The Great Disappointment

During the War of 1812, William Miller, an officer in America’s army, was dumbfounded when the commander of a large, well-equipped British army inexplicably ordered its withdrawal, despite the fact that it would have destroyed his own force.  Miller later decided that Divine Providence had been his army’s salvation, so Miller, a former Deist, began studying the Bible.  And, lo and behold, in studying Daniel 8:14 he discovered what he thought was the key to predicting the Second Coming of Christ, which would occur between March of 1843 and April of 1844.

Miller concluded, reluctantly, that God had chosen him to spread the word, which he did, and his message struck a chord with an American public — especially the working class — that had an evangelical streak and a predisposition that Judgment Day was at hand.  The Millerite movement soon had millions of followers, helped in great part by the rapid improvements in communications that were then occurring. Millerite pamphlets were quickly disseminated across America.

Miller’s prediction was, of course, wrong, and when the last date within his timeframe passed, he apologized and offered to retire from public life.   But religious fervor was not so easily suppressed, and one of his followers, Samuel Snow, concluded that Miller had used the wrong Jewish calendar to do his calculations.  Using the Jewish calendar of the ancient Karaite sect, Snow calculated that the Second Coming would actually occur on the next Jewish Day of Atonement, set for this week (Oct. 22) in 1844.  Miller’s millions of followers, and Miller himself, quickly switched their faith to this new date, which — due to its specificity — attracted even more converts.

And even more fervor.  In anticipation, across the country countless believers paid off debts, quit their jobs, closed their businesses, or let their crops rot in their fields.   Others confessed sins to their loved ones (as well as to God), and made good on past wrongs.  Many wealthy gave away their money, while both rich and poor rushed to get baptized. Some even planned to don ascension robes so that God would know them on the appointed day.

A day that passed without a visit from God or His Son — a day that became known as the Great Disappointment.

Which may have been true of the day, but not of the times, for the larger lesson was not the failure of Judgment Day to arrive, but the unpredictability and novelty of the American mindset in the mid-19th Century as new ideas and ideologies, both religious and secular, flowered alongside tremendous leaps in technology, industry, science and communications.   It was the age of the Second Great Awakening, which was far more important, and lasting, than the Great Disappointment.