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The SDA Church would not exist without William Miller and the Millerite Movement.
William Miller was born on February 15, 1782 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts—the eldest of the sixteen children of William and Paulina Miller. When he was four, the family moved to Low Hampton, New York—a frontier area—“an almost uninhabited wilderness.” Miller’s father leased one hundred acres of land, cleared it, constructed a log cabin, and planted wheat.
Miller’s formal education was limited. Until the age of 9, he was taught at home by his mother—there being no local school. From the age of nine Miller attended a small local school that ran for three months in winter—when there was little farm-work to be done. He continued to attend school erratically for a few days each year, at least until he was eighteen.
Miller kept a diary from the 21st of March, 1798 when he was sixteen, to the 20th September 1801. The entries for March 30 to April 5, 1800 show a typical week for Miller working on his father’s farm aged 18: March 30 Sunday. I laid at home. March 31 Monday. I boiled sap and lay at home. April 1 Tuesday. I laid up a fence around the wheat. April 2 Wednesday. I laid up a fence around the rye. April 3 Thursday. I boiled sap and laid fence. April 4 Friday. Rain today. Our ox went off. I hunted after him. April 5 Saturday. I laid fence and emptied sap trough. Some rain.
In his diary dated January 2, 1803, Miller wrote: “ Be it remembered that on this day, it being a Sunday in the afternoon of the aforesaid day, I did bind myself and was bound to be, the partner of Miss Lucy smith, of Poultney. And by these presents do agree to be hers and only hers until death shall part us (provided she is of the same mind). Whereunto I set here my hand and seal.”
In 1803, at the age of twenty-one, Miller married Lucy Smith and they moved to across the state border to Poultney, Vermont.
Soon after this move, Miller declared himself a Deist. (Deists believed in a God who created the universe but who left it run on its own under the laws of physics etc. They rejected miracles and did not accept the Bible as a revelation from God.)
While in Poultney, Miller was elected to a number of civil offices including Constable, Deputy Sheriff, and Justice of the Peace. By this time Miller had become a young man of considerable community standing. Furthermore, he had become a relatively wealthy man—owning a house, land, and two horses.
Miller joined the local militia where he was promoted to Captain. When the War of 1812 began (against the British), he enlisted in the regular US Army as a Lieutenant. He was later promoted to Captain.
For most of the war, Miller saw little or no action; working first as a recruiter, then spending a period sick—first with fever, then an infection. In a letter to his wife Lucy on October 31, 1813, he wrote: “ I am very sorry that I cannot tell you of hair-breadth escapes and dismal sights, hideous yells and war-whoops; but so it is. I have seen nothing like an enemy.”
In August 1814 Miller was ordered to Plattsburgh where he was part of a greatly outnumbered American force of 1500 regulars and 4000 volunteers who defeated 15,000 British troops in the Battle of Plattsburgh. He wrote to his wife on September 12, 1814 following this battle:
“ You may well conceive, by my unconnected mode of writing, that I am as joyful as any of them. A naval and land engagement, within the compass of a mile or two, and fifteen or twenty thousand engaged at one and the same time, is superior to anything my eyes ever beheld before. How grand, how noble, and yet, how awful! The roaring of cannon, the bursting of bombs, the whizzing of balls, the popping of small arms, the cracking of timbers, the shrieks of the dying, the groans of the wounded, the commands of the officers, the swearing of the soldiers, the smoke, the fire, everything conspires to make the scene of a battle both awful and grand!”
Miller came to view the outcome of this battle as miraculous and therefore at odds with his deistic view of a distant God far-removed from human affairs. 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.”
Following his discharge from the army on June 18, 1815, Miller returned to his wife and children in Poultney. Shortly after however, he moved with his family back to Low Hampton. He paid off the mortgage on the family farm where his mother now lived with his brother Solomon—his father had died on December 30, 1812, of the “pestilence” and a sister had succumbed to the same disease three days previously—and acquired for himself a two hundred acre farm close by.
