Sunday, December 9, 2012

Apocalypse Now?

According to believers in the 21 December 2012 apocalypse, the ancient Mayan calender predicts the end of the world (or at least an epoch-defining cataclysm) in three days. Speculators differ on the means--a devastating solar flare, a supersized black hole, or the mysterious planet Nibiru? Take your pick. My personal favorite is Timewave Zero, "at which point anything and everything imaginable will occur simultaneously."(Wikipedia) But one belief unites them all: the End is Near (again).

Observers of popular religious culture (for that is what this is, whether people admit it or not) will recognize that the real phenomenon here is that so many people will fall for yet another predicted date for the end of the world. This happens, and will continue to happen, despite the failure of every preceding prediction--not to mention Jesus' clear insistence that "no one knows."(Mark 13:32) In honor of this latest instance of doomsaying, I would like to present some examples of apocalyptic themes in church music from days gone by.

Probably the best known of these is "Jesus is coming soon" (PFTL 351), written by Robert E. Winsett in 1942. This popular gospel song actually won "Song of the Year" in the Gospel Music Association's very first Dove Awards--in 1969!( It is still included in a number of U.S. hymnals. I will write a complete post on this song when I get to it in alphabetical order (in approximately the year 2016 or so if the Lord wills). But for now, consider a few points about the origins and message of this song.

In 1942, the United States was suddenly engaged in World War Two in earnest. Japan had delivered a nearly fatal blow to our navy in the Pacific, crushing Americans' faith that the oceans would keep war at bay. Though that year would also see major turning points in favor of the Allies--such as Midway, El Alamein, and Stalingrad--to the average person at the time it was anyone's guess who would be the victor. And if one were looking for "the Antichrist" (as that term is popularly used; but see 1 John 2:18!), Adolf Hitler was a candidate far better qualified than those names that have been bandied about since. In the early 1940s it certainly looked as though the world were ending!

What were the views of Robert E. Winsett when he wrote this song? I have found no direct testimony from the author, but his personal and professional associations offer pretty conclusive evidence. He was a minister in the Church of God (Seventh Day),(Nickels, 123) an Adventist group that never accepted Ellen White's claims as a prophet.("Questions") Their beliefs about the Apocalypse were originally quite mixed, stemming from the spectacular failure of the William Miller prophecies in the 19th century. But in the early 20th century Andrew N. Dugger, editor of the Bible Advocate and president of the General Conference (church history buffs may recognize his name also from the 1942 Dugger-Porter debate), taught that world events were pointing to an immediate return of Christ. Dugger promoted his view especially heavily during the 1920s to 1940s--the era of the Great Depression and World War Two.(Coulter, 13) He declared as early as 1933,
The end is very near at hand. Signs throughout the world show the Lord is soon coming. European diplomats are prophesying a world war involving all nations in 1934 which they say the League of Nations is powerless to avert. We know what this means. Conditions of the world, and also of the Holy Land, are set in order for Armageddon. Therefore the church must also be set in order, to meet the bridegroom. ... It is now time for his wife to make herself ready.(quoted in Lane)
It is significant as well that Herbert W. Armstrong and the Worldwide Church of God, promoters of the Anglo-Israelism version of End Times doctrines, split away from the Church of God (Seventh Day) during this time.("Questions") It is interesting to note that after the war failed to end in Armageddon, opinions again became divided, and today the mainstream Church of God (Seventh Day) officially eschews the idea of predicting the return of Christ.(Coulter, 13; see also McBride, 6-7)

Where was Winsett during the period of Dugger's ascendancy? When the Salem-Stanberry split occured in the Church of God (Seventh Day) in 1933, Winsett was selected as part of the leadership of the Salem branch, which was headed primarily by Dugger.(Nickels, 134) Though the split itself (which was later repaired) was about church organization, not End Times doctrines, this does show the association of the two men. At the time "Jesus is coming soon" was written, on the heels of a global depression and deep into a global war, there was widespread belief in Winsett's circles that the return of Christ was imminent.

