April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
William Miller applied good Yankee arithmetic to biblical prophecies and convinced thousands that the hour of Christ’s Second Coming was upon them
On October 22, 1844, thousands of Americans in widely scattered localities left their homes tor what, they were perfectly convinced, would be the last time. Their leaders had meticulously corrected an earlier prediction that 1843 would be the final year. Now they were ready.
Many of them had given away or abandoned their property; some had let their crops go to ruin. They went in solemnly excited groups to meetinghouses and tabernacles to witness the Second Coming of Christ and the imminent destruction of the world. In the great moment now at hand, they fervently believed, they would “go up” to blissful eternal life, while millions of sinners and scoffers would be thenceforth doomed to the ineffable tortures of hell.
In an atmosphere increasingly strained they waited, looking for the first fearful sign of the Advent. The day wore on, while their leaders exhorted them to stay calm and assured them that the time of the Lord was indeed upon them. It was only a question of hours or minutes. Darkness fell. The hours passed, each more tense than the one before. Surely, they now felt, midnight must be the appointed instant. …
The man who was chiefly responsible for the mathematically precise expectations of these people was William Miller, of Low Hampton, New York, in the Champlain Valley—a plain, honest, self-educated farmer with a flair for arithmetic persuasively applied to what he believed to be literal and infallible premises. Everyone agreed that he was “a man mighty in the Scriptures,” who always seemed to know what he was talking about. But the secret of his great success with his audiences, despite the fact that he was said to be slow of speech, was stated by Miller himself. “If you wish your people to feel ,” he said, “ feel yourself .”
The intensity of Miller’s feeling still clings to the words of one of his typical “Second Coming” exhortations:
Ah! what means that noise? Can it he thunder? Too longtoo loud and shrill—more like a thousand trumpets sounding an onset. It shakes the earth … See how it reels. How dreadful! How strange!
The very clouds are bright with glory … See, the heavens do shake, the vivid clouds, so full of fire, are driven apart by this last blast, and rolling up themselves, stand back aghast—And O, my soul, what do I see? A great white throne, and One upon it … Before him are thousands and thousands of wingèd seraphim, ready to do his will.
The last trumpet sounds—the earth now heaves a throb for the last time, and in this last great throe her liowcls burst, and from her sprang a thousand thousand, and ten thousand times ten thousand immortal beings into active life … I saw them pass through the long vista of the parted cloud, and stand before the throne …
The air now became stagnated with heat; while the dismal howling: of those human beings who were left upon the earth, and the horrid yells of the damned spirits … filled my soul with horror not easily described.
It is hardly surprising to learn from a contemporary report that words such as these, uttered repeatedly in the iSgo’s, created “much excitement … a great breaking down, and much weeping’ in places such ax Montpelier, Vermont; or that in Lansingburgh, Xew York, “infidels, deists, Univeisalists and sectarians were all chained to their seats in perfect silence for hours—yes, days—to hear the old, stammering man talk about the Second Coming of Christ, and show the manner, object, time, and signs of His Coming.” Fire and-brimstone preaching was nothing new in that part of (he country. But the operative phrase which distinguished this revivalist from all his fellows was “the time and signs” of the Awful Last Day, for which he was prepared to furnish copious and resounding Bible proofs. He first announced the end of the world as fixed between March 21, 184^, and March 21, 1844. After the latter date had passed uneventfully, the prediction was revised to October 22, 1844. These rash prophecies set off one of the greatest mass delusions in American history; and the prophet’s converts have been charged with a greater variety of ridiculous and fanatical acts than perhaps any religious group in modern times. Before the “crisis” years of 1843—44 were reached, Miller’s followers must have numbered in the hundreds of thousands, most of whom, on that October night, were awaiting the Day of Judgment.
Miller was anything but a rabble-rouser at heart. The oldest of sixteen children, he was bom in Pittslield, Massachusetts, on February 15, 1782. \Vhen he was four years old, his father, Captain William Miller, a veteran of the Revolution, moved to a farm in Low Hampton, New York, close to the Vermont line. The boy grew up in that small village, which afforded only about three months of schooling each winter. Books were scarce in the hard-working Baptist household, his father’s whole library consisting of a Bible, a psalter, and an old hymnbook. Most of William’s early reading was done in books he earned by wood-chopping. Later he was able to borrow volumes on ancient and modern history from more affluent neighbors.
