The History Thread is a Great Disappointment

Welcome to this week’s History Thread!

Today’s picture: On October 22, 1844, the world ended. Or so predicted William Miller, a Baptist lay priest from New York who interpreted a passage from Daniel 8:14 (“Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed”) as confirming this specific date as initiating the Second Coming of Jesus. Over the past several decades, Miller had built a national following of so-called Millerites who hung on his every word. His Christianity involved an especially strict and apocalyptic analysis of the Bible; his main appeal, it seemed, was convincing many Americans that Judgment Day lie just around the corner.

Miller didn’t pick this date on a purely arbitrary basis; he’d spent almost two decades divining it from Biblical study and his own, intricate calculations. Nonetheless, his Judgment Day proved flexible. At first, he announced “that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.” This didn’t happen, so he adjusted his date again, at the urging of his followers. There’s some evidence that Miller didn’t want to present a specific date, fully anticipating the consequences if he was proven wrong, but his most ardent lieutenants pressed him into making a public declaration. Either way, when he stated October 22nd as the revised Day of Reckoning none of Miller’s followers doubted it.

Unfortunately for Miller and his followers, and fortunately for everyone else, the day came and went without Apocalypse. One disillusioned Millerite complained that he “waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain– sick with disappointment.” Miller, with a curious mixture of humility and narcissism, postulated “that there might be an error in Bible chronology, which was of human origin, that could throw the date off somewhat and account for the discrepancy.”

Most of Miller’s followers left the movement after the Disappointment; his followers dwindled from an estimated 500,000 at the movements peak to a mere handful a few years later. Some of his lieutenants used the general precepts of his movement to form the Adventist Churches which remain active to this day. Miller died in obscurity in 1849, still convinced that the Second Coming was at hand. Most future evangelical prophets were canny enough not to claim a specific date for the Rapture.