History of the Millerite Movement
MILLERITE MOVEMENT. An interdenominational movement flourishing in the United States, with some extensions elsewhere, from 1840 to 1844, based on a distinctive prophetic interpretation, and giving rise to the group of denominations classed as Adventist bodies, the largest of which is now the SDA Church.
I. Historical Setting. 1. Miller and the Adventists. The "Millerites" actually called themselves Adventists, but were popularly known by the name of their leading exponent, William Miller, a New York farmer and a licensed Baptist preacher. Since the term "Adventist" is now often used in a broader sense or as a shortened form of Seventh-day Adventist, the more specific term "Millerite" is used here.
Miller first published his views on prophecy in 1832, but the year 1840 marks the launching of the movement on a wide basis. Miller's colleagues included ministers of various denominations, some of whom did not agree with his expectation that Christ would return in 1843/44 but were otherwise sympathetic with his views.
The principal doctrine on which the Millerite movement was considered to be based was not primarily the "definite time" of the Second Advent, but an interpretation of prophecy embodying (1) belief in "the Advent near" and (2) a distinctive view of the nature of the kingdom of God.
2. Part of an International Awakening. The Millerites regarded their movement as the continuation and culmination of an international awakening of interest in the Second Advent, and a proclamation of "the Advent near," that had developed almost simultaneously in many countries in the early 1800's. At that time the majority of Protestants were either indifferent to the Second Advent or were looking for it after a millennium of 1,000 (or 365,000) years of a spiritual reign, through the triumph of the church. It was against the latter view, called postmillennialism, that nineteenth-century premillennialists contended by their insistence that Christ would return before the millennium, and soon (see Premillennialism). Among them were Petri in Germany (before 1800), Gaussen in Switzerland, Irving and others in England, Wolff in Asia, and others elsewhere.
3. Similarities and Differences. The Millerites circulated the works of some of these writers and regarded these premillennialists as forerunners and colleagues. They opened correspondence with some of the "friends of the advent near" in England, hoping that they could unite with them, but found their differing views on the second principal doctrine, the nature of the expected kingdom of God, an insuperable barrier.
A study of the writings on the prophecies in many countries shows that the Millerites were preceded by many expositors who held the same general historical interpretation of the outline prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation as they held, and even looked to 1843, 1844, or 1847 for the end of the 2300 days of Dan 8:14 (the key prophecy on which Miller based his expectation of the Advent in or about 1843). Many expected, just as definitely and just as mistakenly as Miller, some momentous event or development of world history introducing, or leading to, the millennium, or the Second Advent.
What distinguished Miller's group from these other expositors was not the fact that the Millerites set dates, but the fact that they expected the Second Advent to bring the catastrophic end of the age, the cleansing of the world by fire, and the setting up of the eternal kingdom of the saints. Because the Adventists formed a large and vocal movement, their views were widely disseminated and discussed, and consequently their disappointment made headlines while the less spectacular predictions made by other expositors passed unnoticed or were forgotten. Furthermore, the Millerite movement, though interdenominational, eventually gave rise to several organized church bodies.
II. History of the Millerite Movement. The groundwork of the Adventist movement of the 1840's was laid by the personal activities of William Miller. For his early preaching, beginning with a local revival in 1831, see his biographical sketch. In 1836 he published a book of 16 lectures. In that year eight Baptist ministers were preaching his views. In 1838 Josiah Litch, a Methodist minister, one of the first New England ministers to join the movement, published a 48-page pamphlet and a 200 page book expounding and expanding Miller's doctrines.
