In 1843 the world did not end. This was extremely disappointing to the followers of William Miller who had predicted 1843 as the year Jesus would return to earth and fulfill the prophesies of the Book of Revelation. But the Millerites did not lose faith and when the recalibrated, and more specific, date of October 22, 1844 was proposed for the apocalypse, thousands of people prepared for judgment day. When that day came and went with the world still intact, it would be remembered by Adventists as The Great Disappointment.
Though he came from a line of Baptist preachers, William Miller was not particularly religious as a young man. In fact he embraced deism for a time, believing that God created the world but did not participate in it. This view changed after the War of 1812 Battle of Plattsburg where Miller was one of 4000 volunteers who defeated 15,000 British troops. He saw the hand of God in the victory and returned to the Baptist church.
He also began an exhaustive study of the Bible. He worked in seclusion for fourteen years then in 1831 began to preach that the Second Advent of Christ was imminent –first locally in eastern New York then throughout New York and New England. In 1839 he was joined by Joshua Himes, a prominent Boston abolitionist who converted to Adventism. Hines was a skillful organizer and promoter and under his guidance Miller’s following grew rapidly.
The time and place of the movement’s origin could not have been more advantageous to growth. The period 1830s and 1840s was known as the Second Great Awakening—characterized by the rise of evangelists preaching individual salvation and preparation for the Second Coming. The center of this movement was Central and Western New York State, an area that evangelistic pioneer Charles Finney referred to as the “Burned Over District” because there were no souls there left to convert. In addition to Adventism, The Burned Over District saw the birth of Mormonism, Spiritualism, the Shakers, the Oneida community and other millennial movements.
What made Miller different from his contemporaries was that he was willing to put a date to the Advent. Using information from the scriptures, specifically the book of Daniel and the book of Revelations and applying complex calculations he was able to determine that Christ would return “sometime in 1843.” In early 1843 he modified this to “the Jewish year 1843” which to Miller meant the period from March 21, 1843 to March 21, 1844.
The reasoning behind his prediction was conveyed in the form of illustrated charts which were fanciful and confusing but conveyed the message that something big was coming and his knowledge came from more than idle speculation. They were distributed in pamphlets and newspapers and displayed on posters. Joshua Hine’s had a mammoth tent created, 55 feet high at the center and 300 feet in circumference that would hold 3000 to 4000 people. The walls of the tent were covered with massive canvass reproductions of Miller’s charts.
By 1843 the Millerites numbered over 10,000 and Himes had made Miller’s name a household word. As the millennial date approached the newspapers began to take notice. In New York City, Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald attacked and ridiculed the Millerites’ “prophetic fevers and millennium inflammations.” Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune took a different tack, devoting an entire issue to rebutting Miller’s claims.
When March 21, 1844 came and went with no appearance by Jesus, Miller acknowledged his mistake and set a new date, April 18, 1844. When this date passed, the Millerite movement was thrown into disarray. Bitterly disappointed, members began leaving and Miller himself became depressed and ill.
Then, in August 1844, while preaching at a camp meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire, Samuel S. Snow delivered what became known as the “seventh month message” or the “true midnight cry.” Drawing from the book of Daniel, Snow concluded that Christ would return on the seventh month of the current year—the date he determined would be October 21, 1844. Miller was reluctant to endorse the new calculation, but the date rapidly took hold in Adventist circles, and on Himes’s recommendation Miller finally agreed.
Failure of the second prophesy was truly the Great Disappointment, leaving followers of Miller utterly devastated. In addition to their personal sorrow they had to endure public ridicule. A rapid increase of inmates was reported at the time by New York and New England lunatic asylums, but the truth of this is still debated. Other myths, such as Millerites donning white “ascension robes” and waiting on hill tops, or that they sold or abandoned all their property, have been debunked.
There was a jump in membership in the Shakers and other millennialist movements after the Great Disappointment but most returned to mainstream Protestantism. A small group remained true to Miller’s teachings; they grew into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Miller himself never truly recovered; he died in 1849 at the age of 67.