At fifteen he began to keep a diary, and soon became known as the village ghost-writer (or “scribbler-general”), who provided not only letters but sometimes verses tor his less literate fellows. On January 3, 1803, his journal records his engagement to marry Miss Lucy P. Smith of Poultney, Vermont, some six miles from Low Hampton. The wedding took place six months later, and they began farming in his wife’s village. At Poultney, Miller was an inveterate frequenter of the town library, where he encountered for the first time the skeptical writers of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Thomas Paine.
Perplexed by doubts about his previous beliefs, he soon became, like many others in the same period, a deist and scoffer at the fundamentalism in which he had been reared. Unlike atheism, deism did not deny lhe existence of a Supreme Being, but portrayed Him as having refrained, after the creation, from any further interference in the orderly Newtonian processes of Nature. But to the orthodox clergy of the day, this was “an emanation of (he Devil,” one of the many varieties of heresy that constituted what they called “the Reign of Infidelity” in Vermont. As they saw it, along with dire events in Europe, such heresy portended “the last days” preceding the return of Christ to earth. That was the conclusion reached in 1811 by the Reverend Ethan Smith of Poultney in his Dissertation on the Prophecies relative to Anti-christ and the Last Times , in which he identified Napoleon as “the terrible head of the Roman beast,” and predicted the end of the world in the year 1866.
For twelve years William Miller remained a deist, and yet an exemplary citizen, a fact which refuted the orthodox dogma equating infidelity with personal immorality. A Mason of advanced degree, he became town constable and, in 1809, deputy sheriff of the county. A year later he turned to the military life, first as a lieutenant in the militia, then as a captain in the Regular Army. In the ensuing War of 1812, he underwent his baptism of fire at the Battle of Plattsburg on September 11, 1814, declaring a few hours afterward: “I am satisfied that I can fight. I know I am no coward … Three of my men are wounded by a shell which burst within two feet of me.”
In June of 1815, however, he emerged from the Army “completely disgusted with man’s public character,” and returned to farming, this time back at Low Hampton with his wife and little son. There he found existence “too monotonous … it appeared to me that there was nothing good on earth. Those things in which I had expected to find some solid good had deceived me. … The heavens were as brass over my head, and the earth as iron under my feet … I was truly wretched, but did not understand the cause.”
Recent studies in the psychology of sudden religious conversion, such as Dr. William Sargant’s Battle for the Mind , have thrown a great deal of light upon the characteristic tensions leading to Miller’s own dramatic about-face and those of some of his later converts. His earlier devout upbringing had provided him with a constant concern for the future, accompanied by what he called tormenting doubts “respecting our condition in another state.” Meanwhile, the silent reproaches of his wife and other pious relatives left him with feelings of guilt about his profane military language and infidel scoffings. While the works of Hume and Voltaire, Tom Paine and Ethan Alien had delighted his intellect, they had left his strong underlying emotional nature unsatisfied. In this state of undefined anxiety, Miller was ripe for that “escape from fear into love, from heaviness into joy” which a return to religion offered him.
The liberating vision came to him in 1816 at the little Baptist church of Low Hampton, whereupon, he tells us, “the Scriptures became a delight … my mind became settled and satisfied.” He soon became a pillar of the church, but his former deistic associates quickly challenged him to make good by logic his new conviction that the Bible contained none of the errors and contradictions which they found in it. Miller was now in the uncomfortable position of having to deny what he had stoutly affirmed, and to affirm what he had emphatically denied.
Consequently the Bible “became his chief study.” He “lost all taste for other reading” in his desperate concentration on the crucial issue of man’s immortality and future judgment. To this task he applied himself “with the most intense interest, whole nights as well as days being devoted to that object.” His only aids were the marginal references and a concordance, which enabled him to “examine all the texts of Scripture in which were found any of the prominent words contained in any obscure portion. Then by letting every word have its proper bearing on the subject of the text, if my view of it harmonized with every collateral passage in the Bible, it ceased to be a difficulty.”
