The Great Disappointment
“How long, dear Lord, our Savior
Wilt thou remain away?
Our hearts are growing weary
of thy so long delay”
— Millerite hymn
Predictions of when the world will end, as foretold in the Book of Revelation, have placed the apocalypse just around the corner for thousands of years.
In American history, one of the first well-known end-of-the-world scares was predicted by William Miller, a New England farmer, who grew up on a farm near the small town of Low Hampton on the New York/Vermont border. As a young man, Miller developed a passion for reading, putting in a long day of farm chores and reading stealthily by candlelight at night (his father thought his late-night reading would affect his work performance). As an adult, he was elected to civil offices, including Deputy Sheriff and Justice of the Peace. Miller fought in the War of 1812 where he rose to the rank of Captain and worked as a recruiter. After the war and the deaths of his father and one of his sisters, Miller began to ponder the afterlife and renewed his Baptist faith. He especially became interested in eschatology, the part of theology that studies death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul.
Speculation about end times escalated throughout the eighteenth century. New England preachers portrayed the French and Indians during the Seven Years’ War as tools of the Antichrist, and patriot preachers during the Revolution painted the British and Anglicanism in the same lurid colors.
Miller owned English Rev. George Faber’s Dissertation on the Prophecies, published in three editions between 1804 and 1811, which examined the end times discussed in the Bible. Sprinkled throughout the New England region were sects like the Shakers, who believed Jesus had already returned and instituted the Millennium. A similar group, the Dorrilites was established by the “prophet” William Dorril in the 1790s, They lived in two communities in Vermont and Massachusetts, where they practiced vegetarianism and promiscuous free love. Another Vermont sect was the New Israelites, led by Nathaniel Wood – aka “Old Man of All” – in Middletown, Vermont. The group, about 100 strong, practiced polygamy and spent spare time searching for buried treasure and other revelations with dowsing rods. Wood predicted that a destroying angel would usher in the apocalypse on January 14, 1802. There was such a ruckus of panic on that date that local militia were called in to clear crowds and restore order.
Miller moved to Poultney, Vermont, where he met his wife, Lucy, and they eventually moved back to the Miller farm in Low Hampton in 1815. Miller’s study of the Book of Daniel led him to work out math equations that led him to believe the Second Coming of Christ was going to happen sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844.
He was inspired to begin preaching about his prediction after a dream where celestial guides led him to “an upper room filled with light and pilgrims singing ‘Hallelujah to the Lamb!’”
But he waited years before actually getting into the preaching biz because he was intimidated. He finally gave his first speech in 1831. Author David L. Rowe describes the circumstances in his book God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World.
“While he had been feeling the compulsion for many years, this was so powerful that he promised God he would go if someone would invite him to speak. Since as yet no one had, Miller felt safe. That same afternoon a nephew arrived with an invitation to preach the next day to Baptists in Dresden, sixteen miles northwest across Lake Champlain.
Miller was an effective speaker. One commentator described his voice as “strong and mellow,” and though his style was “not remarkable for grace or eloquence,” simplicity was a virtue. He was humble and often used self-deprecating humor. He was unintimidating in appearance – “short and heavyset with a ruddy, round face, but listeners could see something of themselves in this man whose limited schooling, plain clothes, and lack of pretense matched their own. To all appearances, he was just like them, and he reaped the benefit of a democratic culture that valued commonness. Age was no handicap either. In his early fifties, Miller may have been ten years beyond the average life expectancy, but survivorship lent his words gravity and wisdom. Jackson-era Americans did not so glorify youth that they had forgotten the respect owed to the fathers.”
A marginal group of believers began to form, and Miller began to persuade more people, including ministers, that his prediction would be accurate. A pamphlet he had printed in 1833 titled, Evidences from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ About the Year A.D. 1843 and of His Personal Reign of 1000 Years, helped Miller plead his case.
New Millerites helped expand from a crusade to a mass movement, especially Joshua Vaughan Himes, pastor of the Chardon Street Chapel in Boston. Himes worked to attract skilled workers, mobilize supporters, and fundraise donors. To help with his process, he assembled a collection of Miller’s lectures and writings in print titled, Views of the Prophecies and Prophetic Chronology, and edited and produced Millerite newspapers that were published semi-weekly and eventually weekly. The movement’s first newspaper was The Signs of the Times, and more regional papers followed including New York’s The Midnight Cry, The Philadelphia Alarm, The Advent Shield and Review, and The Advent Message to the Daughters of Zion (edited by and marketed to women).
Miller had predicted that The End would happen sometime between Spring of 1843 and Spring of 1844. When those dates passed, Miller was badly shaken. However, Samuel S. Snow, a new name in the Millerite movement, brought a fresh view to the prophecy. Snow’s interpretation led to a calculation that October 22, 1844, was the “true midnight cry.” The Millerite inner circle seized on this prediction and began promoting it in their papers.
The Second Great Awakening was happening during the time Millerism was exploding. This was the same time and place (Vermont and New York) that Joseph Smith formed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and presented the Book of Mormon. Another religious leader, Robert Matthews (aka Matthias the Prophet), established a cult following in New York. They created a settlement called the Kingdom, where Matthews claimed authority from God to judge the world.
When writing about the apocalyptic craze of the Second Great Awakening, editors couldn’t resist the alliteration of “Mormons, Matthias, and Millerites,” and lumped them together, to the chagrin of Miller, who never claimed he was a prophet or messiah. There were many titles people tried to bestow upon him, but he preferred “Father Miller.”
Miller faced many critics who mirrored his tactics to criticize him and declare that he was deluding people and profiting from his work. A cottage industry of anti-Millerite newspapers and pamphlets were produced with titles like The Theory of William Miller, Utterly Exploded and The End of the World Not Yet.
Belief in the second coming date of October 22, 1843 was so strong that it was reported that ecstatic Millerites settled old quarrels, gave away or sold their earthly possessions to pay off old debts, or donated the money toward keeping the Millerite printing presses rolling to help spread the word. They left their fields of crops unattended and left their shops closed. On October 22, it was reported some stood on the roofs of their house, hoping to be closer to the incoming Messiah.
October 22 became known as the “Great Disappointment.” The world kept turning.
In addition to “disappointment,” many Millerites had to come to terms with the decisions made when they believed the world was coming to an end. Many were left in the poorhouse and they had to endure the ridicule of their peers and the press.
The Millerites began to dissolve. A now feeble Father Miller gave his last speeches in 1847. People flocked to these events out of curiosity, but many viewed him as misguided at best, crazy and crooked at worst. He was threatened with being tarred and feathered in Sandy Hill. In Stowe, “fire crackers, squibs, and home-made rockets” were thrown at him, and in South Troy “eggs, clubs, and rocks” were hurled at him.
Family surrounded Father Miller, singing his favorite hymns as he died on Dec. 20, 1849.
Estimated numbers of the Millerites range from 50,000 to 500,000. The Advent Christian Church and the Seventh Day Adventist Church are denominations descended from the Millerites.
“For Miller and many of his followers, the world did indeed come to an end on October 22, 1844, not melted in divine fire but dissolved in bitter tears,” Rowe reports in God’s Strange Work. “Hope did not necessarily die, but expectation did. Nothing happened.”
Apocalypse Any Day Now: Deep Underground With America’s Doomsday Preppers
is available now from Chicago Review Press wherever books are sold.
You can find it online at:www.chicagoreviewpress.com/ApocalypseAnyDayNow