It’s only the latest
There was a man with a bird on his shoulder helping a long line of Q adherents in Dealey Plaza see a non-existent Illuminati pyramid on top of the Book Depository building. Soon afterwards, they formed themselves into a giant Q on the grass.
This remnant had stayed behind after a crowd had begun gathering to await the prophesied return of JFK Jr scheduled for Tuesday, November 2nd at 12:29 PM. During this week of waiting, the group would claim to have seen other dead celebrities in the crowd and anticipate the potential revelation that the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards was actually JFK Jr. in disguise. Even though JFK Jr. has been dead for twenty-two years, this was not the first time his miraculous ‘reappearance’ had been predicted by would-be prophets, and this time he was supposed to proclaim Trump the Messiah.
Despite JFK Jr.’s failed appearance, it is unlikely these errors in prophecy will hinder the messianic beliefs of the expectant QAnon faithful. Notably, the JFK Jr. fringe within QAnon is just one facet of the broader obsession with millenarian ideologies in the far-right conspiracy movement. As Mike Rothschild explains, QAnon is based on the idea that Donald Trump, their messianic figure, is leading a secret war against the “Deep State” and a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who rule the planet. Subscribers to these beliefs wait in anticipation of the coming “Storm,” an apocalyptic showdown which will conclude with the sudden overthrow of the cabal, the arrest of its leaders, and the mass hanging of their enemies. As startling as the belief in JFK Jr.’s return might be, its power to not only draw hundreds from across the country to Dallas but also retain their allegiance in the lackluster aftermath of an unfulfilled prophecy locates the belief squarely within a wider tradition of Christian prophecy and disappointment.
Many apocalyptic predicaments within the Christian tradition can be traced back to Jesus of Nazareth himself. Although there is considerable debate over the words, deeds, and personhood of the historical Jesus, most scholars view Jesus as standing in the line of Jewish end-times prophets. Even so, Jesus’ teachings of the end times have been an ongoing source of confusion and debate within Christianity. On the one hand, Jesus repeatedly warned his followers of the fast-approaching apocalyptic “hour,” instructing them to always be watching for signs of the times. Yet he also reminded them, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
While millions of Christians regularly confess their conviction that one day Jesus Christ will “come again with glory to judge the living and the dead,” most do not fixate on the where and when. But, through the ages, there always have been certain groups of believers who have waited for explicit signs and wonders or proclaimed knowledge of the day and hour of the coming end.
During the Middle Ages, a sense of “psychological imminence” that the Apocalypse was constantly nigh charged specific periods of “chronological imminence” with end-times significance. Moments of peak apocalyptic potential such as the years 500 and 1000—or even the year 800, with Charlemagne’s crowning as Roman Emperor—filled the early Middle Ages. But of course, the apocalypse never came. During the late tenth and eleventh century, socio-political events again combined to push apocalypticism to the forefront. As historian Matthew Gabriele writes, “With the Frankish empire gone, the new Israel suffering another captivity, the historical moment became contingent, unstable. Events repeated, the cycle of sacred history continued, but those events’ ultimate significance could change.” Feel familiar?
In moments when the imagined power of the dominant community was in decline, combined with signs and wonders and a handful of important dates, apocalypticism would once again crest. In 1033, the millennial anniversary of the Crucifixion, one monastic chronicler wrote that large groups went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in hopes of being present for the Second Coming. When Jesus failed to appear, some decided it was a sign of a different part of the end times. As such, even a failed prophecy becomes itself a prophecy–if this one does not succeed, it portends the next.
Recent American history has had plenty of examples of failed prophecies. The dawn of the nineteenth century saw a smörgåsbord of American-made messiahs, prophets, and utopias arise during the Second Great Awakening, each offering proclamations about the United States’ future and a unique vision of how American society should be organized. Among these prophets was William Miller, a Massachusetts veteran of the War of 1812 turned Baptist preacher. Following his religious conversion, Miller threw himself into study of the Bible and came to the startling conclusion that Christ’s Second Coming was fast approaching: in 1843, to be precise. At first Miller only shared his beliefs with his friends and family. But as 1843 approached, he began preaching across New England. Miller’s message proved persuasive, with hundreds flocking to see him speak and prepare for the end times. Many of his followers left their jobs, sold their goods, and awaited Christ’s return, only to be disappointed. Equally frustrated, Miller recalculated and presented October 22, 1844 as the new expectant date. Yet, once again, Christ did not appear. Known as ‘the great disappointment,’ Miller’s mispredictions dispirited many, causing them to abandon him altogether. But others modified his theology and helped lay the foundation for what we know today as the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Prophets like Miller are hardly alone. Only a few years ago, broadcast evangelist Harold Camping proclaimed May 21, 2011 to be the assigned date for the rapture (though he had earlier guessed 1994). Like Miller, Camping amassed a huge amount of media attention, followers, and mockery. After the failed prophecy, Camping believed October 21, 2011 could be the rapture’s date. Strikingly, though many were later embarrassed for believing Camping’s message, some to this day have no regrets.
If the failure of prophecy is a common feature of Christian apocalypticism, what can be said of QAnon? If the shape of its conspiracy theories parallels that of the Christian ideas of the end times, will it also simply cycle through dates and signs over and over? Like most apocalyptic groups, QAnon has shifted its claims concerning the coming “Storm” several times, and has become less focused on waiting for “Q-Drops.” Even so, some QAnon followers remain in Dallas, refusing to leave, waiting for JFK Jr. to come. As bizarre as this steadfast faith might appear, the history of apocalyptic movements reveals that failure is often simply the condition for the next prophecy. If history is any guide, apocalyptic fervor rarely comes to a sudden end. Rather, it just peters out, slowly and strangely.
Daniel N. Gullotta is a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) at Stanford University in American Religious History. He is a frequent contributor to The Bulwark, and his writings have also appeared in The Washington Post, The Hill, National Review, and The New Criterion. He is also the host of the Age of Jackson Podcast. Substack: The Letters of Wyoming. Twitter: @danielgullotta.
Thomas Lecaque is an Associate Professor of Medieval History at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. He is a frequent contributor to The Bulwark, and has also written for The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Religion Dispatches, History News Network, and John Stoehr’s Editorial Board. He can be found on Twitter @tlecaque