by Lawrence Downing
Warning: This article includes an excerpt from a newspaper story published in the 1830s which reflects the common racist views of the time. The most objectionable terminology has been partially deleted. The excerpt has been included because it reflects an essential element in the contemporary context in which the Adventist movement began.–Editors
On this 150th anniversary of the founding of the Seventh-day Adventist Church the name William Miller is given prominent place in the church’s early history. Miller himself never became a Sabbath keeper, but his call to prepare for the imminent Advent had a profound influence among those who would later form the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. This article examines how the popular press in one Pennsylvania town covered the news that the world was about to end.
In 1972 our family moved to Pennsylvania from Southern California. One of my churches was in Carlisle, the town that in the mid-1800s referred to itself as The Gateway to the West Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania. On a visit to the Cumberland County History Museum in Carlisle, I walked into a back room to find stacks of newspapers. When I pulled a couple out I saw they dated from the mid 1830s. A thought struck me. Might there be articles about Miller and the Millerites? I began to search through the brittle pages. The two newspapers, The Pennsylvania Statesman and The Carlisle Herald Expositor proved a gold mine for researching how frontier newspapers portrayed William Miller and his followers.
Eight stories were found in The Pennsylvania Statesman that mentioned William Miller or his followers. The first was published on February 15, 1843; the last on November 21, 1845. The Carlisle Herald Expositor published the first article about the Millerites on March 22, 1843. Seven more were found between that time and December 10, 1845.
Neither paper appears to have copied the other. Each paper, as will be shown, generally presented Miller and the Millerites in less than an appealing way, although there were some exceptions. The Pennsylvania Statesman published the following. "Miller, finding the Philadelphians rather disputatious and uproarous (sic), left the city after two or three attempts to address them. The Inquirer thinks there would have been a riot, with a little sprinkling of mob law, had the parson remained longer. Such conduct is highly discreditable to the Philadelphians. Should the world come to an end in April, their lot might be a hard one." (The Statesman, Vol. 11, No. 25, Feb. 15, 1843, p. 3.)
More typical is the reference found in The Herald Expositor. The writer said that since the predictions of Miller and the fixing of the destruction of the world in 1843 were creating excitement in Carlisle, the editors "felt it necessary to write on this and similar delusions." (The Herald Expositor, April 5, 1843.)
The editors informed the reader that many are not aware that predictions like Miller's have happened before. Other preachers, prior to Miller, had been mislead in their minds, and while the editors accepted that Miller was sincere, nevertheless he was "the most ignorant of them all who have presumed to unveil the future." (Loc. Cit.)
The editor supplied the list of those who, like Miller, set dates for the Advent: Sir John Napier, Edward Irving and Bernard, a hermit of Thurigic (sic); the dooms-day advocates in the days of Origen and the peasants in Luther's day who, like the others before them, were carried away by Messianic hopes. The article closed by reminding the reader that the only lasting result of this kind of preaching was the newly gained wealth of the church as many had turned their property over to the clergy.
This article is illustrative of what I found in most of the others. The writers and editors use the Millerite theme as a vehicle to inform, teach, and entertain their readers, often in the same story.
"Millerism. A Millerite named Moses Torreis residing in Centre Street, New York, made an attempt to commit suicide Sunday, in the following singular manner. He melted a leaden spoon, and while it was boiling hot, swallowed it. His tongue was burnt to a crisp, and in great agony he was conveyed to the Alms House, where his recovery is considered very doubtful." (Ibid. XLV:2, March 22, 1843, p. 2.)
"Rev. Mr. Raine, a primitive Methodist minister and an exemplary man, was tried and convicted for molesting two servant girls. He fled town. The 'wretch' had been preaching since last August. … Mr. Raine has also been a believer in the doctrine of Millerism." (The Statesman, May 30, 1844.)