The first two years of this course of solitary reading and comparing convinced Miller that “the Bible is its own interpreter,” and that although its prophecies were usually couched in figurative language, they were fulfilled literally, as the studies of secular historians testified. If the dates of minor catastrophes—the flood, the destruction of Pharaoh’s hosts, and the wandering in the wilderness—had been predicted exactly, was it not reasonable to suppose that the date of the greatest cataclysm of all, the end of the world, was fixed somewhere in the Bible? The basis for Miller’s rigid literalism was laid down in his fourteen “Rules of Interpretation,” which declared that whenever all Bible texts on a subject were brought together “without a contradiction,” then “the believer cannot be in error.”
As for the Bible’s figurative language, his Rule VIII stated that “Figures always have a figurative meaning, and are used much in prophecy, to represent future things, times and events, such as mountains meaning governments, beasts meaning kingdoms, waters meaning people … and day meaning year .”
Had Miller been asked how he knew exactly what each of these biblical expressions symbolized, he would have replied by giving one or more references in which, according to his interpretation, the context indicated that particular meaning. The fallacy is obvious, since a single or occasional use of a figure of speech does not make it, as he supposed, a fixed symbol. There may indeed be scriptural passages in which the word “day” is used to indicate a year or a century or a millennium. But it is absurd to conclude that it must always do so.
Armed with these “scientific” methods and his narrow, unscientific premises, Miller did not hesitate to tackle the knottiest of Bible passages, such as the mysterious outpourings of the prophet Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, and the visions of the Apocalypse. In the words of his disciple and biographer, Sylvester Bliss: “At times puzzled and almost distracted by seemingly inexplicable or contradictory passages, he persevered until the application of his great principle of interpretation was triumphant.” Despite the intricacy of his hypotheses, he believed that they formed, when rightly construed, a consistent system pointing to the destruction of this world and its wicked, unbelieving inhabitants at the Second Coming of Christ.
By 1818 he had become convinced that he had found the master key to unlock the prophetic chronology and reveal the precise date of the awesome event. It was the prophecy contained in Daniel 8:14: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days, then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” To the mind of William Miller, it was crystal clear that the “sanctuary” was the earth, long since desecrated, and that its “cleansing” was to be by fire at the return of the Messiah. Furthermore, this event was to take place in 2,300 “days,” which he already had determined meant chronological years. The only remaining problem was: When had the “desolation of the holy place,” the earth, begun? Miller held that the date was 457 B.C. , when (according to Ezra 7:11-26) the commandment to rebuild Jerusalem was given. The rest was simple arithmetic: subtracting 457 from 2,300, he found that the world would come to an end in 1843 A.D. (Miller used the ancient Jewish calendar, so that the end of “1843” would come at the spring equinox, or March 21, 1844.)
There were four additional methods of calculating the Advent, all of which added up to exactly the same year: 1843. So Miller could hardly avoid, as a disciple wrote, the “solemn conclusion that in about 25 years from that time , all the affairs of our present state would be wound up; that all its pride and power, pomp and vanity, wickedness and oppression, would come to an end; and that, in the place of the kingdoms of this world, the peaceful and long-desired kingdom of the Messiah would be established under the whole Heaven.” The prospect filled Miller’s heart with joy, but it did not impel him to rush out to warn the wicked of their impending doom. He wanted to be absolutely sure that his fearsome prophecy would not mislead anyone. The five years from 1818 to 1823 were to be spent in “weighing various objections” to his calculations; and then it was eight years more before he was ready to “go tell the world of the danger.”
The first phase his remarkable public career began with what he regarded as a providential call to lecture at a neighboring Baptist church. It came on a Sunday in August, 1831, with the prospect of “no preaching” that day at Dresden, New York, sixteen miles from where he lived. Would Miller fill the gap with a discourse on the Second Coming of Christ? He was understandably reluctant to go. He was fifty years old, aged beyond his years by an illness contracted in the Army, a layman without theological training. But inwardly he was bursting with the pent-up results of fourteen years of intensive study of prophecy, which had carried him into calculations almost as complex, in their own odd way, as those involved in the programming of a shot aimed at the moon.
So profound was Miller’s effect upon his first listeners that he found himself with “a revival on his hands,” and was urged to stay during the week and continue his lecturing. Invitations poured in thick and fast; he could not accept half of them. Yet in the first year of his “call” he delivered at least a hundred lectures, and he was to keep up this pace for many years despite ill health and limited funds.
