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Sociological Perspectives


University of California Press

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This article reports the results of an ethnographic study of a millennial Baha'i sect whose leader predicted that the world would be devastated by nuclear war on April 29, 1980. Shortly before that date we began a participant-observer study of the sect, and during the following eight months we supplemented our observations by interviewing members and defectors in the four states where the group's leader had a substantial following. The purpose of the investigation was to replicate the classic study of disconfirmed prophecy reported in When Prophecy Fails by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter. They found that prophetic disconfirmation was followed by an increase in conviction and heightened efforts to recruit new believers. We report contrary findings and explore social psychological factors that might account for the difference between our findings and the results of the Festinger et al. study. We argue that reactions to prophetic failure are shaped less by psychological forces than by social circumstances existing at the time of disconfirmation.




Published as Robert W. Balch, Gwen Farnsworth, and Sue Wilkins. 1983. "When the Bombs Drop: Reactions to Disconfirmed Prophecy in a Millennial Sect." Sociological Perspectives 26:136-158. © 1983 by the Pacific Sociological Association. Copying and permissions notice: Authorization to copy this content beyond fair use (as specified in Sections 107 and 108 of the U. S. Copyright Law) for internal or personal use, or the internal or personal use of specific clients, is granted on behalf of the Pacific Sociological Association for libraries and other users, provided that they are registered with and pay the specified fee via Rightslink® on JSTOR ( or directly with the Copyright Clearance Center,

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