William Miller and the Advent of the Second Coming

Updated on February 12, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He wrote for IHPVA magazines and raced these vehicles with his father (who builds them).

The end of the world was near, and the Millerites started to prepare. Members of this sizable 19th-century religious sect were told by their leader, the preacher William Miller, that the advent of the second coming of Jesus has been revealed. It was time for them to finalize all their “Earthly Affairs,” and wait for their savior to take them to New Jerusalem – the name Miller gave to Heaven.

October 22, 1843 was the date Miller predicted after he carefully dissected prophetic passages in the Holy Bible. In order to be saved from the eventual destruction of Earth, he ordered his followers to find higher ground and wait for a cosmic sign that would signal the coming of the lord and savior.

In the days before the event, the Millerites gave away their material wealth, said their good-byes to loved ones, and gathered on top of hills, roofs and other higher grounds to await salvation from a world that was about to end. But, October 22 came and went… without incident.

This should have been the end of Miller. A congregation between 50,000 and 100,000 followers could’ve left in droves. Yet, the Millerites stayed strong as did their leader (at least for one more year until the "Great Disappointment" came and went).

In fact, the event would become the hallmark for the rise of a new denomination and a spike in end-time preaching in the centuries to come.

An Unlikely Religious Leader

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Miller was the most unlikely religious leader of the Second Great Awakening era of America’s early 1800s. He was a man who first rejected his religious upbringing, and embraced the Deist concept of a God that didn’t intervene in human affairs. However, something miraculous happened to him that would bring him back to Christianity as a prophet and teacher who’d influence several Christian denominations and end-times philosophies for more than 150 years after his death.

Miller was born on February 15, 1782, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and later moved to Low Hampton, New York. His parents, Captain William Miller, a veteran of the American Revolution, and Paulina were Baptists. However, there’s no indication that the family were strong, firm believers.

His education was fairly modest. He was educated at home by his mother until the age of nine. Afterward, he attended East Poultney District School. Records of his education after age 18 are unclear; however, Miller became an avid reader and had access to private libraries of Judge James Witherell and Congressman Mathew Lyon in nearby Fairhaven, Vermont.

Miller’s Foray Into Deism

In 1803 he married Lucy Smith and moved to her hometown of Poultney, Vermont where he became a farmer. This move also signified his first break from his Baptist roots. He became a disciple of Deism - a religious and philosophical belief in a God, but not in terms that organized religion had established. Deists rejected supernatural events and didn’t believe God intervened in human affairs.

Life was good for Miller, after his conversion. Every year, he rose through the ranks of local government. First he was elected Constable. In 1809 he was elected Deputy Sheriff and later Justice of the Peace. He also became a high-ranking member of the Freemasons. All the while, his wealth grew, too. He owned a house, land and at least two horses.

With all his accomplishments, Miller added more to his ever-growing reputation. However, his next set of accomplishments as a Vermont Militia officer proved to be a turning point in his religious revival. In July 21, 1810, Miller became a lieutenant. Two years later, he was leading troops in the War of 1812.

War Brings Miller Back to the Fold

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The Battle of Plattsburgh, became a defining moment in Miller’s life. American forces, including those led by Miller, were barricaded in a fort. According to his account of the battle, “bombs, rockets and shrapnel shells fell as thick as hailstones” on his position. One bomb exploded two feet from him, wounding three of his men and killing another. Miller, on the other hand, was unscathed.

He’d come to view this incident as an act of God. Suddenly, all his notions of a God that doesn’t intervene in the affairs of humans were shattered. He later wrote, “It seemed to me that the Supreme Being must have watched over the interests of this country in an especial manner, and delivered us from the hands of our enemies…So surprising a result, against such odds, did seem to me like the work of a mightier power than man.”

After his discharge from the Army in 1815, Miller returned home to his family. He also returned to his Baptist roots. At first he tried to balance his Deist philosophy with Baptism. But, the miracle and revelations he encountered in war were too strong. Baptist won, for good. In the years to come, Miller went from a passive member of the congregation to becoming one of its leaders. He threw himself into bible study with a fervent devotion to analyze and decipher every passage in the bible.

Cleansing of the Sanctuary

In the late 1820s, Miller’s fanatical devotion paid off - or to be more precise, revealed something. After reading Daniel 8:14, He felt he discovered something. The verse states: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller began wonder about this verse until he came to the conclusion that “cleansing of the sanctuary” represented the Earth’s purification by fire at Christ’s Second Coming.