The Expositor carried a reprint of an article from The New England Puritan sent by their correspondent in Genoa, Italy. "I saw a Millerite here the other day from Worchester, Mass. He had come by steamer to Liverpool, and then directly here, swift as the wind and sail could carry him. From here he took a steamer to Rome, where he expected to be persecuted by the pope; and then he was off to Jerusalem, where after 40 days fast, Christ was to appear and set up his kingdom. He was solemn as eternity, and fully believed what he said. Nothing could stop him, as he said he could not detain the Lord Jesus Christ, and he could not appear till after his forty days fast!' He had almost no money left and the reporter feared before 40 days past the dogs would gnaw his bones outside some city." (The Expositor, June 26, 1843.)
The Carlisle editors did not need to look outside their community for such news, as is shown by this article: "One of the disciples of Parson Miller visited Carlisle on Friday. The man delivered 8 lectures. 'He was an unlearned, but we believe a pious man, well read in scriptures, and tolerable conversant with profane history.'
"Saturday evening, Rev. Mr. Thorne delivered a discourse in the courthouse to a 'very large audience in opposition to the views of the Millerites so both sides were fairly heard. 'The opinion of the paper is that one could not say the impression left on the public by the 'startling doctrines of the lecture' had much impression on the town. Few, if any, converted. Many who were 'halting between two opinions as to whether to believe or reject have not found evidence to decide one way or the other. 'For our own part, although we do not exactly believe the predictions as the immediate coming of Christ and the end of the world yet of one thing we are satisfied no man will lose by preparing for the event.'
"The editor cannot take sides with scoffers who turn up their noses at the lecturer. True, the lecturer was a 'bad grammarian'. But the apostles chosen by Christ, the editor notes, were ignorant, simple men. Why could not the same be true today? 'Whether the end shall come in the month or this year, or not for thousands of years let the people of Carlisle let the professors of Christianity do as the Millerite's lecturer advised them, and we do not believe they will ever have cause to regret his wish, or the propagation of his doctrines." (The Statesman II:32, April 5, 1843, p. 3.)
The Herald Expositor of the same date ran the following."Rev. Dr. Jarvis of Middletown, Connecticut, has produced a work on the chronology of the Bible in which he shows, among other things, that if Miller's views were correct as to prophetic interpretation, the world would now be destroyed by fire some years ago for Dr. Jarvis demonstrates that Miller has placed the death of Christ exactly 5 years to late.
"Rev. Dr. Weeks of Newark, Del., one of the finest theologians of the country, has been reviewing Miller's theories and proves Miller is inconsistent with himself in his own theories. Miller contradicts with all the authorities whom he quotes, making them contradict each other in some cases and themselves sometimes. Weeks has already pointed out 40 errors in Mr. Miller's chronology of the world." (Herald Expositor, XLV:XXIV, April 5, 1843, p. 3.)
A later article in the Herald, under the headline, "Refutation of Millerism," gave further encouragement to the reader that "perhaps Miller's proclamation was not as accurate as he supposed: A Tract was received from Rev. W. H. Coffin 'The Millennium of the Church to come before the end of time, being an examination of such prophecies as are supposed to relate to the end of the world.'
"In sermon form the Rev. shows that 70 weeks in the prophecy of Dan. 9:24 and 25 and the 2300 day prophecy of Dan. 8:14 'have been literally fulfilled and are not coincident in the date of their commencement.' This strikes at the very root of Mr. Miller's doctrines.
"This little work, which is published in cheap shape, may be purchased at Messrs. Kneedler and Hunters book store, East High Street, and we would advise all who desire information upon the prophecies, with a rational view of the proper interpretation to be given them, to purchase a copy. The editor of the ”Gospel Publisher in Shiremanstown whose ire has been aroused against the Herald Expositor for 'abominable stuff' being published about the end of the world might also buy a copy for the author is supported by truth and reason." (Ibid., XLV:XXIX, May 17, 1843, p. 2.)
The frontier editor's wit and sarcasm is illustrated by two articles. The first was printed two days after the October 22, 1844, date which Miller and his followers had declared was the time Christ would return. The article mentions other dates set by Miller and his followers earlier. Excerpts only will be quoted. The second article, published two months later in The Statesman, and reproduced as printed, illustrates that Miller's ideas were still newsworthy even after the disappointment.
