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The Trumpeter Of Doomsday
William Miller applied good Yankee arithmetic to biblical prophecies and convinced thousands that the hour of Christ’s Second Coming was upon them
April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
So profound was Miller’s effect upon his first listeners that he found himself with “a revival on his hands,” and was urged to stay during the week and continue his lecturing. Invitations poured in thick and fast; he could not accept half of them. Yet in the first year of his “call” he delivered at least a hundred lectures, and he was to keep up this pace for many years despite ill health and limited funds.
Many conditions in the 1830’s and 1840’s favored the acceptance of Miller’s disturbing doctrines by the rank and file of the rural fundamentalist churches and their ministers, in spite of the indifference and even the hostility of the more sophisticated urban clergy. In the country towns and villages, where evangelical Protestantism held sway, the Bible was still the virtually unchallenged authority; and the revivals led by Charles G. Finney and others had accustomed lethargic congregations to periodic “refreshings” of their religious zeal. (See “Pentecost in the Backwoods,” by Bernard A. Weisberger, in the June, 1959, A MERICAN H ERITAGE .) In addition, the panic of 1837 had stirred up widespread economic anxiety, and this was easily transformed into spiritual anxiety.
As the dread year of 1843 came nearer, public interest in the Millerite movement naturally became more intense. Not only was the number of believers growing rapidly, but there was a tendency to interpret various meteorological phenomena in ways that lent plausibility to Miller’s claims. Northern lights, meteoric showers, and tornadoes seemed to take on increased significance; and in March of 1843 there happened to appear the most brilliant comet of the century, clearly visible even by daylight.
There were certain sober and logical steps which persons might have been expected to take who believed implicitly that the earth and their unbelieving neighbors were about to be destroyed, and themselves transported heavenward—abandoning one’s business or property, forgiving one’s creditors, and so on. One small boy in a Millerite household in Eastport, Maine, said to his mother quite sensibly that, as long as the world was about to end anyway, why not kill all the chickens and hens, and have a good feed before the time came?
But the public craves the picturesque, and the proceedings of the Millerites which attracted the most attention and excited the most ridicule were not rational preparations for the Advent, but the various “symbolic acts” induced among them by the prospect of coming deliverance. Here it is not always easy to separate legend from history, since hoaxers and scoffers were plentiful, and the press of the day was almost uniformly hostile. Impossible stories were told about “crazy Miller,” who, as one editor acknowledged, “was probably the object of more abuse, ridicule, and blackguardism than any other man living.”
Most widely celebrated and most vehemently disputed of all the symbolic acts associated with the movement was the alleged making and wearing of white ascension robes. The idea appealed so irresistibly to cartoonists and chroniclers that the legend will probably never be completely scotched by any number of documented denials—any more than it was by the indignant denials of Millerite leaders when the movement was at its height. It was undoubtedly in harmony with the popular image encouraged by scoffers, some of whom may themselves have dressed up in ascension robes in order to make fun of the faithful.
In like manner, the idea of “going up” generated the belief that many Millerites awaited the end in some elevated spot for greater ease in taking off, sometimes by climbing the nearest hill, or a tall tree, or the roof of a building. Many humorous stories were told of Millerites who, believing that the final moment had come, launched themselves into the air from such take-off points—only to descend, of course, ignominiously and with bruised buttocks. Another favorite story told of the misfortune of a local Millerite—the identity changed with the locale—who, forlornly returning home after the great disappointment, was refused entry by unconverted members of the family: they kept the door resolutely shut and called out, “Oh no, you can’t be So-and-So. He [or she] has gone up.”
It was said that some Millerites, instead of seeking elevated positions, preferred to wait for the end in graveyards, so as to join buried relatives or friends at the resurrection hour. Other groups were content merely to assemble in fields. One such “company of believers,” more class-conscious than most, is described by Jane Marsh Parker, daughter of a Millerite preacher, thus:
They went out from Philadelphia some five miles near the Schuylkill along the Darby Road, pitching their tents in an open field, and gave themselves to prayer and praise while they awaited the sounding of the last trumpet. There were some highly-bred ladies among them—enthusiasts in the faith—and it was whispered at the time that a spirit of exclusiveness had dictated the withdrawal of the little company from the multitude of believers who assembled … in the public hall of the city; that even in such a democratic event as an ascension into the heavens it was the wish of certain old-family Philadelphians not to “go up” with the common crowd.
Common repute often attributed to the Millerites the symbolic acts indulged in by members of other radical religious sects as re-enactments of miscellaneous scriptural precedents. In Maine the Portland Argus stated that the Millerites of the town of Atkinson, in Piscataqua County, were