1. A Full-fledged Movement From 1840. From 1840 onward the Miller movement was no longer primarily a one-man project, but was led by a large and increasing group of men of various denominations. In 1840 Joshua V. Himes, of Boston, a minister of the Christian Connection (which later became part of the Congregational Christian Churches and then of the United Church of Christ), undertook to help "Father Miller" and to blazon to the world the message of the Second Advent in or about 1843. A man of faith and audacity and a born promoter, he set out to find openings for Miller to preach in "every city of the Union," and in February, 1840, he launched a paper in Boston called The Signs of the Times. In October Miller and others issued a call to the first "General Conference of Christians Expecting the Advent," held in Boston, to which came ministers of various churches. This and later conferences served to coordinate the planning and thinking of a rather loosely knit movement. In the proceedings of this first Millerite conference the following appeared:
The second general conference, opened June 15, 1841, with 200 present, voted to circulate the series of pamphlets called the Second Advent Library and to establish libraries and reading rooms in every town. This conference laid down the strategy of warfare in a number of suggestions, urging: (1) personal consecration, (2) personal work with others, (3) Bible classes for mutual study of the question, (4) social meetings for prayer and exhortation, (5) questioning ministers, (6) circulation of books.
In 1841 Litch, as general agent of the Committee of Publication, devoted his full time to traveling, lecturing, and fostering the distribution of Millerite publications. In his campaign to proclaim the second coming to every corner of the land, Himes, the publisher, issued a stream of booklets and periodicals and introduced stickers bearing Second Advent texts and slogans for use in sealing letters. In 1842 Himes launched a new paper, The Midnight Cry, in New York, and published 300 copies of a lithographed chart illustrating the prophecies, which was designed by Charles Fitch and Apollos Hale and authorized by the twelfth general conference, held at Boston in May, 1842, presided over by Joseph Bates
By this time the date 1843 for the Advent was increasingly emphasized, although belief in "the time" was not required for membership in the conference; all who rejected certain false teachings about the Second Advent and the millennium and believed that the personal coming of Christ and the first resurrection were imminent, could join. Some of the foremost leaders, such as Henry Dana Ward (Episcopalian) and Henry Jones (Congregationalist)-chairman and secretary, respectively, of the first general conference-never accepted Miller's "definite time" for the Advent.
2. Expansion and Opposition. Beginning in 1842, Millerite camp meetings were held "to awake sinners and purify Christians by giving the midnight cry, viz., to hold up the immediate coming of Christ to judge the world" (Signs of the Times, 3:88, June 15, 1842). With their charts, their books and periodicals, their camp meetings, their "Great Tent" (120 feet in diameter), and their startling message, the Millerites made no small impression on their contemporaries. Their message was preached in England by Robert Winter and others, and it went even to far corners of the earth through the distribution of their papers to sailors and by the sending of publications to "every English and American mission in the world," "so far as the opportunity has offered" (Signs of the Times, 6: 109, Nov. 15, 1843).
In America the Millerites aroused increasing interest and opposition. Miller's date "about the year 1843" made them the targets of theological opposition, of public ridicule, and of irresponsible journalism. The wildest rumors were circulated-that the Millerites were cheating the public, that they were disorderly, that they were fanatics whose delusions caused insanity, that they prepared ascension robes, that Miller had set April 23, 1843, as the date of the end of the world. On the other hand, an occasional item in the press spoke of their sobriety, sincerity, and knowledge of the Bible. Occasionally a newspaper capitalized on the interest in Millerism by printing accounts of meetings or sermons, with refutations by prominent clergymen.
In the face of the growing hostility in the churches, some Millerites questioned whether they should enter or remain in such churches, and others found themselves shut out. By the summer of 1843 the idea of separation was expressed (principally by Charles Fitch) and was printed in Millerite papers, but there was no united acceptance of it.
3. The End of "1843" Passes. Miller's "year of the end of the world" passed by in the spring of 1844. Since the Millerites had not looked to any specific date and had allowed for the possibility of some slight error in computation, there was no sudden disillusionment. However, in May it was evident that "1843" must have run out. Miller acknowledged his disappointment but exhorted the believers to watch, for the coming of the Lord was near, even at the door. With Himes and others he went on a summer preaching tour to the "West" (Ohio). The fact that Millerism was more than belief in a point of time explains why the movement did not disintegrate with this disappointment on the time element.
