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.