Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Millerites and the End of the World

Written on Friday but mistakenly not published until Sunday!

Today is Friday, the 21st of December, 2012. According to some people, the Mayan civilization long ago predicted that today is the day that the world will end, based on a very particular interpretation of the “long count” calendar. It’s now 6:47 PM in Massachusetts, and in some parts of the world it’s already Saturday the 22nd. I would guess that the world will not be ending today, unless it’s waiting until some point later tonight, maybe after everyone’s asleep. Considerate, those Mayans.

A recurring belief about the end of the world is the ability of humanity to calculate when that end will arrive. Theories about coded messages cluing us in to our expiration date have pointed at sources like the ancient Mayan calendars and the Bible, and even lines of computer code (remember the Y2K scare back in 2000?). Often these predictions are prompted by mistaken interpretation of religious doctrine, sometimes they’re the result of pseudo-scientific theories regarding cosmic cataclysms or technological disasters. Underlying them all is a desire to understand humanity’s fate, and a belief in the power of people to do so.

In 1831, a young New York farmer named William Miller began a career as a preacher to the Baptist community in the Adirondack town of Hampton. Developing a keen interest in Scripture and Biblical prophecy, Mr. Miller soon began closely examining certain passages of the Bible, especially in the dream-like Book of Daniel.

As Miller explained later, “Prophetical scripture is very much of it communicated to us by [… ] highly and richly adorned metaphors; figures such as beasts, birds, air […] are used to represent things prophesied of—such as kingdoms, warriors, principles…”

Viewing scripture as coded prophecy, Mr. Miller then began the laborious task of figuring out just what the heck the prophecies were trying to say. Of particular interest was Daniel, Chapter 8, verse 14, which states: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Believing this passage to be a literal warning of future events, Mr. Miller chose for the starting point of his count the year 457 BCE, the year that a Persian King named Artaxerxes issued a call for Jews to rebuild the destroyed city of Jerusalem (supposedly the “sanctuary” referred to in Daniel 8.14).

Mr. Miller than assumed the “two thousand and three hundred days” to refer instead to years. Beginning with Artaxerxes’s decree of 457 BCE and counting forward 2,300 years, he arrived at the prophesied year of… 1843. Further study of the Book of Daniel and related texts led him to the conclusion that 1843, or thereabouts, was the year that the world would witness the second coming of Jesus Christ and the beginning of the end times.

These beliefs had such a profound effect on the normally reserved Miller that he overcame his natural shyness to become an eloquent and forceful preacher. In 1833, the Baptist Church recognized his achievements by making him an ordained minister. In 1838, realizing that if his predictions were correct time was running out to save the souls of his friends and neighbors, the Reverend Miller published a series of lectures on his theories, entitled Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ, about the Year 1843.

Evangelism was on the rise in America at this time, and the economy was slowing. Many Baptists and evangelicals in New York and western New England were enticed by the idea of Christ’s return, and thousands began to spread Miller’s teachings, earning for themselves the derisive nickname “Millerites.” Newspapers noting the event often referred to Millerites as “deranged” or “addled,” and the sect itself as “madness.” On September 21, 1844, the New York Weekly Herald expressed the hope that Miller’s day of doom would “hold up until we elect Polk.” of Eager to gain more followers, and perhaps stung by the ridicule, Millerites began to press William Miller to announce an exact date of the end of the world.

Somewhat reluctantly, the Reverend Miller announced that Christ would return to Earth in April, 1843, and that true believers would be called to Heaven on October 23, 1844. When a bright comet appeared in the sky in early 1843, it was believed by the Millerites to be God’s affirmation of their beliefs, and many began to prepare for the end.

In October of 1844, thousands of Millerites gathered in homes, underneath tents, and, in New York state, on the banks of the Hudson River. Without much in the way of food, possessions, or even clothing, they set their earthy affairs in order and, speaking to passersby and writing to the newspapers, urged others to do the same. By the time the 23rd of October had come and gone, one confused group had supposedly inquired as to whether the appointed day should be reckoned in American or Jerusalem time.

