William Miller: The Man Behind the Story of 1844

October 22, 1994. Thousands of worshippers from all across the United States had crowded the small rural farmhouse in Low Hampton, New York. They had come not just to worship, but to contemplate on a religious phenomenon that occurred 150 years ago. They had come to commemorate the time when the "faithful" had sold their farms, made wrongs right, and gathered at the Low Hampton homestead to await the Second Advent. They had come to renew their commitment to a vision, for "the vision is yet for an appointed time... though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come" (Habakkuk 2:3).

They had come to remember William Miller, the man behind the story of 1844.

William Miller was born on February 15, 1782, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the northeastern region of the United States. His father had fought in the American Revolutionary War. Even though he did not make a public profession of religion, he made his house available to neighbors for worship and preaching. His mother, Paulina Phelps, daughter of a Baptist minister, brought a religious heritage to the home.

The young William's life parallels and reflects the early period of American history. He was the eldest of 16 children and "his was the classic story of poverty, uncommon zeal to learn to read, the necessity of diligence at farming to assure survival."1 His heritage was a proud one of patriotism and religion, of the Yankee ideal of progress. His age, like his life, was one of "grinding uncertainties and shocking changes."2

A self-made life

When William was barely four, his parents moved to a 100-acre farm, "an almost uninhabited wilderness"3 in Low Hampton, northeastern New York. The annual mortgage payment was 20 bushels of wheat. Only about six houses were scattered over the county. In this setting, where wild animals roamed, trees were felled to construct cabins, and land was cleared, the Millers lived by controlling nature through farming. It was a rugged life, and even young William was needed to help with the farming. Education was limited to three months schooling in the winter when the harvest was over. From ages 9-14 Miller attended the local school. During the long winter months, Mother Miller taught William how to read. He became an avid reader, thirsty for knowledge. But the only available material was the Bible, psalter, and the prayer book. Soon he outgrew the school but continued learning on his own.

Candles were a precious commodity, so William learned that pine knots made good light for reading. One night when he was up reading late, his father awoke, saw flickering light, and thought that the house was on fire. But when he realized that William was reading, he promptly sent him to bed. The ardent reader recognized the community as a good resource for reading material. Some folk lent him books, others were given to him at his request.4

In his teens William began to keep a diary. One entry dated July 10, 1791, carries the heading, "The History of My Life," and has the statement, "I was early educated and taught to pray [to] the Lord." His early life was typical of most young boys those days. However, William longed for more. He even tried to get some help from a generous local doctor for further study. His dream did not come true, but he did the best he could in self-learning. He learned to use words well and became the "scribble general" among the young people. If someone wanted a letter or poetry composed, it was to William they turned.5

The family moved again to Poultney, in the State of Vermont. Here he met Lucy Smith and married her in 1803. He joined the Masonic fraternity and advanced to their highest order. Six years after his marriage he was a deputy sheriff and also served his community as justice of the peace. Farming was not his prime concern, although he still tried to maintain a semblance of it. Not surprisingly, his writing and reading continued. He read from the public library the works of deistic writers, history, and philosophy. He wrote letters, notes, diary installments, and patriotic poems, one of which was used by his community for their independence celebrations. It seemed that this patriotic pull and the distinguished examples of his father and grandfather in previous wars were responsible for Miller's decision to leave a secure job in his neighborhood and volunteer for military service in 1810. He fought in the 1812 American war against the British, and at the battle of Plattsburgh he saw the outnumbered Americans crush the vastly superior British--an incident that provided a turning point in Miller's life.

William Miller’s home in New Hampton, New York, now refurbished to its original condition and open to the public from May 1 to October 15.

An unsatisfied deist

Although William had embraced deism, he was not quite satisfied. He was disturbed by the deist assumption that human nature was basically good and upright; his reading and observation showed just the opposite.6 The battle of Plattsburgh finally shattered his belief in deism. He recounted the incident: "Many occurrences served to weaken my confidence in the correctness of deistical principles... I was particularly impressed with this... when I was in the battle of Plattsburgh, when 1500 regulars and 4000 volunteers we defeated the British, who were 15,000 strong.... So surprising a result against such odds, did seem to me like the work of a mightier power than man."7

The result of the battle made him challenge another deist tenet, that of God's non-interference in human affairs. Additionally, during the 1812 War Miller lost a sister and his father in quick succession, bringing him face to face with death and his own mortality. These events propelled Miller to return to the religious heritage of his youth that he had opposed. Miller, like many of his time, was concerned with reforms in society. He was involved in temperance and other reforms. William Garrison (1805-1879), the American journalist famous for his denunciations of slavery, described Miller as an outspoken friend for the cause of temperance, abolition, moral reform, and peace. He seemed in favor of treating all human beings well, although there is no evidence that he was directly involved in the anti-slavery movement.

