1844: Coincidence or providence?
Were the events that occurred during the year 1844 an accident? Or does this year have a deep significance in the biblical understanding of God's plan in redemptive history? Seventh-day Adventists would overwhelmingly subscribe to the latter. To them, it is the year in which the 2300-day prophecy of Daniel 8:14 ended. It is the milestone that marks the beginning of the pre-advent judgment in heaven. It is the culmination of the longest time prophecy in the Bible, proclaiming to the world that the end is not far away and that the second coming of Christ is near.
What most of us, including Adventists, fail to understand is that 1844 is significant not only in sacred history, but also in world events of great magnitude that marked the time period around 1844 as an important watershed. But first, let us trace the importance of 1844 to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
From major mistake to mighty message
Around the 1840s, scores of preachers around the world were proclaiming that Jesus was coming soon. Researcher Le Roy Edwin Froom indicates that these preachers, representing a variety of Christian denominations, included whites, blacks, women, as well as child preachers. One peasant girl in Europe was known to have attracted between three thousand and four thousand people as she preached about the end of the world, thus having a profound impact on a large number of people.1
In the United States, it was the preaching and writing of William Miller, farmer-turned-preacher, that ignited the passion of both believers and blasphemers. Miller and his associates proclaimed the following basic message: “Just as Jesus Christ's first advent was foretold in Daniel chapter 9, so His second advent is identified in Daniel 8:14. Since the earth must be the ‘sanctuary' to be ‘cleansed,' this will happen by fire when Jesus comes. Starting with 457 B.C., the 2300 day/year prophecy of Daniel 8:14 culminated around 1843-1844. Jesus will come again around that time, so get ready to meet Him! His return will be a literal, visible event preceding the millennium.” This was the crux of the Millerite proclamation.
October 22, 1844 was eventually settled as the day when the 2300-year prophecy would end. That's the day when this earth would be cleansed by the return of Jesus. Thousands of Millerites, indeed tens of thousands, waited patiently, expectantly, until the clock ushered in that day in 1844. All day they waited, but Jesus did not come, leaving them dismally disappointed! They were forced to face the fearsome fact that something had gone woefully wrong.
A few among the disappointed ones studied the Scripture even more fervently. They soon learned that while the date October 22, 1844, was correct, their understanding of the event was wrong! These believers saw that the sanctuary to be cleansed was not on the earth, but was in heaven. Jesus had entered into the most holy place of the heavenly sanctuary to begin a work of judgment. As Ellen White later observed: “The subject of the sanctuary was the key which unlocked the mystery of the disappointment of 1844.”2
Ángel Manuel Rodríguez comments: “Having accomplished on earth the work for which He came (John 17:4, 5; 19:30), Christ was ‘taken up . . . into heaven' (Acts 1:11) ‘to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them' (Hebrews 7:25), till at His second coming He will appear ‘not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him' (Hebrews 9:28). Between these two poles, the cross and the Lord's glorious return, Christ functions as royal priest ‘in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord' (Hebrews 8:2), the advocate (1 John 2:1) and intercessor for those who believe in Him (Romans 8:34). As our High Priest, Christ is ministering the benefits of His sacrifice to those who draw near to Him, a ministry as essential to our salvation as His atoning death.”3
Thus the devastating disappointment of October 22, 1844, became a magnificent message. True, Jesus did not come as the Millerites hoped. But, a small group of disappointed believers discovered new biblical light–the truth that Christ had entered into His final phase of high priestly ministry in the heavenly sanctuary, after which He would come to earth to redeem His people. Thus was born the Seventh-day Adventist Church, with its faith firmly rooted in the soon return of Jesus and with a commitment to preach the whole truth in Jesus. The year 1844 is indeed significant to the birth of Adventism.
But 1844 is of interest in other areas as well. Startling and faith-destructive movements came upon the world scene about the same time, and these provided a challenging backdrop and urgency for the Advent proclamation, calling upon the people of the world to look to the real truth about God and His role in end-time history. We shall examine just three such movements.
The rise of Marxism
In August 1844, Frederick Engels met Karl Marx in Paris, and the two became bonded in friendship and revolutionary struggle–“a life-long association that would change the world,” as one writer noted.4
While Bible-believing Christians were preaching that Jesus would soon return to take His people to heaven to end sin and suffering, and to provide peace and happiness throughout eternity, Marx and Engels were proclaiming that the way to real happiness was to eliminate God from life; that the way to peace and safety was through the principles of socialism and communism; that they could and would provide a release to the captives of the world and an ushering in of a classless and peaceful society on earth.5 Marx and Engels thus tried to steer human hope away from Christ's second coming to a communistic utopia to which millions were subjugated for most of the past century.
In the context of that challenge, the 1844 Advent movement was charged to proclaim the everlasting gospel of the heavenly sanctuary where all our hope must be anchored.