Flabbergasted by this discovery, Miller became obsessed with finding the date of the Advent (as he called the second coming). He examined Jewish calendars, used math formulas to figure out what a year in the bible represented. He worked day and night, until he came to a startling conclusion: the second coming was going to happen “around 1843.”

Miller didn’t give himself credit for discovering this; he gave it to God. To him, it was another sign that God did intervene in human affairs. Not only did he believe God showed him this revelation, he believed that God was using him to spread the word of this discovery. And with that, Miller again rose to a rank of prominence as America’s prophet (even if he didn’t refer to himself as one).

“Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.”

— Daniel 8:14

Several accounts indicate Miller was not a great preacher, nor a good evangelist. His strength came from “teaching.” His meetings were described as lectures, and he acted more like a teacher than a fire-and-brimstone preacher. One account described him instructing people on the Book of Daniel and his system for discovering the date for the Advent.

However, Miller’s best asset for spreading his word was timing. At this time in U.S. history, the country was going through the Second Great Awakening. This spiritual movement was characterized by a religious revival of established churches and the rise of new sects within Christianity. Among them were the Mormons and Miller’s Millerites.

The Printing Presses Build a Congregation

According to Paul Boyer, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Miller spread the word of his discovery by means of high speed printing presses. His message was dispensed through pamphlets, newsletters, and newspapers and colored charts that illustrated his complicated calendar system. Advancements in the printing press were the result of the American Industrial Revolution that was going on at the time.

At first, Miller didn’t give an exact date for the Advent. But, when pressed by some members of this congregation, he zeroed in on October 22, 1843, since it was the Jewish Day of Atonement. This date came and went; however, Miller and his followers were not dismayed. Instead, Miller went back to his charts and realized he had made a critical mistake; his calculation was off by one year. Thus, October 22, 1844 became the new target date.

The Great Disappointment

from pinterest.com
from pinterest.com

Again, his followers gave away their material belongings, took higher ground and waited for the Advent to finally happen. Again, the Millerites were disappointed. So much so, that they would mark this day as the Great Disappointment of 1844. Many cried, other questioned if they were worthy for such miracles. And others simply walked away from this congregation.

Miller, on the other hand, still believed that the second coming was going to happen. He was also convinced that there may have been some human error in the original Bible chronology. He’d believed this until his death on December 20, 1849.

*Clarification

Although most history books indicate that the Millerites became the Seventh-Day Adventists, some members of this church disagree about the direct link. It's unclear if this is an attempt to separate the church from the end-time prophesy of the past, or official church documents indicate there's no connection.

Legacy of a Failed Prediction

Not all was bad. Eventually, the Millerites would become the Seventh-Day Adventist* and would become a major denomination in America that would incorporate several universities, hospitals and townships throughout the country (i.e. Loma Linda, California was established by Adventist community).

They've managed to gain worldwide attention. This time, not for prophesy but for longevity. As a community, the Adventists in Loma Linda have averaged a longer life spans than the a majority of the American population.

Srill, the end-time prophesy of Miller has become a blue-print for other preachers and cult leaders in the time to come. Even to this day, there seems to be no end to those that give a precise date for the second coming. And those date come and go....just as the Great Disappointment did in 1844.

A legacy of the Great Disappointment: Other preachers predict (unsuccessfully) the end of the world.
A legacy of the Great Disappointment: Other preachers predict (unsuccessfully) the end of the world. | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Dean Traylor

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      • profile image

        Carla Forte 

        8 months ago

        I had never heard of him either. It's only by doing a history/anthropology module that I have learned anything about him! this article certainly helped with my assignment!

      • Dean Traylor profile imageAUTHOR

        Dean Traylor 

        20 months ago from Southern California

        Thank you Coffeequeeen. The Great Disappointment and the Millerites are mentioned in high school history books, but it's usually a small blurb that most teachers will skip (even I did that when I briefly taught History to special education students). I was always curious about it, because so little was included in the book...later I discovered that this event was significant for the growth of a denomination...especially since a large 7th day Adventist community exists in Southern California (Loma Linda) and had established Loma Linda University and Loma Linda Hospital.

      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        20 months ago from Norfolk, England

        How interesting! I've never heard of him before.

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