REPORT

The Apocalypse finally came for Howard Camping

By James Cook

After spending many of his 92 years preaching his belief that the world’s end was imminent, notorious doomsday preacher Howard Camping’s world really did end last Sunday when he died in California after being hospitalised following a fall.

Born in 1921 to two Dutch immigrants, Camping’s family moved to California when he was a child. After completing a degree in civil engineering, Camping established a construction company after the end of the Second World War. The company came to a messy ending with lawsuits and rumours of asbestos poisoning.

Camping avoided discussing his family publicly. The long-established rumour is that he and his wife Shirley had 7 children and 24 grandchildren.

The preacher’s focus in later life came to rest on his religious beliefs rather than his business. The construction business was sold and Camping moved to work full-time in evangelical radio stations across San Francisco.

It was in this industry that Camping managed to spread his influence and to create an audience of thousands who believed his apocalyptic forecasts.

Harold Camping with the radio station equipment used to broadcast his message across the US.

Harold Camping with the radio station equipment used to broadcast his message across the US.

Since the late 1950s, Camping spread his beliefs through Christian radio stations across the US. Joining with other conservative Christians, he purchased KEAR in San Francisco. As the station broadcast traditional gospel music, the preacher’s shrewd business dealings meant that the group went on to purchase a further six evangelical radio stations.

Open Forum, the the regular call-in radio programme that Camping hosted from 1961 until 2011, served as the perfect platform for his views. Troubled viewers would call the show, where Camping would teach them his interpretation of the Bible.

qara shem

Howard Camping’s Biblical theories were radical, claiming to be a more reliable account of Biblical history than long-established texts. Camping’s 1970 book The Biblical Calendar Of History outlined his belief that existing Biblical history was wrong.

According to Camping, “begat”, which was found in the scriptures of the Old Testament, did not mean a father-son relationship. Instead, he argued that the Hebrew phrase for “called his name”, “qara shem”, indicated a direct blood relative.

Camping’s radical new theory of Biblical timekeeping, which was not really supported by any evidence, provided the basis for his explosive theories.

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The controversial message relayed by Camping’s “Family Radio” network was that a Biblical calendar had been uncovered through Camping’s revelations and that it clearly signalled the return of Christ. The date was set: September 6, 1994.

The end is not nigh

When his first prediction failed to come about, Camping was shocked, but not beaten. He backtracked, publicising a new date for the rapture and eventual apocalypse: May 21, 2011.

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Devout Howard Camping believers sprang to action, attempting to save as much of the world’s populace as they could. An international promotional campaign was created, spreading across continents.

Camping’s message was clear: the apocalypse is coming, Jesus is returning, be ready. So taken in by the fervour were his listeners, that the campaign to save the world cost around $100 million. Through the sale of television and radio stations, Camping’s followers financed a marketing campaign that rivaled promotional work for Hollywood blockbusters.

Many of his listeners chose to donate their own money to the cause, often mortgaging their homes or slipping into financial difficulty. For his listeners, getting into debt was not a problem. After all, it would all be gone by May 2011.

Camping's supporters took to the streets of California to spread the word of the approaching end times

Camping’s supporters took to the streets of California to spread the word of the approaching end times

New York resident Robert Fitzpatrick, 60, spent over $140,000 of his own money erecting adverts about the end of the world. He remained adamant that it was his duty to spread the word of Camping.

God’s people are commanded to sound the warning, to sound the trumpet so to speak so people know.

On midnight on 21 May, Judgement Day was supposed to begin in Asia. Tokyo and Beijing would be first.

But they weren’t. Camping’s apocalypse failed to occur.

He hid from the press. The Family Radio office remained closed over the weekend, and the shutters stayed drawn at the Camping family home. It was an embarrassing second failure for the doomsday preacher.

NPR photographer Brandon Tauszikcaptured the moment that Camping emerged after the apocalypse

NPR photographer Brandon Tauszik captured the moment that Camping emerged after the apocalypse

Eventually, the front door opened on Sunday morning and Howard Camping emerged looking dazed. He told reporters that he was “totally bewildered” to see the world still in existence.

The real end

Two days after the rapture was meant to have taken place, Camping resumed his regular Open Forum show. On the Monday after the apocalypse, Camping explained that he had made a miscalculation. Doomsday would actually be on October 21, 2011. When reporters asked whether money spent by protestors publicising Camping’s failed doomsday prediction would be returned, he responded with annoyance.

We’re not at the end. Why would we return it?

Needless to say, Camping’s third apocalypse also failed to take place. He was ridiculed. With his congregation dwindling and accusations growing that he had been running a cult, Camping retired from his weeknight talk show.

The last significant act in Howard Camping’s life was his embarrassed confession that yes, he was wrong. A letter from Camping was posted on the website of his radio network in March 2012.

“We realize that many people are hoping they will know the date of Christ’s return, we humbly acknowledge we were wrong about the timing. God has humbled us through the events of May 21, we must also openly acknowledge that we have no new evidence pointing to another date for the end of the world.

“Though many dates are circulating, Family Radio has no interest in even considering another date.”

Camping, now in his nineties, was spent. With no more doom-mongering, he took a passive role in the survival of the largely abandoned Family Radio network. Even a brief rise in apocalypse predictions for December 21, 2012 failed to coax the preacher out of retirement.

While Camping’s death will not close the book on doomsday predictions forever, it at least brings an end to the chapter of this one determined old man.