Church History 16: William Miller 2


It was in 1831 that a New England farmer named William Miller accepted what he believed to be a divine commission, to tell the world that Jesus would return about 1843. Although he was in continuous demand as a revival speaker, he worked almost alone.

Meanwhile in Boston was a young minister of the Christian Church named Joshua V. Himes. Himes was a radical reformer, in a time when social reform raised America's blood pressure. From Boston, William Lloyd Garrison spoke for the movement to abolish slavery. Himes welcomed Garrison to his new church, the Chardon Street Chapel, which became a headquarters for abolitionist meetings. Himes also led another social movement which opposed the use of violence for any purpose, whether to abolish slavery, or to defend it.

During this time of social ferment, William Miller continued for eight years to preach in the small towns of New England. He was a very rural person, with little experience or interest in big cities. While outside Boston, Miller received an invitation from Himes to speak in his Chardon Street Chapel. Miller agreed to go where he was invited, so came in December, 1839 to New England's cultural center.

Himes was impressed with what he heard. He asked Miller point blank if he really believed what he was preaching. Miller answered that he did. Why, then, asked Himes, was this the first time Miller had preached in a big city? Miller replied that he preached only where he was invited. Himes then asked if Miller was willing to go "where doors are opened." Miller assured Himes that he was. Himes recalled, "I then told him he might prepare for the campaign, for doors should be opened in every city in the Union, and the warning should go to the ends of the earth!"

Thus did William Miller meet his publicist. Himes was a naturally talented promoter and propagandist. He now shifted his emphasis from the abolition of slavery to the preparation of a world for Jesus' return. In March, 1840, Himes began to publish a paper announcing the second coming of Christ. He called it Signs of the Times. The new paper not only argued in favor of Miller's message. Himes also published many letters critical of Miller, in a section called "Refuge of Scoffers." Then as now, controversy sold papers, and circulation swelled.

In late summer the paper announced a "general conference" of ministers from many denominations, to be held in Boston to coordinate efforts telling the world of Jesus' second coming. The specific goal was to accomplish "the powerful spread of the everlasting gospel of the kingdom at hand, that the way of the Lord may be speedily prepared, whatever may be the precise period of His coming."

William Miller, sick with typhoid fever, could not attend that first Millerite general conference. But among the leaders present were named Henry Ward, Henry Jones, Joshua V. Himes, Josiah Litch, and Joseph Bates, of whom we will hear more later. Besides their mutual encouragement, the ministers' most important action was to call a second general conference. Many more would follow.

These Millerite leaders resolved, "We have no purpose to distract the churches with any new inventions, or to get ourselves a name by starting another sect among the followers of the Lamb. We neither condemn, nor rudely assail, others of a faith different from our own...but simply to express our convictions like Christians, the faith and hope that the Lord will 'come quickly,' 'in His glory,' to fulfill all His promises in the resurrection of the dead.... Though...we are not ourselves agreed, particularly in regard to fixing the year of Christ's second advent, yet we are unanimously agreed and established in this all-absorbing point, that the coming of the Lord to judge the world is now specially 'nigh at hand.'"

Those who expected the soon return of Jesus, and those who denied it, exchanged pointed comments in their papers. Signs of the Times both reported and fueled these controversies. One report had Miller preaching in a certain church, that rain would cease to fall after a specified date. In fact he made no such prediction, nor had he even visited the church in question. Here is Miller's vigorous reply:

"I never predicted there would be no rain on earth, at any time or place since I have believed my Bible. For I do solemnly and firmly believe that when Christ comes, He will rain hail, fire, and brimstone upon all liars, and will sweep away the refuge of lies."

To the third session of the general conference, in 1841, Miller wrote: "...light is our object, and what may be hid unto us, may be made clear unto another. Let us interchange our views one with the other in a Christian spirit, by so doing, we may receive, as well as give much good."

In December of 1841 Signs of the Times published a letter from Henry Ward, chairman of the first advent conference, explaining why he thought it a mistake to set a date for the Lord's return. He assured readers that he remained "expectant of His coming and kingdom" while remembering that Jesus had cautioned, "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power."

A general conference held in Boston in the spring of 1842 was led by Joseph Bates. Time-setting had become much more popular, as witness this official action: "Resolved, That in the opinion of this conference, there are most serious and important reasons for believing that God has revealed the time of the end of the world and that that time is 1843."

A second resolution was, following the 40-year Methodist example, to take advantage of the summer months by holding campmeetings.

Also adopted was a chart created by Charles Fitch, upon which the Bible's prophetic images were painted, together with dates describing their fulfillment. The delegates were inspired to this action by the words of God to the prophet Habakkuk, "And the LORD answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it." [Habakkuk 2:2]

"It was unanimously voted to have three hundred of these charts lithographed forthwith, that those who felt the message may read and run with it." Thus the advent movement, which had long relied on preaching and printing, turned to more graphic means of communication. Henceforth those who might not remember the words of a sermon, could hardly forget the vivid images of the prophetic chart.

John Greenleaf Whittier attended that first Millerite campmeeting in New England, held in an East Kensington clearing, surrounded by a tall growth of pine and hemlock. He later wrote this report:

"The preachers were placed in a rude pulpit of rough boards, carpeted only by the dead forest leaves and flowers, and tasselled, not with silk and velvet, but with the green boughs of the sombre hemlocks around it. One of them followed the music in an earnest exhortation on the duty of preparing for the great event... Suspended from the front of the rude pulpit were two broad sheets of canvas, upon one of which was the figure of a man, the head of gold, the breast and arms of silver, the belly of brass, the legs of iron, and feet of clay, –the dream of Nebuchadnezzar. On the other were depicted the wonders of the Apocalyptic vision–the beasts, the dragons, the scarlet woman seen by the seer of Patmos, Oriental types, figures and mystic symbols, translated into staring Yankee realities, and exhibited like the beasts of a traveling menagerie."

As Whittier especially remembered, "One horrible image, with its hideous heads and scaly caudal extremity, reminded me of the tremendous line of Milton, who, in speaking of the same evil dragon describes him as 'Swindging the scaly horrors of his folded tail.'"

Meanwhile William Miller continued to travel as much as his health permitted. In midsummer 1842 he wrote, "I am more and more confident in my expectation of beholding my Saviour face to face, if I am His, in 1843... I see by faith a smiling Son of God, in whom I have redemption by his blood, remittance of the past by grace. How can I fear? I love."

The same summer witnessed the publication of an Adventist hymnal. Typical of its feeling are these words:

"How long, O Lord our Saviour,

Wilt Thou remain away?

Our hearts are growing weary

Of Thy so long delay.

O when shall come the moment

When brighter far than morn,

The sunshine of Thy glory

Shall on Thy people dawn?"



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© 2001 R. Wresch, M.D