October 22: An Apocalyptic Anniversary Worth Remembering

October 22: An Apocalyptic Anniversary Worth Remembering October 22, 2016

William Blake, “The Vision of the Last Judgment” (1808). Source: Wikimedia Commons


October 22 marks one of the most significant dates in American religious history; certainly in the history of the Second Great Awakening—that era of Protestant revivalism and millenarianism from the turn of the 18th century to the mid-19th century.

It was October 22, 1844 that the Millerites, the impassioned followers of the Baptist preacher William Miller, looked forward to as the day of the Second Coming of Jesus, as had been predicted by one of Miller’s devotees, based on complicated calculations from the Biblical book of Daniel.

The Millerites had first come to prominence at the beginning of the 1840s, as William Miller’s own original predictions became more widely known via the press and a kind of grassroots apocalyptic fervor (Miller himself had already forecasted the Second Coming for 1843 some twenty prior to this).

Although having at first resisted proclaiming an exact date for the Second Coming, as the apocalyptic year loomed large Miller narrowed the time-frame in which he thought this would place—specifically, between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. By this time, Miller had amassed a considerable following, primarily in the Northeast, with some reports suggesting that followers numbered as many as 50,000; and he’d certainly captured the wider attention of the nation.

However, when the sun set on March 21 without incident, Miller recalculated to date to roughly a month after this, on April 18, 1844.

When this date also passed, Miller acknowledged the error; and yet even so, he still reiterated the imminence of the end—”I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door”—here borrowing language from Mark 13:29 (Matthew 24:33), part of Jesus’ own apocalyptic discourse predicting the imminent end.¹

It was in the months that followed this, however, that the pièce de résistance of the Millerite movement began to be formulated.

In August 1844 at a camp-meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire, everything changed when Samuel S. Snow presented a message of earth-shattering proportions—what became known as the “seventh-month” message or the “true midnight cry.” In a complex discussion based on scriptural typology, Snow presented his conclusion . . . that Christ would return on, “the tenth day of the seventh month of the present year, 1844.”Again using the calendar of the Karaite Jews, this date was determined to be October 22, 1844. This “seventh month message” “spread with a rapidity unparalleled in the Millerite experience” amongst the general population. (Source)

As the sun began to set on October 22, there was a despair upon the dawning realization that, despite the unparalleled enthusiasm for this day above all others predicted, it too would just another ordinary day in which the Second Coming wouldn’t materialize. As described by a Millerite named Henry Emmons:

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.²

The failure of October 22 subsequently became known as the Great Disappointment.

Although this might all seem to have been an aberrant and ephemeral series of events with no true larger significance (for religion in general or Christianity in particular), nothing could be further from the truth.

As certainly as the Millerites’ particular apocalyptic predictions failed, so new rationalizations for these failures followed in their wake. And fitting for the hopes that were invested into October 22 in particular came ground-breaking new doctrines that mitigated the failure.

In fact, there were a few different sub-types of Millerite response here, interpreting the significance of October 22 in various ways. Three in particular are noteworthy for laying the foundation for the birth of two Protestant denominations which are still prominent today. In the first of these, in keeping with the Millerite emphasis on Daniel 8:14—the verse that served as the main proof-text for their apocalyptic calculations, all pinpointing the date of Jesus’ eschatological coming to “cleanse” the “sanctuary” (presumably the earthly Church)—Jesus was thought to have made this grand eschatological entry into the sanctuary on October 22; except this wasn’t understood as a terrestrial event, but instead as Jesus’ entry into the heavenly sanctuary, where among other things he began his final judgment of humans.

Incidentally, this all bears close resemblance to one interpretation of a section in Jesus’ own apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13, mentioned above. In this, the eschatological “coming” mentioned in Mark 13:26 is interpreted not as his coming to earth to render judgment, as is usually understood, but rather his ascension and entry into the heavens. (Thus, on this interpretation, the thorny problem posed by Jesus’ statement shortly following this in Mark 13:30, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” is avoided or mitigated.)

In the second Millerite interpretation, October 22 was understood to be the terminal point for salvation—the date after which no more humans would be saved, their number now conclusively set.