Even in the army, Miller continued to do all the things that he loved. He wrote to his wife often and was quite distressed if he did not receive letters from her regularly. He was well respected and untainted by the vices so common in military life. When he returned from the army in 1815, he had to attend to family business. His father had died, leaving a mortgage on the property in Low Hampton. He retired this and allowed his mother to continue to live in the house. Then he bought the farm about a half mile away and moved his family from Vermont to Low Hampton. He built a house in the typical New England style of the day, "white with green blinds and the back side red."

Once more Miller became active in the community. Near his home was a beautiful grove that was chosen for the July 4, 1816 Independence Day party. His generosity of spirit also extended to opening his home for the minister, his uncle Elisha Miller, of the nearby church. Like his parents', his home was open to visiting preachers of various denominations. There they would find food, and Miller would tease them about their faith, to the delight of his friends and the horror of family.8

Although not fully committed to Christianity, Miller attended church when the minister was there. When the pastor was out of town and the deacon read the sermons, Miller felt that "he was not edified by the manner in which deacons read" and absented himself. He also felt that if he could do the reading they would be much better. His godly and astute mother noticed his absence and, learning of the reason, promptly arranged for him to do the readings when the minister was absent. These readings must have imperceptibly influenced the thinking of Miller.

A crucial change

Two events in 1816 brought him to a crucial point. On September 11, Miller and his friends were in high spirits about a dance to be held as the main event in the celebration of the Battle of Plattsburg. As part of the celebrations, a Dr. B. preached a few nights before the actual dance. The effect of the sermon was evident, according to Bliss: "On their return, Mrs. M(iller) who had remained at home observed a wonderful change in their deportment. Their glee was gone, and all were deeply thoughtful and not disposed to converse, in reply to her questions respecting the meeting, the ball.... They were entirely incapacitated for any part in the festive arrangements....In that vicinity meetings for prayer and praise took the place of mirth and the dance."9

The following Sunday William Miller was again called upon to read the sermon that the deacons had selected. Miller was overwhelmed with emotion soon after he started reading the discourse on the "Importance of Parental Duties," and had to discontinue the reading. At this point it seems that his struggle with deist concepts ended, as he said later:

"Suddenly the character of a Savior was vividly impressed upon my mind. It seemed that there might be a Being so good and compassionate as to himself atone for our transgressions and thereby save us from suffering the penalty of sin....But the question arose, How can it be proved that such a Being does exist?"10

This was the beginning of Miller's conversion experience. William Miller, the deist, the scoffer, became a Christian. He immediately started family worship and opened his house for prayer meetings. Just as he had been a devoted and faithful soldier for his country, he now became a soldier for the Saviour. His friends regarded his conversion as a great loss, but Miller determined to conduct himself a worthy example of a Christian. As a critic of Christianity he knew all the criticisms; now he used all his rational powers to answer the very questions that he had formerly posed.11

Miller began his search with the Bible. He gave up all his prior assumptions and decided to let the Scriptures speak for themselves. Out of this deep and extensive study, he developed the following ideas: The Bible is its own interpreter; some parts of the Bible, such as the prophecies, are figurative; the books of Daniel and Revelation foretell Christ's literal return, which would occur soon, within 25 years.12

While doing his research, Miller continued to farm, to serve as a justice of the peace, and faithfully attend church. Furthermore, he fathered eight children--six sons and two daughters. A son and daughter died in infancy and one at age four. Yet Miller found time for Bible study, driven by a thirst for truth. After two years of intensive study he told his friends and neighbors about the soon return of Christ, but found little excitement or acceptance. Soon after a religious revival wave reached Low Hampton, and Miller felt guilty that he was not sharing what he considered to be the most important truth of the day. Although he felt that God was calling him to preach, Miller resisted.

A bargain with God

Finally he made a promise to God. In August 1831 he decided that if he was asked to preach, he would use this as a sign that God wanted him to spread the truth he had found. Within half an hour of his decision he received an invitation to speak in a neighboring town.13 From then on he went from town to town using the revival style of preaching. His message centered on commitment to Christ and His soon return. His logical approach based on Bible, his earnest sincerity, and powerful message won him many followers.