The lyrics come into much sharper focus in this context. I believe the first stanza obviously references World War Two, which from the perspective of the U.S. general public had just gone from a distant conflict on another continent to a full national mobilization.
Troublesome times are here,
Filling men's hearts with fear;
Freedom we all hold dear
Now is at stake . . .
The second stanza might be addressing the Great Depression ("losing their homes of gold?"), a traumatic decade of hardship and upheaval that had transformed American society. The first line probably refers to Jesus' statement in Matthew 24:12, "And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold." Matthew 24, of course, is a central text in the debate over End Times predictions.
Love of so many cold,
Losing their homes of gold;
This in God's word is told,
Evils abound.
Winsett's belief that current events pointed to an imminent Apocalypse is most clearly stated in the second half of the stanza:
When these signs come to pass,
Nearing the end at last,
It will come very fast,
Trumpets will sound.
The rest of the lyrics fit in with this interpretation well enough, but do not specifically suggest it.

For those of us who stand simply on Jesus' plain statement that "concerning that day and hour, no one knows,"(Matthew 24:36) what does this song mean? If you didn't know when Winsett wrote it, and what his beliefs were about the events of his day, the song might bear a less controversial interpretation (up to a certain point). The first stanza asserts only that "troublesome times are here," creating fear and threatening a loss of liberties. That has been more or less true for most people throughout the history of the world; the troubles and threats are always there, only the names change. Admittedly, however, to say that those times "are here" implies that they were not before, and that their arrival has significance.

The refrain might not be objectionable either, depending on what one means by "coming soon:"
Jesus is coming soon,
Morning or night or noon!
Many will meet their doom;
Trumpets will sound.
All of the dead shall rise,
Righteous meet in the skies,
Going where no one dies,
Heavenward bound.
Jesus said in His last words to us, after all, "Surely I am coming quickly."(Revelation 22:21) Naturally, what God means by "quickly" and what we mean by "quickly" are two different things; God literally has all the time in the world. The statement "Jesus is coming soon," therefore, is true against this backdrop; but in the overall context of the song it obviously implies that Jesus is coming soon in the sense we humans mean.

If there were any doubt of the interpretation of this song, the second stanza removes it entirely. The line, "When these signs come to pass," claims that the foregoing events are visible indications of the imminent return of Jesus; Winsett either believed the signs were already present, or would be so shortly. For this reason, this stanza is often omitted among the Churches of Christ, either by the song leader in practice or in the hymnal itself (as in Praise for the Lord). The third stanza does not contain anything particularly controversial.

We often sing hymns, of course, that were written by people with whom we disagree in some aspect of doctrine. Sometimes we even sing a hymn with an entirely different meaning than what the author intended--for example, "Faith of our Fathers" is sung by many different religious groups despite the fact that Faber was writing specifically about Roman Catholicism (check the original third stanza). But in the case of "Jesus is coming soon," the lyrics (especially in the second stanza) are so explicit in their intent that many in the Churches of Christ simply will not use it in worship. I do not lead it myself (even with the second stanza omitted) because in my opinion, an honest, straightforward reading of it teaches doctrines I believe to be false. (For two excellent articles on doctrinal issues in this song, see Guy F. Hester, "Is Jesus coming soon?" from the May 2011 Gospel Gleaner, and "Jesus is coming soon?" by Dave Miller at the Apologetics Press site.)

"Jesus is coming soon" in its historical context brings up another interesting point--if this song was proclaiming the Apocalypse in the 1940s, how did it manage to outlive the failure of that prediction and even rise in popularity through the years? Part of the reason is that it is a rousing, well-written song. But I believe another reason was the rapid ascendancy of a new era of "troublesome times"--the atomic age. If the line about "losing their homes of gold" made less sense during the post-war era when American affluence was rising, the Cold War threat of sudden and fiery destruction was "filling men's hearts with fear" once again.

With the rising popularity of commercial gospel music during the post-war era, many songwriters took up the theme of "Jesus is coming soon" in a similar but updated vein. One of the most famous of these "atomic gospel" songs was "Great Atomic Power" by the Louvin Brothers in 1952. Despite its rather macabre lyrics, this has remained a popular song in bluegrass and folk music circles, partly for its historic value and partly because it is just rather catchy.

The paranoia of the Cold War took many forms, perhaps none more unusual than the flying saucer panics of the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1947, the year of the Roswell incident and the Truman Doctrine, the Buchanan Brothers released this interesting interpretation of current events:

Please understand that I am not giving these examples in order to mock them (well, maybe the last one). I still remember, from my childhood in the later part of the Cold War, how the hairs on the back of my neck stood up whenever I heard that shrill tone of the Emergency Broadcasting System. (For some sick reason they always tested it right after school, when I was home alone watching cartoons.) But I do hope to make the point that when society is disrupted by some cataclysm, or the perceived threat of cataclysm, one of our instinctive human responses is to interpret it as a sign.

