As part of the Faculty Salon Talks organized by HNU’s Office of Advancement, Charles Sarno, PhD, associate professor of sociology, delivered a lecture in the Cushing Library on Thursday, March 16, about his research on Harold Camping—the Christian radio evangelist who predicted that May 21, 2011 was the day that the world would end. Sarno also spoke about Camping’s Family Radio organization and the evolution of Camping’s radio show, The Open Forum.
As Sarno pointed out, Camping’s beliefs evolved over time. Camping was born in Colorado and was, for most of his life, a strict Calvinist. He attended UC Berkeley and received his civil engineering degree in 1942. He settled in Alameda, California, and ran his own construction company there for many years.
In 1958, Camping, along with Lloyd Lindquist and Richard Palmquist, founded the Family Radio organization and purchased KEAR FM in San Francisco, in order to broadcast teachings from the Bible and Christian music. In subsequent years, Family Radio acquired more stations and was able to broadcast nationwide. Beginning in the early 1960s, Camping hosted his own call-in show, The Open Forum, during which he answered listeners’ theological questions and offered his own interpretations of passages from the Bible.
The Open Forum became extremely popular with listeners, so much so that people sought out Camping and would visit Alameda to attend the Bible study that he conducted through the Alameda Christian Reformed Church, where he was a member. In 1988, the Alameda Christian Reformed Church asked Camping to leave the congregation because of a disagreement in teachings, a development that, as Sarno explained, had a tremendous impact on the evolution of Camping’s beliefs.
Sarno stated that Camping had no training in theology and so relied on his background as an engineer when he interpreted the Bible. “Camping looked at the Bible as an engineer and saw all these numbers, and he thought that God had a particular plan.” Camping’s form of biblical interpretation led him to develop an initial theory regarding the end of the world, which he published in his book 1994?. In that book, Camping stated that the end of the world would happen in September 1994, although, as Sarno said, Camping qualified his prediction to allow himself some room for error.
Later, Camping adjusted his predictions. He stated that May 21, 2011 would be Judgment Day and October 21, 2011 would mark the end of the world. Sarno said that, in the years leading up to 2011, listener donations to Family Radio increased substantially, and Family Radio spent approximately $10 million to spread the message about the new Judgment Day prediction. After the May 21 date, Camping admitted that he had been mistaken, and acknowledged that he was wrong in attempting to predict the end of the world.
Sarno said that in the aftermath of the failed predictions and Camping’s debilitating stroke in 2011, Family Radio suffered from a lack of leadership and decreased financial support. Family Radio has had to sell some assets (including a station in New York City) in order to continue its operations, and the organization has, per Sarno, moved away from end-times predictions.
In the course of his research, Sarno, in cooperation with Helen Shoemaker, PhD, former associate professor of counseling psychology at HNU, conducted more than 25 interviews with people associated with the Family Radio organization, including both those who believed in Camping’s prophecies and those who were skeptical. Sarno and Shoemaker published two papers based on their research on Camping and Family Radio: “Rationalizing Judgment Day: A Content Analysis of Harold Camping’s Open Forum Program,” written in collaboration with Rebecca Aponte ’10 and Ben Shestakofsky, was published in Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review in 2015, and “Church, Sect, or Cult?: The Curious Case of Harold Camping’s Family Radio and the May 21 Movement,” was published in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions in 2016 and received the journal’s Thomas Robbins Award for Excellence in the Study of New Religious Movements.
Tsze Tsang, PhD, assistant professor of chemistry at HNU, will deliver the next Faculty Salon Talk on Thursday, April 13, at 6:00 p.m. in the Cushing Library. Tsang was part of a team that discovered cobimetinib, a new drug for the treatment of advanced melanoma.