The two magazines that the Jehovah's Witnesses are always bringing to my door have stirring titles: Awake! and The Watchtower. I read them with guilty, queasy pleasure. Though I do not long for the end of the world or believe in it, I've always wondered what it was like to believe that. I don't sneer at it or joke about it. I don't waste my time listing all the previous false predictions. I don't want humor or logic to block my access to the emotions. What must it be like, to walk down strange apartment corridors with the urgent mission of warning people before it is too late? To stand in subways, and at airports and supermarkets, and think that all the proud buildings, and all the shoppers with their new possessions, and their children and even their pets, are about to face a terrible judgment? It would load every minute with suspense. It would give every person and object a special dignity.

That, I believe, is the lasting attraction of the prediction of the end of the world. It's like great art. It give us new eyes. It makes us see everything differently.

I have just spent eight years writing a novel based on the life of a nineteenth century madam known to her contemporaries as Belle Cora. When I was in the early stages of my research it thrilled me to realize that my heroine would have been 16 in 1844. That meant that I would be able to write about my obsession.

According to a prediction thousands of Americans at the time believed, October 22, 1844 was the date the rapture was going to occur. Graves would spring open; the dead would rise. Farmers would be plucked out of their fields where they were plowing. Family members would be separated because the sinners would be left behind. The Earth would burn. The prediction had been made by a scholarly farmer named William Miller, based on earnest calculations from the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation. His followers were called "Millerites." It was the most widely-believed specific it-will-happen no-later-than-this-day prediction of the Second Coming in our history.

One reason for the success of the prophecy--until the humiliating day of its failure---was that the Millerites were well organized and media savvy. In this respect they were quite modern and very American, anticipating the mega-churches and televangelists of a later day. They wrote and distributed newspapers devoted to the prophecy. The toured the northeastern United States in a giant circus tent where great revival meetings were held and thousands were saved---saved just in the nick of time, before the burning of everything.

As the deadline approached, farmers stopped harvesting their crops, and shopkeepers threw all their stock into the streets; some people sold their houses for nominal prices or gave away all their possessions, which were only standing in the way of their salvation. Others struggled to get their work finished before the expected end. A farmer hired extra help to get his crops in before October 22. Some Harvard matrons hurried to get their canning and preserving done before the appointed hour. When asked why they were canning if they believed the world was about to end, they replied that God approved of thrifty Christians, and that to leave everything ship-shape would count in their favor.

On the day of days, crowds waited outside cemeteries expecting to see the corpses spring out of the ground; and it was later widely reported that Millerites stood on hills and rooftops in specially made white "Ascension Robes." For some reason these particular details--standing on rooftops in white robes--seemed especially absurd to the mockers, and the mention of it infuriated the believers. It was the one thing they hotly denied ever doing: They insisted that they had waited calmly in church and at home; they knew that Jesus could find them wherever they were.

After the "Great Disappointment," as the Millerites and their direct descendants, the Seventh-Day-Adventists, later called the incident, a majority of the Millerites went back to their everyday lives and their everyday religion. A few drifted into other strange beliefs. William Miller himself took to stating that he had misunderstood the nature of the prediction. October 22, 1844 wasn't supposed to be the day that Jesus would reappear and the elect be brought up to heaven. Instead, it was the last day when it was possible for people to be saved. The door to Heaven was shut for most people. No hope: A few Millerites went from church to church preaching this message, but for some reason it never got much traction.

The end of the world is a way of seeing. It enriches our sense of the reality that surrounds us. For these reasons, and because memories are short, it did not take long for America to see the return of predictions of the immediate, imminent end of the world. The Millerites are forgotten, but one fifth of us regularly state that that Jesus will return within the next several years.

The end of the world is deeply rooted in the American psyche; it is the flip side of American optimism. Ever since Ronald Reagan, with his finger on the button, comforted half the country and scared the rest of us out our socks by speculating that Armageddon just might happen during his administration, two contrasting visions of the end of the world have confronted each other. In one vision, the evangelical vision, Jesus will return very soon, and not a moment too soon, to rescue humanity from the terrible fix it has gotten itself into. In the other vision, which is not based on the book of Revelation, but is not necessarily irreligious, the world as we know it is going to end because of the terrible fix we have gotten ourselves into, and because we cannot agree to do anything about it.

Phillip Margulies is the author of the new novel Belle Cora.