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Fall 2005

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Saints, Sinners and Reformers

The Burned-Over District Re-Visited


John H. Martin

Table of Contents of Saints, Sinners and Reformers

Chapter 8

William Miller

The End of Time and the Adventist Sects

There is nothing like certainty in predicting the future to help religious sects to grow and to attain additional adherents. So it was with the date of October 22, 1844, the time when the Millennium would occur, when Jesus would return, and the thousand year reign of the saved would begin. In the 1840s a wave of anticipation brought many believers to millennial expectations, both within American churches as well as in the growing number of revivals where the preaching about the end of time was taking place. It was, therefore, a great disappointment when October 23rd rolled around and time was still present. Hope does spring eternal, however, and the Millennial excitement which occurred in the period before 1843 has seldom abated, and in these later times the electronic information revolution provides the expectant with more than one hundred popular millennial sites which can be found on the Internet.

William Grandison Finney, and the many other revivalists who excited believers in the first half of the nineteenth century, in part provided the seed ground for those who looked forward to the End of Time. A belief in the return of Jesus as the Messiah had been strongest in the early Church in the decades after the death of Jesus, but it was to fade thereafter as the centuries rolled on. It was the growth of pietistic groups in Europe after the Reformation and then the great revivals in the nineteenth century in America which was to bring about a resurgence in Millennial hopes. These revivals which occurred in the first third of the nineteenth century in America placed the emphasis on the Bible rather than on the traditional Christian theology which had accrued in the centuries after the death of Jesus. Many of the popular preachers of the time were ignorant of this Christian tradition since they were untrained, often poorly educated, and knew only the Bible as the basis for their faith.

In one sense, these revivalists were creating a new Reformation since they were attempting to go back solely to the Bible, to the earliest recorded form of Christianity, a step which neither Calvin nor Luther had fully undertaken. The primitive approach to Christianity of these revivalists encouraged a literal acceptance of the words of the Bible as inerrently correct in every detail. It also could lead to a gullibility and a readiness to accept anything new in religious experience which came down the pike. The "New Methods" in religion which Charles Grandison Finney had encouraged were a form of religious innovation which was based on the emotional revivalism which did not encourage a depth of religious thought. It was stressing the "New Man in Christ," a reformed individual who was freed from sin—and freed from any theological moorings.

Revivalist Christianity freed one to interpret the Bible as one saw fit, and thus those who read the Bible often concentrated on the sections of scripture which seemed to forecast the future, particularly the Book of Revelations and The Book of Daniel. As a result, one of the basic elements in revivalist preaching dealt particularly with the anticipated Second Coming of Jesus and the Millennium. There arose among some literalistic Christians a need to pinpoint just when the Millennium would arrive and as to what form it would take. These individuals who were eagerly anticipating the End of Time fell into one of two camps: they were either Pre- or Post-Millennial believers.

1. The Pre-Millennialists believed that Christ, the Messiah, would return before long to begin his one thousand year reign. He would come when conditions in the world had become sufficiently hopeless. These believers were, if you will, pessimists who saw the world becoming more and more sinful. They praised the Lord since the world was getting worse, and it was essential that Christ return to make all things whole once more. Among these were the followers of William Miller who would, after the 1840s, eventually develop the Seventh Day and other Adventist churches.

2. The other group, the Post Millennialists, saw the coming of the Messiah when the world was made ready for his return. These were the activists and optimists who wished to help make the world a better place so the Messiah could return. These included the Shakers, Jemima Wilkinson, and the Oneida Community.

Two things brought the Pre-Millennial excitement to a white heat in the late 1830s and into the 1840s. First, there was widespread economic distress after the 1837 economic panic in the United states, and this seemed to indicate that the world was growing more hopeless. Millennialism has always flourished in difficult times, and the Millennial hope had always surfaced on those occasions in the history of Christianity when the outlook for life was most bleak.

Secondly, there was the preaching and teaching of William Miller, a man who had little formal education but who had a fixation on the coming "End of Time." Concern for "The Last Days" thus excited the hopes and fears of many believers. Many who heard William Miller preaching that the Millennium was at hand became convinced that the coming end of the world was imminent. The followers of Miller were quite dramatic in their beliefs, for they foresaw the literal appearance of the Christ, the actual ascent of the saints into Heaven, and the actual descent of the wicked into Hell—and this in their own lifetime.

