The Trumpeter Of Doomsday

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On October 22, 1844, thousands of Americans in widely scattered localities left their homes tor what, they were perfectly convinced, would be the last time. Their leaders had meticulously corrected an earlier prediction that 1843 would be the final year. Now they were ready.

Many of them had given away or abandoned their property; some had let their crops go to ruin. They went in solemnly excited groups to meetinghouses and tabernacles to witness the Second Coming of Christ and the imminent destruction of the world. In the great moment now at hand, they fervently believed, they would “go up” to blissful eternal life, while millions of sinners and scoffers would be thenceforth doomed to the ineffable tortures of hell.

In an atmosphere increasingly strained they waited, looking for the first fearful sign of the Advent. The day wore on, while their leaders exhorted them to stay calm and assured them that the time of the Lord was indeed upon them. It was only a question of hours or minutes. Darkness fell. The hours passed, each more tense than the one before. Surely, they now felt, midnight must be the appointed instant. …

The man who was chiefly responsible for the mathematically precise expectations of these people was William Miller, of Low Hampton, New York, in the Champlain Valley—a plain, honest, self-educated farmer with a flair for arithmetic persuasively applied to what he believed to be literal and infallible premises. Everyone agreed that he was “a man mighty in the Scriptures,” who always seemed to know what he was talking about. But the secret of his great success with his audiences, despite the fact that he was said to be slow of speech, was stated by Miller himself. “If you wish your people to feel ,” he said, “ feel yourself .”

The intensity of Miller’s feeling still clings to the words of one of his typical “Second Coming” exhortations:

Ah! what means that noise? Can it he thunder? Too longtoo loud and shrill—more like a thousand trumpets sounding an onset. It shakes the earth … See how it reels. How dreadful! How strange!

The very clouds are bright with glory … See, the heavens do shake, the vivid clouds, so full of fire, are driven apart by this last blast, and rolling up themselves, stand back aghast—And O, my soul, what do I see? A great white throne, and One upon it … Before him are thousands and thousands of wingèd seraphim, ready to do his will.

The last trumpet sounds—the earth now heaves a throb for the last time, and in this last great throe her liowcls burst, and from her sprang a thousand thousand, and ten thousand times ten thousand immortal beings into active life … I saw them pass through the long vista of the parted cloud, and stand before the throne …

The air now became stagnated with heat; while the dismal howling: of those human beings who were left upon the earth, and the horrid yells of the damned spirits … filled my soul with horror not easily described.

It is hardly surprising to learn from a contemporary report that words such as these, uttered repeatedly in the iSgo’s, created “much excitement … a great breaking down, and much weeping’ in places such ax Montpelier, Vermont; or that in Lansingburgh, Xew York, “infidels, deists, Univeisalists and sectarians were all chained to their seats in perfect silence for hours—yes, days—to hear the old, stammering man talk about the Second Coming of Christ, and show the manner, object, time, and signs of His Coming.” Fire and-brimstone preaching was nothing new in that part of (he country. But the operative phrase which distinguished this revivalist from all his fellows was “the time and signs” of the Awful Last Day, for which he was prepared to furnish copious and resounding Bible proofs. He first announced the end of the world as fixed between March 21, 184^, and March 21, 1844. After the latter date had passed uneventfully, the prediction was revised to October 22, 1844. These rash prophecies set off one of the greatest mass delusions in American history; and the prophet’s converts have been charged with a greater variety of ridiculous and fanatical acts than perhaps any religious group in modern times. Before the “crisis” years of 1843—44 were reached, Miller’s followers must have numbered in the hundreds of thousands, most of whom, on that October night, were awaiting the Day of Judgment.

Miller was anything but a rabble-rouser at heart. The oldest of sixteen children, he was bom in Pittslield, Massachusetts, on February 15, 1782. \Vhen he was four years old, his father, Captain William Miller, a veteran of the Revolution, moved to a farm in Low Hampton, New York, close to the Vermont line. The boy grew up in that small village, which afforded only about three months of schooling each winter. Books were scarce in the hard-working Baptist household, his father’s whole library consisting of a Bible, a psalter, and an old hymnbook. Most of William’s early reading was done in books he earned by wood-chopping. Later he was able to borrow volumes on ancient and modern history from more affluent neighbors.