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Today’s edition of “Strange and Curious Sects” concerns a now-defunct religious group, but one which has offshoots that survive to the present day. Like the stories of John Frum and Sabbatai Zevi, it’s also a lesson in the almost limitless capacity of the human mind to rationalize away disappointment.

William Miller was born in 1782 in Massachusetts. A voracious reader, he converted to deism when he was young, but his belief in an intervening god would be restored in the War of 1812. Miller served as a captain in the American army and saw his first action at the Battle of Plattsburgh, where heavily outnumbered American forces defeated the British in a seemingly miraculous victory. Miller would later write that this experience convinced him that God had a special regard for America, a belief which would figure heavily in his later theology.

After the war, Miller and his family moved to Low Hampton, a town in the “burnt-over district” of New York, so named for the repeated religious revivals that swept the area in the nineteenth century. (Dresden, another town in the burnt-over district, would give America a worthier son: the great agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll.) Following his war experience, he converted to Baptism, and began an intense study of the Bible with the aim of rebutting the criticisms of his deist friends. But Miller’s biblical studies were destined to lead him in a very different direction.

In the course of his study, Miller became fascinated with the books of Daniel and Revelation. He became convinced that by piecing together various verses from scripture, it was possible to derive a chronology that encompassed creation from its beginning to its end. Most importantly, Miller’s chronology foretold the date of Christ’s Second Coming – which, as it happened, he believed would occur in 1843.

In 1831, Miller began to present his conclusions in public lectures and in letters to local Baptist papers. By his own account, the response was immediate: “I began to be flooded with letters of inquiry respecting my views, and visitors flocked to converse with me on the subject.” As Conrad Goeringer wrote in an article for American Atheists, “…eager listeners hung on his words, spellbound for two hours at a time, and packed houses were the rule”.

Miller was one of the first American expounders of what’s now called premillennialism, the view that the Second Coming, which he called the Advent, would be followed by a thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth. To judge by some of his published lectures and writings, he was an impressive speaker with a flair for the dramatic, so it’s no surprise that his views gained more and more popularity. By 1840, he had made a convert of the Boston pastor Joshua Vaughan Himes, who started a biweekly paper, Signs of the Times, to promote Miller’s ideas. Other independent papers supporting Millerism, such as The Midnight Cry and The Philadelphia Alarm, followed. At its height, Millerism may have had as many as 50,000 followers nationwide, and millions of copies of its tracts and pamphlets in circulation.

Miller himself never set an exact date for Christ’s return, though he claimed it would occur sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When that date passed without incident, the chronology was revised to set the date to April 3, and then again to April 18. Thousands of Millerite faithful jammed the Boston Advent Temple, only to be again disappointed. Afterward, Miller wrote a letter to the faithful which read in part, “I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door.”

In August 1844, Millerite follower Samuel Snow presented a final revision of the chronology, one which fixed the date of the Advent to October 22. Despite the previous disappointments, this date electrified the Millerites, who believed that at last the true date had been discovered, and the movement responded with renewed fervor. According to contemporary sources,

Fields were left unharvested, shops were closed, people quit their jobs, paid their debts, and freely gave away their possessions with no thought of repayment.

On the predicted night, thousands of Millerites across the nation gathered in churches or on hilltops, some wearing white “ascension robes” in anticipation of meeting their savior. Their frenzy reached a fever pitch. But when the sun rose on the morning of October 23, the world had not ended. This final, crushing blow became known as the “Great Disappointment”. Among the Millerites there was despair, dismay and weeping. One believer, Henry Evans, later wrote:

“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.” (source)

Another, Hiram Edson, wrote:

“Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. It seemed that the loss of all earthly friends could have been no comparison. We wept, and wept, till the day dawn. I mused in my own heart, saying, My advent experience has been the richest and brightest of all my Christian experience. If this had proved a failure, what was the rest of my Christian experience worth? Has the Bible proved a failure? Is there no God, no heaven, no golden home city, no paradise? Is all this but a cunningly devised fable? Is there no reality to our fondest hope and expectation of these things?” (source)

After this failure, the Millerite movement was adrift. Dozens of theories proliferated as to why the Advent had failed to occur on schedule, including further revised dates (none of which garnered nearly as much attention). Some said that Christ had returned “invisibly”, others that October 22 had marked not Christ’s return but the day that “the door was shut”, after which there could be no salvation for unbelievers. Hiram Edson claimed to have had a prophetic vision which showed him that Christ had come on schedule – but in heaven rather than on Earth. The Millerite movement began splintering into sects as the debate raged, and soon had all but run out of steam. Miller himself died in 1849, insisting to the end that the Second Coming was imminent.

Following such a catastrophic failure, one might expect that the Millerite movement would fade away entirely. But that is not what happened. Although the fragmented Millerites languished for some time, and though many did abandon the movement, several of the competing splinter groups would ultimately gain new life. Hiram Edson’s sect, the one which claimed Jesus’ return was heavenly rather than earthly, developed into a denomination that still exists – the Seventh-Day Adventists, who today number as many as 15 million members worldwide. The Adventists claim that Jesus’ 1844 entry into the “heavenly sanctuary” was the beginning of a still-ongoing process of “investigative judgment” of the souls of believers. They continue to claim that the literal Second Coming is imminent, though they no longer attempt to set dates.

The Advent Christian Church, another modern denomination, arose from a different Millerite splinter group. Another former Millerite, Charles Taze Russell, would carry forward his Miller-inspired beliefs about the imminent end-times into a new sect that he founded: the Watchtower (named after their monthly magazine), known today as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And last but not least, a small splinter group of fundamentalist Adventists led by a preacher named Victor Houteff split from the main church in 1934, and relocated to Waco, Texas, where they formed a community. They would later rename themselves the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, and then the Branch Davidians… and when a charismatic preacher calling himself David Koresh gained control of the group, the rest is history.

The Millerites and their modern descendants show that human beings, when motivated by ideology, are capable of coping with nearly any disappointment without altering what they believe. Miller made one of the few fatal errors in religion – tying his faith claims to a specific, falsifiable physical test – and no doubt owes his modern obscurity to that. But the faith that he founded has survived him, in somewhat changed form, and continues to issue apocalyptic predictions without being daunted by their repeated failure. This dynamic is visible in modern sects as well. When religious membership is a marker of tribal identity, a sign of belonging to a community which gives its members hope and comfort, the nature of its specific claims is almost beside the point.

Other posts in this series:

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...