Early National Systems: Millennial Hope, II. William Miller.

Joseph Smith seems wedged in the creases of nineteenth-century Protestant worldviews in any number of ways. From Election to Scripture, to Millennial aspiration, he separated, combined, and “synergized” a vibrant world that respected a deep tie between science, such as it was, and a fractured system of religious beliefs that overlay a diverse and growing marketplace of ideas and economies. Smith interacted, mostly at a distance, with the lights of his day and one of those was William Miller. Shaken from a Deistic picture of God’s interaction with the world by what he, as a eighteen-year-old captain in the war of 1812, saw as divine intervention, Miller began a religious journey of devotion and disappointment. That journey turned out to be a microcosm that portended the larger society’s gradual descent from optimism to a grudging acceptance of lesser purpose.

Miller joined a Baptist church, farmed for a living, and took up a serious study of Scripture. He did not seek training in Hebrew and Greek, but moved through biblical texts with a remarkable if odd ingenuity to plot out the (pre-millennial) day of Christ’s second coming. Miller was a true independent and took the text for his guide, at least as his idiosyncratic eye saw it. He employed the book of Daniel’s day marks as literal years: “unto two-thousand and three hundred days, then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” The cleansing was the parousia or second coming. His computations led him to predict that the event would take place sometime between March 1843 and April 1844. Miller began preaching his end-of-the-world message in 1831. Never a charismatic person, his message still resonated with a significant portion of religious America. Miller wasn’t alone in attempting such computations, nor was the effort restricted to enthusiastic amateurs. The president of Yale college engaged the same kind of calculations and important clerical gatherings found the activity far from ludicrous.

Miller’s word spread as more skilled colleagues began to send the word through millions of tracts and meeting broadside announcements. Huge congregations assembled to listen to Miller’s message in the few years prior to the predicted end. The counter arguments that appeared in widely circulating papers seemed merely to add to the furor. Many ministers allowed Millerites time to preach because it got people excited, interested in their own status before God. Miller’s adherents weren’t primarily the bottom end of the social ladder. His main following in the US and Britain was a solid middle class collect. A few blacks joined the fray and women played a significant role in preaching and spreading the message of Christ’s imminent return.

Adventists, as the core came to be called, believed so strongly that they left crops in the field, shuttered businesses, sold property, and settled up past indiscretions, even with the government. Many hurriedly sought baptism by someone. As the end of Miller’s calculated period neared, groups gathered in fields to watch for Jesus. He did not come.

One of Miller’s followers thought he saw the error in Miller’s computation and spread the message that it was off by six months. After the October 1844 date passed, a terrible depression swept through the Millerite community. It came to be called “the great disappointment.” The failure didn’t collapse the movement. Instead, it broke into factions, the largest led by Joseph Bates, Ellen Gould Harmon White, and James White as the Seventh Day Adventists. Bates argued that Sunday was not a warranted day of worship, only Saturday (Sabbath) had Scriptural blessing. Ellen dictated revelations and argued for strict dietary rules. The new church reinterpreted Miller’s date as the time when Christ entered a heavenly sanctuary in preparation for a more distant appearance on earth.

In that sequence they followed a well-worn path, one that Mormons used on several occasions.

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