Whittier Visits a Millerite Camp Meeting

Howitt’s Journal
John Greenleaf Whittier
London: 9 October 1847

Singular Sects

FATHER MILLER

“Old Father Time is weak and gray,
Awaiting for the better day,
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling his old palsied hands.”

SHELLEY’S “Masque of Anarchy”

  “Stage ready, gentlemen”—”Stage for camp ground, Derry Second-Advent Camp-meeting!”

  Accustomed, as I begin to feel, to the ordinary sights and sounds of this busy city, I was, I confess, somewhat startled by this business-like annunciation from the driver of a stage, who stood beside his horses, swinging his whip with some degree of impatience: “Seventy-five cents to the second advent camp-ground!”

  The stage was soon filled; the driver cracked his whip, and went rattling down the street.

  The Second Advent!—the coming of our Lord in person upon this earth, with signs and wonders and terrible judgments—the heavens rolling together like a scroll, the elements melting with fervent heat! The mighty consummation of all things at hand, with its destructions and its triumphs, sad wailings of the lost, and rejoicing songs of the glorified! From this overswarming hive of industry—from these crowded treadmills of gain—here were men and women going out in solemn earnestness to prepare for the dread moment, which they verily suppose is only a few months distant, to lift up their warning voices in the midst of scoffers and doubters, and to cry aloud to blind priests and careless churches, “BEHOLD, THE BRIDEGROOM COMETH!”

  It was one of the most lovely mornings of this loveliest season of the year—a warm, soft atmosphere—clear sunshine falling on the city spires and roofs—the hills of Darcut quiet and green in the distance, with ( page 231) their white farmhouses and scattered trees; around me the continual tread of footsteps hurrying to the toils of the day—merchants spreading out their wares for the eyes of purchasers—sounds of hammers, the sharp clink of trowels, the murmur of the great manufactories subdued by distance!

How was it possible, in the midst of so much life, in that sunrise light, and in view of all abounding beauty, that the idea of the death of nature—the baptism of the world in fire—could take such a practical shape as this? Yet here were sober, intelligent men, gentle and pious women, who, verily believing the end to be at hand, had left their counting-rooms, and workshops, and household cares, to publish the great tidings; and to startle, if possible, a careless and unbelieving generation into preparation for the day of the Lord, and for the blessed millennium—the restored paradise—when, renovated and renewed by its fire-purgation, the earth shall become, as of old, the garden of the Lord, and the saints alone shall inherit it.   

Very serious and impressive is the fact that this idea of a radical change in our planet, is not only predicted in the Scriptures, but that the earth herself, in her primitive rocks and varying formations, on which are lithographed the history of successive convulsions, darkly prophesies of others to come. The old poet-prophets, all the world over, have sung of a renovated world. A vision of it haunted the contemplations of Plato. It is seen in the half-inspired speculations of the old Indian mystics. The Cumoean Sybil saw it in her trances. The apostles and martyrs of our faith looked for it anxiously and hopefully. Gray anchorites in the deserts, pilgrims to the holy places of Jewish and Christian tradition, prayed for its coming. It inspired the gorgeous visions of the early fathers.

In every age since the Christian era, from the caves and forests and secluded “upper chambers” of the times of the first missionaries of the Cross, from the Gothic temples of the middle ages, from the bleak mountain gorges of the Alps, where the hunted heretics put up this expostulation, “How long, O Lord, how long!” down to the present time; and from this Derry camp-ground, have been uttered the prophecy and the prayer for its fulfillment.  

How this great idea manifests itself in the lives of the enthusiasts of the days of Cromwell! Think of Sir Henry Vane, cool, sagacious statesman as he was, waiting with eagerness for the foreshadowings of the millenium, and listening even in the very council-hall for the blast of the last trumpet! Think of the Fifth-Monarchy men, weary with waiting for the long-desired consummation, rushing out with drawn swords and loaded matchlocks into the streets of London to establish at once the rule of King Jesus!

Think of the wild enthusiasts at Munster, verily imagining that the millenium had commenced in their city! Still later, think of Granville Sharp, diligently labouring in his vocation of philanthropy, laying plans for the slow but beneficent amelioration of the condition of his country and the world, and at the same time maintaining, with the zeal of Father Miller himself, that the earth was just on the point of combustion, and that the millenium would render all his benevolent schemes of no consequence!  

And, after all, is the idea itself a vain one? Shall to-morrow be the same as to-day—shall the antagonism of good and evil continue as heretofore forever? Is there no hope that this world-wide prophecy of the human soul, uttered in all climes, in all times, shall yet be fulfilled? Who shall say it may not be true? Nay, is not its truth proved by its universality? The hope of all earnest souls must be realised. That which, through a distorted and doubtful medium, shone even upon the martyr-enthusiasts of the French Revolution—soft gleams of Heaven’s light rising over the hell of man’s passions and crimes—the glorious idea of Shelley, who, atheist as he was, through early prejudice and defective education, saw the horizon of the world’s future kindling with the light of a better day,—that hope and that faith which constitute, as it were, the world’s life, without which it would be dark and dead, cannot be in vain.

  I do not, I confess, sympathize with my Second Advent friends in their lamentable depreciation of mother earth, even in its present state. I find it extremely difficult to comprehend how it is that this goodly, green, sunlit home of ours is resting under a curse. It really does not seem to me to be altogether like the roll which the angel bore in the prophet’s vision, “written within and without with mourning, lamentation, and woe!” September sunsets—changing forests—moonrise and cloud—sun and rain,—I, for one, am contented with them; they fill my heart with a sense of beauty. I see in them the perfect work of Infinite Love as well as wisdom. It may be that our Advent friends, however, coincide with the opinions of an old writer on the prophecies, who considered the hills and valleys of the earth’s surface and its changes of seasons as so many visible manifestations of God’s curse; and that in the millenium, as in the days of Adam’s innocence, all these picturesque inequalities would be levelled nicely away, and the flat surface laid handsomely down to grass!