Many conditions in the 1830’s and 1840’s favored the acceptance of Miller’s disturbing doctrines by the rank and file of the rural fundamentalist churches and their ministers, in spite of the indifference and even the hostility of the more sophisticated urban clergy. In the country towns and villages, where evangelical Protestantism held sway, the Bible was still the virtually unchallenged authority; and the revivals led by Charles G. Finney and others had accustomed lethargic congregations to periodic “refreshings” of their religious zeal. (See “Pentecost in the Backwoods,” by Bernard A. Weisberger, in the June, 1959, A MERICAN H ERITAGE .) In addition, the panic of 1837 had stirred up widespread economic anxiety, and this was easily transformed into spiritual anxiety.
As the dread year of 1843 came nearer, public interest in the Millerite movement naturally became more intense. Not only was the number of believers growing rapidly, but there was a tendency to interpret various meteorological phenomena in ways that lent plausibility to Miller’s claims. Northern lights, meteoric showers, and tornadoes seemed to take on increased significance; and in March of 1843 there happened to appear the most brilliant comet of the century, clearly visible even by daylight.
There were certain sober and logical steps which persons might have been expected to take who believed implicitly that the earth and their unbelieving neighbors were about to be destroyed, and themselves transported heavenward—abandoning one’s business or property, forgiving one’s creditors, and so on. One small boy in a Millerite household in Eastport, Maine, said to his mother quite sensibly that, as long as the world was about to end anyway, why not kill all the chickens and hens, and have a good feed before the time came?
But the public craves the picturesque, and the proceedings of the Millerites which attracted the most attention and excited the most ridicule were not rational preparations for the Advent, but the various “symbolic acts” induced among them by the prospect of coming deliverance. Here it is not always easy to separate legend from history, since hoaxers and scoffers were plentiful, and the press of the day was almost uniformly hostile. Impossible stories were told about “crazy Miller,” who, as one editor acknowledged, “was probably the object of more abuse, ridicule, and blackguardism than any other man living.”
Most widely celebrated and most vehemently disputed of all the symbolic acts associated with the movement was the alleged making and wearing of white ascension robes. The idea appealed so irresistibly to cartoonists and chroniclers that the legend will probably never be completely scotched by any number of documented denials—any more than it was by the indignant denials of Millerite leaders when the movement was at its height. It was undoubtedly in harmony with the popular image encouraged by scoffers, some of whom may themselves have dressed up in ascension robes in order to make fun of the faithful.
In like manner, the idea of “going up” generated the belief that many Millerites awaited the end in some elevated spot for greater ease in taking off, sometimes by climbing the nearest hill, or a tall tree, or the roof of a building. Many humorous stories were told of Millerites who, believing that the final moment had come, launched themselves into the air from such take-off points—only to descend, of course, ignominiously and with bruised buttocks. Another favorite story told of the misfortune of a local Millerite—the identity changed with the locale—who, forlornly returning home after the great disappointment, was refused entry by unconverted members of the family: they kept the door resolutely shut and called out, “Oh no, you can’t be So-and-So. He [or she] has gone up.”
It was said that some Millerites, instead of seeking elevated positions, preferred to wait for the end in graveyards, so as to join buried relatives or friends at the resurrection hour. Other groups were content merely to assemble in fields. One such “company of believers,” more class-conscious than most, is described by Jane Marsh Parker, daughter of a Millerite preacher, thus:
They went out from Philadelphia some five miles near the Schuylkill along the Darby Road, pitching their tents in an open field, and gave themselves to prayer and praise while they awaited the sounding of the last trumpet. There were some highly-bred ladies among them—enthusiasts in the faith—and it was whispered at the time that a spirit of exclusiveness had dictated the withdrawal of the little company from the multitude of believers who assembled … in the public hall of the city; that even in such a democratic event as an ascension into the heavens it was the wish of certain old-family Philadelphians not to “go up” with the common crowd.
Common repute often attributed to the Millerites the symbolic acts indulged in by members of other radical religious sects as re-enactments of miscellaneous scriptural precedents. In Maine the Portland Argus stated that the Millerites of the town of Atkinson, in Piscataqua County, were
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.
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.”
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.