The Great Disappointment

In 1833, a devout pastor named William Miller became convinced that Jesus would return in 1843 or 1844. Miller applied principles of interpretation to the Bible to which I do not subscribe, but that’s not the point of this story. I’m telling it for a different reason.

Miller began preaching and teaching about his convictions wherever he could find an audience. The country was then in a wave of populist religious enthusiasm known as the Second Great Awakening. During that era, my own Methodist Episcopal Church catapulted from a handful of adherents to become the largest Christian denomination in the country. It was not just among Methodists, however, that religious interest loomed large. Miller’s teaching attracted around 100,000 followers by the early 1840s and the movement took on its own institutional identity.

Miller himself never set a precise date for Jesus’ return. Based on the Bible’s references to Christ’s appearing and the Old Testament reckoning of time, he calculated that Christians would ascend to be with the Lord sometime between the spring equinoxes of 1843 and 1844.

Some members of Miller’s movement, however, did propose exact dates for Christ’s return. As the days of expectation came and went, the Bible students repeatedly returned to their scriptural texts and recalculated.

The most important of these suggested dates was October 22, 1844. By this point, the expectations of the “Millerites” (as they came to be called) were at their peak. Many of their neighbors thought they were crazy and abused them accordingly. Stories of believers donning white “ascension robes,” selling their possessions, standing on hilltops or waiting in cemeteries circulated widely because they reinforced the notion the Millerites were cranks from the fringe of society. Actually, most were just ordinary Christians doing their best to interpret and apply the scriptures. Some of them were also involved in other evangelical causes of the time, such as women’s rights and the abolition movement. It’s hard for those at a distance to imagine the cultural milieu in which they lived.

When October 22, 1844 passed without Christ’s coming in glory, the movement experienced a crisis known by historians as “the Great Disappointment.” A believer named Henry Emmons wrote in his journal:

I waited all Tuesday [October 22] 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 2 days without any pain – sick with disappointment.

[Source: Wikipedia, “The Great Disappointment,” quoting Knight, George R. (1993). Millennial Fever and the End of the World. Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press. pp 217-218.]

What interests me about this story is not Miller’s method for interpreting the Bible or the pre-millennial scheme of eschatology he created. Rather, what captures my attention is the crisis of faith that Christ’s delay can engender for those who long for his coming in their bones. I think that this is the same kind of faith-crisis we see addressed in the epistle (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) and gospel (Matthew 25:1-22) readings for this coming Sunday.