Calculating the Second Coming in 19th-Century America: Selected Items from American Pamphlets, 1820-1922

William Miller (1782-1849)The first four decades of the 19th century were a time of increased religious activity known as the Second Great Awakening. One of the most widely recognized religious activists of this time was William Miller (1782-1849) who lived in the border area between Vermont and New York State. As a young man in Poultney, Vermont, Miller was a confirmed and public Deist; however, as a result of his experience in the War of 1812, particularly in the Battle of Plattsburgh, where the significantly outnumbered Americans were victorious, Miller concluded this victory was the result of an interventionist deity.

Subsequent study of the Bible convinced Miller that the holy book held prophetic references to the return of Christ to Earth including the specific time when this would happen. His predictions were widely disseminated. Despite his having been in error about the first dates he identified as the time of Christ's return—“sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844”—the number of his followers grew exponentially. When a new date was identified in October of 1844 and Christ again did not return, this failed prophecy became known as the Great Disappointment of the Millerite movement. This month's release of American Pamphlets, 1820-1922: From the New-York Historical Society includes many works related to the national movement Miller sparked, including several rebukes to his prophecy, which were published in advance of any certain date for the return of Christ, as well as Miller's own “Apology and Defence,” published in 1845.

The World Reprieved: Being a Critical Examination of William Miller's Theory, that the Second Coming of Christ and the Destruction of the World Will Take Place, about A.D. 1843 (1839)

Compiled principally from articles originally written by Rev. Kittridge Haven

The publisher of this pamphlet, a Mr. Streeter, makes clear that he is relying on a series of articles by Rev. Kittridge Haven to argue against the prophecy of William Miller. Streeter's personal bias in the matter is made clear in his preface. Of Miller, he says,

Having repeated his lectures, with a world of anecdotes interspersed, hundreds of times, Mr. M. has got them so familiar, that he excites the fears of the timid, to a high degree. Some, who had none to spare, are frightened out of what sense and reason they had.

Streeter also seems to imply that Miller was motivated by personal ambition and not real religious conviction. He marvels that…

Mr. M is not so influenced by his doctrine, but that he holds on upon every dollar and cent, as closely as anyone else....Why hug his wealth....Why suffer his book to be sold at such an enormous profit? If he believes his doctrine, he stands condemned by his own acts; for he loves his paltry self, more that the souls of men.

An Exposition of the Prophecies Supposed by William Miller to Predict the Second Coming of Christ, in 1843. With a Supplementary Chapter upon the True Scriptural Doctrine of a Millenium Prior to the Judgment (1842)

This publication was produced by the pastor of a Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island. He meant it for his congregation, but subsequently agreed to a reprinting for broader distribution. In his introduction, the minister asserts that he had received a letter from William Miller after the first edition of this pamphlet was issued. He describes Mr. Miller's reaction as consisting...

...of scurrility, abuse, and railing accusation, without even the shadow of argument. In reply to it I have only to say, ‘The Lord rebuke thee’…

Lecture on Millerism: Showing that Mr. William Miller's Doctrine of the Second Advent of Christ, and the Destruction of the World by Fire, in 1843, Is No Where Taught in Scripture (1843)

As delivered in the Government Street Church, Mobile, on Sunday night, March 26, 1843 by Rev. Wm. T. Hamilton, D.D., pastor of said church

The Rev. Hamilton seems to be a somewhat gentler critic of Mr. Miller, but he is clear to say,

I am satisfied that Mr. Miller has fallen into sundry and vital errors, which utterly vitiate his whole theory. I may be mistaken; and in some points it is hardly possible to be quite accurate in relation to prophecies yet unfilled. But I think I see, very clearly, mistakes in Mr. Miller’s expositions of prophecy, and calculations of dates, which show that on the main points Miller is wrong.

And within months events will prove Rev. Hamilton correct.

A Complete Refutation of Miller's Theory of the End of the World in 1843 (1843)

By Abel C. Thomas

Abel Thomas, a Universalist minister, takes Miller's calculations straight on. He deconstructs the math, reinterprets the texts, and scoffs at Miller and his followers. Thomas chose an anonymous quote for his title page, “Figures do not lie, saith the proverb; nevertheless it behooveth us to consider whether our figures be correct, and also whether they be rightly placed.”

In his pamphlet’s final paragraph, which appears below the heading “All Fool's Day,” Thomas quotes a Prof. Stuart of Andover:

If I can be allowed for a moment to interfere, I would respectfully suggest, that in some way or other they [the Millerites] have in all probability made a small mistake as to the exact day of the month when the grand catastrophe takes place, the FIRST of April being evidently much more appropriate to their arrangements than any other day of the month.

 

Wm. Miller's Apology and Defence (1845)

And finally, William Miller provides his own apology and excuse. From him we learn of his attraction to Deism, his subsequent war experiences, and his move back toward the Baptist Church of his childhood. We receive more in the way of justification or explanation than we do of apology. We also hear Miller's account of the abuse he believed he and his followers suffered:

During the year '43, the most violent denunciations were heaped upon me, and those associated with me, by the press, and some pulpits. Our motives were assailed, our principles misrepresented, and our characters traduced. Time passed on: and the 21st of March, 1844 went by, without our witnessing the appearing of the Lord. Our disappointment was great; and many walked no more with us.

It is a curious essay in which Miller seems to dismiss his error as insignificant and the fate of many of his followers as of little more significance.


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