This Day in History: The Great Disappointment

One hundred seventy-four years ago, on October 22, 1844, the followers of William Miller waited for Jesus to return to the earth.  They were bitterly disappointed when Jesus did not come.

Miller was born on February 15, 1782, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; his father, who was a Revolutionary War veteran, moved the family to rural Low Hampton, New York in 1786.  Miller was educated by his mother until age nine, and then at a newly-opened public school.  He had no formal education after age 18, but read widely out of the libraries of a local judge and congressman.  At age 21, he married Lucy Smith and moved to her nearby hometown of Poultney, where he took up farming.  Miller was elected to a succession of civil offices, including Constable, Deputy Sheriff, and Justice of the Peace.

Miller was from a Baptist family, but became a Deist, believing in a creator God, but not the personal and highly engaged God of the Bible.  "I became acquainted with the principal men in that village, who were professedly Deists,” Miller wrote in his diary, “but they were good citizens, and of a moral and serious deportment. They put into my hands the works of Voltaire, Hume, Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, and other deistical writers."

During the War of 1812, Miller raised a company himself, joined the regular army and was made a captain, and spent most of the war working as a recruiter. He did, however, see combat at the Battle of Plattsburgh, in which a British naval squadron on Lake Champlain converged on the lakeside town of Plattsburgh, but was beaten back by an American naval squadron, as well as ground forces in fortified positions.

"The fort I was in was exposed to every shot. Bombs, rockets, and shrapnel shells fell as thick as hailstones", Miller wrote. Some of the ordnance had exploded two feet from him, wounding three of his men and killing another, but Miller survived without a scratch.

The saying that “there are no atheists in foxholes” proved true in Miller’s case.  He came to view as miraculous both the unlikely American victory at Lake Champlain and his surviving the British artillery, and such miracles did not square with his deistic notion of a 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.”

After the war, Miller moved back to Low Hampton where he purchased the farm that is now an historic site operated by Adventist Heritage Ministry. Soon thereafter, he took tentative steps towards returning to his Baptist roots. At first, he attempted to combine Deism with Christianity, publicly espousing Deism while also attending his local Baptist church. But 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 a One.”

Miller's Deist friends challenged him to justify his Christian faith. In constructing his apologetic, Miller became a very careful Bible student.  He became convinced that Jesus would return to earth before the millennium, and that the date of Christ's Second Coming was revealed in Bible prophecy.

"Unto two thousand and three hundred days,” relates Daniel 8:14, “and then shall the sanctuary be cleansed."  Miller adopted the “day-year principle” of prophetic interpretation, in which one day of prophetic time is equal to one calendar year of actual time.  He also assumed that the cleansing of the sanctuary represented the Earth's purification by fire at Christ's Second Coming.  Hence, if one could determine when the 2,300 prophetic days/literal years began, one could know when Jesus would return to the earth. 

Miller believed that the 2,300 year period started in 457 BC with the decree to rebuild Jerusalem by Artaxerxes I of Persia, as per Daniel 9:25.  Simple calculation dictated that the 2,300 day period would end around 1843. "I was thus brought... to the solemn conclusion,” Miller recorded, “that in about twenty-five years from that time 1818 all the affairs of our present state would be wound up."

Although Miller was convinced of his calculations and interpretations by 1818, he continued to study privately until 1823. In September 1822, Miller formally stated his conclusions in a twenty-point document, including article 15: "I believe that the second coming of Jesus Christ is near, even at the door, even within twenty-one years,--on or before 1843. 

He began publicly lecturing in August 1831.  In 1832 he submitted a series of sixteen articles to the Vermont Telegraph, a Baptist newspaper. The Telegraph published the first of these on May 15, and Miller, “began to be flooded with letters of inquiry respecting my views; and visitors flocked to converse with me on the subject.”  In 1833, Miller received a license to preach from the Baptist Church and, in 1834, published a synopsis of his teachings in a 64-page tract with the title: “Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ, about the Year 1844: Exhibited in a Course of Lectures.”

In 1840, Millerism rapidly grew from an "obscure, regional movement into a national campaign." The key publicist of Miller’s Advent movement was Joshua V. Himes, pastor of Chardon Street Chapel in Boston, and an able and experienced publisher. Though Himes did not fully accept Miller's ideas until 1842, he established the fortnightly paper Signs of the Times on February 28, 1840, to publicize them.

Also in 1840, Josiah Litch, one of the leading Millerite ministers, published an exposition of Revelation 9, predicting the fall of the Ottoman Empire.  Basing his calculations on the year/day principle, Litch predicted that the Ottoman power was to be overthrown in 1840:  " . . . it will end on the 11th of August, 1840, when the Ottoman power in Constantinople may be expected to be broken.”  On that very date, a letter was received in which Turkey accepted the protection of the allied powers of Europe, and thus placed herself under the control of Christian nations. When this fulfilled prediction became known, multitudes were convinced of the correctness of Miller’s principles of prophetic interpretation.

Miller never personally set an exact date for the expected Second Advent, giving only a range: "My principles in brief, are, that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844."  When this period passed, Miller fixed upon April, 1844.

Finally, in August 1844 at a camp-meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire, Samuel S. Snow presented a message that became known as the "seventh-month" message or the "true midnight cry." In a discussion based on scriptural typology, Snow presented his conclusion that Christ would return on, "the tenth day of the seventh month of the present year, 1844."  This date was determined to be October 22, 1844.

When Jesus did not return on October 22, the Millerites were crushed.  This was the “the Great Disappointment.”  Some of the Millerites had disposed of their earthly possessions in anticipation of no longer needing them.  Many Millerites had been cut off from or disfellowshipped by their churches; they had no churches to return to, and many had no desire to return to them anyway.

After the Great disappointment, three groups formed out of the Millerites, the smallest of which eventually became the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  These Adventists eventually realized that the “sanctuary” to be cleansed in Daniel 8:14 was not the earth but the sanctuary in Heaven. (Heb. 8:5; 9:23; Ex. 25:40; Rev. 11:19; 15:5).  In 1844, Jesus was not returning to earth, but entering the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary, to begin a work of judgment and purification.  This work of investigative judgment is the anti-type, or real event, that was typified by the work of the High Priest on the Hebrew Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. 

“For Christ did not enter a man-made copy of the TRUE sanctuary, but He entered heaven itself, now to appear on our behalf in the presence of God.  Nor did He enter heaven to offer Himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own.  . . . But now He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of Himself.”

To a correct understanding of Daniel 8:14, the Adventists added truths about the Sabbath being the seventh day, Saturday, rather than Sunday, and death as an unconscious, dreamless sleep from which we will be awakened at the resurrection, either before (the saved) or after (the unsaved) the millennium in heaven. 

Jesus did not return on October 22, 1844, but the Great Disappointment proved to be the launch of a religious movement that continues to grow stronger, as each passing year brings us closer to the cleansing William Miller so looked forward to.