“He approached the Bible as an engineer, like it was one massive equation that needed to be worked,” says Dr. Robert Godfrey, the president of Westminster Seminary in Southern California, who became a Christian as a teenager in the sixties attending the Bible classes Camping had volunteered to teach every Sunday night.
In 1958, Camping made the acquaintance of a sacred-record salesman named Richard Palmquist, who bemoaned the dearth of Christian radio stations across the country, with none in San Francisco. Camping helped secure the funding to purchase the struggling classical-music station KEAR, under the flag of the nonprofit Family Stations Inc. (tagline: “For a Change in Your Life”). At first, Palmquist filled the programming mostly with sacred music, but he then added some Bible-studies talk, including a nightly call-in show he hosted, which he named “Open Forum.” KEAR was an instant success, and Family Radio expanded, first to Sacramento, then through California and eastward. Soon, with Camping cutting a higher profile at the studio, Palmquist was farmed out to a satellite office in Palo Alto. Around the same time, he was driving home from work one evening with the radio on. “Wel-come to ‘Open Forum,’ ” the voice of Harold Camping called out.
“In all my life I’ve never met anyone more dedicated, or with greater integrity, than Harold,” Palmquist, 80, recalls. “He has such integrity that he can be called bullheaded—what is right for him is right, and nobody’s going to tell him anything, and he will live by it with all of his heart, mind, and soul.”
Eventually, Camping sold his construction company for a large enough sum that he could move full time into the management of Family Radio. The network added more than 70 stations, including some of the most valuable airwaves in America. Every continent was targeted: As the China market grew, for example, Camping constructed off its shores two massive AM radio transmitters, capable of broadcasting across Asia (the signal has been picked up as far away as Norway). The nonprofit’s assets ballooned to more than $100 million. Throughout it all, Camping took no salary.
“It has been a really tough weekend,” Camping acknowledged the next day.
Camping’s radio audience spilled over into his Bible study classes in Alameda. This—as well as his increasingly idiosycratic theology—caused friction between Camping and church leaders, who in 1988 asked him to suspend his teaching. Camping soon left the church, all but gutting its congregation, and began meeting his followers weekly for Bible study and “fellowship” in Alameda’s Veterans Memorial Building. By now, he considered his Biblical scholarship unimpeachable. Dr. Godfrey recalls sitting at Camping’s kitchen table, long after he’d graduated from seminary school and was earning a Ph.D. from Stanford, when Camping brought up Isaiah 45:7—“God formed the light and created the darkness”—arguing for more than two hours “that that clearly teaches that light is not created and darkness is created.” Camping was relentless. “Any of my discussion of Hebrew or Parallelism or whatever just made absolutely no difference to him,” Godfrey says. “That he couldn’t speak Hebrew or Greek didn’t matter one iota. It was just this hyperliteralism.”
But it was precisely this literalism that attracted many of his listeners: Camping’s ability to make Scripture living and current—indeed, relevant to this very instant. And what he was beginning to see within the Bible’s 31,102 verses was nothing short of astonishing: dates, proofs, patterns, and codes that could elucidate a total and minutely accurate timeline of the universe’s history, up to and including the hour of its appointed end.
On September 10, 1992, Harold Camping announced on “Open Forum” the culmination of a lifetime of intense study: His calculations had revealed the date of the Rapture, the opening salvo of Judgment Day and the End of Times. It was to commence on September 6, 1994. He painstakingly detailed his calculations in a 500-plus-page book, 1994?, which sold a reported $1 million worth of copies within four weeks (all proceeds returning to Family Radio). There was significant media interest, and Camping became famous. Hunched over, in his suspenders and huge owl glasses, Larry King asked him on CNN how confident he was of the date. Acknowledging the question mark at the end of the title of his book, Camping replied: “At least 9.”
Many predicted the mistake would destroy Family Radio. But Camping was out front, explaining after September 6 that he’d erred on the side of the greatest caution—at issue was the world’s annihilation, after all. He’d not had the time to work sufficiently through the Books of Jeremiah and Matthew, and now that he had, he learned that what occurred on September 6 was in fact the beginning of the Great Tribulation, the necessary precursor to the Rapture and Judgment Day. Those dates, he promised, he was getting closer to ascertaining. Many in Family Radio were embarrassed and wished him to stop with his calculations, including at least one of his sons-in-law, whose employment at Family Radio ended around the same time. Camping was unmoved.