I was recently reading a discussion on reddit (that I can’t find now) in which someone claimed that a relative who is somewhat higher up in the Church was telling them that top Church leaders are frequently going back and forth to Adam-ondi-Amman in preparation for the second coming, which they expect to occur during Nelson’s reign. One piece of evidence they cited was the belief / observation that Nelson is getting younger, not older. This sounded like a crazypants convo to me.

Years ago, I did a post about the Millerites and what happened in the wake of their failed predictions of the second coming. I’m sure it will come as no surprise that it didn’t completely kill the movement that the date of the second coming that their sect was based on came and went without fanfare, even though many followers had sold all their goods in anticipation of this event. So, who were the Millerites, and what did they believe?

The Millerites were a religious sect that emerged in the United States in the 1830s and 1840s, led by the preacher William Miller. They believed in the imminent Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the end of the world, which they believed would occur in the year 1843 or 1844.

The Millerites arrived at this prediction by interpreting the Bible, particularly the book of Daniel, and calculating the timing of events described in the text. Miller believed that the date of the Second Coming was encoded in the Bible and that he had unlocked the code.

Many people were attracted to the Millerite movement and their message of hope and salvation, and the sect grew rapidly. However, when the predicted date of the end of the world passed without incident, the Millerites became disillusioned and many left the movement. This event, known as the Great Disappointment, was a significant setback for the Millerites and their cause. Quite a few of them went on to the next big thing, the Shakers.

Despite the disappointment, some Millerites continued to believe in the Second Coming and formed new sects, such as the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which still exist today.

How do you justify continued belief in something that is demonstrably false? It’s actually much easier to find ways to continue to believe than it is to let go, especially due to sunk cost. Remember, a lot of these people had sold everything in anticipation of not needing that stuff when Jesus came back. (No rainy day funds, I guess!) The justifications that prevailed may sound familiar:

“We misunderstood the date.” These folks assumed that the prophecy was right about the second coming, but the math was wrong. They just cracked the code incorrectly. Some of them recalculated to new dates, which didn’t work out either.

“We weren’t ready.” Others, in a move that made it easier to preserve their belief, instead focused on a list of things that believers had to do to prepare for the second coming; the preparation was the important part, not the event. It might have happened if only they had been more ready. Mea culpa.

“It did happen, but differently than we expected.” This one’s a little mind-blowing, but let’s go with it. These folks claimed that the second coming did happen, but it was not Jesus returning to earth so much as to earth’s waiting room, an intermediate stage between Heaven and Earth. To get him to come the rest of the way, believers had to do better, do more, really want it.

“It happened, but if you didn’t see it, you aren’t one of the chosen.” Let’s get real, at the risk of insulting a bunch of religious sects, this one sounds like straight up Emperor’s New Clothes. But, it’s accurate that some of the sects that emerged after the Great Depression believe that only 144,000 are “chosen.” The rest of us can pound sand. Whatevs.

“I have a new vision!” This one actually worked in conjunction with others on this list. Hiram Edson had a new vision of Christ’s partial return to explain why Jesus didn’t actually show up, and many found the fact that it was a vision compelling (not just the idea that it revealed).

“The date wasn’t core doctrine.” This one sure sounds familiar to me as a Mormon. Things that were preached as doctrines but later deemed stupid or false are either downgraded to policies, God changing His mind, or leaders speaking as men. Psychologically, this seems like the most tenable approach when you preach an idea (as the Millerites did with the specific date of the second coming) that is demonstrably wrong. Bear in mind, people joined the Millerites because of the date. They could get a to-do list of commandments anywhere. The sect only happened because of the date. No date, no Millerites.

If you search online to see which sects are millenarian (believing in the second coming), LDS are right up there, and yet I’m not sure that the emphasis on this has been super strong in the last twenty years. If you’ve ever read the Watchtower magazine the Jehovah’s Witnesses give out, it is all lambs and lions lying down together during the millenial reign. It’s their core doctrine. Until Nelson’s rule, I would have said we were not very focused on it, but maybe that’s just been my experience.

Many early Saints received Patriarchal blessings (hundreds of them, it seems) that claimed that the second coming would occur before they died, and yet, they’ve been dead for a long time now. It doesn’t seem to have hampered the Church’s ability to grow. In fact, the Church seems to have been more successful in the decades since this has been less of a focus. As I recall, Bruce R. McConkie fooled around with second coming dates a bit, but also was wise enough not to claim too much either. Once you start putting dates out there, you can be disproven. Deadlines only work to increase productivity and sense of purpose until people see that they are made up. The Millerites who clung to dates lost faith. The ones who shifted to things more in their own control stuck around and formed new faiths.

Personally, I was shocked when Pres. Eyring hinted that the Church’s amassed fortune was in anticipation of the second coming (when the Ensign Peak whisteblower’s story first surfaced). I guess I was shocked on a few fronts: 1) because we hadn’t been talking much about the second coming, 2) I always have a vague sense that second coming talk is fanatical wishful thinking, something unsavory and embarrassing, and 3) why would Jesus need a buttload of money? Since when was Jesus about money? Are we just really bad gift-givers? But in serious, having read Jesus’ parables as many times as I have, it seems nuts to me that Jesus would find this kind of hoarding copascetic. I mean, yes, we grew our talents (because talents are money and not talents) through investing, and yes, we always have the poor with us, but for the love of Pete, why aren’t we doing more to help the poor?? I can only conclude that it’s not important to top leaders to do so, that the charitable endeavor is to prop up the Church’s power and wealth and political influence, particularly in the wrong side of culture wars. As Biden says, show me your budget, and I’ll show you your values.

But I digress. My point is that maybe the Church is more millenarian than I am (it is, if it is at all), and that our current top leaders are probably more into this than prior ones were. I don’t put a lot of stock in the story that was shared on reddit about them travelling to Missouri to put hospitality chocolates on the pillow for the Savior because wild-eyed believers who claim to have the inside scoop are a dime a dozen, even with inflation. Everyone knows someone who wants to bolster their Mormon cred by claiming to have hidden knowledge. It could be true, but it could also be one guy’s self-aggrandizing fantasy.

  • Do you think the Church is more or less focused on the second coming than it was a few decades ago? If more, why?
  • Have you seen examples of these Millerite post-disillusionment strategies play out in the Church? Can you cite examples?
  • Do you (or did you) find second coming talk compelling and important? Is it a core doctrine or a hobby horse for people who should probably just take up Sudoku?