The increased suppression of Millerite believers in the churches led finally to their separation from these churches. Miller never accepted the idea of separation, but he did not speak against it when Himes himself finally conceded:
By the summer of 1844 Millerism stood sharp and clear on the religious horizon as a well-defined and more or less separate movement, with ministers, Advent associations, and meetinghouses.
4. The October, 1844, Expectation. After the spring disappointment, camp meetings were announced for New England "if time lingers." It was at one of these in August at Exeter, New Hampshire, that a new expectation, one for a specific date, Oct. 22, was proclaimed.
Joseph Bates, in the speaker's stand, stopped in mid sermon to hear S. S. Snow, a man with a new message, sound the call to make ready for the coming of the Lord and the cleansing of the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement, the Biblical "tenth day of the seventh month," which he reckoned as Oct. 22. This new date fired the Adventists in New England, changing their indefinite though very real conviction of the nearness of the Lord's coming into a belief so specific as to send them forth with crusading zeal to warn men in the little while that remained. This "seventh-month movement," as it came to be known, was soon to give a new tempo to Millerism and bring it to a dramatic and speedy climax.
The editor of the Advent Herald (the new name of The Signs of the Times) said in retrospect:
This seventh-month movement finally gained the support of Miller, Himes, and other prominent leaders, about two weeks before the fateful day of Oct. 22. Though Miller's earlier message of the imminent Advent had been called the "midnight cry" -"Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him" (Mt 25:6)-this new, specific message of the tenth day of the seventh month was claimed to be the true midnight cry.
5. The "Great Disappointment" and After. With spiritual exaltation and hope the Millerites gathered in churches and homes on Oct. 22. They truly believed they would meet Him; that with others "loved long since, and lost awhile," they would be gathered into a blest abode where sorrow, sickness, and death are no more. But as the sun sank in the west, their hopes sank with it. Some waited until midnight; then their disappointment became a certainty.
To their disappointment were added the jeers and ridicule of scoffers and the problem of caring for the needs of those who had impoverished themselves for the cause. Most of the believers had spontaneously devoted the last few days or weeks to attending meetings or to engaging in missionary work before the expected end of the world. Although there seems to have been no general policy of selling possessions, farmers in some instances did not harvest their crops. Many who had joined the Adventists through fear now went over to the mocking, scoffing rabble. But the true Millerites retained their faith. The leaders, and even some among those who had not joined the seventh-month movement, held that in the mysterious plans of God this preaching of an exact date when men must meet God had served the purpose of a test to discover those who really loved the Lord and His appearing. They reasoned that God overruled to make this disappointing experience serve a divine purpose.
Refusing to set another definite time, Miller looked for Christ "Today, Today, and Today, until He comes"; however, he could not refrain from expressing confidence that the fixing of the year was justified, and that Christ would surely come before "this Jewish year" would terminate. In the spring of 1845, he concluded that he had made some error in calculation, though he continued to look for the Advent as near. (See Miller, William.)
The experience of Millerism at this time has been graphically described as follows:
The Millerite movement was not constituted to meet the conditions that confronted it after 1844, and it markedly subsided after that year. Various small groups split off.
In a conference at Albany, New York, held in April, 1845, the majority party, led by Miller, Himes, and others, adopted a series of statements abandoning the 1844 ending of the 2300 days and looking to a future fulfillment of the midnight cry. This majority group divided, a decade later, into the Evangelical Adventists (now defunct) and the Advent Christians. (For a fuller narrative of the Millerite movement, see F. D. Nichol, The Midnight Cry, 576 pp.)
III. Millerite Eschatology. 1. Miller's Views Summarized. In William Miller's study of Bible prophecies one of his first major conclusions was that "the popular views of the spiritual reign of Christ" through the church on earth were "not sustained by the Word of God." He wrote:
2. Differences From Views of Contemporaries. The Millerites held that the millennial reign introduced at the Second Advent would be that of the glorified righteous in the immortal state, on a purified and renewed earth, and not, as many held, a triumphant reign of the church or of literal Jews in a mortal state (see PremillenniaIism).
