The closer you look at American history, the more it seems that someone somewhere is always in apocalyptic time. Sometimes the whole country seems to plunge in together, as in such convulsive periods as the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the aftermath of 9/11. Other times a distinct subculture detects an eschaton invisible to everyone else. On October 22, 1844, the followers of William Miller abandoned their homes and fields and gathered to greet the end of the world; to quote Mark Twain’s account, they “put on their ascension robes, took a tearful leave of their friends, and made ready to fly up to heaven at the first blast of the trumpet. But the angel did not blow it.”

The Millerites came and went without hurting much more than the believers’ pride. But other millennial movements attracted a reputation for violence, for taking up arms to hasten or weather the oncoming collapse.

In the 1980s, for example, a far-right sect called the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord convinced itself that the last days were at hand. “It will get so bad that parents will eat their children,” church leader James Ellison predicted. “Death in the major cities will cause rampant diseases and plagues. Maggot-infested bodies will lie everywhere. Earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanoes, and other natural disasters will grow to gigantic proportions. Witches and satanic Jews will offer people up as sacrifices to their gods, openly and proudly; blacks will rape and kill white women and will torture and kill white men; homosexuals will sodomize whoever they can. Our new government will be a part of the one-world Zionist Communist government. All but the elect will have the mark of the Beast.” Ellison’s followers started conducting military maneuvers and plotting terrorist attacks. Their career concluded in a 1985 standoff with the feds, a siege that lasted for four days before the militants surrendered.