Last week's mass suicide in Uganda inevitably dredged up memories of similar incidents in the past. One Reuters report, dubbed "Mass suicides a recurrent world phenomenon," cited deaths spurred by the Solar Temple sect, a Vietnamese scam artist, a misguided Mexican pastor, David Koresh, and of course the People's Temple, led by "paranoid U.S. pastor" Jim Jones in Guyana, 1978. But groups have been gathering to await—or escape to—the next world since long before 1978. In the second century A.D., when it was clear Christ's coming had not signaled the imminent end of the world, early theologians started speculating about concepts like the Millennium, the Antichrist, and the Second Coming. Most, like Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165), acknowledged the theories were just theories: "I and many others are of this opinion, and believe that such will take place … but, on the other hand, many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise." Montanus, however, declared around 172 that the Millennium had begun, that he had been given authority over the church, and that Jerusalem would soon descend near Phrygia (western Asia Minor). He was eventually condemned by the church, though not for his eschatology.In the early 200s, a church leader in northern Asia Minor predicted Christ would come again within a year and told his followers to prepare. When the year passed uneventfully, "The virgins got married; the men withdrew to their farms; and those who had recklessly sold all their possessions were eventually to be found begging." Thoughts of the end flared again in 303, when the Roman Emperor Diocletian (whom some believed to be the first beast of Revelation 13) began the Great Persecution of the church, but the thoughts largely subsided when Emperor Constantine began restoring the church in 312. Times were so good for Christians, some believed the Millennium had already arrived.The year 1000 seems to have passed with relatively little millennial fever, probably because anno Domini dating was fairly new and most people didn't know what year it was. However, all manner of events during the Middle Ages were assigned apocalyptic significance: attempts at church reform, plagues, wars, martyrdoms, and the ascendence of a new ruler. All of this turbulence, roiled even more by the Reformation, set the stage for one of history's most gruesome failed kingdoms, initiated in 1530 by the fiery Anabaptist Melchoir Hoffman. Hoffman declared Strasbourg to be the New Jerusalem, and though he never advocated violence, he was deemed a threat to society and imprisoned. But his ideas had already spread, and they were soon taken up by a Dutch baker named Jan Matthys. Matthys, proclaiming himself to be Enoch (the second witness in Revelation) adjusted the New Jerusalem site to Munster and declared it a "city of refuge" from the coming destruction. As Anabaptists filled the city, Matthys took despotic control, fortified the city heavily, and prepared for battle with Munster's Roman Catholic bishop. When the battle finally came, on May 25, 1535, the bishop's army slaughtered the Anabaptists. After two days, the pile of bodies filled the cathedral square.Fast-forward to the nineteenth century, when New England farmer William Miller, relying on prophecies from the book of Daniel and cosmic chronology supplied by James Ussher, predicted the end of the world between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. Miller's preaching drew enormous crowds, and more than 50,000 people believed him. As 1844 began, he wrote to the "second advent believers," asking, "Does your heart begin to quail? Or are you waiting for your blessed hope in the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ?" When March 21 came and went, Miller confessed his error, but one of his followers found in other verses a predicted "tarrying time" that adjusted the date to October 22. This, too, came and went, prompting a "great disappointment." Many people became bitter and disillusioned with Miller, who died a forgotten man. A small group reinterpreted his prophecy and organized themselves as the Seventh-Day Adventists.Though apocalyptic predictions have often turned tragic over the centuries, mass suicides seem to be a relatively new phenomenon. In a "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" broadcast on cult mentality following the 1997 Heaven's Gate suicide, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist teaching at the City University of New York, said, "I think this is a sign of our times. I mean, we're technologically advanced and schooled. We're spiritually adrift, and the combination can be deadly because the particular spiritual embrace can be all the more extreme."This suicidal version of the problem may be new, but the temptation to predict, even force, the coming of kingdom bliss is not. And John Calvin's perspective seems as fresh as ever: "Though we very truly hear that the Kingdom of God will be filled with splendor, joy, happiness, and glory, yet when these things are spoken of, they remain utterly remote from our perception, and, as it were, wrapped in obscurities, until that day comes when he will reveal to us his glory, that we may behold it face to face."Elesha Coffman is assistant editor of Christian History magazine.

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More Christian History, including a listing of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at We also strongly encourage you to subscribe to the quarterly print magazine.For more on the history of millennial thought, see Christian History issue 61: The End, available online or for purchase in its print form.PBS's NewsHour site offers a transcript of its March 27, 1997 show, with audio clips, a background report, and a forum.News reports and other resources about the Ugandan doomsday cult is available at Yahoo's full coverage area.Coffman took an earlier look at apocalyptic history in her review of PBS's " Apocalypse!" Her article, " The Revelation Will Be Televised | 'Apocalypse!,' tonight's episode of PBS's Frontline, gets better after its biblical criticism," appeared November 22, 1999, on History Corner appears every Friday at Previous Christian History Corners include:Forgive and Remember | Pope John Paul II's apology was unprecedented, but not entirely unique (March 17, 2000) Modernism's Moses | Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the century's most controversial Christians, devoted much of his life to fighting fundamentalism. (March 10, 2000) The Man They Made a Monkey | William Jennings Bryan won the battle but lost the war against teaching evolution in the schools. (March 10, 2000) Guess Who? | Can you identify the most influential Christians of the twentieth century? (Feb. 29, 2000) An Ambitious Aboltionist Account | In Tim Stafford's novel Stamp of Glory, the main character is a movement (Feb. 18, 2000) The Caged Bird Wrote | If only CBS had chosen a true heroine for Black History Month … (Feb. 11, 2000) A Cave of One's Own | Who were the early church's 'desert mothers'? (Feb. 4, 2000) For Better or Worse | The Church of England's current wrestling with divorce echoes its inception (Jan 28, 2000)