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1831-1843: William Miller and the Millerites

Cartoon of Millerites Waiting to Ascend[Larger version here]

The Legend:

In 1831, a self-taught expert on Biblical revelations named William Miller announced his belief that the world would end in 1843 with the return of Jesus Christ to earth.

        His word spread slowly at first, but as the predicted time started to come closer the ranks of the "Millerites," as his followers had dubbed themselves, steadily grew... and their behaviour became stranger and stranger. In the year of the predicted end, many of these people gave away everything they owned, including farmland and homes, to help curry favor with the returning Christ. Some Millerites, driven to distraction by the coming end, wound up in mental asylums hopelessly insane.

        As the end came, Millerites could be seen wearing white robes, and standing on high hills -- or in trees, or on top of buildings, each trying to be the highest so that they could be the first lifted up into heaven. Some of these hapless people even jumped from these places in their attempt to ascend -- with predictable results.

        When the predicted date came, and passed, Miller didn't even blink an eye. He had re-checked his calculations, he told his followers, and was simply off by a few months... and so another prediction was issued, and the madness continued. And when that day came and passed, another prediction was issued... and then another.

        In the end, Miller retired away quietly but the movement he started rolled forward, splitting into new groups built on the continuing belief in the coming end of the world... and many of these groups still exist.

The Real Story

In 1831, William Miller [1782-1849] -- variously described as an Atheist, a Baptist, or a Deist before this time -- began preaching his belief that the world would end around the year 1843 with the Second Coming of Christ. 

        This prediction was based on Miller’s own interpretation of portions of the Books of David and Revelations in the Bible. Miller worked hard to spread his message by preaching anywhere a congregation would listen, and had only mild success in winning converts for the first eight years. In 1839 Miller met and won the help of Joshua V. Himes, whose promotional skills soon spread Miller’s message to far more people than Miller himself ever expected to reach. Miller’s lectures on his belief of the coming end were advertised partly by funding itinerant speakers and professional organizers with revivalist style meetings, but mostly by Himes’ publishing his own regular newspaper devoted to the cause, called the Signs of the Times, which was widely distributed. Soon Miller’s message had believers stretching across the states from Maine to Michigan... and there’s evidence that he even won converts in England as well. 

        By his own estimate, Miller had between 50,000 and 100,000 followers by the year of his prediction. While Himes’ advertising efforts were undoubtedly responsible for Miller’s message reaching so many people, there were mainly two reasons why so many accepted Miller’s biblical interpretation in the first place. The first reason is that his message was actually pretty orthodox for the time; it meshed well with many variations on Christian beliefs in the states. This is because many Christian sects implied and/or taught that the newfound colonies in America were to be the staging grounds for the coming kingdom of Christ, a somewhat arrogant, but appealing, idea that Miller’s message reinforced. When Miller and his followers finally became enough of a fixture in American religious life to be talked about by others, most of the criticism they endured was because they had dared to predict the date Christ would return, a date most other sects concerned with such things felt was beyond human knowledge to comprehend. 

        The second reason Miller’s message was so palatable to so many was that until 1843, there was no separate Millerite sect. Miller encouraged believers to remain in their current churches and sects while they awaited the Second Coming; because of this attitude, Miller was often invited to give sermons at churches because the ministers and priests wanted to attract more members to their congregations (a fact that fairly annoyed Miller, since the ministers and priests themselves rarely listened to or believed his message themselves). So Millerism began as a set of shared expectations among a wide variety of Christian congregations that Miller had lectured to; it was only after Himes’ promotion of Miller’s message had radically increased the number of believers and once the predicted year had grown close that followers of Miller’s beliefs began to refer to themselves as “Millerites” and separate from their former congregations. 

        Many of Miller’s followers came to expect the end to come on April 3, 1843; this was because of a spurious article about the Millerites in the New York Herald which had stated this date, mainly for lack of an actual date... and after word of mouth about the article reached the far ends of the Millerite frontier, the grapevine had lost the small detail about it being a false date. Despite the words of both Miller and Himes, Millerite excitement grew great as this date approached... but April 3 came and went, and nothing happened on the predicted date. Miller and Himes, being listened to again, reminded their followers that the date had not been specified by Miller himself, who had only specified the year 1843. 

