By Eileen Maddocks
An atmosphere of religious expectancy swept through English and American Protestantism during the 1840s. The return of Jesus Christ was expected. This expectation, called Adventism, was not new. What was new was that, for the first time, a date had been projected for the Advent.
Adventism had always been part of Christian theology. Jesus said that He would return, and He told His disciples much about what would precede His return, including disaster and turmoil. The closest Jesus said about “when” was when it would be least expected, like a thief in the night. Christians expected the Second Coming to be a literal return in the same body Jesus had so many centuries ago. The return was also to be the occasion of the Last Judgment, the judgment of the living and the dead and their sorting to heaven or hell. This was far more serious business than Harry Potter confronting the sorting hat!
American Protestants, especially in New England and the Midwest, had experienced the First Great Awakening, which was an eighteenth-century evangelical and revitalization movement that swept Protestant Europe and the American colonies, particularly the northern United States. The peak period was between the 1730s and 1740s, and John Wesley and evangelical Methodism were a part of this movement. The Great Awakening negated the need for ceremony and church hierarchy. It stressed that faith was an intensely personal matter that fostered spiritual conviction and redemption, or salvation only through Jesus Christ. Self-study of the Bible was paramount. The belief in Adventism was reinforced, but no one tried to project a date for it. In addition, it had always been assumed that the return would occur at the end of the millennium.
What lit the fire for the Second Great Awakening one century later? Possibly events like the Year Without a Summer, which was 1816. Europe and North America had a normal spring, but a volcano in the Pacific, Mount Tambora, had erupted massively in April and spewed so much ash that the sun was obscured half a globe away. Hard frosts hit all summer in Europe and North America. Crops failed. Hunger was widespread.
During this awful summer Mary Shelley wrote her classic novel Frankenstein. And a group of writers including Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and his future wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin challenged each other to write dark tales inspired by that dark and frosty summer.
At any rate, Bible students were busy again starting in the early 1800s, and this time a major focus was on the return of Christ. The Second Great Awakening of the 1830s and 40s, characterized by Millerism, reached fever pitch in the United States in the early 1840s. The Second Great Awakening was a turning away from deism, the belief in God but a repudiation of church theology and structure, and a turn towards evangelical Christianity. Church membership increased dramatically. All Christian denominations, except the Quaker and Universalist, believed in the physical return of Christ to earth for the final judgment of the living and the dead and to establish an eternal reign of righteousness. But no one had ever tried to set the date.
Now the question was being asked, “when?” Jesus had said that only the Father knew. “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matt. 24:42‒43).*
Enter the Rev. William Miller, a farmer and Baptist minister in Hampton, New York, across the border from Vermont. He, along with many other biblical scholars, claimed to have calculated the time when Jesus Christ would return to Earth. Their calculations were based on the prophecies of Daniel, in particular Daniel 8:14—“He [a holy one] said to me, ‘It will take 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated.’”
Millerism not only set itself apart from traditional Adventism by setting dates in 1843 and 1844 for the return, but it also split from the premillennial belief that Jesus would return at the end of the millennium. Instead, Millerism was postmillennial, that is, Jesus would inaugurate a thousand years of peace and justice on earth. There were now the premillennial and the postmillennial branches of Adventism.
Miller began to share his views in the 1830s. By the accounts of the day, he was not charismatic. On the contrary, he was homely in appearance and plodding in speech, although very rational and thorough in his sermons and speeches. Fortunately he attracted to his cause in 1839 the ultimate helper, the consummate administrator and organizer, the Rev. Joshua Himes of the Second Christian Church of Boston.
A flurry of activity resulted, and then a frenzy. The newspaper The Signs of the Times appeared in 1840, first bi-monthly and then weekly. Nathanial Southard, an associate of Himes, founded The Midnight Cry in 1842. Within two weeks, 240,000 copies of The Midnight Cry were distributed. There was The Trumpet of Alarm in Philadelphia, Second Advent of Christ in Cleveland, Voice of Elijah in Montreal, and Western Midnight Cry in Cincinnati. Over forty such periodicals were in circulation by October 1844. It was estimated that five million pieces of Millerite Adventist literature had been disseminated by May 1844—one piece for every four men, women, and children in the United States!
Miller and at least two hundred other preachers hit the circuit of churches and camp meetings, where tents were used. Camp meetings were outstandingly successful. Sometimes thousands of people attended a camp meeting over several days and were served by many ministers. In fact, the largest tent that had ever been built, the “big tent,” was constructed in 1842 to hold four thousand people. A streamer bearing the words “Thy Kingdom Come” flew from the masthead. The Millerite Adventists held at least 125 camp meetings throughout the northeast that were attended by an estimated half million people. Since the population of the whole United States was about 17,000,000 at that time, with perhaps half in the northeast, maybe one in fifteen northeast Americans attended a camp meeting.
The 1830s and 1840s were a heyday for reform movements—women’s rights, abolitionism, and so forth. But Millerism became the foremost reform movement of all because Jesus would reform the earth and banish evil when He returned.
Wilt thou remain away?
Our hearts are growing weary,
Of thy so long delay.
* All biblical quotations in this series of articles are from the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible.
1 Read Matt. 24:1‒51.
2 Joshua V. Himes, comp., Adventist songbook Millennial Harp, or Second Advent Hymns: Designed for Meetings on the Second Coming of Christ. Boston [J. V. Himes], 1842, 7. Quoted by George R. Knight, Millennial Fever and the End of the World: A Study of Millerite Adventism, Pacific Press Publishing Association. Nampa, Idaho, 1993.