1844: A Disappointing Anniversary

Ephrata Cloister, Ephrata, Pennsylvania

I waited all Tuesday [October 22] and dear Jesus did not come;– I 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.

– Henry Emmons

On October 22, 1844 — exactly 175 years ago today — Jesus was supposed to come back. But then, He didn’t.

This belief in a specific, predicted — calculated, even — date for the Second Coming had been laid down by Baptist preacher William Miller, and his trans-denominational movement was called the Millerites. In the 2017 revised and expanded edition of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, I wrote this:

The Millerites, like the pietists and those who led the revivalist movements, drew followers from across denominational lines, including Baptists like their leader William Miller, as well as Presbyterians, Methodists, and members of the Restorationist churches.

William Miller was a Baptist preacher from Low Hampton, New York, who calculated that Jesus Christ would return to earth on October 22, 1844. The Millerites had a handful of doctrines that made them distinct from their various denominational affiliations, but what united them was the common belief in the truth of Miller’s calculation, which he claimed to have derived from prophetic passages in the Book of Daniel. Because Miller shared the common belief in a rejection of tradition and church authority, he believed that his method for reading the Bible was beyond question.

October 22, 1844, came and went, however, and there was no clear indication that Jesus had returned to earth. This came to be known as the “Great Disappointment,” and most Millerites disbanded and returned to their various churches. Some, however, believed that Miller’s calculations were correct but that his reading of Daniel was flawed. Instead of Christ returning to earth in 1844, He entered into an “inner sanctuary” in heaven, signaling the beginning of an “investigative judgment” of professed believers. Some believed that the October date in 1844 marked a “shut door” after which no true conversions to Christ could occur, although that has since been rejected
(presumably since later followers, all born after 1844, regarded themselves as true converts).

The way that Miller read the Bible was extremely methodical. That might sound good in a sense, but if method is what determines how you read sacred text, then eventually the method itself becomes the message. Miller’s failed prediction (which was later reinterpreted to reintegrate it into his theology) is perhaps the most obvious example of this.

There was just something about the nineteenth century, though, for many Christians in the US and Great Britain. Miller’s “Great Disappointment” was not the only prediction of the end of the world in that period, not even for him (he had earlier picked March 21, 1844) nor his followers (many thought Christ would come back either April 28, 1843, or December 31 of that same year). Numerous religious leaders in that century predicted the world’s end.

My personal favorite is probably the one by Mary Bateman in 1806 in Leeds, England. She apparently had a hen that began laying eggs with “Christ is coming” written on them. It turned out that Bateman had written on the eggs with corrosive ink, thus etching their shells, and then reinserted them back into the chicken’s oviduct. When the egg was “laid” for a second time, the writing was visible.

Just what is the deal with predictions of the end of the world by some Christians, given that Christ said in Matthew 24:36 that “of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only”? What explains the especially American Christian addiction to apocalypse?

There was just something about America in particular that made people feel like the end of the world could be nigh. Numerous little Protestant sects went out into the nineteenth-century wilderness (especially here in Pennsylvania) to await the coming of Christ. Several embraced celibacy, communal living, and there was even a kind of Protestant monasticism in Ephrata, which is about an hour or so down the road from me.

I am not a sociologist, so I can only guess about the conditions that led to this millenarian fervor, but perhaps it was the sense of escape from a corrupt Old World, the feeling of living on the edge of the world (or at least of civilization), or the openness to new ideas that often comes with a radical uprooting of life typical of so many immigrants and their communities.

Nineteenth-century America was also something of a laboratory for new religious ideas, especially new forms of Christianity and Christian-derived religion. Out of that period arose not just the Adventist movements that came from the Millerite community but also the Jehovah’s Witnesses (a related group) and of course the Mormons. Of the numerous sects that arose in those days, only a handful have survived into our own time.

Perhaps the most successful of the millenarian movements was the Holiness Movement and its child Pentecostalism, which is the fastest-growing kind of Christianity in the world. Another excerpt from Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy mentions this:

The feeling that the established denominations had embraced apostasy and “worldliness” grew. And, perhaps in response to that feeling, within the Holiness movement, a powerful millenarianism began to emerge. Perhaps this was the great “falling away” that had been predicted in Scripture that would precede the end of the world. Believers thought that Jesus was going to return to earth soon—not just the “soon” that Christians had always held to in a sense, but “soon” in a sense of nearly any minute. Eschatological expectation heightened. The end of the world was coming, or at least the end of the order Christians had been accustomed to for centuries. The rapid changes brought on by the industrial revolution, the population shifts from rural areas into the cities, and various wars throughout the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries all contributed to the feeling among Holiness revivalists that the end was truly near. God was about to do something big.

That “something big” found its voice especially in a variant on the Holiness movement that pointed toward an imminent end of the current age. Most Holiness believers believed that supernatural manifestations were a normal part of the Christian life, and so what they were experiencing was in some sense a restoration of what was seen in the New Testament.

It is of course possible that the world is going to end soon, but when you look at the history of Christianity through its two millenia, you come to see the same patterns repeating over and over. We have been in the Latter Days for the past 2,000 years. This might seem like a long end times for us who live three-score-years-and-ten (or perhaps four-score years), but the latter days are essentially an epoch.

The essential problem with millenarianism is not its tendency to predict dates for the end of the world. The problem is that it instigates behavior from people that can be spiritually exhausting. Now, if someone wants to raise his asceticism by simplifying his life or by embracing celibacy as a means of preparing for his own last days, that may be good. But if he expects that he’s going to be seeing Jesus right away in the Second Coming, then when that doesn’t happen, he might well fall away from faith entirely. And of course many millenarian movements historically led to exactly such fallings-away. It can be exhausting keeping up with the end times, and when they don’t come right away, we can get bored.

What we do know, though, is that this life has been given to us for repentance. Let us live as though we are each living in our own last days together, not spending our days in endless calculations and arguments, but humbly repenting and loving one another in the love and peace of God.

3 comments:

  1. I was surprised that you didn’t say more than you did about the Seventh Day Adventists in this context. However, I am still grateful to you for offering the explanations you did.

  2. My ancestors in upstate New York released all their farm animals, put on white robes and climbed up to sit on the barn roof and wait for Jesus to arrive. Getting their animals back from scoffing neighbors the next day was a difficult experience, to say the least. I grew up knowing that Great Disappoint should always be capitalized.

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