        Of course, even though Miller hadn’t specified a day, there was a general expectation that the wait shouldn’t be too long after 1843 started... and when nothing significant had yet occurred by the end of the summer of that year, both Miller as well as his followers had already begun to worry. Then somebody remembered that they seemed to recall that Miller had once said that the predicted year might not be the Christian year 1843; it might be the Jewish year 1843. This would mean that the predicted time period for the second coming would not end on December 31, 1843; the deadline would be extended on the Christian calendar to March 21, 1844. Soon, an official announcement to this effect was made. 

        It was, of course, only a short comfort. Soon the year 1843 -- both Christian and Jewish -- came to an end, and the awful truth of the non-fulfillment of the prophecy had to be faced. Miller, as disappointed as anyone, issued an apology for his obvious error in predicting the year of the second coming, but reiterated his belief that all proper biblical prophecy had been fulfilled and that therefore the second coming was still very eminent, though he would no longer hazard a guess as to the date. 

        But the need for a precise date had not been fully burned out of Miller’s remaining followers, and soon a new date was set, even without Miller’s endorsement: October 22, 1844. This was just one of many signs that the remaining Millerite congregations were starting to go in different directions from Miller, as well as each other. This day, too, came and went; but by this time it hardly mattered... those who believed would continue to find reasons to believe. Though the Millerites as a sect separated after this last disappointment, several newer and smaller sects were formed by the former followers; the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are two such groups still in existence today. 

        Most Millerites were not what anyone at the time would have considered either insane or impaired; they were simply average people (i.e. “middle-class”) who believed in Miller’s interpretation of what their own churches were constantly implying to them during a time of large political, social, and religious changes: that America was to be the staging grounds of the last days of the world, as defined by the Bible in the book of Revelations... and many people still believe that to be true, more than a hundred years after William Miller and the Millerites have faded into history.

The Paper Chase

The above represents a compilation of similar features of many stories about the Millerites; this is because most currently available information about Miller and his movement is scarce and contradictory, which appears to be due to two reasons. First, most modern accounts are brief simply because Miller and the Millerites are often only mentioned as mere curiosities of American history... and most of these brief modern accounts are simply derived from other brief modern accounts, leading to a case of ‘grapevine’ distortion of the facts as minor errors are compounded on. Secondly, most of the modern information in these brief accounts regarding the Millerites can be ultimately traced to just two books, one overly sensational and one overly supportive.

        Days of Delusion: A Strange Bit of History, written by Clara Endicott Sears in 1924, appears to be the primary source for current accounts that emphasize the strangeness of the Millerites. It was in a large part based on interviews and requested information from a number of elderly people who had semi-direct memories of the 1843-1844 period, and therefore carried the authority that is normally accorded to eyewitness accounts of historic events. But I did say “semi-direct,” didn’t I? That’s because the events happened almost eighty years earlier than Sears’ inquiry, which means that all of her interview accounts are from people who were less than ten years old in 1843-1844. On closer inspection, most of what Sears’ actually quotes from these people are things they were told long after 1844 by their elder relatives; so Sears was actually working with second-hand accounts when writing her book.

         In her introduction, Sears describes the Millerites as being as alien to the society that they lived in as they sounded to Sears and her readers eighty years later. The premises of the movement are stated to be separate from the “normal reasoning” of the other Americans of the time, and the members of the movement are described as “misguided and deluded;” about the only semi-positive thing Sears has to say is that she feels that Miller himself was not a con-man, just a misguided believer. This is the general impression of the Millerites that was carried over into the references that came after Sears. Ironically though, her book goes on to show that the other Americans with the so-called “normal reasoning” were more often the ones acting irrationally in matters concerning the Millerites -- such as turning out at Millerite worships in the hopes of seeing them being lifted into the air -- and that the views of the Millerites had distinct similarities to many then-current American religious views.