Afterwards the 23 of October, 1844 was known as the “Great Disappointment” in Millerite lore, and although the movement didn’t completely die out, it left many sincere believers disappointed and disillusioned. In 1863, the remnants of Reverend Miller’s converts, working with other sects, were formally incorporated into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, still practicing today.

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Do you have a formula for determining the end of the world? Leave your answer in the space below, and be sure to show your work.


Jones, Lindsay, ed. “Seventh-Day Adventism.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 12.2. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

Miller, William. Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ, about the Year 1843. Boston:  Moses A. Dow, 1841.

“News.” The Weekly Herald. New York, NY: September 21, 1844.

Scharnhorst, Gary. “Images of the Millerites in American Literature.” American Quarterly. Vol. 32. No. 1 (Spring 1980): pp. 19-36.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

GIS, General Lee, and the Future of Historical Cartography

Unless you’re a professional geographer, you’ve probably never heard of a tool called Geographic Information Systems, or GIS. Until recently, unless you were a student or faculty member at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, you may not have heard of Associate Professor of Geography Anne Kelly Knowles. Readers of the December issue of “Smithsonian” magazine know her as one of the recipients of the 2012 American Ingenuity Awards, given to individuals recognized for “brilliant new achievements in science, technology, art and society.”

According to the GIS website, the program allows geographers to take location-related data, integrate it onto a map, globe or chart, and analyze and display relationships and trends over a geographic space. I realize that this doesn’t sound very exciting. But the way that this program is being used takes it out of the functional realm of Cartography and into a variety of different fields, including History.

Using the GIS program, Professor Knowles has made new connections between geography and history, applying historical data to maps and topographical charts. For instance, an elevation map of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, created in 1874. Using a scanned copy of the original, Professor Knowles created a highly detailed birds-eye view of the Civil War battlefield, highlighting strategic features such as buildings, roads, woods, and hills. By using robust GIS technology on an ordinary laptop computer, she was able to get the program to run a very complicated, but very revealing simulation.

Looking at the image, it’s hard to tell what all the fuss is about. You see elevations, some grayed out as if in shadow, some illuminated as if by the sun. You see landmarks infamous in Civil War lore; the Black Horse Tavern, the Union battle line, Little Round Top. The thing that stands out most, though, is a red dot marking the site of the Lutheran Seminary; the vantage point from which Confederate General Robert E. Lee stood to view the battlefield.

The illuminated parts of the landscape mark terrain that was within General Lee’s field of vision. The gray bits mark terrain that was hidden from Lee by Gettysburg’s hilly landscape. The GIS software has provided Professor Knowles (and 150 years of Civil War scholarship) with scientifically generated insight into Lee’s actions at the Battle of Gettysburg; actions that led to the Confederacy’s most iconic defeat.

For military historians, Robert E. Lee’s disastrous attacks on the second and third days of the battle have long been enigmatic. General Lee was one of the most celebrated generals on both sides of the conflict, a masterful commander with military experience dating back to the Mexican-American War. The terrain around Gettysburg should have suggested the danger of a frontal assault on Union lines. And yet, he made this mistake two days in a row.

To explain away Lee’s miscalculation, Civil War scholars have often criticized his subordinate general James Longstreet, the commander of the Confederate right. Longstreet has been accused of everything from incompetence to cowardice for his decision to lead his men on a protected but circuitous march on their way to attack the Union flank. But as Professor Knowles has shown, General Longstreet may have been able to see more of the battlefield and understand more about the tactical situation than General Lee did.

From his position near the Black Horse Tavern, Longstreet would have been able to see Union troops on top of the hill known as Little Round Top, the same hill that Lee had ordered him to attack. This pair of maps reveals that Lee had a very different understanding of the battlefield than did his subordinate, resulting in very different tactical decisions. Longstreet’s protected march may have saved the lives of hundreds of his own men, but it also delayed Lee’s strategic assault, allowing the Union line time to advance and prepare their defense.

Professor Knowles points out that the site where Longstreet’s men engaged the Federal defenders is illuminated, meaning that is was visible from the Lutheran Seminary. General Lee’s vantage point would have given him a good view of the bloody skirmish at the extreme end of the Confederate line, as well as Longstreet’s pained withdrawal. She speculates that the psychological pain of Lee watching his troops being killed may have affected his judgment the next day, when he ordered a costly frontal assault known as Pickett’s Charge.

