BY LISA WINN
Many Adventists today are unfamiliar with the historic facts of Adventism. Lisa Winn wishes to re-acquaint them with the roots of their faith. This column is intended to encourage Adventist readers to look honestly at the foundation of Adventism. One may believe on the basis of tradition, or one may realize that tradition is different from historical facts. Readers may need to re-examine their beliefs and prayerfully peruse the rest of this publication.
As a child, I was told the story of William Miller predicting the return of Christ and of the Great Disappointment which followed: when Jesus did not return on October 22, 1844, a small, faithful band of Adventists formed what is now Seventh-day Adventism.1 Despite his legendary role, however, Miller remains a mystery—I don’t remember being taught much about the man. Do you?
Ellen White says Miller “possessed strong mental powers, disciplined by thought and study… [he] could not but command respect and esteem…”2 She paints a picture of him as “that chosen one” whose mind angels guided to understand hidden Bible prophecies.3 According to her writings, those angels only guided him so far, because: “Errors that had been long established in the church prevented [him] from arriving at a correct interpretation of an important point in the prophecy.”4 Miller had assumed the sanctuary that needed cleansing was the earth—not, as Ellen came to believe, the “heavenly sanctuary.”
One gets the impression that Ellen White knew Miller quite well, but she did not know him personally at all. She first heard him speak in 1840—nine years after he began preaching.5 Ellen was only twelve at the time. By then, he had already become “Father Miller”—a distant, almost abstract figurehead of the movement, which, having already transformed from Millerism into Adventism, had taken on a life of its own.6
End of the Revolution
William Miller was born in 1782, just as the American Revolution was coming to a close. Americans were anxiously seeking God’s approval. Reformers set out to make America an “ideal society, in which the major forms of social evil could be done away.”7 Miller was raised a Baptist and grew up working on his parents’ farm.8 Not fully understanding the gospel, he felt he needed to “be good and to sacrifice to earn God’s love,” at which he failed, of course, “and his Calvinist heritage indicated dire consequences.”9 Discouraged, he began “to doubt the reasonableness of Scripture and the authority on which it rested… Trying to please such an arbitrary deity was frustrating…”10 So, he became a Deist—the popular philosophy of the day. At the age of twenty-one, Miller married and left home, thoroughly rejecting his roots—a blow to his family.
When the war of 1812 broke out, Miller, a patriot, marched off to join the battle. He hoped to find some nobler qualities in man—which he did—but ultimately was confronted with death and futility.11 During this time, typhoid claimed the lives of several loved-ones, including his own father.12 The finality of death terrified him. Suddenly Deism, with no hope of an afterlife, felt arbitrarily cold.13 Drawn to his religious roots, he moved his whole family back to his childhood home to live with his widowed mother, hoping her to be a religious influence on his children.14 Ellen White says Miller’s mother “was a woman of sterling piety.”15 Curiously enough, she never accepted her son’s prediction.16
In the fall of 1816, Miller came to Christ. He desired to prove the Bible consistent and set out to harmonize seeming contradictions. Becoming obsessed with prophecy, he utilized the popular day/year principle to determine the time of Christ’s imminent return. He was not alone. When Napoleon temporarily dethroned the Pope in 1798, excited English scholars interpreted this as the “beast” receiving the “deadly wound” of Revelation 13:3, thus providing a road map from which, as was believed, they could predict Christ’s coming. Miller, too, viewed Bonaparte’s military campaign as a fulfillment of Bible prophecy.17 It made sense—Jesus would indeed return “on or before 1843.”18
Miller a Freemason
He kept this revelation to himself for almost a decade, but then a dream compelled him to share his apocalyptic message with others. There was just one problem: William Miller was a Freemason19 (the dream itself had been filled with Masonic imagery). While he felt that Masonry improved society,20 Christians were railing against the organization. How could he, a Mason, speak publicly without coming under attack? Miller grudgingly resigned from the Masons near the end of 1831. Less than a month later, he began to preach.
Miller’s message couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The Second Great Awakening had just hit its peak. Traditionalism was on the decline, fervor was in the air, and Christians were yearning more for religious experience than sound doctrine. Charles Finney wrote, “If the church will do her duty, the millennium may come in this country in three years.”21 While Miller himself was part of the old school religion, ironically it was this revivalism that best explains his success. Pastors, eager for new members, indiscriminately invited him to speak at their churches.22 Over the course of a decade, he was able to share his message with thousands. And so, Millerism was born.23
In 1838, Joshua Himes heard Miller speak and joined the cause. A social reformer, he was excited for the “global regeneration” Christ’s second coming would bring.24 Himes started the movement’s first newspaper, The Signs of the Times. Under his direction, Millerism became Adventism, growing exponentially. Adventists started holding camp meetings for which Himes commissioned “The Great Tent”—the largest canopy in the world, holding up to six thousand people. They even sold Miller-themed merchandise.25
While William Miller desired Adventism to unite Christians, the opposite happened. These camp meetings gave parasitic preachers, who would set up side tents, a platform from which to espouse often-heretical heterodoxies: Annihilationism, Judaization, Proto-Pentecostalism, Perfectionism, and more. Himes did his best to remove them from the premises.
