Sparked by the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening in the early 1820s, a humble farmer and devout reader of the Bible in upstate New York began a new religious movement that became an international church and turned many followers of Christ into a religious path of devotion and sacrifice. I’m referring, of course, to William Miller.
In 1822, while Joseph Smith was chatting over Postum with Moroni about ancient records buried near his home, Miller was scouring the Bible, calculating the exact date of the Second Coming. He initially recorded his findings in 1822 in a 21-point document (Point 15 states: “I believe that the second coming of Jesus Christ is near, even at the door, even within twenty-one years,—on or before 1843.”) Discussing his findings with others yielded little interest until he began preaching in 1831, and subsequently published his findings in 1832 in a Baptist publication in Vermont. From there, the movement took on a life of its own with many followers who believed in Miller’s predictions. In 1840, the movement took hold nationally and by May 1843, there were 21,000 weekly publications about Miller’s predictions. Although Miller was hesitant to provide exact dates, he felt strongly that the Bible held the clues to project the exact date, and he did finally state that it would occur between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844.
In anticipation of the impending return of the Savior on March 21, 1844 (since nothing had happened to that point), many sold all they had and joined with other Millerite believers, wearing “the white robes of the saints” to welcome Christ’s second “advent,” fully expecting to be caught up to meet Him. Despite their faith, March 21st, 1844 came and went like any other day, except they no longer had their earthly possessions. Miller’s calculations were reviewed and it was determined that he had been incorrect (hindsight and all). A new date of April 18, 1844 was given based on a Jewish calendar. When this new date passed without incident, Millerite follower Samuel Snow recalculated the date as October 22, 1844, a date which also passed without incident. To Millerites this series of failed prophecies became known at the Great Disappointment.
What happened next can teach us about what people do when they are confronted with a mistaken belief. (*Fun Fact: How many of you knew that the painting to the right is by Seventh-day Adventist artist Harry Andersen?)
- Persistence. This approach is basically to stick to your guns despite evidence to the contrary. Some continued to look daily for Christ’s return, others predicted different dates—among them April, July, and October 1845. Some theorized that the world had entered the seventh millennium—the “Great Sabbath,” and that therefore, the saved should not work.
- Internalization. This approach is to beat yourself up rather than blaming others. Some Millerites felt they were the reason for the failure because they hadn’t been ready. Some began a practice of acting as children, basing their belief on Jesus’ words in Mark 10:15 “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Millerite O. J. D. Pickands used Revelation to teach that Christ was now sitting on a white cloud, and must be prayed down. (“Hey, can Jesus come out and play?”)
- Disaffection. This approach is to abandon the disproven belief entirely or mostly, sometimes reverting to old beliefs or finding new ones. Many Millerites simply gave up their beliefs and attempted to rebuild their lives. Some members rejoined their previous denominations. A substantial number joined the Shakers.
Quickly, the movement began to solidify into 3 distinct sects, based on 3 distinct views of “what went wrong”:
- Elitism or The Chosen Few. The first view, known as the Shut Door Theory, was based on the parable of the ten virgins, and essentially was that October 22, 1844 was the “close of probation.” Those believers that had joined ranks before that date would be saved, but the rest would be shut out. Ya snooze, ya lose. This response is essentially an esoteric communal denial: everyone agrees that only the special select few can tell that something happened, even though it, ahem, didn’t. Of course, this view might make you sleep better at night, but it gives no incentive to win new converts. This view is reminiscent of the story of the Emporer’s New Clothes. The Emporer doggedly believed that only those with real taste could see his stylish non-existent clothing.
- Disavowal of the Errant Belief. Several believers, including Miller himself, came together at the Albany Conference to clarify doctrines (including a 10-point set of beliefs), and to craft a plan to move forward, evangelizing more believers to welcome Christ’s return whenever it would happen. This response is basically letting go of the belief that the date was important, and instead focusing on the activities to prepare for Christ’s return. This sect became the Advent Christian Church. Their view was that the belief in the date was not core doctrine. However, many followers who had joined the movement were turned off by the creation of doctrine. One of Miller’s basic teachings was that all Christians should study the Bible for themselves and that they would understand things through their own reading. Having doctrine handed down from a council was not appealing to some.
- A New Vision to Clarify. This version has its roots the day after the Great Disappointment, October 23, 1844. Follower Hiram Edson explained that he had a vision in which Christ did return, but not to earth, to a closer level of Heaven to prepare for His eventual return. It is from this 3rd group that Seventh-day Adventism originated.
Clearly, there are some parallels between the Millerites and the early members of the Latter-day Saint Movement. It seems we have more in common than we don’t. Like the Millerites, we have had our share of doctrinal changes and clarifications over the last 150 years, and yet, as a people we move forward. What do you do when confronted with a mistaken belief? What beliefs have you held to for longer than you should? Did you internalize? Did you abandon any beliefs? Did you do all three? Do you find this comparison to the Millerites useful? Discuss.