The world didn't end on September 6, 1994.
But for the worshippers crowded into an Alameda veterans hall on the days prior, time was of the essence. Children in their Sunday best skittered in and out of the room while their parents silently prayed or read the Bible. Many were sold on predestination -- the Calvinist belief that heaven makes room for a pre-chosen few, while everyone else, even the saved, are damned to hell. Still, a few folks expressed concern for those who hadn't yet come to the Lord. "We are fearful for other people, the unsaved, facing an angry God," Alameda's Rick LaCasse told the San Francisco Examiner, which was monitoring the countdown. "God is going to punish sin."
Alameda wasn't the only town gearing up for the rapture. Across North America and a few places overseas, groups of evangelical Christians were gathering in anticipation of a cataclysmic event that had a "99.9 percent" chance of happening, according to the man who predicted it. "At first, when I heard it, I thought it was a joke," San Jose resident Roger Maxwell told the Examiner. "I was skeptical, but the more you read the Bible, it becomes clear."
The man who planted the ideas in these people's heads was Harold Camping, a longtime Alameda resident with the money and power to speak directly to the masses. Camping sits at the helm of Family Radio, a nonprofit Christian broadcasting empire that's headquartered near Oakland Airport but has a worldwide reach. Family Radio boasts 45 primary stations and 110 translator stations (which simply rebroadcast programs generated by the primary stations) operating in 38 states. The network also spreads the Word across the globe via Internet radio, short- and medium-wave radio, and satellite, reaching listeners in Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, Europe, Africa, India, and China.
The goal of this empire: Go forth, multiply, and spread the gospel -- His gospel. The network features Camping's own syndicated daily Bible show, Open Forum, heard locally at 106.9 FM along with his Family Bible Study, which airs several times daily.
While Family Radio won't reveal how many listeners it has, the network is fueled by donations, which totaled nearly $15 million in 2001, according to the nonprofit's tax returns.
In other words, when Camping began predicting the end of the world, there were plenty of people listening. His most loyal followers prepared for the end in different ways, and though Camping had advised against it, there were reports of believers selling their homes, cashing out their pension plans, and running up credit cards with the understanding that none of it was to matter anymore.
Bill Patton, a Fremont resident who worked for Family Radio for seventeen years, says more than a few listeners tithed their life savings to the company. "I was there then, in the computer department," he says. "There were people who just sold out everything and gave it over to Family Radio and said, 'Oh, it doesn't make a difference, the end's coming.'"
The end-watchers paid little heed to the naysayers, and stood up for their shepherd. "There are people foaming at the mouth, waiting for October 1 so they can say 'I told you so,'" one female Pennsylvania believer told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It's like being Noah. No one listened to him either. '"
Perhaps the most convinced was Reggie Wiggins, a warehouse worker from Pennsylvania where, next to California, Camping owns the largest number of stations. "I've been looking at this for ten years, and nothing, absolutely nothing, can change my mind," he told the Inquirer. For Wiggins, the world did end on September 6. He died that day after falling into a diabetic coma, the result, it is rumored, of his having halted his medications a couple months prior to the big day. "My deceased husband gave Harold Camping everything he had," said Wiggins' ex-wife in a recent telephone interview. "Every dime, everything. [Camping] needs to be exposed; he's a fraud."
When his doomsday prediction turned out to be false, Harold Camping, then 73, picked himself up, dusted himself off, and emphasized that he'd really had only been 99.9 percent certain. The remaining 0.1 percent had won out. Many of his listeners forgave the mistake. After all, didn't Camping's prophetic 1992 book -- 1994? -- bear a question mark in the title? "Nobody really condemns him," Eva Schwartz, an elderly woman who stuck with Camping through the ordeal, told The New York Times in December 1994. "They say, 'We love you, you are still a wonderful Bible teacher, everybody can make a mistake.'"
Not everyone was so forgiving. The rise and fall of his doomsday prophecy cost the lifelong theologian a good chunk of his religious capital. He was compelled to leave his longtime Alameda church following a tiff with church elders over his doomsday teachings, and his dire predictions created a public rift between him and other prominent evangelicals.
None of this seemed to bother Camping. He still had hordes of listeners who swore by the unusual scripture readings propagated through his popular call-in and Bible study shows. But it was what he did next that really drove the Christian establishment into fits. In 2001, the powerful broadcaster turned against the church.