By Eileen Maddocks
Was Jesus to return soon? Were the end times close at hand? Countless people in the North America and Europe, but especially in the northeast United States, believed so. It was as though an otherworldly influence was wafting on the breezes. (1)
It is estimated that over twelve years since 1831 Miller had given 4,500 lectures to at least five hundred thousand people. Millerite literature had gone out around the world. In 1843 Miller released his book Evidence from History and Evidence of the Second Coming of Christ about the Year 1843, which was a compilation of nineteen of his standard lectures. (2)
What was new about Millerism? There was nothing radical at that time in the belief in Christ’s physical return to earth, the Last Judgment, and the establishment of an eternal reign of righteous. The Millerism phenomenon cut across denominational lines. However, there were two doctrinal differences between Millerism and conventional Protestant belief— Christ would return imminently and before the beginning of the millennium.
He [Miller] believed that the truth was so important that his followers should not cloud the clarity of their message by emphasizing other doctrinal points. To do so would risk creating division in the Adventist ranks. Time was too short for doctrinal divisiveness, for Christ would come soon. That was his message. All other controverted points were sidelines to that one great truth; after all, doctrinal controversy would end with the second advent. It was that one, all-important truth that must be preached. (3)
However, Miller had never been much concerned about determining the calendar day of the Second Advent. He held out as long as he could for a softer approach, which was the certainty of an imminent return, not the date. He finally responded to the incessant urging from his followers for a date when he wrote on January 1, 1843, “I am fully convinced that some time between 21st March, 1843, and March 21st, 1844, according to the Jewish mode of computation of time, Christ will come.” (4)
The year of 1843 was that of expectancy. Yet Miller himself seems not to have been any kind of fanatic or to have been caught up in the emotional turmoil that many others were. He is quoted as having said early in 1844: “If Christ comes, as we expect, we will sing the song of victory soon; if not, we will watch, and pray, and preach until he comes, for soon our time, and all prophetic days, will have been fulfilled.” (5)
Several hundred preachers and lecturers were actively involved at the height of the movement. The Midnight Cry reported in the spring of 1844 that “something like fifteen hundred or TWO THOUSAND lecturers are in the field proclaiming ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand.’’’ (6) However many there were, they came from most Protestant denominations. The Second Great Awakening was nearing its zenith as the compulsion to spread the word gripped Millerite ministers and laymen alike. A common expression used when discussing the future was if time should last.
But churches and society as a whole were becoming increasingly divided between the Millerites and the nonbelievers. The more actively Millerites preached their faith, the more aggressive were the countermoves against them like sarcastic newspaper articles, vandalism of Adventism properties, and physical violence at camp meetings. Inherent in these problems was the solution—either the Second Advent would occur, or it would not. It was not only the believers who were anxiously waiting!
Of course the press had a field day. For example, the Lowell, Massachusetts, Courier published the following:
Mr. Miller has been holding forth on his narrow-minded humbug at Trenton to large audiences. . . . This Miller does not appear to be a knave, but simply a fool, or more properly a monomaniac. If the Almighty intended to give due notice of the world’s destruction, He would not do it by sending a fat, illiterate old fellow to preach bad grammar and worse sense, down in Jersey.
The much anticipated day of March 21, 1844, came and went and the Advent did not happen. Miller was caught between puzzlement and disappointment. On May 12 he wrote an apology to his followers but maintained that he would have lived his life no differently. He also wrote, “I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door.” He also wrote a heart-wrenching poem:
How tedious and lonesome the hours,
While Jesus, my Saviour delays!
I have sought him in solitude’s bowers,
And looked for him all the long days.
Yet he lingers—I pray tell me why
His chariot no sooner returns?
To see him in clouds in the sky,
My soul with intensity burns.
I long to be with him at home,
My heart swallowed up in his love,
On the fields of New Eden to roam,
And to dwell with my Savior above. (9)
Many followers fell away but others scrutinized the calculations for errors and a new date for the Advent was determined. There had been a problem with handling the transitional year between what we call BC and AD. Was there a year zero? Or not? In which case the calculations could be pushed up from 1843 to 1844 and even late in that year. The new date, and the last one ever issued by the Millerites, was October 22, 1844. Miller did not initially jump on this bandwagon but he did eventually endorse that date. He was not an ego-driven person and his decision to endorse this last date was probably not to vindicate his life’s work and faith but more an ardent expression of his deep desire to meet his Lord.
The fateful day came in due course and would be later called the Great Disappointment.
1 The possibility and nature of this otherworldly influence will be explored in a future article.
2 Available free online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/esc/esc03 and http://earlysda.com/miller/evidence1.
3 George R. Knight, Millennial Fever and the End of the World, 54.
4 Signs of the Times, Jan. 25, 1843, 147‒149. Cited by George R. Knight, Millennial Fever and the End of the World, 126.
5 Advent Herald, March 6, 1844, 39. Advent Herald was the new name for The Signs of the Times.
6 Knight, Millennial Fever, 114.
7 Lowell Courier, Feb. 23, 1843, quoted in Nichol, Midnight Cry, 140, and by Knight, op. cit., 63.
8 Sylvester Bliss, Memoirs of William Miller, 256, cited by Knight, Millennial Fever, 164.
9 Wait, Gary E. “The End of the World.” www.dartmouth.edu/~library/Library_Bulletin/Nov1993/gewait.