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The Great Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part Twenty-Three


By Shlomo Phillips © 1989
(most recent update February 26, 2015)

William Miller

William Miller (1782 - 1849) was a charismatic American Baptist preacher. His spiritual descendants are sometimes known as Millerites. His Adventist teachings (i.e. focusing on the second 'advent' or coming of Jesus) of the 1830s and 40s were very influential later on. It is largely because of Miller's significant influence that I am inclined to date this Awakening back into the 1840's. His impact in the Third Great Awakening and beyond was profound. His humility in acknowledging some of his mistakes (mistakes that his followers continue making) was beyond admirable for a person in his position.

Among Miller's spiritual heirs are several major religious denominations and sects including the Seventh-day Adventists, Advent Christians, and the International Bible Students Association (aka Russellites, Jehovah's Christian Witnesses, Zion's Watchtower etc.) although the Russellites are a step removed from Reverend Miller.

Miller's early beliefs were a mixture of Baptist theology and Masonic Deism. Around 1815 Miller claimed to have experienced a spiritual realization while reading from the Bible at his local church. The War of 1812 had left him questioning the afterlife and the meaning of human existence. He was deeply troubled by the doctrine of eternal punishment and was seeking understanding. In my opinion, despite the pain caused by and through his movement, Miller was doubtless a sincere spiritual seeker who simply lacked the resources he needed and whose followers went well beyond what he intended..

Because of his believed revelation Miller became convinced that God had chosen to reveal His end time secrets to the world through him. As a result he undertook serious Bible study. Beginning at Genesis 1:1 and working his forward Miller determined what he believed the Bible said for himself and he began teaching his sometimes novel interpretations to others. He attracted quite a following with his end-time prophecies and unique doctrines. His teachings were unorthodox enough to convey the feeling of mysterious revealed truth, yet orthodox enough to not seem like abject heresy. To many it seemed like a good fit for the 'chosen nation' as it approached 1900. Many considered William Miller to be a special prophet, and the idea that through him America might yet become New Zion began to be heard again.

In time Miller left both his Baptist fellowship and his Masonic beliefs. He reportedly told a told Deist friend that, "If he would give me time I would harmonize all these apparent contradictions to my own satisfaction, or I will be a Deist still" (AD, p.17). Like so many others of this period Miller felt he needed to reinvent the wheel according to his own revelations.

In September of 1822 Miller prophesied, "I believe that the second coming of Jesus Christ is near, even at the door, even within twenty-one years, on or before 1843" (MWM, p. 79). The result of this pronouncement was like a whirlwind! Beginning in 1840 Millerism became a significant religious force in the US and one of the main 'prophets' of the Third Great Awakening.

Miller later narrowed the scope his widely popular Daniel 9 prophecy. He announced to his followers that Jesus Christ would definitely physically return to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take full possession of it, sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. There was no doubt about it he said.

When the date didn't pan out, a new date was 'revealed' to him: April 18, 1844. The final corrected date was set for seven months later, October 22, 1844. With this prophecy Adventist preacher Samuel S. Snow (1806 - 1890) established what was known as the Seventh-month movement to proclaim the final date of Jesus' advent. In defence of Miller Snow proposed that the delay had been the 'stripping away' of those Adventists who lacked faith in order to establish and strengthen the rest as the faithful remnant.

When Jesus again did not appear, October 22, 1844 came to be known as the Great Disappointment. To his credit Miller publicly admitted his errors (MWM 256) although he explained that his miscalculation had been based on imprecise biblical preservation and records rather than on his own research. Until his death on December 20, 1849 Miller fully expected his Lord's imminent return. The Millerites were understandably heart broken. The majority left the Adventist cause. Yet the Movement lived on!

Following the lead of Samuel Snow the Millerites sought God for understanding. What had happened? It was obvious Miller had been wrong, and yet his scriptural evidence seemed impeccable to them. Among those who continue to held to Miller's basic calculations are the Seventh-day Adventist Church with over 14 million members and growing, and the Advent Christian Church with around 61,000 members. Jehovah's Witnesses as well as many mainline Protestant sects continue to study Daniel 9, believing it hold the secret of Jesus' always imminent return.

For the Jews Daniel 9 was fulfilled long ago. For more on this see my study here.

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