Strange and Curious Sects: The Millerites

Today’s edition of “Strange and Curious Sects” concerns a now-defunct religious group, but one which has offshoots that survive to the present day. Like the stories of John Frum and Sabbatai Zevi, it’s also a lesson in the almost limitless capacity of the human mind to rationalize away disappointment.

William Miller was born in 1782 in Massachusetts. A voracious reader, he converted to deism when he was young, but his belief in an intervening god would be restored in the War of 1812. Miller served as a captain in the American army and saw his first action at the Battle of Plattsburgh, where heavily outnumbered American forces defeated the British in a seemingly miraculous victory. Miller would later write that this experience convinced him that God had a special regard for America, a belief which would figure heavily in his later theology.

After the war, Miller and his family moved to Low Hampton, a town in the “burnt-over district” of New York, so named for the repeated religious revivals that swept the area in the nineteenth century. (Dresden, another town in the burnt-over district, would give America a worthier son: the great agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll.) Following his war experience, he converted to Baptism, and began an intense study of the Bible with the aim of rebutting the criticisms of his deist friends. But Miller’s biblical studies were destined to lead him in a very different direction.

In the course of his study, Miller became fascinated with the books of Daniel and Revelation. He became convinced that by piecing together various verses from scripture, it was possible to derive a chronology that encompassed creation from its beginning to its end. Most importantly, Miller’s chronology foretold the date of Christ’s Second Coming – which, as it happened, he believed would occur in 1843.

In 1831, Miller began to present his conclusions in public lectures and in letters to local Baptist papers. By his own account, the response was immediate: “I began to be flooded with letters of inquiry respecting my views, and visitors flocked to converse with me on the subject.” As Conrad Goeringer wrote in an article for American Atheists, “…eager listeners hung on his words, spellbound for two hours at a time, and packed houses were the rule”.

Miller was one of the first American expounders of what’s now called premillennialism, the view that the Second Coming, which he called the Advent, would be followed by a thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth. To judge by some of his published lectures and writings, he was an impressive speaker with a flair for the dramatic, so it’s no surprise that his views gained more and more popularity. By 1840, he had made a convert of the Boston pastor Joshua Vaughan Himes, who started a biweekly paper, Signs of the Times, to promote Miller’s ideas. Other independent papers supporting Millerism, such as The Midnight Cry and The Philadelphia Alarm, followed. At its height, Millerism may have had as many as 50,000 followers nationwide, and millions of copies of its tracts and pamphlets in circulation.

Miller himself never set an exact date for Christ’s return, though he claimed it would occur sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When that date passed without incident, the chronology was revised to set the date to April 3, and then again to April 18. Thousands of Millerite faithful jammed the Boston Advent Temple, only to be again disappointed. Afterward, Miller wrote a letter to the faithful which read in part, “I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door.”

In August 1844, Millerite follower Samuel Snow presented a final revision of the chronology, one which fixed the date of the Advent to October 22. Despite the previous disappointments, this date electrified the Millerites, who believed that at last the true date had been discovered, and the movement responded with renewed fervor. According to contemporary sources,

Fields were left unharvested, shops were closed, people quit their jobs, paid their debts, and freely gave away their possessions with no thought of repayment.

On the predicted night, thousands of Millerites across the nation gathered in churches or on hilltops, some wearing white “ascension robes” in anticipation of meeting their savior. Their frenzy reached a fever pitch. But when the sun rose on the morning of October 23, the world had not ended. This final, crushing blow became known as the “Great Disappointment”. Among the Millerites there was despair, dismay and weeping. One believer, Henry Evans, later wrote:

“I waited all Tuesday [October 22] and dear Jesus did not come;– I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain – sick with disappointment.” (source)

Another, Hiram Edson, wrote:

“Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. It seemed that the loss of all earthly friends could have been no comparison. We wept, and wept, till the day dawn. I mused in my own heart, saying, My advent experience has been the richest and brightest of all my Christian experience. 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? Is there no reality to our fondest hope and expectation of these things?” (source)

After this failure, the Millerite movement was adrift. Dozens of theories proliferated as to why the Advent had failed to occur on schedule, including further revised dates (none of which garnered nearly as much attention). Some said that Christ had returned “invisibly”, others that October 22 had marked not Christ’s return but the day that “the door was shut”, after which there could be no salvation for unbelievers. Hiram Edson claimed to have had a prophetic vision which showed him that Christ had come on schedule – but in heaven rather than on Earth. The Millerite movement began splintering into sects as the debate raged, and soon had all but run out of steam. Miller himself died in 1849, insisting to the end that the Second Coming was imminent.

Following such a catastrophic failure, one might expect that the Millerite movement would fade away entirely. But that is not what happened. Although the fragmented Millerites languished for some time, and though many did abandon the movement, several of the competing splinter groups would ultimately gain new life. Hiram Edson’s sect, the one which claimed Jesus’ return was heavenly rather than earthly, developed into a denomination that still exists – the Seventh-Day Adventists, who today number as many as 15 million members worldwide. The Adventists claim that Jesus’ 1844 entry into the “heavenly sanctuary” was the beginning of a still-ongoing process of “investigative judgment” of the souls of believers. They continue to claim that the literal Second Coming is imminent, though they no longer attempt to set dates.

