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LECTURE 1: An overview of the life of William Miller and the Millerite movements from its beginning until 1844.
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.”
“ 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.”
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 .”
Millerite Chart used in tent crusades- 32 feet long!
Miller never personally set an exact date for the expected Second Advent. However he did narrow the time-period to sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844 . Further discussion and study resulted in the brief adoption of a new date—April 18, 1844, like the previous date however, April 18 passed without Christ’s return. Some days later, Miller responded publicly: “ I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door.”
In August 1844 at a camp-meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire, everything changed when Samuel S. Snow presented a message of earth-shattering proportions—what became known as the “seventh-month” message or the “true midnight cry.” Snow presented his conclusion (still based on the 2300 day prophecy in Daniel 8:14), that Christ would return on the tenth day of the seventh month of the present—this date was determined as October 22, 1844.
However, the sun rose on the morning of October 23 like any other day, and October 22—that day of great hope and promise—became for the Millerites, their day of greatest disappointment.
Hiram Edson recorded his feelings following this Great Disappointment: “ Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before….We wept, and wept, till the day dawn.”
Similarly, another Millerite, Henry Emmons wrote, “ I waited all Tuesday 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 .”
Not only did were the Millerites dealing with their own shattered expectations, they also faced considerable abuse and even violence from the general public. On November 18, 1844 Miller wrote to Himes about his experiences: Some are tauntingly enquiring, “Have you not gone up?” even little children in the streets are shouting continually to passersby, “Have you a ticket to go up?” The public prints, of the most fashionable and popular kind, in the great Sodoms of our country, are caricaturing in the most shameful manner of the “white robes of the saints,” Rev. 6:11, the “going up,” and the “great day of “burning.”
Despite his profound disappointment and the scorn of the general public, Miller never gave up his belief in the Second Coming of Christ. Following the Great Disappointment he appealed to the Millerite believers: “ Brethren, hold fast; let no man take your crown. I have fixed my mind on another time, and here I stand until God gives me more light, and that is, today, today, and today, until he comes.”
William Miller died on December 20, 1849 still convinced that Christ’s Second Coming was imminent.
“ In reviewing our past history, having travelled over every step of advance to our present standing, I can say, Praise God! As I see what God has wrought, I am filled with astonishment, and with confidence in Christ as leader. We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.” Ellen White (January 29, 1893)
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, 2006. 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]