        Past the initial unfavorable characterization, Sears also appears to be the main origin of a variety of details commonly cited as evidence of the Millerites’ being superstitious, gullible, and/or fanatic. Sears’ book is the earliest I have claiming that astronomical events led the superstitious to join the movement, that the Millerites wore white robes and gathered on hilltops, rooftops, and treetops at the appointed times (hoping that being high off the ground would make them the first to get to Heaven), and that Miller’s predictions drove a number of his followers insane in a variety of ways.

        In regard to the astronomical events -- a whole chapter is devoted to this topic in the book -- Sears specifically cites “strange signs” in the heavens in 1831, and the well-seen falling star showers of 1833 as encouraging many to believe Miller’s predictions; she also cites the comet of 1843 as having added to the Millerites conviction to their beliefs when they were beginning to falter. In addition, an illustration between pages 56 and 57 shows the unusual “solar halos” seen in Kentucky and New York in 1843-1844, and though these are not mentioned anywhere in the text itself, the implied meaning of their presence in the book is clear. Of all of these events, the only one that Sears spends time really examining is the public reaction to the 1833 star showers, and she makes a good argument for this event as having been a surprising and impressive one. Sears reprints letters from newspapers that clearly show that at least three people felt this was a sign of the coming end of times... but none of these three are identified as Millerites, and Sears leaves the actual connection between the star showers and the Millerites unproven but heavily implied.

        Sears’ evidence for the Millerites climbing on roofs, hills, and in trees (and jumping from them) is purely anecdotal, and therefore hard to qualify; but she does provide good evidence that some number of the Millerites did indeed wear white “ascension” robes on the appointed dates. The convincing evidence in this case is from the Millerites’ own journal, The Midnight Cry, which printed at least one reader’s letter in which the robes are both mentioned and recommended... but this is just one solid reference, and the rest of the evidence is still anecdotal.

        Lastly, accusations of madness among the Millerites is made in three ways by Sears: first, that some Millerites at camp meetings during worship would roll on the ground, scream, and generally act erratically, secondly that Millerites gave away all their personal possessions in preparation for the Kingdom of God, and thirdly that some Millerites actually ended up in loony bins due to the stresses of believing Miller’s message. The first claim, that Millerites would roll on the ground, scream, and act strangely during camp worship meetings, rests entirely upon Sears’ interviews, so its truthfulness is hard to qualify. However, in an entirely different chapter of Sears’ book she discusses the fact that a Millerite leader by the name of Starkweather had developed the idea that conversion of the soul was only real and valid if physical signs were seen... physical signs such as epileptic fits, speaking in tongues, and other disturbing and/or loud behavior. The behavior of Starkweather’s congregation greatly worried Himes that they would give outsiders the wrong impression of the Millerites in general, and so Starkweather and his followers were ejected from the official Millerite enrollment in early 1843... but, even separate, Starkweather and his congregation continued to gather and to call themselves Millerites. Sears made no attempt to check if her reports of crazy behaviors by MIllerites were part of the general movement or related to Starkweather’s congregation; in any case, Himes’ actions make clear that such behavior was contrary to what was expected of the Millerites by their founding leadership.

        Sears’ second claim, that many Millerites gave away their personal possessions in preparation for the end, is based loosely on her interviews. I say “loosely” because she has only one quote from an interview on the subject; Sears also presents a quote from the History of Philadelphia (Shop & Wescott) that claims Millerites in that state were selling their property. So some evidence is presented that some Millerites did indeed sell their properties, but Sears’ implication that a large number gave away their properties is unsupported.

        Sears’ third and last claim in regards to Millerite insanity, that the stresses of believing Miller’s predictions sent many followers to the nuthouse, is made late in her book, and depends on scant evidence and a general sense of trust a reader might have for her authority by then. In short, Sears directly states that “hundreds” were put into asylums by Millerism; but then proceeds to mention only two examples, one young and one old, neither of whom are actually named. The main story used as an example of insanity related to Millerism is presented in the second to last chapter of Sears’ book; it is an extended biography of a man who displayed clearly unhinged behavior even before showing an interest in Millerism, and who eventually committed suicide which Sears implied was due to Milleristic beliefs. Of course, the man’s suicide was in 1877, well after not only the predicted end of the world, but also Miller’s own death by natural causes; and all the account proves is something that was pretty well known even in 1844... that end of the world beliefs attract people who are already mentally unstable. So Sears’ claim of hundreds of insane Millerites, as well as the related claim that Millerism made them that way, was stated but unproven. In addition, the story of the man’s suicide may have evolved in later books and articles by other authors into claims I’ve found that some Millerites committed murder and suicide in order to reach Heaven sooner.

