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When The Hereafter Was Now
A century and a half before the Heaven’s Gate suicides, hundreds of thousands of Americans waited all one October night for the world to end
October 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 6
As that year opened, so did serious rifts between Miller and other clergymen who had previously approved of the contribution that he made to mass conversions by preaching that the time for repentance was short. It was one thing to believe in Christ's return to earth in an unspecified near future, but another to see Him descending through the clouds to bring an end to history in a matter of an exact few months or weeks. In addition, a majority of millennialist preachers believed that the Advent and Judgment would take place “postmillennially”—that is, after the thousand-year era of sinless perfection. Therefore they concluded that it was Christian duty to hasten that era’s appearance, to prepare the house for the master’s arrival, so to speak, by full-speed missionary and reform activity. The “heathen” must be brought into the fold, and the world purged of war, slavery, ignorance, drunkenness, and other sins. Visible earthly improvements in communication would only make the job easier. Himes, originally a pacifist, an abolitionist, and a temperance advocate, saw God’s handiwork in an era “heaving and teeming with improvements, inventions, and innovations.” In short, religion, reform, and progress were marching in step.
But the doctrine of “premillennial” imminent return appeared to threaten reform activity by encouraging passive waiting for God Himself to clean house. William Lloyd Garrison, for one, complained that “multitudes … formerly engaged in the various moral enterprises of the age have lost all interest … and … talk of nothing else but the burning up of the world.” Plenty of reform-minded preachers agreed with that criticism, and Millerism was stridently condemned and ridiculed by large elements of both the religious and secular press. As a result it is hard to know what really happened in Millerite ranks.
Thousands spent their last mortal night in prayer, hearts sinking as each hour passed in dreary ordinariness.
But as the days of 1843 ticked off without the world ending, zealous followers pressed Miller to refine and specify. He recalculated, moved the expected date forward a few times, and finally, injudiciously, joined Himes in endorsing—or at least not challenging—the specific prediction of one Millerite lecturer that Christ would return exactly on the tenth day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, the Day of Atonement, October 21–22, 1844. This was the true “midnight cry” that the Advent was immediately at hand. Himes shut down his newspaper The Advent Herald; another Millerite spokesman later testified that despite advice to neglect “none of the duties of this life,” certain “farmers [left] their farms, with their crops standing” and “mechanics their shops.” One adherent wrote a memorandum years afterward, describing how he locked his house, gave the key to a neighbor, and walked three miles to join fellow faithful in a vigil before the mighty climax. Countless other thousands spent their presumed last mortal night in wakeful prayer, expecting each second some indescribable miraculous manifestation and feeling their hearts sink as each hour passed in dreary ordinariness.
The Lord’s nonappearance on this occasion (Adventist historians call it the Great Disappointment) crushed further talk of times and dates close at hand. Miller sadly admitted that he must have made an error in his computations, though his faith in the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecies remained unshaken till his death in 1849. Himes and other Millerite spokesmen eventually returned to their various denominations, but not before several Adventist church bodies had been formed, some of which survive to this day. Most numerous and best known are the Seventh-day Adventists. The smaller Advent Christian Church operates Aurora University in Illinois, which owns important research collections that have helped trained Adventist scholars to clarify the story.
It is a very significant story. The collapse of Millerism was a short-run victory for the “postmillennialist” churches that spoke for reform in the here and now. But as twentieth-century reform movements focused increasingly on questions of social justice and economic change, their leadership and messages became secularized. Hence a split occurred between liberal “social gospel” clergy who joined in such protests and messengers of “old-time” sin-conscious, Bible-centered religion—a category including today’s “Christian Right.” So we feel the political results of long-past religious disagreement even now.