Dispensationalism and false notions of salvation
While the great Second Advent awakening was taking hold in various countries, a traveling evangelical preacher in Europe, John Nelson Darby, began to promulgate a novel theory regarding the second coming of Jesus. While preaching in Switzerland, Darby came up with the theory of “dispensationalism”–a theory that divides history into seven eras or dispensations, from the age of innocence before the Fall to the age of restoration at the end of time. Although Darby insisted that he got his doctrine of dispensationalism from the study of the Bible alone, between 1843 and 1845 he introduced a striking innovation–the secret rapture.6 The theory of secret rapture teaches that Christ will come in secret, rapture the saints, and take them to heaven.
A modern commentary to this secret rapture theory is the now world-famous Left Behind series of books, more than 60 million copies of which have been sold worldwide. The authors of these popular books argue that even though millions will be left behind while the Rapture takes place, they will not be without hope. They have a second chance for salvation. In a non-fiction book, Left Behind authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins directly promoted the “second chance” theory:
“Uncounted millions of men and women and girls and boys will recognize that, although they missed the Rapture and thus will have to endure the terrors of the Tribulation, yet God is still calling them, wooing them to His side. . . . We believe these ‘Tribulation saints' could well number into the billions. And do not forget: Every one of these new believers will have been left behind after the Rapture precisely because he or she had (to that point) rejected God's offer of salvation. Yet even then, the Lord will not give up on them.”7
That is the most alarming and dangerous part of the rapture theory–the belief that people will have a second chance of salvation. But the Bible nowhere teaches a secret rapture or a second chance for salvation after a person's death. The consistent teaching of Scripture is that the second advent of Jesus takes place as one major event: It will be personal and literal (Acts 1:11), visible and audible (Revelation 1:7; 1 Thessalonians 4:16), glorious and triumphant (Matthew 24:30), cataclysmic (Daniel 2:44; 2 Peter 3:10), and sudden (Matthew 24:38, 39, 42-44). Various signs, some of which have already transpired, will precede this occurrence, in the natural world (Revelation 6:12, 13), in the moral world with increased lawlessness and evil-saturated hearts (Matthew 24:37-39), and, in the religious world, such as false prophets leading many astray (vs. 24).
When all the signs pointing to Jesus' second advent have been fulfilled, then Jesus will return–to gather His people, to resurrect the righteous dead, to transform and receive all the saints, to destroy the evil powers and the wicked, to vindicate God's character, to restore the earth, and to reestablish communion with God! The biblical language concerning the second coming does not allow for any secret rapture.
Nor does the Scripture speak of a second chance for salvation after a person dies. The biblical position is clear: After death, there is no possibility of a second chance; there is only judgment. “As it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrew 9:27, NKJV).
Yet how sinister and how subtle this rapture theory really is. It definitely amounts to an inside infiltration of Christianity, an assault on the precious doctrine of salvation and the Second Coming of Christ.8
Is it just an accident, then, that God chose the Advent movement in 1844 to proclaim the real truth about the Second Coming and the judgment about the same time such delusionary doctrines as secret rapture and dispensationalism came on the world scene?
Darwin and the rise of naturalistic evolution
After a five-year scientific trip as a naturalist aboard the ship HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin returned home to England in 1836. The trip led him “to think much about religion” and he began “to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation.”9 Later, Darwin noted: “In June 1842 I first allowed myself the satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of my theory [of evolution] in pencil in 35 pages; and this was enlarged during the summer of 1844 into one of 230 pages.” Thus began Darwin's Origin of Species, a book that revolutionized the scientific thinking and set out to deny the biblical account of creation.
Yet, that very year, 1844, God was bringing to light a long-neglected Bible truth: the Sabbath that celebrates God as the creator. A relatively small denomination, the Seventh Day Baptists of North America, had become deeply concerned in 1843 over the threat of fresh Sunday legislation, which could affect their liberties. So they dedicated themselves to prayer and greater activity in behalf of the seventh-day Sabbath, setting aside a day in 1843, and later another in 1844 for fasting and prayer, that God would “arise and plead for his holy Sabbath.”
During the winter of 1844, a certain Mrs. Rachel Oakes, a Seventh Day Baptist of New York, was visiting her daughter in New Hampshire. While there, Mrs. Oakes attended the Washington Christian Church, where a communion service was being conducted by Frederick Wheeler, a Methodist minister, who had accepted the Millerite message. Mrs. Oakes was startled to hear Wheeler say: “All who confess communion with Christ in such a service as this should be ready to obey God and keep His commandments in all things.” When Pastor Wheeler visited the Oakes family shortly afterward, Mrs. Oakes told him she had almost risen to her feet that day in church, to tell him that he better push aside the communion table until he was willing to keep all the commandments of God, including the fourth!