"Millerism End of the World Delusion
"When the world stubbornly refused to come to an end last Spring, notwithstanding the ingenious and elegant calculations of Mr. Miller, we indulged in the hope that the whole affair would be laid on the table, or indefinitely postponed.
"Many have made similar predictions, but the folks rise in the morning, eat, dress and the sun goes down as usual with the doom prophets falling into disgrace. None, however, have surpassed Miller. Since he missed the Spring date, he is now predicting the event to transpire in the fall.
"One gentleman in this city, who appears to know all about the matter, writes thus on his window shutter, having closed his place of business: 'This shop is closed in honor of the King of kings who will appear about the 20th of October. Get ready, friends, to crown him Lord of all.'
"This superfine specimen of intelligence is matched by the following advertisement, which has appeared in the Public Ledger; 'WARNING. I believe according to the Scriptures, that the Lord Jesus Christ will be revealed in the clouds of heaven on the tenth day of the seventh month, which agrees with the 22nd instant. I therefore entreat all whom this may reach, to prepare to meet their God. Clarinda S. Minor.'
"Yet another instance is known of a hardworking young man, who has given up a good situation to 'prepare himself to be astonished.'
"The Bay State Democrat of Boston states the following. 'At 4 o'clock this day the tabernacle at this moment (12 o'clock) is crowded with men, women and children … presenting a singular scene of religious infatuation. As much as the Millerites may have been charged with insincerity, we cannot doubt, after looking upon the crowd now assembled in the tabernacle, and listening to their prayers, exhortations and hallelujahs, coming as they appear to, from their very souls, we say we doubt their sincerity as little as we do their most singular infatuation.
"They have fixed upon four o'clock this afternoon, for the 'coming of Christ.' The world is to end this day, at four o'clock, they most firmly believe, and they are preparing their souls and bodies for that great event, and for taking their final leave of terra firma in their great ascension. Both saint and sinner cannot help but smile. A tale 'too good to be lost' follows of a young man who was seen sawing wood. Upon being asked whether he knew God's truth, the man said he knew it was God's truth that wood sawed hard! He was told to leave the wood alone until Christ came and it would be burning without sawing. 'We thought the argument conclusive, and shortly after left, with the intention of being present on the ground at four o'clock this afternoon, to 'see 'em go up.'
"Just before four o'clock it was announced the 22 was the correct day, error having been discovered in the calculation. Even this is short time enough, although we, of course, are grateful for the brief respite." (The Statesman, IV:7, Oct. 24, 1844, p. 2.)
One can only imagine the response to the article that follows if it was printed on the front page today.
"In a little village in the State of Hoosieriana, in the year 1844, there was 'all sorts' of excitements concerning the doctrines and prophecies of that arch deceiver Miller. For months the Midnight Cry, followed by the Morning Howl, and the Noonday Yell, had circulated throughout the village and surrounding countries, to an extent not even equaled by Dr. Duncan's `Coon Speech.' Men disposed of their property for little or nothing. The women were pale and ghostly from praying and watching, and in fact the whole population, at least those who believed in the coming ascension, looked as if they were about half over a second attack of the chills and fever. There were however some 'choice spirits' (not choice in their notice however) who notwithstanding the popularity of the delusion, would not enlist under the banner of the ascensionists (sic), and among these was a wild harum scarum blade from down east by the name of Cabe Newham. Now Cabe was as hard 'a case' as you would meet with on a Fourth of July in Texas, always alive for fun and sport of every description, and a strong disbeliever of Millerism.
"The night of the 3rd of April was the time agreed upon out West here for the grand exhibition of 'ground and lofty tumbling', (sic) and about ten o'clock of the said night, numbers of the Millerites assembled on the outskirts of the town, on a little eminence on which the proprietor had allowed several trees to stand. In the crowd, and the only representative of his race present, was a free negro by the name of Sam; about as ugly, black, wooly and rough a descendent of Ham, as ever baked his shin over a kitchen fire.
"Sam's head was small, body and arms very long, and his legs bore a remarkable resemblance to a pair of hams, in fact, put Sam on a horse, his legs toward the tail, and his arms clasped around the animal's hams, and at ten paces off you would swear he was an old set of patent gearing!