The house that Miller built (photo taken in 1895).
One Sunday when he was reading a sermon on the duties of parents he became choked with emotion: “ Suddenly the character of a Savior was vividly impressed upon my mind. It seemed that there might be a Being so good and compassionate as to Himself atone for our transgressions, and thereby save us from suffering the penalty of sin. I immediately felt how lovely such a Being must be; and imagined that I could cast myself into the arms of, and trust in the mercy of, such an One .
Miller built a chapel on his farm that still stands today
“ I then devoted myself to prayer and to the reading of the word. I commenced with Genesis, and read verse by verse, proceeding no faster than the meaning of the several passages should be so unfolded.”
“ This mode of studying the Bible then came to my mind: ‘I will take the words of such passages and trace them through the Bible, and find out their meaning in this way.' I had Cruden's Concordance, which I think is the best in the world, so I took that and my Bible, and sat down to my desk, and read nothing else except the newspapers a little, for I was determined to know what my Bible meant. I began at Genesis and read on slowly; and when I came to a text that I could not understand, I searched through the Bible to find out what it meant….I will not go faster than the Bible, and I will not fall behind it. Whatever the Bible teaches I will hold on to it.” Quoted in [Joshua V. Himes], "The Rise and Progress of Adventism Part I," The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (1856): 9.
“ Finding all the signs of the times and the present condition of the world, to compare harmoniously with the prophetic descriptions of the last days, I was compelled to believe that this world had about reached the limits of the period allotted for its continuance. As I regarded the evidence, I could arrive at no other conclusion….I was thus brought, in 1818, at the close of my two years’ study of the Scriptures, to the solemn conclusion, that in about twenty-five years from that time all the affairs of our present state would be wound up.”
Basing his belief principally on Daniel 8:14: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed,” and using an interpretive principle known as the “day-year principle;” Miller concluded that the cleansing of the sanctuary represented the earth’s purification by fire at Christ’s Second Coming. For Miller, and other users of this principle, a day in prophecy was read not as a 24 hour period, but rather as a calendar year—365 days instead.
Further, he became convinced that the 2,300 day period started in 457 BCE at Artaxerxes’ decree to rebuild Jerusalem. Simple calculation then revealed that this period would end—and hence Christ’s return occur—in 1843. Miller records, “I was thus brought… to the solemn conclusion, that in about twenty-five years from that time  all the affairs of our present state would be wound up.” Miller, Apology and Defence , 11-12.
Miller was widely read in history and biblical interpretation—especially prophecy. Most of his ideas were not new or original. He was however, the right man in the right place at the right time; and his ideas captured the imagination of ten’s of thousands.
It wasn’t until 1831 however, that Miller finally began his public ministry. He was an effective—and humble—preacher with a burning desire that his message reach everyone possible. “ Be warned, repent, fly, fly for succor to the ark of God, to Jesus Christ, the Lamb that once was slain, that you might live, for he is worthy to receive all honor, power and glory. Believe, and you shall live. Obey his work, his spirit, his calls, his invitations. There is no time for delay; put it not off I beg of you, no, not for a moment.”
Miller was also a very busy preacher—in 1845, he reflected upon his work, stating: “ I labored extensively in all the New England and Middle States, in Ohio, Michigan, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and in Canada East and West, giving about four thousand lectures in something like five hundred different towns .” Only known photograph of William Miller--1845
William Miller died on December 20, 1849 still convinced that Christ’s Second Coming was imminent.
REFERENCES: Everett N. Dick, William Miller and the Advent Crisis . Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 1994. George R. Knight, Millennial Fever and the End of the World . Boise: Pacific Press, 1993. William Miller, Apology and Defence . Boston, MT: Joshua V. Himes, 1845.
This PowerPoint presentation has been produced by Jeff Crocombe for a class on SDA Church History at Helderberg College in Semester 1, 2007. It should not be used without giving credit to its compiler, nor reproduced in any way without permission. You may contact Jeff Crocombe at: [email_address]