Yet most of the ministers of the day did not follow Miller, and in fact began opposing his preaching. Nevertheless, Miller revitalized the evangelicalism of the day.14 The principal method Miller and others associated with him used to convey their message was not different from that of any other evangelical revival. Miller, however, went against the popular view of his day when he preached that Jesus would come before the beginning of the millennium.15 He might have remained an obscure preacher traveling the backroads of New England were it not for the determination of Joshua V. Himes, a minister and publisher, to bring the Millerite message to Boston and other cities. There the message and messenger became more visible, as local newspapers ran stories of his meetings. In addition, Himes provided charts, posters, and other advertisements. Papers, tracts, and pamphlets were also printed and distributed.

By 1834, preaching invitations were coming so fast that Miller became a full-time preacher. A year earlier the local Baptist church had granted him a license to preach, but Miller was not willing to favor one denomination over another. He was concerned with getting people personally committed to Christ and ready for His soon return. Preaching full time was a struggle, for he received no regular salary and sometimes not even traveling expenses. He had two sources of income. One was his farm, which he now entrusted to his sons, and received an allowance to meet his expenses. The other source was his savings. Only when his allowance was insufficient to meet his needs did he allow the churches to share his expenses.16

The spreading movement

As he interacted with Himes and other preachers who accepted his idea of a soon-coming Christ, Miller began printing his message. Papers, tracts, and pamphlets were distributed in increasing number. Miller's movement also adopted the Methodist type of camp meeting, the first of which took place in Boston in May 1842. As a result, the movement continued to expand, attracting thousands.

Miller's original message did include a time element, but he was not concerned to set a particular date. He did believe that Jesus would return, according to his calculations, somewhere around 1843. Then he finally agreed on the date of October 22, 1844. He, along with thousands of followers, was bitterly disappointed when Christ did not return, as expected. The next day, he wrote:

"It passed. And the next day it seemed as though all the demons from the bottomless pit were let loose upon us. The same ones and many more who were crying for mercy two days before, were now mixed with the rabble and mocking, scoffing and threatening in a most blasphemous manner."17

But Miller never wavered in his belief in Christ's soon return. On November 10, 1844, he wrote to Himes, "I have fixed my mind upon another time, and here I mean to stand until God gives me more light--And that is Today, Today, and Today until he comes."18 Miller continued to preach and encourage others with the Christian hope, although he had to contend with more disaffected persons and criticism.

In January 1848 Miller lost his sight, but this did not deter him from looking forward to the coming of Christ. In that same year he had a small chapel built on his farm, close to his house, where the faithful Advent believers might worship. Inscribed in the chapel are these words quoted from the Bible: "The vision is yet for an appointed time. . . though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come."19 That was his position on the second coming of Christ until his death at 67 on December 20, 1849.

Miller's ideas on Bible prophecy and the imminent return of Jesus can be better understood in the context of a broad religious movement that emerged concurrently in Europe and the Americas during the first part of the 19th century.20 After the demise of the Millerite revival, many of these ideas coalesced in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which continues to preach the imminent return of Jesus but without fixing a specific date.

Joan Francis (Ph.D., Carnegie-Mellon University), born in Barbados, teaches history at Atlantic Union College, in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

Notes and References

  1. Ronald L. Numbers and Jonathan M. Butler, eds., The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 17.
  2. Marvin Meyers as quoted in Numbers, p. 17.
  3. Sylvester Bliss, Memoirs of William Miller (Boston: Joshua V. Himes, 1853), p. 7.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., pp. 32-33. See also George R. Knight, Millennial Fever and the End of the World (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1993), pp. 28-31.
  7. Bliss, pp. 52, 53.
  8. Ibid., p. 64.
  9. Ibid., p. 66.
  10. Ibid., p. 66, 67.
  11. Ibid., pp. 67, 68.
  12. See Bliss, chapters 6-8 for details of Miller's conversion and method of Bible study.
  13. Bliss, pp. 97-99.
  14. Ruth Alden Doan, "Millerism and Evangelical Culture" in Numbers, p. 121.
  15. Knight, pp. 54-55.
  16. Ibid., p. 57-59.
  17. Manuscript letter, December 13, 1844, as quoted in Paul A. Gordon, Herald of the Midnight Cry: William Miller and the 1844 Movement (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1990), p. 103.
  18. Gordon, p. 107.
  19. Habakkuk 2:3.
  20. See, for example, Leroy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1950-1954). See also "Manuel Lacunza: The Adventist Connection," College and University Dialogue 6:1 (1994), pp. 12-15, and "Francisco Ramos Mexía: The First Modern Seventh-day Adventist?" College and University Dialogue 6:2 (1994), pp. 13-15.
  21. Christ's statements on this particular are clear; see, for example, Matthew 24:36, 42, 50; 25:13; Mark 13:32; Acts 1:6, 7. According to Gordon (Herald..., pp. 119-120), one of Miller's eight children, Langdon, joined the Advent Sabbath believers.