To those familiar with its theology, the first interpretation here is easily recognizable as one of the seminal doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And if we look at both of these interpretations together, in conjunction with other background considerations, it’s easy to see the importance of these interpretations—or ones very similar to them—for another well-known Protestant denomination, Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Two of the most seminal figures in the birth of Jehovah’s Witnesses were Charles T. Russell and Joseph Rutherford, the first two Presidents of the Watch Tower Society.³ And it was the former figure’s meeting with the Millerite/Adventist Nelson H. Barbour that proved to be decisive event in confirming and solidifying Russell’s own theological and eschatological convictions: 

Barbour, like other Adventists, had earlier applied the biblical time prophecies of Miller and [Jonas] Wendell to calculate that Christ would return in 1874 to bring a “bonfire”; when this failed to eventuate he and co-writer J.H. Paton had concluded that though their calculations of the timing of Christ’s return were correct, they had erred about its manner. They subsequently decided that Christ’s return, or parousia, was invisible, and that Christ had therefore been present since 1874⁴

Although this “coming” of Jesus seemed to be an invisible one to earth, it’s easy to see the parallel here to the Millerite/Adventist interpretation of Jesus’ (similarly invisible) coming into the heavenly sanctuary—especially in light of the fact that they were both reinterpretations and rationalizations of failed eschatological predictions: the former, that of October 22, 1984; the latter of the failed 1874 prediction.

Heirs to the Millerite (and more general millenarian) legacy of the 1800s, Church authorities and laymen of both the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses would continue to make firm predictions about the date of Jesus’ actual tangible Second Coming, well into the 1900s.

In these groups and individuals, we find highly insightful “case studies” on religious eschatological prediction and how their failure is dealt with: ones that can be used to shed on light on both eschatological prophets and predictions prior to the Millerites—from the 18th century Shakers all the way back to the eschatologically-charged atmosphere of Second Temple Judaism, leading up to the birth of Christianity itself—as well as on apocalyptic groups and predictions that have emerged subsequent to these groups. 

Perhaps the most well-known apocalyptic prediction in recent years—a prediction having much fewer actual sympathizers than William Miller did, though highly propagated through intense media attention—was that of Harold Camping. Although originally suspecting that 1994 was to be the final apocalyptic year,⁵ it was for 2011 that Camping made his definitive prediction: in particular, May 21. 

And here, in the wake of this date, we can understand Camping’s response perfectly in line with those of the earlier Millerites and Adventists:

After May 21 passed without the predicted incidents, Camping said he believed that a “spiritual” judgment had occurred on that date, and that the physical Rapture would occur on October 21, 2011, simultaneously with the final destruction of the universe by God.⁶

New Testament scholar Dale Allison—commenting, incidentally, on a sort of tendency for “spiritualization” of the (apparently failed) earliest Christian eschatological predictions, even on the part of fellow modern scholars—writes that

members of a Baha’i sect known as “Baha’i’s Under the Provisions of the Covenant” circulated a prophecy predicting for 1991 massive earthquakes and a meteor striking the earth. When nothing came to pass, their leader explained that there had been a “spiritual earthquake” created by the apostasy of an important member and that “everything happens on the spiritual plane before it manifests in the physical plane.” Earlier, when forecasts that Halley’s comet would crash in 1986 failed to materialize, the same leader had this to say: “The spiritual fulfillment did take place. A spiritual stone hit the earth. This stone is the message of the messiahship that only the Baha’i understand.” (Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, 167-68; with reference to Balch et al., “Fifteen Years of Failed Prophecy: Coping with Cognitive Dissonance in a Baha’i Sect”)

For that matter, we might also draw a connection here to the views of some theologians relating to the original resurrection of Jesus himself, in its being understood as having proleptically enacted the final judgment in a way. For example, Biblical scholar and theologian Michael Bird suggests of the apostle Paul that, for him,

the final judgment has already been executed in the sacrificial death of Jesus. The obedience that God requires at the final judgment is fulfilled and completed in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. . . . The verdicts of the final judgment, both negative and positive, are present in nuce in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Resultantly, no condemnation waits for Christians on the final day as they steadfastly hold to Christ (Rom. 5.1, 8.1). Whatever role faithfulness and obedience play in the life of the Christian (and they are not to be discounted) the final grounds for acquittal and vindication remains in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Saving Righteousness of God, 173–74)

On a final note here, I want to briefly mention one last rationalization that’s regularly been offered by religious apologists in the wake of prophetic failure. 

Daniel Wojcik’s essay “Avertive Apocalypticism” seeks to delineate a particular kind of rationalization for failed apocalyptic predictions, in which apparent failed predictions aren’t acknowledged as failures at all, but in fact are understood as successes. The idea here is that if predicted apocalyptic events fail to be delivered on the date that they were predicted—and, obviously, the events in question here are often cataclysmic destructions—then this only means that the threat was averted; usually due to a divine figure who is “appeased” by the devotion and faith of those who heeded these warnings.

What this does is ascribe a certain conditionality to apocalyptic predictions—a conditionality that often isn’t explicit to begin with, but is after the fact interpreted to have been implicit in the original prediction. (And in fact, a recent quasi-academic volume has been published that seeks to interpret the apparent failure of some aspects of the historical Jesus’ eschatological predictions precisely along these lines. See my review/analysis of this here.) 