The Advent Christian Church, another modern denomination, arose from a different Millerite splinter group. Another former Millerite, Charles Taze Russell, would carry forward his Miller-inspired beliefs about the imminent end-times into a new sect that he founded: the Watchtower (named after their monthly magazine), known today as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And last but not least, a small splinter group of fundamentalist Adventists led by a preacher named Victor Houteff split from the main church in 1934, and relocated to Waco, Texas, where they formed a community. They would later rename themselves the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, and then the Branch Davidians… and when a charismatic preacher calling himself David Koresh gained control of the group, the rest is history.

The Millerites and their modern descendants show that human beings, when motivated by ideology, are capable of coping with nearly any disappointment without altering what they believe. Miller made one of the few fatal errors in religion – tying his faith claims to a specific, falsifiable physical test – and no doubt owes his modern obscurity to that. But the faith that he founded has survived him, in somewhat changed form, and continues to issue apocalyptic predictions without being daunted by their repeated failure. This dynamic is visible in modern sects as well. When religious membership is a marker of tribal identity, a sign of belonging to a community which gives its members hope and comfort, the nature of its specific claims is almost beside the point.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Brad

    Blatant denial. When one is sufficiently psychologically invested in something, it is nearly impossible to admit those mental assets had zero corresponding value in the first place. To devalue one’s identity appears like suicide to some people. I wonder what went through Edson’s mind when throwing away such a profound skeptical potential.

    (Oh and you have a typo EM.)

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    From what I’ve read — both about the history of apocalyptic “the end is nigh” religions and about the psychology of rationalization — it’s often the case that, when the predicted deadline comes and goes and nothing dramatic happens, it actually tends to strengthen the faith rather than weaken it. We hang on to beliefs and decisions more tightly the more we have invested in them, and if you’ve quit your job and sold your house to follow some apocalyptic leader who’s telling you that the end is near… well, that’s a pretty big investment.

    There are some scholars, in fact, who argue that this is exactly what happened in early Christianity. The gospels are very clear that Jesus was supposed to come back within no more than a human lifespan. When that didn’t happen, it didn’t weaken the religion — it made it stronger. Boy, people are weird.

  • boxofbirds

    Thanks for yet another enlightening post. I had no idea all of these modern Christian sects were related. This history is almost as amazing as the founding of the Mormon church.

  • Tom

    [b]There are some scholars, in fact, who argue that this is exactly what happened in early Christianity. The gospels are very clear that Jesus was supposed to come back within no more than a human lifespan. When that didn’t happen, it didn’t weaken the religion — it made it stronger. Boy, people are weird.[/b]

    That could equally well apply to the crucifixion itself, assuming it happened at all. When you’re a fanatical cult member, and you see your charismatic leader horribly executed by the authorities, egged on by the locally established religion you’ve broken away from, that could easily trigger serious denial.

  • Polly

    What strikes me is the biblical ignorance of these followers. Mark 13:30-33

    (30)I tell you the truth, this generation[e] will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
    (31)Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
    (32)”No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
    (33)Be on guard! Be alert[f]! You do not know when that time will come.

    If JC didn’t even know, then how could regular people 1,800 years later?

    I simply don’t understand what makes people KEEP believing after such a disappointment. I guess it’s like Greta Christina said, investment.

    88 reasons why JC will return in 1988, the New World Order (HW Bush) and the Beast, and on and on. My mother still listens to televangelists prognosticating from the daily news about the 2nd coming and she still gets excited about how close it is.

    She’s been getting excited since the 80′s. Every new supranational organization is supposed to be The Beast of Revelations. And each one turns out not to fill the bill – too many members (for the 10 head requirement), or it’s surpassed by the latest international developments. To be sure these are more sophisticated in that they have a story behind them based on real life events and not just arcane calculations done in private. But, the chain of diappointments is the same.

  • Leum

    I think the argument is that no one knew when Jesus was preaching. But now that His return is imminent, we do know. It’s right…now! No, sorry, right…now! Oops, my mistake.

    Of course, the people who make this argument are the same ones who argue that the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t apply to them, and won’t do so until Jesus’ return.

    In other words, our literalist friends take a very nuanced view of the Bible. Some passages apply only to those living in the last days (Revelation, Daniel, apocalyptic prophecies in general), some apply only to those living before the last days (Mark 13:30-33 and similar passages), and some apply only to those living during the Millennium (anything calling for social justice, loving neighbors, or being a good person).

    Fred Clarke at slacktivist has taken a pretty deep look into this phenomenon.

  • Christopher

    Any economist will tell you not to put all your eggs in one basket – but that’s exactly what these poor, gullible fools do! The end result is nothing but a repetative cycle of hype followed disappointment afterwards. But they’ve become so addicted to the hype after a while that they learn to just disregard the failures and do it all over again: they’re essentially disappointment junkies!

