Predicting the apocalypse (badly) has become something of a cottage industry in America, and I’ve got some guesses as to why.
Aside from the obvious reality that everyone kinda secretly wants to see the world end—out of sheer, morbid curiosity, if nothing else—Americans tend to be pretty drawn to the idea that we’re special somehow. From the famous “city upon a hill” sermon preached to the Massachusetts Bay colonists, and later quoted by pretty much every politician since Reagan on, we’ve been fixated on the idea that God must have some sort of special purpose for us.
I mean, obviously.
And since we’re not really mentioned anywhere in Scripture—pretty much everything important seems to happen in the Middle East in that book—it’s not clear where we’re going to figure into anything, whether past or future. No biblical figures were from here, and there’s no clear place for us in prophecy, either. So, obviously, since we won’t be participating in the end of the world, we were fated to be the ones to predict it. Right? Right.Miller predicted Christ’s return based on all that stuff in Daniel about “time, times and half a time” that everyone pretends to understand but doesn’t.
I mean, that’s my best guess for why we’re always predicting the apocalypse around here—everything from Harold Camping in 2011 (remember that?) to the Jehovah’s Witnesses literally every couple of years since the 1870s. But maybe one of the most memorable is the one that gave us the Seventh-Day Adventists (and, therefore, the one that gave us cornflakes): the Great Disappointment.
The whole thing began way back in 1812, with a war called, aptly, the War of 1812. (You remember that one—”The Star Spangled Banner” got written, the White House got burned to the ground—it was a good time.) William Miller, at the time a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was a committed deist until he managed to narrowly escape death at the battle of Plattsburgh. A bomb exploded not two feet away from him; when he escaped unscathed, he reasoned that the only possible explanation was that the universe had a benevolent, omnipotent God. So, if you’ve ever been killed by a bomb, I’ve got some bad metaphysical news for you.
In any case, following the war, Miller settled in upstate New York and decided to try the whole “Christian” thing for a while. He began attending a Baptist church, but remained deist until he was converted by a sermon he was reading to the congregation during the minister’s absence. (Pastors take note: the way to convert the unbeliever is to let him preach for you.) Unfortunately, Miller’s deist friends (whom he no doubt knew from whatever the 19th-century equivalent of Reddit was) were unimpressed by his conversion—so Miller decided to win them over the only way he knew how: reading the Bible extra super hard.
Miller took his Bible and resolved to start at the beginning and read each verse one-by-one, over and over, not moving onto the next verse until he was sure he understood it. Of course, the problem with this method (well—one problem with it) is that you get to the prophecy of Daniel before you get to the bit about no one knowing the day or the hour. And what happened to Miller is what happens to all too many people who read biblical prophecy in isolation: he got a tiny bit obsessed with predicting the apocalypse.
Miller reasoned that Christ would return sometime in 1843, based on all that stuff in Daniel about “time, times and half a time” that everyone pretends to understand but doesn’t. Basically, it involved assuming a c. 457 B.C. date for Daniel, and then applying the “day-year principle,” and—nah, y’know what? I actually have no idea how this is supposed to work. You can read up on this stuff if you want to, but trying to wrap my head around it is seriously cutting into my videogame time.
In any case, Miller first began publishing his ideas in 1832 via the Vermont Telegraph, a Baptist newspaper, and then—in his own words—”began to be flooded with letters of inquiry respecting my views; and visitors flocked to converse with me on the subject.” Apparently nothing inspires human activity more than the end of the world—that is, the one thing that by definition we can do absolutely nothing about.
Still, Miller’s movement probably wouldn’t have amounted to much more than a handful of pen pals exchanging Bible fanfic, if not for Miller’s acquisition of that most quintessentially American of things: the hype man. Rev. Joshua Himes, a Baptist pastor from New Hampshire, was never personally convinced about Miller’s apocalypse timeline, but he knew a potential big draw when he saw one. He started two separate newspapers to promote Miller’s ideas, and then set Miller up with a gigantic visual aid and a big tent revival tour—literally renting the largest tent in the country for the enterprise. As the year 1843 approached, the “Millerite” movement built to a fever pitch, with as many as an estimated 100,000 devoted followers, many of whom had left their jobs, severed ties with families, and sold all their possessions in expectation of the Second Coming.
When Jesus failed to appear within 1843, Miller reminded everyone that he was actually talking about the year that started in 1843 according to the Rabbinic calendar, which ended March 21, 1844. When Jesus failed to show up by March 21, it was suggested that maybe they should have been using the Karaite calendar (a calendar of a lesser-known Jewish tradition), which ended the year on April 18. Spoiler: Jesus also did not return on April 18.
Finally, Millerite preacher Samuel Snow discovered a couple of passages that suggested a “tarrying time” of seven months, and the actual-for-real-we’re-sure-this-time-you-guys date for the Second Coming was declared to be October 22. When Jesus failed to show up on that date, it became known as the “Great Disappointment,” which I guess makes the previous three wrong guesses the “pretty good disappointments.” At this point, the Millerite movement splintered into dozens of sects, with various adherents giving up and going home, or deciding to “pray Jesus down” on the assumption he was stuck on a cloud (or… something), or behaving like children (based on that passage about the kingdom of heaven only being for those who are like children), or deciding to go back to a Jewish-style Saturday Sabbath, because the real reason Jesus was staying away must have been that people weren’t keeping the Sabbath right. That last faction, of course, became known as Seventh-Day Adventists.
And meanwhile, I’m over here just wondering why people care so much about predicting the apocalypse.
I’m not trying to be glib (well, no more than usual, anyway), but—if God has determined to end the world, he’s going to end it, with or without your help. There’s stuff in Scripture about signs of the end times, sure, but there’s also stuff in Scripture about how the signs have been coming since Jesus ascended. And regardless of whether the world is ending today or in ten million years, the Bible’s commands to you don’t change: “Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.”
I’m running a little long here, but let me conclude with one of my favorite apocalypse fake-outs from U.S. history. In 1780, the sun over New England was blotted from the sky for more than 24 hours (apparently due mostly to the smoke from a forest fire), in an event unimaginatively referred to as “New England’s Dark Day.” Most businesses and government offices shut down, partly because of the darkness and partly because OMG THE WORLD IS ENDING, but Connecticut state senator Abraham Davenport insisted on soldiering on, saying:
I am against adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.
That just might be one of the most quintessentially New England Protestant things ever said.
And also one of the wisest.