Before we dip into QAnon, let’s look first at another fairly recent cult, turned religion, turned cult, turned … religions.
In 1831, a farmer in upstate New York began telling his friends and family that, through a careful reading of the Bible, he had determined the world would end sometime in 1843 or 1844. To his great frustration, no one who knew William Miller paid much attention. After all, Miller, like most of his neighbors, had spent most of his life as a deist, with only a vague belief in a naturalist god. He only took up reading the Bible when after the War of 1812, a British shell killed another man while leaving him unscathed—which Miller took to be a miracle. It never seemed to occur to him to ask why the other man was undeserving.
Though those who knew him were decidedly unimpressed by how he turned selective quotes and some extensive calculations into a prediction that the End Times were coming, once Miller published those predictions in a small Baptist newspaper the following year, he quickly began to garner attention. A small pamphlet summarizing his views went out faster than he could print it. Within two years, Miller was launching a tour of cities and towns across the Northeast, attracting enormous crowds at every almost every stop. Just seating the people who flocked to hear his predictions required the construction of a special “stadium tent” that seated 4,000. In less than a decade, he had over 100,000 followers.
By 1840, Millerism was a national movement and the Millerites were publishing their own weekly and even daily newspapers. In those papers, other voices came to the fore. Miller had hesitated to give an exact date for when the world would end, or exactly what would happen when it did. But there were several voices among his followers who were willing to provide their own dates, made by their own obscure calculations. Eventually, these followers more or less dislodged Miller from the leadership of his own movement, and he was not in attendance at a great “camp meeting” when the date of Oct. 22, 1844 was definitively set for the end of the world. That date was set by a man named Samuel Snow, who had once been a vocal atheist only to be converted to the cause after reading Miller’s pamphlet.
In preparation for the day, Millerites gave away homes and farms. They left families and friends. On Oct. 22, many gathered together on rooftops and hillsides, waiting … and nothing happened.
Following “The Great Disappointment,” some did leave the movement. In fact, tens of people not only abandoned Miller—they left Christianity altogether. But smaller groups persisted. Some decided that the prophecy wasn’t so much wrong as misunderstood; Oct. 22 had represented the date for some event in heaven, not on Earth. Others thought the date was simply wrong, but that the idea of a soon-to-be-realized End Time was exactly right. Those groups survive today as the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
So William Miller is still responsible for thousands of pamphlets. Some of which get left at your door.
How does QAnon shape up against this history? The QAnon movement began on Oct. 28, 2017 with a post on 4chan from someone claiming to have “Q level” security clearance. This obscure access, limited to the Department of Energy, somehow allowed the mysterious “Q” to pass along cryptic information that the nation was in the “Calm Before the Storm.” The first post on that thread was this:
HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur. US M‘s will conduct the operation while NG activated. Proof check: Locate a NG member and ask if activated for duty 10/30 across most major cities.
Absolutely none of what was predicted happened. Later in the same thread, Q predicted that “the storm” would come on Nov. 3, 2017. Nothing happened on that day. Nothing happened on any of the days on which the thread predicted everything from a car bombing in London to a mass suicide of never-Trumpers to the arrest of Pope Francis. Over the last four years, “Q” made predictions about all manner of things, from the resignation of tech leaders to more dates for indictment of Hillary Clinton. Absolutely none of it came to pass.
it didn’t matter. As the predictions failed, the movement grew. Over time, each message from Q became more and more cryptic. The messages included references to the Pizzagate conspiracy, made claims that all mass shootings are fake, and painted the Mueller investigation as something created by Donald Trump to lure Democrats into a false sense of security while Trump collected the information needed to bring them down. Messages became embroidered with slogans, with apparently unconnected phrases, and with strings of nonsense letters or numbers. Q dismissed all the false predictions under a blanket claim that it was necessary to hide his real information. In all of the phrases, and letters, and numbers, Q followers began to “discover” messages that made the conspiracy vast enough to include everything from surviving Nazis to a hollow Earth.
That growth was spawned by a kind of selective pressure that looked for the most “interesting” possible interpretations of each message. For interesting you might also read “outlandish.” The most completely off-the-wall interpretations, the ones that pushed for the most obscure, difficult to see, double-twisting back somersault connections—those were the ones that were rewarded by more attention and more follow-up. In fits and starts, almost every conspiracy theory ever conceived became woven into the QAnon quilt.
All of this was certainly at the cult level when QAnon followers began becoming a presence at Trump rallies in 2018. But it’s past that point today. It’s not just a full on religion, it’s a religion on the brink of transformation.
Though QAnon grew up with Trump as the central figure and Q as the primary source of truth, both of those things seem to be slipping. Q has barely posted since the election. Trump has failed to “lock her up,” or conduct the long predicted mass arrests, much less reveal the secret network of world-spanning child transport tubes. QAnon supporters are no longer accepting that the next prediction will finally be the one that comes true.
In a way, what happened on Jan. 6 was a reaction to a second great disappointment. QAnon followers are just beginning to realize that, no matter what they call their short-lived insurgency, there will be no storm. The Krakens are all dead. And Donald Trump is going to have to go back to scamming people as a private citizen.
Then what? What will likely happen over the next year is the same thing that happened to the Millerites: Many people will leave the movement in disappointment. In fact, it’s likely that’s already happening. Except that’s not all that visible because the people who remain are the most adamant, the most vocal, the most violent, and the least likely to admit that the movement was ever in error.
If Trump resumes what he was doing before 2016 election, with regular rallies and perhaps some form of his own broadcast or social media network, there’s little doubt that a portion of QAnon will continue to center around him. But it will only be a portion.
QAnon as a cult/religion has lost its center. It will fracture. However, it’s very unlikely to go away. The core ideas—that there is some elite group that secretly controls the world and carries out terrible practices with impunity—is a very, very old one. It certainly goes back to the blood libel. And even that was surely not the first form of the basic conspiracy theory. Because this idea is immensely satisfying to believe. A decade from now, QAnon may be larger and more powerful than it is today. It may also be completely unrecognizable, with that core idea wrapped in all new layers.
After all, there are now almost 19 million Seventh-Day Adventists and 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both groups came from just a handful of stubborn Millerites after the majority of the movement had decamped in disgust.
If you’re interested in William Miller, his predictions, and his cult turned religion, I covered this topic at length 10 years ago on this site for a book that I was writing at the time (which I never finished).