When The Hereafter Was Now

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It is easy to give offense when talking about religion—which is one of the reasons it’s so inviting for historians, especially in a secular culture, to avoid the subject. The trouble is that ignoring religious motivations in United States history leaves gaping holes in the overall national story, which is in large part driven by what various Americans at various times thought that God expected of them. With that in mind, I grasp the nettle and plunge on to speak of Heaven’s Gate, 1997, and of William Miller, 1782–1849.

Heaven’s Gate is the name of the religious group thirty-nine of whose members committed suicide by barbiturate overdose in Southern California last March. They apparently believed that they would resume existence aboard a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet. Another member killed himself several weeks later, after having spoken to his daughter of “dropping his shell” and anticipating a “future incarnation … to strengthen my connection with the Next Level Above Human.”

I was struck not only by the sadness of this story but by its curious mingling of space-age themes with a concept traditional to many faiths—namely, that there is a better existence to come after physical death. That’s what such familiar terms as paradise, resurrection , and reincarnation imply. Heavens Gate was frighteningly different, of course, in urging its trusting followers to anticipate the transition by destroying their mortal “shells.”

But after shock and anger, what came to my mind was my recollection that in 1844 hundreds of thousands of Americans of sound mind and regular habits were persuaded by an elderly preacher named William Miller that the world as they knew it was going to “end” on a precise and foreseeable date. Certainly they were not urged to take their lives in anticipation. But they did try to prepare themselves for a different “afterlife.” How they did so, what their neighbors thought, and what happened afterward add up to a story that tells a good deal about the American scene of their day.

The foundation stone of the Millerite movement was the Book of Revelation, which predicted two cosmic future events: the millennium and the Second Coming (or Advent) of Christ. Satan would be shut away for a thousand years; Christ would reign with those who had been martyred for His sake; the dead would be resurrected and final judgment rendered on the wicked. There would be neither sin nor suffering: “no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” in “a new heaven and a new earth.”

Concepts like these were in full harmony with a thought system common to millions of members of popular Protestant churches in the United States of the 1840s. It ran this way: Thanks to Jesus, salvation was available to all human beings tainted with Adam’s sin of disobedience, if they sought it in genuine prayer. Those who were “saved” experienced a “new birth,” a conversion from nominal to genuine Christianity by a painful (but not necessarily lengthy) process of repentance culminating in an ecstatic certainty of spending eternity in heaven. While waiting here below, converts would devote their lives to good works, which would include spreading the happy news of salvation to others. It was all clearly set forth in the Bible, which anyone possessing simple English literacy could understand. The whole scheme (including the Second Coming) blended easily with well-known individualistic, democratic, self-improving—and impatient!—impulses of the young nation.

Miller was such a born-again Christian. As a New York State farm boy he had become a deist, doubting all creeds. But after experiencing human depravity in the War of 1812, he returned to his Baptist roots and began to search Scripture diligently for answers to scoffers such as he himself had been. Miller came to believe that the Bible was true and self-explanatory. Its narratives described verifiable historical happenings, and its prophecies predicted concrete, real-time events to come. By 1818 he was convinced that “the second coming of Jesus Christ [was] near, even at the door…, and by 1823 he concluded it would occur “within twenty-one years—on or before 1843."

He was in no great hurry to sound the alarm. He made no public statement until 1831, when he was forty-nine years old, and did not publish his sermons and lectures until 1836. He was apparently a natural movement leader, convincing and likable, who drew steadily increasing crowds in small towns already afire with revivals. In 1839 he met Joshua V. Himes, a younger Christian activist with a modern gift for publicity, and they made a dynamic team. Himes, persuaded of the truth of Millerism, turned it within three years from a rural and localized phenomenon into a nationally visible crusade. He published excitingly named newspapers ( Signs of the Times, The Midnight Cry ), distributed books and pamphlets by the hundreds of thousands, and organized huge tent meetings where multitudes heard that the end was near. Though Miller at first resisted a precise date, he did not swerve from “the doctrine of Christ’s personal descent to this earth, to destroy the wicked, and glorify the righteous” sometime around 1843.