When prophecy fails

By BEN R. WILLIAMS

In 1956, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Shachter wrote a book called “When Prophecy Fails.”

A work of non-fiction with the names changed, the book concerns a cult called “The Seekers” that had formed in the Chicago area. Led by a woman named Dorothy Martin, aka “Sister Thedra,” the cult believed that on Dec. 21, 1954, a flying saucer from a planet called Clarion would land in the midwest and rescue The Seekers shortly before a flood destroyed the Earth. 

Festinger, Riecken, and Shachter were, for whatever reason, a little bit skeptical about the whole UFO/apocalypse thing. However, they recognized that The Seekers offered a unique opportunity: a first-hand chance to see what happens when a cult’s specific, time-sensitive prophecy fails to manifest. And so they infiltrated the cult and watched to see what would happen. 

Before we get into exactly what happened, we must first recognize what constitutes a cult, bearing in mind that cults need not be religious in nature. Here are a few of the earmarks of a cult:

-Members of the cult have a leader that is held in the highest regard. Whether alive or dead, everything the leader says, does, and believes is regarded as the highest truth, and the leader cannot be questioned. The leader also cannot be held accountable to any authorities.

-Any doubts or dissent about the cult are discouraged or even punished.

-The members of the cult believe that they are the only ones who have access to the truth.

-The cult has an us-vs.-them mentality that often brings them into conflict with wider society.

-The cult believes that their noble ends justify whatever means are necessary to fulfill their goals. Members of the cult may say and do things they would have found unconscionable prior to joining the cult. 

-Subservience to the leader may require members of the cult to cut ties with family and friends, especially those who question the cult. 

Having established all of that, let’s look at what happened when the UFO from the planet Clarion failed to materialize way back in December of 1954.

According to “When Prophecy Fails,” The Seekers expected that at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 21, 1954, they would be contacted by an alien from the planet Clarion who would escort them to the waiting flying saucer. By 12:10 a.m. on Dec. 21, the members were stunned that no such visitor had appeared. This was especially troubling given that the apocalypse was supposed to occur in just seven hours.

At 4 a.m., the group had been sitting in stunned silence for four hours. Dorothy Martin, leader of The Seekers, began to weep. 

At 4:45 a.m., Dorothy Martin received a message via “automatic writing” (this means that she began writing a message on a piece of paper, a message allegedly sent to her through some telepathic means). Wouldn’t you know it, the message contained some great news! Apparently, God had decided not to destroy the Earth, and it was all because The Seekers had believed so hard that they spared all of humanity from destruction.

Some members believed that the messages from Clarion had gotten garbled and the flying saucer would really show up on Christmas Eve. When that didn’t happen, they took the failure of the prophecy even harder than they did the first time. Many members ended up abandoning The Seekers and returning to their homes, while others remained convinced that their faith and sacrifice had saved the Earth from destruction.

Based on what they witnessed, Festinger and his colleagues developed the Cognitive Dissonance Theory. Essentially, cognitive dissonance is the psychological discomfort people feel when two things that they hold to be true contradict each other. In this case, The Seekers knew the flying saucer would land and fly them to a new planet on Dec. 21, 1954, but they also knew that that didn’t happen. 

People don’t like experiencing cognitive dissonance, so they find ways to alleviate it. By convincing themselves that they had actually saved the planet by virtue of their faith, many members of The Seekers were able to ease that psychological discomfort. Others eased it by simply realizing that Dorothy Martin was full of it, cutting their losses, and going back home. 

Obviously, “When Prophecy Fails” is just one single case study, and it’s not without its criticism. But I believe it still serves as a useful tool to predict what might happen if, hypothetically speaking, a more modern cult had a prophecy tied to specific date and the prophecy failed.

Some members of the cult, I expect, would either disavow the cult publicly or — more likely — quietly leave the cult and hope that no one remembers that they were once members.

Others — the majority, I expect — would remain members of the cult, but move the goalposts just as The Seekers did. For example, they might say that their leader actually was correct and victorious, despite all evidence to the contrary, but clarify that the nature of their leader’s victory is being hidden from public view due to some need for secrecy.

Whether or not any of this sounds relevant to our present times is entirely up to you. But it might be worth keeping The Seekers in the back of your mind over the course of the next month or so. 

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