A MAN NAMED MILLER
(The Advent Christian Story, by Clarence J. Kearney)
The story of Advent Christian beginnings is centered in a remarkable man. He, and the movement associated with his name, stirred America spiritually as has no other, before or since. For years newspapers recorded his every move and message. In the press, the pulpit, and even the political arena, he was praised and condemned, but never ignored. His following was never great – perhaps he had some fifty thousand at the height of his ministry. Few persons of prominence or wealth followed him, but thousands of dedicated Christians gave him a respectful hearing. He was the butt of interminable jokes, some bawdy, most of them crude, all of them slanderous. His career ended in a monstrous anticlimax called the “Great Disappointment,” but from his ministry came a great spiritual awakening and he renaissance of long-buried truths. This man, soldier, farmer, justice of the peace, and preacher, a skeptic turned believer, was William Miller.
Miller was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1782, the year the fortunes of the American Revolution took a turn for the better. When a child, his family moved to the crossroads hamlet of Low Hampton, a bottom-land settlement in the valley of the Poultney River, which forms the boundary between Vermont and New York. He grew up as one biographer puts it, a “healthy young American, living on the western edge of civilization.” Although Miller’s schooling was limited to three months each winter, he learned to excel in two of the three “R’s” – “readin’ and ‘ritin’ “- and he developed an insatiable thirst for reading.
His parents’ home served as a church in the community with his uncle as lay pastor. William early displayed interest in religion, but in the limited number of books at his disposal were several with an atheistic or deistic approach, a circumstance in keeping with the times, for in early America it was “smart” to be a skeptic. The two revolutions, American and French, had given strong impetus to anti-clericalism and anti-Christianity, and in every community rationalists shaped the frontier philosophy, usually at the expense of the church. Probably the best-read book of the period was The Appeal to Reason by Thomas Paine, brilliant philosopher and hero of the Revolutionary War and avowed foe of Christianity.
Young Miller was carried away by this concept, became its leading advocate among his fellows, but adopted the midway position of deism which, as previously noted, conceded the probable existence of God, but brushed aside Christ’s claim to sonship or divinity.
After marriage at the age of nineteen, he settled in Poultney Village, just inside the Vermont border and about six miles downstream from Low Hampton. A young man of force and ambition, he was chosen deputy sheriff in 1809. In 1810, when war clouds began to rise, he became an officer of the state militia. On declaration of the War of 1812, he was commissioned a captain and entrusted with raising a company of volunteers. He served with distinction in the Battle of Plattsburg, when an outnumbered American army and fleet outmaneuvered and defeated a larger British force. (In the Jenks Adventual Library at Aurora College is a letter from Captain Miller to an unidentified friend which gives a graphic description of that battle.)
Returning home he plunged into civic and business affairs and again took his place as ringleader of the group which ridiculed Christ and His church. But the influence of a Christian mother and a praying wife began to penetrate the shell of his skepticism. He started to read his Bible and in 1818 returned to a living Christian faith. Thereafter the Word was the center of his life.
With his characteristic candor and vigor, he began to proclaim the Gospel as fervently as he had ridiculed it. This activity led him to conflict with his old deistic associates, who now aimed their sneers and scorn at this turncoat.
Their attacks drove him more deeply into Bible study, and there he found both spiritual strength and material for his anti-deistic broadsides. As he studied the Word, he was impressed by the prominence given to the return of Christ. Almost totally neglected in the pulpit and in Christian thought of the time, it was literally a “buried truth.”
As he traced scriptural development of the hope of Christ’s return, he found himself intrigued by the Old Testament evidence and the trail of fulfilled prophecy which marked the unfolding of history. In the book of Daniel he discovered a series of mathematical symbols which fascinated him.
The most striking of these is in Daniel 12:9-13.
“And he said, Go thy way, Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end.
“Many shall be purified, and made white, and tried; but the wicked shall do wickedly: and none of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand.
“And from the time that the daily sacrifice shall be taken away, and the abomination that maketh desolate set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days.
“Blessed is he that waiteth, and cometh to the thousand three hundred and five and thirty days.
“But go thou thy way till the end be: for thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of the days.”
A similar statement, found in Daniel 8:14 became the key in his findings:
“Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Transforming these “days” into calendar years, the technique of the “year-day” theory, which was the accepted pattern of interpretation of that period, and finding certain anchor dates in known historical events, Mr. Miller became convinced that the return of Christ would take place 1843-44. He presented his case in his own and neighboring communities and gained many followers.
Again may it be underscored, William Miller followed an accepted plan of interpretation, the year-day theory by which days, even when massed in months and years, each represented a year. Many others lost courage at the point of application. William Miller dared to stand upon his findings. He put it thus:
“The first proof we have as it respects Christ’s Second Coming, as to the time is in Daniel 8:14: ‘Unto two thousand three hundred days, then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.’ By ‘days’ we are to understand years; ‘sanctuary’ we understand as the church; ‘cleansed’ we may reasonably suppose means that complete redemption from sin, soul and body, after the resurrection, when Christ comes ‘the second time, without sin, unto salvation.’”1
Following his return to the church and his studies in Scripture, Miller was ordained a local preacher by the Baptist circuit of Hampton and Whitehall. In 1831, he began to proclaim the coming of the Lord. It seems to have been about two years later that he made his “time setting” a major point of emphasis.
However, this was never a monomania with him. The main theme of his preaching throughout his life was evangelistic, a plea for repentance and reception of Christ as Savior. His proudest boast, if pride can be imputed to so dedicated and sincerely humble a man, was that through his ministry five hundred infidels had been converted.