  • silentsanta

    I just looked over the wiki article on David Koresh again. The final paragraph fills me with very special kind of rage:

    Branch Davidians believe that Koresh will someday return to Earth. Some hoped, based on Daniel 12:12, that this would occur 1,335 days after his death: December 14, 1996. The Hidden Manna faction believed that it would take place on August 6, 2000, then October 20, and now March 2012. Other followers avoid date-setting.

  • Boudica

    I believe these people’s willingness to believe is due to arrogance. They believe that they are special enough to have the end times occur during their lifetime.

  • MS Quixote

    Ebon,

    Great post. I wasn’t aware of the JW tie-in. As Christians, we perhaps have a little more first-hand experience with this type of religious activity. Your characterization is pretty accurate in many cases, IMO.

    I think it’s humorous when I suppose that an atheist’s frustration with me, for example, for my unwillingness to release myself from certain orthodox Christian fantasies must be very similar to my feelings when engaging with Christians a little further from the center of orthodoxy, such as the ones depicted in the OP. It’s an interesting picture along the scale of belief I suppose.

    I would mention in passing, though, that premillenialism traces its roots to the early church. The brand of premillenialism that arose in the 1830′s is dispensational premillenialism (cue Modus and the ridiculousness of theology:), which is not to be confused with historic premillenialism. It’s the dispensational group that’s still at the sensational (Left Behind), and sometimes predictive to the day, game.

  • Valhar2000

    Quixote, I think that would depend on what fantasies you are talking about. The frustration I experience while witnessing (what I consider) people’s delusions stems not so much from the delusions as it does from the effects I observe, or predict, from those delusions.

    In other words, if you have wacky ideas, but those ideas do not compell you to harm yourself, or to harm others, I will mutter to myself “To each his own”, and think of it no more.

  • velkyn

    This article, http://www.counterpunch.org/davis01082005.html does a good job on why this “investment” is so strong.

    Christians are so desperate to be sure that they are the teacher’s pet of “God” that they need to think that the “end times” are coming just for them.

    How many theists have died in disappointment, finally realizing that they were so utterly wrong?

  • MS (Quixote)

    Quixote, I think that would depend on what fantasies you are talking about.

    Don’t get me wrong, Valhar, I agree with your live and let live stance. I was speaking more within a context of personal engagement. It seems a nearly universal human trait to be frustrated when you care deeply for something, but others can’t or won’t see it, especially when it seems so obvious to you. I think my comment was related to the “one less god” atheist intuition; an intuition that is one of the stronger notions in favor of atheism, IMO.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    velkyn,

    How many theists have died in disappointment, finally realizing that they were so utterly wrong?

    According to atheism, none.

  • Justin

    velkyn,

    How many theists have died in disappointment, finally realizing that they were so utterly wrong?

    According to atheism, none.

    According to atheism or atheists?

    Atheism is simply the lack of belief in any deities. It doesn’t say whether believers will be disappointed at the time of death.

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    Justin,

    I understand. I was speaking in a context like this: If a believer died still expecting Jesus to return or Allah to do this or that or whatever, they weren’t disappointed if atheism is correct, because they died still expecting then their consciousness immediately ceased to exist, ie, many of these folk never get to experience the disappointment of being wrong. It was a joke not an insult or anything. Not even that good of a joke I guess if it was unclear though. I just thought there was some irony in the fact that if theists are wrong, it seems they’ll never know the difference. Just a quick trip to the anesthesiologist and lights out. If that’s the case, I’ve had surgeries and been knocked out from blows to the head so I know what to expect. OTOH, the converse is not so easy.

  • VorJack

    I keep meaning to get up to the William Miller Farm and Ascension Rock. They’re on the historic register and just a couple hours north or me, but they’re run by the Adventists. I’m afraid it’s all propaganda and no history. Has anyone ever been there?

  • Brad

    cl, you created a totally different context as a stage for introducing your point, and that’s why it was unclear. Most people read “died in disappointment” to mean died while in disappointment.

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    Brad,

    I didn’t mean to. That’s why I came back and explained.

  • Gil

    Your brieft artilce fails to mention that Miller had mediocre success until he predicted there’d be a sign in the sky – and, lo and behold, the Great Comet of 1843 appeared just at the right time. It was a comet that was not only visually large in terms of filling the night sky but also had a coma as big as the Sun and its tail stretched for over 200 million miles which is greater than the distance that Mars is from the Sun. >:)

  • Eurekus

    I’m an ex Seventh Day Adventist. Their claims are truly irrational and, at first, they give a wonderful sense of community. They have a bible study process that they use to lure new members. Introducing the person to more acceptable parts of the bible and leaving the more irrational and the more strict to later. The introduction to the more extreme teaching is only passed on once the intended new member has accepted the other teachings, and is not critical of what has been taught so far. When a believer is starting to become critical, they ignore him/her, until their beliefs are threatened and then the Pastors use hints that you are no longer welcome. Their aim from this is to stop you from pushing others into disbelief. They also warn others about the threat that comes from within and how a lost member is evidence of the church’s ‘Great Shaking’ before the 2nd coming of Christ.
    My wife still is a SDA, but I’m slowly getting through to her. She still believes in God, but due to me teaching her real science, she’s now doubting.