        One last note on a spurious detail that recurs in later literature; Sears also mentions once, in passing, that some Millerites waited in graveyards near the graves of friends and family on the appointed dates, hoping to be reunited when the dead were resurrected by Christ. Sears gives no indication of where this bit of information came from, but it too evolved into new rumors in later books and articles by other authors.

The Defense

Not surprisingly, Sears’ book eventually inspired a defensive response from those who had a vested interest in Miller’s and the Millerites’ reputations... namely, the Seventh-Day Adventists. The Midnight Cry: A Defense of the Character and Conduct of William Miller and the Millerites, Who Mistakenly Believed That the Second Coming of Christ Would Take Place in the Year 1844, written by Francis D. Nichol in 1944, was that book. Likely, Nichol’s book was not inspired by Sears’ book directly, but by the books and articles about Millerism that came after Sears’ and that were based on her book... thus the twenty year difference between the printings of Sears’ and Nichol’s books.

        Not surprisingly, Nichol paints a picture of Miller and his followers as sensible, dedicated, and practical people who simply had the erroneous belief that they knew the time of Christ’s second coming. Nichol further attempts to show that almost every negative story about the Millerites is due to either unfounded rumors or directly malicious slander on the part of unfriendly sects and sensation seeking newspapers... and much of Nichol’s book is defense against stories that apparently existed separate from Sears’ book, such as tales of both Miller and Himes making profits at the expense of believers. Ironically, Nichol may have inadvertently advertised stories he hoped to disprove only to have them retold as true afterwards... but more on that later. First I will mainly examine Nichol’s defense against the topics mentioned above in Sears’ book, because these are the main stories (and defenses) that still get repeated today. Nichol’s sources are a large number of Millerite and Adventist papers and pamphlets, including the personal correspondence of William Miller himself, and then, to a lesser degree, newspaper accounts of the camp meetings and goings on written by non-Millerites.

        First, in regard to the accusations of Millerites being swayed by strange signs and events in the heavens, Nichol only talks about the comet of 1843, completely ignoring the other events Sears had mentioned in her book, including the only one she made an effort to show as influential... the star showers of 1833. Nichol shows that many papers and people were interested in the comet, but quotes three passages from Himes’ Signs of the Times that show that the editor’s didn’t feel the comet was of any importance to their belief in the second coming, and did not represent a sign. Of course, this proves the Millerite papers felt it was important enough to publicly disown it, which is better proof that it was considered a sign by some than Sears provided in her book.

        Nichol states that stories of Millerites wearing “ascension” robes are entirely fictitious, a creation of sensational newspapers; he spends three chapters and a section of the appendices (about 56 pages) defending this point of view, too. The appendices is largely devoted to showing that Sears’ book was wholly wrong in its assessment, and Nichol gives much of his time to showing first the brief newspaper accounts that he felt started rumors about the robes, and then the various denials and refutations of the story printed by Himes and others in the Millerite papers... and he completely ignores the single reader’s letter that Sears presented that called for people to get their robes.

        Nichol also dispenses with the stories of Millerites gathering on hills, roofs, in trees, in graveyards, or anywhere other than at home and in churches on the appointed date (Nichol also carefully asserts that only one date was ever actually put forward by the official Millerite leaders). He states that there is no more than one newspaper report of any such gathering, and he spends a great deal of effort showing that single story to be mostly rumor, and wholly against the beliefs and practices of the greater number of Millerites anyway.