We also have a recurring fascination with unusual numbers on the calendar. It has happened before and will happen again. Look, for example, at the following text:
Hear, O earth, hear, O great bordering sea;
Hear, O man, hear, everything which lives under the sun:
The day of supreme wrath comes nigh,
Troublesome day,
Bitter day,
At which the heavens will flee,
The sun will turn red,
The moon will be altered, and the day grow dark,
And the stars will fall to earth.
Alas, wretches,
Alas, wretches,
Why, O foolish man,
Do you follow after pleasure?
This is the first stanza (in my imperfect translation) of "Audi tellus," an apocalyptic hymn from the original millennium scare--before the year 1000.(Norberg, 154; see also Landes, 120) Similar fears arose in the 14th century when the Black Death wiped out as much as a third of the population of Europe. In 1349 the Geissler, wandering bands of penitents who flailed themselves with whips in hopes of appeasing God's wrath, sang the hymn "Nu hebent auf die uweren Händ," the gist of which is that Jesus was prepared to destroy the world because of the corruption of the church, but that Mary was interceding on behalf of the penitent.(Runge, 38, see also page 174)

Centuries later in London, the year 1666--ominous enough already--was marked by plague and fire, provoking apocalyptic expectations once again. The library of Samuel Pepys preserved an anonymous broadside ballad from that year, titled "A Bell-Man for England," the first stanza of which follows.
Awake, awake, oh England, sweet England now awake,
And to thy prayers speedily, doe thou thy selfe betake:
The Lord thy God is comming, within the skie so cleare:
Repent with speed thy wickednesse, the day it draweth neere.
The full text of fifteen stanzas (available at the wonderful English Broadside Ballad Archive) covers much of the same ground as "Jesus is Coming Soon," including this striking parallel: "For all things be fulfilled, which Christ before had told, / Small faith is now remaining, and charity is growne cold."

The tendency to express apocalyptic predictions in song is nothing new, because people will sing about things that weigh on their minds; and a feeling that the end is near is something that seems to grip societies every so often, whether because of wars, plagues, natural disasters, or social upheavals. The one thing that these apocalyptic predictions have all had in common, of course, is that they have been wrong! In my own three decades or so of following this subject, I have seen several widely publicized predictions of the Apocalypse come and go. If I had the desire, I could assemble a large stack of books ascertaining the identity of the "Antichrist," depending on the international boogeyman of the moment. I have been solemnly assured that the Lord must surely come by the year 1980, 1990, 2000, 2012, etc.

For every person who hears such a prediction and is caused perhaps to think for a moment about the state of his or her soul, how many more are encouraged to join the scoffers who say, "Where is the promise of His coming?"(2 Peter 3:4) How much better simply to follow Christ's command in Matthew 25:13, "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour!" And in a very real sense, of course, the "End is Near" for each one of us. I say this not to be morbid, but as a simple fact: every day could be our last day, whether the Lord returns that day or not. We need to be prepared to meet the Lord on 21 December 2012, and on any other day of the calendar. God help us to devote our energies to serving Him and our fellow humanity, rather than wasting time in speculation on a matter we have been told is not to be found out!


"2012 Phenomenon." Wikipedia.

Nickels, Richard C. History of the Church of God (Seventh Day). Revised by the author in 1993. Freetoshare Publications, 2010.

"Frequently asked questions." General Conference of the Church of God (Seventh Day)

Coulter, Robert. "Questions and answers." Bible Advocate volume 146, number 6 (November-December 2012), page 13.

McBride, James. "It's doomsday... again!" Bible Advocate volume 146, number 6 (November-December 2012), pages 6-7.

Lane, Jack M. "Why I am no longer an 'imminent Adventist.'"

Norberg, Dag. An Introduction to the Study of Medieval Latin Versification, translated by Roti & Skubly, edited by Jan Ziolkowski. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2004.

Landes, Richard. "The Fear of an Apocalyptic Year 1000: Augustinian Historiography, Medieval and Modern." Speculum, 75:1 (January 2000), pages 97-145. Online version from Boston University Department of History.

No comments:

Post a Comment