  As might be expected, the effect of this belief in the speedy destruction of the world and the personal coming of the Messiah, acting upon a class of uncultivated, and in some cases gross minds, is not always in keeping with the enlightened Christian’s ideal of “the better day.” One is shocked in reading some of the “Hymns” of these believers. Sensual images—semi-Mahommedan descriptions of the condition of the “saints”—exultation over the destruction of the “sinners”—mingle with the beautiful and soothing promises of the prophets. There are indeed occasionally to be found among the believers men of refined and exalted spiritualism, who in their lives and conversation remind one of Tennyson’s Christian Knight-errant in his yearning towards the “hope set before him.”

“To me is given
Such hope I may not fear;
I long to breathe the airs of heaven,
Which sometimes meet me here.
I muse on joys which cannot fade,
Pure spaces filled with living beams;
While lilies of eternal peace
With odours haunt my dreams.”

  One of the most ludicrous examples of the sensual phase of Millerism—the incongruous blending of the sublime with the ridiculous—was mentioned to me not long since. A fashionable young woman, in the western part of this state, became an enthusiastic believer in the doctrine. On the day which had been designated as the closing one of Time, she packed all her fine dresses and soiled valuables in the large trunk, with long straps attached to it; and seating herself upon it, buckled the straps over her shoulders, patiently awaiting the crisis,—shrewdly calculating, that as she must herself go upwards, her goods and chattels would of necessity follow.

  Three or four years ago, on my way eastward, I spent an hour or two and a camp-ground of the Second Advent, in East Kingston. The spot was well chosen. A tall growth of pine and hemlock threw its melancholy over the multitude, who were arranged upon rough seats of boards and logs. Several hundred—perhaps a thousand—people were present, and more were rapidly coming. Drawn about in a circle, forming a background of snowy whiteness to the dark masses of men and foliage, were the white tents, and at the back of them the provision stalls and cook-shops. When I (page 232) reached the ground, a hymn the words of which I could not distinguish, was pealing through the dim aisles of the forest. I could readily perceive that it had its effect upon the multitude before me, kindling to higher intensity their already excited enthusiasm.

The preachers were placed in a rude pulpit of rough boards, carpeted only by the dead forest leaves and flowers, and tasseled, not with silk and velvet, but with the green boughs of the hemlocks around it. One of them followed the music in an earnest exhortation on the duty of preparing for the great event. Occasionally he was really eloquent; and his description of the last day had all the terrible distinctness of Anelli’s painting of the “End of the World.”   Suspended from the front of the rude pulpit, were two broad sheets of canvass, upon one of which was the figure of a man; the head of gold, the breast and arms of silver, the belly of brass, the legs of iron, and feet of clay,—the dream of Nebuchadnezzar. On the other were depicted the wonders of the Apocalyptic vision;—the beasts—the dragons—the scarlet woman seen by the seer of Patmos—oriental types, figures, and mystic symbols, translated into staring Yankee realities, and exhibited like the beasts of a travelling menagerie.

One horrible image, with its hideous heads and scaly caudal extremity, reminded me of the tremendous line of Milton, who in speaking of the same evil Dragon describes him as—

“Swinging in scaly horrors of his folded tail.”

  To an imaginative mind the scene was full of novel interest: the white circle of tents—the dim wood arches—the upturned earnest faces—the loud voices of the speakers, burdened with the awful symbolic language of the Bible—the smoke from the fires rising like incense—carried me back to those days of primitive worship which tradition faintly whispers of when on hill-tops and in the shade of old woods religion had her first altars, with every man for her priest, and the whole universe for her temple.

  Beautifully and truthfully has Dr. Channing spoken of this doctrine of the Second Advent in his memorable discourse in Berkshire, a little before his death:—

  “There are some among us at the present moment who are waiting for the speedy coming of Christ. They expect, before another year closes, to see him in the clouds, to hear his voice, to stand before his judgment-seat. These illusions spring from misinterpretations of Scripture language. Christ, in the New Testament, is said to come, whenever his religion breaks out in new glory, or gains new triumphs. He came in the Holy Spirit in the Day of Pentecost. He came in the destruction of Jerusalem, which, by subverting the old ritual law, and breaking the power of the worst enemies of His religion, insured to it new victories. He came in the Reformation of the Church. He came on this day four years ago, when, through his religion, eight hundred thousand men were raised from the lowest degradation to the rights and dignity and fellowship of men. Christ’s outward appearance is of little moment compared with the brighter manifestations of his Spirit.

The Christian, whose inward eyes and ears are touched by God, discerns the coming of Christ, hears the sound of his chariot wheels and the voice of his trumpet, when no other perceives them. He discerns the Saviour’s advent in the dawning of higher truth on the world, in new aspirations of the Church after perfection, in the prostration of prejudice and error, in brighter expressions of Christian love, in more enlightened and intense consecration of the Christian to the cause of humanity, freedom, and religion. Christ comes in the conversion, the regeneration, the emancipation of the world.”

 __________________________________________________________________

whittier0603church500big
 
Author: Whittier, John Greenleaf
File Size: 14KB
Publisher: Stephen Railton; Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities; Electronic Text Center
Place: Charlottesville, Virginia
Date: 1999

[In the article’s byline Whittier is identified as “F. G. Whittier.” In editions of Whittier’s prose this piece is identified as “The End of the World.”]©1999 Stephen Railton & the University of Virginia. All rights reserved.

Source:
Title: Singular Sects
File Size: 3 pp.
Publisher: WIlliam Lovett
Place: London
Date: 1847 October 9

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