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Apocalypse now

Few students worried that the meteor shower that occurred two weeks ago signified the end of the world. But if you had lived in Puritan New England, you may have spent that night in church, praying for mercy.

The new exhibit in the Alderman Library Special Collections examines the history of the apocalypse in America. "Red, White, Blue and Brimstone: New World Literature and the American Millennium" will run through April 28, 2000 in the McGregor Room of Alderman Library.

The exhibit contains posters depicting the apocalypse, sermons concerning the anger of God as shown by the heavenly bodies and books, including a book written by the children of nuns. Overall, more than 100 titles are on display and nearly all of them come from the University's collections.

Items on display range from John Eliot's 1671 "Indian Bible," a complete translation of the New and Old Testaments into Algonquian, to Increase Mather's "The Day of Trouble is Near", a sermon he preached in 1673, to a copy of Hal Lindsay's 1971 bestseller "The Late Great Planet Earth."

The display cases are filled with apocalyptic writing taken from American history. The pieces on display include such titles as "Y2K=666" and "Heavens Alarm to the World."

According to the texts on display, the world should have ended in 1697, 1716, 1736, 1843 and once again in 1988.

The idea for the exhibit, according to exhibit coordinator Heather Moore, came because of the approaching millennium.

"You look at the idea of the apocalypse and how it recurred," Moore said. "And what it meant to Cotton Mather in the 18th century, William Miller in the 19th century and Hal Lindsay in the 20th century."

She said the exhibit also was created from an interest in what some American apocalyptic writings predicted.

"The idea behind our exhibit was to go into our collection and find American examples of the prediction of the end of the world and see how that idea runs through American history and the American psyche," she added.

The exhibit centers on the apocalypse according to "The Book of Revelations," wherein a passage states that the world is supposed to end after a 1,260-year cycle.

William Miller, whose work is on display, predicted that the world would end in 1843, and after that year passed he changed it to 1844. Miller based his predictions on this biblical idea. Miller used the same passage to induce his followers to await the end of the world while dressed in white and sitting in trees.

"The Book of Revelations" is strong in America," Moore explained. "People were searching for ways to interpret it and make it fit."

A number of displays show people trying to interpret signs in the natural world. Earthquakes, comets, meteor showers and anything that could be placed under the heading of "natural disasters" were popular as apocalyptic signs.

John Edwards's "Cometomantia," which also is on display, explained the meaning of comets and how they should be interpreted as signs of the end of the world.

The featured objects span all periods of American history.

Even Thomas Jefferson has a display case showing his own apocalyptic traditions. His "Notes on the State of Virginia" describes Americans as the world's chosen people.

Also on display are works such as Alexander Smyth's "An Explanation of the Apocalypse," which the author presented to Jefferson in 1825. The copy on display is taken from Jefferson's personal library.

Last in the exhibit is a display of contemporary works. In the view of these authors, probably few students realize how close to the end of the world they are in 1999. Or that at the last judgment, people will be forced to undergo a gameshow-like review of their life, as Jack Chick's "Chick Tracts" proclaims.

"They're like little comics but they have a religious message. Pretty much, they're anti-everything," Moore said of the present day works.

As the exhibit shows, because visions of the apocalypse change over time, maybe this vision too will change in time, she said.

Exhibitions Coordinator George Rise said he spent the last two weeks preparing the books for display. Rise said the exhibit was not difficult to set up because all of the items were books. The books, however, are what makes this exhibit especially unique.

"The thing that's neat about an exhibit like this one is that it takes rare books and puts them into a larger context," he said. "And the context for this exhibit is the apocalypse."

First-year College student Anne Flatness said the exhibit gave her insight into more than an American history of apocalyptic predictions.

"I think Americans are as superstitious as anybody about things like that [the apocalypse]. I mean, buildings don't have 13th stories," Flatness said.

Many of the pieces on exhibit can be viewed on the Internet at the collection's electronic exhibit site. The actual exhibit can be viewed from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

For more information, visit this site