The Great Disappointment

Millerism Explored: Part 4, The Great Disappointment

By Eileen Maddocks

When the Second Advent did not occur in March 1844, many Millerites left the movement entirely and returned to their churches. Others searched for answers in further Bible studies. New theories evolved to guide the setting of a new date. One study pointed to a new date—that of April 18, 1844—based on the Karaite Jewish calendar (1) rather than the Rabbinic calendar, but to no avail. The concept of tarrying was examined and preached, for two or three months. After all, Noah had had to tarry a week, even though the Ark was loaded and set to go (Gen. 7:14) while God gave humanity its last chance, and the prophet Habakkuk said, “For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry” (Habakkuk 2:3 KVJ). The admonition to take a tarrying attitude was a response of passive uncertainty.

Then in August 1844 the seventh-month message was developed. A preacher named S. S. Snow noted that the feasts of Passover and the First Fruits, and then Pentecost, were fulfilled by Christ in the spring, but the fall festivals had not yet been. So attention was turned to autumn Jewish Holy Days, the most important of which was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Each year on Yom Kippur, the high priest of ancient Jerusalem entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple to make sacrifices in atonement for the sins of the priests and the people. Snow saw the high priest as a symbol for Jesus. This new date, also based on the 2,300 days and Dan. 8:14, was October 22, 1844. Christ would return on the tenth day of the seventh month of 1844 according to the Karaite calendar. This theory was slow to catch on, but Miller and leading Millerite preachers endorsed it in September and October. Massive printing efforts spread the news like wildfire.

It was widely reported at the time that as the apocalyptic date approached, some farmers did not harvest their crops because there would be no need for them. Many Millerites sold their earthly possessions, businesses, and even their farms, probably for cents on the dollar. When the date of the expected ascension to their Lord arrived, they gathered in groups to sing and pray. However, the donning of white ascension robes seems to have been a falsehood that gained veracity by its repeated telling over the years.

The fated day of October 24, 1844, came and went as all other days had. The Baltimore Sun reported:

The Millerites . . . kept it up all night before last and yesterday they went to bed—their public haunts are silent as the grave. (2)

The nonevent was called the Great Disappointment. James White, a preacher and one of Miller’s earliest and most stalwart supporters, wrote how the thought of turning

again to the cares, perplexities, and dangers of life, in full view of the jeers and revilings of unbelievers who now scoffed as never before, was a terrible trial of faith and patience. (3)

He wrote that when Elder Himes visited Portland, Maine, soon after October 22,

and stated that the brethren should prepare for another cold winter, my feelings were almost uncontrollable. I left the place of meeting and wept like a child. (4)

What were the disheartened, even shattered, believers to do? Some slipped quietly out of sight. Others joined splinter factions of Adventism, each with some variant of Adventist belief. Within a year there were about twenty-five such sects that emerged from what had once been a united movement that had spread across many denominations. Destitute Millerites, whether still believers or not, needed assistance to get through the winter. Miller himself, along with other believers in his hometown in Low Hampton, New York, was disfellowshipped from his church. Having been in poor health for many years, Miller died in 1849 still believing in the Second Advent.

One aspect of the problem with Millerism was that its adherents did not understand the full import of the prophecies of Daniel because their meanings had been sealed. “Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end (Dan: 12:9.” It was one thing to calculate numbers and interpret events that seemed similar to those that Jesus warned would precede His return, but the prophecies of Daniel would not be unsealed until after the return.

It may be easy from a retrospective vantage point to mock or denigrate Millerism. But that is not the answer to the larger question: what was really going on? Was there indeed something in the air, wafting on the breezes, of which a whiff was intoxicating? Was there indeed to be a “return” but not of the physical Jesus? Was it to happen but not as Christians expected?

Had Millerism been partially correct but its expectation applied to the wrong continent?
In the East the Shia Muslim world in Iraq and Persia was in a parallel state of expectancy. The return of the Qa’im, the twelth Imam, was expected imminently. Let us look at what that was all about.

1 Kairite Judaism is a small Jewish sect that recognizes only the Torah as authority for religious law and theology and uses its own calendar, which varies from the Rabbinic calendar by a few days.
2 Baltimore Sun, October 25, 1844, quoted in Nichol, Midnight Cry, 260, and Knight, Millennial Fever, 217.
3 J. White, Life Incidents, 182, quoted by George R. Knight, Millennial Fever and the End of the World, 218.
4 Ibid.