The Trumpeter Of Doomsday

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The first two years of this course of solitary reading and comparing convinced Miller that “the Bible is its own interpreter,” and that although its prophecies were usually couched in figurative language, they were fulfilled literally, as the studies of secular historians testified. If the dates of minor catastrophes—the flood, the destruction of Pharaoh’s hosts, and the wandering in the wilderness—had been predicted exactly, was it not reasonable to suppose that the date of the greatest cataclysm of all, the end of the world, was fixed somewhere in the Bible? The basis for Miller’s rigid literalism was laid down in his fourteen “Rules of Interpretation,” which declared that whenever all Bible texts on a subject were brought together “without a contradiction,” then “the believer cannot be in error.”

As for the Bible’s figurative language, his Rule VIII stated that “Figures always have a figurative meaning, and are used much in prophecy, to represent future things, times and events, such as mountains meaning governments, beasts meaning kingdoms, waters meaning people … and day meaning year .”

Had Miller been asked how he knew exactly what each of these biblical expressions symbolized, he would have replied by giving one or more references in which, according to his interpretation, the context indicated that particular meaning. The fallacy is obvious, since a single or occasional use of a figure of speech does not make it, as he supposed, a fixed symbol. There may indeed be scriptural passages in which the word “day” is used to indicate a year or a century or a millennium. But it is absurd to conclude that it must always do so.

Armed with these “scientific” methods and his narrow, unscientific premises, Miller did not hesitate to tackle the knottiest of Bible passages, such as the mysterious outpourings of the prophet Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, and the visions of the Apocalypse. In the words of his disciple and biographer, Sylvester Bliss: “At times puzzled and almost distracted by seemingly inexplicable or contradictory passages, he persevered until the application of his great principle of interpretation was triumphant.” Despite the intricacy of his hypotheses, he believed that they formed, when rightly construed, a consistent system pointing to the destruction of this world and its wicked, unbelieving inhabitants at the Second Coming of Christ.

By 1818 he had become convinced that he had found the master key to unlock the prophetic chronology and reveal the precise date of the awesome event. It was the prophecy contained in Daniel 8:14: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days, then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” To the mind of William Miller, it was crystal clear that the “sanctuary” was the earth, long since desecrated, and that its “cleansing” was to be by fire at the return of the Messiah. Furthermore, this event was to take place in 2,300 “days,” which he already had determined meant chronological years. The only remaining problem was: When had the “desolation of the holy place,” the earth, begun? Miller held that the date was 457 B.C. , when (according to Ezra 7:11-26) the commandment to rebuild Jerusalem was given. The rest was simple arithmetic: subtracting 457 from 2,300, he found that the world would come to an end in 1843 A.D. (Miller used the ancient Jewish calendar, so that the end of “1843” would come at the spring equinox, or March 21, 1844.)

There were four additional methods of calculating the Advent, all of which added up to exactly the same year: 1843. So Miller could hardly avoid, as a disciple wrote, the “solemn conclusion that in about 25 years from that time [1818], all the affairs of our present state would be wound up; that all its pride and power, pomp and vanity, wickedness and oppression, would come to an end; and that, in the place of the kingdoms of this world, the peaceful and long-desired kingdom of the Messiah would be established under the whole Heaven.” The prospect filled Miller’s heart with joy, but it did not impel him to rush out to warn the wicked of their impending doom. He wanted to be absolutely sure that his fearsome prophecy would not mislead anyone. The five years from 1818 to 1823 were to be spent in “weighing various objections” to his calculations; and then it was eight years more before he was ready to “go tell the world of the danger.”

The first phase his remarkable public career began with what he regarded as a providential call to lecture at a neighboring Baptist church. It came on a Sunday in August, 1831, with the prospect of “no preaching” that day at Dresden, New York, sixteen miles from where he lived. Would Miller fill the gap with a discourse on the Second Coming of Christ? He was understandably reluctant to go. He was fifty years old, aged beyond his years by an illness contracted in the Army, a layman without theological training. But inwardly he was bursting with the pent-up results of fourteen years of intensive study of prophecy, which had carried him into calculations almost as complex, in their own odd way, as those involved in the programming of a shot aimed at the moon.