Furthermore, not all Christians believed Miller’s prediction. When, in a church, some became Adventists and others did not, division arose. If not excommunicated, Adventists often chose to leave. Miller disapproved:
…some of my brethren began to call the churches Babylon, and to urge that it was the duty of Adventists to come out of them. With this I was much grieved, as not only the effect was very bad, but I regarded it as a perversion of the word of God, a wresting of Scripture.26
Having simply suggested the return of Christ around 1843, Miller originally did not believe in date-setting. The longer the movement continued, however, the more confident he became in his prediction. He eventually proclaimed that Christ would probably return by March 21, 1844. The time came—and went. Unwilling to let go, Adventists began searching for future dates. Most assuredly, Christ was tarrying, they said. It was Samuel S. Snow who came up with October 22, 1844. He had incorrectly calculated this day as the Jewish Day of Atonement, and it seemed a likely time for the Savior to make an appearance. The new date spread like wildfire.27 Miller, uncertain, waited until a couple weeks before the fateful day to endorse it. Everyone knows what didn’t happen next.
After the disappointment, Himes tried to keep the movement united; however, many forlorn, churchless Adventists, searching for meaning, fell prey to a myriad of “prophets,” alternative explanations, and heresies. Adventism began to splinter. We know some of these offshoots today as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Bible Students, The Church of God (Seventh Day), Christadelphians, and many, many more.
One can only imagine the agony Miller felt when Jesus did not return. He had devoted so much of his life to Adventism that emotionally, it was difficult to let go. Initially, he entertained various propositions that something had happened on October 22 (how could he not?), but in his final Apology, he stated,
“We expected the personal coming of Christ at that time; and now to contend that we were not mistaken, is dishonest. We should never be ashamed to frankly confess all our errors. I have no confidence in any of the new theories that have grown out of that movement, viz., that Christ then came as the Bridegroom, that the door of mercy was closed, that there is no salvation for sinners, that the seventh trumpet then sounded, or that it was a fulfilment of prophecy in any sense.”28
William Miller never became a Seventh-day Adventist. Ellen White claimed he had lost his strength because Adventists were “opposing one another,” and that “a human influence was exerted to keep him in darkness…”29 His main “influence” was clearly Joshua Himes—the Joshua Himes who had thrown his heart into the movement, who loved William Miller like a father; the Joshua Himes who sang hymns with Miller as he passed away (Himes reached down and closed his dead friend’s eyes).30 This was the same Himes who saved all of Miller’s letters, and who penned the introduction to his biography (from which White later quoted).
Again, White never knew Miller personally, and after the disappointment, as Adventism persisted (still awaiting Christ’s soon return), the Seventh-day Adventist tent was among those heretical groups that Himes31 would remove at conferences.32
Finally, one should note that Miller vehemently denied being anyone’s puppet. His post-disappointment conclusions were his own.33
A man of influence, indeed. Whose story do you believe? †
- “Adventism” and “Adventist” in this article are used in the broader sense, to describe the movement itself out of which Seventh-day Adventism later evolved.
- Christ in His Sanctuary, Ellen G. White, p. 63.3.
- Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 1, White, p.128.1.
- The Great Controversy, White, 1888, p. 351.2.
- Christian Experience and Teachings, White, p. 16.1.
- God’s Strange Work, David L. Rowe, p. 157. I have relied heavily on this book and highly recommend it. Later footnotes abbreviated “GSW.”
- The Rise of Adventism, Edwin S. Gaustad, p. 26.
- GSW, Rowe, p. 18.
- GSW, p. 36.
- GSW, p. 41.
- GSW, p. 49.
- GSW, p. 55.
- GSW, p. 56.
- GSW, p. 62.
- Christ in His Sanctuary, White, p. 48.1.
- GSW, Rowe, p. 121.
- Memoirs of William Miller, Sylvester Bliss, p. 147.
- GSW, Rowe, p. 75.
- At one point, Miller had been a Grand Master Mason.
- GSW, Rowe, p. 91.
- Rise of Adventism, Gaustad, p. 145.
- GSW, Rowe, p. 156.
- GSW, p. 156-157.
- GSW, p. 160.
- GSW, p. 162-164.
- Memoirs of William Miller, Bliss, p. 274.
- GSW, p. 186.
- Apology and Defense, William Miller p. 29.
- Early Writings, White 257.1.
- GSW, Rowe, p. 224.
- Ironically, Himes, himself, was eventually ostracized from Adventism.
- Letter 12, 1869, par. 12, White.
- GSW, p. 220, 222.
Lisa Winn was raised in the Adventist school system and is a graduate of Pacific Union College. She became a born again Christian in 2007 upon thoroughly examining Adventist teachings and carefully studying the Bible. She lives in Yucaipa with her husband Jonathan and their two children, Daniel and Héloïse. They are members of Fellowship in the Pass Church in Beaumont, California.