What was the background of William Miller, this American apostle of the End of Time? Miller was born in 1782 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the eldest of sixteen children. He was not too educated an individual, although he was an omnivorous reader, nor did he hold a position of any note in the society of his day. In 1813, when he was thirty-one, Miller was swept up in a Vermont revival, and he became worried over the state of his eternal soul. He was convinced, from the revival preaching that he attended, that he was a sinner and that he was faced with the possibility of eternal damnation. Thus he began to go to church and to study the Bible assiduously, growing ever more despondent over his future fate.

Finally he had a conversion experience, and he joined a Calvinistic Baptist church where he developed a sincere and lasting piety. Miller came to believe that scripture should be accepted entirely and literally. Every word in the Bible was true, every Biblical prophecy would be fulfilled. That there were contradictory statements in the Bible might bother some individuals, but not Miller. He spent fourteen years reconciling all the contradictions he found in the Bible, thereby proving to his satisfaction that the Bible was pure revelation.

Miller next began to figure the date of the second coming of the Messiah by using The Book of Daniel and The Book of Revelation, particularly the twentieth chapter of Revelation. His calculations led him to a date around 1843 for the Second Coming. He spent the years from 1822 to 1832 re-figuring his calculations, ever more convinced of their validity. He was, however, shy and fearful of speaking out since, after all, he was a man of little education. Then in 1832 there occurred an event which changed his life: he was asked by a church to fill in for an absent preacher, and his vision of the future simply overflowed in his speaking.

In the pulpit he became eloquent in describing the joys of the saved as opposed to the suffering of the wicked. He so thrilled the congregation on this 1832 occasion that he was asked to stay on to lead a week's revival—and thirteen families were converted under his preaching. Requests poured in for him to speak at other churches, and in 1833 he became a Baptist preacher and a revivalist. Piety alone, and not knowledge, were sufficient for ordination in some American churches. Now, as a minister, he could speak concerning his ideas of the Second Coming of Jesus. His fame spread, and he was much in demand in Vermont, New Hampshire, and upstate New York.

The Reverend Joshua V. Himes, the pastor of the Chardon Street Baptist Chapel of Boston, happened to hear Miller preach at a religious conference. Himes immediately accepted Miller's millennial ideas and became Miller's publicity agent, manager, and promoter. Himes happened to be a religious entrepreneur par excellence, and he invited Miller to speak at his Chardon Street Chapel in December of 1839. The Chardon Street Chapel is remembered today primarily because of a comment Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote after a November 1840 meeting there when the Chapel housed a "Convention of Friends of Universal Reform." Emerson described it in these words:

If the assembly were disorderly, it was picturesque. Mad Men, Mad Women, Men with beards, Dunkers, Muggletonians, Come-outers, Groaners, Agrarians, Seventh Day Baptists, Quakers, Abolitionists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and Philosophers, all came successively to the top and seized their moment, if not their hour, wherein to chide, pray, or preach, or protest.

With functions such as this in his Chapel, it is understandable why Himes loved crowds, revivals, camp meetings, particularly the exhibition of fear and repentance which were the trappings of emotional religion.

Himes not only arranged Miller's revivals for him, but he edited journals which promulgated Miller's ideas such as the Boston Sign of the Times, the New York Midnight Cry, the primary papers of the Millennial movement. In 1836, sixteen of Miller's lectures appeared in book form as Evidences from Scriptures and History of the Second Coming of Christ About the Year 1843. As with the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith, Miller's writings needed editing by a more literate individual, a service which Himes provided for William Miller.

By 1842 at least fourteen itinerant lecturers, urged on by Himes, were swarming over the Burned-Over area of New York State promulgating Miller's ideas. Then, as a confirmation of Miller's predictions, from February 18th until April 1, 1842, a brilliant comet burned nightly on the horizon of the sky. It fulfilled the prophecy that the Lord would be "Revealed in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not the Lord." Miller grew even more inspired as 1843 neared, lecturing more than three hundred times in six months on the theme: "Are You Ready to Meet Your Saviour?" In the summers of 1842 and 1843 there were one hundred and twenty camp meetings whose preaching centered on the coming Millennium.