In any case: in his essay, and in his work more generally, Wojcik focuses heavily on the apocalpytic messages that usually accompany modern Marian apparitions, and the devotees of these. However, discussing a now infamous (though in its time, tiny) mid-20th century apocalyptic UFO sect known as “the Seekers,” centered around the predictions of a certain Dorothy Martin—the group a clear precursor to the Heaven’s Gate cult—Wojcik writes

Comparable after-the-fact avertive explanations have been given . . . a well-known example is presented in the study When Prophecy Fails (Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter 1956). After Dorothy Martin’s predictions of a catastrophic flood and the salvation of the chosen by flying saucers did not transpire, she revealed that God prevented the destruction and that the world had been saved because of the intense faith of believers (169–70).

In discussing the different “stages” in how religious groups that rest on a solid foundation of apocalyptism navigate their theology and beliefs in the wake of repeated predictive failures, he also notes that

A relevant example of the changing nature of beliefs about the immediacy of apocalypse is illustrated by the history of the Seventh-day Adventist movement. As Seventh-day Adventism expanded and its interactions with government and broader civil society increased, emphasis shifted to a less imminent view of the End, and the timing of Christ’s expected return was recalculated and extended further into the future. Some Seventh-day Adventists believe they can forestall the apocalypse and “prolong the future of America” in avertive efforts that will allow them more time to spread the Adventist message through missionary work, by trying to postpone certain events predicted to occur prior to Christ’s Second Coming (such as the passage of a law mandating worship on Sunday). They have attempted “to delay the end in order to have greater opportunity to preach that it was at hand” (Lawson 1995, 355)⁷

Yet here we might note that, in contrast to the idea that modern Christian apocalyptic groups and their rationalizations are modern aberrations that are alien to historic Christianity—certainly to the earliest Christianity—in these things we have a virtually perfect bridge between past and present.⁸ For example, in the second epistle of Peter from the New Testament, in the third chapter, we read

First of all you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless. But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:3-9)

Similar to Seventh-day Adventist theology in which the predicted end is delayed in order to allow for its further proclamation (and thus allow for more people to heed its warning), here in 2 Peter, in response to the “scoffers” who’ve become skeptical about the nearness of the eschaton, God has postponed the cataclysmic end in his mercy and benevolence, “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

Yet—as I’ve discussed at great length recently in my post here—at several critical points in this passage in 2 Peter, as with in the rationalizing of the apocalyptic groups of 19th and 20th century discussed in this post, the delay isn’t actually pushed beyond the sight of the audience and generation it addresses. Instead, in its very qualification/rationalization of the delay, the apocalyptic imminence is reaffirmed: for example, from the very beginning here in 2 Peter, the mere presence of those skeptical about the nearness of eschaton is itself taken as an indication of the current time: “in the last days scoffers will come…”⁹

“I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door.” Thus, again, were the words of William Miller following the second disappointment of April 18, 1844.

However, even if for some this error is creatively transmuted into or reinvented as success, in light of what I’ve suggested here it’s still hard not to see these words as offering a candid peek behind the curtain, into the apocalyptic mind and the challenges that it faces—one in which there’s a simultaneous frustration, disappointment, and yet continuing enthusiasm about the present.

Today, for those interested in the history and psychology of religion, take this October 22 as offering something like an educational time machine: one that doesn’t just bring us back to 1844, but one in which past, present, and future are all brought together, and where we’re afforded a unique glimpse into the patterns of apocalyptic/eschatological predictions and their influence and interpretation—all expressions of apparently timeless religious, social and psychological forces.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] I’ve recent discussed this text and its broader context at some great length, in various places in my post here (search for the sections discussing Mark 13)—with somewhat of a follow-up or companion note in Note 3 here.

[2] Quoted from here.

[3] At the time known as Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society. Also, we might speak of William Conley as being “co-President” with Russell. 

[4] Quoted from here.

[5] As noted here

[6] Quoted in the third paragraph here.

[7] “Avertive Apocalypticism,” 86. The final quote here is from Lawson, “Sect-State Relations: Accounting for the Differing Trajectories of Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

[8] I’ve broached the subject of modern Christian apocalyptic predictions vis-à-vis those of the New Testament (including, of course, those of Jesus himself) in my post here

[9] Further, we might also note that it’d make little sense to suggest that the author envisioned a truly prolonged delay, considering that the rationale for this delay was to allow for more time for additional repentance. That is, if the author really intended the delay to be one that would last decades or centuries, how can it make sense for these subsequent generations to be granted “more time for repentance,” as the author suggests, considering that these people weren’t even in existence yet in the time of 2 Peter?

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