William Miller was never your typical doomsday prophet.
Born in Massachusetts in 1782, he was the son of a captain who had served in the American Revolution and spent most of his early life in Washington County, New York. Despite his solid Baptist upbringing, William Miller would later say that he always felt the need for a more personal connection with God but was never quite sure of the form that relationship should take.
After marrying and settling down to his life as a farmer, he likely would have had an uneventful life had it not been for the War of 1812 where he served as a captain. In 1816, likely as a result of his wartime experiences, Miller developed an obsession with the afterlife and the need to use the Bible to develop clear and accurate answers to all of the questions in life. He then spent the next fifteen years in a careful study of the Bible where he "found everything revealed that my heart could desire, and a remedy for every disease of the soul."
Along with his Bible study, William Miller also followed news of the various millenial movements that were springing up throughout the United States at the time. It is hard to say why people were so receptive to idea that the Second Coming was at hand in that part of the country. Whether it was due to anxiety over the worsening economic climate (the Panic of 1837 had led to a terrible recession), political uncertainty (the tension that would lead to the Civil War breaking out was already being felt), or lingering anxiety over New England's Dark Day, numerous religious figures came forward with their own message of coming doom and the need to repent.
Religious figures such as Jemima Wilkinson , Ann Lee and even the venerable John Wesley were proclaiming an impending judgment. Many of these inspirational preachers advocated postmillenialism with Christ returning after a thousand years of universal brotherhood and peace. Miller was deeply bothered by these teachings since he believed that the Second Coming of Christ would happen first with the millenium of peace following.
In a statement of faith which wrote to his brother, Miller said that Christ would come:
In the glory of God, in the clouds of Heaven, with all the saints and angels, change the bodies of all that are alive on Earth that are his, and both the living and raised saints will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air.
As for the ones "left behind" however,they would not fare so well. Miller maintained that the Earth would be "cleansed by fire, the elements will melt with fervent heat, the works of men will be destroyed, the bodies of the wicked will be burned to ashes." Not only would the wicked (i.e., anyone who rejected the Gospel) die but their spirits would be "banished from the Earth, shut up in the pit" and not be allowed to return to Earth for 1000 years. Along with Isaac Newton and a host of other Bible scholars, William Miller examined apocalyptic works such as the Book of Daniel and Revelation to calculate when the Second Coming would occur.
Working from Daniel 8:14 "Until two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed", Miller determined that the Second Coming would occur on March 23, 1843. Knowing full well that he would be mocked if he openly announced this to the world, Miller only told a few friends and likely would never have come to public attention at all if not for Joshua Vaughan Himes.
Himes, was the minister at Boston's Chardon Street chapel and also a zealous evangelist. Convinced by Miller's message, Himes invited him to give a sermon in 1839 which led to numerous other invitations from other ministers for Miller to speak. Not only did this lead to Miller's message being heard by thousands of people, other ministers (including Himes) began preaching the message of imminent judgment as well.
In addition to frequent sermons, Joshua Himes also published a series of magazines and pamphlets including the Midnight Cry and Signs of the Times. Though Miller and his supporters gained thousands of supporters, there was considerable public scorn as well. Newspapers began reporting on Miller's appearances and the crowds that inevitably gathered. Editorials blaming Miller for cases of insanity or suicide that they attributed to his message became common.
The sighting of an extremely bright comet in 1843 set off new apocalyptic fears and William Miller had more followers than ever. Oddly enough, Milller largely ignored the comet since he felt that the Bible alone provided all the information needed. He certainly had no intention of founding a new religion (why bother with converts when Judgment Day was just around the corner?). Most of his teachings were perfectly consistent with what mainstream Christian preachers were saying in their own sermons, hence his popularity with ministers inviting him to give guest sermons.
DespiteMiller's reluctance to pin down a specific date for the Second Coming, he and his followers eventually settled on April 23, 1843 based on their careful calculations. As the date approached, the crowds attending his sermons swelled and newspapers were alarmed by his message. Newspaper editorials warned that widespread belief in Miller's message might lead to social and economic upheaval if farmers decided not to plant crops or if craftsmen stopped producing goods.
When April 23 came and went with no Second Coming, William Miller went back to the Bible and started recalculating. Concluding that he had made a mistake by relying on solar years intead of lunar years, he recalculated the date as occurring in the spring of 1844. Despite their previous disappointment, the Millerites (as they were then known) decided to prepare for the new date in spectacular fashion. After purchasing an enormous tent capable of holding more than two thousand people, they went on a grand tour through New York and Ohio. Rumours also began circulating that the Millerites had prepared "ascension robes" that they could wear as they rose into Heaven. Though these rumours were likely exaggerated, some sources suggest that many Millerites prepared special robes for that reason (even though Miller never called for any special preparations).
March 21 came and went with nothing remarkable happening. Undaunted, William Miller insisted that the Second Coming was at hand but concluded that it would likely happen in the fall instead (though this time, he was careful not to provide an exact date). Another Millerite, S.S. Snow, floated the suggestion that October 22, 1844 would be the correct date since it fell on Yom Kippur (also my birthday but that was likely a coincidence). William Miller had his doubts but allowed his followers to convince him.
At the same time, there was also a growing disenchantment with Miller and his followers. Many of the ministers who had invited him to speak to their congregations were now ignoring him completely. Even the newspapers were doing little more than ridiculing the movement. Editorials predicted "mob scenes" and public disorder while many stores and shops were closed with signs saying "This shop is closed in honor of the King of Kings, who will appear about the 20th of October. Get ready, friends, to crown him, Lord of All." When October 22 came and went, the Millerite movement was essentially over though William Miller and Joshua Himes took up a new cause raising money for Millerites who had impoverished themselves by leaving their jobs and giving away their possessions.
Thus began the period known as "the Great Disappointment". While many Millerites tried to come up with varied explanation of which Christ failed to arrive (eg, Miller had his date wrong, Christ HAD arrived secretly, etc.), the anguish that many of the followers felt was immense. As one follower later wrote, "Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before... We wept, and wept, till the day dawn." Though the movement struggled on, William Miller was no longer part of it. Though devastated by the failure of his calculations, William Miller continued preaching until his eyesight failed him. He died on December 20, 1849, still convinced that the Second Coming would happen at any time.
The Millerite movement might well have petered out completely if it had not been for Joshua Himes. Refusing to give up on the message of imminent salvation, Himes and his son established the Adventist movement and launched a series of publications, including the Advent Christian Times. Himes eventually abandoned the Adventists and rejoined the Episcopalian church before dying in 1896 but, by that time, Adventist churches were well-established with various offshoots including the Seventh-Day Adventists and Advent Christians.
Though the Adventists who followed after Miller and Hines tended to downplay Miller's message of imminent judgment, there were several other false alarms involving Adventist predictions of Christ's return. These included Jonathan Cummings' prediction that Christ would return in 1854 and William Thurman's prediction that it would happen in 1875. Despite attracting a small following, neither of them had the impact that Willam Miller did.
Miller's ultimate legacy was to discredit Doomsday prophets for a least another generation. Though other doomsayers would arise, it would a long time before any of them would work up the nerve to have their predictions put to a public test and risk the same fate as Miller and his followers. The "Great Disappointment" would cast a shadow on evangelist movments for decades to come.