The Trumpeter Of Doomsday

PrintPrintEmailEmail taking special pains to humble themselves, and for this purpose wash and kiss each other’s feet—creep on the floor, etc. In some instances their conduct is revolting in the extreme. Take this case, which recently occurred—a pious, virtuous woman felt it her duty, as she stated, to appear before the assembly she was addressing entirely naked. This supposed duty she at once discharged by loosening her cloak and shawl—the only garments she had on—and letting them drop to the floor!

Undoubtedly dozens of these lurid tales were journalistic fabrications, based on rare instances which were quickly acknowledged and denounced by the leadership. “Certainly,” says Francis D. Nichol, author of the apologetic book The Midnight Cry , “there were fanatical acts in connection with Millerism … it was troubled with fanatics.”

In the early stages of his public appearances (his church did not license him to preach until late in 1833, and he was never ordained), Miller took great pains to avoid emotional excesses. But he underestimated the explosive impact of his solemn warnings upon the impressionable, ill-tutored, and even unbalanced minds in his audiences. And he did not foresee that the very success of his movement would take it out of his control and into the hands of men less scrupulous about using fear and fits in garnering recruits.

With all the favorable circumstances for the epidemic spread of Adventism in America of the iSso’s, Miller’s influence might have remained that of a typical rural revivalist had it not been for his encounter with the Reverend Joshua V. Himes, pastor of the Chardon Street Baptist Chapel in Boston, in December, 1839. Himes, a restless agitator by nature, quickly embraced Miller’s views, but declared that “the whole thing is kept in a corner yet,” and proposed a number of ambitious plans “to diffuse it throughout the world.” It has become customary to identify Himes as “the veritable Aaron to the Moses” of William Miller, but there are moments when the name of Barnum seems almost as appropriate. For Himes was a gifted and tireless publicist, and he lost no time in launching Millerism on the national market. His methods were professional. Two large newspapers were established, The Signs of the Times in Boston and The Midnight Cry in New York, while a steady stream of books and pamphlets issued from the presses. “Father Miller,” as he had become known, was under increasing physical pressure (“I have more business on hand than any two men like me should perform”), but his lectures to crowded congregations during this period were described, as usual, as “interspersed with powerful admonitions to the wicked; and he handles the Universalists with gloves of steel.”

In the earlier, simpler days Miller and his apostles found many friendly pulpits, but as their popularity grew and the day of doom drew nearer, the established clergy began to take the offensive against them. Miller wrote to his eldest son from Philadelphia early in 1843: “Here, as in all other places, the D.D.s and priests, the clergy and editors, are out upon us with all their ribaldry and lies.” The followers of the prophet, rather than Miller himself, began to think increasingly in terms of separate camp meetings and tents and tabernacles of their own. The ever-active Himes provided visual aids for the camp meetings in the form of big lithographs (see page 34), “upon one of which,” wrote the poet John G. Whittier, who visited the campground at East Kingston, New Hampshire, in the summer of 1842, “was the figure of a man, the head of gold, the breast and arms of silver, the belly of brass, the legs of iron, and the feet of clay,—the dream of Nebuchadnezzar. On the other were depicted the wonders of the apocalyptic vision—the beasts, the dragons, the scarlet woman seen by the seer of Patmos, Oriental types, figures, and mystic symbols, translated into staring Yankee realities, and exhibited like the beasts of a travelling menagerie. One horrible image with its hideous heads and scaly caudal extremity, reminded me of the tremendous line of Milton, who, in speaking of the same evil dragon, describes him as ‘Swindging the scaly horrors of his folded tail.’”

At the East Kingston camp meeting f 1,000 was raised to purchase a tent 120 feet in diameter, capable of holding 3,000 to 5,000 people, which was pitched eight times in cities all the way from Concord, New Hampshire to Newark, New Jersey, in the period from July to November, 1842. But promoter Himes was not satisfied. It was his idea to build on Howard Street in Boston a circular tabernacle, 115 feet in diameter, to seat 3,000 or more persons. It cost $4,000. Following its dedication on May 4, 1843, Himes held daily services there, with crowds whose singing could be heard for blocks; and sometimes equally large crowds of doubters would gather on Boston Common in the inconsistent hope of seeing the Millerites “go up.” ∗

∗ After the collapse of the movement, the tabernacle became the Howard Athenaeum, which burned down in February, 1846, to be replaced by Boston’s long-time temple of the art of burlesque, the Old Howard, only recently razed.