Sincere Frederick Wheeler went home, studied his Bible, and some weeks later accepted the biblical teaching about the sacredness of the seventh-day Sabbath, and preached his first sermon on it around March 1844. Several members of that church embraced the Sabbath truth. Of the 60 or more people in that neighborhood who went through the Great Disappointment of 1844, about 40 accepted the Sabbath doctrine, and later became members of the first Sabbath-keeping Adventist church.
Another Millerite preacher, a Baptist named Thomas Preble, heard of the Sabbath message being proclaimed in New Hampshire, and decided to investigate. He too, in August 1844, embraced the Sabbath truth. About four months after the Great Disappointment, Preble wrote an article about the Sabbath in the Millerite paper, The Hope of Israel. Joseph Bates, a retired sea captain read it, accepted the Sabbath, and determined to publish a series of articles about it. From that time onward, Joseph Bates, one of the founding fathers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, became a leader in the proclamation of the Sabbath reform message. As is well-known, this teaching of the seventh-day Sabbath was such a significant issue that it became part of the very name of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Ellen White spoke directly to the importance of Sabbath in upholding the Creator-God. “The infidel supposition, that the events of the first week required seven vast, indefinite periods for their accomplishment, strikes directly at the foundation of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment.”10
Is it an accident that God brought a church into being proclaiming the Sabbath truth and the creatorship of God at the same time that Darwin wrote out his evolutionary theory denouncing God's creative activity? The three angels' message of Revelation 14 and the Adventist commitment to proclaim it with all seriousness as God's final warning to the world is no accident. Indeed, it is part of God's plan for the end times.
Seventh-day Adventist scientist Ariel Roth notes the following challenge: “Our confidence that the Bible is the Word of God does not allow for such alternatives to [biblical] creation as progressive creation, theistic evolution, or naturalistic evolution. We should not yield to fruitless speculation. As ‘the people of the Book,' we have a special opportunity to represent the whole Bible, including its creation message, to a world that is adrift on the great question of how life began on earth.”11
Nothing to fear for the future
In our brief but gripping trip back to the 1840s, we have reviewed the mushrooming of just a few major global movements–Marxism, dispensationalism, and evolution–that challenged God's pivotal truth for the last days. We could have examined, in addition, other significant events that occurred around 1844, such as the rise of modern spiritism, the beginning of the Bahai religion in the East, and the emergence of existentialist thought in Europe. But truth is never left without its defenders. God, in His grace and providence, had raised up a small but bold band of Bible-believers to discover the truth in all its fullness and make it their priority of global mission and witness. Yes, 1844 and the rise of Adventism is no accident. It is God's plan to keep the truth alive in the midst of all the delusions that deluged human history just about the same time.
The year 1844 and its pivotal significance can be minimized and forgotten only at our peril. Ellen White's counsel is timely: “In reviewing our past history, having traveled over every step of advance to our present standing, I can say, Praise God! As I see what the Lord has wrought, I am filled with astonishment, and with confidence in Christ as leader. We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”12
Ron du Preez (D.Min., Andrews University; Th.D., University of South Africa) has been a missionary and university professor, and now serves as Adventist minister in the Michigan Conference. This article is adapted from his book No Fear for the Future, distributed by the Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Maryland, U.S.A. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail at P.O. Box 407; Berrien Springs, Michigan 49103; U.S.A.
- See Le Roy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers: The Historical Development of Prophetic Interpretation (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1954), volume 4, pp. 443-718, see especially pp. 699-718.
- Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1911), p. 423.
- Angel Manuel Rodriguez, Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2000), p. 375.
- See http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/holy-family/index.htm (accessed June 16, 2004), Introductory page.
- See, for example, Preface to Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 3: Works 1843-1844 http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/cw/volume03/preface.htm (accessed June 16, 2004).
- Clarence B. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism: Its Historical Genesis and Ecclesiastical Implications (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1960), p. 139.
- Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Are We Living in the End Times? (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale, 1999), pp. 157, 158.
- Refutation of the theory of the Rapture and related beliefs can be found in Steve Wohlberg, End Time Delusions: The Rapture, the Antichrist, Israel, and the End of the World (Shippensburg, Pennsylvania: Treasure House, 2004); and Hans K. LaRondelle, The Israel of God in Prophecy: Principles of Prophetic Interpretation (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University Press, 1983).
- Nora Barlow, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882 (New York: Norton, 1958), pp. 85, 86.
- Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts, (Battle Creek, Michigan: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1864), vol. 3, p. 91.
- Ariel A. Roth, “Adventism and the Challenges to Creationism,” Adventists Affirm, (Spring 2002), pp. 20, 21.
- Ellen G. White, Life Sketches (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1915), p. 196.