        Nichol identifies only four incidents as being wholly responsible for all rumors of bizarre Millerite behavior during worship, namely Starkweather’s congregation and then three separate incidents that occurred at camp meetings in Connecticut. All of these incidents were mentioned by Sears, with the implication that these were simply examples amongst many such incidents; Nichol states simply that this is all there ever was to the stories, which were then blown out of proportion by a bored and malicious press. Nichol describes the typical Millerite meeting as “generally decorous, and the preaching dignified” right up until the movement broke up.

        Nichol next presents stories of Millerites giving away personal possessions in preparation for the coming Kingdom of God; ironically, here he lists off the newspaper stories that claim Millerites were actually doing this that Sears didn’t supply in her book. The stories are all along the line of “Millerite shopkeeper gives away products for free,” and one story, about a shoemaker, concludes with the shoemaker being committed to an asylum by his son. Nichol, generally turning to the subject of whether or not Millerism causes insanity, states that it is possible there may have been a true occurrence in these stories, it would have been an isolated incident likely involving a previously disturbed person... a large part of his defense against Millerism having caused insanity being that previously disturbed people can likely explain all such cases.

        Where charges of insanity and suicide are concerned, Nichol lines up three main defenses. First, he points out that it was common practice at the time for “critics of religion” to accuse any religion which was disapproved by them of insanity and suicide, further pointing out that the same charges were once brought against Methodist revivals.

        Next, Nichol did a study of the asylum records for 1842-1844 in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts... and he devotes two chapters to it, to drive it home. Not surprisingly (as Nichol is not out to prove otherwise), he concludes that none of the cases can be attributed to Millerism, as the patients have either had some previous history of insanity, or never made any statement of interest in or loyalty to Millerism, the relationship in these cases being assumed or implied only. In making the case, however, Nichol devotes a great deal of space to telling detailed stories of murder and suicide that were supposedly related back to Millerism; and I have to wonder now how many of the gory stories that came after him were based initially on his overly detailed defense!

        And that concludes the major arguments concerning the Millerites for the next 45 years or so, when the next full-length books on the topic began to appear. In the time in between only brief mentions seem to exist, and the details in these are no more accurate (and sometimes a great deal less so) than the above two books they appear to have all spawned from.

And now something new... Objectivity

Since 1984, there have been several new books on Miller and his followers; overall, these newer books are far more objective in their goals, and far more careful in their collection and interpretation of the data they gather.

        First off, efforts have been made to actually identify who the Millerites were... that is, what social classes and groups they belonged to. This study has supported the Millerites claims to have members from all walks of life, and silences any claim that only people who were either on the fringe of society or who were somehow materially or politically deprived were attracted. Millerites were farmers, doctors, lawyers, laborers, craft workers, husbands and wives.

        In regards to stories of ascension robes, the story grew quickly from nothing in the sensational press; the idea of the Millerites wearing robes proved popular among their critics, and so survived. The reason for this popularity seems to be because, in context to the time and the Biblical passages the Millerites doctrines were based on, it painted a picture of them as taking the Bible far too simply and literally, and characterized them as people who didn’t think enough when it came to religion.

        As for the stories of MIllerism causing insanity, well... critics clearly played up the evidence, which is no surprise. But the Millerites were also playing down the evidence, as it turns out; there is reason to believe that some emotionally borderline individuals may have been pushed past the limits of their sanity by a combination of worries about the coming end and the long hours of intense prayers typically endured by new followers attempting to reach a ‘conversion experience’. But it may not matter in the long run, since the belief that insanity could be treated like an organic disease -- a single cause identified, and then treated for -- has long since proved untenable; and the causes that were typically diagnosed for patient’s admission to asylums appears to depend largely on who was in charge of the asylum at the time; therefore a diagnosis of “religious insanity” appears to be a matter of individual bias. That bias changed over time, with the problem of “religious insanity” being usually attributed to whatever religious group was most vilified at the time of a patient’s admission.

        More importantly, in the literature of the Millerite movement, modern scholars can see the actual development of the logic and techniques for creating a state of never-ending prophecy, in which even prophecies that are most empirically shown to be incorrect can still be interpreted by believers in a way that does not equate with failure. This important development paved the way for all continuing branches of Adventism; thus William Miller’s legacy lived on.

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