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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
As the fateful year 1843 arrived, the tempo of Millerism accelerated, and it reached its widest propagation, extending from lower Canada to Virginia and Kentucky, as far west as Ohio and Michigan. Yet the greatest, most urgent, and most terrifying asset of the Millerite preachers, the limit of time before the final judgment day, might soon become their fatal liability. In the first issue of The Midnight Cry , Himes had declared that the movement “was not a distinct religious sect, but an alarm , and a CRY .” Writing in 1842, Millerite G. F. Cox posed the question, “But what if 1843 should pass, and the event not arrive?” and answered, “The sentinel had better fire a false alarm, nay ten false alarms rather than suffer the enemy to approach, unexpected …” Miller himself, however, knew what the failure of his prophecy would mean: “If time continues until the end of this Jewish year [March 21, 1844] we shall be assailed by the enemy in every place where he can have any prospect of hurling in a dart.”
To the consternation of the Adventists, time continued; and with jeers the darts were hurled. Miller had sometimes been scornful of ministers who differed with him, and some of them were quick to seize this opportunity to reciprocate. Six weeks after the last day of the prophetic year 1843—that is, in May, 1844—Miller issued a frank statement: “ I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment , yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door …” To a New York newspaper reporter the old man appeared bewildered: “One moment he would confess that he was mistaken, and the next day that he could discover no possible mistake, and go over his old calculations …” The Bible could not be wrong; the error must have been human, possibly due to the lapse of some secular historian.
But those who expected large numbers of Millerites to give up in dismay at this first disappointment greatly underestimated the resiliency of mind of the true believers. The crusade had attained enough momentum to keep the camp meetings going into August of 1844; and at one of them, in Exeter, New Hampshire, it was suggested that perhaps Miller had failed to notice that the commandment to rebuild Jerusalem was issued after the seventh month of the year 457 B.C. , and that therefore the 2,300 years would terminate “on the tenth day of the seventh month” according to the sacred Jewish calendar, or on October 22, 1844.
The original fervor of those in attendance was immediately rekindled, and soon reached even greater heights than before. At the close of the meeting they took up the chant—from the New Testament parable of the wise and foolish virgins—“ Behold, the bride-groom cometh, go ye out to meet Him! ” At first this was only a movement within a movement, for the Millerite leaders dreaded, with reason, a second failure. Miller himself, a tired and ill old man, did not fully accept the new reckoning until about two weeks before the new “Last Great Day of Hope.” Extra editions of Millerite papers then proclaimed the positively guaranteed date of climax. At the offices of The Midnight Cry in New York, “four steam presses were kept almost constantly in motion.” Consistent to the last, the editors of the Advent Herald announced in their October 16 edition (given away free): “We shall make no provision for issuing a paper for the week following.” Some farmers left their crops unharvested, shopkeepers closed their doors, and workers quit their jobs.
In spite of an increased amount of mob violence in the vicinity of the tabernacles, the solemn gatherings of the Millerites on the last day they expected to spend on earth seem to have been decorous enough, although there were scattered instances of erratic behavior. But the sun went down as usual on October 22, and nothing had happened. The tension grew unbearable as midnight sounded—not on seraphic trumpets, but only on village clocks. The last stroke tolled. The great illusion was shattered.
“Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted,” wrote one Millerite leader afterward, “and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. … We wept, and wept, till the day dawnf[ed] … I mused in my own heart. … If this had proved a failure, what was the rest of my Christian experience worth? Has the Bible proved a failure? Is there no God, no heaven, no golden home city, no paradise? Is all this but a cunningly devised fable?” Said another, a well-known Millerite lecturer: “The 226. of October passed, making unspeakably sad the faithful and longing ones; but causing the unbelieving and wicked to rejoice. All was still. No Advent Herald; no meetings. … Everyone felt lonely, with hardly a desire to speak to anyone. Still in the cold world!” And Josiah Litch, one of Miller’s closest companions in the faith, wrote painfully to Miller on October 24: “It is a cloudy and dark day here—the sheep are scattered—and the Lord has not come yet.”