The Great Disappointment

William Miller.

American history, and world history for that matter, is filled with examples of false prophecies. William Miller was perhaps one of the earliest false prophets of the American republic.

William Miller, who was a veteran of the War of 1812, concluded that America only defeated the British in that war because of divine intervention. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 289. After the war had ended, and into the 1830s, Miller became a preacher, dedicating his life to religion. Id. at 289-90.

Miller came to predict that the Second Coming of Christ was bound to happen between March 1843 and April 1844, through his interpretation of scripture. Id. at 290 citing Ernest Sandeen, Roots of Fundamentalism (Chicago, 1970), 18-20. He reached a large audience through his preaching and began convincing a significant amount, perhaps as much as 50,000 Americans spread throughout New England, that he knew when the Second Coming of Christ would occur. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 291.

When Miller’s prediction came wrong on April 18, 1844, one would imagine that his supporters moved on, realizing that he was no prophet. Rather, one follower, Samuel Snow, determined that it was instead October 22, 1844, using an ancient Jewish calendar. Id. citing David Rowe, “Millerites,” in The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism, ed. Ronald Numbers and Jonathan Butler (Bloomington, 1987), 1-15; Richard Rogers, “Millennialism and American Culture,” Comparative Social Research 13 (1991): 105-36.

In 1844, in anticipation of the Second Coming, many Americans “paid their debts, quit their jobs, closed their businesses, [and] left their crops unharvested in the fields.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 291. Obviously, no such event occurred, leaving many to term October 22, 1844 as “The Great Disappointment.” Id.

The story of William Miller captures some of the spirit that was present in the early Republic, particularly with the role of religion in Americans’ lives. Many Americans were profoundly religious and had attributed America’s success to that point to divine intervention.

Beyond that, it also illustrates how some segments of society exist in all times, not just now. Miller is far from the only individual who has predicted a major event, such as a catastrophe or divine occurrence, and ultimately been proven to be wrong. Nonetheless, Americans continue to show how important of a role religion plays in their lives as well as their belief to believe that the most fantastical events will surely occur in their lifetime.

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