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This edited article about the Second Coming originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.
Daylight glimmered through cracks in the shutters. The candle had dwindled to its last inch and was spluttering in a sea of wax. Feverishly, William Miller thumbed the pages of his Bible, his eyes flickering from the closely printed paper to the notes that lay beside it. Suddenly he threw down his pen, flung back his chair and fell on his knees in prayer. At last he had solved the problem which had vexed him since childhood. He knew now that the date of Christ’s Second Coming had been hidden there all along and that he alone had discovered it. The place was Hampton, New York State, U.S.A. The year was 1817. And Christ was due, according to William Miller’s calculations, in 26 years’ time, in 1843.
William was the son of a veteran of the Revolutionary War. His mother was the daughter of a Baptist preacher. Between them, they gave him a strict religious education. At the same time they planted in him a yearning for knowledge and he quickly became known along the frontier settlements because of his eager quest for books.
Not only did William read voraciously, he thought carefully about what he read. In the long winter nights he pored over the Bible and commentaries on it by scholars of the past and present, trying to reconcile the many anomalies and contradictions that he found in it. Eventually, the influence of his friends enticed him away from religious study and other pursuits occupied his mind.
Then, in 1812, America went to war against Britain. William served as a captain in the army. His experiences in battle changed him. He saw at first hand the fear, bravery, sickness and death of which he had hitherto only read in books and he turned again to religion. Naturally, his unbelieving friends scoffed at him and asked him to convince them of the truth of the Bible. William took up their challenge. He began to read and study it once more.
On his farm in Hampton, he began a long period of reading, trying to fathom the prophecies of the Bible, hoping to see what they were meant to tell mankind. Thus it was, that in 1817, he hit upon what he believed to be the truth.
He did not hurry to publish his discovery. He knew the scorn with which it would be received. Instead he checked and cross-checked his findings for a further fifteen years. Then, convinced that his deductions were correct, he agreed to speak of them in public. He proved to be an eloquent and convincing speaker. People who heard him came away, at best converted, at worst disturbed by his prophecy. Invitations to lecture became more numerous and his audiences larger. Soon he was unable to meet half of the engagements to which he was invited. In 1836, he published his lectures and his reputation spread still further.
Then he met Joshua Himes. Himes had been an attentive member at several of William’s lectures and was converted to his beliefs. An expert publicist, he was determined to spread them throughout America. Hitherto William had been known only in the provinces. Himes brought him to the big cities. He published several newspapers and popular accounts of William’s prophecies: soon the number of “Millerite” conversions ran into thousands. They bought a large tent and travelled the length and breadth of America combining lectures with revivalist meetings. Over a hundred “camp-meetings” were held under canvas and numbers of attenders grew as the fateful year of 1843 approached.
Miller had estimated that Christ would appear some time between March 1843 and March 1844. Within months of the estimated time, strange portents were observed: a meteoric shower, rings around the sun, a great comet, a cross in the sky – they were all reported and accepted as manifestations of the Second Coming. America became uneasy. Could Miller really be right? Some people, over-burdened by guilt, went insane at the very thought. Minority groups appeared, dressing in white robes and climbing to high places hoping to be the first to welcome Christ on his reappearance.
The year passed. And nothing happened. Most people breathed a sigh of relief and said they had known it was rubbish all along. Others were disappointed but revived when Miller announced that his calculation had been wrong and that the 22nd October, 1844, was the date they were waiting for.
Anticipation increased as the day drew nearer. Families left their crops unharvested, shops were abandoned. Some people took to their beds and waited patiently for death; others went into long, prayerful retreats. October 22 dawned and passed. Again nothing happened. The “Millerites” pointed out that these things were difficult to predict and went on hoping.
Eventually they formed their own church, the Adventist Church, since other denominations would have nothing more to do with them. Miller was appointed its head but eventually gave way to his younger disciples. He died in 1849, as firm in his conviction that a Second Coming was imminent as he had been on that night of discovery in 1816. And people respected him for it. There was no denying his sincerity, they said; he just got his sums wrong.