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

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7.3. Idealism, preterism and eschatological reevaluation


The development of biology, physics or chemistry threw a natural light upon many events considered supernatural, while archeological and historical discoveries contradicted the biblical accounts. The religious paradigm became insufficient in explaining the natural order. Millenary beliefs about the Creation and the position of man in nature succumbed before the evolution of the species and the infinity of the Universe. Science heavily challenged the spiritual world and religion began to tremble before atheism. Arthur Schopenhauer and Karl Marx, alongside dozens of other thinkers, contested Christianity and even the existence of God. At this time the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche enunciated the famous expression “God is dead!”920 not because God as a being died, but to emphasize the fact that the idea of divinity was fading. Morality apparently divorced religion and mankind ceased to wait for divine help and took its fate into its own hands.

The scientific assault generated various theological reactions. Catholicism was the greatest religious loser of the century, a situation that made Pope Leo XIII redefine the position of the Catholic Church in relation to modern thinking. Prophecies and epiphanies such as that of La Salette921 announced the fall of the institution of the church and divine punishments for this apostasy, while entire doctrines were erased or restructured to ensure the survival of different religious groups. Initial doctrinal lines were no longer

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5.1. The papal demonization and the development of historicism



In 1510 the German monk Martin Luther suffered a shock after he traveled to Rome and saw the stage of ecclesiastical corruption: Sixtus IV was the first pope who imposed a license on brothels, a special tax on the priests who had a concubine and established the selling of indulgences417 to be applied to the dead as well; the latter was a religious-financial scheme that assured unlimited income to the budget of the institution. In turn, Pope Alexander IV fathered seven children and simultaneously fostered two mistresses. After he returned to Wittenberg at the end of 1517, disgusted and resentful, Luther conceived a list entitled Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum and nailed it on the door of All Saints’ Church. The list of 95 theses was a summary of his grievances, through which he mainly requested a reopening of the debates regarding the selling of indulgences, the concepts of Purgatory, individual Judgment, Mariology (the devotion to the Virgin Mary), the worship of the saints, most of the sacraments and the authority of the Papacy. Luther’s disagreement was the spark that ignited the conflagration. The Ninety-Five Theses (as the document remained known in history) enjoyed a powerful support from laity and some clerics, marking the eruption of a widespread

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