Miller was not a ranting revivalist, for his sermons were given in a serious and convincing tone. Thousands had to be turned away from his tent rallies as interest in his preaching and predictions surged during what was evidently the last year of earthly existence. In 1843 as Time neared an end, Himes moved their headquarters to Rochester, New York, to be in the heart of the Burned-Over District. On June 23rd of that year Himes had a great tent erected in Rochester, one which could hold three thousand potential converts to Millennialism. Two weeks of meetings, prayers, preaching, and forecast of the coming Millennium proceeded.

Not everyone believed as Miller and his followers did, and books and pamphlets both for and against the prediction of the imminent Millennium poured from the presses. Many clergymen of more moderate persuasion condemned Miller's ideas as erroneous, and at times mobs even tried to break up the meetings at which he spoke, and Miller was pelted with rotten vegetables. But still his converts increased. Himes, ever the public relations man, estimated that one million people had been converted to Millennial beliefs. This is the usual problem with such estimates made by those most concerned with the success of a movement in which they are involved. At best, there may have been some 50,000 individuals who succumbed to Miller's predictions, and most of them remained within the churches to which they had previously adhered.

As 1843 continued day by day, month by month, Miller almost disappeared from sight, growing ill, old, and worn out by his activities. He preached less and less. Himes, however, was in his element as time ran out for this wicked world. He developed more field workers, placing additional itinerant speakers on the roads. Huge meetings were held in New York City, Philadelphia, and the Mid-West. The announcement of the date of such meetings always bore the titillating conditional phrase "If Time Continues." Sunday schools were started for children, and books and catechisms were printed for them, such Sunday school literature and Millennial newspapers always ending with "And that's the way the world is coming to an end." Nonetheless, the secular press remained skeptical. There were reports of dishonesty among the leaders who operated the lectures predicting the End of Time and of the filling of their pockets at the expense of susceptible believers.

With the advent of 1843, a demand grew for an exact date of the Second Coming. Miller was reluctant to pinpoint the day. He had always said it would come about 1843. The radicalism which was developing among some of Miller's converts also distressed him. One of his disciples, John Starkweather, for example, was going too far in encouraging physical manifestations of conversion, the old excesses of the earlier revival movement. For Starkweather, hallucinations and epileptic attacks were seen as extreme but sincere forms of conversion and piety. Then Starkweather went in for mesmerism (hypnosis) and orgies of exhibitionism. The movement was growing out of control. Most Millerites were poor and uneducated, mostly converts from Methodist and Calvinistic Baptist sects. There were few from the more established churches of the Unitarians, Presbyterians, or Episcopalians among the Millerites. Thus these less educated religious seekers were more susceptible to the emotional excesses in which Starkweather reveled.

The appointed year of 1843 passed without the appearance of Jesus or the End of the World. As a result, the spring equinox of 1844 was seen as the more likely appointed time—without Miller's approval. Miller went over his calculations, and he decided that his figures were in error. Thus the Millerites now realized that October 22, 1844, was when Time would end. Millennial excitement revived, and a great Millennial Tabernacle was even erected in Boston. It has been claimed, whether it is true or not is hard to determine since there were many scoffers around, that there was a run on white cloth for the making of Ascension Robes as believers prepared to be received into Heaven. Some believers are said to have paid off all their debts, while others gave away their possessions as time ran out. Two hundred followers of Miller in Philadelphia, it was reported, fled that city of Sodom before its cataclysmic destruction. It was also claimed that tents were erected atop hills on October 21st so as to be nearer to Heaven when the moment arrived, and it was also said that the more ardent believers even climbed into trees so as to get to Heaven first. Some Americans were evidently to be go-getters even in the Heavenly realm if these claims can be accepted.