GIS has also been used to examine Massachusetts history. The Director of the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive in Virginia, Benjamin Ray, has inserted data on the 1692 witchcraft accusations into an interactive map showing the spread and distribution of the disturbances. He notes that the progression of the accusations is similar to that of a disease. You can see the interactive map here.

And the possibilities of GIS go beyond historical cartography, as well. Scientists use the program to study the frequency and pattern of earthquakes. Similar studies are being conducted on the ozone layer and climate change. On an anthropological note, GIS has been used to determine that early hunter-gatherer tribes may have deliberately chosen to settle where they could see the landscape around them, a trait apparently not shared by agricultural societies.

The purpose of Geographic Information Systems is to take a range of data far greater than the scope of a single human being and to put it into a visible, spatial form. In essence, it visualizes human history, far more effectively and reliably than any painting or movie ever could. Perhaps even greater achievements lie ahead.

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You can see Professor Knowles' Middlebury College webpage here. Do you think that you have greater strategic and tactical talents than General Robert E. Lee? If so… are you General James Longstreet? If so… what’s your secret? How in God’s name are you still alive? Answers to all these and more can be left in the space below.


Ahmed, Akbar. “Cartography, Redefined.” Weekend. October 21, 2011.

Horwitz, Tony. “Mapping the Past.” Smithsonian. December 2012.

Symonds, Craig L. A Battlefield Atlas of the Civil War, 3rd ed. Mount Pleasant, SC: the Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company , Inc., 1994.

“What is GIS?” ESRI: Understanding our World. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Winter is Coming: A Seasonal Worker's Tale

I realized the other day that even though Interpretation is just one of several topics I’m covering in this blog, it’s the category that I've focused on almost exclusively for the last few months. This is partly because Historical Interpretation is what I've been doing as a profession for the last three years; it’s my default setting. But also, honestly, I’m just not that interested in writing about these other categories. I started this blog largely as an extension of my job search, when it comes down to it I don’t really want to write about the job search itself!

In the last few weeks, however, my employment status has changed. The day after Thanksgiving, my seasonal appointment came to an end. I’m now working two volunteer positions in two different history museums in order to keep busy and learn new skills.

I've been advised by counsel that these are major professional events that should at least be mentioned in a blog revolving around a profession. Consider this post my resigned sigh.

November 23 was my last day as a seasonal interpretive guide at Boston National Historical Park. I figure that as the Department of the Interior is now a previous employer, I can specifically name them without worrying that I might say something compromising on this website. Since that last day, I've been busy learning the ropes for these two new volunteer positions.

The first one is in Archives. For 2 days a week, I will be processing, cataloging  and maintaining an extensive collection of primary and secondary sources relating to early Massachusetts history. I also get to repair old exhibits, and later in the winter I will have the opportunity to develop some new ones. The stacks are my oyster.

The second position is in grant writing. This will be useful experience; grant writing is of course all about convincing wealthy philanthropists to give poor institutions money to fund programming. Museums, much like people, like to have money. If you’re a person who can get them some, maybe they’ll decide to share some with you.

2 volunteer positions, 4 days a week. That leaves me with 3 days a week to continue job hunting, take care of personal business, and maybe have a weekend. A busy life, but a good one.

It’s been a week so far on this new schedule, and so far I’m enjoying it. I’m learning new skills, I pretty much set my own schedules, and I get to wear suit jackets and other grown-up clothes to work. No pilgrim suits or straw fedoras this winter for this cowboy!

That’s what I’m doing now. That’s what I’ll be doing for several months. I’ll post professional updates as they happen and if I think they’re significant enough to trouble you with, but otherwise you can expect a return to items of historical interest within the next few days.

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Are you a seasonal worker? Would you like to stand together in line at the Unemployment office and play Scrabble? Do you have any suit jackets you'd like to get rid of, size L and wide in the shoulders? Post a time and date in the space below and I'll swing by to pick them up.