I just appeared on the Salt Lake Tribune's Mormon Land podcast with Peggy Fletcher Stack and David Noyce. We talked about all sorts of things, about what made Latter-day Saint apocalypticism unique, about what had changed over the years, about the White Horse Prophecy, and the current Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Russell M. Nelson. Check it out.
I appeared on Radio West along with Lynne McNeill from Utah State University to discuss the founding legends of Utah Territory. I had a blast discussing crickets, seagulls, mountains, Gadianton Robbers, Three Nephites, and many other aspects of regional folklore. You can listen to it here or download it as a podcast.
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
A Note to Readers: In this essay, I acknowledge that Chad and Lori Daybell are part of the Latter-day Saint tradition. Their beliefs do not represent the mainstream teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or any other religious organization. Yet their ideas and prophecies are entangled in that tradition. They consider themselves Latter-day Saints and have built their ideas from both mainstream Latter-day Saint thought and from “fringe” theology championed by apocalyptic authors and visionaries.
Early in the media coverage of Chad and Lori Daybell we learned they believed the world would end on July 22, 2020. For months, there was little more about this date. In a long-awaited interview, Nate Eaton asked Melanie Gibbs, Lori Daybell’s one-time confidante and fellow believer, “July 22nd, 2020. Is the world going to end that day?” She responded with a smile, “No, the world is not going to end.” Eaton again asked what the significance of July 22nd was. Gibbs responded, “Well I never heard that date. I always heard August… ummm.. but that comes from a few different ideas… it didn’t come from her… it comes from different researching she did on her own about the year 2020 [which] would be a half hour silence in heaven. It matched up to that year.” In this essay, I explain why Chad and Lori placed significance in the year 2020, pointing to this conversation surrounding the Book of Revelation as it occurred in Latter-day Saint apocalyptic literature.
Historically Latter-day Saints have been wary of setting dates for the apocalypse. Early Church leaders criticized the Millerites for predicting the Second Coming for some time in 1843 or 1844. And, while it’s a much longer story (Read about it in Terrible Revolution!), Joseph Smith promised Jesus would not return before his 85th birthday (December 1890). When 1890 arrived, some Saints expected the Second Coming must be near but Church President Wilford Woodruff warned that “we never would know the exact time of the coming of the Son of man.” Rather than awaiting a specific date, Latter-day Saints debated chronologies arguing which prophesied events had occurred and which believers were still waiting for.
That said, from the time of Joseph Smith, there was a general belief that the Second Coming would occur sometime around 6000 years into the human history of the world. As I wrote in Terrible Revolution:
"The average Latter-day Saint was more likely to take an interest in the last days as the century moved forward. Based on the wealth of apocalyptic discussions in the 1980s and 1990s, it is reasonable to think that the year 2000 should have had more of an impact on Latter-day Saints than it did. Joseph Smith had interpreted John the Revelator’s vision of Christ opening a book sealed with seven seals as the unfolding of the history of the world. The seven seals represented “seven thousand years of its continuance or its temporal existence.” According to a traditional reading of biblical chronologies, the world began in 4000 BCE. The millennium, ushered in by the Second Coming, would begin at the opening of the seventh thousand-year period or in 2000 CE. Many Mormons came to believe that April 6 was a seal’s start date because of a popular twentieth-century LDS belief that Jesus’ birth occurred on April 6, 1 CE, corresponding to the opening of the fifth seal. Thus, many apocalypticists accepted April 6, 2000, as a date of great significance in the apocalyptic timeline."
This idea showed up (and was problematized) in the two most influential late-twentieth-century books on the last days, Gerald N. Lund’s The Coming of the Lord (1971) and Bruce R. McConkie’s Millennial Messiah (1982). Both scholars admitted uncertainty about the year 2000. Lund acknowledged that believing “scholars disagree on exactly how many years the earth has undergone since the Fall of Adam, however, so it cannot be said that the Millennium will occur in the year 2,000 A.D. (as some enthusiastic interpreters of scripture would like to conclude).” McConkie similarly denied that one could “tell with certainty how many years passed from the fall of Adam to the birth of Jesus, nor whether the number of years counted by our present calendar has been tabulated without error.”
Yet, the opening of the seventh seal was not the only clue for end times events. The Book of Revelation does not present the Second Coming occurring alongside the opening of the seventh seal. Instead, it states “And when he [Jesus] had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” (Revelation 8:1) Following this time, seven angels appear to administer various plagues, natural disasters, and general destruction, and then the Second Coming begins. While Lund does not address this period of silence, McConkie suggests the possibility that the text should be read as another clue to the timing of last days events. “If the time here mentioned is ‘the Lord’s time’ in which one day is a thousand years, the half hour would be some twenty-one of our years. Could this be interpreted to mean that such a period will elapse after the commencement of the seventh thousand-year period and before the outpouring of the woes about to be named?” The actual calculation would equal 20.8 years. Some commentators have pointed out that if one was to read this passage as setting a specific timing from the beginning of the seventh seal to a period of great destructions, then the scripture (in the King James Version) does not actually refer to a “half-hour” but “about the space of half an hour.” It makes the calculation inexact.
In any case, the average Latter-day Saint seemed completely unconcerned with calculating prophecy. Before very recently the last time this conversation appeared in a popular publication was in a presentation by the controversial Latter-day Saint writer, W. Cleon Skousen. In 1999, Skousen presented his dates with much more certainty than either McConkie or Lund. He argued that there was no question that the current calendar matched up with the seven seals because “the Lord used the Gregorian calendar in such a way that it seemed to imply his approval of it … So if our calendar is accurate and apparently approved by the Lord, there is no question about the date of the opening of the seventh seal and the half hour of silence of heaven. It will commence in the year 2000 AD.”
Ultimately, I decided against covering Latter-day Saint speculations around the half hour of silence in Terrible Revolution because of its obscurity. Yet, I would end up writing about it in my article, “Vaughn J. Featherstone’s Atlanta Temple Letter” after the idea seemed to have grown to prominence following the release of a very popular YouTube video entitled, “7 Year Tribulation in the SEVENTH Seal TIMELINE” in March 2020. Perhaps it was the pandemic, the Salt Lake earthquake, and the approaching general conference, but the hour-long lecture obtained hundreds of thousands of views in the first two months and as of this writing 635,402 views.
As I glanced over social media today, I found hundreds of humorous comments about having survived the end of the world. There were questions about whether Chad and Lori had reconsidered their belief that the world would end that day. One particularly creative post included a photograph of a white and orange prison jump suit sitting on a bed and claiming that Lori had been raptured after all. Of course, Lori and Chad Daybell were not expecting the world to literally end today. If Gibbs was right and Lori had come to believe that the half hour of silence would end in 2020, it was more likely that she expected this date (or another in the year) as the beginning of great destructions which would ultimately lead to the overturning of the current world order.
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