4.3. Millerism and the “Great Disappointment”

4.3. MILLERISM AND THE “GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT”

While Joseph Smith Jr. was forging the Mormon aberration, another prophetic colossus was rising in the “burned-over district” of the New York State: William Miller. Smith and Miller had a different theological training, a different eschatological approach and even an opposite prophetic message; and yet, they both enjoyed a tremendous success. While Smith used false revelations and became an icon of prophetic falsehood, Miller was a sincere biblical scholar who wasted his life for a chimera and turned into a model of prophetic failure. But the latter is also a good example that human beings think what they are trained to think and see what they want to see: a chess player sees chess movements in real life, an economist sees around him transactions and economic opportunities, and a religious fanatic identifies apocalyptic trumpets and God’s vials of wrath in the flow of history.

After 15 years of intense biblical and historical study, Miller came to believe that a correct eschatological interpretation must rely on a couple of principles: the biblical prophecies are expressed in figurative language, but they are being literally fulfilled, the events described in the Bible can happen only once, and the biblical prophecies are codes that can be deciphered. This retired captain was one of the last major exponents of Protestant historicism: Revelation and the Book of Daniel were treated as maps of universal history, while the biblical images represented kingdoms, catastrophes, wars, historical characters or great discoveries.

The core of the Millerite doctrine was the 2,300 evenings and mornings from Daniel 8:14. By applying the day/year historicist system of decoding, the 2,300 evenings and mornings were interpreted as 2,300 years. This was supposed to be the period of time between the order of the reconstruction of the Temple and the moment when Jesus Christ would return to the earth. All the other theological and historical aspects – such as the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the establishment of the Catholic Church and the Papacy or the rise of Napoleon – were details that revolved around this aspect. The order of the reconstruction of the Temple was given by Artaxerxe I of Persia to the Jewish scribe Ezra in the seventh year of reign, which corresponds to 457 BC (Ezra 7:12-26). Through calculations, backed by extensive biblical and historical interpretations, Miller concluded that 1843 was the year of the “cleansing of the sanctuary” (Daniel 8:14) – a metaphor for the purification of the earth through fire and the Second Coming of Christ. The first calculations pinpointed the exact date of March 21, 1843.1110

Miller went public with his ideas in 1831, when he published eight articles in the Vermont Telegraph magazine and several pamphlets. Then, between 1834 and 1839, he held a series of public conferences, many of them being included in the book Evidence from the Scripture of the Second Coming of Christ, about the year 1843, published in 1836. The revivalistic preachers were using their attitude and tone to generate an emotional response, but they were bringing nothing new in terms of theology. Miller, instead, used reason and logics to convince his audience; he was the exponent of a rational God who acts upon a rational and clearly delimited history. He did not make prophecies, did not claim divine revelations and did not use the emotional articulation; on the contrary, he launched predictions, brought arguments to the audience, enumerated historical proofs, challenged the people to discussion, asked questions, waited for answers and accepted criticism. In the Sign of the Times magazine, edited by Joshua Himes, one of Miller’s associates, for and against articles were equally published. Smith’s revelations, for example, had to be accepted or rejected; there was no middle way. By contrast, anyone was welcome to verify the Millerite calculations. Millerism was an honest eschatological movement, different from all the movements seen up to that time. It was not a sect in the real sense of the word because it did not have an official hierarchy, rituals and rules, it did not demand a certain lifestyle and it required neither a new baptism nor a repudiation of the initial cults by its members. The only thing that united the Millerites was the belief that the coming of Christ was imminent. A fiery adversary of postmillenarism, William Miller was the symbol of the Second Great Awakening premillenarism: the end of the world was close not because it had been foretold through visions or signs, but because history was on the brink of exhaustion and man could do nothing about it.

With a huge volume of processed information and very well-grounded biblical and historical interpretations, the eschatological work of Miller and his associates was downright impressive. Compared to the other publications of the time, the Millerite ones, through their complexity and accuracy, were simply emanating power. And exactly this power intoxicated with apocalypticism tens of thousands of people. Others, however …


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