Alas, nothing happened on October 22, 1844, or in the days which followed. What of those who were disillusioned when the Millennium did not arrive? Some left thechurch for good, some joined the Shakers, some continued to believe in the imminent Millennium and joined new Adventists groups which began to arise. Among this latter there was one Adventists sector led by Hiram Edson who on October 23, 1844, had a vision when he saw clearly that October 22, 1844, was not the end but the beginning of the end. His vision indicated that Christ had come on October 22nd—but not in the manner they had expected. The event had occurred in Heaven, and thus the Book of Daniel was right in its prophecies. These believers formed the Seventh Day Adventist Church which honored the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday, as prescribed in the Bible. Others said that Christ had come spiritually, and true believers could enjoy Heaven's privileges on earth through one of the newly formed Adventist churches in the loose association of Adventists formed in 1845. The Seventh Day Adventists legally came into being as a religious sect the following year. Then in 1861 the Advent Christian Association was created, having separated from the Seventh Day Adventist group over a question as to the immortality of the soul. In 1882 there was a further division when the Church of God, and then the Churches of God in Jesus Christ came into being. Such groups continue to exist, and their members remain pietistic, tithe contributors to support the many charitable institutions which the Adventists see as the visible reflection of their inner faith.

Miller, poor man, was read out of the Baptist Church. He started a small Adventist church, but he died in 1849 broken and forgotten. What of Himes? He lived until 1895, becoming an Episcopal clergyman in South Dakota. Nonetheless, his old beliefs lived on within him, for when he died he was buried atop a hill so as to be nearer to Heaven and among the first to be with Jesus and the saints.

Biblical literalism remains in many Christian sects today which hold to the prophecies of the Book of Revelation and other Biblical writings as being literally true and imminent. Thus the followers of Miller remain firm in their Biblical orthodoxy and are more orthodox in their Biblical beliefs than the standard Protestant churches where theology and Biblical literalism became less important, leaving Americans free to float from one denomination to another among the main stream Protestant churches which differ little in belief today.

There was an upsurge in Millennialism as the year 2000 neared. Pat Robertson, one of the deans of more fundamentalist American Protestantism, wrote a book in advance of that date entitled The End of the Age. In 1997, as the Associated Press religious reporter wrote, there were 1,500 people who packed the Sheraton Hotel ballroom in Washington:

…where for sixteen hours a day the End of Time Handmaidens prayed and swayed, singing of the day when they will "dance on streets that are golden." Around them middle-aged women clad in white and gold robes glide through the aisles while other believers blow into rams' horns, their shrieks announcing the Second Coming. "The end is near. The End-Times are here….This is God's last call," Sister Gwen Shaw, the End of Time Handmaiden's seventy-two year old leader, proclaimed.

It was perhaps the Handmaiden's last convention if they were correct in their predictions.

According to an Associated Press poll in 1997 almost forty percent of Christians expect Jesus to arrive in the twenty-first century, if not sooner. But then, Joshua V. Himes claimed to have awakened over a million Millennialists in his day, so one may believe what one wishes when it comes to such statistics, then or now.

Further Readings

Barkun, Michael. Crucible of the Millennium: The Burned-Over District of New York in the 1840s. Syracuse University Press. Syracuse, New York. 1986.

Cross, Whitney R. The Burned-Over District, The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York 1800-1850. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, New York. 1950.

Johnson, Charles. The Frontier Camp Meeting: Religion's Harvest Time. Southern Methodist University Press. Dallas, Texas. 1955, 1985.

Numbers, Ronald and Jonathan M. Butler. The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteeenth Century. University of Indiana Press. Bloomington, Indiana. 1987.

Rowe, David. Thunder and Trumpets: Millerites and Dissenting Religion in Upstate New York 1800-1850. Chico, California. 1985.

Spence, Hartzell. The Story of America's Religions. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. New York. 1957.

Sweet, William Warren. Religion in the Development of American Culture, 1765-1840. Charles Scribner's Sons. New York. 1952.

Sweet, William Warren. Revivalism in America: Its Origins, Growth, and Decline. Scribner. New York. 1944.

Sweet, William Warren. The Story of Religion in America. Harper and Brothers. New York. 1950.

Tyler, Alice. Freedom's Ferment: Phases of American Social History Until 1860. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. Minnesota. 1944.

Table of Contents of Saints, Sinners and Reformers
© 2005, John H. Martin
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