"The leader of the Millerites, owing to an ancient grudge he bore him, hated Sam 'like smoke' and had done all in his power to prevent his admittance among the 'elect' but all to no purpose; Sam would creep in at every meeting, and tonight here he was again dressed in a white robe of cheap cotton, secured to his body by a belt, shouting and praying as loud as the best.
"Now on the morning of the third, Cabe had, with a good deal of perseverance, and more trouble, managed to throw a half inch deep hemp cord over the branch of an oak, which stretched his long arm directly over the spot where the Millerites would assemble; one end he had secured to the body of a tree, the other to a stump some distance off.
"About ten o'clock when the excitement was about '80 pounds to an inch,' Cabe, wrapped in an old sheet, walked into the crowd, and proceeded to fasten in as secure a manner as possible the rope to the back part of the belt which confined Sam's robe succeeded and 'sloped' to join some of his companions who had the other end. The few stars in the sky threw dim light over the scene, and in a few moments the voice of Sam was heard, exclaiming, 'Gor a'mighty! I'se gwine up! Whoee' and sure enough, Sam was mounting to the 'etherial blue'; his ascent was, however, checked when he had cleared 'terra firma' a few feet.
"'Glory!' cried one, 'Hallelujah!' another, and yells made the night hideous; some fainted, others prayed and not a few dropped their robes and 'slid'. Now whether it was owing to the lightness of his head, or the length and weight of his head, or both, Sam's position was not a pleasant one; the belt to which Cabe's cord was attached, was bound exactly round his centre of gravity, and Sam swung like a pair of scales, heads up and heels down, and at the same time sweeping over the crowd like a pendulum, which motion was accelerated by his strenuous clapping of hands, and vigorous kicking. At length he became alarmed he wouldn't go up, and he couldn't go down. 'Lor a massy,' cried he, 'just take um poor n—– to um bosom, or lef him down again, 'easy', 'easy', Gor a'mighty! Lef um down agin please um Lor, and dis n—– will go straight to um bed! Ugh!' And Sam's teeth chattered with fright, and he kicked more vigorously than before, bringing his head directly downward and his heels up, when a woman shrieked out, 'Oh! brother Sam, take me with you,' sprung at his head as he swept by her, and caught him by the 'wool' bringing him up, 'all standing'.
"'Gosh! Sister,' cried Sam, 'lef go um poor n—–'s har.' Cabe gave another pull at the rope, but the additional weight was too much, and the belt gave way, and down came Sam, his bullet head taking the leader of the Saints a 'feller' between the eyes. 'Gosh I am down again' cried the bewildered Sam, gathering himself up. 'I is bress de Lord, but I was nearly dar, I seed de gates!' The leader wiped his overflowing proboscis, took Sam by the nape of the neck, led him to the edge of the crowd, and giving him a kick 'a la posteriori,' said "Leave, you cussed baboon, you are so thunderingly ugly, I knowed they wouldn't let you in!" (The Expositor, Dec. 10, 1845, p. 1.)
When the Advent the Millerites proclaimed failed to take place as predicted an immediate problem presented itself. The paper responded by printing the following article under the headline, "Millerism Disavoued" (sic):
"On Tuesday evening in the Millerite Church, corner of Christie and Delancey Streets, Mr. Storrs publically (sic) recanted his egregious folly and madness in the matter of the second advent. He said what others had already found out, he was deceived as to the day of the second advent. He said he had been led astray by Mesmerism and now most penitently acknowledged his manifold sins and wickedness. He now exhorted them to stick to work, etc.
"Himes next took his stand in the confessional and forgetting, we presume, that he had been both deceived and the deceiver, rated the people pretty harshly for their infatuation, and urged them all to go home and to work, and stepped down from the rostrum. Storrs has also acknowledged his error in the Midnight Cry, but we do not remember seeing anything there about mesmerism!' N.Y. Com. Adv." (Statesman, IV:III, Nov. 21, 1844, p. 3.)
This was the last article found in the Carlisle papers about Miller and the Millerites until a brief notice of William Miller's death several years later.
Lawrence Downing is an ordained minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a regular columnist for Adventist Today.