Great Disappointment

everything dies by box brown

The Great Disappointment was the reaction that followed Baptist preacher William Miller’s proclamations that Jesus Christ would return to the earth in 1844. Many Millerites had given away all of their possessions and were left bereft when the prophecy proved false. Despite this, the movement wasn’t entirely disbanded, and eventually developed into several other denominations of Christianity, notably the Seventh Day Adventists.

The event is viewed by some scholars as indicative of ‘cognitive dissonance’ (discomfort from holding conflicting views) and ‘true-believer syndrome’ (maintaining a belief in the face of evidence to the contrary). The theory was proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger to describe the formation of new beliefs and increased proselytizing in order to reduce the tension, or dissonance, that results from failed prophecies. His theory was that believers experienced emotional strain following the failure of Jesus’ reappearance in 1844, which led to a variety of new explanations, some of which outlived the disappointment.

Between 1831 and 1844, on the basis of his study of the Bible, and particularly the prophecy of ‘Daniel 8:14’—’Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed’—William Miller predicted and preached the imminent return of Jesus Christ to the earth. He first assumed that the ‘cleansing of the sanctuary’ represented purification of the earth by fire at Christ’s ‘Second Coming.’ Then, using the ‘day-year principle’ (in which the word ‘day’ in prophecy is symbolic for a year of actual time), Miller became convinced that the 2,300-day period started in 457 BCE with the decree to rebuild Jerusalem by Artaxerxes I of Persia. His interpretation led him to believe and promote the year 1843 as the Second Coming.

Despite the urging of his supporters, Miller never announced an exact date for the expected Second Advent. But he did narrow the time period to sometime in the Jewish year 5604, stating: ‘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. The dates passed without incident, but the majority of Millerites maintained their faith.

After further discussion and study, he briefly adopted a new date—April 18, 1844—one based on the Karaite Jewish calendar (as opposed to the Rabbinic calendar). That date also passed without Christ’s return. In the ‘Advent Herald’ of April 24, Joshua Himes wrote that all the ‘expected and published time’ had passed and admitted that they had been ‘mistaken in the precise time of the termination of the prophetic period.’ Millerite Josiah Litch surmised that the Adventists were probably ‘only in error relative to the event which marked its close.’ Miller published a letter ‘To Second Advent Believers,’ writing, ‘I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door.’

In August 1844 at a camp meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire, skeptic turned Millerite Samuel S. Snow presented his own interpretation, which became known as the ‘seventh-month message’ or the ‘true midnight cry.’ In a complex discussion based on scriptural typology, Snow presented his conclusion (still based on the 2300-day prophecy in ‘Daniel 8:14’) that Christ would return on ‘the tenth day of the seventh month of the present year, 1844.’ Using the calendar of the Karaite Jews, he determined this date to be October 22, 1844. Unlike the previous prophecies, this idea ‘spread with a rapidity unparalleled in the Millerites experience’ to general population.

October 22 passed without incident, resulting in feelings of disappointment among many Millerites. Henry Emmons, a Millerite, later wrote, ‘I waited all Tuesday and dear Jesus did not come;– I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for two days without any pain– sick with disappointment.’ The Millerites had to deal with their own shattered expectations, as well as considerable criticism and even violence from the public. A Millerite church was burned in Ithaca, and two were vandalized in Dansville and Scottsville. In Loraine, Illinois, a mob attacked the Millerite congregation with clubs and knives, while a group in Toronto was tarred and feathered. Shots were fired at another Canadian group meeting in a private house.

On November 18, 1844, Miller wrote to his disciple Joshua Himes about his experiences: ‘Some are tauntingly enquiring, ‘Have you not gone up?’ Even little children in the streets are shouting continually to passersby, ‘Have you a ticket to go up?’ The public prints, of the most fashionable and popular kind…are caricaturing in the most shameful manner of the ‘white robes of the saints,’ ‘Revelation 6:11,’ the ‘going up,’ and the great day of ‘burning.’ Even the pulpits are desecrated by the repetition of scandalous and false reports concerning the ‘ascension robes,’ and priests are using their powers and pens to fill the catalogue of scoffing in the most scandalous periodicals of the day.’

Both Millerite leaders and followers were left generally bewildered and disillusioned. Responses varied: some continued to look daily for Christ’s return, while others predicted different dates—among them April, July, and October 1845. Some theorized that the world had entered the seventh millennium—the ‘Great Sabbath,’ and that therefore, the saved should not work. Others acted as children, basing their belief on Jesus’ words in ‘Mark 10:15’: ‘Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ Millerite OJD Pickands used ‘Revelation’ to teach that Christ was now sitting on a white cloud and must be prayed down. Probably the majority, however, simply gave up their beliefs and attempted to rebuild their lives. Some members rejoined their previous denominations. A substantial number joined the Shakers.

By mid-1845, doctrinal lines among the various Millerite groups began to solidify, and the groups emphasized their differences, in a process Seventh-day Adventist historian George R. Knight terms ‘sect building.’ During this time, there were three main Millerite groups—in addition to those who had simply given up their beliefs. The first major division retained a belief in Christ’s Second Advent and focused on the so-called ‘shut-door’ belief. It held that as William Miller had given the final call for salvation, all who did not accept his message were lost. The door of salvation was effectively shut. The widespread acceptance of the shut-door belief lost ground as doubts were raised about the significance of the October 22, 1844, date—if nothing happened on that date, then there could be no shut door. The opposition to these shut-door beliefs was led by Joshua Himes and make up the second post-1844 group. This faction soon gained the upper hand, even converting Miller to their point of view. Their influence was enhanced by the staging of the Albany Conference. The Advent Christian Church has its roots in this post-Great Disappointment group.

The third major post-disappointment Millerite group also claimed, like the previous two, that the October date was correct. Rather than Christ having returned invisibly, however, they concluded that the event that took place was quite different. The theology of this third group appears to have had its beginnings as early as October 23, 1844—the day after the Great Disappointment. On that day, during a prayer session with a group of Advent believers, Hiram Edson became convinced that ‘light would be given’ and their ‘disappointment explained.’ Edson’s experience led him into an extended study on the topic and came to the conclusion that Miller’s assumption that the sanctuary represented the earth was in error: ‘The sanctuary to be cleansed in ‘Daniel 8:14′ was not the earth or the church, but the sanctuary in heaven.’ Therefore, the October 22 date marked not the Second Coming of Christ, but rather a heavenly event. Out of this third group arose the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and this interpretation of the Great Disappointment forms the basis of ‘Divine Investigative Judgement,’ a unique Seventh-day Adventist doctrine, which asserts that the divine judgment of professed Christians has been in progress since 1844.

Members of the Bahá’í faith believe that Miller’s interpretation of signs and dates of the coming of Jesus were, for the most part, correct. They believe that the fulfillment of biblical prophecies of the coming of Christ came through a forerunner of their own religion, the Báb, who declared that he was the ‘Promised One’ on May 23, 1844, and began openly teaching in Persia in October 1844. Several Bahá’í books and pamphlets make mention of the Millerites, the prophecies used by Miller and the Great Disappointment, most notably William Sears’ ‘Thief in the Night.’

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