In opposition to these concepts of a "temporal millennium" and world conversion either before or after the Second Advent, the twelfth general conference of the Adventists, held at Boston, voted:
3. "Midnight Cry." The reference is to the cry heard at midnight in Christ's parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Mt 25:1-13), "Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him." The Millerites regarded this scripture as a prophetic parable and used it as one of the bases of their message. For this application and the special emphasis placed on it the summer of 1844, see Midnight Cry; Seventh-Month Movement.
4. Various Prophecies. Several Millerite publications set forth detailed interpretations of various prophecies: the already widely accepted view of the four kingdoms of Dan 2 and 7 as the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Grecian, and Roman empires; the ten horns as the barbarian kingdoms that succeeded Rome; the dragon of Rev 12 as pagan Rome; the two beasts of chapter 13 as papal Rome and "the infidel French government" (Miller originally had civil and papal Rome, with the number 666 in Rev 13:18 representing 666 years of Roman paganism); 1260 years as the period of the papacy from the time of Justinian to 1798; the "seven times" (Lev 26:18, etc.) interpreted as 2520 years, ending in 1843; the 70 weeks (Dan 9:25) as 490 years, extending to A.D. 33, the crucifixion; the 2300 days (Dan 8:14) as years from the same starting point, ending in 1843; and the thousand years of Rev 20 as literal years between the resurrection of the righteous at the Second Advent and the resurrection of, and final execution of judgment on, the wicked. The Millerites generally believed that the 1290 years (of Dan 12:11) ended jointly with the 1260 years in 1798, and that the 1335 years (Dan 12:12) would end 45 years later, along with the 2300 years in 1843.
5. The 2300 Days. The key prophetic period was that of the 2300 (Dan 8:14) years (see Twenty-three Hundred Days), ending with the cleansing of the sanctuary, which the Millerites believed to involve the final purification of the earth at the Second Advent. As noted earlier, Miller ended this period in or about 1843, but he never preached an exact date. Pressed to be more specific, he finally, by December, 1842, defined "1843," by which he meant the Jewish year, as probably "sometime between March 21st, 1843, and March 21st, 1844" ( The Signs of the Times, 4:47, Jan. 25, 1843)-for he knew the Jewish religious year ran from spring to spring. (Other Millerite leaders, knowing that the Jewish calendar was lunar, began and ended the year with the new moon of April.)
When the "Jewish year 1843" passed (in the spring of 1844) without the return of the Lord, and the public expected the Millerites to "yield the whole question," Litch wrote:
Then he quoted the "Fundamental Principles" of the Millerites as published in their periodicals in 1843, adding this footnote:
6. The Shift From 1843 to 1844. It was not until the summer of 1844 that the majority of the Millerites began to pay serious heed to a few who had been insisting that the correct computation of the 2300 years and the 70 weeks would lead to an ending date in the autumn, on the day of the month the ancient sanctuary was cleansed, the tenth day of the seventh Jewish month which they understood to fall in 1844 on Oct. 22. (For the basis and development of this expectation, see Seventh-Month Movement; Twenty-three Hundred Days.) On this day they believed that Christ would end His priestly ministry and emerge from the holy of holies, or heaven, to return to the earth to "bless His waiting people."
7. The Three Angels' Messages. The Millerites believed also that they were fulfilling the prophecy of the flying angel of Rev 14:6, 7, the first of three (see Three Angels' Messages), proclaiming, "The hour of his judgment is come," and many of them also gave the second angel's message, to come out of fallen Babylon (v 8; cf. ch 18:4), advocating separation from hostile churches. They gave little or no attention to the message of the third angel (v 9).
8. Aftermath-Three-Way Split. After the great disappointment of Oct. 22, 1844, the Millerites-at least those who did not fall away in their disillusionment-split into three groups, differing according to their respective views of the cause of their error in expecting the return of Christ in 1844.
(1) The majority group, including, by April, 1845, Miller and most of the leaders. These held that they had been right in applying the 2300-day prophecy and the parable of the Bridegroom to the Second Advent; and that, therefore, since the Lord had not come they had been in error in the chronology; that there had been no fulfillment of prophecy in 1843-1844 and the "definite time" movement had been a mistake.