As the impending “end of the world” found a larger place in his preaching, he found himself in greater demand through the border communities and the Lake George area. In 1843, he wrote a friend that he was “devoting all my time to lecturing.” By this time disciples were beginning to carry the message in a widening perimeter.
Mr. Miller’s fame spread and invitations came from more distant places. One of the first of these, probably the first ever to take him more than a hundred miles from his home, was from Lowell, Massachusetts. This trip brought him one of his most illustrious converts and his biographer, Sylvester Bliss. Then came a confrontation which transformed the course of the crusade.
Up to then William Miller had conducted a one-man ministry, answering invitations and traveling at his own expense in obedience to what he believed firmly to be a mandate from God. From his carefully kept account books, it would appear that his total receipts between 1831 and 1835 were $9.50. But in 1839, eight years after his call to the ministry he met Joshua V. Himes.
Himes, pastor of the Chardon Chapel Church in Boston, had heard of Miller and invited him to a series of meetings in his church. Himes was a promotional genius, the peer and in his later years the contemporary of P. T. Barnum. After extended conferences with Miller he was fully sold on the message, which he immediately renamed “The Midnight Cry.”
No longer did Miller plod dusty roads from appointment to appointment. Under the spell of the Himes genius, he became almost overnight a national figure, although a highly controversial one. Campaigns were mapped covering all major American cities. Then on October 13, 1840, the first great Millerite convention was held in Himes’ Boston church. In the ensuing weeks similar conferences were held in other cities with crowds which taxed the capacities of the largest auditoriums. Interest deepened, pro and con, but opposed to thousands of scorners were other thousands who accepted the plea to “flee from the wrath to come.”
Himes also developed one of the most extensive ministries of publication that America has ever known and, a greater miracle, made it self-supporting.
All this kept Mr. Miller a very busy man. In a letter written late in October 1840, he notes that in the year just passed he traveled 4,560 miles and preached 627 times, the sermons averaging one and one-half hours in length. He estimated that those “hopefully converted” numbered about five thousand, “the majority being men between thirty and fifty.”
In 1842, directed by Himes, Millerism invaded New York where the Apollo Music Hall was rented, and the great city was stirred. Next came Philadelphia and then Washington, D. C.
Meanwhile through New England a series of campmeetings drew thousands of the faithful for a week or more of sermons, most of them based on the book of Daniel and illustrated by beast-bestrewn charts, which “established” that Christ would come in the Jewish calendar year beginning March 21, 1843.
By this time the opposition had been lashed to fury, and charges of “wild orgies” were published in the hostile press. This was countered by Himes in an incredible outpouring of magazines, leaflets, and books. Through it all Miller, Himes, and their associates continued to proclaim “Behold He Cometh” to multitudes who hung on their every word. An unheralded comet appeared in February 1843, increasing the tension.
The movement was spreading West, with workers traveling as far from the Boston base as Virginia and Kentucky, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Work in the South met more resistance because many of the Millerite preachers were well-known abolitionists, but still an impact was made. A campmeeting convert took the message to England and produced a sensation there.
During much of that period, Mr. Miller was critically ill at his home, but this did not dampen the ardor of his associates, who continued to win converts from whose ranks were sent forth scores of new evangelists. By the spring of 1844 when the days of “time” were running out, there were more than one thousand congregations with more than fifty thousand believers by Miller’s estimate. But March passed, and the Lord did not come. Miller and Himes apparently were willing to acknowledge their mistake and revert to a “no-man-knoweth-the day-nor-the-hour” position which had been held throughout the movement by several of Miller’s associates. The next few weeks were perhaps the most fruitful in the Millerite ministry in terms of spiritual goals and maturing Christian character. They were also marked by a great evangelistic crusade, in which thousands were led to acknowledge Christ as Savior.
While Miller and his close associates were ready to drop time setting, other leaders were busy with their pencils looking for mathematical errors in the calculation. In August, one of these, Samuel S. Snow, launched the “seventh month” thesis, which proclaimed that the return of the Lord could be expected on October 22,1844. Miller and Himes were in the West when this declaration was made, and the weight of the evidence shows that Miller never participated actively in the movement. Himes eventually gave in and supported the October 22 date-fixing.
Tensions reached a fever pitch during the eighty days between the Snow proclamation and the anticipated “Day of Judgment.” Mobs surged through city streets, seeking out Millerites and beating those whom they caught. From press and pulpit, invective and slanderous charges poured. Throughout the excitement the believers met, prayed, and witnessed to their faith. As the day approached, some quit their jobs and gave themselves to prayer and fasting, but the great majority continued their vocation until the eve of the expected return.
Charges of fanaticism and wild extravagances were hurled at Millerites during these days. Few of these have been sustained. The press of the period did not have the restraining reins of libel and slander laws and since “orgy” and “frenzy” always made stories that sell papers, such sensationalism ran wild, usually based on the most flimsy hearsay. To this day, the picture conjured by the name of “Millerite” is one of extravagant excesses. Most of these were disproved at the time, but they have persisted. In the 1960s a New England magazine published an article entitled “The Man Who Drove a Million Crazy.” Their error was acknowledged in the next issue.
The fact remains that these believers were remarkably decorous, considering the inevitable excitement of looking for their Lord. But the day came. And Christ did not. While the disappointment was crushing, withdrawals were surprisingly few among the thousands who looked for their Lord and pinned their faith on His return. Their faith naturally turned from the “day” to the hope itself.
Miller confessed his disappointment and faded from active leadership in the movement which continued to be called popularly by his name. He remained a respected elder statesman, but withdrew to his home in Low Hampton, where he died in 1849.
And so Millerism bowed out. But out of it came the Advent Christian Church.