The Trumpeter Of Doomsday

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At Low Hampton, Miller himself described October 22 as “a solemn time, when even the scoffers stood mute.” Then, “it passed, and the next day it seemed as though all the demons from the bottomless pit were let loose upon us. The same ones and many more who were crying for mercy two days before, were now mixed with the rabble and mocking, scoffing, and threatening, in a most blasphemous manner.” Yet before his death, on December 20, 1849, Miller managed to rally his confused and discordant believers at a “Mutual Conference of Adventists” in Albany, New York in April, 1845, which proved to be the seed bed from which the separate Adventist churches sprang—including, for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“Watch therefore., for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.” MATTHEW 25:13

In the wake of the Second Advent fiasco the principal sufferers were the rural churches. This was not because most of the Millerites failed to resume their pews, but rather because of the damage done to the morale of all the evangelical communions. In 1846 the General Baptist Convention of Vermont declared: “The Second Advent delusion has proved the greatest calamity that has befallen us since our organization.” The newspapers agreed: “There has been a long time of spiritual death and famine” ( Vermont Observer , March, 1845); “an almost total dearth of revivals throughout the country, a moral chill has pervaded the churches, and a deathlike stupor on the minds of the impenitent, the like of which has not often been witnessed” (Poultney Observer , same month). All this increased the genuine distress of the old gentleman who had stirred up the turmoil and fanaticism.

For William Miller was no illiterate and superstitious exhorter solely concerned with terrifying his audiences into conversion, but a sober student of the Word, deeply convinced and deadly in earnest about what he believed he had found in it. Totally dedicated to his mission, at the same time that he supported a wife and eight children by farming, he spent over $2,000 of his own meager funds on his long tours of evangelism. What he did was to refurbish an ancient hope preached by American Protestant divines as far back as John Cotton’s The Pouring Out of the Seven Vials in 1642. Most of his predecessors, and many of his contemporaries, were convinced that America was the predestined scene of Christ’s return.

What Miller added to the traditional fire-and-brimstone mixture was the ingredient of mathematical computation as an “infallible” method of unravelling mysterious prophecies. This appealed strongly to Yankee ingenuity, and challenged the competitive spirit of thousands of amateur Bible-interpreters. In addition, he laid great stress upon the imminent casting down of the mighty, the wealthy, and the educated from their exalted seats, and the raising up of the weak and humble and faithful to replace them. More than that, in an age of competing Utopias, when reformers were sprouting everywhere and promising everything—the “Madmen, Madwomen, Men with beards, Dunkers, Muggletonians, Gome-Outers, Groaners, Agrarians, Seventh-Day Baptists, Quakers, Abolitionists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and Philosophers” listed by Emerson as attending the 1843 “Convention of Friends of Universal Reform”—Miller outbid them all.

For it was Miller who announced that with comparatively little constructive effort on man’s part, except belief, he was about to be raised in one step, and in a measurable time, to that perfect society which the piecemeal reformers were promising would be his only after much time and effort. There need be no long preparatory campaigns for the achievement of the state of complete blessedness; all that was needed was the ingathering of the elect. To a substantial multitude Miller’s appeal seemed indeed to be the long awaited midnight cry, to be heeded before it was too late—forever.