(2) A minority group known as the "spiritualizers," or "spiritualists." These held that they had been right both in chronology and in the expected event: the Second Advent had actually occurred at the time specified, but as a spiritual coming, in His saints (the spiritualizers). For their fanatical doctrines, see Spiritualisim . Many of these went into extreme splinter groups, and a number of them joined the Shakers.
(3) Another minority group, intermediate between the other two groups. Holding that the prophetic chronology had been correct, but that the error lay in the event expected, they rejected on the one hand the "spiritualist" view of an invisible Advent and a spiritual kingdom (they insisted that the Advent was personal, literal, and still future); on the other hand, they rejected the majority contention that the 2300 days had not ended and that the 1844 movement had been a complete mistake.
To this third group (as to the second) the majority party appeared to have abandoned the Adventist message by denying their past experience in the 1844 movement. The majority group, in turn, were inclined to condemn the third group, along with the second, for holding that the 2300 days had ended and that the "midnight cry" was valid.
Among this third group were the leaders of the future SDA's, who arrived at the conclusion that the proper interpretation of the symbols indicated a different fulfillment-not the Second Advent by the final phase of Christ's ministry (see Sanctuary).
9. Albany Conference. The main body led by Miller and, especially, Himes, in the Albany conference in April, 1845, took its stand on a series of statements, some of which may be summarized thus:
(1) They retained their principle of a non-"Judaizing" premillennialism that is opposing the "Judaizing doctrine" of the restoration of the literal Jews as a fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant.
(2) They made what appears to be a rather vaguely worded concession toward the new view of conditional immortality taught by a few Millerite leaders.
(3) They abandoned, necessarily, the 1844 date for the Second Advent, but in so doing they also abandoned the idea that the 1844 movement was a fulfillment of prophecy, or that a prophetic landmark had been passed that would explain the disappointment.
(4) Since they had emphasized the close of human probation (which they held was symbolized by the "shut door" of the parable of the Ten Virgins) as involved in the ending of the 2300 days, and since they were convinced that probation had not ended, they now insisted also that the 2300 years, and the parable with its shut door, had likewise not been fulfilled. (This left an opening for revisions of the chronology and later dates set for the Advent by the leaders.)
(5) They declared themselves opposed to all "new tests," and thereby barred not only various forms of fanaticism, but any advance in prophetic exposition based on the premise of a valid prophetic landmark in the 1844 movement. (For a fuller discussion of the Millerite teachings, see L. E. Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 4, part 2, especially chs 22, 34, 36, 37, 39.)
IV. Relation of SDA's to Millerism. The leaders of the small group that formed the nucleus of the organized SDA Church came out of the Millerite movement, and they regarded themselves as the true successors of the movement, as retaining and carrying on to completion the main principles of Millerite doctrine and correcting and clarifying the misunderstanding that had caused the disappointment and had resulted in the repudiation of the 1844 message by the leaders.
Retaining the distinctive principles of Millerite premillennialism, the SDA's modified certain points; for example, holding to the close of probation at the Second Advent but placing the renewal of the earth, and the establishment on it of the everlasting kingdom of the saints, at the end of the millennium. They accepted the minority view of conditional immortality. They explained the Disappointment by showing that the "cleansing of the sanctuary" represented not the end of the heavenly ministry of Christ, but a new phase of it (see Investigative Judgment; Judgment). They held that their new Sabbath message was symbolized by the third angel's message of Rev 14:9-12, combining "the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus," and that this third message involved the proclamation of the first and second also (see Three Angels' Messages). Thus the doctrines of Millerism formed the background of many of the distinctive teachings of the SDA Church. However, not all of these doctrines originated in Millerism (see Prophetic Interpretation), and they were incorporated selectively into the structure of the SDA Church.
From the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, Volume 10, pages 892-898, 1976. Review and Hearld Publishing Association. Used with permission.